The reality according to Theravada Buddhism

I read in an academic Buddhist scholar that in the Abhidhamma and commentaries, Theravada Buddhism has a realist position, i.e., it asserts that the phenomenal world exists outside the beings who perceive it.
And this scholar says that Theravada rejects the substantiality of phenomena, even if they appear outside our mind.

What this scholar said threw my mind off, because I thought that Theravada had a radical understanding of emptiness, that is, I thought that Theravada asserted that there is no reality outside of phenomena.
Moreover, I don’t understand how one can say “there is no substance” and at the same time say “phenomena exist outside of the mind”, since “existing outside of perception” is precisely “existing objectively, substantially”.

Please clear up my misunderstanding. Thank you.

May the beings awaken by tens of myriads.

This is a common misunderstanding due to non-recognition the path has two stages, the first of the learner dealing with conditioned phenomena, the second the arahant, having developed the skills, releasing that situation. In the suttas the Buddha commonly takes the second position when addressing monks, leading beginners to misjudge and take it as relevant to them, when in fact they should be applying themselves to the first- developing skills with conditioned phenomena- described here and in a minority of suttas:

“And what sort of practice is the practice leading to the cessation of skillful habits? There is the case where a monk generates desire…for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen…for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen…for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…(and) for the…development & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. This sort of practice is the practice leading to the cessation of skillful habits.”—Majhima Nikaya 78

The sutta above is addressed to a layperson, and so appropriate instruction to western lay practitioners. An intermediate level practitioner is able to maintain the dual perspective of two simultaneous realities held by the arahant:

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:
Would he say, ‘I speak’?
Would he say, ‘They speak to me’?”

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:
He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’

Skillful,
knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”—Samyutta Nikaya 1.25

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I think the Suttas also hold the above position; however the Suttas also strongly emphasize how the perceiver can impute wrong views & interpretations upon the external world.

In Theravāda all dhammas are empty of an atta, but they aren’t empty of their defining characteristics. The characteristic of a dhammas is it’s sabhāva. For example, the defining characteristic of the earth element is “hardness” or “softness”. Apart from it’s characteristic, there is no earth element. There are then no substances, behind sense experience, which bear the characteristics for this would be a nod to substance theory, namely that of independent and permanent realities behind sense experience, of which the atta is one kind that is posited. Our everyday language however makes use of substances, for ease of communication. When we say “the apple is red and sweet” the sentence is saying there is an “apple” which bears the characteristics of “red” and “sweet”. The apple is the bearer of a characteristic, and so is a type of substance here. What we directly experience however is never an “apple”. We only ever directly experience “redness” and “sweetness”. From these raw experiences, the sabhāva-dhammas in Theravādin terms, we mentally construct the concept of “apple”. The same applies when we mentally construct the idea of a self. As they are mere concepts however, mentally constructed and with no true referent to which the word “apple” and “self” applies, they are unreal. Thus, “apples” or “houses” or “attas” are ultimately unreal, being merely conventional, but the raw experience itself of “red” or “blue” or “hard” or “hot” are real. Where it gets a little confusing to me is when this phenomenalism takes on a more ontological dimension. For example, in the Visuddhimagga the fire element is just “heat” but this “heat” also has causal effects by generating matter. Personally, the phenomenalist aspect of it makes sense to me, but the ontological side of it is a bit confusing. Or, to put it another way, it makes sense to me epistemologically but its a bit confusing ontologically. On a side note, Mahāyānists tend to go further. Not only are “houses” or “apples” or “attas” mentally constructed, imputed by the mind, but so are the sabhāva-dhammas themselves. To them then even the raw experience of “hardness” etc is, ultimately, unreal being itself a fictitious construction.

If I were to compare the Theravādin theory to Western philosophy I would say the best comparison would be with the Phenomenalism (note, not Phenomenology which is different) of John Mill or Ernst Mach, as far as I understand their thought.

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Thank you very much.

So I had indeed misunderstood Theravada: Theravada denies substance, but accepts some form of external reality behind the phenomena.

And honestly, at the moment, I feel psychologically much more compatible with the Mahayanist approach (saying that there is no external reality at all) than the Theravadin approach…

Therefore, it disturbs me a lot that a lot of Buddhist currents support the existence of an external reality, because in addition to the Theravada, there are the Sarvastivadin (Vaibhasika), Vibhajyavadin, Sautrantika… That’s a lot of people. Especially since these currents are historically closer to Gautama Buddha than are the Mahayana currents…
It’s quite worrying for me, because now I think that the Buddha’s position might not have been so radical after all, and I don’t feel very compatible with it…

Theravada rejects substance, and doesn’t accept an external reality behind phenomena, but it does accept an external world. If we take phenomena to mean “dhamma” there is nothing behind them. They are momentary events. There is no subject vs quality distinction in Theravada. On the other hand, various schools of Hindu thought at the time claimed there were things behind our changing phenomenal experience. Behind the changing world of our sense experience were independently existing substances. The Atman is one such substance. Jainism too thought in terms of independent substances behind experience which, once again, their atta was one. The Atman is a substance. It comes from thinking in terms of substance theory. Buddhists deny substance, although the Sarvastivadins seems to have fallen into it since their dhammas had “dravya-sat” or “substantial existence”. Sarvastivada here also applying to the Pudgalavada since they too accepted dhammas existing substantially in the three times.

