Temples of Sri Lanka

Abhdhamma in Sarvastivada

Ven K Dhammajoti

  1. Historical Origin

The Abhidharma is a system aiming at a systematic analysis and proper understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Its origin is to be traced to the sūtra-s. However, the term abhidharma, although occurring therein, often alongside abhivinaya, does not refer to the abhidharma texts constituting the third piṭaka; for in the sūtra‑s the meaning of abhidharma seems to be “about the dhamma”, or “the profound doctrines”. The following types of sūtra are particularly noteworthy as having features which contributed to the development of the abhidhamma/abhidharma in the later specialized sense:

  • Those featuring abhidharma-kathā — a solemn dialogue between two monks concerning the spiritual path; others listening are not permitted to interrupt. An example is the Mahāgosiṅga-sutta (Majjhima, I, 212 ff).
  • Those featuring vedalla (Skt. vaidalya): Derived from√dal meaning to ‘crack’/‘open’, this feature signifies the extensive unravelling of the profound doctrinal meanings that have been hidden. In form, it consists of a question and answer session on doctrinal matters with a scope apparently broader than that in abhidhamma-kathā — either between the Buddha and the fourfold disciples (with others listening) or among the disciples themselves. Vedalla-kathā is also sometimes juxtaposed to abhidhamma-kathā, as in Aṅguttara, ii, 107. Cf. Mahā-vedalla-sutta (Majjhima, i, 293 ff).
  • Those featuring the vibhaṅga (‘analysis/exposition’) style — a brief, summarized teaching is elaborated upon by the Buddha or a competent disciple. The significance of vibhaṅga being the elaboration on brief teachings became distinctive at least by the time of formation of the nikāya/āgama In the Madhyamāgama, there are some 35 sūtra-s grouped as “*Vibhaṅga recitations”. Likewise, there are some 12 sutta-s grouped under the Pāli Vibhaṅga-vagga.
  • Those featuring mātṛkā/mātikā — originally meaning a matrix or list of headings purporting to systematically summarize the Buddha’s teaching, e.g., the list of 37 doctrinal topics often known as bodhipakṣya-dharma‑s. The term mātṛkā came to be further developed to connote whatever textual basis that serves as a standard source. The Vaibhāṣikas mention mātṛkā unambiguously as being synonymous with abhidharma and upadeśa (see below), and cites as mātṛkā the early Sarvāstivāda canonical texts: the Saṅgītiparyāya, the Dharma-skandha and the Prajñapti-śāstra. Many scholars in fact believe that abhidharma evolves from mātṛkā.
  • Those featuring upadeśa — an expository or exegetical discourse. This refers to the last of the twelvefold classification of the Buddha’s teachings. Saṃghabhadra explains this as follows, equating it with mātṛkā and abhidharma:


Upadeśa refers to the non-erroneous (aparyasta, aviparīta) revealing, answering of objections and ascertainment, of the preceding [eleven] members. (See § 3) According to some, upadeśa also refers to analytical explanations, in accordance with reasoning, given by those who have seen the truth of the profound meanings of the sūtra-s, or by other wise ones. It is none other than what is called mātṛkā, for, when the meaning of other sūtra-s is to be explained, this serves as the mātṛkā. It is also called abhidharma, on account of its being face to face (abhi) with the characteristics of dharma­‑­­­s, and of its being a non-erroneous unraveling of the characteristics of dharma-s. (20, 595b).


  1. The major Abhidharma texts

Like the Theravādins, the Sarvāstivādins too maintain that the abhidharma was taught by the Buddha himself. But unlike the Theravādins who claim that the whole set of their canonical Abhidhamma texts was authored by the Buddha, the Sarvāstivādins ascribe their seven canonical texts to individual authors: (1) Dharma-skandha by Śāriputra; (2) Saṅgīti-paryāya by Mahākauṣṭhila; (3) Prajñāpti-śāstra by Mahā-maudgalyāyana; (4) Vijñānakāya by Devaśarman; (5) Prakaraṇa-śāstra by Vasumitra; (6) Jñānaprasthāna by Kātyāyanīputra; (7) Dhātukāya by Pūrṇa. Of these, the first three belong to the earlier period, and the rest may be grouped under the later period. The Jñānaprasthāna was upheld as the supreme authority by the Vaibhāṣikas who called it the “body”, in contrast to the other six which were called the “feet”.

