Preface: This refutation is not intended as a gratuitous assault upon the Abhidhamma. Rather, it is an attempt to logically and factually demonstrate to those who evangelize the Abhidhamma, that there are indeed valid reasons for disagreeing with it, and that these reasons do not require a full and comprehensive reading of the entire Abhidhamma Pitaka and its associated commentaries. I may update it over time if more grounds for refutation come to mind.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka did not exist until the 3rd Buddhist Council, centuries after the Buddha's passing and no other Buddhist sect in history has the Theravada's Abhidhamma Pitaka. As such, it is a sectarian document and not Buddhavacana (the voice of the Buddha). Therefore, even before addressing the content of the Abhidhamma itself, the authority and necessity of the Abhidhamma should be rejected on the following grounds specified in the Sutta Pitaka.
The following refutes the Theravada tradition's dramatic origin story for the Abhidhamma...
Given the Buddha did not teach it, those who say he did slander the Buddha....DN16 wrote:I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.
Irrespective of any self-made proclamations about its doctrinal validity, the Abhidhamma world-view is unnecessary and disconnected from the goal...AN 2.23 wrote:"Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata."
In fact, the Buddha explicitly warned us about later doctrines that would obfuscate his teachings on emptiness and recommended sticking to things he actually taught...SN 56.31 wrote:"In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven't I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
Despite the claims of traditionalists that the Sutta requires interpretation (by them, of course) in order to be understood, the Buddha pre-emptively refuted any such attempt to establish an intellectual monopoly over his discourses...SN 20.7 wrote:"In the course of the future there will be monks who won't listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won't lend ear, won't set their hearts on knowing them, won't regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering. In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about."
"Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves."
If despite all of the above, some merit is still perceived in the Abhidhamma, let us now address some of the most common arguments and doctrinal pillars of the Abhidhamma, analysed with recourse to the Sutta...Vammikasutta wrote:“Bhikkhus, the Dhamma well proclaimed by me thus is clear, open, evident, and free of patchwork.”
Common Abhidhamma Argument #1 - Mentality and materiality are paramattha dhammas (i.e. ultimate dhammas)
Sutta Reponse: Never in the Suttas are materiality referred to as "dhammas". Dhammas are phenomena, whereas materiality is noumena. Instead, materiality is represented in the Sutta via mahabhuta (great elements). As for mentality, that will be addressed below.
Common Abhidhamma Argument #2 - Dhammas exist
Sutta Reponse: If there was Right View about dhammas, it would be evident that to speak of "existence" and "non-existence" is to misconceive what dhammas are...
Instead, the same sutta shows how dhammas/phenomena arise via paṭiccasamuppāda...SN 12.15 wrote:"By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one."
SN 12.15 wrote:Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle: From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
Common Abhidhamma Argument #3 - Dhammas exist, independent of observation
Sutta Reponse: This may be true of noumena such as mahabhuta, which are not phenomena (dhammas) but as it applies to dhammas, it is refuted by the Suttas, which state...
SN 47.42 wrote:With the arising of attentiveness there is the arising of dhammas. With the cessation of attentiveness there is the cessation of dhammas
Common Abhidhamma Argument #4 - Dhammas exist and then do not-exist with great rapidity, faster than a flash of lightning
Sutta Reponse: This argument has no basis in the Suttas, and such a binary view of phenomena is in fact refuted...
Note, the arising, alteration/other-ness, and passing away are all discernible. This establishes what one might call a non-binary approach to the nature of phenomena. The Abhidhamma ontology does not allow for such discernment of alteration inbetween its rigid binary options of "exist" and "does not exist". One might counter this Sutta analysis saying that under rarefied meditation conditions this could be seen, but again, there is no mention of this elaborate pre-requisite in the Suttas and it therefore appears to be nothing more than apologetics.AN 3.47 wrote:"Monks, these three are fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated. Which three? Arising is discernible, passing away is discernible, alteration (literally, other-ness) while staying is discernible.
"These are three fabricated characteristics of what is fabricated.
Common Abhidhamma Argument #5 - Concepts are not dhammas (phenomena)
Sutta Reponse: This doctrinal position is a consequence of the Abhidhamma's compulsion to classify dhammas as either existing or non-existing. Since "concepts" do not fall under the Abhidhamma classification of dhammas, they are denied existence, and denied the status of being "dhammas" (phenomena). However, anyone who has ever had an idea knows fully well that ideas are experienced. The Suttas confirm this common sense view...
Instructions on observing the phenomena of ideas are presented in the Satipatthana Sutta...SN 35.93 wrote:"In dependence on the mind & ideas there arises mind-consciousness. The mind is inconstant, changeable, of a nature to become otherwise. Ideas are inconstant, changeable, of a nature to become otherwise. Thus this pair is both wavering & fluctuating — inconstant, changeable, of a nature to become otherwise.
Further, the Abhidhamma differentiates between paññatti (concept) and paramattha (reality). However, as it does so, it fails to discern that the set of dhammas that it meticulously tabulates are themselves paññatti, since the very notion of atomized binary dhammas is a conceptualization with no foundation either in the Suttas, or in reality. Thus, the whole Abhidhamma enterprise, with all its dhammas and relations is merely a mass of papañcasaññāsaṅkhā (i.e. concepts, reckonings, designations or linguistic conventions characterised by the prolific conceptualising tendency of the mind).MN 10 wrote:Thus he lives contemplating ideas in ideas internally, or he lives contemplating ideas in ideas externally, or he lives contemplating ideas in ideas internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in ideas, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in ideas, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in ideas. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, "There are ideas," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.
Common Abhidhamma Argument #6 - It is important to understand the different classifications for dhammas and their relations, as outlined in the Abhidhamma
Sutta Reponse: All phenomena with the exception of nibbana are fabricated. With the exception of the "suddhaṃ saṅkhārasantatiṃ" of the arahant (see Thag 16.1) all fabrications are borne of ignorance, per the paṭiccasamuppāda dependencies outlined above. Thus, any fabricated dhamma is nothing more than a mass of ignorance. It is the product of seeing and thinking incorrectly.
Thus, for any dhamma which a puthujjana or sekha might experience, it is a delusion, borne of delusion (per SN 12.15 above). If something is a delusion, borne of delusion, then the Abhidhamma's attempt to treat it as something that "ultimately exists" etc. is to mistake delusion for ultimate reality.
Falsely regarding delusional constructs as ultimate reality, the Abhidhamma committed itself to tomes upon tomes worth of painstaking analysis and conditional relations, which could truthfully be replaced with the one sentence, "All sankhata-dhammas are the delusional product of ignorance".
Any one single Sutta on the subject of paṭiccasamuppāda has more worth and value in explaining dhammas, than the entire misguided, Sutta-opposing enterprise known as the Abhidhamma. Since the practice of the commentarial tradition is to retrofit Abhidhammic principles onto the Sutta Pitaka, it too is of less worth and value in explaining dhammas than a single Sutta from The Buddha on the subject of paṭiccasamuppāda.
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa