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Buddhist Publication Society
Kandy • Sri Lanka
Published in 1996
Copyright © 1996 by Y. Karunadasa
An earlier version of this paper was published by the Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute, Annual Memoirs.
BPS Online Edition © (2011)
Digital Transcription Source: BPS Transcription Project
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis, and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.
The Dhamma Theory
I. The Early Version of the Dhamma Theory
II. The Development of the Theory
III. Paññatti and the Two Truths
|Abhi-av-nṭ||Abhidhammatthavikāsinī, ed. A.P. Buddhadatta (Colombo, 1961)|
|Abhidh-s-s||Abhidharmārthasaṃgraha-sannaya; included in Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, ed. by Paññāmoli Tissa (Ambalangoda, 1926)|
|Abhidh-s-sv||Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha-Saṅkhepavaṇṇanā, ed. Paññānanda Thera (Colombo. 1899)|
|Abhidh-s-mhṭ||Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha-Vibhāvinī-Ṭīkā. ed. D. Paññānanda (Colombo. 1899)|
|Abhidh-mṭ||Abhidhamma-Mūlaṭīkā, ed. D. Paññāsāra and P. Vimaladhamma (Colombo. 1939)|
|D-ṭ||Dīghanikāya-Ṭīkā (Colombo, 1974)|
|Nidd-a I||Mahāniddesa Aṭṭhakathā|
|Sacc||Saccasaṅkhepa (in Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1917–19)|
|Vism-sn||Visuddhimārga-sannaya, ed. M. Dharmaratna (Colombo, 1890–1917)|
|Vism-mhṭ||Visuddhimagga Ṭīkā (Paramatthamañjūsā), ed. M. Dhammananda (Colombo. 1928)|
All references are to PTS eds. unless indicated otherwise.
During the first two centuries following the Buddha’s parinibbāna there took place, within the early Buddhist community, a move towards a comprehensive and precise systematisation of the teachings disclosed by the Master in his discourses. The philosophical systems that emerged from this refined analytical approach to the doctrine are collectively called the Abhidhamma. Both the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda, the two major conservative schools in the early Sangha, had their own Abhidhammas, each based on a distinct Abhidhamma Piṭaka. It is likely too that other schools had also developed philosophical systems along similar lines, though records of them did not survive the passage of time.
All the different modes of analysis and classification found in the Abhidhamma stem from a single philosophical principle, which gave direction and shape to the entire project of systematisation. This principle is the notion that all the phenomena of empirical existence are made up of a number of elementary constituents, the ultimate realities behind the manifest phenomena. These elementary constituents, the building blocks of experience, are called dhammas.  The dhamma theory is not merely one principle among others in the body of Abhidhamma philosophy but the base upon which the entire system rests. It would thus be quite fitting to call this theory the cornerstone of the Abhidhamma. But the dhamma theory was intended from the start to be more than a mere hypothetical scheme. It arose from the need to make sense out of experiences in meditation and was designed as a guide for meditative contemplation and insight. The Buddha had taught that to see the world correctly is to see—not persons and substances—but bare phenomena (suddhadhammā) arising and perishing in accordance with their conditions. The task the Abhidhamma specialists set themselves was to specify exactly what these “bare phenomena” are and to show how they relate to other “bare phenomena” to make up our “common sense” picture of the world.
The dhamma theory was not peculiar to any one school of Buddhism but penetrated all the early schools, stimulating the growth of their different versions of the Abhidhamma. The Sarvāstivāda version of the theory, together with its critique by the Mādhyamikas, has been critically studied by a number of modern scholars. The Theravāda version, however, has received less attention. There are sound reasons for believing that the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka contains one of the earliest forms of the dhamma theory, perhaps even the oldest version. This theory did not remain static but evolved over the centuries as Buddhist thinkers sought to draw out the implications of the theory and to respond to problems it posed for the critical intellect. Thus the dhamma theory was repeatedly enriched, first by the Abhidhamma commentaries and then by the later exegetical literature and the mediaeval compendia of Abhidhamma, the so-called “little finger manuals” such as the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, which in turn gave rise to their own commentaries.
