Why Should I Care about the Abhidharma?

At first glance, the Abhidharma, with all its lists and analysis, may not seem so inviting. But give it another look, says Steven D. Goodman — it explains the entire world.

Steven D. Goodman
6 August 2020
Photo by Inbetween Architects.

Somebody could say, “Why bother? Why should I care about knowing how to directly perceive reality?” That is an excellent question. The point of the Buddhist teachings is that the direct perception of reality is necessary in order to be truly free. Our capacity to learn how to directly perceive reality is the sine qua non for traversing the path. In fact, how free we are depends on how directly we perceive reality.

These days in the West, any talk of a true reality is regarded by many as rather suspect. There are those who would say, “It’s a matter of opinion,” “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” or “Life is just as you like”—anything goes. This is what the Buddha called nihilistic. So the notion of “the direct per­ception of reality” is, perhaps, the most important definition of Abhidharma.

In Sanskrit, Abhi means “making manifest.” Dharma, in this case, means “what can be known or cognized,” “the plurality of factors of reality,” or simply “what there is.” There are three aspects to this definition: the first aspect is making mani­fest. You could do a whole study of Buddhism in terms of what is manifest and what is not yet manifest. The second aspect is direct perception. The third is this famous reality, or “just what is.”

To elaborate on dharmas as “factors of reality” or “what there is,” there is a list of seventy-five dharmas. We could look at it like we would a periodic table of elements with all the different atoms, from hydrogen through einsteinium. There are lightweight atoms and heavyweight atoms, each with their own characteristics, their own quantum spin (at the level of quarks), and their own capacity to engage in conditional relations with other atoms to make molecules. These molecules combine with other molecules to make bigger molecules. And sometimes, as with carbon, an atom continues making long strings called polymers, such as plastics, which we may later use as a plastic bottle.

We can see polymers in their functional aspect, as, for instance, a plastic bottle, but we don’t see the molecular structure of the polymer itself. This dis­tinction between the way things really are and the way they appear is crucial and is a distinction that is elaborated upon in the Abhidharma (and in sub­sequent) literature. It is said that the listing and understanding of the vari­ous factors of existence and their interactions is, in fact, the way things are. It is, however, difficult to be aware at the level of the flowing interactions of the dharmas themselves.

Following the tradi­tions he studied in Gandhara, the great scholar Vasubandhu—the half-brother of Asanga and one of the great jewels of India—found it more amenable to classify the seventy-five basic factors of existence into a grouping of eighteen elements (dhatus) or, in another grouping, as twelve sense bases (ayatanas). At the level of the way things actually are, not only in Western science but also in Abhidharma, there is an understanding that there is a fundamental plurality of different en­ergy patterns, which in Western science, until recently, we called an “atom,” meaning “not divisible.” Atom is simply a word for a fundamental pattern of energy. Of course, nowadays, we say that not even the atom is so fundamental. What are the current and most fundamental building blocks that make up atoms? They are called quarks, which have rather wonderful names: beauty, strangeness, and charm.

In a similar way, the Abhidharma tradition has a very subtle and precise way of presenting what makes up our entire world, both physically and non-physically, perceptually, cognitively, somatically, physiologically, and so on. The equivalent to this atom (or quark) in the Abhidharma world is called a dharma. The study of the Abhidharma can be understood as consisting of becoming learned about both the essential features of these dharmas and also how these dharmas work together.

Why should that be of importance to us? It is important because, just as in the study of physics, the study of the Abhidharma also shows the basic fac­tors of existence and the basic laws that regulate their coming together. This makes up the entirety of what we call so casually and imprecisely “my world,” “my life,” “my emotions,” “my thoughts,” and so on. It is not as we would like it to be, or think it ought to be, or hope that someday it will be, but is precisely as it is and has always been.

Abhidharma study, then, moves us from the imprecise language of thoughts, emotions, feelings, intuitions, and desires into the precise language of the coming together and uncoming together of dharmas, in this case, sev­enty-five dharmas, which are discussed and categorized rather like an atomic chart of basic factors of existence.

The Treasury of Abhidharma

The first turning of the wheel of the dharma consisted of the teaching on the four noble truths, the teaching on proper conduct, and the teaching on the four mindfulnesses as found in the Pali Satipatthana Sutta and in the San­skrit Sutra on Establishing Mindfulness (Smrityupasthana Sutra).