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I would just say that while in some sense this is clearly true, and many of the sectarian schools mention where in existence before the major efflorescence of Mahayana literature around the beginning of the common era, I think ot is dangerous to suppose that this means that they are philosophically closer to the original teaching. Temporal proximity is not equivalent to philosophical proximity.

This tends to be a tacit conciet of many Theravada apologists, that Mahayana, being historically more recent than much of the Abhidhamma literature is therfore “furthur” from the original teaching.

I would just point out that many defenders of Mahayana see it as precicely a reform movment aimed at counteracting the Abhidhamma literatures corruption of the original teaching, that is they see the Mahayana as correcting the substantialist tendancies that have crept into the sects, especially in thier Abhidhamma literature amd as returning to the “original” anti-substantialist message of the Buddha.

Theravada of course, as we have it now, is a much later development than either the 18 early schools or the early Mahayana.

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Well it depends on your Mahayana. For Madhyamaka the external world exists, conventionally, but ultimately we can’t speak of existence or non-existence at all. For Yogacarins the external world exists conventionally, but it’s a product of our labelling mind. However, for them something does exist ultimately but it just can’t be named or conceptually grasped. The later sub-commentaries of Theravada take a somewhat similar view, in a way, since they say that although the sabhava dhammas exist they can only be known directly and so words don’t really capture them. For example, we can say “pain” but the concept doesn’t quite capture the raw experience itself, and by labelling it so we might miss the real experience for our concept of it.

As for the Sautrantika, they accepted an external world but all we can know are mental representations in the mind. This laid the groundwork for the later Yogacara to develop.

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There are Mahayana arguments that can be used against Theravada, but the common ones are more aimed at Sarvastivadin theories than Theravadin ones (the ones about inherent existence etc). The main argument I’ve read comes from Venerable Chandrakirti. If a bearer of the characteristic doesn’t exist, how can you say the quality (redness) does? It’s an interesting question for Theravadins like me.

Just to note, I’m once again including Pudglavada here as they also accepted tri-temporal realism, Ven. Nagarjuna himself likely having been a member of that school rather than what we know of as Sarvastivada proper i.e. Vaibashika.

I dont claim to know anything about Theravada philosophy, but the above pocture is completely absent from the early buddhist sutta material and is frankly nonsensical.

We literally never experience “raw” sweetness and/or “raw” redness, we only ever experience things like “eating an apple”, of which we might declare; “it was red” and “it was sweet”.

It appears that, if the above qoute is representative of Theravada, that that school has taken the early sutta material and pressed it into the service of precicely a substance theory, where there are real existing things (sweetness, redness etc) that combine to form fictional, non existent things (apples etc). The fact that these substances are impermanent is irrelevant, the point is that they are allegeded to be real existants that bear the supossedly fictional phenomena, like apples, that we take as our everyday reality. There is nothing like this picture described in the early sutta material.

Experience is always described in terms of the contact between object and sensativity giving rise to consciousness, there is never any implication that any of the factors of the analysis are more or less real or unreal, or any implication that they are “momentary”.

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Please, Theravada accepts a world outside of what?

Let’s try some physics at this.

Heat is energy, energy can be converted to equivalent mass via E^2=p^2c^2+m^2c^4. Well, not that bad. Heat is also commonly radiated away via electromagnetic radiation, and if we fudge the definition of matter to include radiation, all heat is matter (radiation).

There’s a mind only philosophical stance, since all 6 sense contacts involves 6 sense consciousnesses which are mind, then we only know of the world via the mind. Just like Ajahn Brahm’s story of what’s the biggest thing in the world, a girl said the eye because it can see the daddy of the other kid, an elephant, the whole earth, etc. Ajahn Brahm says the mind, because it can know what the eye see, ear hear, etc.

A world existing outside, means that take out the mind, take out all sentient beings, does the universe still exist on it’s own? Yes, but no one can verify it.

Some clues that it does is that the definition of contact. When the eye meets the form, and eye consciousness arises, that’s eye contact. And so on for all 6 sense bases. It implies form exist. Even if we dunno it without eye consciousness and contact.

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I find it intriguing that most people will learn, in a Buddhism 101, not to use the term Hinayana for Theravada, because it is a pejorative, even though everyone hears it everywhere and there are still some scholars who prefer to use it, because it’s representative of what Mahayana was criticizing about “it.” And we’re taught to be respectful of all the different flourishings of Buddhism … and how monks worked peacefully side by side, until some kind of rancour was built between them (by Mahayana of course).