In the present paper I will attempt to trace the main stages in the origin and development of the dhamma theory and to explore its philosophical implications. Part I will discuss the early version of the theory as represented by the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. At this stage the theory was not yet precisely articulated but remained in the background as the unspoken premise of Abhidhamma analysis. It was during the commentarial period that an attempt was made to work out the implications of early Abhidhamma thought, and it is this development that I will treat in Part II. Finally, in Part III, I will discuss two other topics that received philosophical study as a consequence of the dhamma theory, namely, the category of the nominal and the conceptual (paññatti) and the theory of the twofold truth. Both of these were considered necessary measures to preserve the validity of the dhamma theory in relation to our routine, everyday understanding of ourselves and the world in which we dwell.
Although the dhamma theory is an Abhidhammic innovation, the antecedent trends that led to its formulation and its basic ingredients can be traced to the early Buddhist scriptures which seek to analyse empiric individuality and its relation to the external world. In the discourses of the Buddha there are five such modes of analysis. The first, the analysis into nāma and rūpa,  is the most elementary in the sense that it specifies the two main components, the mental and the corporeal aspects, of the empiric individual. The second is that into the five khandhas (aggregates): corporeality (rūpa), sensation (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhārā), and consciousness (viññāṇa).  The third is that into six dhātus (elements): earth (paṭhavī), water (āpo), temperature (tejo), air (vāyo), space (ākāsa), and consciousness (viññāṇa).  The fourth is that into twelve āyatanas (avenues of sense-perception and mental cognition): the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; and their corresponding objects: visible form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental objects.  The fifth is that into eighteen dhātus (elements), an elaboration of the immediately preceding mode obtained by the addition of the six kinds of consciousness which arise from the contact between the sense organs and their objects. The six additional items are the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousnesses. 
Now the purposes for which Buddhism resorts to these analyses are varied. For instance, the main purpose of the khandha-analysis is to show that there is no ego either inside or outside the five khandhas which go to make up the so-called empiric individuality. None of the khandhas belongs to me (n’etaṃ mama), they do not correspond to “I” (n’eso’ham asmi), nor are they my self (n’eso me attā).  Thus the main purpose of this analysis is to prevent the intrusion of the notions of “mine,” “I,” and “my self” into what is otherwise an impersonal and egoless congeries of mental and physical phenomena. On the other hand, the analysis into eighteen dhātus is often resorted to in order to show that consciousness is neither a soul nor an extension of a soul-substance but a mental phenomenon which comes into being as a result of certain conditions: there is no independent consciousness which exists in its own right.  In similar fashion each analysis is used to explain certain features of sentient existence. It is, in fact, with reference to these five kinds of analysis that Buddhism frames its fundamental doctrines. The very fact that there are at least five kinds of analysis shows that none of them can be taken as final or absolute. Each represents the world of experience in its totality, yet represents it from a pragmatic standpoint determined by the particular doctrine which it is intended to illuminate.
The Abhidhammic doctrine of dhammas developed from an attempt to draw out the full implications of these five types of analysis. It will be seen that if each analysis is examined in relation to the other four, it is found to be further analysable. That the first, the analysis into nāma and rūpa, is further analysable is seen by the second, the analysis into the five khandhas. For in the second, the nāma-component of the first is analysed into sensation, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. That the analysis into khandhas, too, can be further analysed is shown not only by the use of the term khandha, which means “group,” but also by the next analysis, that into six dhātus. For in the latter, the rūpa-component of the former is analysed into four, namely, earth water, temperature, and air. That the analysis into six dhātus is also further analysable is seen from the fact that consciousness, which is reckoned here as one item, is made into four in the khandha-analysis. That the same situation is true of the analysis into twelve āyatanas is shown by the next analysis, that into eighteen dhātus, because the latter is an elaboration of the former. This leaves us with the last, the dhātu-analysis with eighteen items. Can this be considered final? This supposition too must be rejected, because although consciousness is here itemised as sixfold, its invariable concomitants such as sensation (vedanā) and perception (saññā) are not separately mentioned. It will thus be seen that none of the five analyses can be considered exhaustive. In each case one or more items is further analysable.
