3. Dharmas | Vaibhashika


3. Dharmas

Dharmas and their characteristics

All Buddhist schools of Abhidharma divided up the world into "dharmas" (phenomena, factors, or "psycho-physical events"), which are the fundamental building blocks of all phenomenal experience.

Unlike the Sūtras, the Abhidharma analyses experience into these momentary psycho-physical processes.

Dharmas refer to the discrete and impermanent instances of consciousness along with their intentional objects that rapidly arise and pass away in sequential streams.

They are analogous to atoms, but are psycho-physical. Hence, all experiential events are understood as arising from the interaction of dharmas.

From the Vaibhāṣika perspective, "Abhi-dharma" refers to analysing and understanding the nature of dharmas and the wisdom (prajñā) that arises from this.

This systematic understanding of the Buddha's teaching was seen by Vaibhāṣikas as the highest expression of the Buddha's wisdom which was necessary to practice the Buddhist path. It is seen as representing the true intention of the Buddha on the level of absolute truth (paramārtha-satya).

According to the Mahāvibhāṣa, "Abhidharma is precisely the analysis of the intrinsic characteristics and common characteristics of dharmas."

For Vaibhāṣikas, dharmas are the "fundamental constituents of existence" which are discrete and real entities (dravya).

A dharma is defined as that which holds its intrinsic characteristic (sva-lakṣaṇa-dhāraṇād dharmaḥ):

The intrinsic characteristic of the dharma called rūpa, for example, is the susceptibility of being molested (rūpyate), obstructability and visibility;

that of another dharma called vedanā is sensation, etc.

And for a dharma to be a dharma, its intrinsic characteristic must be sustainable throughout time:

A rūpa remains as a rūpa irrespective of its various modalities. It can never be transformed into another different dharma (such as vedanā).

Thus, a uniquely characterizable entity is a uniquely real (in the absolute sense) entity, having a unique intrinsic nature (svabhāva):

To be existent as an absolute entity is to be existent as an intrinsic characteristic (paramārthena sat sva-lakṣaṇena sad ityarthaṛ).

This idea is seen in the Jñāna-prasthāna which states:

"dharmas are determined with respect to nature and characteristic ...

Dharmas are determined, without being co-mingled. They abide in their intrinsic natures, and do not relinquish their intrinsic natures."

According to Vaibhāṣikas, the svabhāvas of dharmas are those things that exist substantially (dravya-sat) as opposed to those things which are made up of aggregations of dharmas and thus only have a nominal existence (prajñaptisat).

This distinction is also termed the doctrine of the 2 truths,

which holds that there is a conventional truth (saṁvṛti) that refers to things which can be further analysed, divided or broken up into smaller constituents

and an ultimate truth (paramārtha) referring to that which resists any further analysis.

Thus, a dharma's intrinsic characteristic (sva-lakṣaṇa) and the very ontological existence of a dharma (i.e. svabhāva, "intrinsic nature", or dravya, "substance") is one and the same.

For the Vaibhāṣika school, this "own nature" (svabhāva) was said to be the characteristic of a dharma that persists through the 3 times (past, present and future).

Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma also describes dharmas as having "common characteristics" (sāmānya-lakṣaṇa), which applies to numerous dharmas (for example, impermanence applies to all material dharmas and all feelings, etc.).

Only the mental consciousness can cognize common characteristics of dharmas.

However, the intrinsic characteristics of a dharma have a certain kind of relativity due to the relationship between various dharmas:

For example, all rūpa (form) dharmas have the common characteristic of resistance, but this is also an intrinsic characteristic with respect to other dharmas like vedanā (feeling).

Also, various sources state that the intrinsic nature of a dharma is "weak" and that they are interdependent with other dharmas.

The Mahāvibhāṣa states that "conditioned dharmas are weak in their intrinsic nature, they can accomplish their activities only through mutual dependence" and that "they have no sovereignty (aiśvarya). They are dependent on others."

Thus, an intrinsic nature (svabhāva) arises due to dependently originated processes or relationships between various dharmas and therefore, a svabhāva is not something which is completely ontologically independent.

Classification of dharmas

Abhidharma thought can be seen as an attempt at providing a complete account of every type of experience.

Therefore an important part of Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma comprises the classification, definition and explanation of the different types of dharma as well as the analysis of conventional phenomena and how they arise from the aggregation of dharmas.

Thus there is the element of dividing up things into their constituents as well as the element of synthesis, i.e. how dharmas combine to make up conventional things.

The Vaibhāṣikas made use of classic early Buddhist doctrinal categories such as the 5 skandhas, the 12 Āyatanas (sense bases) and the "18 dhātus".

Beginning with the Pañca-vastuka of Vasumitra, the Vaibhāṣikas also adopted a 5 group classification of dharmas which outlined a total of 75 types of phenomena.

The 5 main classifications of dharmas are:

1) Rūpa (11 dharma types), refers to matter or physical phenomena/events.

2) Citta (1 type), refers to thought, intentional consciousness or the bare phenomenon of consciousness. Its main characteristic is cognizing an object.

3) Caitasikas (46 types) refers to "thought-concomitants", mental events or "associated mentality".

4) Citta-viprayukta saṁskāras (14 types) refers to "conditionings disjoined from thought" or "factors disassociated from thought":

This category is unique to Vaibhāṣika and not shared with other Abhidharma schools:

It groups together various experiential events that are not associated with thought but are also not physical.

5) Asaṁskṛta dharmas (3 types) refer to the 3 unconditioned dharmas: space and 2 nirodha (states of cessation).

Dharmas are also classified and divided into further taxonomical categories providing further aids to understanding the Buddhist view and path.

Some of the major ways that the Vaibhāṣikas classified dharmas include the following:

1) Kuśala (Skilful, wholesome or useful on the path), Akuśala (unskilful) and Avyākṛta (non-defined/non-determined):

Skilful dharmas generate desirable and good outcomes, unskilful ones are the opposite. Non-defined dharmas are neither good nor bad.

2) Saṁskṛta (conditioned, fabricated), or asaṁskṛta (unconditioned):

According to the Mahāvibhāṣa, a dharma is conditioned "if it has arising and ceasing, cause and effect, and acquires the characteristics of the conditioned."

3) Sāsrava (with āśrava, which are the "outflows" or mental impurities, a synonym for defilement) and Anāśrava (without āśrava).

4) Darśana-heya are sāsrava dharmas abandonable by vision (into the 4 noble truths), bhāvanā-heya are sāsrava dharmas abandonable by cultivation of the Buddhist path, and aheya dharmas are anāśrava dharmas that are not to be abandoned.

Rūpa (matter)

Matter is that which is "subject to deterioration or disintegration."

As Vasubandhu says, it is what "is repeatedly molested/broken" by contact.

The main way of defining matter for Vaibhāṣikas is that it has 2 main distinctive natures:

1) Resistance (sa-pratighātatva), which is the hindrance to the arising of another thing in its own location,

2) Visibility (sa-nidarśanatva), which allows one to locate matter since "it can be differently indicated as being here or being there" (Saṁghabhadra).

The primary material dharmas are the 4 Great Elements (mahābhūta, "Great Reals") —

1) Earth (pṛithivi),
2) Water (āp),
3) Fire (tejas),
4) Air (vāyu).

All other dharmas are "derived matter" (upādāya-rūpa/bhautika) which arise on the basis of the Great Realities.

The 4 Great Elements exist inseparably from one another, being co-existent causes (sahabhū-hetu) one to another.

Nevertheless, rūpa-dharmas are manifested and experienced in diverse forms because of the difference in intensity or substance of one or more of the 4 Elements.

Vaibhāṣika also had a theory of atoms. However, these atoms (paramāṇu) were not seen as eternally immutable or permanent and instead are seen as momentary:

For Vaibhāṣika, an atom is the smallest unit of matter, which cannot be cut, broken up and has no parts. They come together (without touching each other) to form aggregations or "molecules".

They held that this is "known through mental analysis."

Mind and mental factors

In Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma, the Mind is a real entity, which is referred to by 3 mostly synonymous terms:

a) Citta,
b) Manas (thinking)
c) Vijñāna (cognition),

- which are sometimes seen as different functional aspects of the mind.

Citta is the general discernment or apprehension with respect to each individual object. This discernment is the mere grasping of the object itself, without apprehending any of its particularities.

Saṁghabhadra defines it as what "grasps the characteristic of an object in a general manner.

Citta never arises by itself, it is always accompanied by certain mental factors or events (caittas or Caitasikas), which are real and distinct dharmas that make a unique contribution to the mental process.

Therefore, a moment of thought always has a specific nature and content. Cittas and caittas always arise together simultaneously in mutually dependent relationships.

The doctrine which said that these 2 always arise and operate together is called "conjunction" (saṁpra-yoga).

What conjunction meant was a disputed topic among the early masters. 

