A Study of the Usages and Meanings of Ākāra in Abhidharma
This essay is a study of the term ākāra in terms of its usages and meanings in abhidharma. The term ākāra has a remarkably rich history of meaning. It can mean “appearance” and “way” in pre-abhidharmic Sanskrit and Pāli sources, or “insight” (prajñā) in Sarvāstivādin Vaibhāṣikas’s orthodox definition in *Mahāvibhāṣāśāstra, or the “mode of” (prakāra) all thought and thought concomitants that grasp cognitive objects according to Vasubandhu’s revision in Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, or “mental activity” and “representational image” in Puguang’s commentary on Xuanzang’s translation of Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. The term ākāra also plays a role in almost all major Buddhist doctrinal contexts, including the Sarvāstivāda contemplation model in its path theory as well as more general contexts of meditation and perception. Chapter one examines the meaning of the term ākāra in pre-abhidharmic Sanskrit and Pāli sources. Chapter two focuses on the famous scheme of the “four noble truths and sixteen ākāras” found in the Sarvāstivāda path theory and its possible sūtraic ancestor in the narrative of the Buddha turning the dharma-wheel, and thereby reveals connections between the term ākāra as used in both the sūtras and abhidharma. Chapter three examines the various contexts in which the term ākāra is applied in abhidharma in order to uncover possible connections among them. Chapter four explores the evolving meanings of the term ākāra as a concept that has been interpreted and re-interpreted within the flowing river of doctrinal history. In addition to revealing the usages and meanings of the term, this study will also use the term ākāra as a test case to illustrate innovations in abhidharma systems and methods, in the hope of bringing out important aspects of the history of abhidharma.