This, it seems to me, is the line of thought that led the Ābhidhammikas to evolve still another mode of analysis which in their view is not amenable to further analysis. This new development, which is more or less common to all the systems of Abhidhamma, is the analysis of the world of experience into what came to be known as dharmas (Skt) or dhammas (Pāli). The term dhamma, of course, looms large in the discourses of the Buddha, found in a variety of senses which have to be determined by the specific context. In the Abhidhamma, however, the term assumes a more technical meaning, referring to those items that result when the process of analysis is taken to its ultimate limits. In the Theravāda Abhidhamma, for instance, the aggregate of corporeality (of the khandha-analysis) is broken down into twenty-eight items called rūpa-dhammas. The next three aggregates—sensation, perception, and mental formations—are together arranged into fifty-two items called cetasikas. The fifth, consciousness, is counted as one item with eighty-nine varieties and is referred to as citta. 
Thus the dhamma-analysis is an addition to the previous five modes of analyses. Its scope is the same, the world of conscious experience, but its divisions are finer and more exhaustive. This situation in itself does not constitute a radical departure from the earlier tradition, for it does not as yet involve a view of existence that is at variance with that of early Buddhism. There is, however, this situation to be noted: Since the analysis into dhammas is the most exhaustive, the previous five modes of analysis become subsumed under it as five subordinate classifications.
The definition and classification of these dhammas and the explanation of their inter-connections form the main subject matter of the canonical Abhidhamma. The Ābhidhammikas presuppose that to understand any given item properly is to know it in all its relations, under all aspects recognised in the doctrinal and practical discipline of Buddhism. Therefore, in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, they have classified the same material in different ways and from different points of view. This explains why, in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and other Abhidhamma treatises, one encounters innumerable lists of classifications. Although such lists may appear repetitive, even monotonous, they serve a useful purpose, bringing into relief, not only the individual characteristic of each dhamma, but also its relations to other dhammas.
With this same aim in view, in bringing out the nature of the dhammas, the Abhidhamma resorts to two complementary methods: that of analysis (bheda) and that of synthesis (saṅgaha). The analytical method dominates in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, which according to tradition is the first book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka; for here we find a complete catalogue of the dhammas, each with a laconic definition. The synthetical method is more characteristic of the Paṭṭhāna, the last book of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka; for here we find an exhaustive catalogue of the conditional relations of the dhammas. The combined use of these two methods shows that, according to the methodological apparatus employed in the Abhidhamma, “a complete description of a thing requires, besides its analysis, also a statement of its relations to certain other things.”  Thus if analysis plays an important role in the Abhidhamma’s methodology, no less important a role is played by synthesis. Analysis shows that the world of experience is resolvable into a plurality of factors; synthesis shows that these factors are not discrete entities existing in themselves but inter-connected and inter-dependent nodes in a complex web of relationships. It is only for the purpose of definition and description that things are artificially dissected. In actuality the world given to experience is a vast network of tightly interwoven relations.
