abhidharma ［阿毘達磨］ (; Pali abhidhamma; abidatsuma): Doctrinal treatise and commentary. One of the three divisions of the Buddhist canon, the other two being sutras and vinaya (rules of monastic discipline). Dharma means the Law or the Buddha’s teachings, and abhi literally means to, toward, or upon. Abhidharma means “upon the Law” and refers to commentaries on the Law, that is, doctrinal studies of the Buddha’s teachings, or the sutras. Between the fourth and the first centuries b.c.e., schisms arose repeatedly within the Buddhist Order, resulting in the formation of twenty schools. Many of those schools worked out their own doctrinal systematizations of the sutras, and these were included in the abhidharma.
The Sarvāstivāda school, the most influential of the Hinayana schools, produced a number of abhidharma works. Among these, The Treatise on the Source of Wisdom, written by Kātyāyanīputra in the second century b.c.e., contributed greatly to the development of Sarvāstivāda thought and formed the basis for further studies. Some two hundred years later, a voluminous commentary on The Treatise on the Source of Wisdom called The Great Commentary on the Abhidharma was completed. The Dharma Analysis Treasury, by Vasubandhu (fourth or fifth century), is often regarded as the pinnacle of abhidharma literature because it explains the contents of the above two works, reexamines traditional Sarvāstivāda doctrines, and cites the studies of a number of other schools; it is therefore an invaluable reference for the study of the abhidharma in general. Very few Sanskrit abhidharma manuscripts are extant; most are known through their Chinese translations. The present Theravāda school of Southern Buddhism has a collection of seven Pali works that comprise the abhidharma of this school.