All of this good work put in preparing students to be considerate, open and kind AND … 30 years later I come here to discover that Theravada is a foaming frenzy of hatred for Mahayana. How things change.

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The following book by Choong Mun-keat may be useful for your question:

The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (1995; second revised edition, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1999). PDF:
The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism | Mun Keat Choong - Academia.edu

I don’t see the hatred here. Merely stating difference is an observation of facts, not expression of hatred. Do quote which sentence is expressing hate.

Merely stating which tradition one prefers is also not an expression of hate.

Why? So you can subject it to verification it and argue it away with your vast authority? later

I am struggling to follow this. How can there be “softness” & “hardness” but no earth element? What about “softness” & “hardness”? Do these also not exist? :saluting_face:

Sounds like solipsism & theism, i.e., random creationism.

But it seems clear the Buddha taught “substance theory”, for example, from AN 3.61:

What is the Dhamma that I’ve taught?
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, mayā dhammo desito

‘These are the six elements’: this is the Dhamma I’ve taught …
Imā cha dhātuyoti, bhikkhave, mayā dhammo desito

AN 3.61

The above sounds like Nagarjuna. In DN 11, if the causality of the four great elements could be clearly explained, it seems the Buddha could have answered the question: “Where do the four great elements cease without remainder”.

Regardless, of the four great elements, the hypothesis above seems to deem Nibbana (which is independent and permanent) to be the Atman. :face_with_spiral_eyes: :roll_eyes:

I understand commentaries to be a later stage of turning the teachings into a sect or philosophical treaties.

"A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with.

The suttas present us with interactive. Positions that entail ontology represent a regularity rather than substance.

“And what is dependent origination? Rebirth is a condition for old age and death. Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles, specific conditionality. A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘Rebirth is a condition for old age and death.’

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Conciousness is external to name & form. Name is distinct from form and all 3 can be internal or external.

The suttas and sutras are full of the denial of the existence of substance. That is what anatta is, for all of the other non-Buddhist traditions always framed the atta in terms of a substance, because that is exactly is what it is. Of course, by the time of the developed Abhidhamma the philosophical and religious landscape had evolved. The substance metaphysicians of Jainism, Ājīvika, Vaiśeṣika, Nyāya and others had refined and developed further their arguments for substance, likely in response to Buddhism. The Theravādin position was possibly, likely even, a response in kind. The context was different. Atta was denied, so to try to build it up again substance of anything was pushed. In reply, we argued that nothing has a substance. A similar line of thought of course appeared in Mahāyāna. On raw experiences, in the sentence “I ate a red apple” there are two subjects present. There is the “I” and the “apple”. The “I” is the possessor of the verb “ate” whilst “red” is the adjective of the subject “apple”. If we take the sentence at face value we have an “I” that eats and a “red apple”. To this, a follower of Vaiśeṣika or Nyāya would reply “aha, you see, substances do exist for its in the very language we speak”. The Theravādin reply is that this is not so. In the actual experience there is only “red”, “sweet”, “motion”, “coolness” and so on. Apart from these raw experiences, no apple can be found. The same of course for the “I”. The sentence then is merely conventional. We fashion it out of raw experiences, which are the sabhāva-dhammas, but it has no reality to it. It is only the direct experience which is real, or that which can be known by inference from said experience.

It appears that, if the above qoute is representative of Theravada, that that school has taken the early sutta material and pressed it into the service of precicely a substance theory, where there are real existing things (sweetness, redness etc) that combine to form fictional, non existent things (apples etc). The fact that these substances are impermanent is irrelevant, the point is that they are allegeded to be real existants that bear the supossedly fictional phenomena, like apples, that we take as our everyday reality. There is nothing like this picture described in the early sutta material.

The problem with this is that the conditioned sabhāva-dhammas are not the bearer of characteristics. They then aren’t realities behind sense experience. They are sense experience, beyond which there is no other reality. Since they are sense experience, they are dependently originated. Being dependently originated, they have no independent existence. Not then being the bearer of characteristics, and not having independent existence behind our changing experience of the senses, they are, by definition, not substances. I see this as being in line with what the Blessed One taught.

Experience is always described in terms of the contact between object and sensativity giving rise to consciousness, there is never any implication that any of the factors of the analysis are more or less real or unreal, or any implication that they are “momentary”.

The Buddha said the 1st Noble Truth is true. The sabhāva-dhammas are part of the 1st Truth and so are real, not otherwise. On momentariness, when you remove substance from the world what are you left with? Momentary phenomenal characteristics. In other words, the sabhāva-dhammas. As I mentioned earlier, it was the likes of Nyāya who argued that there were things such as a “pot” which persists through time and undergoes change. It was the Buddhists who argued against this, via momentariness. Do you think Nyāya understood the Dhamma more than Buddhists themselves did?

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