The Sarvāstivāda school may be said to have been effectively established by Kātyāyanīputra (ca. 150 B.C.) with his Jñānaprasthāna. Eventually the orthodox Sarvāstivādins based in Kaśmīra composed the Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā, a gigantic commentary (translated by Xuan Zang into 200 fascicles) on the Jñānaprasthāna, and came to be known as the Vaibhāṣikas on account of their upholding the sanctioned Sarvāstivāda views in it. But encyclopedic as this commentary is, its organization leaves much to be desired as a text for a systematic comprehension of the Sarvāstivāda doctrines. This partly results from its structure being dictated by that of the Jñānaprasthāna, and partly owing to the compilers’ style of branching off too frequently from one topic to another in discussing a given doctrinal position. This fact, coupled with a reaction on the part of some masters to its excessive adherence to the Jñānapasthāna orthodoxy, led to the subsequent compilations of various manuals, culminating in Vasubandhu’s famous Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya which came to be commented upon by various masters of varying degrees of orthodoxy. Vasubandhu (ca. 4th century C.E.) states that he, in the main, follows the Kaśmīrian Vaibhāṣikas in expounding the Sarvāstivādin doctrines. However, in many places, he explicitly favours the doctrinal standpoints of the Sautrāntikas, a group of masters “who take the sūtra-s, but not the śāstra-s as the authority” (24, 11). Vasubandhu’s brilliant critique of the Vaibhāṣika doctrines was answered by the equally brilliant Saṃghabhadra, his contemporary and a staunch Vaibhāṣika, in the *Nyāyānusāra. Other more concise manuals followed, such as Skandhila’s Abhidharmāvatāra which aims at expounding the totality of the Sarvāstivāda doctrines in a scheme of eight categories (padārtha) — five aggregates (skandha) and the three unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) — while steering clear of sectarian disputations.


  1. Definition, nature and purpose

Although the term, Ābhidharmika, can refer generally to any one who specializes in the study and transmission of the Abhidharma doctrines, it is often used specifically to refer to the mainstream Sarvāstivāda masters. Thus, when the Mahāvibhāṣā enumerates the various interpretation of “abhidharma”, the first is given as that of the Ābhidharmikas; followed by other interpretations ascribed to individual masters — such as Vasumitra, Dharmatrāta — and to other schools, such as the Dharmaguptaka. This Ābhidharmika interpretation is as follows:


According to the Ābhidharmikas, it is so called because (i) it can properly and utterly determine (viniś-√ci) the characteristics of all dharma-s; (ii) it can properly examine and penetrate the dharma-s, (iii) it can directly realize (abhisam-√i) and realize (sākṣāt-√kṛ) with regard to all dharma-s; (iv) it can get to the very bottom of the profound nature of dharma-s; (v) through it, the wisdom-eye of the noble ones comes to be purified; (vi) it is only through it that the nature of the dharma-s, subtle from beginningless time, comes to be revealed; (vii) what it expounds is not contradictory to the nature of the dharma-s — one who is extremely well-versed with regard to the specific and common characteristics in the abhidharma cannot be faulted in any way and made to contradict the nature of the dharma‑s; (viii) it can refute and defeat all the heretical views. (3, 4a13–25)


More succinctly: Abhidharma is the proper examination and determination of the nature of all dharma-s. This is called “dharma-pravicaya”. This true determination is ultimately achieved when true spiritual insight — as opposed to mere intellectual understanding — into the true nature of things is generated in a process known as “direct realization (abhisamaya).


A dharma is an ultimate constituent of reality — or, an ultimate real — and is articulately defined as “that which sustains its intrinsic characteristic (svalakṣaṇa-dhāraṇāḍ dharmaḥ) (See 2, 2). Thus, matter (rūpa) is a dharma because it always possesses a unique intrinsic characteristic of rūpaṇa/rūpaṇā: the nature of visibility and possessing resistance and susceptibility to gradual decay. Likewise, sensation (vedanā) is a dharma, being always a real force uniquely enabling the fact of sensation; likewise, understanding (prajñā) which uniquely enables the fact of understanding; etc. Abhidharma investigates into these intrinsic characteristics as well as the common characteristics (sāmānya-lakṣaṇa) obtaining among a given connected group of dharma-s. On the basis of this, Abhidharma further examines the mutual inclusion/subsumption (saṃgraha) of dharma-s in respect of intrinsic characteristics as well as the causal interaction.

