This question is closely related to this question and this question and this question.

There is a Sutta in the Pali Canon that seems to explicitly reject that any of the aggregates is real or substantially existent, but instead likening them to a lump of foam, a water bubble, a mirage, a plantain trunk, or an illusion:

“Form is like a lump of foam, Feeling like a water bubble; Perception is like a mirage, Volitions like a plantain trunk, And consciousness like an illusion, So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

“However one may ponder it And carefully investigate it, It appears but hollow and void When one views it carefully.

“With reference to this body The One of Broad Wisdom has taught That with the abandoning of three things One sees this form discarded.

“When vitality, heat, and consciousness Depart from this physical body, Then it lies there cast away: Food for others, without volition.

“Such is this continuum, This illusion, beguiler of fools. It is taught to be a murderer; Here no substance can be found.

“A bhikkhu with energy aroused Should look upon the aggregates thus, Whether by day or at night, Comprehending, ever mindful.

“He should discard all the fetters And make a refuge for himself; Let him fare as with head ablaze, Yearning for the imperishable state.”

Depending upon the answers to the previous questions I'd be very interested in how Theravada interprets this Sutta. Generally, I'm confused how Theravada interprets these Suttas into a coherent and non-contradictory whole:

  • SN 22.85 seems to say that regarding a Realized One as real or genuine is incorrect.
  • Itivuttaka 44 seems to say that (as per Ruben2020's answer here) the body is real and genuine.
  • SN 22.95 seems to reject that and say the body is to be considered like foam as "void, hollow, insubstantial."

Finally, Mahayana monastics train believing that the substantial difference between Theravada views of anatta and Mahayana views of shunyata is that Theravada regards the aggregates and all external phenomena as real and possessing intrinsic nature or essence.

How do Theravada proponents reconcile all of this?

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    You previously listened to the wrong answer. This question here is irrelevant. The Tathagata is real & true but the reality & truth of the Tathagata is wisdom. The suttas say "Seeing the Dhamma, Sees the Buddha". – Dhammadhatu Aug 15 at 21:33
  • Sariputra attests that the Realized One is not a real and true and genuine fact in SN 22.85 – Yeshe Tenley Aug 18 at 13:36
  • the Realized One is real and true. But that the Realized One is a SELF-ENTITY is not real and true – Dhammadhatu Aug 18 at 20:38

Piya Tan in his commentary on the lump of foam sutta, quoted Bhikkhu Bodhi's commentary below:

This sutta is one of the most radical discourses on the empty nature of conditioned phenomena; its imagery (especially the similes of the mirage and the magical illusion) has been taken up by later Buddhist thinkers, most persistently by the Madhyamikas. Some of the images are found elsewhere in the Pali Canon, eg at Dh 46, 170. In the context of early Buddhist thought, these similes have to be handled with care. They are not intended to suggest an illusionist view of the world but to show that our conceptions of the world, and of our own existence, are largely distorted by the processes of cognition. Just as the mirage and magical illusion are based on real existents — the sand of the desert, the magician’s appurtenances — so these false conceptions arise from a base that objectively exists, namely, the five aggregates; but when seen through a mind subject to conceptual distortion, the aggregates appear in a way that deviates from their actual nature. Instead of being seen as transient and selfless, they appear as substantial and as a self. (Bodhi S:B 1085 n188)

I think the above commentary discusses the Theravada view accurately. The sutta does not talk of an illusionist view of the world. It does not imply that the five aggregates are not real. It simply points towards the five aggregates as being transient and without a self.

Also, please see the Suñña Sutta, which explains this more literally, as the five aggregates being empty of a self.

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    Ok, I think then this is in keeping with what is taught in the Mahayana monastic textbook about Theravada. That persons are not real and have no objective existence - only conventional -, but external phenomena including the aggregates have objective real existence not just conventional existence. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 15:22
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    It's kinda funny how Piya Tan's comment correctly explains Mahayana's understanding of emptiness while at the same time contrasting it with an incorrect understanding which he then (wrongly) attributes to Mahayana. – Andrei Volkov Aug 15 at 16:48
  • Hmm, are you sure you are referring to Piya Tan's comment or his quote of Venerable Bodhi? Also, do you think this part, "so these false conceptions arise from a base that objectively exists" is correct understanding according to Mahayana Prasangika? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 17:02
  • @YesheTenley thanks for your corrections, yes - I meant Bhikkhu Bodhi's comment that "our conceptions of the world, and of our own existence, are largely distorted by the processes of cognition". As for "a base that objectively exists" - this part is often a point of debate (mostly because it's at the limit of words) but as we all know Mahayana is neither metaphysical nihilism (stating that nothing whatsoever exists) nor ontological idealism (stating that everything is literally an illusion). Even Yogacara was shown as of late to not be an idealistic heresy it was once assumed to be. – Andrei Volkov Aug 15 at 19:38