On the basis of that first turning, those who came after the Buddha made commentaries. It is in this context that Vasubandhu wrote a magnifi­cent work called the Treasury of Higher Dharma or the Abhidharmakosha.

Vasubandhu himself merely summarized all the dif­ferent streams of Abhidharma teachings that existed at the time he lived (in the fourth to fifth centuries CE) in the area of Gandhara (present-day Kashmir). Tradition recounts that Vasubandhu gathered all the different views extant at that time, and on the basis of those views he would lec­ture all day. After his lecture, he would go home and summarize that lecture by composing one karika, a four-lined summary verse. We have these lines of text in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, French, and English. On the basis of those sum­mary verses, he then compiled them into almost five hundred verses, called the Verses That Contain the Treasury of the Abhidharma (Abhidharmakosha-karikas).

After Vasubandhu wrote these verses, he then wrote a commentary on them. The verses and commentary together are called the Abhidharmakosha­bhashya. It is considered an encyclopedic “treasure” of information on how to make manifest the direct perception of reality.

This list of seventy-five dharmas is regarded by the Abhidharma tradition as comprehensive; it accounts for the entirety of our actual and possible existence. This is a total picture of everything that one needs to know in order to accomplish full and complete enlightenment. As mentioned before, everything is constituted by dharmas (in Sanskrit, this is expressed as sarvam dharmam). This word sarvam, “every­thing,” is used over and over again in the teachings of the Buddha. “Every­thing,” here, means all-inclusive, nothing missing, a full and complete teaching.

Why bother? Why don’t we just open our hearts and rest? Isn’t that what the teachings are all about? Well, that’s great if you can do it. These teachings seem to suggest, however, that open­ing to what is and resting in that is not so easy. There are many impediments, blockages, and doubts. There are so many contradictory thoughts and feelings.

In fact, the Abhidharma names and catalogs those energies that block the heart from being open. One might say, then, that the study of what opens and what blocks the opening of the heart is the very core of the Abhidharma.

The Discernment of All Dharmas

Let’s look at prajna, discernment, which is factor 18 from the list of seventy-five on the chart (included within the General Factors). In the Abhidharmakosha (chapter 1, verse 2a), Vasubhandu responded to the question, “What is Abhidharma?” by stating, “Abhidharma is pure prajna with its following. Prajna…is the discern­ment of the dharmas.”

Even if you were to stop reading now, you would already have something won­derful. You would know that the Abhidharma, the highest teachings of the dharma, consists precisely, and in an absolute way, of undefiled wisdom, as the capacity to know what arises as it arises. This knowledge is a treasure because it is this knowledge that leads us out of the mire of transmigration.

We also give the name Abhidharma to the way in which prajna works when it is not pure. That means Abhidharma and this treatise also talk about the way in which our capacity to note distinctions is defiled.

We have two senses of the word prajna, two ways in which we can discern the way things are: (1) purely, which allows us to directly perceive reality as it is, and (2) impurely (prajna in a defiled sense), which is the result of being caught up in effort due to hearing, thinking, absorbing, and so on, in an un­clear way.

Dharma Bears Its Own Unique Characteristics

Vasubandhu taught: “Dharma is that which bears (dharana) its own spe­cific or unique characteristic.” This is one of the senses of the list of ten ref­erents for the word dharma. What Vasubandhu indicates here is that each of these seventy-five dharmas has a specific, unique characteristic. Previously, we used the analogy of atoms and quarks. We don’t say, “I think it was probably hydrogen, but maybe it was helium. I’m not sure. Anyway, there was a little bit of energy, and what does it matter?” We learn, instead, to know the precise characteristics of the atoms (or quarks and so on). It is rather the same with the dharmas. Precision is key.

There are concrete effects due to the specific workings of these various dharmas. Every love affair and every war can—at the level of analysis—be to­tally accounted for by these seventy-five dharmas. The Abhidharma is not studied in order to make a full account of every war and every love affair. However, it does help us to not be surprised when love affairs sometimes turn into a war. This is the nature of defiled dharmas, of defiled prajna.

Otherwise, it’s as if someone who is not a skilled doctor went into a room and engaged in a display of being shocked and disgusted by the full mani­festations of the symptoms of an illness. Why are we shocked? Why are we surprised when someone gets upset? From the point of view and practice of the Abhidharma (and indeed the buddhadharma), when conditions are ripe, upset occurs, and when conditions are right, upset dissipates, and these con­ditions we can know—dharma is that which bears its own specific or unique characteristic.