Dharma-pravicaya” is also the Ābhidharmika definition for prajñā. This prajñā is a faculty of understanding; i.e., a force which enables our experience of understanding. In the Sarvāstivāda system, therefore, prajñā must not be taken to mean exclusively “wisdom”, less still, the wisdom of an arhat or the Buddha. It denotes the force of understanding that can assume various forms and admits of various levels: a understanding that may be either correct or erroneous, pure or impure, with-outflow (sāsrava) or outflow-free (anāsrava), strong or weak, etc. In its outflow-free form, it is that which properly determines the nature of dharma-s. And at its highest sublimated level, it is the perfect wisdom of the Buddha.

The above Ābhidharmika definition of “abhidharma” clearly speaks of abhidharma as true or pure wisdom. In keeping with this Ābhidharmika definition, Vasubandhu gives this as the definition of  “abhidharma” in the absolute sense, i.e., at the level of absolute truth. At the conventional truth, however, “abhidharma” also refers to the with-outflow prajñā — derived from listening, reflection and cultivation (śrutacintābhāvanāmayī prajñā) or innately acquired (upapattipratilambhikā) — which helps to bring about the pure (i.e., outflow-free) prajñā. The abhidharma śāstra-s, too, inasmuch as they serve as a means or as requisites (saṃbhāra) for the acquisition of this pure prajñā, are also to be considered as abhidharma.

The prefix, “abhi-” in the above definition of abhidharma signifies “facing” or “being face to face” (abhimukha) which underscores the signification of direct realization (abhi = abhisamaya) into the true nature of dharma-s. The definition of Abhidharma as direct realization and pure prajñā too brings out its soteriological function: While it is true that in the course of development, the Abhidharma methodology came to acquire a distinctive feature of what might be called “scholasticism”, it preserves throughout the centuries its primacy of spiritual motivation and its commitment to systematically mapping out the Buddhist path of emancipation from the unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha) of sentient existence. This soteriological function from the perspective of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma is presented thus:


Because apart from the examination of dharma-s (= prajñāabhidharma),
there is no excellent means for the appeasement of the defilements.
And it is on account of the defilements that beings wander in the existence­ocean.

For this reason, therefore, it is said, the [abhidharma] is taught by the Master. (2, 2)


For the Sarvāstivāda Ābhidharmikas, the Abhidharma is “the word of Buddha” (Buddha-vacana) as much as the Sūtra and the Vinaya. Nay, it is sūtra par excellence and indeed the very authority/criterion for ascertaining the true sūtra-s (sūtra-pramāṇa) — true teachings of the Buddha. Saṃghabhadra argues that in the twelve-fold division of the sūtra-piṭaka (sūtra, geya, vyākaraṇa, …), upadeśa (‘exposition’, the 12th division) represents the abhidharma; it serves as the criterion for non-erroneously unravelling and ascertaining the true meanings of all the other eleven divisions. (20, 595b). In brief, Abhidharma is the explicit (nītārtha) and definitive (lākṣaṇika) teachings of the Buddha, in contrast to the sūtra-s which are generally implicit (neyārtha) and intentional (ābhiprāyika).


  1. The of 75 dharma-s grouped under five categories

In the process of dharma-pravicaya, by thoroughly subjecting the complexity of sentient experience to a process of analysis — whether based on direct empirical observation or on a deduction of the unique causal efficacy a particular entity (e.g., a mental force) — the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharmikas arrive at the following list of some 75 types of ultimate reals (dharma), divided into five fundamental categories:


  1. rūpa (matter, 11)
  2. cakṣur-indriya (visual faculty) 6. rūpa-artha (visual object)
  3. śrotra-indriya (auditory fac) 7. śabda-artha (auditory obj)
  4. ghrāṇa-indriya (olfactory fac) 8. gandha-artha (olfactory obj)
  5. jihvā-indriya (gustatory fac) 9. rasa-artha (gustatory obj)
  6. kāya-indriya (tangible fac) 10. spraṣṭavya-artha (tangible obj)
  7. avijñapti-rūpa (non-informative matter)
  8. citta (thought)

III. caitasika dharma-s (thought-concomitants, 46)

1)    mahābhūmika dharma-s (universal dharma‑s, 10)