I see this sutta not as an objective or ontological statement (e.g. form is "real" or "unreal", "true" or untrue) but rather as subjective and prescriptive -- e.g. I see it as saying that "form, and feelings etc., are fragile and unreliable -- so don't crave them, don't attach to them, and don't depend on them."

I guess the interesting or most relevant bit (for the purpose of this question) is found here:

for no substance is found here.
sāro ettha na vijjati.

And see here for a definition of sāra.

I (personally) don't interpret this word as meaning "substance", in what I imagine is a philosophical sense (e.g. ontology) -- instead I interpret it as kind of subjective or pragmatic, e.g. as meaning "the bit that's useful to us, the part that proves to be reliable or everlasting, the valuable/worthwhile bit".

Part of the "true Scotsman" argument wanders into defining what a Scotsman "is", what it even means to "be" a Scotsman -- what's the "essential characteristic" (or "sign") of a Scotsman -- and who knows what a "real", "genuine", or "true" Scotsman is?

Conversely I think that according to Theravada the "characteristic" of everything is simple -- i.e. it's:

  • Impermanent
  • Not self (not "me" and not "mine")
  • Dukkha

Discussing whether the arrow is "real" (and what it's made of) is a bit of a distraction -- this commentary claims that Gautama Buddha's views were "anti-metaphysical".

Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (MN 63)

And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undeclared by me.

"And what is declared by me? 'This is stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the origination of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are declared by me.

"So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared."

I'm not saying that your question is useless or unanswerable -- this one is not one of the canonical 14 unanswered questions -- just that it seems metaphysical to me, and asking questions that aren't answered n the text.

I guess if you analyse everything using a Mahayana-orthodox "analytic knife" then it will end up looking like a primitive/incomplete simulacrum of Mahayana doctrine -- but I think that the "posits" you're making maybe aren't present in the text -- furthermore the Simsapa Sutta (Handful of Leaves) is meant to assure us that what is in the text is sufficient (or "self-sufficient" if you will).

  • Thanks @ChrisW, I think you are right there is a distinct strain of Theravada adherents who view delving too deep into these questions as inappropriate or at least not important. They ascribe some of this to the "thicket of views" that Buddha famously redirected confused people from. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 19:58
  • @ChrisW I agree with your assessment that the spirit of the teaching as preserved in the Pali Canon is extremely pragmatic. Even its flavor of "emptiness" that can be read between the lines is always pragmatic, no-nonsense, don't-be-a-fool style. This is in stark contrast with both Theravada as well as Mahayana schools with their speculative analysis and obsessive nitpicking. In fact, it was a no-nonsense approach that had drawn me to Kagyu -- the most pragmatic of Tibetan schools whose teaching styles often correlate with their historical origins and political agendas. – Andrei Volkov Aug 15 at 20:15
  • FWIW, I view all traditions of Buddhism as focused on the pragmatic as an empirical discipline. IOW, I don't think the question in this OP is divorced from the pragmatic or that Mahayana is less pragmatic because it takes these questions seriously. It is precisely because of our ignorance of how things really are that causes all this mass of suffering and so we have to dispel this ignorance by discovering how things really are. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 20:38
  • BTW, I love your reference to the No True Scotsman :) And yes, part of the fallacy is believing there is any such thing as a "True Scotsman" in the first place outside of mere convention. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 20:42
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    I agree with @AndreiVolkov that the Sutta Pitaka is extremely pragmatic compared to Mahayana and also Theravada. The original Pali suttas do away with unnecessary speculation and intellectual gymnastics. Even in Theravada, the complexity comes from the Abhidhamma and commentaries. While the Abhidhamma is said to be the Buddha's own teachings, I feel that it's derived from his teachings, making it a secondary text. A long time ago, I used to hold the Advaita Vedanta view, but now I have had enough of unnecessary philosophical speculations, intellectual gymnastics and ontological hamster wheels. – ruben2020 Aug 16 at 3:06

You wanted me to answer this one as well. [Note: I didn't read all the suttas you've linked to, nor did I read all comments already posted.]

