Does reality exist? Carlo Rovelli (a famous theoretical physicist) doesn't think so and he cites Nagarjuna as believing the same:

Rovelli has a different idea. He says reality doesn’t exist. The reason physicists have been led astray by bonkers theories in the 100 years since Helgoland is because they can’t bear the thought of not being real.

It was at this point — a third of the way through the book — that I mimicked Heisenberg and took my first long, befuddled walk. Reality doesn’t exist? What on earth does that mean? Rovelli’s favourite example is a red chair. ‘Red’ doesn’t exist, for sure — everyone knows that philosophical chestnut: it’s just the way our brains make sense of light of a certain wavelength. But Rovelli also insists that nothing else about the chair exists either — its weight, its shape — except in its relationship to the person looking at it. And you can keep banging away at this type of argument until you get to the level of the atoms forming the chair. Insisting that anything about this red chair needs to exist outside of relationships is metaphysical neediness.

Part of the fun of Rovelli’s book is that your immediate reaction to his ideas — repugnance or delight — isn’t meaningless. Without mathematics or experiment, by page 81 your thoughts are at the frontier of quantum theory, and it’s time for your second brain-cudgeling walk. If things exist only by virtue of their interaction with other things, what happens to them between times? Do they vanish? Do instants of time also not exist? Does it even make sense to talk this way? Oh dear, oh dear.

Rovelli devotes a precious chapter to the work of the second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who also insists there is no ultimate layer of real things.

Emphasis mine. These ideas form the heart of his well regarded Relational Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and are discussed extensively in his new book Helgoland.

Other questions on this forum have asked whether physical reality exists, but the highest rated answers have mostly danced around the question. They argue that it is our "attitude" about such questions that is relevant... In other places, the assertion is that this question is one of the "thickets" or is somehow unanswerable or is somehow not amenable to logic.

I find all of these quite flaccid in the face of this prominent theoretical physicist coming out quite explicitly saying that our current best known laws of the universe (properly interpreted) indicate that reality itself doesn't exist and that the unwillingness to acknowledge this by other physicists is "metaphysical neediness!" He is arguing that we can talk about this meaningfully and use our reason to arrive at this conclusion with mathematics, logic and empiricism.

I'd also say that it is quite obvious the answer to this question has vast soteriological consequences that are very deeply relevant to Buddhism and should not just be ignored or danced around. So, is he right?

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    With all due respect to the scientist, according to me, his understanding of Madhyamika or of the Red colour is wrong. He jumps into saying Red is unreal. That is not a given. Just because its an interpretation of the mind that doesn't mean there is no Red colour outside our minds. Just like the shape and weight of the chair. Regarding Nagarjunacharya saying the world is unreal. Afaik he doesnt say that. He only says nothing can be said about the World. It can never be said to exist or not exist. That is th idea. – VARUN.N RAO Apr 2 at 7:12
  • @VARUN.NRAO: Indeed: ""To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism, To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism: Being and non-being, The wise cling not to either." -Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 15:10 – CriglCragl Apr 9 at 23:28
  • You might like this talk about creating a visible quantum object youtu.be/dvYYYlgVAao It points at how 'weird' quantum behaviour seems to be about how isolated a system is, and our visible world is not normally 'fuzzy' in a quantum way because there are interactions all the time, normally. We think 'here' is real, and also 'there' is real. This shift says, what if instead, only interactions are real? That is I think compatible with quantum mechanics, and Nagarjuna. – CriglCragl Apr 9 at 23:54

He says reality doesn’t exist

Does he, or is that a paraphrase by the reviewer? And if he does, is he simplifying for the reader? Or trolling a bit, maybe trying to challenge the reader by saying something edgy?

The reason physicists have been led astray by bonkers theories in the 100 years since Helgoland is because they can’t bear the thought of not being real.

That sounds like not even hearsay -- merely imputing motive -- but who knows.

But Rovelli also insists that nothing else about the chair exists either — its weight, its shape — except in its relationship to the person looking at it.

I'd phrase that more impersonally -- not "in relationship to the person" but "in relationship to the observation" or "in relationship to the experiment".

