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Karma in Abhidharma Philosophy


 AS – Abhidharmasamuccaya
 ASBh – Abhidharmasamuccayabāṣya
 AK – Abhidharmakośa
 AKBh – Abhidharmakośabhāṣya
 KSP – Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa

In the first century following the Buddha’s death, the Buddha’s teachings were compiled into
a sūtra-piṭaka and the monastic rules into the vinaya-piṭaka. As Buddhism split into various
schools, different collections of these piṭakas emerged due to extensions and modifications to
these texts. The Abhidharma literary genre arose in this period of sectarian fragmentation. It
“provided the means by which the position of one group could be defined and defended
against the divergent interpretations and criticisms of others” (Cox, 1998). On the one hand,
the Abhidharma texts systematized and theorized the diverse and unstructured sūtra material,
on the other, their codification of meaning restricted the flexibility of its interpretation. Cox
and Pruden refer to two theories regarding the origins of Abhidharma: the one, commonly
accepted by Western scholars, being the mātṛkas in the sūtra and vinaya texts, which are lists
of technical terms used by the Buddha, the other, current among Japanese scholars, being the
abhidharmakathā, discussions or debates on dharma.

After alluding to the conflict between the interpretation of “abhi” as “highest” or “further” by
some scholars, and “with regard to” by others, and of “dharma” as “teaching” by some and
“doctrine” by others, and the twenty-four interpretations of the term “abhidharma” in the
Mahāvibhāṣā, Cox concludes that “the term ‘Abhidharma’ thus seems to mean ‘the study of
the dharma,’ the term ‘dharma’ referring to the doctrines preached by the Buddha (it may also
refer to the truths revealed by those teachings)” (Cox, 1998). The Abhidharmakośa (AK 1.2)
defines abhidharma as “pure prajñā with its following.” The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya
(AKBh) explicates “prajñā” as “discernment of the dharmas” and the “following” as the five
pure skandhas which coexist with prajñā. Abhidharma also refers to the śāstra (treatise) that
deals with abhidharma as its subject. The AKBh defines dharma as “that which bears unique

The abhidharma-piṭaka of the Theravāda tradition of Pāli Buddhism consists of seven books
whereas that of the Sarvāstivādins consists of six works which "went to make up the
Jñānaprasthāna, the Jñānaprasthāna gave rise to the Mahāvibhāṣā, and this work in turn gave
rise to later compilations of doctrine" (Pruden, 1990). Of this the most important text is the
AK (and AKBh) by Vasubandhu who lived in the 5th or 6th centuries CE. Vasubandhu
elaborates in them the Abhidharma doctrine from the Sautrāntika point of view, defending it
against the other schools, namely, the Vaibhāśikas, Sammitiyas, Vatsīputrīyas and
Dārṣṭāntikas. The Theravādins and Sarvastivādins are classified together as Hinayāna and
contrasted against the Mahāyāna school which had their own Abhidharma (Walpola, 1970).
The two most important texts of Mahāyāna Abhidharma include the
Mahāprajñāpāramitasāstra by Nāgārjuna of the Madhyamaka school, and the
Yogācārabhūmiśāstra by Asaṅga of the Yogācāra school. Asaṅga was also Vasubandhu’s
brother and the author of the Abhidharmasamuccaya (AS).

This essay deals with the treatment of karma in the Abhidharma philosophy with special
emphasis on the AS and AK. In the absence of a substantial self, karma occupies great
significance in the Buddhist worldview. Thus, the AS (60.23) teaches that karman divides
beings into high and low, small and great. Beings possess:

 karmasvakāḥ (karman as their own) because experience is the fruition of actions that
are committed by oneself.
 karmadāyādāḥ (karman as their inheritance) because wholesome and unwholesome
actions are the inheritance of the aforementioned experience and vice versa.
 karmayonīyāḥ (karman as their source) because their original arising is from karman
that is different from causelessness (ahetu) or causes such as the prakṛti (materiality)
or īśvara (God).
 karmapratisaraṇāḥ (karman as their refuge) because they seek refuge in the karman
without defilements (anāsrava-karman) that liberates and is opposed to the karman
with defilements (āsrava-karman) that binds.

Likewise, the AK (4.1) explains the diversity of the world as having arisen from action.

