The Eight Chapters of the Abhidharmakosha

Nobody abides in a discipline that is not disciplined towards all other sentient beings: it is through a good thinking aiming at all sentient beings that one acquires disicpline.
La Vallée Poussin
L’Abbhidharma de Vasubandhu

The Eight Chapters of the Abhidharmakosha

The Abidharmakosha is comprised of eight chapters:

  1. khams: the elements that constitute the three realms
  2. dbang po: the sense faculties
  3. 'jig rten: the world, how it appears and develops
  4. las: karma
  5. nyon mongs: emotional afflictions and mental veils
  6. lam dang gang zag: the path and the practitioner
  7. ye shes: wisdom
  8. snyom 'jug: the description of different states of meditative absorption

Bhavacakra Thikse
Suffering, its origin, its cessation and the path out of it are the main subject of  the eight chapters of the Abhidharmakosha:

Chapters 1 and 2 give a general explanation about samsara and nirvana. They are an introduction to understanding how samsara functions.
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 explain contaminated phenomena in detail.
Chapters 6,7 and 8 describe non contaminated phenomena.




Chapter 1: the elements (skt: dhatu; tib: khams)

The classification of phenomena into 18 elements, or dhatus, includes everything that is considered to be an object of knowledge. Dhatu means "basis" or "potential" or "seed of all things", or "element containing the potential for a relationship of cause and effect".

This chapter defines samsara. Understanding the nature of samsara leads to renunciation.
The first chapter describes the object to be analyzed, the second describes the subjet: the sense faculties.


Chapter 2: the sense faculties (skt: indriya; tib; tib: dbang po)

This chapter concerns the five sense faculties (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and feeling) and the mental faculty.
A detailed explanation of how perception functions leads to an understanding of how our perception of phenomena is flawed.
These two chapters are the basis for distinguishing between samsara and nirvana. This basis will allow us to understand samsara and its origin.


Chapter 3: the world (skt: lokaprajnapti, tib: 'jig rten)

This chapter is concerned with the truth of suffering. Samsara is the result of mental obscurations and karma. The world is the basis of suffering in samsara.
In brief, in Buddhist cosmology the world is comprised of three levels of existence, called the "three realms":

  • The formless realm and the form realm

Here we deal with realms of pure meditative absorption, beginning with the highest: "the formless realm", then "the form realm". Beings belonging to these spheres of existence are not endowed with a physical body, per se, but dwell in a state of total meditation.

  • The desire realm

It is itself divided  into six sub-realms: gods, titans, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells.
These three realms in which beings live are named "the outer world" whereas the beings inhabited it are called "the inner world".
This chapter also describes how worlds are formed through the elements and the different ways beings can be reborn through birth from a womb, an egg or other channels.

  • Rebirth in the three realms

Beings who are between two lives are driven by karma to take rebirth. The text describes the process undergone in the intermediate state (tib: bar do). Beings are reborn according to their karma and level of awareness:

The being who has little merit enters because he thinks: "the wind is blowing, the sky is raining, it is cold, it is stormy, people are making a lot of noise" and because he thinks that he can avoid problems in this way, he thinks he is entering into a retreat place, a shelter, or leaf hut, or he takes cover at the base of a tree or against a wall [...].

In the same way, the being who has much merit believes he is entering into a park, a garden, a pagoda, a pavilion; he thinks he can dwell there and then depart [...].

The being who is fully aware knows that he is entering into a womb, that he resides there and then exits it.

La Vallée Poussin : in L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. Chapter 3


Chapter 4: How karma works

This chapter explains the functioning of karma (tib: las) which is the cause of suffering.
Through analytical reasoning, the l'Abhidharmakosha also refutes certain viewpoints, such as the existence of a creator of the universe, etc.
The origin of karma is mental obscurations.

Who creates the variety of living beings in the world and the vessel - the world itself - that were described in the previous chapter?
No god used his intelligence to create them; the variety within the world is born from karma. The variety of the world is born from the actions of living beings.

La Vallée Poussin : L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. Chapter 4

In order to help beings cultivate actions which lead to happiness and liberation, the Buddha taught ethical discipline:

No one who abides by discipline can be undisciplined towards any being; it is through positive thoughts having all beings as their object that discipline is acquired.

La Vallée Poussin : L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. Chapter 4


Chapter 5: Mental obscurations (skt: klesha, tib: nyon mongs)

  • Mental events and latent tendencies

To describe the emotional functioning of mind, it is said that there are 84 000 mental occurrences that can be summed up into 51. The total of mental events is called "karmic formations or latent tendencies" (skt: samskara, tib: 'du byed).
"They condition that which is conditioned" using the Abhidharmakosha's phraseology. Karmic formations based on past karma determine our future karma.
Our experience of the world is nothing other than a vision inherited from past lives, conditioned by karma and habitual tendencies.

