Abhidharmakośa Synopsis

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Chomden Rigpé Raldri


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Synopsis of the Treasury of Abhidharma

by Chomden Rigpé Raldri

Homage to Mañjughoṣa!

The Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharmakośa) has eight topics.[1]

I. Elements

Of these, the first is the elements. This has five parts: 1) the homage and pledge to compose, 2) an explanation of Abhidharma, 3) a statement concerning the necessity of explaining these points, 4) a brief statement of the topics to be explained, and 5) a detailed explanation.

In the explanation itself, there are two main sections: the unconditioned and conditioned. The conditioned has four parts: 1) explanation by means of names, 2) identification of essences, 3) presentation, and 4) divisions of the elements.

The identification of essences has two subdivisions: 1) explanation of each of the five aggregates, and 2) how they relate to the elements and sources.

The presentation has four subdivisions: 1) summary, 2) literal definition, 3) set number and so on, and 4) how other named categories such as the [Dharma] sections are included here.

The explanation of the divisions of the elements has several subsections, from the demonstrable and non-demonstrable through to the faculties and non-faculties.

II. Faculties

The teaching on the faculties has four parts: 1) an explanation of the faculties, 2) how conditioned phenomena arise, 3) an explanation of their causes and so on, and 4) the categories of the mind.

The explanation of the faculties has six subdivisions: 1) their nature, 2) their types, 3) their acquisition, 4) their relinquishment, 5) how they are obtained, and 6) how they are possessed.

How conditioned phenomena arise has three subdivisions: 1) how the physical arises, 2) how the mind and mental states arise, and 3) an explanation of conditioned factors not associated with mind.

The discussion of mind and mental states includes: 1) an explanation of each, and 2) an explanation of various points such as how they arise in particular realms.

The discussion of the non-associated factors includes: 1) an overview and 2) an explanation of each factor.

The explanation of causes and so on has three subdivisions: 1) an explanation of causes, 2) an explanation of results, and 3) an explanation of conditions.

The explanation of categories of the mind has three subdivisions: 1) an explanation of the twelve minds, 2) an explanation of the twenty, and 3) how the twelve are acquired.

III. Cosmology: Inhabitants and Habitat

The explanation of the inhabitants has five parts: 1) direct and indirect explanations of the types of sentient being, 2) the types of genesis, 3) their actual attributes, 4) intermediate existence by means of the two ways of entering the womb, and 5) the wheel of existence and how death and transmigration occur.

The explanation of the wheel of existence has five subdivisions: 1) the nature of dependent origination, 2) an explanation of ignorance and the rest individually, 3) illustrative examples, 4) the nature of existence, and 5) sustaining foods.

The habitative cosmos has three parts: 1) how it is formed, 2) how it abides, and 3) how it is destroyed.

How it is formed has two subdivisions: 1) the formation of the underlying base, and 2) the formation of the domains above.

How it abides has five subdivisions: 1) how the lower realms and heavens abide, 2) the extent of the threefold universe, 3) the scale of beings’ bodies, 4) their lifespans, 5) the units of measurement for these two, and 6) types of aeon. The latter has two subdivisions: 1) the actual topic, and 2) how buddhas appear therein, etc.

IV. Karma

This explanation has three main sections: 1) a summary, 2) a detailed explanation, and 3) an additional explanation based on terminology and so on.

The detailed explanation has three parts: 1) an explanation of perceptible karma, 2) an explanation of the imperceptible, and 3) some categories of karma taught in the sūtras.

The imperceptible has four subdivisions: 1) its materiality as form, 2) an explanation of the causes of actions and states and so on,[2] 3) types of imperceptible action, and 4) an extensive explanation of vows. The latter has seven further subdivisions: 1) an explanation based on the essence of vows, 2) how vows are obtained, 3) how negative commitments are obtained, 4) how vows are relinquished, 5) how negative commitments are relinquished, 6) how neutral commitments and so on are relinquished, 7) an explanation of the supports for vows and negative commitments.

The explanation of some categories of karma has seven subdivisions: 1) threefold categories, 2) the categories of corrupt action and white and black actions and so on, 3) tenfold categories, 4) wrong livelihood and its results, 5) the three obscurations, 6) how buddhas accumulate merit, and 7) the three bases of merit.