In the Abhidharma philosophy, karman is understood fundamentally in terms of two kinds of

classifications: firstly, cetanā-karman (volitional action) and cetayitvā-karman (action having
willed); secondly, manas-karman (mental action), vāk-karman (vocal action) and kāya-
karman (bodily action). In relation to the five skandhas (aggregate), cetanā also occurs as the
"saṃskāra par excellence" of the saṃskāra-skandha (Verdu, 1984). The Theravādin school
viewed all karman as essentially cetanā so that mental acts are pure cetanā while bodily and
vocal acts are cetanā that put the body and voice in motion. This agrees with the sūtra:
"cetanāhaṃ bhikkave kammaṃ vadāmi cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācayā manasā" (O
monks! I say that action is volition. Having willed one performs action by the body, the voice
and the mind) [Aṅguttaranikāya iii.415].

The Sarvāstivādins, however, argued that only mental acts are cetanā while bodily and vocal
acts arise from cetanā but are different from it. The AK (4.1) defines karman as cetanā and
tat-kṛtam (what is accomplished by that i.e., by cetanā). The AKBh specifically glosses tat-
kṛtam as the equivalent of cetayitvā as found in the sūtra passages. The AK, although closer
to the Sautrāntika view, articulates a Sarvāstivāda position as far as it clearly separates the
two, cetanā and manas-karman, on the one hand, cetayitvā and kāya-vāk-karman, on the
other: "cetanā mānasam karma tajjam vāk-kāya-karmaṇī" (volition is a mental act, produced
from it are vocal and bodily acts). And the AKBh elaborates: "cetanā manaskarma iti
veditavyam" (it should be understood that volition is a mental act) and "yac-cetanā-janitaṃ
cetayitvā karmetyuktaṃ kāyavāk-karmaṇī te veditavye" (what is produced by volition and
what has been declared as action-having-willed, that should be understood as bodily and
vocal actions).
The AS position on this debate is ambigious as it agrees with the AK in regarding cetanā-
karman as manas-karman and with the early canon in explicating cetayitvā-karman as kāya-
karman, vāk-karman and manas-karman. Specifically, the AS defines cetanā-karman as
"citta-abhisaṃskāra manas-karma" (AS, 53.6). Following Edgerton’s translation of saṃskara
as "predispositions, the effect of past deeds and experience as conditioning a new state" and
"conditionings, conditioned states", the term citta-abhisaṃskāra can be interpreted as the
accumulation of karmic potentials in the mind. Also saṃskāras are classified generally in
Buddhist philosophy as caitasika (or citta-saṃprayukta) and acaitasika (or citta-viprayukta)
depending on whether they are connected with the mind (Verdu, 1984). The caitasika
saṃskāras are further classified into citta-abhisaṃkaraṇa and citta-abhisaṃskṛta saṃskāras.
The former are directed by the mind who is their active subject while the latter direct the
mind as their passive object. Interestingly, Vasubandhu explicates the difference between
manas and citta as follows: "manas ... is actively mindful (manute) and citta ... accumulates
(cinoti) both goodness and evil" (Verdu, 1984). In other words, the mind performs two
functions – as manas it produces volitions that result in actions and as citta it collects the
traces left behind by the performed actions. We can use this idea to resolve the ambiguity in
the AS with regards to manas-karma. As conscious mental activity, manas-karma is cetayitvā
and as the subliminal mental impressions which appear in consciousness as volition it is

As explained above, the Sarvāstivādins distinguished bodily and vocal actions from mental
actions which are purely volitional in nature. In that case, what is the nature of the bodily and
vocal actions? They can be informative (vijñapti) or non-informative (avijñapti) by nature.
Following Dasgupta, McDermott (1980) translates these terms as "patent" and "latent"
respectively. Both vijñapti and avijñapti are rūpa (form). Vijñapti karman is karman that
involves an external (bāhya) change (of body or voice) that informs about the intentions
(āśaya) of the mind. Avijñapti karman, on the other hand, "does not inform another with
respect to the volition from which it proceeds" (Pruden, 1987). In the Karma-siddhi-
prakaraṇa (KSP) and AK, Vasubandhu has presented the views of the different Buddhist
schools on vijñapti and avijñapti.

According to the Vaibhāṣikas, the shape (saṃsthāna) assumed by the body or the utterance of
sound that becomes manifest are kāya-vijñapti-karman and vāk-vijñapti-karman respectively.
For example, a hand raised to strike and an order of execution would be vijñapti karman as
far as they inform the intention of a killing action. Bodily shapes that are not connected with
volition are not vijñapti. Thus, the specific movement of the lips, though necessary for the
articulation, is not vāk-vijñapti-karma because that is not directly willed. On the other hand,
the articulation is vijñapti because that is intended. Also the shape the body assumes as a
vipāka-hetu (retributive cause) is not vijñapti-karma because it is an inevitable fruition of an
action committed previously and does not involve a volition of the "current" mind.