  1. vedanā (sensation) 6.   prajñā (understanding)
  2. cetanā (volition) 7.   smṛti (mindfulness)
  3. saṃjñā (ideation) 8.   manaskāra (mental application)
  4. chanda (predilection) 9.   adhimokṣa (resolve/determination)
  5. sparśa (contact) 10. samādhi (concentration)

2)    kuśala-mahābhūmika dharma-s (skilful universal dharma‑s,  10)

  1. śraddhā (faith) 6.   apatrāpya (shame)
  2. apramāda (diligence) 7.   alobha (non-greed)
  3. praśrabdhi (calm) 8.   adveṣa (non-hatred)
  4. upekṣā (equanimity) 9.   avihiṃsā (harmlessness)
  5. hrī (modesty) 10. vīrya (vigor)

3)    kleśa-mahābhūmika dharma-s (universal dharma‑s of defilement, 6)

  1. moha (delusion) 4.   āśraddhya (lack of faith)
  2. pramāda (non-diligence) 5.   styāna (torpor)
  3. kauśīdya (slackness) 6.   auddhatya (restlessness)

4)    akuśala-mahābhūmika dharma-s (unskilful universal dharma‑s, 2)

  1. āhrīkya (non-modesty) 2.   anapatrāpya (shamelessness)

5) parīttakleśa-bhūmika dharma-s (Defilemnets of restricted scope 10)

  1. krodha (anger) 6.   mrakṣa (concealment)
  2. upanāha (enmity) 7.   mātsarya (avarice)
  3. śāṭhya (dissimulation) 8.   māyā (deceptiveness)
  4. īrṣyā (jealousy) 9.   mada (pride)
  5. pradāśa (depraved opinionatedness) 10. vihiṃsā (harmfulness)

6)    aniyata dharma-s  (indeterminate dharma‑s, 8)

  1. kaukṛtya (remorse) 5.   rāga (greed)
  2. middha (sleep) 6.   pratigha (hostility)
  3. vitarka (reasoning) 7.   māna (conceit)
  4. vicāra (investigation) 8.   vicikitsā (doubt)
  5. cittaviprayukta saṃskāra dharma-s (conditionings disjoined from thought, 14)
  6. prāpti (acquisition)
  7. aprāpti (non-acquisition)
  8. nikāyasabhāga (group homogeneity)
  9. āsaṃjñika (ideationlessness)
  10. āsaṃjñi-samāpatti (ideationless attainment)
  11. nirodha-samāpatti (cessation attainment)
  12. jīvitendriya (vital faculty)
  13. jāti-lakṣaṇa (production-characteristic)
  14. sthiti-lakṣaṇa (duration-characteristic)
  15. jarā-lakṣaṇa (deterioration-characteristic)
  16. anityatā-lakṣaṇa (impermanence-characteristic)
  17. nāma-kāya (words)
  18. pada-kāya (phrases)
  19. vyañjana-kāya (syllables)
  20. asaṃskṛta dharma-s (unconditioned dharma‑s, 3)
  21. ākāśa (space)
  22. pratisaṃkhyā-nirodha (cessation through deliberation)
  23. apratisaṃkhyā-nirodha (cessation independent of deliberation)


  1. I. The totality of rūpa-dharma‑s comprises (i) the primary matter comprising the four Great Elements (mahābhūta; ‘Great Reals’) — Earth (pṛthivī), Water (ap), Fire (tejas), Air (vāyu); (ii) 11 derived matter (upādāya-rūpa/bhautika) — five sense-faculties (indriya), five corresponding objects (artha/viṣaya) and non-information matter (avijñapti-rūpa). The four Great Elements are also subsumed under the objects of touch (spraṣṭavya) together with other derived tangibles, because their functions can only be experienced through touch. They have the intrinsic nature of solidity (khara), humidity (sneha), heat (uṣṇatā) and mobility (īraṇā), respectively, and perform the functions of supporting (dhṛti), cohesion (saṃgraha), maturation (pakti) and extension (vyūha), respectively. The Sarvāstivāda acknowledges a total of 11  The other seven are: smoothness (ślakśṇatva), coarseness (karkaśatva), heaviness (gurutva), lightness (laghutva), coldness (śīta), hunger (jighatsā) and thirst (pipāsā).

The four Great Elements exist inseparably from one another, being co-existent causes (sahabhū-hetu. See § 6.(4)) one to another. Nevertheless, rūpa-dharma‑s are manifested and experienced in diverse forms on account of the difference in intensity or substance of one or more of the four Elements.