I suppose it's axiomatic to physicists -- it was when I was at school, a while ago admittedly -- that you "observe" things "experimentally" and that the observation interacts (or interferes) with what's observed.

So for example when you look at a couch you're observing the effect of shining photos at it.

There are other ways to observe a couch, other experiments -- with your bum (by sitting on it), or perhaps with a pair of scissors -- or with a jar of acid, or a stick of dynamite -- or by asking someone else what they think of it.

Different experiments lead to different observations.

If things exist only by virtue of their interaction with other things ...

(As I was saying)

... what happens to them between times?

Yeah. I guess that's where sunyata becomes relevant, i.e. the question supposes that "they" (things) have or possibly even haven't some thingness (i.e. existence).

It might be a meaningless question -- like if I said, "white is the only colour", then it wouldn't make sense to ask, "What colour is it when it isn't white?"

reality itself doesn't exist

That may be an exaggeration or subject to misinterpretation. There's a Zen story (titled Nothing Exists) that may be relevant. And scientists make a fuss about consensus and reproduceable experiments -- they're presumably studying something, whether that (subject/object of study) is called "reality" or merely "interactions" might be just semantics, right?

Still it's something Physicists have talked about (including Shrodinger's Cat for example), as Philosophers may have too.

I haven't read the book -- the review or paraphrase of it you quoted makes it sound like popular science possibly written so as to "Épater la bourgeoisie" -- especially the supposed shock value of its coming from a physicist.

the answer to this question has vast soteriological consequences that are very deeply relevant to Buddhism

Perhaps so, but perhaps also it's something you learn when you're a child -- that your experience of the world and people depends on and may vary according to your interactions with them -- a truism then.

This also reminds me of Le Guin's Bryn Mawr Commencement Address -- that it might sound remarkable to hear this message spoken in what she calls "the father tongue" -- where in another context it might be just a truism (or worse).

Now I don't mean to say that Buddhist doctrine is written in the father tongue or mother tongue. I think that what makes Buddhism different than Physics, I found to be a welcome difference:

  1. Rational and humane
  2. Offering salvation (e.g. from death)
  3. Using metrics like "virtue" and "wisdom" and "truthful" and "harmless" and so on as a measure -- measures which aren't in the same realm or domain as physics.

So, is he right?

I might have been harsher about physics, and a book that I haven't even read, than they deserve -- sorry if that's raining on your enthusiasm.

To answer your question, though, the review doesn't entice me to buy the book -- so I don't know if he's right -- the author (if not the reviewer) is presumably more right about Physics than I'm likely to be.

But the way the review presented it, the doctrine does sound to me unremarkable, well-known, easily explained in terms of orthodox philosophy of science -- so to answer your question, "Yes he's right".

The only surprising thing to me is the claim that (other) "physicists have been led astray", because the little that's paraphrased here seemed to me mostly orthodox (so wouldn't they see it that way too). Though even the bit about physicists being astray might be 'right' (I've for sure met fewer of them in life than he has), for example I don't know that the Schrodinger's Cat discussions were ever much good.

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    "And if he does, is he simplifying for the reader? Or trolling a bit, maybe trying to challenge the reader by saying something edgy?" No, I don't think he does. Why do you think the stmt is edgy? Is it uncomfortable to think this is true? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 3 at 12:04
  • I think it might be understood (or misunderstood) as solipsism (e.g. here), or nihilism. It might imply there's something else (but without saying what), other than reality, which does exist. And if it's true it might be true in a narrow context -- like from the etymology of "reality" I get the Latin word res and from that a Physicist's view of "thing" -- but that's perhaps not the common-sense meaning. Even the reviewer claimed that the statement was befuddling. – ChrisW Apr 3 at 12:52
  • By the way I'm told we learn object permanence as infants. Is that perhaps related to secure attachment -- like, "does mommy continue to exist, when she's gone?!" :-( --and possibly "uncomfortable" for other people for that kind of reason? Or for me it might be uncomfortable because it's a grind to think about Physics, or to try to make sense of other people talking about it when they weren't taught it as I was taught it (sometimes leading to impasse like "quantum woo" and "not even wrong"). – ChrisW Apr 3 at 13:04
  • Hi ChrisW, see my answer and let me know what you think of it. It is very easy to understand the fact that reality does not exist is not synonymous with nihilism, naive solipsism, or the absurd idea that nothing exists. You just have to point out that 'real' is not synonymous with 'exists' and this can be seen pretty easily if you think about it for a few seconds. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 3 at 14:23
  • @YesheTenley Perhaps you talk as if words (like 'real' and 'exist') have inherent and objective (or universal, constant) meaning. If you make a statement (e.g. "'real' is not synonymous with 'exists'") then I can re-evaluate what you've said and re-assess what you might be saying or referring to (and so understand it). The words are closely related though -- I think that you've implied previously that (in your vocabulary) "real" is the same as "truly exists" -- where in another context, e.g. arbitrary/casual speech from a lay-person, I might have assumed that "really" and "truly" are synonyms. – ChrisW Apr 4 at 9:56

