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According to the Theravada tradition, the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha.

From "The Abhidhamma in Practice" by N.K.G. Mendis:

Theravaada tradition holds that the Buddha conceived the Abhidhamma in the fourth week after his enlightenment, while still sitting in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree. Tradition also has it that he first preached the Abhidhamma to the assembly of deities in the Taavatimsa heaven; his mother, reborn as a deity, was present in the assembly. This can be taken to mean that the Buddha, by intense concentration, transcended the earth-bound mentality and rose mentally to the world of the deities, a feat made possible by his attainment of higher powers (abhiññaa) through utmost perfection in mental concentration. Having preached the Abhidhamma to the deities, he returned to earth, that is, to normal human consciousness, and preached it to the venerable Saariputta, the arahant disciple most advanced in wisdom.

However, in this YouTube video, Ajahn Brahm stated that the Theravada Abhidhamma was not taught by the Buddha and that the complexity of the Abhidhamma is not needed. He said that the Buddha's original teachings in the Pali suttas is simpler and completely sufficient.

One of the evidences he cited is as follows - only the Suttas (Dhamma) and the Vinaya were recited at the First Buddhist Council and there was no mention of the Abhidhamma.

I quote from Harvey, P (2013), "An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices" (2nd Edition), Cambridge University Press, p. 88:

Just after the Buddha’s passing away (c. 404 BCE), a 'communal recitation' (council) of 500 Arahats was held at Rājagaha (Skt Rājagraha, Vin.ii.284–7) to agree the contents of the Dhamma and Vinaya which the Buddha had left as ‘teacher’ (D.ii.154). Ānanda, the Buddha’s faithful attendant monk, recited the Suttas, such that each begins: ‘Thus have I heard’. The monk Upāli recited the Vinaya.

This wikipedia page on Theravada Abhidhamma states that according to scholars, the Theravada Abhidhamma was probably composed in 3rd century BCE, which is after the Buddha's lifetime. I also call it the Theravada Abhidhamma specifically, because there seems to be another Sarvastivada Abhidharma.

So, my question is: Was the Theravada Abhidhamma really taught by the Buddha? Or is that an exaggeration?

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    I've never seen a source claiming that abhidamma was taught by Buddha. Where did you read that? – Erik Jun 14 at 13:35
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    @Erik I have edited the question to add a source for the claim. – ruben2020 Jun 14 at 13:44
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Mendis refers to “Theravāda tradition”. His source is the introduction to the Atthasālinī, which was compiled by Buddhaghosa in about 400 AD based on earlier texts that no longer exist.

The Abhidhamma is a framework that consolidates teachings from more than 10,000 Suttas. This framework follows the Theravāda perspective. IMHO, the scholar’s view that the Abhidhamma was developed slightly after the Suttas makes sense.

Though the Abhidhamma may not be the literal word of the Buddha, it is extremely important. The commentaries, which explain the Suttas according to the Theravāda perspective are based on the Abhidhamma.

I once met a monk who had heard that I taught Abhidhamma. The monk said, “I have my own interpretation of the Suttas based on my own experience. It differs from the Abhidhamma and Commentaries.”

I replied, “Venerable Sir, I cannot say whose interpretation is correct. But if I follow your interpretation, then if I have any questions, I have only one source of reference... you. If I follow the traditional Theravāda interpretation, then I can refer to many books and many teachers.”

People who say, “I will only focus on the Suttas and ignore the Abhidhamma and Commentaries” risk misinterpreting the Buddha’s message! Unfortunately, I have seen many examples of this.

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  • By telling the monk, "if I follow your interpretation, then if I have any questions .... many books and many teachers," aren't you already claiming that your interpretation is more valid than his—albeit covertly? – Kumāra Bhikkhu Jun 19 at 5:59
  • Venerable Kumāra, I was saying that I trusted the interpretation of the elders over this monk's personal interpretation (he had his own definitions for many Pāḷi terms). I was trying to apply the "Great References" (AN 4.180) by saying that one monk's personal opinion is less reliable than the views of the elders who composed the commentaries. Of course, this is not blind faith in the commentaries. If I express an opinion that is my own, I want the person to whom I am speaking to know. I was keen to learn from this monk in areas in which he did not contradict the commentaries. – RobM Jun 19 at 9:50
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From this YouTube video entitled "The Theravada Abhidhamma with Bhikkhu Bodhi (Class #1, 5 Mar 2018)", Ven. Bodhi, the famous translator and scholar of the Pali Canon, explained the account of modern scholarship, which he accepts to be more accurate, compared to the traditional account:

That is the traditional view, but modern scholarship takes a different view. And I have to say that I agree with modern scholarship. The Abhidhamma is a body of teachings which emerged through a gradual process of evolution. ...