Bodily vijñapti being shape forms part of the rūpāyatana (sphere of form). A rūpa consists of
varṇa (colour) and saṃsthāna (shape). The Vaibhāṣikas maintain that colour and shape are
distinct from each other and that bodily vijñapti is shape distinct from colour. Vocal vijñapti
forms part of the śabdāyatana (sphere of sound). Both the rūpāyatana and śabdāyatana form
part of the rupa-skandha (aggregate of form) and as such vijñapti is rūpa.

The Vaibhāṣikas defined avijñapti as "a permanent action, invisible but material, which
causes nothing to be known to another but which stays with its author, even if the latter is
distracted or momentarily deprived of thought" (Pruden, 1987). It proceeds from vijñapti and
is bodily or vocal depending on the type of vijñapti from which it has arisen. McDermott
(1980) explains it as "a latent potential impressed on the psycho-physical stream of the
individual who initiates an ethically significant action. It is an unseen efficacy capable of
producing results at some later moment of time." He suggests that the concept developed out
of a need to explain the lag between an action and its effect and relates it to the Mimāṃsa
idea of apūrva.

Both Pruden (1987) and McDermott (1980) cite the following two examples to illustrate
vijñapti and avijñapti:

1. When a monk takes the vows before the monastic community, he performs bodily and
vocal patent acts. Due to these acts, a latent discipline (saṃvara) or a renunciation of
sin (virati) arises within him as a "permanent action" that continues to reproduce itself
without anybody’s knowledge, including his own consciousness.
2. When one hires someone to kill another, one commits a vocally patent act. When the
murder is actually carried out, the killer commits a bodily patent act. However, a
latent act is generated in both, bodily in case of the killer and vocal in case of oneself,
at the moment of murder that makes both persons murderers and connects them to
corresponding retributions.

In the AK and AKBh, Vasubandhu, assuming the Sautrāntika view, has refuted the
Vaibhāṣika position of vijñapti as shape and the Vātsīputrīya position of vijñapti as
movement (gati). Against the Vātsīputrīyas, Vasubandhu argues that vijñapti as movement is
impossible. If dharmas were stable entities then they would be immovable. On the other
hand, if they were unstable, they would be kṣaṇika (momentary) – perishing at the very
instance of arising, as the Sautrāntikas claim to be the case, then too they would be incapable
of motion. What is only apparent as motion of a dharma is in reality the constant arising of
dharmas of different shapes in different places. With respect to the Vaibhāṣikas, while
admitting that vijñapti is shape, Vasubandhu argues that contrary to the Vaibhāṣika position,
shape is not a distinct type of rūpa but simply an extension of colour i.e., when atoms of
certain colour are extended in a great quantity in one direction there occurs the saṃjñā
(ideation) of "long"; in a lesser quantity, of "short"; equally in four directions, of "square";
and so on. There are no atoms of shape as such.

The Sautrāntikas, as their name suggests, take recourse to the view laid down in the sūtra that
all karman, and hence vijñapti karman too, is cetanā. As such, vijñapti and avijñapti karman
are gratuitous inventions. In essence there is only cetanā which the Sautrāntikas claim to be
of three types, namely, gati-cetanā (deliberation), niścayacetanā (decision) and kiraṇacetanā
(movement), of which the first two are cetanā-karman and the last is cetayitvā-karman, and
likewise, the first two are mental action and the last is bodily and vocal action (Pruden,
1987). We could broadly summarize the aforementioned positions as follows:

 Theravāda: mental, bodily and vocal acts are volitional.

 Sarvāstivāda: mental acts are volitional; bodily and vocal acts are non-volitional being
either shape (Vaibhāṣika) or movement (Vātsīputriya).
 Sautrāntika: mental acts are one kind of volition; bodily and vocal acts are another
kind of volition.

In other words, with regards to any act, say killing, the Sautrāntikas posit at least two kinds of
volitions – the volition to kill and the volition that moves the hand to kill. Finally, in case of
the Sautrāntikas, "these two types of volitions ... are capable of producing a volition sui
generis which is the avijñapti" (Pruden, 1987).