This fact needs emphasis because the Abhidhammic doctrine of dhammas has sometimes been represented as a radical pluralism. Such an interpretation is certainly not admissible. It is mostly Stcherbatsky’s writings,  mainly based on the Sarvāstivāda sources, that has given currency to this incorrect interpretation. “Up to the present time,” observes Nyanaponika Thera, “it has been a regular occurrence in the history of physics, metaphysics, and psychology that when a whole has been successfully dissolved by analysis, the resultant parts come again to be regarded as little Wholes.”  This is the kind of process that culminates in radical pluralism. As we shall soon see, about a hundred years after the formulation of the dhamma-theory, such a trend surfaced within certain schools of Buddhist thought and culminated in the view that the dhammas exist in all three periods of time. But the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka did not succumb to this error of conceiving the dhammas as ultimate unities or discrete entities. In the Pāli tradition it is only for the sake of definition and description that each dhamma is postulated as if it were a separate entity; but in reality it is by no means a solitary phenomenon having an existence of its own. This is precisely why the mental and material dhammas are often presented in inter-connected groups. In presenting them thus the danger inherent in narrowly analytical methods has been avoided—the danger, namely, of elevating the factors resulting from analysis to the status of genuinely separate entities. Thus if analysis shows that composite things cannot be considered as ultimate unities, synthesis shows that the factors into which the apparently composite things are analysed (ghana-vinibbhoga) are not discrete entities. 
If this Abhidhammic view of existence, as seen from its doctrine of dhammas, cannot be interpreted as a radical pluralism, neither can it be interpreted as an out-and-out monism. For what are called dhammas—the component factors of the universe, both within us and outside us—are not fractions of an absolute unity but a multiplicity of co-ordinate factors. They are not reducible to, nor do they emerge from, a single reality, the fundamental postulate of monistic metaphysics. If they are to be interpreted as phenomena, this should be done with the proviso that they are phenomena with no corresponding noumena, no hidden underlying ground. For they are not manifestations of some mysterious metaphysical substratum, but processes taking place due to the interplay of a multitude of conditions.
In thus evolving a view of existence which cannot be interpreted in either monistic or pluralistic terms, the Abhidhamma accords with the “middle doctrine” of early Buddhism. This doctrine avoids both the eternalist view of existence which maintains that everything exists absolutely (sabbaṃ atthi)  and the opposite nihilistic view which maintains that absolutely nothing exists (sabbaṃ natthi).  It also avoids, on the one hand, the monistic view that everything is reducible to a common ground, some sort of self-substance (sabbaṃ ekattaṃ)  and, on the other, the opposite pluralistic view that the whole of existence is resolvable into a concatenation of discrete entities (sabbaṃ puthuttaṃ).  Transcending these two pairs of extremist views, the middle doctrine explains that phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena without a self-subsisting noumenon which serves as the ground of their being.
The inter-connection and inter-dependence of these dhammas are not explained on the basis of the dichotomy between substance and quality. Consequently, a given dhamma does not inhere in another as its quality, nor does it serve another as its substance. The so-called substance is only a product of our imagination. The distinction between substance and quality is denied because such a distinction leaves the door open for the intrusion of the doctrine of a substantial self (attavāda) with all that it entails. Hence it is with reference to causes and conditions that the inter-connection of the dhammas should be understood. The conditions are not different from the dhammas, for it is the dhammas themselves that constitute the conditions. How each dhamma serves as a condition (paccaya) for the origination of another (paccayuppanna) is explained on the basis of the system of conditioned genesis (paccayākāra-naya).  This system, which consists of twenty-four conditions, aims at demonstrating the inter-dependence and dependent co-origination (paṭicca-samuppāda) of all dhammas in respect of both their temporal sequence and their spatial concomitance.
The foregoing is a brief summary of the earliest phase of the dhamma theory as presented in the books of the Pāli Abhidhamma Piṭaka, particularly the Dhammasaṅgaṇī and the Paṭṭhāna. About a hundred years after its formulation, as a reaction against it, there emerged what came to be known as puggalavāda or “personalism,”  a philosophical theory that led to a further clarification of the nature of dhammas. Now here it may be noted that according to the early Buddhist discourses there is no denial as such of the concept of the person (puggala), if by “person” is understood, not an enduring entity distinct from the five khandhas nor an agent within the khandhas, but simply the sum total of the five causally connected and ever-changing khandhas. From the point of view of the dhamma-analysis, this can be restated by substituting the term dhamma for the term khandha, for the dhammas are the factors that obtain by analysis of the khandhas.