Later, it came to be accepted that for Citta and Caittas to be conjoined, the following had to be true:

1) - both must be supported by the same basis (āśraya i.e. sense organ),
2) they must have the same object (ālambana),
3) the same mode of activity (ākāra),
4) the same time (kāla),
5) the same substance (dravya).

This doctrine was repudiated by the Sautrāntika, who held that dharmas only arise successively, one after the other.

As seen in their list of dharmas, the Vaibhāṣikas classified caittas into various sub-categories based on various qualities:

For example, the first classification, the universal dharmas (mahābhūmika), are so called because they exist in all types of citta.

Then there are also universal good dharmas (kuśala mahābhūmika) and universal defilements (kleśa).

One of the major controversies in Abhidharma Buddhism dealt with the question of the original nature of Citta:

Some, like the Mahāsāṁghika, held the view that it retains an originally pure nature.

Vaibhāṣikas like Saṁghabhadra rejected this view, holding that the nature of citta can also be defiled.


Unlike other Abhidharma schools, the Vaibhāṣikas added another ultimate classification termed citta-viprayukta-saṁskāra, conditionings (forces) disjoined from thought.

These "are real entities which are neither mental nor material in nature, which yet can operate on both domains" and can be seen as laws of nature.

However, the Abhidharma works of other schools like the Śāriputra-Abhidharma also contain this category, just not as one of the main ultimate classifications.

There was never full agreement on how many dharmas are found in this category and the Sautrāntikas did not accept their reality.

Thus it was a much debated topic in Northern Abhidharma traditions.

Perhaps the most important of these conditionings are acquisition (prāpti) and non-acquisition (aprāpti).

Acquisition is a force that links a dharma to a particular serial continuity (santati/santāna), i.e., the individual.

Non-acquisition is another real entity whose function and nature are just opposed to those of acquisition: It acts to ensure that a given dharma is delinked from the individual serial continuity...

It was at a relatively later stage that acquisition came to be defined generally as the dharma that effects the relation of any dharma to a living being (santāna).

These conditionings are particularly important because, due to their theory of tri-temporal existence, acquisition is central to the Vaibhāṣika understanding of defilement and purification:

Since defilement is a real dharma that exists always (sarvadā asti); it cannot be destroyed, however it can be de-linked from an individual by disrupting the acquisition-series.

This also helps to explain how one can obtain a pure dharma such as Nirvāṇa, since it is only through acquisition that one experiences Nirvāṇa.

Another doctrinally important set of conditionings are "the 4 characteristics of the conditioned (saṁskṛta-lakṣaṇa)."

Dharmas are said to have:

1) The production-characteristic (jāti-lakṣaṇa) which allows them to arise;

2) The duration-characteristic (sthiti-lakṣaṇa) which is what enables it to temporarily remain;

3) The decay-characteristic (jarā‑lakṣaṇa) which is the force which impairs its activity so that it can no longer continue projecting another distinct effect.

4) The impermanence or disappearance characteristic (anityatā/vyaya-lakṣaṇa) which is what causes it to enter into the past.

Asaṁskṛta (the unconditioned)

Unconditioned dharmas are those which exist without being dependently co-arisen (pratītya-samutpanna), they are also not temporal or spatial.

They transcend arising and ceasing, and are real existents that possess a unique efficacy (though not a temporal causal efficacy like other dharmas).

The Vaibhāṣika School taught 3 types of Unconditioned dharmas:

1) Space (ākāśa);
2) Cessation through deliberation (prati-saṁkhyā-nirodha);
3) Cessation independent of deliberation (aprati-saṁkhyā-nirodha).

In the MVŚ, some disagreement among Sarvāstivāda masters regarding these dharmas can be seen:

Some like "the Bhadanta" (Dharmatrāta) denied the reality of space.
Meanwhile, Dārṣṭāntikas denied the ontological reality of all 3.

The cessation through deliberation refers to "the cessation of defilements acquired through the process of discriminative or deliberative effort."

There are just as many of these cessations as there are dharmas with-outflow.

Cessation independent of deliberation - "are those dharmas acquired simply on account of the deficiency in the required assemblage of conditions for the particular dharmas. They are so called because they are independent of any deliberative effort."

There are as many of these cessations are there are conditioned dharmas.

Cessation through deliberation is also the technical term for the Buddhist goal of Nirvāṇa, which is also defined as:

"a disjunction (visaṁyoga) from with-outflow dharmas acquired through the process of discrimination/deliberation (prati-saṁkhyāna) which is a specific outflow-free prajñā."

Nirvāṇa is the absolute absence of karma and the defilements, the escape from the skandhas and all Saṁsāric existence which is attained by an Arhat.