The Vaibhāṣikas took literally the Buddha’s teaching of the imperishability of action to mean
that in terms of its own being (svabhāva or svalakṣaṇa) an action exists at all times, from
which they derive their name as Sarvāstivādins. Only the mode (bhāva) of an action – past,
present or future – varies. At the moment the action is completed, it "projects" a
corresponding result so that it arises later. It "grasps" its result at the time of completion and
when it is in the past, it "yields" the result forth and makes it come into the present. The
Vaibhāṣikas, as Buddhists, conceive the human being as lacking a substantial soul and
consisting of an uninterrupted succession of momentary dharmas. However, in addition, they
posit in the series the existence of non-material entities called prāpti (possession) with
regards to the action upon its completion. The prāpti is momentary but it continues to
replicates itself upto the point that the result is experienced by the person.

The Sautrāntikas rejected the Vaibhāṣika concept of prāpti as gratuitous. They argued that by
the imperishability of action the Buddha was affirming the unavoidable character of its
retribution. Actions are not eternal but perish immediately upon arising. However, they
"perfume" (vāsanā) the mental series (cittasaṃtāna) by creating within it a special potentiality
(śakti-viśeṣa). Thus perfumed, the mental series undergoes an evolution (pariṇāma) that
culminates in the state of retribution. This perfuming is conceived as a seed (bīja) inasmuch
as it is analogous to the seed yielding a fruit at a much later time, after having passed through
the stages of a sprout, trunk, branch, flower, etc.

The AS classifies the bodily, vocal and mental actions into wholesome and unwholesome
each consisting of ten wholesome and unwholesome karma-pathas (paths of action)
respectively. The unwholesome action paths include three bodily actions, viz., killing, taking
what has not been given, sexual misconduct; four vocal actions, viz., lying, slander, harsh
words, idle prattle; three mental actions, viz., covetousness, harmful intent and wrong view.
The wholesome action paths include abstaining from the unwholesome bodily and vocal
actions and correction of the unwholesome mental actions. Each of the action paths can be
understood in terms of five chracteristics: object (vastu), disposition (āśaya), preparation
(prayoga), defilement (kleśa) and completion (niṣṭhāgamana). Of these characteristics,
prayoga and niṣṭhā are particularly influential in determining the ethical significance of a

In terms of the experience of its effect, karman can be classified in terms of the nature of the
experience as:

 sukha-vedanīya, to be experienced as joy, produced by kuśala karman in kāmadhātu

and the first three dhyānas,
 duḥkha-vedanīya, to be experienced as sorrow, produced by akuśala karman in the
 aduḥkha-sukha-vedanīya, to be experencied neither as joy nor as sorrow, produced by
kuśala karman above the first three dhyānas.

And, also in terms of the time of the experience of its effect as:

 dṛṣṭadharma-vedanīya, to be experienced in the same birth,

 upapadya-vedanīya, to be experienced in the next birth,
 apara-paryāya-vedanīya, to be experienced in the birth after next.

The following four types of karman are also distinguished:

1. Black karman with black ripening

2. White karman with white ripening
3. Black and white karman with black and white ripening
4. Not black but white karman

Black karman with black ripening is unwholesome karman. White karman with white
ripening is wholesome karman in the three dhātus (realms). Black and white karman with
black and white ripening is mixed karman in the kāma realm that is alternatively black and
white with regards to āśaya (disposition) and prayoga (preparation). Not black but white
karman is the karman without inflow (anāśrava) on the paths of preparation (prayoga) and
immediacy (ānantarya) that lead to the cessation of karman. It produces no ripening (avipāka)
and is opposed to saṃsāra. The ASBh elaborates anāsrava karman as adverserial to
crookedness (vaṃka), fault (doṣa) and impurity (kaṣāya); in conformity with purity
(śauceya); and has for its nature the qualities of a sage (mauneya).

The AS distinguishes between an experience that is sahagata (associated) with karman and
one that is vedanīya (to be experienced) by it. Thus, a sukha-sahagata (pleasure-associated)
karman or duḥkha-sahagata (pain-associated) karman does not necessarily produce a sukha-
vipāka or duḥkha-vipāka respectively. Rather, karman that is sukha-vedanīya (to be
experienced as pleasure) or duḥkha-vedanīya (to be experienced as pain) produces a sukha-
vipāka or duḥkha-vipāka respectively. The doctrine that "just as actions are performed and
accumulated, so their results are experienced" is thus clarified as "just as actions-to-be-
experienced-as-x are performed and accumulated, so their results-as-x are experienced"
where "x" can be sukha, duḥkha, etc. Otherwise, there would be no motivation for anyone to
seek liberation since activities leading to it are associated with pain. Hence, it is admitted that
duḥkha-sahagata, sukha-vedanīya (pain-associated, to be experienced as pleasure) karman
has a sukha-vipāka (pleasant fruition), and so on.