Although the so-called derived rūpa‑s are already existing as ontological entities, their arising and functioning are dependent (upādāya) on the Great Elements. In this sense, the latter are said to be their cause. One set of the four Great Elements serves as the cause of an atom (paramāṇu) of the derived rūpa in a fivefold manner: (i) As generating cause (janana-hetu) — the derived rūpa‑s arise from them, like a child from the parents. (ii) As reliance cause (niśraya-hetu) — they are influenced by them, like a pupil under a teacher. (iii) As supportive cause (pratiṣṭhā-hetu) — they are supported by them. (iv) As maintaining cause (upastambha-hetu) — they are their cause of non-interruption. (v) As development cause (upabṛmhaṇa-hetu) — they are their cause of development. (3, 663a; 2, 102 f).

The non‑informative (avijñapti) matter is a special type of rūpa, being invisible, non-resistant and non‑spatialized. Nevertheless, it is said to be of the nature of matter since its supporting basis (āśraya) — the four Great Elements — are resistant matter. In terms of the āyatana classification, it is subsumed under the dharma-āyatana rather than the rūpa-āyatana, and is referred to as “matter subsumed under the dharma-āyatana” (dharmāyatana-saṃgṛhīta-rūpa).  This is the medium of preservation of the karmic efficacy projected from a momentary bodily or vocal karma. It is “non-informative” because it is a karmic action that does not inform us of the mental state of its doer. Once projected, it continues to exist as a series until either the corresponding karmic effect is retributed or when a certain condition is met with — such as the person’s death, etc. Eventually, it came to be particularly emphasized as the karmic efficacy projected when one solemnly takes an ordination vow (saṃvāra; ‘restraint’); e.g., of abstaining from killing. (2, 8, 205, 208, etc.)


IIIII. No thought or thought-concomitant can arise singly; they necessarily arise in conjunction (saṃprayoga). For instance, any thought necessarily arises with the set of 10 universal thought-concomitants (sensation, etc.). When a skilful thought-concomitant arises, it necessarily does so together with the thought involved, the set of 10 universal dharma-s and the set of 10 skilful universal thought-concomitants (faith, etc.).

In a conjunction, the thought and thought-concomitants (i) arise at the same time, (ii) share the same basis (āśraya), (iii) take the same cognitive object (ālambana), (iv) have the same mode of activity/understanding (ākāra), (v) each has a singularity of substance (dravya — e.g., a single thought conjoined with a single species of sensation, a single species of ideation, etc.).


  1. IV. The category of “conditionings disjoined from thought” represents an Abhidharma development going beyond the matter–mind dualism of the Theravāda and other schools. These dharma-s are forces that are neither physical nor mental, but whose efficacy can exercise in both domains.


Their nature and function are best illustrated with the example of “acquisition” (prāpti), a force which links a dharma — whether physical or mental, conditioned or unconditioned — to a sentient being. Thus, when, say, a sensual craving arises in the sentient being, he comes to “possess” this dharma called sensual craving, which has always been existing in the universe, thanks to this force, “acquisition”, which as it were ties (like a rope) the craving to him. The acquisition of this craving, once projected, serially flows on in the person even when the craving does not arise manifestly — e.g., when the person’s mental stream is of a skilful or neutral nature. For this reason he is continuously possessed of this craving. When, as a result of spiritual praxis, the person comes to be freed from (to “abandon”, pra-√) this craving, it is not that the dharma called craving as an ontological entity comes to be destroyed; but rather, that the serial continuity of its acquisition is cut off from him.

When one comes to attain Nirvāṇa, it cannot be that the unconditioned dharma arises as an effect of a path which is conditioned (see below). What is produced by the path is the acquisition (itself a conditioned dharma) of the Nirvāṇa, which links the latter to the practitioner.


  1. V. In the Sarvāstivāda system, the domain of the unconditioned, just as the domain of the conditioned, is pluralistic. There are three types of conditioned dharma-s:

(1) “Cessation through deliberation (pratisaṃkhyā-nirodha)” namely, through an effort of understanding (prajnā; pratisaṃkhyā is explained as prajñā-viśeṣa) the true nature of dharma-s. For each instance of abandoning a defilement, there arises a corresponding instance of its cessation (nirodha) which is a real entity — and not a mere absence of the defilement — contributing to the absolute prevention of the defilement’s future arising. There are therefore as many instances of cessation through deliberation as they are instances of with-outflow entities to be disconnected from.