Quoted below is Candrakīrti's Lucid Words - A Commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Wisdom.

Perhaps Mr. Rovelli is misrepresenting Nāgārjuna’s teaching.

True dharma is the middle way. Those who see existence or non-existence don't see peace.

5 Analysis of the Elements (dhātus)

5.1. The space-element does not at all exist prior to its defining characteristic; if it were prior to its defining characteristic, it would have no defining characteristic.

5.2. There is no existent (bhāva) anywhere without a defining characteristic. If there is nothing without a defining characteristic, then to what does a defining characteristic apply?

5.3. A defining characteristic does not apply to what has no defining characteristic, nor does it apply to what already has a defining characteristic. Nor does it apply to something other than what has or does not have a defining characteristic.

5.4. If a defining characteristic is not applying or present, then it does not make sense to speak of the characterized. If the characterized does not make sense, then the defining characteristic is not possible.

5.5. Therefore, the characterized does not exist, and the defining characteristic does not exist. And an existent (bhāva) does not exist without what is characterized and the defining characteristic.

5.6. If there is no existent (bhāva), then of what would there be nonexistence (abhāva)? And [if] the analyzer that has neither the quality of existing nor not existing, how does he know either the existent or the nonexistent?

5.7 . Therefore, space is neither an existent nor a nonexistent; it is neither the characterized nor the defining characteristic. And the other five elements are the same in this regard as space.

5.8. The dim-witted who see existence (astitva) and nonexistence (nāstitva) of things do not see peace, which is the quieting (upaśama) of what is to be seen.

  • Rovelli never said there was no existence. Maybe it is you that is misinterpreting his words. To say that reality does not exist is not to say that nothing whatsoever exists. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 3 at 14:05
  • Your question reads.... Does reality exist? Carlo Rovelli (a famous theoretical physicist) doesn't think so and he cites Nagarjuna as believing the same... Without paraphrasing .. you said.." ROVELLI CITING NAGARJUNA SAID REALITY DONEN"T EXIST ". But according to Candrakīrti' Nāgārjuna’s did not say that reality doesn't exist!. – Epic Apr 3 at 14:13
  • What do you mean by "To say that reality does not exist is not to say that nothing whatsoever exists"... That statement is completely off and illogical... Are you claiming the existence of unreality? – Epic Apr 3 at 14:14
  • Your quote above of chandrakirti does not mention reality or real. It is not dispositive. Further, I can quote many many sutras which 2nd turning sutras which say that reality doesn't exist. The only real thing is emptiness. Tsongkhapa literally says this in his Ocean of Reasoning. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 3 at 14:16
  • It is not off and not illogical. Why do you think it is? Is the existence of some thing dependent upon it being real? Are non real things non existent? Are 'real' and 'existent' synonyms for you? Do illusions not exist? Do dreams not exist? How do you define reality and or 'real' and why does it cause such discomfort to think that reality doesn't exist? Maybe read my answer above and see what you think of it. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 3 at 14:17

The reason physicists have been led astray by bonkers theories in the 100 years since Helgoland is because they can’t bear the thought of not being real.

This is cute because it can and probably should be interpreted as an inability to accept the truth due to being yoked to the doctrine of self which is at odds with the Buddha's dharma.

This ideation about elements external & internal to the nervous system existing only in the context of perception is quite old.