However, this way of defining the concept of person (puggala) did not satisfy some Buddhists. In their opinion the dhamma theory as presented by the Theravādins led to a complete depersonalization of the individual being and consequently failed to provide adequate explanations of such concepts as rebirth and moral responsibility. Hence these thinkers insisted on positing the person (puggala) as an additional reality distinct from the khandhas or dhammas. As recorded in the Kathāvatthu, the “Points of Controversy,” the main contention of the Puggalavādins or “Personalists” is that the person is known in a real and ultimate sense (saccikaṭṭhaparamaṭṭhena upalabbhati).  Against this proposition a number of counter-arguments are adduced, which need not concern us here. What interests us, however, is that in denying that the person is known in a real and ultimate sense, the Theravādins admit that the khandhas or dhammas are known in a real and ultimate sense. Thus in their view what is real and ultimate is not the person but the khandhas or dhammas that enter into its composition. 
Now the use of the two words, saccikaṭṭha and paramaṭṭha (“real and ultimate”) as indicative of the nature of dhammas seems to give the impression that in denying the reality of the person the Theravādins have overstressed the reality of the dhammas. Does this amount to the admission that the dhammas are real and discrete entities existing in their own right? Such a conclusion, it appears to us, is not tenable. For if the dhammas are defined as real and ultimate, this means, not that they partake of the nature of absolute entities, but that they are not further reducible to any other reality, to some kind of substance which underlies them. That is to say, there is no “behind the scenes” substance from which they emerge and to which they finally return. This means, in effect, that the dhammas represent the final limits of the Abhidhammic analysis of empirical existence. Hence this new definition does not erode the empirical foundation of the dhamma theory as presented by the Theravādins. Moreover, this view is quite consonant with the statement occurring in the earlier texts that the dhammas come to be without having been (ahutvā sambhonti) and disappear without any residue (hutvā paṭiventi). 
Why, unlike the dhammas, the person (puggala) is not recognised as real and ultimate needs explanation. Since the person is the sum total of the causally connected mental and corporeal dhammas that constitute the empiric individual, it lends itself to further analysis. And what is subject to analysis cannot be an irreducible datum of cognition. The opposite situation is true of the dhammas. This brings into focus two levels of reality: that which is amenable to analysis and that which defies further analysis. Analysability is the mark of composite things, and non-analysability the mark of the elementary constituents, the dhammas.
Another doctrinal controversy that has left its mark on the Theravāda version of the dhamma theory is the one concerning the theory of tri-temporal existence (sarvamastivāda). What is revolutionary about this theory, advanced by the Sarvāstivādins, is that it introduced a metaphysical dimension to the doctrine of dhammas and thus paved the way for the erosion of its empirical foundation. For this theory makes an empirically unverifiable distinction between the actual being of the dhammas as phenomena and their ideal being as noumena. It assumes that the substances of all dhammas persist in all the three divisions of time—past, present, and future—while their manifestations as phenomena are impermanent and subject to change. Accordingly, a dhamma actualizes itself only in the present moment of time, but “in essence” it continues to subsist in all the three temporal periods. As is well known, this resulted in the transformation of the dhamma theory into a svabhāvavāda, “the doctrine of own-nature.” It also paved the way for a veiled recognition, if not for a categorical assumption, of the distinction between substance and quality. What interests us here is the fact that although the Theravādins rejected this metaphysical theory of tri-temporal existence, including its qualified version as accepted by the Kāśyapīyas,  it was not without its influence on the Theravāda version of the dhamma theory.
This influence is to be seen in the post-canonical exegetical literature of Sri Lanka where, for the first time, the term sabhāva (Skt svabhāva) came to be used as a synonym for dhamma. Hence the recurrent definition: “Dhammas are so called because they bear their own nature” (attano sabhāvaṃ dhārentī ti dhammā).  Now the question that arises here is whether the Theravādins used the term sabhāva in the same sense as the Sarvāstivādins did. Did the Theravādins assume the metaphysical view that the substance of a dhamma persists throughout the three phases of time? In other words, does this amount to the admission that there is a duality between the dhamma and its sabhāva, between the bearer and the borne, a dichotomy which goes against the grain of the Buddhist doctrine of anattā?