How many emotional influences are there?
Six: attachment, and thereby hostility, pride, birth, false views and doubts.
The word "thereby" shows that because of attachment the other five settle into their object.

La Vallée Poussin : L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. Chapter 4

  • Mental obscurations

Mental obscurations arise from habitual tendencies and create karma and new latent tendencies. They are samsara's common denominator. Suffering is based on them.


Chapters 6, 7 and 8 of the Abhidharmakosha

Now that the origin and nature of samsara's suffering have been identified, and its causes and effects have been understood, all that is left to do is learn how to leave it all behind. This is the focus of chapters 6, 7 and 8.

Ceux qui ont plaisir dans les qualités d’autrui cultivent aisément et rapidement la bienveillance, non pas ceux qui ont plaisir à découvrir les défauts d’autrui.
La Vallée Poussin


Chapter 6: Practitioners and the result of the path: the cessation of suffering

The path and its practitioners

(Tib: lam dang gang zag = lam path, and gang zag = person, practitioner).
The practitioner and the path are the two objects of purification.
This chapter provides a description of realized beings and an explanation of the different degrees of realization according to the four states of noble beings. These are defined as "the stream enterers", "once returner", "non returners" and arhats or victorious ones. People who have attained these different states are liberated from samsara.
The path, or methods taught by the Buddha, is the antidote to suffering. The Abhidharmakosha provides different meditation methods that focus, for example, on body posture, on how to settle one's mind on the breath, etc. These methods lead to the cessation of strong emotions.

Settle the thoughts on inhaling and exhaling without effort or constraint; leave the body and the mind as it is; using only the memory count from one to ten.

La Vallée Poussin: L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. Chapter 6


Chapter 7: Wisdom

The path toward liberation from suffering is none other than the quality of wisdom (Skt: jnyana; Tib: ye shes).
Wisdom is developed in stages. It is expressed through different kinds of knowledge and specific abilities until the practitioner reaches the state of an arhat. The qualities of wisdom acquired by beings on the path to Buddhahood are described here in detail.

The Buddha himself expressed it through these words: "If someone plants a small root of virtue in the field of merit of the Buddhas, he will have an excellent destiny at first and attain Nirvana thereafter.»

La Vallée Poussin : L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu.
Chapter 7

Chapters 6 and 7 have given a general explanation of nirvana. The stages of purification will now be described.

Chapter 8: States of meditative absorption

This is a description of the different states of concentration named "the four dhyanas". On the basis of meditative concentration, a state of equipoise is attained. The practice of shamatha (Tib: zhi gnas) gives one-pointed stability and calmness to the mind. Once this pacification has been attained, vipashyana meditation (Tib: lhag mthong) reveals the quality of wisdom.
The different stages of meditative concentration and their characteristics are developed in this chapter.

These various forms of concentration aim at pacifying the mind and reducing the strength of emotional afflictions and suffering. Through this purification, the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity mature in the mindstream.

Those who rejoice in the qualities of others cultivate lovingkindness quickly and easily, as opposed to those who enjoy discerning others' shortcomings.

Abhidharmakosa : op. cit. Chapitre 8

"The five subjects" of the Abhidharmakosha

The five bases of knowledge (Tib: gzhi lnga) are a classification of phenomena according to the Vaibhashika School. The Abhidharmakosha is explained through them.

  1. snang ba gzugs kyi gzhi: The first point concerns form; it describes how forms appear.
  2. gtso bo sems kyi gzhi: The second is about the principal mind, comprised of the six consciousnesses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, tactile sensations and the mental consciousness.
  3. 'khor sems byung gi gzhi: Mental events are the reactions that follow initial perception and give rise to volition based on habitual tendencies.
    The second and third points are the source of samsara; karma is based on them, as is the emotional component of the mind which is perpetuated through various forms of conditioning.
    These three points together form the basis of dualistic clinging, e.g. perception of a subject and an object.
  4. ldan min 'du byed kyi gzhi: This group includes that which neither belongs to the sphere of mind nor to the mental events, for example impermanence, life, death, etc.
  5. 'dus ma byas pa'i gzhi: cessation due to discrimination, cessation not due to discrimination, and space.

The first four points concern that which is conditioned, impure or contaminated by suffering (Tib: zag bcas). The fifth refers to that which is not conditioned, pure (Tib: zag med).

These are the principal subjects of the Abhidharmakosha.