The Buddha walked around the Ganges Valley for forty-five years, teaching and interacting with kings, merchants, monks, nuns, wanderers of other traditions, and laypeople of all kinds. He told stories, invented metaphors, gave examples, and generally responded creatively to whatever situations he encountered as he conveyed his teachings. In doing so, he also laid out a remarkably consistent and cohesive body of oral literature composed of numerous lists and repeating refrains of prose and verse that overlapped and reiterated one another.

His words were remembered, as was the custom of this preliterate age, and were recited in groups on a regular basis to keep them fresh and accurate. Like those given by other wandering sages of the time, his teachings were organized around theory, practice, and discipline. The dharma (Pali, dhamma) recorded his formal teachings, while the vinaya preserved guidelines for the lifestyle of the monks and nuns of his community (sangha).

Alongside these two collections there grew up an additional body of work called abhi-dharma, or material “having to do with the dharma,” that further expanded his teachings into what became the third of the “three baskets” (tripitaka) of classical Buddhist literature. Abhidharma texts used a different literary style that was devoid of stories and parables, instead consisting of lists of technical terms in twos and threes, definitions of technical vocabulary, and psychological maps of the many complex ways mental states can arise and pass away interdependently. The impulse to treat the Buddha’s teachings in a more abstract and systematic way was likely started by Shariputra, the follower most highly praised by the Buddha for his wisdom, and the project continued to evolve for several centuries.

The abhidharma literature was originally rooted in the description of meditative experience, but as time progressed the approach became more philosophically sophisticated. It developed along two parallel lines, one in the South using the Pali language, and one in the North using Sanskrit. This abhidharma tradition followed Buddhism into China and Tibet, continuing to mature over time.

In one version, for example, we find: 28 material phenomena (18 concrete, 10 non-concrete);  89 levels of consciousness (54 sense-sphere, 15 fine material-sphere, 12 immaterial and 8 supramundane); 52 mental factors (7 universal, 6 occasional, 14 unwholesome, and 25 wholesome); arising and passing away in 17-mind-moment cognitive series; all conditioning and being conditioned over 3 time periods by 24 causal relationships.

All of this is described in exhaustive detail.

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