In the beginning of 1900's physicists cleared up their language and many still struggle to accept the implications of special relativity and quantum experiments.

People struggle a lot trying to imagine what an object is like when not observed and they try to make it into something familiar like 'a wave' but it's most definitely not a wave, or they model an atom as a 'cloud' of electrons around nucleus and they go on to imagine that it is like that when it is most certainly nothing like a cloud.

When something is thought of as being in a superposition, they think they are talking about a not-perceived object's location rather than realizing that the wave function is a predictive model of a to be objectified state of perception. What the wave function predicts is only the possible outcome of measurement or observation.

The way these things are thought about is quite backwards in many ways. Eg the waves of the ocean appear that way because of underlying QM rather than an electron behaving like like a wave. Therefore asking why does an electron behave like a wave is misleading because it doesn't behave like a wave, rather the waves of the ocean appear as they do due to QM.

How is this related to Buddhism? It's about namarupa being supported by consciousness and consciousness being supported by namarupa, about the allness of the all and objectification of non-objectification. Is also about adherence to the doctrine of self or in general ditthiyogo and avijjayogo that plagues people.

  • @Buddhism can you answer the question though? Does reality exist? :) – Yeshe Tenley Apr 1 at 15:27
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    I don't think it should answered categorically and that is why the statement was followed by a book explaining what the person means by existence. I can say it's about as real & existent as a dream or a mirage. – Buddhism Apr 1 at 15:31
  • I'd be interested to hear why you think it can't be answered categorically, but I'll let this question soak for a bit before I open that question. Thanks! – Yeshe Tenley Apr 1 at 15:34
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    You know these famous quotes? "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one" and "One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, him the King of Death sees not". I think these are on point. – Buddhism Apr 1 at 15:37
  • I don't think answering categorically is a good idea because if one talks about this in the context of the doctrine of self then a denial of the existence of things leads to view that all things are mere projection of an underlying eternal element which projects, it is close to eternalism. If one says that things exist, then one says that self exists and if self exists then one is close to view of annihilation of an existent being for death. – Buddhism Apr 1 at 15:46

The reality is real in every right perspective, but it is exist only when it arising only. The reality arises and vanish immediately more than trillions time (10¹²) in a second. It isn't exist before and after that, but it is real, if the thinker can think of it by the right perspective, causes and effects.

Similitude: you are not sleeping now because you are reading this answer, but you know you has slept because you are not sleepy now, you have a bed, you can recall your sleeping time, your partner tell you that you has slept already, etc., (causes and effects). Sleeping you are not exist, but you are recall to the fact whether you has slept.

Above is only similitude. That similitude is the imaginative fact in Buddhism. The reality is too small, too fast, and too simple than that trillions time (10¹²) in a second. Learn Abhidhamma and Patthana for the explanation. And Abhidhamma study is not enough. You need to meditate the concentration meditation and insight meditation to see the reality yourself. I recommend Pa-Auk Sayadaw for the beginning. He is the Tipitaka memorizer with long time experience in meditation.


"Does reality exist?"

Ultimately no, it doesn't.

This question and the answers it has provoked have predictably stirred some uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. If one looks really hard at why this question makes people squirm (even Buddhists trained in the dhamma and the dharma who've literally been reading sutta after sutra giving myriad specific testimonies to this question in different contexts for different audiences), then one might get a glimpse of that which is to be overcome. Why are we so attached to the idea that reality exists? Why does it make us so uncomfortable to just categorically say it is not so? Why do we feel the need to dance around the subject and fein nuance and subtlety?

I propose two reasons:

  1. Legitimate concern that being bold and telling the truth about emptiness and reality will cause others to misunderstand and drive off the cliff of nihilism or absurd naive solipsism

  2. The "metaphorical neediness" spoken of above which is the ego feeling challenged for its very survival. How can it possibly be that reality doesn't exist? How can it possibly be that I am not real? That I am like an illusion or a drop of dew or a bubble? That I am like a magical trick with utterly no real existence? How can my sister, my brother, my mother, that object that I crave so badly... how can you say that isn't real?? Saying that "reality isn't real" bubbles up something deep and disturbing almost like reality at its core could be broken. That the walls and illusion of the world are tenuous and could crumble at any nanosecond. The ego fears this above all and conjures up whatever defenses it can marshall. "Reality isn't real? Are you crazy??!! That's akin to saying nothing exists! That my life doesn't matter! That no ones life matters!"