The explanation of the threefold categories is further divided into: 1) actual topic and 2) several further categories such as the experienced.

The explanation of the tenfold is further divided into: 1) an explanation of their nature, cause and so on, 2) the essence of the ten non-virtuous actions, and 3) how they have potential force.

The explanation of the three obscurations is further divided into: 1) the essence of the three, 2) the boundless crimes, and 3) the nearly boundless crimes.

V. Negative Tendencies

The teaching on negative tendencies has three parts: 1) the nature of the afflictions, 2) how they are overcome, and 3) the wisdom that overcomes them.

The first of these has six subdivisions: 1) explanation of the categories of negative tendency, 2) an explanation of the universal and non-universal, 3) an explanation of their focus and development, 4) sources and how they are possessed, 5) the substantiality of the three times, 6) some further attributes of the negative tendencies. The latter has five further subdivisions: 1) an explanation of abandonment and extension, 2) an explanation of the stages of engagement and their causes, 3) an explanation of variety and literal meanings, 4) an explanation of the bonds[3] and the subsidiary afflictions, and 5) the five obscurations.

VI. Paths and Individuals

This has three main sections: 1) an explanation of the truths, which are the objects of focus, 2) an explanation of the stages in which they are realised, and 3) an explanation of the path that brings realisation.

The middle section includes the realisation of ordinary beings and exalted beings (ārya). The first has two subdivisions: 1) how to practice meditative absorption preceded by study and reflection, 2) how to cultivate wisdom through attaining meditative absorption. There are four subdivisions to the path of the exalted: 1) the sudden attainment of those who have entered the fruition, 2) an explanation of gradual attainment, 3) an explanation of the possible forms of fruition, and 4) an explanation of some further distinctive characteristics. This latter point has two further subdivisions: 1) an explanation of the four kinds of fruition and how they are attained, and 2) how they degenerate and are perfected and so on.

The third section, an explanation of the path that brings realisation, has three parts: 1) a general explanation of the path, 2) an explanation of the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment, and 3) an explanation of how obscurations are overcome.

VII. Wisdom

This has two main sections: 1) an explanation of the nature of the knowledges, and 2) an explanation of the qualities of knowledge.

The first has three parts: 1) an explanation of acceptance and knowledge and various qualities of view, 2) a summary of the application of mindfulness, and 3) how one possesses and acquires knowledge.

The explanation of the qualities of knowledge has three parts: 1) an explanation of what is exclusive to the buddha, 2) an explanation of what is shared with śrāvakas, and 3) an explanation of what is shared with ordinary beings.

VIII. Meditative Absorption

This has four main sections: 1) a presentation of the concentrations (dhyāna) and formless absorptions, 2) an explanation of their qualities and attributes, 3) explaining the nature of the teaching and requesting the acceptance for faults, and 4) concluding advice to disciples who seek liberation.

The first has two parts: 1) the actual topic, and 2) an explanation of several features such as how they are attained.

The section on the qualities has two parts: 1) an explanation of the immeasurables, and 2) an explanation of the eight forms of release and so on.

Wishing to gain knowledge
Of all the topics of Abhidharma,
Chomden Raldri set down this
Abhidharma synopsis at glorious Tangchen.[4]


| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2020.


Edition Used

bCom ldan rig pa'i ral gri . gSung 'bum/_bcom ldan rig pa'i ral gri. TBRC W00EGS1017426. 10 vols. [Lha sa]: [Khams sprul bsod nams don grub], [2006].

Secondary Sources

Chim Jampaiyang. Ornament of Abhidharma: A Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa. (trans. Ian James Coghlan). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2019

Gold, Jonathan C. Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Vasubandhu. Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣyam. Trans. L. M. Pruden (from Louis de la Vallée Poussin's French translation). 4 vols. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

  1. Reading mdo as mdzod.  ↩

  2. It is unclear whether these are to be read as separate divisions, in which case there would be five subdivisions here in total (not four).  ↩

  3. reading ‘chi ba as ‘ching ba.  ↩

  4. i.e., Tangpoche Monastery.  ↩

  5. This Sanskrit expression means: ‘It is complete.’  ↩

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