(2) “Cessation independent of deliberation” (apratisaṃkhyā-nirodha). These are cessations acquired without specifically applying any effort of understanding, but simply on account of deficiency in the required conditions for a dharma’s arising. E.g., when the present eye and the mental faculty are focusing on a particular object giving arise to its visual consciousness, it is not possible for any of the five sensory consciousness to arise with regard to any of the other objects (visibles, sounds, etc.) existing in that same moment. There arise accordingly the cessations independent of deliberation of these latter instances of sensory consciousness by virtue of the deficiency in the conditions for their arising. However, these cessations are not mere absence of conditions; they are in each case a distinct, real entity efficacious in absolutely preventing the possible re-arising of the said consciousnesses. Besides such mundane occurrences in our daily experience of cognizing sensory objects, there are other spiritually significant instances: E.g., when through spiritual striving one attains stream-entry (srota-āpatti), one also thereby acquires the cessations independent of deliberation, of all forms of unfortunate rebirth (durgati) — one will no longer be reborn in any such unfortunate plane of existence.

(3) Space (ākāsa). This is not to be confounded with conditioned space, called the space element (akāśa-dhātu), which is visible in the openings in windows, doors, cleavages, etc. Such spaces, though non-obstructive in nature, are nonetheless obstructed by material things. The unconditioned Space, in contrast, is beyond space and time, and is characterized by being neither obstructive to, nor obstructed by, any material thing. Its reality is to be comprehended from the fact that there exists the conditioned space which accommodates conditioned things and provides the venues for their activities. This does not mean that Space can exercise any activity, but that it serves as a necessary contributing factor — a “dominant condition” (adhipati-pratyaya) — through a sequence of conditionality, making possible the fact of cognition of things in space-time:


The unconditioned Space has no activity. Nevertheless, it can serve as the proximate adhipati-pratyaya for the various space-elements. These various space-elements can serve as the proximate adhipati-pratyaya for the various Great Elements. These various Great Elements can serve as the proximate adhipati-pratyaya for the resistant derived matters. These resistant derived matters can serve as the proximate adhipati-pratyaya for the various mental citta-caitta-dharma‑s.

If Space were non-existent, such a successive causal sequence cannot be established. Hence the intrinsic nature and characteristic of Space exist, lest there be such a fallacy; they must not be denied. (3, 389a)


The conditioned dharma-s which arise into space-time and their operation therein, are described by two terms: (i) saṃskṛta (‘compounded’), indicating their aspect of being causally produced; (ii) saṃskāra (‘conditioning’), indicating their aspect of being conditioning forces that contribute to the arising and operation of other conditioned dharma‑s.  The unconditioned dharma-s are in complete contrast: being transcendent to space and time, they are neither causally produced nor do they operate as causes. However, they can serve as “condition qua object” (ālambana-pratyaya) inasmuch as they can be apprehended as cognitive objects. The Sarvāstivāda Ābhidharmikas would also concede that in some special sense and in conformity to worldly parlance, it is permissible to speak of the unconditioned dharma-s as “efficient causes” (kāraṇa-hetu. See § 6) inasmuch as they do not hinder the arising of other dharma‑s. Although not causally produced, the cessation through discernment may also be expediently spoken as a “disconnection-fruit” (visaṃyoga-phala) inasmuch as it is acquired (pra-√āp) through the efficacy of the noble path — even though it is not directly produced by it. (2, 91)


  1. Sarvāstivāda vs. Vibhajyavāda

The Sarvāstivāda’s fundamental standpoint is that all the above categories of dharma-s — both the conditioned and the unconditioned — as unique, ultimate reals exist throughout time. This doctrine is expressed by the statement “all exists” (sarvam asti), hence the name of the school, Sarvāstivāda. This “all” therefore firstly indicates the reality of each and every ultimate factor that is truly a “dharma”; i.e., that exists uniquely in its intrinsic nature (svabhāva) and that uniquely “maintains its intrinsic characteristic” (svalakṣaṇa-dhāraṇa. See § 3). It further indicates that every conditioned dharma is existent throughout the three periods of time: future, present and past; and this fact is expressed by stating that its intrinsic nature “always exists” (sarvadā asti). But this tritemporal existence must not be misunderstood as permanent existence — all conditioned dharma necessarily traverses time; the unconditioned dharma-s alone, which transcend temporality, are permanent.

