The Three-fold Basket

“The Three-fold Basket” is the name given to the collection of teachings made up of the Sutrapitaka (Pali: Suttapitaka): “the basket of the Sutras”, the Vinayapitaka: “the Basket of the Vinaya” and l'Abhidharmapitaka (Pali: Abhidhammapitaka): “the Basket of the Higher Knowledge of Phenomena”.

“What is knowledge?
It is the perfect understanding
of the nature of things.”
Asanga, Abhidarmasamuccaya

Bouddha Shakyamuni Bodhgaya







These three baskets emphasize respectively the three trainings which enable to reach enlightenment: ethic and discipline, meditation and higher knowledge.

Literally, Abhidharma means “higher Dharma”, where “dharma” can mean both doctrine and phenomena. It is the third of the three baskets that were assembled by the disciples of the Buddha and makes up the training in higher knowledge.

The Abhidharma is a unique feature of Buddhism. By mapping out the training in higher knowledge, it leads one to an understanding of both sutras and tantras.

According to tradition, Mahakasyapa, one of the close disciples of the Buddha, recited the Abhidharma during the first council in Rajgir. It actually is a systematization of the teaching of the Buddha. Free of all surrounding narration, it presents phenomena in a clear and detailed way.

The Abhidharma, an analysis of phenomena:
  • The Structures of the cosmos, (for example the three realms: the desire realm made up of 6 levels of existence, the form realm and formless realm)
  • The workings of mind and its knowing capacities, (for example the law of karma, cause and effect...)
  • The dependant origination that links mind and the manifestation.

One can make a distinction between the Abhidharma Sutra (coming from the discourses of the Buddha), and the Abhidharma Shastra (commentaries on the sutras).

The Abhidharma has been the source of the Buddhist philosophy throughout all schools and periods.

The seven great treatises from the Abhidharmapitaka
  • The Dhammasangani, a catalogue of the phenomena that make up the universe;
  • he Vibhanga, made up of 18 sections on the categorisations of phenomena, such as the skandhas, dhatus, ayatanas etc.;
  • The Kathavatthu by Mogalliputta Tissa, authored during the reign of Emperor Ashoka to refute wrong views;
  • The Puggalapannati, a “description of (human) characters”;
  • The Dhatukatha, a short catalogue;
  • The Yamaka, the “Pairs”;
  • The Patthana, that expounds the causal relationships between phenomena.

The Abhidharma is not a mere cosmological listing and cannot be reduced to a catalogue that describes the different types of consciousness and mental events.

The Abhidharmapitaka contains methods of investigation of mind and phenomena. The various reasonings are expounded in the first and last books, i.e. the Dhammasangani and Patthana.

We use the analytical method to break things up what appears to be a single unique thing into its component parts; then we use the synthetic or relational method to show that these component parts do not exist independently and separately but depend on other factors for their existence.

The goal of analysis is to uproot attachment to internal phenomena (the notion of a self, various mental events...) and external phenomena (things other than the self, the outer world); this is done by seeing that all phenomena are compounded.

To reach an understanding of ultimate reality, we need to combine the analytical approach with the synthetic approach: all phenomena, by nature, depend on each others and have no inherent nor substancial existence. They appear through the workings of cause and effect.

The Abhidharma leads to a higher knowledge of mind, which enables one to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. The definition of the Sanskrit words kusala/akusala literally is “what tends toward cure” (kusala, wholesome), and “what tends toward perpetuation of suffering” (akusala, unwholesome).

To know and control these various states of mind allow one to create causes for happiness, and reach the state of an arhat. One also learns to recognize states of mind based on passion, aggression and ignorance as causes of suffering and alienation.