People who are new to Buddhism are often struck by the fact that Buddhist literature is full of lists. Indeed, much of the sutta material can be regarded as exposition based on lists of various components of the Buddha’s teaching: the three jewels, the four noble truths, the five aggregates, the five precepts, the six sense spheres, the noble eightfold path, the ten unwholesome courses of action, the twelvefold chain of dependent co-arising, the eighteen sense elements, and so on. Clearly the proliferation of lists in early Buddhist literature has something to do with its being an oral literature, for lists are very powerful mnemonic devices.

Historical Role of Lists

In the context of Indian culture, Buddhist literature is not unique in this regard: rather, early Indian literature as a whole was composed orally and only later became fixed in the form of written texts, and some degree of use of categorizations and lists is characteristic of traditional Indian learning. Buddhist literature, however, goes further in its use of lists: it proceeds with the principle of compiling lists within lists, creating a structure in which one list functions as a matrix for a whole series of further lists, each of which is then carefully analyzed. For instance, the list of the four noble truths subsumes the list of the noble eightfold path under the category of the fourth truth of the path to the cessation of suffering; the list of the noble eightfold path subsumes the list of the four applications of mindfulness (i.e., contemplation of body, feelings, mind, and Dhamma) under the category of “right mindfulness” as well as the list of the four jhanas under the category of “right concentration.” As Rupert Gethin notes, “using the lists is not merely an aid to learning the Dhamma by rote, as it were; on the contrary, the lists help one learn the Dhamma with a view to its inner structure and dynamic […] Thus to learn and know the lists is to learn and know how they fit together, how they interconnect to form the structure and pattern of the Dhamma” (p. 155).

Development of Abhidhamma

Towards the close of the Nikaya period, Buddhist literature begins to employ the term matika to signify composite matrices for lists. The careful analysis of these complex lists and their sub-categories becomes the basis and literary characteristic of the third basket of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma-pitaka, and of the particular system of thought set out in those texts and their commentaries, i.e., the Abhidhamma. To the outside observer, the proliferating lists of the Abhidhamma might seem artificial and ultimately meaningless. But, in fact, they provide a clue to the intimate relationship between memory, mindfulness and meditation in Buddhism. As Gethin explains, from its inception, Buddhism urges us to realize that our disease stems from our grasping at and fixing the world of experience. “Try to grasp the world of [the texts of the Abhidhamma-pitaka], and it runs through one’s fingers. In short, the indefinite expansions based on the matikas continually remind those using them that it is of the nature of things that no single way of breaking up and analyzing the world can ever be final” (p. 165).

Memory, Mindfulness, and Recitation

The matikas, just like the Abhidhamma texts, are not meant to be read, but rather to be performed. The lists are devoted to exposition of different psychophysical processes, different types of mind, different types of consciousness. When reciting or “performing” the lists, one must keep awake, for if one falls asleep, one will not know where one is in the text and, in this sense, in one’s practice. At this level, memory becomes mindfulness: the mindful recitation of the matikas “acts as a series of ‘reminders’ of the Buddha’s teaching and how it is applied in the sutta. The recitation operates as a kind of recollection of Dhamma, a traditional subject of meditation” (p. 167). Each list offers us a rich source for contemplation and study, providing an expansive and detailed explication of the liberating path.

We have prepared several charts to accompany the study of these primary Buddhist lists. May they support your realization of the path.

Note: This summary is based on Rupert Gethin’s article, “The Matikas: Memorization, Mindfulness, and the List,” in Janet Gyatso (ed.), In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, NY: SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 149-172.