This situation has to be considered in the context of the logical apparatus used by the Ābhidhammikas in defining the dhammas. This involves three main kinds of definition. The first is called agency definition (kattu-sādhana) because it attributes agency to the thing to be defined. Such, for example, is the definition of citta (consciousness) as “that which thinks” (cintetī ti cittaṃ).  The second is called instrumental definition (karaṇa-sādhana) because it attributes instrumentality to the thing to be defined. Such, for example, is the definition of citta as “that through which one thinks” (cintetī ti etena cittaṃ).  The third is called definition by nature (bhāva-sādhana) whereby the abstract nature of the thing to be defined is brought into focus. Such, for example, is the definition,“The mere act of thinking itself is citta (cintanamattam eva cittaṃ).” 
The first two kinds of definition, it is maintained, are provisional and as such are not valid from an ultimate point of view.  This is because the attribution of agency and instrumentality invests a dhamma with a duality when it is actually a unitary and unique phenomenon. Such attribution also leads to the wrong assumption that a given dhamma is a substance with inherent qualities or an agent which performs some kind of action. Such definitions are said to be based on tentative attribution (samāropana)  and thus are not ultimately valid.  It is as a matter of convention (vohāra), and for the sole purpose of facilitating the grasp of the idea to be conveyed,  that a duality is assumed by the mind in defining the dhamma, which is actually devoid of such duality.  Thus both agency and instrumental definitions are resorted to for the convenience of description, and as such they are not to be understood in their direct literal sense. On the other hand, what is called definition by nature (bhāvasādhana) is the one that is admissible in an ultimate sense.  This is because this type of definition brings into focus the real nature of a given dhamma without attributing agency or instrumentality to it, an attribution which creates the false notion that there is a duality within a unitary dhamma.
It is in the context of these implications that the definition of dhamma as that which bears its own nature has to be understood. Clearly, this is a definition according to agency (kattu-sādhana), and hence its validity is provisional. From this definition, therefore, one cannot conclude that a given dhamma is a substantial bearer of its qualities or “own-nature.” The duality between dhamma and sabhāva is only an attribution made for the convenience of definition. For in actual fact both terms denote the same actuality. Hence it is categorically stated that apart from sabhāva there is no distinct entity called a dhamma,  and that the term sabhāva signifies the mere fact of being a dhamma. 
If the dhamma has no function distinct from its sabhāva,  and if dhamma and sabhāva denote the same thing,  why is the dhamma invested with the function of bearing its own-nature? For this implies the recognition of an agency distinct from the dhamma. This, it is observed, is done not only to conform with the inclinations of those who are to be instructed,  but also to impress upon us the fact that there is no agent behind the dhamma.  The point being emphasised is that the dynamic world of sensory experience is not due to causes other than the self-same dhammas into which it is finally reduced. It is the inter-connection of the dhammas through causal relations that explains the variety and diversity of contingent existence and not some kind of transempirical reality which serves as their metaphysical ground. Nor is it due to the fiat of a Creator God  because there is no Divine Creator over and above the flow of mental and material phenomena. 
Stated otherwise, the definition of dhamma as that which bears its own-nature means that any dhamma represents a distinct fact of empirical existence which is not shared by other dhammas. Hence sabhāva is also defined as that which is not held in common by others (anaññasādhāraṇa),  as the nature peculiar to each dhamma (āveṇika-sabhāva),  and as the own-nature is not predicable of other dhammas (asādhāraṇa-sabhāva).  It is also observed that if the dhammas are said to have own-nature (saka-bhāva = sabhāva), this is only a tentative device to drive home the point that there is no other-nature (para-bhāva) from which they emerge and to which they finally lapse. 