Often times I think the two reasons above are conflated and #2 likes to piggy back on #1. The fact that reality does not exist has been categorically stated many, many, many, times in many suttas and sutras. When this caused people to shriek in fear as they simply weren't ready to hear or understand the Buddha and those Dharma teachers who followed couched it in various ways to soothe.

To understand why this is so soteriologically important to the aim of Buddhism one has to fully grapple with that aim. For those who believe that Buddhism is merely a kind of empirical self-help therapy system that leads to moderate decreases in suffering, then they have not really bought into the aim of the Dharma. They are again feining to grapple with the soteriological aim of the Dharma, but they don't really believe it. If you believe the Buddha's intent was to provide a mild balm to treat the symptoms of samsara and not a transcendent liberation and awakening, then of course this question and its answer will cause squirmishness. On the other hand, if you think deeply and consider that maybe the Buddha was not exaggerating and really did have transcendent liberation and awakening in mind... then this question and its answer can be seen as precisely at the heart of the soteriological aim of the Buddha.

If one truly wakes up to the answer to this question... not in a feining way, but in a truly transcendent awakening, then the way in which the truth to the answer to this question can overcome ignorance and deliver freedom is like this:

You are having the worst nightmare of your life. You are are being slaughtered slowly. Eaten alive. Burnt and tortured. Boiled in oil. Everyone is mocking you as this happens. It is endless. The pain and suffering is pure agony. And then you wake up.

Do you remember the feeling of freedom and relief waking from such a dream? From finding out that it was just a nightmare? That it was utterly not real? This is why this question and its answer is soteriologically important. It is precisely in this way that transcendent awakening to the reality that reality does not exist brings freedom. This is the way that truth overcomes ignorance. This is the deliverance.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

"Sometimes we have very nice dream. Fantastic dream... And we enjoy. We are very happy. We are dreaming, for example... ...I'm looking and someone is selling... lottery ticket. Very, very big lottery. I am taking and buying from someone and I am returning home. And I am seeing the television. And when I am looking at my number... The television is saying that number! Then I feel very happy. "Oh, what do I do now?" All this money. I am really happy and then I wake up. When I wake up, I discovered that is a dream, unfortunately. I am not happy. Or sometimes... very, very bad dream. There are many people that want to kill me. They are arriving in my house. Then they are starting to kill me. I feel very afraid. That moment I wake up. And I discover, "Oh, that is only a dream!" I am very happy. You see, good or bad. Even good or bad. A dream is a dream. Unreal. So Buddha is saying, our life is just like a dream. Big dream. Dream of night is a very small dream, but... Our life's dream, it has many day and night, day and night etcetera. When we discover that... Dreams, we discover when we wake up. But big dreams, we discover... When we are dying and being in a state of Bardo (transitional state)."

Emphasis mine.

For those who aren't familiar that the above is taught in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism see this for a handy western reference.

The proponents of the Madhyamika Svatantrika, the second highest Buddhist philosophical tenet system, assert that conventional truths can be divided into real and unreal conventional truths. However, according to the Madhyamika Prasangika tenet, such a division is not correct because all conventional truths are deceptive or false and therefore not real. In order to be real, a phenomenon must exist as it appears. Conventional truths are deceptive because to sentient beings’ direct perceivers they always appear to exist inherently, as if findable among their bases of imputation. Hence, conventional truths are unreal whereas ultimate truths are real. Ultimate truths are real or non-deceptive because to sentient beings’ direct perceivers they never appear to exist inherently but appear the way they exist, that is, they appear to be empty of existing inherently. 18 However, the proponents of the Prasangika tenet assert that relative to the perspective of the world objects which are not ultimate truths can be categorized into those that are real and those that are unreal.

The language used above includes the def. of real as taught in Gelug monasteries. When we speak of something being real - for someone who has a modicum of understanding of this - we take into account the perspective we are speaking from. We look at real with perspective to the world and real with perspective to the ultimate. In the latter, nothing, save emptiness, is real and not deceptive in its appearance.