Conditioned and Unconditioned Dharmas

Let us examine the chart of the seventy-five dharmas. There are two great di­visions in the chart:

  1. Conditioned dharmas (1–72)
  2. Unconditioned dharmas (73–75)

Conditioned Dharmas

The section on “Conditioned Dharmas” is divided into four major categories:

  1. Forms, which consist of eleven specific dharmas
  2. Mind, which consists of one dharma

III. Concomitant (or working together) mental factors, which are further divided into subgroups

  1. Elements neither substantial forms (column I), nor involved in men­tal functioning (columns II and III), which consists of true factors that do not depend on a truth or reality in a present moment of experience (in other lists, these are presented like what we might call in physics “laws that regulate the coming together of dharmas”)

Unconditioned Dharmas

All of these seventy-two conditioned dharmas are rather beside the point if not for the very last column, those of the unconditioned dhar­mas, those factors that name the possibility of freedom and liberation from suffering. Without that, probably no one would be interested. In order to give a full picture of all the dharmas, in addition to the dharmas that come to­gether and go apart, there are three dharmas that are not created and not con­ditioned. These include dharma 73, space itself.

In addition to space, there are two ways to understand cessation of suffering (nirodha), dharmas 74 and 75. One sense of cessation, that of cessation with remainder, refers to the awakening of the Buddha under the bodhi tree. The term with remainder is used to indicate that, although his defilements had ceased, the Buddha continued to teach and be seen and heard by many beings for over forty years. That is what is meant by “cessation with remainder.” The other sense, dharma 75, “cessation without remainder,” refers to the final nir­vana (parinirvana), or “death,” of the Buddha, which leaves no remainder.

The Coming Together of Dharmas

Remember, everything that occurs is due to the working of dharmas, so we might ask the questions, “How come all of these factors aren’t always working together all the time? What has to happen in order for some factors to lock into place, and what has to happen for those factors to be unlocked and no longer be working? How does impermanence work, and how does language work?” The answer to these questions is listed in this fourth column.

To play the Abhidharma “game,” this special mode of analysis, the answer has to be given in terms of dharmas. Then, to formulate the same question as an Abhidharma question, we might ask: “Which dharmas are responsible for the coming together of dharmas?” Just by hearing this, we move into the technical way in which an Abhidharmika—one who practices Abhidharma— thinks about these things.

Acquisition and Nonacquisition

The dharma responsible for the coming together of dharmas is 59: acquisi­tion. The dharma that is responsible for disengaging groupings of dharmas is 60: nonacquisition.


The dharma that is responsible for the coming into existence of a situation is 66: birth. Birth here does not mean birth from a mother but the coming about of a new situation. If you think about it, it is strange that something new can occur. We have this habit of saying, “I have a new boyfriend, a new girlfriend, a new job, a new teacher, a new understanding, a new kind of goat cheese, a new whatever.” But that does not mean we understand its characteristics. From the viewpoint of dharmas, what is responsible for this experience of newness? It is 66: birth.

Fleeting Stability

The other strange thing about experiences is that they don’t immediately dis­sipate. They seem to be stable for a while. If we have a new boyfriend or girl­friend, this is good news. If we are newly unemployed, this is bad news. But to give a full presentation of a situation or experience, to say that it is new is not enough; it also sticks around for a while. In order to underline the imperma­nence of it, I call it fleeting stability (67).

For a while we are here, and the general characteristics of this “here” situation is the sole ground that makes scientific investigation possible. Think about it: if it were the nature of all reality to instantaneously arise and dissipate, it would be impossible to engage in that famous repetition of the experiment. There has to be a relatively similar situation, a stability, in order to communicate or investi­gate anything at all. In fact, it is one of the hallmarks of mental health.

When the stabilities of ourselves and another individual are not harmoni­ous, when the rate of decay of remembering or reflecting is different among individuals, we say we’re not compatible. It starts with something small like “The timing is a bit off here; it’s incompatible.” That is the “seed syllable” be­fore we say, “There is a problem.” And the full visualization of that samsaric practice is “We must banish something.” All of this comes from differences of stability.