Now this commentarial definition of dhamma as sabhāva poses an important problem, for it seems to go against an earlier Theravāda tradition recorded in the Paṭisambhidāmagga. This canonical text specifically states that the five aggregates are devoid of own-nature (sabhāvena-suññaṃ).  Since the dhammas are the elementary constituents of the five aggregates, this should mean that the dhammas, too, are devoid of own-nature. What is more, does not the very use of the term sabhāva, despite all the qualifications under which it is used, give the impression that a given dhamma exists in its own right? And does this not amount to the admission that a dhamma is some kind of substance?
The commentators were not unaware of these implications and they therefore took the necessary steps to forestall such a conclusion. This they sought to do by supplementing the former definition with another which actually nullifies the conclusion that the dhammas might be quasi-substances. This additional definition states that a dhamma is not that which bears its own-nature, but that which is borne by its own conditions (paccayehi dhāriyantī ti dhammā).  Whereas the earlier definition is agent-denotation (kattusādhana) because it attributes an active role to the dhamma, elevating it to the position of an agent, the new definition is object-denotation (kamma-sādhana) because it attributes a passive role to the dhamma and thereby downgrades it to the position of an object. What is radical about this new definition is that it reverses the whole process which otherwise might culminate in the conception of dhammas as substances or bearers of their own-nature. What it seeks to show is that, far from being a bearer, a dhamma is being borne by its own conditions.
Consonant with this situation, it is also maintained that there is no other thing called a dhamma than the “quality” of being borne by conditions.  The same idea is expressed in the oft-recurrent statement that what is called a dhamma is the mere fact of occurrence due to appropriate conditions.  In point of fact, in commenting upon the Paṭisambhidāmagga statement that the five aggregates—and, by implication, the dhammas—are devoid of sabhāva, the commentator observes that since the aggregates have no self-nature, they are devoid of own-nature.  It will thus be seen that although the term sabhāva is used as a synonym for dhamma, it is interpreted in such a way that it means the very absence of sabhāva in any sense that implies a substantial mode of being.
Another common definition of dhamma is that which bears its own characteristic, salakkhaṇa.  Since salakkhaṇa is used in the same sense as sabhāva, this definition carries more or less the same implications. That each dhamma has its own characteristic is illustrated with reference to colour, which is one of the secondary material elements. Although colour is divisible as blue, yellow, etc., the characteristic peculiar to all varieties of colour is their visibility (sanidassanatā).  Hence it is also called paccatta-lakkhaṇa, individual characteristic.  As in the case of dhamma and sabhāva, so in the case of dhamma and salakkhaṇa, too, their duality is only a convenient assumption made for the purpose of definition. For it is a case of attributing duality to that which has no duality.  And since it is only an attribution it is based on interpretation (kappanāsiddha)  and not on actuality (bhāvasiddha).  Hence the definition of earth element (paṭhavī-dhātu) as “that which has” the characteristic of solidity (kakkhaḷatta-lakkhaṇā)  is said to be invalid from an ultimate point of view, because of the assumed duality between the earth element and its characteristic. The correct definition is the one which states that solidity itself is the earth element, for this does not assume a distinction between the characteristic and what is characterised thereby. 
As the own-characteristic (salakkhaṇa) represents the characteristic peculiar to each dhamma, the universal characteristics (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa) are the characteristics common to all the dhammas. If the former is individually predicable, the latter are universally predicable.  Their difference goes still further. As the own-characteristic is another name for the dhamma, it represents a fact having an objective counterpart. It is not a product of mental construction (kappanā)  but an actual datum of objective existence and as such an ultimate datum of sense experience. On the other hand, what is called universal characteristic has no objective existence because it is a product of mental construction, the synthetic function of mind, and is superimposed on the ultimate data of empirical existence.