An important issue with regards to vedanīya karman is its deterministic character, i.e, the
extent to which it is niyata-vedanīya (necessarily experienced). The AS lists five types of
saṃcetanīyatā (intentionality) two of which, mūlābhiniveśa-saṃcetanīyatā (intentionality due
to intense fixation because of the roots) and viparyāsa-saṃcetanīyatā (intentionality due to a
mistaken view), when involved in action cause it to "heap up" i.e., lead necessarily to
retribution in the form of a future experience. The AK also cites saṃcetanā as one of the
factors for accumulation (upacaya) of karma (AK 4.120). The other factors include "[the
karman’s] completion, the absence of regret or any counteraction, and finally its reward or
retribution" (McDermott, 1980). The AS explains heaping up as augmentation of vasanās, the
perfuming of the mental series creating the potential for certain types of experiences, which
could be interpreted as a Sautrāntika position as explained above. The ASBh, however,
clarifies the augmentation of vasanās as "ālayavijñāne vipākabījaparipoṣaṇam" (the
nourishing of the retributive seeds in the store-consciousness), indicating its preference for
the Yogācāra view.

Irrespective of how the upacaya (accumulation) or vasanām (perfuming) of the citta (mind)
works, karma that is upacita (accumulated) is niyata-vedanīya (determinate, i.e., necessarily
to be experienced). Besides this constraint of saṃcetanīyatā (intentionality), known as
vipāka-pratisaṃvedanā-niyama, that forces a ripening (vipāka) to be experienced, two other
types of contraints may also apply. The first is karma-kriyā-niyama (constraint due to
performance of action) in which the stream of karmic fruition (vipāka-santati or phala-
saṃtāna) is transformed (pariṇāma) or thrown off (aviddhā) by an action performed
previously (i.e., in a previous birth) so that a certain action is necessarily enacted by the
organism in this life. The second is avasthā-niyama in which case actions become experience-
able in this life (dṛṣṭa-dharma), in the next life (upapadya) or the life after the next (apara-

The AK treats the issue of karmic determinism somewhat differently. In the AS, niyata-
vedanīya means "what is necessarily experienced" and avasthā-niyama is one of the
applicable contraints that specifies the moment of experience (dṛṣṭadharma, upapadya or
apara-paryāya). On the other hand, in the AK, niyata-vedanīya refers to the "necessary
moment of experience" which could be dṛṣṭadharma, upapadya or apara-paryāya. But
whether the effect of an action is to be experienced at all is governed by a property called
niyata-vipāka (what is necessarily retributed). Here, vedanīya refers to the moment of
retribution and vipāka to the retribution itself. So, for example, a dṛṣṭadharma-niyata-
vedanīya-aniyata-vipāka karma is an action that may not be necessarily retributed because it
is aniyata-vipāka but if it is retributed then it is necessarily retributed in this life because it is
niyata-vedanīya in the dṛṣṭadharma.

Three types of fruits of action are described in the AS, namely, vipāka-phala (fruit of
ripening), niṣyanda-phala (concordant fruit) and adhipati-phala (sovereign fruit). The AK
defines vipāka (retribution) as an avyākṛta dharma i.e., an amoral dharma without any good
or evil characteristics. These are innate propensities which are the fruition of previous karma
and they bear fruit without any intervention of individual volition. Hence, they are amoral
since moral value is ascribable only to volitional acts. According to the AS, the vipāka-phala
of the ten unwholesome action paths are the bad destinies (apāya gatis) such as the lower
animals, pretas and hell whereas the vipāka-phala of the ten wholesome action paths is birth
among humans and gods. The AK states that vipāka-phala is possible only among living
beings and the AKBh explains that some of these dharmas are niṣyanda-phalas i.e., they are
results that are equivalent in nature to their causes and hence described as an outflowing. The
niṣyanda-phala of unwholesome actions are a body and possessions that are unfortuitous
(vipatti) in accordance with one’s actions [AS 54, 4-5]. Likewise, the niṣyanda-phala of
wholesome actions are a body and possessions that are fortuitous (sampatti) in accordance
with one’s actions [AS 54, 7-9].