That which is extremely unstable is often regarded as negative, as if there is some force that wants or desires things to be stable. We categorize things and situations as good or bad depending on their stability. If something is painful, it is good if it is extremely unstable. If something is pleasurable, it is bad if it is extremely unstable. However, no matter how stable it is, sooner or later it will completely dissipate in terms of its current pattern. It won’t disappear, it decays (68); it undergoes a transformation to the point where its general characteris­tics are no longer appropriate as a full explanation.

And both in India and in the West, great and lesser philosophers have wondered about whether or not what has changed is the nature and essence, or only an accident, of its qualities. The fact that there seems to be a movement from dharmas called birth (66) to dharmas called stability (67) to dharmas called decay (68) is given the name impermanence as a separate dharma (69).


Impermanence is the name given to the fact that all conditioned elements (all elements from 1 to 72) arise, stay for a while, and then decay. This is that fa­mous “impermanence.” It is one of the marks of conditioned existence. In the Abhidharma, conditioned existence consists of seventy-two separate, ana­lyzable factors. However, how do we usually understand “impermanence” in these contexts? Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once asked why so many peo­ple think that impermanence is bad. He then suggested another way to think: imagine that my current situation of not having a Mercedes-Benz is imper­manent. Expanding this sense, we can think that our current situation of not being a full and complete buddha is actually impermanent!

There is a great deal to study, and if we think this is boring and we don’t have time, I can hear Vasubandhu’s laughter because, from the viewpoint of the Abhidharma, these factors are what we see whenever we look into the mirror.

If we feel embarrassed or if we laugh, all those passing moments of embar­rassment, laughter, and boredom are completely accounted for as simply the coming together and the dissipation of dharmas. One moment we are embar­rassed, the next we laugh, then we stop. This is what we are: a movement or a stream of unending “coming-togethers” and “going-aparts.”

What is amazing, according to the Abhidharma and according to the Buddha, is that we as that stream can know the stream. That’s fantastic news. There are only two ways the stream goes—knowing itself or not.

Whether we are aware or not, all of these factors are combining and recombining with each other all the time. Unconsciously or consciously, they are streaming, they are flowing, they are working when we’re meditating, when we’re not meditating, when we’re sitting, walking, sleeping, and laugh­ing. There’s no situation in which these basic factors are not present. All of them together, as they get together—this is reality. It allows us, with a degree of precision that is not so easily seen in some other Buddhist teachings, to tune in to the variety of all the different factors that make up our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences.

Normally we have a rather sloppy, im­precise, bewildered, or arrogant way of relating to our experiences. We have a habit of actually making prostrations to this arrogance and bewilderment on a regular basis. We do so with the utterance “I,” and sometimes, to vary it, “mine” or “you,” “yours” or “not yours,” and sometimes “not mine.” This is the way most of us proceed through our lives, and at the end of our life we’re a little exhausted. We have huge demeritorious piles of arrogance and bewilder­ment, with a completely clear conscience.

The good news is that the Abhidharma says we can break that habit; we can cut it. We can tune in and have as a target exactly this habit of arrogance and bewilderment. When we do tune in, there’s a smashing; there’s a bit of calm and clearing. In that calm clarity we may glimpse a bit how things ac­tually are. One of the proofs that we have actually glimpsed this is a slight disinclination to continue to prostrate to this arrogant, bewildered heap. It be­comes a little bit more difficult to say so quickly and with a clear conscience: “my,” “my problem.”

The Abhidharma is an invitation to smash, to break down, to cut through, and to completely destroy and overcome every tendency toward extremes of arrogance, greed, and bewilderment. What allows us to do this is a special kind of wisdom energy (prajna). Prajna is a dharma, a basic energy packet, that has as its function the capacity to know, through analy­sis, the specific differences of all the other dharmas, and how they combine into conglomerations that make up the totality of ourselves, our world, our experiences, both actual and possible. You can go quite far with this prajna; you can perfect it.

Adapted from The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening: An In-Depth Guide to Abhidharma, by Steven D. Goodman (Shambhala Publications, May 2020)

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman studied under the noted Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther, receiving a PhD in Far Eastern Studies in 1984. He went on to be awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship at Rice University to study Tibetan mystical poetry. Today, he is the program director of Asian philosophies and cultures at California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. His new book is The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening. He passed away on August 3, 2020.