Although the intrinsic nature of a dharma exists always, its “activity” (kāritra) is momentary, being exercised only in the single present moment. This “activity” is defined as a dharma’s efficacy for inducing the next moment of its own existence in its serial continuity. It is its “efficacy for projecting its own fruit” (*svaphala-ākṣepa-sāmarthya). Since this efficacy exists necessarily and uniquely in every present dharma, it comes to be officially adopted by the Sarvāstivādins as the criterion for temporal distinction of conditioned dharma-s: When a dharma has not yet exercised this “activity”, it is said to be future; when this activity is being exercised, it is said to be present; when it has been exercised, it is said to be past. This theory is ascribed to Vasumitra who asserts that while a dharma’s intrinsic nature remains unchanged always, its temporal distinction is possible in terms of its three distinctive temporal “positions/stages” (avasthā) distinguished in respect  of its activity. The Vaibhāṣikas — certainly Samghabhadra, for one — also advocate Dharmatrāta’s theory that the same dharma, though always unchanged in respect of its intrinsic nature, exists in different “modes” (bhāva) in the three temporal periods. (20, 632c, 633c).

In this tenet of “all-exist”, Saṃghabhadra articulates on the nature of the ”existent” (sat). He defines an existent as “that which is capable of serving as the object-domain for generating a cognition (buddhi)”. (20, 621c). Accordingly, any act of cognition at all — be it a true cognition (as that through spiritual insight), or an imagination, or an illusion, or even a cognition of “absence”, etc. — necessarily presupposes an existent object. These existent objects, of course, may be either relative existents such as a “person” (a notion derived from a composite comprising the 5 aggregates: matter, sensation, ideation, conditionings and consciousness), or absolute existents such as matter, sensation, and other dharma‑s. This Sarvāstivāda doctrine that a notion or concept (prajñapti) is necessarily based ultimately on some absolute reals came to importantly influence the epistemological and ontological doctrines of the subsequent Buddhist schools, particularly the Yogācāra.

This standpoint of sarvāstivāda (/sarvāstitva) is diametrically opposed by those known as the “Distinctionists”, Vibhajyavāda, who include the Sautrāntikas, the Mahāsāṃghikas and others. They hold, in contrast, that only the present — or, for some, the present and those karma-s that have not yet given fruits (adattaphala) — exist; the future and the past dharma-s do not exist. The long drawn out controversy on sarvāstivāda vs. vibhajyavāda is an extremely important historical fact that must not be overlooked by any Buddhist historian for a proper perspective of the understanding of the development of Buddhist thought in which its reverberation is continuously seen in various forms throughout the centuries (both within and outside India).


  1. Doctrine of causality

Another important doctrinal contribution of the Sarvāstivāda is their theory of causality, innovated by Kātyāyanīputra in his Jñānaprasthāna. Prior to this, the Sarvāstivādins had been sharing with other Buddhists the doctrine of the four conditions: (1) condition qua cause (hetu-pratyaya), (2) equal-immediate condition (samanantara-pratyaya), (3) condition qua object (ālambana-pratyaya), (4) condition of dominance (adhipati-pratyaya).

Kātyāyanīputra proposes for the first time, the doctrine of six causes:

(1) Efficient cause (kāraṇa-hetu). This is the most generic cause, either in the sense of a general causal contribution or simply of being non-obstructive: “A conditioned dharma has all dharma‑s, excepting itself, as its efficient cause, for, as regards its arising, [these dharma‑s] abide in the state of non-obstructiveness.” (2, 82).

(2) Homogeneous cause (sabhāga-hetu). This obtains in the case of a mental series, and among physical matter. “The similar dharma‑s are the homogeneous causes of dharma‑s similar [to them], for e.g., the five skandha‑s which are skilful, are [the homogeneous causes] of the five skilful skandha‑s, among themselves. Likewise the defiled and the non-defined five skandha‑s, [in each case, among themselves]…” (2, 85).

(3) Universal cause (sarvatraga hetu). “The universal dharma‑s arisen previously and belonging to a given stage (bhūmi) are the universal causes of later defiled dharma‑s belonging to their own stage. … On account of their being a cause applicable to all defiled dharma‑s, they are established [as a cause] separate from the homogeneous causes and [also] because they are the cause of [defiled dharma‑s] belonging to other categories [of abandonability] (5 categories: (i)–(iv) defilements are abandonable either through insight into the four Truths, or (v) through the path of cultivation) as well, for, through their power, defilements belonging to categories different from theirs are produced.” (2, 89). The Vaibhāṣikas hold that three defilements are universal: doubt (vicikitsā), view (dṛṣṭi) and ignorance (avidyā), which are abandonable by insight into unsatisfactoriness, the cause of unsatisfactoriness, together with their conjoined and co-existent dharma‑s.” (3, 90c; 23, 416c)

(4) Co-existent cause (sahabhū hetu). “The co-existent [causes] are those that are reciprocally effects… For example: the four Great Elements are co-existent [causes] mutually among themselves; so also, thought and the dharma‑s that are thought-accompaniments (cittānuvarttin); … [The case of the co-existent cause] is like the staying in position of three sticks through their mutual strength/support — this establishes the causal relationship (hetuphalabhāva) of the co-existents.” (2, 83–85). Co-nascence is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for two or more dharma-s to be co-existent causes. Saṃghabhadra articulates that in brief, this causal category obtains in only three cases: “[i] among those that share the same effect; or [ii] that are reciprocally effects; or [iii] where by the force of this, that dharma can arise. Such co-nascent [dharma‑s] have a cause‑effect relationship, [i.e., are co‑existent causes].” (20, 419c)

(5) Conjoined Cause (saṃprayuktaka-hetu), a subset of the co-existent causes. A stated above, thought and concomitants necessarily arise in conjunction. (§ 4.II–III) Mental factors, in their role of contributing to their mutual arising and operational co-ordination, are called “conjoined causes”. Moreover, being so conjoined and co-ordinated, they accomplish the same activity in grasping the same object.

(6) Retribution (/maturation) cause (vipāka-hetu). This is the karmic cause, leading to a corresponding karmic fruit — i.e., determining the specific type of rebirth that a sentient being will experience. The fruit is necessarily morally neutral (avyākṛta); if the retribution cause leads to a desirable (iṣṭa) fruit, it is “skilful” (kuśala); if it leads to an undesirable (aniṣṭa) fruit, it is “unskilful” (akuśala). Neutral and outflow-free dharma-s do not yield any retribution fruit.

Since the time of the Dharma-skandha, the Sarvāstivādins have held that retribution causes and fruits comprise all five skandha‑s. I.e., not only thought and the thought-concomitants but also the matter accompanying thought (cittānuvṛttaka-rūpa) and the conditionings disjoined from thought — the ideationless attainment (asaṃjñī-samāpatti), the cessation attainment (nirodha-samāpatti), all acquisitions which are unskilful, and skilful but with-outflow (sāsrava), and the accompanying characteristics of the conditioned (saṃskṛta-lakṣaṇa) — can constitute retribution causes. (Cf. 3, 96a–c).


Of the six causes, the co-existent cause is the most important. For the Sarvāstivādins, the fact of direct perception (pratyakṣa) cannot be established without the type of simultaneous causality represented by the co-existent cause. This is because, given that a sensory faculty and its object last only one single moment (a doctrine commonly accepted by all Abhidharma schools with the exception of the Sāṃmitīya, etc.), if the corresponding consciousness (qua effect) were to arise in the second moment (as claimed by the Sautrāntikas and others), it would not have an existent object. If direct perception cannot be established, then inferential knowledge too would be impossible — and this would result in the absolute impossibility of any knowledge of the external world!


More importantly, the co-existent cause serves as the only valid paradigm of causation. In general, if A causes B, both A and B must be existent at the same time (an utter void or a non-existent cannot be causally efficacious) — although they may belong to different time periods with respect to their own temporal frame of reference. That is: A may be past or present or future, and B may also be past or present or future — but they must co-exist, although not necessarily be co-nascent. To borrow Dharmatrāta’s terminology, they are both existent, but not necessarily of the same ‘mode of existence’ (bhāva). Where A and B are necessarily co-nascent, i.e., both existing at the same present moment, it reduces to the category known as the co-existent cause. In fact, in the Sarvāstivāda conception, all dharma‑s in their essential nature have always been existent; it is only a matter of inducing their arising through causes and conditions. This is the fundamental principle underlining the Sarvāstivāda doctrine of causality. Past and future dharma‑s are also endowed with efficacies including that of actually giving an effect, although it is only a present dharma that has “activity” — the efficacy of establishing the specific causal relationship with the dharma to be produced as its effect.






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