THERAVĀDA ABHIDHAMMA STUDIES IN MYANMAR
Dr.Ādiccavaṃsa, Dean, Faculty of Missionary and Religions, ITBM University, Yangon, Myanmar.
Theravāda is a principle or belief of the venerable elder Buddhist monks. In Theravāda Buddhism, the exact words of Buddha have not been extended or subtracted or removed from the original teachings.
Abhidhamma can be seen as a philosophy of individual or ultimate truth.
Studies here mean application of the mind to any subject for acquiring knowledge.
Therefore, Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies are the studies of the original teachings of Gotama Buddha that have been handed down without any changes by the Theras, the great elders, from generation to generation continuously.
Theravāda Abhidhamma is only a part of the three baskets.
The Gotama Buddha's teachings consist of the three baskets or the three Piṭakas, namely:
1. Vinaya Piṭaka (the basket of Disciplines)
2. Suttanta Piṭaka (the basket of Discourses)
3. Abhidhamma Piṭaka (the basket of Ultimate Realities)
The Abhidhamma Piṭaka comprises of seven texts:
1. Dhammasaṅgaṇī(the Collection or Enumeration of Dhammas)
2. Vibhaṅga (Divisions of Dhammas)
3. Dhātukathā (Classification of Elements)
4. Puggalapaññatti (Descriptions of Individuals)
5. Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy)
6. Yamaka (Analysis of Pairs)
7. Paṭṭhāna (Causal Relations)
The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is the most important and the most interesting among the three baskets; Abhidhamma is an indispensable guide to spiritual progress. In the Abhidhamma, the consciousness is defined, the thoughts are analyzed and the mental states are classified from the ethical point of view. The Abhidhamma investigates the nature of mind and matter, the two components of a so-called being. It helps to understand things as they truly are. Through the Abhidhamma a philosophy has been developed that investigates the sources of mind and matter and the relationship between them. Thus the Abhidhamma is the philosophy which helps people to realize the absolute truth and the ultimate goal of Nibbāna.
Myanmar Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies started as early as the Pagan Dynasty (AD 1147). Buddhism became more prevalent when king Anawratha introduced Tipiṭaka in his kingdom. He established a Tipiṭaka Library in Pagan.
During the reign of King Narapati Seethu (AD 1173), Venerable Sappada wrote two books on Abhidhamma, namely the Saṅkhepa Vaṇṇanā (Concise Explanation) and the Nāma Cāradīpaka (Explanation of Mind Appearance).
Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies became popular during King Kyaw Swa's time (AD 1234). Even the King himself wrote "Paramattha Vindu" (A Spot of Reality). A minister at that time is noted to be well-versed in Tipiṭaka.
During the Pinya Dynasty (AD 1312) the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies were noted to be still being developed.
In the reign of King Thiha Thura (AD 1350-1359), Ven. Ñāṇakitti wrote two books on Abhidhamma - the Aṭṭhasālinī Yojanā and the Sammohavinodanī Yojanā.
The study of the Theravāda Abhidhamma progressed further during Innwa Dynasty (AD 1442-1468). Many Abhidhamma texts were written by some elder monks. Nissaya is one of the books which were translated from Pāḷi to Myanmar word by word.
Pathamapyan Examinations were started to be held by King Thalun during his reign (AD 1629-1648). A large number of books on the Abhidhamma in Pāḷi and in Myanmar also appeared in this period.
The study of the Abhidhamma continued to flourish during the Konbaung period (AD 1753-1885). Abhidhamma was regarded to be the compulsory subject in monastic examinations.
During the reign of King Mindon (AD 1859-1878) the Fifth Great Council was held in Mandalay, in the year of SE 2415.
The elder monks recited and approved the scriptures which were then inscribed on stone slabs. In the year of SE 2415, there were 60,000 student monks studying the Theravāda Abhidhamma. The King honoured the teachers with the highest titles and awarded them with provisions.
The sixth Great Council was held in Yangon, Myanmar in SE 2498. The scriptures which were recited and verified by the elder monks were later put into print.
