[L. 83 | 90] 4 January 1964

More about the Abhidhamma Pitaka. I think I said in my last letter that 'I do not know of any Sutta where it is said that the Buddha taught the A.P., or even abhidhamma, to the devatās'. The words 'or even abhidhamma' should be deleted, since, if abhidhamma in the Sutta sense means 'advanced dhamma', then the Buddha did teach abhidhamma to the devatās—though not more than to the bhikkhus, and not in a Vas season spent in Tāvatimsa.[1]

Another point. The Ven. Buddhaghosa Thera and the other Commentators maintain (as I said earlier) that the material contained in the present A.P. was in existence before the Buddha's final extinction. They also maintain, consistently with this opinion, that the A.P. was recited at the First Council (of Rājagaha) after the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas. But in the account of the First Council (which is contained in the Cūlavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, and is certainly authentic), the word abhidhamma does not occur at all. The arahat theras debated which should be recited first, Dhamma or Vinaya. They concluded that, since there is no practice of the Dhamma without observance of the Vinaya, the Vinaya should have precedence. Accordingly, the Ven. Upāli Thera was questioned about Vinaya, and answered, beginning with an account of the First Pārājika. When he had finished, the Ven. Ānanda Thera was questioned about Dhamma, and answered, beginning with a recitation of the Brahmajāla Sutta, which is the first Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya. When he had finished, certain other business was disposed of and the Council dispersed. The statement by the Commentators that the A.P. was recited on this occasion is purely gratuitous—one can accept it if one wishes, but there is nothing in the account of the First Council to support it.

One of the books of the A.P. (the Kathā Vatthu) consists of a detailed account of the refutation of a number of heretical views about the Dhamma. This is supposed to have taken place at the Third Council (of Pātaliputta or Patna) during the reign of Asoka. (I forget the authority for this statement but there seems to be no reason to doubt it.)[2] The question has arisen how it was that the text of a debate with members of heretical sects at the time of Asoka had already been taught by the Buddha to devatās some two-and-a-half centuries earlier. The answer that is given by the Commentators is that the Buddha, foreseeing that such a debate would take place on a future occasion, gave the outline of the correct answers (but not the full text), in advance, to guide the orthodox party when the time came. Once again, one can accept this account, if one wishes. But with whom is the onus probandi?

Editorial notes:

[83.1] abhidhamma: Although various disciples are sometimes said to discuss abhidhamma and abhivinaya amongst themselves, in fact the Suttas nowhere describe the Buddha himself as teaching either abhidhamma or abhivinaya to either humans or deities. This suggests that perhaps the prefix abhi- might best be taken in this instance not as 'higher' or 'advanced' but as 'extended', and to understand that the monks sometimes discussed dhamma and vinaya in their own terminology rather than in the terminology used by the Buddha. See in particular A. VI,60: iii,392f. [Back to text]

[83.2] Third Council: Traditional views on the Kathā Vatthu are set forth at Mahāvamsa v,278 and Dīpavamsa vii,41, 56-8. Source material on the Third Council is also to be found in the Samantapāsādikā (i,57ff.) and Papañca Sūdanī (vv. 240ff.) [Back to text]