On this interpretation, the three characteristics of conditioned reality (saṅkhata-lakkhaṇa)—namely, origination (uppāda), cessation (vaya), and the alteration of that which exists (ṭhitassa aññathatta)—are universal characteristics (sāmañña-lakkhaṇa). Because they have no objective reality they are not elevated to the status of dhammas. If they were to be so elevated, that would undermine the very foundation of the dhamma theory. If, for instance, origination (uppāda), subsistence (ṭhiti), and dissolution (bhaṅga)  are postulated as real and discrete entities, then it would be necessary to postulate another set of secondary characteristics to account for their own origination, subsistence, and dissolution, thus resulting in an infinite regress (anavaṭṭhāna).  This is the significance of the commentarial observation: “It is not correct to assume that origination originates, decay decays, and cessation ceases because such an assumption leads to the fallacy of infinite regress.”  The difference between the particular characteristic and the universal characteristic is also shown in the way they become knowable (ñeyya), for while the particular characteristic is known as a datum of sense perception (paccakkha-ñāṇa), the universal characteristic is known through a process of inference (anumānañāṇa). 
In what sense the dhammas represent the final limits into which empirical existence can be analysed is another question that drew the attention of the Theravāda commentators. It is in answer to this that the term paramattha came to be used as another expression for dhamma. It was noted earlier that the use of this term in this sense was occasioned by the Theravādins’ response to the Puggalavādins’ assertion that the person exists as real and ultimate. In the Abhidhammic exegesis this term paramattha is defined to mean that which has reached its highest (uttama),  implying thereby that the dhammas are ultimate existents with no possibility of further reduction. Hence own-nature (sabhāva) came to be further defined as ultimate nature (paramattha-sabhāva). 
The term paramattha is sometimes paraphased as bhūtattha (the actual).  This is explained to mean that the dhammas are not non-existent like an illusion or mirage or like the soul (purisa) and primordial nature (pakati) of the non-Buddhist schools of thought.  The evidence for their existence is not based either on conventions (sammuti) or on mere scriptural authority (anussava).  On the contrary, their very existence is vouchsafed by their own intrinsic nature.  The very fact of their existence is the very mark of their reality. As the Visuddhimagga observes: “It (= dhamma) is that which, for those who examine it with the eye of understanding, is not misleading like an illusion, deceptive like a mirage, or undiscoverable like the self of the sectarians, but is rather the domain of noble knowledge as the real unmisleading actual state.”  The kind of existence implied here is not past or future existence, but present actual and verifiable existence (saṃvijjamānatā).  This emphasis on their actuality in the present phase of time rules out any association with the Sarvāstivādins’ theory of tri-temporal existence. Thus, for the Theravādin, the use of the term paramattha does not carry any substantialist implications. It only means that the mental and material dhammas represent the utmost limits to which the analysis of empirical existence can be pushed.
The description of dhammas as paramattha means not only their objective existence (paramatthato vijjamānatā) but also their cognizability in an ultimate sense (paramatthato upalabbhamānatā).  The first refers to the fact that the dhammas obtain as the ultimate, irreducible data of empirical existence. The second refers to the fact that, as such, the content of our cognition can also be finally analysed into the self-same elements. This is not to suggest that it is only the dhammas that become objects of knowledge; for it is specifically stated that even paññattis, i.e. concepts, which are the products of the synthetical function of the mind and hence lack objective counterparts, are also knowable (ñeyya). 
In point of fact, in the technical terminology of the Abhidhamma, the term dhamma is sometimes used in a wider sense to include anything that is knowable.  In this sense, not only the ultimate realities—the dhammas proper—but also the products of mental interpretation are called dhammas. To distinguish the two, the latter are called asabhāva-dhammas, i.e. dhammas devoid of objective reality.  The use of this term in this wider sense is reminiscent of its earlier meaning as shown in the Pāli Nikāyas, where it is used in a very general sense to include all cognizable things on the empirical level. However, there is this situation to be noted: Although both dhammas and concepts (paññattis or asabhāva-dhammas) constitute the content of knowledge, it is into the dhammas that the content of knowledge can be finally analysed. Thus there is a close parallelism between the dhammas on the one hand and the contents of knowledge on the other. That is to say, the ultimate irreducible data of cognition are the subjective counterparts of the ultimate irreducible data of objective existence.
If the term paramattha