Abhidhamma Studies III: Origins of the Canonical Abhidha(r)mma Literature

L S Cousins


In the first part of this paper I begin by making some general remarks on the early abhidhamma literature and then turn to the part played in European abhidhamma studies by the researches of Erich Frauwallner. I examine in detail the topics explored by him and others. His chronological and compositional analysis of the Dhammasangani and Vibhanga is considered. He believed the earliest portions of the latter work to be the suttantabhājanīya sections at the start of most vibhangas (chapters). I look at the opposite possibility: that it is the subsequent abhidhammabhājanīya sections which represent the original core.

In the second part I examine the precise nature of the contents of these sections and show that they fall into two distinct groups. On the basis of this and in the light of the parallels from the abhidha(r)mma works preserved in Chinese translation, I envisage the Pali Abhidhammapitaka as originally a work in several parts with strong parallels to the four part arrangement of the *Śāriputrābhidharma. I then turn to consider more fully the process by which the Pali Abhidhamma works took their current form, setting out an alternative hypothesis which sees the World sets and the Awakening sets of the Vibhanga as having a different history.

The third part of this article looks at Frauwallner’s two (differing) statements on the chronology of the earlier Pali abhidhamma literature and argues for a date no later than the first century B.C. Some issues connected with the notion of mātikā as the origin of abhidha(r)mma are then addressed.  Mātikā, often understood as originally meaning a mnemonic keyword or heading, is usually found in the plural: “headings”. This gives rise to the later sense in the singular of “table of contents”. I then try to place Frauwallner’s work in the context of a chronological account of the development of European scholarship in the latter half of the last century. In conclusion, I reconsider in the light of this analysis the thesis put forward by Frauwallner and A.K. Warder that we should see the origin of the abhidha(r)mma literature in the development of mnemonic lists of topics (mātikā/mātrkā ).


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