How do EBTs establish the reality of other people?

Sensual pleasures are to be disdained in the training of the noble ones. The correct attitude toward sensual pleasures and pains is equanimity.

Sentient creatures, however, get much more than this. They get not just equanimity, but lovingkindness, compassion, and rejoicing.

One might say that they should not get this special treatment, and that all our evidence of the existence of sentient creatures is simply sensory data, which is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

How do we know that sentient creatures exist, except through the senses? And aren’t the senses impermanent, untrustworthy, and an aggregate not worthy of clinging? Why then do we cling to the idea that sentient creatures are real, and worthy of our ethical consideration?

In short, why isn’t Buddhism just solipsism and meditation? What’s the basis for the interpersonal ethics? Is it not just to attain (pleasing) sensory experiences, in the form of visible/audible/other sensory data? And shouldn’t we be dissatisfied by this?


Virtue is a cause for enlightenment (e.g. AN 10.2), so the basis for interpersonal ethics is that it is adaptive towards the goal of ending suffering.

If you have a view that makes it hard to be ethical (e.g. you don’t think other beings are real or conscious), that is unadaptive toward the goal of ending suffering.



I suppose that another way to put my question is as follows: Given that my entire experience of other people can be reduced to the aggregates, what is it that makes other people morally salient in a way that “sights pleasant to the eye/sounds pleasant to the ear” are not?

I agree that they are, but my reasons for agreeing are not EBT reasons. I would be interested to know of any passages about this specific question because I’ve often been impressed by the philosophical acumen of the EBTs on other questions.


Good question! I think in a sutta Sariputta says that there’s no suffering (as there are only phenomena, paraphrasing.) but the Buddha says ‘don’t say that, don’t say that, Sariputta’ there is suffering. The Buddha was wise and compassionate to know when to apply the heart and when to apply knowledge. I think I read a sutta where the Buddha says a person with insight knows ‘both worlds’ but not confuse which one it is. Just remember that at stream entry the person goes beyond rites and rituals and beyond good and bad in enlightenment, but they retain a sense of what’s normal behaviour. You could say that morality has become ingrained or ‘worked into the soil’ of an arahanth’smind and behaviour.


I am suggesting that moral salience comes from recognizing the causal relationship between your actions and the ending of suffering.

I.e. it is true that people really exist* because it is useful to believe this to generate the skillful emotions necessary for awakening. (A pragmatist notion of truth).

Pleasant sights and sounds (without any qualifications) don’t share this relationship.

*That something ‘really exists’ is really just a way to express that something is important anyway :stuck_out_tongue:

Edit: But this is not really the EBT answer you are looking for, sorry for going off on a tangent!


It’s a good question, and you could also ask why a concern for the welfare of others is necessary if the goal is just to attain the “personal salvation” of Nibbana. Why are the path factors of Right Intention, Right Action, Right Speech and Right Action required? Is this related to kamma in some way?


Another thing I don’t understand is that someone else cannot hand me my liberation. I have to find my own salvation, and therefore it’s quite personal but why is it seen as ‘selfish’?

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You can’t establish the reality of anything using Buddhism, so-called EBT or otherwise. For nothing is more evident than the Buddha’s rejection of abstract ontological inquiries. It is a general trait of Indian psychology. The Buddha presumes that you are interested in experiencing something, rather than knowing something. Or to be more exacting: he encourages you to align knowledge with experience and to make it subservient to experience. Thus, nothing is real independently from what is strictly experienced: an idea of “others” is real, the sensorial manifestations of others are real, not because we can know others to be in fact real, but solely because we are actually and already experiencing ideas and sensorial stimuli which we call “others”. Etc.

Buddhism goes further in the direction of what may appear as solipsism by adding that there is nothing substantial or important in the sum of all experience, except solely for the fact that it can be used to bring about salvation, precisely, from being subjected to the bodily and emotional impact of experience itself. That which does not make Buddhism solipsistic is that it places significance on certain possible outcomes of experience, the outcome of transcending experience. Thus the significance of experience, any experience, including moral conscience (as friend @Erik_ODonnell notes), is that it is something that is to be used for a certain purpose, that of emancipation from being conditioned by what we experience. Such utterly teleological and pragmatic nature of Buddhism renders it more of a science than a philosophy or religion; it is just not science in the same way science is defined in the west.

The Buddha refused to address abstract ontological questions such as that which you’ve just posted here, and once the person who posed the question departed, he would then turn to the wondering mendicants and explain to them why he didn’t answer, and how such entire domain of inquiry is mired in suffering. It is not suffering as in “ouch” or “pain”, but that which arises in the form of endless confusion and uncertainty brought about by seeking truth in “ideas” rather than in experiences. This never means that ideas or ideation are wholly wrong or bad, but only that they are unreliable and impossible sources of truth, and quite often, vigorous and prolific sources of precisely falsehood. And you will agree that the many ideas that we once had about many “things” were later proven in experience to be utterly false; this is precisely the means by which obsession turns into disenchantment and love, into hate!

What you find established instead, and abundantly, in the so-called EBT, or what I like to call Pali literature, is how to verify truth in experience, and particularly, truth about how suffering gets to “stop”:

“When this happens, that happens. When this stops, that stops!”


But if other people are merely sense-impressions, why are we concerned with their welfare? Why does the path include sila, and why do we practice brahma viharas? Wouldn’t ignoring other people or doing solitary practice be a simpler and more effective method of attaining Nibbana? Or is caring about others a means to an end in the context of the path, a sort of enlightened self-interest?