“Form is like a lump of foam, Feeling like a water bubble; Perception is like a mirage, Volitions like a plantain trunk, And consciousness like an illusion, So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

Are the 5 aggregates substantial or not? Imho, it's important to know from what point of view someone looks at things. Is it from the normal, everyday-of-life or intellectual, scholar point of view or the experiential point of view. That makes a huge difference. From an experiential point of view things have only a momentary existence. They arise, leave an impression and cease again. They come and go.

Is there a body? No, experientially speaking there is, so now and then, a feeling of pressure, cold or warm, soft or hard in different locations (wind, fire, earth). At the moment of contact we can know those sensations. At the moment of contact there is something there. And then it's gone. Outside the knowing and the sense impression that can be known, there is nothing.

Are those sense impressions real? Well, yes. For that short moment there was contact, there was something to be known, and that something had an effect. Are they substantial? No.

Same goes for all other aggregates.

I'm sure that from an intellectual point of view much more could be said. But, as you know, I'm not a scholar. So, it's not my place to get into that.

The Pali Canon Mulapariyaya Sutta may help in discussing different perspectives on the perception of "real". Note the subtle wording change:

Case 1: Take an uneducated ordinary person...They perceive earth as earth

Case 2: A mendicant who is perfected...directly knows earth as earth.

In case 1, the earth is perceived as having a potential relationship with self (i.e., "my earth", "his earth", "in earth", etc.). In SN22.85, Reverend Yamaka was initially asserting the total annhiliation of the mendicant (i.e., self) upon death (i.e., dissolution of earth).

In case 2, the earth is directly known as earth. Earth is not self. Yamaka's revised his own answer about death:

What’s suffering has ceased and ended

Do not forget that there is the parallel in chinese translated into english https://suttacentral.net/sa265/en/analayo

you find the parallels under the little down arrow with the number four, after you click on the down arrow right to the wheel.

it is the usual sequence Anicca->dukkha->Anatta applied to the usual 5 aggregates, which is of course the beginning of the sequence Anicca->dukkha->Anatta->dispassion->nibanna

Puthujjanas are obsessed with what they call ''what is real'' and '' what is not real'', but the word real is utterly useless. SOme of them even manage to mix the word true with that, because they claim that there is the ''apparent real'' and the ''true real'' and of course, the true real is really better than the apparent real.

It's like asking if anger is real or cold is real or a number e^\pi in ZFC is real. That's a question which is just as natural for a Puthujjana to ask as it is dumb. The question is not whether it is worth it to qualify something as real, but how do you relate to it, how do you see it as worthy for basing your care, your intention and your actions and spend your energy on it.

  • If the word 'real' is utterly useless, then why does it exist and why is it so important to people whether things are real or not? ie., why does it bother people or perplex people to say that all those things are unreal? Thanks for the other translation btw! – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 17:05
  • Why do we teach kids that dreams aren't real and they therefore shouldn't be afraid of nightmares? That TV is not real and so we don't need to be afraid of disturbing stories? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 15 at 17:08
  • The Agama are terrible and Analayo's translation is terrible because it does not have the meaning of the Pali words ritta, tuccha and asāra found in the Pali version. – Dhammadhatu Aug 16 at 3:26

The sutta does not explicitly reject that any of the aggregates is real or substantially existent (atthi vs natthi). The sutta does not deny there is a lump of foam, bubbles, mirages, hollow thoughts & the magical quality of consciousness. The sutta merely says the aggregates have no intrinsic value, worth, meaning and lasting quality. The relevant Pali adjectives are ritta, tuccha and asāra. The sutta is unrelated to existent Mahayana obsessions about existence & non-existence.

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    Thanks @Dhammadhatu, but feel free to ignore my questions/obsessions since they are clearly irrelevant for you. Probably best to leave them alone. – Yeshe Tenley Aug 16 at 14:47

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