The word "Abhidhamma" appears in the Sutta Pitaka, the collection of discourses, but we never see in the Sutta Pitaka a statement to the effect of the Buddha teaching the Abhidhamma to the monks. We never find anything like that, but rather the word "Abhidhamma" always occurs in the context of discussions that monks are holding among themselves. To support this point, I collected a few passages.

First, he quotes from Mahāgosiṅga Sutta (MN 32):

“Reverend Sāriputta, it’s when two mendicants engage in discussion about the teaching. They question each other and answer each other’s questions without faltering, and their discussion on the teaching flows on.

“Idhāvuso sāriputta, dve bhikkhū abhidhammakathaṃ kathenti, te aññamaññaṃ pañhaṃ pucchanti, aññamaññassa pañhaṃ puṭṭhā vissajjenti, no ca saṃsādenti, dhammī ca nesaṃ kathā pavattinī hoti.

After that, he quotes other suttas, but did not mention the sutta numbers, or perhaps I missed it.

So, according to Ven. Bodhi, the Abhidhamma was taught not by the Buddha but arose out of the discussions and analyses of the monks. He suggested that Ven. Sariputta had a strong contribution towards it i.e. he probably started it, but it evolved over time.

From pages 70 - 71 of the book "The Dawn of Abhidharma" by Bhikkhu Analayo:

In the Mahāgosiṅga-sutta and its Madhyama-āgama parallel the reference to “abhidharma talk” or to discussing the “abhidharma” occurs alongside “Dharma talk” or “teaching the Dharma”. This gives the impression that the two terms Dharma and abhidharma are here interchangeable. In the Mahāgosiṅga-sutta, the prefix abhi- would thus convey the sense of “about” or “concerning” the Dharma. The passage would then describe having a talk “about the Dharma” and discussing “about the Dharma”, abhidharma.49

The notion that the prefix abhi- conveys a sense of superiority appears to reflect a later understanding of the implications of the term. In line with later understanding, the commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, the Atthasālinī, refers to the present passage in support of the authenticity of the Abhidharma-piṭaka as the Buddha’s word.50

A discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya describes a group of elder monks seated together “talking abhidharma talk”.51 In this case the Madhyama-āgama parallel does not employ the term abhidharma at all, but rather describes that these monks were “wanting to settle a matter of dispute, namely to discuss what is Dharma and Vinaya, what is the Buddha’s teaching”.52 This case would be in line with the impression that abhidharma talk can simply stand for talk about the Dharma.

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I think it depends on whether abhidhamma method rightly infers from the sutta method. If it is right then it is the teaching of the Buddha, whether Buddha himself formulated the expression, who did compile it or didn't are trivial questions in comparison.

The abhidhamma method is supposed to be different in expression but retaining the same inferable meaning as the sutta.

One can of course master the sutta method first and compare the two. This is also as i see it the only way to settle this matter of authenticity.

If one can't tell if abhidhamma is fully agreeable/correct, essentially correct, mostly correct, partly correct or entirely worthless then one probably has not mastered the expression & meaning of the sutta sufficiently to make the call. That isn't shameful imo because It is unreasonable to expect that a person should be able 'judge' from the point of view of meaning & expression all of the dhamma principles lest one is a Buddha. That being said it's imo reasonable to expect an Ariya to be able to tell if Abhidhamma is essentialy agreeable or not because Sutta say that he/she is able to discern what is rightly spoken (sarakaani sutta).

What i think is quite unforunate is people rejecting the abhidhamma method without being qualified to do so (being unable to prove fault yet making reservations). They force themselved into a position where they oppose the norm of the surviving Vibhajavadin traditions and beyond that have no allies of their own. They are aligned with others who reject Abhidhamma but that may be the extent of their alignment, thus they might find themselves on the outside and alone. In theory this might be totally natural & fine if they had grasped what no1 else could but what are the chances of that happening...

As to the lore of it's origin i don't have anything valuable to say.

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