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I’d like to rephrase your opening paragraph, if that is OK with you @Gus, thus:

Sensual pleasures are to be understood as suffering in the training of the noble ones. The goal is to develop equanimity toward sensual pleasures and pains.

I can’t force myself into equanimity right now, necessarily, but by looking at whatever is causing me pleasure or pain and seeing how my attachment/revulsion towards it makes me suffer, I can let go of my positive/negative clinging and move into a state of equanimity.


This statement reverses the authority, the brahma viharas only extend as far as the brahma realms, only insight can result in total release.

"But why, Sariputta — when there was still more to be done, having established Dhanañjanin the brahman in the inferior Brahma world — did you get up from your seat and leave?”—-MN 97

Furthermore the correct attitude towards feelings of the flesh is to replace them with feelings not of the flesh, and that requires more than equanimity.
“Even though a disciple of the noble ones has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, still — if he has not attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that — he can be tempted by sensuality. But when he has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, and he has attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that, he cannot be tempted by sensuality.”—MN 14

The brahma viharas allow those with developed insight to exist in conventional reality without conflict, they are the Theravada social attitudes.

Generally we don’t see inanimate objects as being able to receive these (lovingkindness, compassion, and rejoicing-in-others-joy). But if one does see it that way, then why not send (for example) compassion to a rock if you think the rock is suffering? I wonder, would that run counter to the EBTs?

As long as there is a delusion of self there is a delusion of others. As long as we think there are others we need to deal with them. We can deal with them with either love our hate. Love leads to stillness of heart and hate leads to agitation of heart. Stillness of heart leads to wisdom; agitation leads to ignorance. Wisdom leads to understanding the delusion of self; ignorance leads nowhere.

You can’t ignore others when they are in your head. To remove the delusion of others, you must remove the delusion of self.

I was reading some time ago about a monk (Sumedho) training with Ajahn Chah. While the other monks were working hard doing some building work, Sumedho decided that he just wanted to meditate, so he went to Ajahn Chah and asked to be relieved of duties so he could meditate in his hut. Skillfully Ajahn Chah called the rest of the monks together and said something along the lines of: “Sumedho wants to meditate, this is very wholesome and we must respect his wishes. The rest of us can do the work and Sumedho can go and meditate”. So off went Sumedho to meditate, but he just couldn’t get the other monks working away while he sat meditating out of his head. His attempts at meditation were shot to pieces. Eventually he had to get up and go and join the others, help with the work and only then was he ready for meditation.


Maybe this has some explanation of why it’s seen as selfish:


Are you saying that other people don’t really exist?


‘They’ don’t exist; ‘they’ don’t not exist; ‘they’ don’t exist and not exist; ‘they’ don’t neither exist nor not exist. Is that all bases covered? :wink:

‘They’ do however arise and fall as per the EBTs definition of dependent origination. ‘They’ are in process.

The filing of a glass with water also empties the glass of air. Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? :wink:

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OK, so “people” are just processes. But what purpose does caring about them serve, in the context of the 8-fold path? Does it go beyond developing skillful mental states for ourselves, or creating more supportive conditions for our own practice? Is caring about others more than a means to an end (attaining Nibbana), more than a spiritual version of enlightened self-interest?


As I understand the EBTs Nibbana isn’t an end, it’s the end. There’s nothing beyond that. I don’t think there is any self-interest, enlightened or otherwise at Nibbana. All ways and means disappear. But yes, the Noble Eightfold path is the way to the “end of suffering”, which to me is a rather inclusive term as it’s not about the “end of my suffering”. In this respect I like that simile of the herd of buffalo crossing a river at a ford. The herdman goes first with the big bull buffalos (Buddha and immediate senior disciples), then the rest follow. All the way at the back is a young calf newly born being urged on by the lowing of their mother. This way we are all in process together. Separating us and others just isn’t a possibility.


Having thought about it a little more I guess an interesting question might be: what differentiates you from me in the context of the EBTs?

For me, I think that the only differentiating bit is kamma, which is part of the 4th aggregate if my understanding is right? All the rest is common stuff - it is ‘part’ or ‘belongs’ to all of ‘us’.

What do you think? What’s your answer?


I think we are confusing the contexts: there are two - for purposes of dissolving the confusion it is conventional and ultimate. I know these are commentarial but are really useful. Conventionally speaking there are people. Ultimately speaking there are the five aggregates. Language and concepts doesn’t mean the same thing in those different contexts. Conventional impermanence (growth of a tree) isn’t the same as the rapid arising and passing away aggregates. Conventional cause and effect (you shout and someone gets annoyed) isn’t the same as consciousness gives rise to contact, and ‘people’ as a convention doesn’t exist at the level of aggregates and sensory phenomena. You can’t talk of people and subatomic structures. Those concepts and even laws aren’t meaningful at a quantum level. So it’s best to talk about having compassion towards people, as it’s meaningful at that degree of ignorance.


It is interesting question for me, I feel it is closely related to bodhisattva vow of Mahayana.

Looking at dhammapada self section, there is this verse

Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

With parallel verse from Patna dhammapada

One should not neglect one’s own good for another’s, however great;
knowing further what is good for oneself
should be the supreme good.

And this from sedaka sutta

“And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, lovingkindness, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

One would feel that EBT is quite selfish, or at least the training method is self-centered.

However the same sedaka sutta also say

“And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

And this metaphor

One which stuck in mud cannot help other get outside the mud

Which I think says to protect other, one need to cultivate oneself first.