Traditional accounts of early Indian Buddhist schools suggest that while certain schools may have shared some textual collections, many transmitted their own independent Abhidharma treatises.
Hsüan-tsang (ca. 600-664 C.E.), the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India in the 7th century C.E., is reported to have collected numerous texts of as many as 7 mainstream Buddhist schools:
These almost certainly included canonical Abhidharma texts representing various schools.
However, only 2 complete canonical collections, representing the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda schools and several texts of undetermined sectarian affiliation are preserved.
Even though each of the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma collections contains 7 texts, the individual texts of the 2 collections cannot be neatly identified with one another.
However, a close examination of certain texts from each collection and a comparison with other extant Abhidharma materials reveals similarities in the underlying taxonomic lists, in exegetical structure, and in the topics discussed:
These similarities suggest either contact among the groups who composed and transmitted these texts, or a common ground of doctrinal exegesis and even textual material predating the emergence of the separate schools.
The Theravāda canonical Abhidharma collection, the only one extant in an Indian language (Pāli), contains 7 texts:
1. Vibhaṅga (Analysis);
2. Puggala-paññatti (Designation of Persons);
3. Dhātu-kathā (Discussion of Elements);
4. Dhamma-saṅgaṇi (Enumeration of Factors);
5. Yamaka (Pairs);
6. Paṭṭhāna (Foundational Conditions); and
7. Kathāvatthu (Points of Discussion).
The Sarvāstivāda canonical Abhidharma collection, also including 7 texts, is extant only in Chinese translation:
1. Saṅgīti-paryāya (Discourse on the Saṅgīti);
2. Dharma-skandha (Aggregation of Factors);
3. Prajñapti-śāstra (Treatise on Designations);
4. Dhātu-kāya (Collection on the Elements);
5. Vijñāna-kāya (Collection on Perceptual Consciousness);
6. Prakaraṇa-pāda (Exposition); and
7. Jñāna-prasthāna (Foundations of Knowledge).
Certain other early Abhidharma texts extant in Chinese translation probably represent the Abhidharma canonical texts of yet other schools, for example:
a) the Śāriputra-Abhidharma-śāstra
which may have been affiliated with a Vibhajyavāda school, or
b) the Saṁmatīya-śāstra
affiliated by its title with the Saṁmatīya school, associated with the Vātsīputrīyas.
In the absence of historical evidence for the accurate dating of the extant Abhidharma treatises, scholars have tentatively proposed relative chronologies based primarily upon internal formal criteria that presuppose a growing complexity of structural organization and of exegetical method.
It is assumed that Abhidharma texts of the earliest period bear the closest similarities to the sūtras, and are often structured as commentaries on entire sūtras or on sūtra sections arranged according to taxonomic lists:
The Vibhaṅga and Puggala-paññatti of the Theravādins and the Saṅgīti-paryāya and Dharma-skandha of the Sarvāstivādins exemplify these characteristics.
The next set of Abhidharma texts exhibits emancipation from the confines of commentary upon individual sūtras, by adopting a more abstract stance that subsumes doctrinal material from a variety of sources under an abstract analytical framework of often newly created categories:
This middle period would include the 5 remaining canonical texts within the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma canonical collections.
The catechetical style of commentarial exegesis, evident even in the earliest Abhidharma texts, becomes more structured and formulaic in texts of the middle period.
The final products in this process of abstraction are the truly independent treatises that display marked creativity in technical terminology and doctrinal elaboration.
Some of the texts, in particular the Kathāvatthu of the Theravādins and the Vijñānakāya of the Sarvāstivādins, display an awareness of differences in doctrinal interpretation and factional alignments, although they do not adopt the developed polemical stance typical of many subsequent Abhidharma works.
The composition of Abhidharma treatises did not end with the canonical collections, but continued with commentaries on previous Abhidharma works and with independent summary digests or exegetical manuals.
Within the Theravāda tradition, several 5thcentury C.E. commentators compiled new works based upon earlier commentaries dating from the first several centuries C.E.:
They also composed independent summaries of Abhidhamma analysis, prominent among which are the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) by Buddhaghoṣa and the Abhidharmāvatāra (Introduction to Abhidhamma) by Buddhadatta.
The Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha (Collection of Abhidhamma Matters) composed by Anuruddha in the 12th century C.E. became thereafter the most frequently used summary of Abhidhamma teaching within the Theravāda tradition.
The 1-5 centuries C.E. were also a creative period of efflorescence for the Abhidharma of the Sarvāstivādins:
In texts of this period, summary exposition combines with exhaustive doctrinal analysis and polemical debate. The teaching is reorganized in accordance with an abstract and more logical structure, which is then interwoven with the earlier taxonomic lists.
Preeminent among these texts for both their breadth and their influence upon later scholastic compositions are the voluminous, doctrinal compendia, called vibhāṣā,
which are represented by 3 different recensions extant in Chinese translation, the last and best known of which is called the Mahā-vibhāṣā (Great Exegesis).
Composed over several centuries from the 2nd century C.E. onward, these ostensibly simple commentaries on an earlier canonical Abhidharma text, the Jñāna-prasthāna,
exhaustively enumerate the positions of contending groups on each doctrinal point, often explicitly attributing these views to specific schools or masters.
Instead of arguing for a single, orthodox viewpoint, the vibhāṣā compendia display an encyclopaedic intention that is often content with comprehensiveness in cataloguing the full spectrum of differing sectarian positions.
The vibhāṣā compendia are repositories of several centuries of scholastic activity representing multiple branches of the Sarvāstivāda School, which was spread throughout greater north-western India.
However, they came to be particularly associated by tradition with the Sarvāstivādins of Kashmir who, thereby, acquired the appellation, Sarvāstivāda -Vaibhāṣika.
3 other texts composed during the same period that are associated with the north-western region of Gandhāra display a markedly different structure and purpose:
1) the Abhidharma-hṛdaya-śāstra (Heart of Abhidharma) by Dharmaśreṣṭhin;
2) the Abhidharma-hṛdaya-śāstra (Heart of Abhidharma) by Upaśānta; and
3) the Miśrak-Abhidharma-hṛdaya-śāstra
(Heart of Abhidharma with Miscellaneous Additions) by Dharmatrāta.
Composed in verse with an accompanying prose auto-commentary, these texts function as summary digests of all aspects of the teaching presented according to a logical and non- repetitive structure.
In contrast to the earlier numerically guided taxonomic lists well-suited as mnemonic aids,
these texts adopt a new method of organization, attempting to subsume the prior taxonomic lists and all discussion of specific doctrinal points under general topical sections.
This new organizational structure was to become paradigmatic for the texts of the final period of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma:
This final period in the development of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma treatises includes texts that are the products of single authors and that adopt a polemical style of exposition displaying a fully developed sectarian self-consciousness.
They also employ increasingly sophisticated methods of argumentation in order to establish the position of their own school and to refute at length the views of others.
Despite this polemical approach, they nonetheless purport to serve as well-organized expository treatises or pedagogical digests for the entirety of Buddhist teaching:
The Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of Abhidharma), including both verses (kārikā) and an auto-commentary (bhāṣya), by Vasubandhu became the most important text from this period, central to the subsequent traditions of Abhidharma studies in Tibet and East Asia:
Adopting both the verse-commentary structure and the topical organization of the Abhidharma-hṛdaya, the Abhidharmakośa presents a detailed account of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma teaching with frequent criticism of Sarvāstivāda positions in its auto-commentary.
The Abhidharmakośa provoked a response from certain Kashmiri Sarvāstivāda masters who attempted to refute non-Sarvāstivāda views presented in Vasubandhu’s work and to re-establish their own interpretation of orthodox Kashmiri Sarvāstivāda positions:
- the Nyāyānusāra-śāstra (Conformance to Correct Principle) and Abhidharma-samaya-pradīpikā (Illumination of the Collection of Abhidharma) by Saṁghabhadra
- and the Abhidharma-dīpa (Illumination of Abhidharma) by an unknown author who refers to himself as the Dīpa-kāra (author of the Dīpa)
- were the final works of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma tradition that have survived.