The AKBh excludes the dharmas of non-living things such as mountains, rivers, etc. from the
category of vipāka-phala because these objects are commonly shared by everyone and
vipāka-phala is individualistic i.e., retribution is the experience of the fruition of one’s own
actions. A person cannot experience the retribution of actions committed by someone else.
However, actions do not only bear retributive effects. The collective actions of living beings
performed in cooperation produces a sovereign fruit (adhipati-phala) that is experienced
together. Thus, 'the "receptacle" or physical world (bhājanaloka) is produced by the good and
bad actions of the totality of living beings: it is neutral; however it is not retribution (vipāka),
because retribution is a dharma "belonging to living beings"; consequently, it is the
adhipatiphala of actions ...' (Pruden, AKBh. Vol IV. fn. 403). According to AS, adhipati-
phala of the wholesome actions leads to fortuitous external bhāvas (objects) and of the
unwholesome actions to the contrary.

With regards to matters of discipline, karman can be classified as saṃvara (restraint),

asaṃvara (non-restraint), and naivasaṃvarāsaṃvara (neither restraint nor non-restraint). The
AK refers to them as the three types of avijñapti. Saṃvara karman is called as such because it
constrains and obstructs the spread of immorality (AKBh 4.13). It can be classified as:

1. prātimokṣa-saṃvara (prātimokṣa restraints) followed by beings of this world in the

2. dhyāna-saṃvara (absorption restraints) produced through dhyāna in the Rūpadhātu.
3. anāsrava-saṃvara (restraints without inflow) which arises from the Path.

[A] According to Cox, the prātimokṣa "contains a set of rules to be observed by the members
of the order in their daily lives ... Relatively early in the history of the Buddhist community,
the prātimokṣa evolved into a monastic code, eventually developing into a formalized ritual"
(Cox, 1998). Eight types of persons possess the prātimokṣa discipline: bhikṣu (fully ordained
monk), bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained nun), śikṣamāṇā (trainee nun), śrāmaṇera (novice monk),
śrāmaṇerī (novice nun), upāsaka (male laity), upāsikā (female laity), and upavāsastha (one
who fasts).The AS classifies the prātimokṣa restraints into three types:
(i) pravrajita-saṃvara (renunciate restraints) meant for the first five types listed
above who abstain from bad conduct and desire.
(ii) upāsakopāsikā-saṃvara (lay restraints) meant for the upāsaka and upāsikā who
abstain from bad conduct but not from desire.
(iii) upavāsa-saṃvara (fasting restraints) meant for one who abstains neither from bad
conduct nor from desire.

The AK, on the other hand, classifies the prātimokṣa restraints into four types with regards to
the (i) bhikṣu, including the bhikṣuṇi (ii) śrāmaṇera, including the śikṣamāṇā and śrāmaṇera
(iii) upāsaka, including the upāsikā (iv) upavāsastha. The restraints are not distinguished on
the basis of gender. They exist separately but do not contradict each other. They are different
in that even in case where the same type of transgression is eschewed by the various orders,
the number of instances are different. For example, though the bhikṣu and the upāsaka must
restrain from killing, the occasions on which the former applies this rule is greater than the
latter. The restaints are thus cumulative – by undertaking one category of restraints one does
not abandon the preceding ones.

Although the upavāsa is ranked lower to the upāsaka it is odd that the AKBh lists eight
eschewable items for the upavāsastha in comparison to five for the upāsaka. The śrameṇara
avoids ten forms of transgressions whereas the bhikṣu is required to avoid all vocal and
bodily transgressive practices. It is by undertaking these renunciations that a person becomes
a upāsaka, etc.

The AK elaborates that the prātimokṣa discipline involves morality (śīla), good conduct
(sucarita), action (karma) and restraint (saṃvara). The abandoning of transgression that is
prātimokṣa occurs in the first moment as vijñapti and avijñapti. From the second moment
onwards there is no further abandoning since this has been accomplished in the first moment.
Subsequently, there is a prātimokṣa saṃvara, i.e., a discipline arisen from the prātimokṣa.
The AKBh also cautions that while it is possible for non-Buddhists to practise these
abstentions as well, they do it with the objective of attaining a particular kind of existence,
whether heaven or mokṣa, and hence the transgressions are not absolutely rejected by them,
nor can they attain release that way.

The AS forbids the status of a upāsaka to asexuals (ṣaṇḍha) and eunuchs (paṇḍaka) because it
is not proper for them to wait upon bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇis though it does not forbid them the
upāsaka saṃvara. The ASBh extends the restriction to hermaphrodites (ubhayavyañjana) due
to the operation of masculine and feminine kleśas in them. The AK states that asaṃvara
pertains only to humans and saṃvara to gods and humans, while excluding asexuals (ṣaṇḍha),
eunuchs (paṇḍaka) and hermaphrodites (dvidhākṛti). They are denied saṃvara "because they
possess to an extreme degree the defilements of the two sexes; because they are incapable of
the reflection necessary to combat these defilements; and because the vigour of respect and
fear is absent in them" (AKBh, trans. Proudon). Oddly, the AK and AKBh also includes the
Kurus as ineligible for saṃvara or asaṃvara on the ground that they lack the undertaking of
any discipline or absorption or the intention of committing transgressions.
[B] Dhyāna-saṃvara is an indifference (virati) aimed at disabling those latencies (bījas) that
give rise to the kleśas (defilement) which lead the monk to immorality (dauḥśilya). It is
undertaken by one who has overcome the patent attachment to pleasures. It occurs in the first
three levels of dhyāna where the adept is susceptible to a reprisal of the defilements. As the
adept advances through them, the latencies undergo more and more damage as they are
pushed further and further away. From the fourth dhyāna onwards, which occur in the
arupyadhātu, śila-saṃvara (restraint consisting in discipline) is not established since there is
no rūpa (matter).

The AK refers to this saṃvara as dhyānaja (born from dhyāna). It arises from the dhyāna-
bhūmi (sphere of dhyāna) which consists of the mauladhyāna (four basic dhyānas) and the
sāmantakas (four advanced dhyānas). The mind in this case is impure because it has not yet
seen the Path. Those who possess dhyāna possess the discipline which arises from dhyāna.
The saṃvara associated with direct insight of the Path is anāsrava saṃvara and is possessed
by the Ārya.

Unlike the prātimokṣa saṃvara, the dhyāna and anāsrava saṃvaras are viewed as
concomittants of the mind (citta-anuvartini). The prātimokṣa saṃvara, on the other hand, can
"exist in a person whose mind is bad or neutral, or who is unconscious". (AKBh 4.17 Trans.

[C] Anāsrava-saṃvara is "the abandoning – by means of attention without inflow – [on the
part] of [a person who] has seen [Four] Truths" (Bayer). Bayer explains that direct insight
into the Four Noble Truths is the Path of Seeing (darśanamārga), having attained which,
doubt and other latent defilements that could give rise to unwholesome behaviour are
completely eradicated. "If he, based on the faultless restraints of discipline as well as on the
restraints of absorption, directly realizes the [Four] Truths, and achieves the fruit of a Non-
Returner (i.e. the third fruit of an Arya), too, then, at that time, the seeds of corrupt discipline
are completely eradicated. If [otherwise], based on the anāgamya, he achieves the first fruit
[of an Arya], then, at that time, the seeds of corrupt discipline that [could] cause him to go
into a bad destiny are completely eradicated. That is the discipline which the Aryas delight in,
and it has to be understood that his restraints are [then] pure through that second [kind of]
purity-and exactly that is what one calls 'his restraint without outflow'." (Bayer, 2010)

The term anāgamya is elucidated by Bayer as "one of the possible states of meditation, a
preliminary stage of a meditative concentration before the first dhyāna. It usage here indicates
that the adept reaches the Path of Seeing without practicing four levels of absorption. The
Path of Seeing, eradicating all doubts about the Four Noble Truths through a direct vision,
can be reached, for example, by practicing with a focus on insight (prajnā), skipping the
dhyānas at least temporarily" (Bayer, 2000).

Asaṃvara (undiscipline) is explained in the AS and AK as the violent and oppressive conduct
against humans and animals. It is acquired by persons when they are born in the families who
practise such occupations as butchers, hunters, theives, executioners, etc. or adopt these ways
of life. The AKBh describes an interesting argument between the Vaibhāśikas and the
Sautrāntikas regarding the universality of undiscipline. According to the Vaibhāśikas, a
person who is undisciplined towards some creatures is undisciplined towards all beings. The
Sautrāntikas are more lenient in this regard in recognizing that one can be partially
undisciplined i.e., undisciplined in some respects and disciplined in others.

Naivasaṃvarāsaṃvara (neither discipline nor undiscipline) is defined in AS as the

wholesome and unwholesome actions of a person who has undertaken neither discipline nor
undiscipline. The ASBh’s explanation of such a person as one who is free from discipline and
undiscipline as it has been taught implies that "neither discipline nor undiscipline" includes
all those acts that have not been specifically taught (by the Buddha) as "discipline" or
"undiscipline". According to Bayer, 'The corresponding explanation at AKBh 205.13 is
extremely brief: "Restraint and non-restraint, and, what is different from those two: what is
neither restraint nor non-restraint."' However, it is possible to read the AKBh’s gloss on AK
4.37c-d which deals with the other avijñaptis after having covered disciple and undiscipline,
as dealing with naivasaṃvarāsaṃvara. This includes actions that produce avijñapti such as
gifts given to a person who is a "field" of a particular nature or actions such as vows
undertaken seriously but are not included in discipline or undiscipline.

Three qualities which lead to the accumulation of merit are dāna (charity), śila (moral
conduct), samudācāra (good conduct). They are elaborated in the AS and ASBh as follows.

[A] With regards to dāna:

 The karman of giving (dāna-karman) has non-greed (alobha), non-hatred (adveṣa) and
non-delusion (amoha) as its cause (nidāna), the corresponding intention (cetanā) as its
motivation (samuthāna), the object that is given as its basis (adhiṣṭhāna) and the vocal
and bodily performance in the giving up as its nature (svabhāva).
 The perfection of giving (dāna-sampat) consists of giving that is constant (abhīkṣṇa),
impartial (apakṣapāta), fully satisfying (icchā-paripūraṇa), unattached (aniśrita),
extensive (viśada), joyous (pramudita), deserving (pātra), correctly distributed among
relatives and strangers (parigraha-āgantuka-saṃvibhāga).
 The perfect gift (deya-sampadā) is an object that is not misappropriated
(anabhidrugdha), not robbed from another (aparāpahṛta), not stinking (akuthita), not
dirty (vimala), appropriate (kalpika) and earned by dharma (dharmārjita).

[B] With regards to discipline (śila):

the monk because his discipline

is restrained by prātimokṣa restraint is conducive to deliverence (niryāṇa)
is excellent in conduct and location is without reproach
dreads the tiniest vices is trained with utmost earnestness
is trained in the bases covers the full training

[C] The conduct (samudācāra) of body and speech of the monk:

is because it is
pure (pariśuddha) based on concentration
wholesome (kuśala) not mixed with defiled reflection
blameless (anavadya) free from ascetic celibacy for worldly matters
harmless (avyābadhya) non-disparaging and pleasant to others
conducive (anulomika) favourable for attaining nirvāṇa
appropriate (anucchavika) concealing good deeds and disclosing bad deeds
suitable (aupayika) attractive to fellow ascetics and approachable
proper (pratirūpa) without conceit towards the teachers
respectful (pradakṣiṇa) respectfully receptive of instrution
untormented (atapta) free from violent asceticism and misery
free of regret (ananutāpya) not regretful of the abandoned possessions
free of repentance (avipratisāra) accomplishes many wholesome activities

In conclusion, the Karman section of the AS concedes that it is not possible for ordinary
people to gain a complete understanding of the working out of karman. Some aspects of the
ripening of karma (karma-vipāka) are thinkable (cintya) while others are unthinkable
(acintya). According to the AS, the thinkable elements include:

1. wholesome actions produce a favourable ripening among good destinies

2. unwholesome action produce an unfavourable ripening among bad destinies

On the other hand, the following aspects are unthinkable:

1. how specific actions produce specific bodies

2. features of those actions such as their location, object, cause and ripening
3. how actions produce external phenomena
4. actions connected with jewels, mantras, medicines and medical treatment
5. the powers of the yogīs and bodhisattvas
6. the Buddha actions of the Buddhas


Primary Sources

 Asaṅga, Abhidharmasamuccaya. Trans. Achim Bayer (2010), Walpola Rahula (1971)

 Abhidharmasamuccayabāṣya (authorship disputed). Trans. Achim Bayer (2010)
 Vasubandhu, Abhidharmakośa. Trans. Pruden Leo (1988-90) fr. Louis de La Vallee
Poussin. (Vols. I & II)
 Vasubandhu, Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. Trans. Pruden Leo (1988-90) fr. Louis de La
Vallee Poussin. (Vols. I & II)
 Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa. Trans. Pruden Leo (1987) fr. Louis de La Vallee

Secondary Sources

 Alfonso, Verdu (1984). Early Buddhist Philosophy in the Light of the Four Noble
 Bayer, Achim (2010). The Theory of Karma in Abhidharmasamuccaya.
 Cox Collet, et al. (1998) Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism.
 McDermott, James (1980). Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism. Chp 7 in "Karma
and Rebirth in Classical Indian Tradition" (Ed. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty)
 McDermott, James (1984). Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of


 Edgerton, Buddhist Hybrid Dictionary

 Monier Williams, Sanskrit Dictionary