According to the Theravāda Abhidhamma History, 43 Pāḷi texts, 112 Pāḷi and Myanmar texts and about 333 Abhidhamma texts were printed.
The establishment of the Theravāda Abhidhamma in Myanmar relies solely on the teaching monks. Naturally, the Theravâda Abhidhamma is so deep and profound that it is hard to understand. The original words used by Gotama Buddha in Pāḷ made it much more difficult for the scholars to study. Therefore, the teacher monks with their effort, knowledge, skill and industry tried to translate the Pāḷi into Myanmar.
The method of translation used for teaching the Theravāda Abhidhamma is also important. The teacher monks use two methods in translation. In the first method, they introduce word by word translation. In this way, Pāḷi words are being translated word by word into Myanmar. The earliest usage of this method can be seen in Shwe Si Khone stone inscription during the reign of King Kyan Sitha (ME 446-479).
In the second method, the teacher monks use the direct translation method. It can be seen in Mya Zedi stone inscription or Rājakumāra stone slab (ME 474). These methods help considerably in propagating and promoting the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies.
The scholar monks who love and take interest to learn the Theravāda Abhidhamma is another factor for the development of the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies in Myanmar.
Eighty percent of the population of Myanmar are farmers. Their children normally begin their education in monasteries as novices. They have to learn "Saṅgaha" and "Saddā" which are related to the Theravāda Abhidhamma. Some novices take to heart the Buddha's teachings and decide to continue to learn the Theravāda Abhidhamma throughout their life time as a member of the Saṅgha. Thus the increase in the quantity of scholars, in some extent, greatly promotes the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies in Myanmar.
The learning method that the Abhidhamma scholars use at the basic level is to learn "Saṅgaha" by heart. They study the meaning of Pāḷi words in the word-to-word translation method through "Nissaya" books. Then the scholars have to study the texts in detail through the commentaries such as " Vibhāvinī Ṭīkā", "Mūlaṭīkā", "Anuṭīkā" and "Manisāramañjūsā".
At the advanced level, the scholars have to learn the Adhidhamma through original Pāḷi texts and their commentaries. This is the way the Myanmar scholar monks study to master the Abhidhamma.
It is not only the scholar monks who take interest in the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies, the lay citizens of Myanmar also love to learn the Theravāda Abhidhamma. In the olden days of Myanmar, the education system was based on monastic teachings. The monasteries were the only schools and the Theravāda Buddhist monks were the only teachers. The royalty as well as the laymen together had to attend these schools. The subjects they had to learn were basically the Theravāda Abhidhamma and Pāḷi. Thus the Theravāda Abhidhamma became the favoured subject. Some Pāḷi words were used in the daily vocabularies of the people, which show that the Abhidhamma Pāḷi has been handed down from generation to generation.
Buddhist scriptures are taught in monasteries as well as in Intermediate Colleges and Universities. These learning centers help to promote the Sāsanā and especially the Theravāda Abhidhamma .
Examinations in various levels and courses are held by the Government as well as the Religious Organizations. Exams are from the primer level of Abhidhamma to the highest level of the Tipiṭaka. The successful candidates are awarded and specially honoured. This help to stimulate the learning of the Abhidhamma all the more. There are some organizations that encourage the translations from Pāḷi into Myanmar. They also reintroduced the vague and obsolete terms in more acceptable forms and reprinted them.
There are seminars, conferences and religious sermons held locally and globally for the continued study and advancement of the Theravāda Abhidhamma.
All the above mentioned ways and means have helped to make the Theravāda Abhidhamma Studies successful and flourishing even today in Myanmar.
We, Theravāda Buddhists convey our deepest thanks to those who have helped to preserve and propagate the Theravāda Abhidhamma for the Sāsanā.
 Presented at The International Conference of All Theravāda Buddhist Universities held at The International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University, Yangon, & at Woodlands Hotel, Popa Mountain Resort, Bagan, Myanmar, 9-12th March 2007