Dharma in Abhidharma Buddhism

Author:  Nicholaos Jones
Category: Historical Philosophy, Metaphysics, Buddhist Philosophy
Word Count: 991

Abhidharma is a scholastic tradition of Buddhism, arising in India during the 3rd century BCE, directed toward systematizing discourses written during the first few centuries of Buddhism. Those early discourses tend to analyze the objects of our experience – physical things and mental events – into simpler constituents. For example, the Skandha Sutra (Discourse on the Aggregates) analyzes persons into five aggregates (skandhas): physical matter (rupa), sensation (vedana), recognition (samjna), mental disposition (samskara), and discernment (vinnana).

The early analyses are partial, each focusing on only some aspects of the objects we experience. A central project of Abhidharma Buddhism is refining these early analyses into a comprehensive taxonomy of object categories, the members of which resist further analysis into component parts. These are dharmas, named from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning that which sustains, supports, upholds, maintains. This entry reviews the Abhidharma understanding of dharmas by examining what they are, what properties they have, and how they compare to substances and properties.

1. Examples of Dharmas

Sarvastivada and Theravada are the two central branches of Abhidharma. Sarvastivadins divide dharmas into 75 categories; Theravadins, into anywhere between 82 and 17,280 categories. For example, Theravadins typically analyze physical matter such as mud and blood into four great elements (mahabhuta):

earth (prithivi), with the character of solidity and the function of support;

water (apa), with the character of humidity and the function of cohesion;

fire (usnata), with the character of heat and the function of maturation;

air (vayu), with the character of mobility and the function of extension.

Sarvastivadins implicitly include these elements as emission sources for sensory object (alambana) dharmas such as taste (rasa) and texture (sprastavya). Sarvastivadins pair these objects with sensory faculty (indriya) dharmas such as tongue (jihva) and touch (kaya) that receive emissions of the appropriate kind.

2. Constraints on Dharmas

These examples should render intelligible some of the central theoretical claims about dharmas from the Abhidharma tradition. There are two constraints for identifying dharmas.

Each dharma belongs to exactly one fundamental category.

Tastes are not textures and earth is not water. This constraint rules out the possibility of a solid and wet mud dharma belonging to the categories of earth and water. It also encourages an explanation-seeking question: By virtue of what does any particular dharma belong to one category rather than another? The answer provides a second constraint:

There is a characteristic (laksana) intrinsic to each dharma, by virtue of which the dharma belongs to exactly one fundamental category.

Earth’s characteristic is solidity: all and only earth dharmas are solid. Water’s characteristic is humidity: all and only water dharmas are wet.

3. Definitions of Dharma

According to Abhidharma,

For every dharma, there is a svabhava.

Sva- means intrinsic; bhava refers to existing as a particular individual with a particular identity. Saying that each dharma is svabhava means that each dharma is a particular individual existing with a particular identity by virtue of characteristics intrinsic to itself. Whence:

Definition: Dharma is that which bears svabhava.

This is provisional. The grammar connotes that dharma is one thing, its svabhava something separate that is owned by the dharma—in the way that a suitcase bears luggage. But dharma is not distinct from svabhava. A suitcase can lose its luggage, but a dharma and its svabhava are inseparable. Whence:

Each dharma is unalterable in its identity (aviparita-bhava).

Unalterability means that anything with a different svabhava would be a different dharma, rather than the same dharma in a different state. This distinguishes dharmas from substances (dharmins) which persist through change. When Buddhists say that dharmas are insubstantial, they mean that dharmas cannot survive change, not that dharmas fail to exist.

Abhidharma tradition balances the preceding definition against another:

Definition: Dharma is that which is borne by others.

This is also provisional because the grammar misleadingly connotes that dharmas are properties (gunas) of a substance.

4. Middle Way

There is a tension between the definitions. Unless svabhava somehow depends upon others, being borne by others precludes dharmas from bearing anything of their own. One of Abhidharma’s fundamental insights concerns how to achieve a middle way between conceptualizing dharmas as substances or as properties.

Each svabhava corresponds to an intrinsic power (sakti).

Earth’s svabhava, solidity, corresponds to the power to support: solidity is supporting. Water’s svabhava, humidity, corresponds to the power of cohesion: humidity is sticking together into a unity.

Just as no dharma is separate from its svabhava, no svabhava is separate from its power. So each power has a svabhava, and each dharma has a power distinctive of its kind. Because existing dharmas are manifest to us through observation, their powers must be as well. Powers are manifest to us only when enacted. Whence:

Each dharma is an activity.

So dharmas are svabhava qua substance, activities qua function.

Being an activity means doing something, making something happen—being a cause. But causes are causes only by virtue of producing results. According to the Buddhist teaching of dependent arising (pratitya-samutpada), causes produce their effects only with the cooperation of distinct conditions. Whence:

Dharmas always arise as clustered together in dependence upon each other.

A single, solitary dharma would not receive assistance from others, thereby failing to enact its activity. Nor would it contribute assistance to others. So it would neither bear its svabhava nor be borne by others.

5. Conclusion: The Significance of Dharmas

Abhidharma analyzes the world we experience into a multiplicity of dharmas, depending upon and interacting with each other to produce the dazzling array of our experiences. So, for example, a moment of conscious tactile discernment arises when a touch faculty receives texture from something touchable.

Abhidharmic analysis has a twofold soteriological purpose. Insofar as our desires to acquire objects are not desires to acquire the dharmas constituting those objects, analysis helps to forestall craving those objects. Since those objects arise as confluences of fleeting activities, analysis also helps to reinforce the impossibility of preserving the objects that help to satisfy our desires. This forestalls attachment to those objects.


 The list below includes every Sanskrit term mentioned in this article, followed by its Pali equivalent in brackets (when available and different from the Sanskrit) and common English translations.

Abhidharma [Abhidhamma]: the higher teaching (of Buddhism)

alambana [arammana]: objective support, sensory object

apa [ap]: liquid, water (a mahabhuta)

aviparita: irreversible, unalterable

dharma [dhamma]: elemental factor, phenomenon; doctrine, teaching

dharmin: substance

guna: property, quality

indriya: faculty, predominant condition

jihva: tongue (one of several indriya)

kaya: touch (one of several indriya)

laksana [lakkhana]: characteristic, mark

mahabhuta: great element

prithivi [pathavi]: earth (a mahabhuta)

pratitya-samutpada [paticca-samuppada]: dependent arising, dependent origination

rasa: flavor, taste (one of several alambana )

rupa: form, physical matter (a skandha)

sakti [shakti]: energy, force, power

samjna [sanna]: perception, recognition (a skandha)

samskara [sankhara]: mental disposition, mental formation (a skandha)

Sarvastivada [Sabbathavada]: a major branch of Abhidharma

skandha [khandha]: aggregate, heap

sprastavya [photthabba]: tangible, texture (one of several alambana )

sutra [sutta]: religious discourse

svabhava [sabhava]: inherent nature, intrinsic nature

teja [usnata]: fire (a mahabhuta)

Theravada: a major branch of Abhidharma

vayu [vayu]: air, wind (a mahabhuta)

vijnana [vinnana]: consciousness, discernment (a skandha)

vedana: feeling, sensation (a skandha)


Buswell, Jr., Robert E. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification, trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2011), especially Part III, Chapter 14.

Karunadasa, Y., The Dhamma Theory: Philosophical Cornerstone of the Abhidhamma (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1996).

Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2005), Chapter 2, 34-85.

Siderits, Mark, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 111-123.

About the Author

Nick is a professor of philosophy at The University of Alabama in Huntsville. His research focuses on Buddhist metaphysics and (separately) philosophy of systems biology. He has published in Philosophy East and West, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, British Journal for Philosophy of Science, and Erkenntnis, among others. http://www.uah.edu/njones/


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