Abhidharmic views of karma
The dialogues of the Buddha were generally delivered to ordinary people in ordinary language, and so they adhered to the relatively loose linguistic and conceptual conventions of society at large. The purpose of abhidharma is supposed to be to convey the teachings of the Buddha in a more exact and systematic way that is, ideally at least, as free as possible of figurative expressions and other kinds of conceptual shortcuts. The purpose of this section is to examine the discussion of karma as found in the Abhidharmakośa of the fourth century C.E. Indian abhidharma specialist Vasubandhu.
Criterion of substantial reality (dravyasat)
Ideally any abhidharmic account of experience should refer only to things that are ultimately or substantially real (dravyataḥ sat), as opposed to things that are established only in virtue of the agreement of society. The principal criterion of being ultimately real, as opposed to being a convenient social fiction, is stated by Vasubandhu to be simplicity or irreducibility. That which cannot be broken down, either physically or conceptually, into more primitive constituents is said to be ultimately or substantially real. But that which can be physically broken or analyzed into more simple concepts is said to be only conventionally real.
A piece of pottery, for example, can be broken into shards, and those shards can in turn be broken down further, in principle at least, until one finally arrives at individual atoms that are not further divisible. The pottery is therefore considered real only in virtue of a social convention that arises because the pottery serves the practical needs of the community that puts it to some specific use. To state the matter another way, a pot is a pot only insofar as it is perceived as serving the needs of people who make use of it as a vessel for storage, cooking, carrying and so forth. Once these needs no longer exist, or once the item called a pot no longer serves those needs, the word “pot” either falls into disuse altogether or ceases to be applicable to that item. A configuration of atoms that serves no specific function to society has no specific name and therefore does not have any conventional existence as a separate object. Such a configuration of atoms simply remains an indistinct part of the perceptual background. The individual atoms, on the other hand, exist independently of any social conventions. Moreover, they are the ultimate building blocks from which all other physical objects are made. And so the atoms, unlike the objects that are composed of them, are, according to Vasubandhu’s criterion, ultimately real.
Abhidharmic notions of the person
Applying Vasubandhu’s criterion of what is ultimately real to the realm of human behavior leads to the abhidharmic analysis of the complex, known conventionally as a person, into constituent parts that are themselves not susceptible to further analysis. What is conventionally called a person is analyzed by abhidharma first into two broad sets of components, namely, the physical body and the collection of mental properties.
The mental aspect of the person is analyzed into four categories: 1) the capacity to sense physical pleasure and pain; 2) the capacity to recognize patterns; 3) the six types of sensory awareness corresponding to the the five external sense faculties and the intellect; and 4) a large number of habits and abilities that collectively define personality or character. A great deal of abhidharmic literature is devoted to giving precise definitions of these constituent parts and giving a coherent account of how they interact.