And it is not just Gelug. Here is a prominent and very respected teacher of the Rime movement saying much the same:

The last two lines of sloka 38 are the conclusion. None of these phenomena exist truly within the relative truth or the ultimate truth; therefore, they are neither eternalist nor nihilist. On the ultimate level, everything is like when you dream that a child is born to you, and then within the same dream the child dies. From the ultimate point of view, since there was no real birth of a child, the death of that child is also not real. And in the relative truth, everything is dependent arising, thus neither eternalist nor nihilist.

Emphasis mine.

And here is Chandrakirti himself saying something similar:

In ordinary experience, just as while awake, While sleeping, these [above] three seem to exist; Once awake they do not. Awakening from the sleep of ignorance is similar.

This is how ignorance is destroyed. By waking from the dream of reality.

  • Ouch! It was your first line that through me a punch! Try not to adopt that first line as a belief system. It may cause untold issues later in your practice. – NeuroMax Apr 6 at 15:48
  • The first line? You mean, "Ultimately no, it doesn't."? What fault do you see that I should be careful of? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 6 at 15:50
  • We can examine nothingness, like one would examine the space in a room, but to ascribe a premature meaning to the absence of what you cannot perceive is to give impetus to samsaric turmoil. I'm just saying, try not to adopt this as a belief. It's hardly middle ground. It's better to work from the premise that there are things, and that there aren't things. That way, the neurotic mind cannot grasp onto anything. When it cannot grasp onto anything, it takes flight like the analogy of the land-finding crow in the Visuddhimagga - by no effort from you, it looks for nibbana. – NeuroMax Apr 6 at 21:05
  • @NeuroMax Thank you. The first line in the answer is from a svatantrika prasangika viewpoint I believe. That is, it asserts a view which is what I think?? you are warning against here? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 30 at 17:19
  • Yesha Tenely - you're welcome. I think you'll have to go with what you understand from your path. You would be the best judge of that. ;-) – NeuroMax Apr 30 at 17:25

People might discuss what exists based on the agreement that something exists.

Then Decarte said "i think therefore i am". This is an ambiguous statement because the existence of thinking does not necessarily mean that the object of thought is as real as the thinking itself and repudiates thinking. It can be said that the ideation of 'i am' there is included in the reality of thinking, it is a thusness and a variety of thinking.

Take this statement 'I think about spiderman, therefore spiderman is real'. Well it is and it isn't, it isn't real as the thinking is real because it does not repudiate thinking but it is real as it is that what i think about.

What would be repudiative to thinking? Well in example it can be agreed that seeing is real and it repudiates thinking. It is something that is as real as thinking is real and is real in the same context. There can be seeing without thinking and they are both real in the same sense.

If i said that spiderman is as real as superman, this would be similar. They are both real and repudiate eachother in that imaginary world of superheroes, in that context we can delineate a distinction and separate them. There can be spiderman without superman.

We can delineate a distiction between thinking and that which we think about but we can not separate the object of thought from thinking, there can be no thinking about superman without thinking. What is meant is that we can only separate that which thinks from the object of thought by changing the object of thought, think about something else but an object of thought is something included in thinking itself.

We differentiate between that which thinks and the object of thinking when analyzing the constituents of the reality of 'thinking'.

There can be hearing without discursive thought, likewise smell, taste, seeing & sensations, these are affirmed to exist in the same context and are repudiative of eachother.

The Buddhas say that nothing repudiates the allness of nose & aromas, the eye & the forms, the ear & sounds, the tongue & tastes, the body & bodily sensations, the intellect & ideas.

They don't say that the eye isn't real, the eye is something among everything.

The ideation of spiderman is also something among everything and spiderman is something among everything. Spiderman is something i think about and it is something particular in the imaginary world of superheroes. Doesn't mean that i should go looking for a spiderman in the backyard and if i was to go looking then i would've been doing so due to grasping with wrong view.

Being classed as something among everything doesn't make something as real as everything else, it only makes it as real as that which it repudiates.

It is said that everything is thought of as conditioned element and the thought of the conditioned is repudiated by the thought of an unmade element. This unmade element is not a class of somethings unlike that which is spoken of as everything and the unmade isn't a something among everything even tho the thinking & speaking of it is something among everything.

It is not an everything for it is a single element, not a class of elements unlike ie the element of 'thinking' is a class of that which thinks and that which is thought about or how everything is a class of somethings.

Not being a class[ification] of somethings, it isn't a class or an aggregate of somethings, nor is it being classed as something among everything, it therefore does not contradict the Sabbe Sutta wherein it is said:

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. [1] Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."

It doesn't contradict it because it is not another everything nor a something among everything by definition but it is that which isn't included in the allness of the all.

"'Having directly known the all as the all,[8] and having directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, I wasn't the all, I wasn't in the all, I wasn't coming forth from the all, I wasn't "The all is mine." I didn't affirm the all.

One should note that intellect in the sabbe sutta can be substituted for mind or consciousness

what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness,' the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it.

Then it can by inference be spoken of as is that which knows & cognizes the ideas and also as that which cognizes the forms visible by the eye and knows eye as the eye.

Therefore one can see that

When an object enters ‘the door of the eye’ or any of the other 5 senses, it enters also the door of ideation; ‘the door of the eye’ is included as a delineation of the spheres of the mind-base, included in what is called ‘mind-base’; it is mind-made. (for reference; M. i. 295 (see Caroline A.F, Rhys Davis, first translation of Dhammasanghani Psychological ethics))

Unfortunately i can't find a better reference explaining this and didn't take note of where i found the above excerpt but i am 100% sure this in the theravadin texts and that there are better & more authoritative sources, i just didn't take note and didn't save what i've come across when studying abhidhamma and their comy.


"Feeling, perception, & consciousness are conjoined, friend, not disjoined. It is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them. For what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one cognizes. Therefore these qualities are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them."

So this is how one infers the 6 classes of ideation, feeling & perception.

Furthermore what exists that has come into being, what has come into being is made and made is another word for sankhara or creation and it is therefore also conjoined with perception, feeling & consciousness.

That leaves only the class or aggregate of form which is basically a subset of ideation thusness pertaining to the 5 faculties of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting & sensing with the body.

This subset of ideation describes the thusness of ideation and does not repudiate ideation, it isn't discursive thought or a mental act of adding two numbers together; but it is a mental act of conception & perception of particular elements namely the eye & visible forms, nose & aromas, ear & sounds, tongue & flavors, body & bodily sensations, these color the ideation as that based on the five faculties by which one experiences agreeable & disagreeable things.

This is how one infers the 5 aggregates where 4 aggregates are conjoined from the sutta and how there can be arupa jhana.


I'll try to answer based on the Pali Canon and then connect it back to Madhyamaka.

Using MN 1 below, the Buddha describes how an untaught ordinary person sees reality.

From MN 1:

“Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, perceives earth as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, he conceives himself as earth, he conceives himself in earth, he conceives himself apart from earth, he conceives earth to be ‘mine,’ he delights in earth. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.

“He perceives water as water. Having perceived water as water, he conceives himself as water, he conceives himself in water, he conceives himself apart from water, he conceives water to be ‘mine,’ he delights in water. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.

Later, the Buddha contrasts the untaught ordinary person to the Buddha (the Tathagata):

“Bhikkhus, the Tathāgata, too, accomplished and fully enlightened, directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth, he does not conceive himself in earth, he does not conceive himself apart from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has fully understood it to the end, I say.

“He too directly knows water as water ... Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has fully understood it to the end, I say.

So, even the Buddha, who is fully enlightened and fully understood it to the end, perceived the reality of earth as earth, water as water, fire as fire etc. This is the undefiled perception of reality relative to the observer.

The only difference is that the Buddha has eliminated the mental idea of the self, which is the root of all objectification-classification / reification / papanca as explained in Snp 4.14 to be the cause of objectification and classification of non-self objects and their association with (the mental idea of) the self.

From Snp 4.14:

"He should put an entire stop to the root of objectification-classifications: 'I am the thinker.'

The commentary by the translator states:

On objectification-classifications and their role in leading to conflict, see Sn 4.11 and the introduction to MN 18. The perception, "I am the thinker" lies at the root of these classifications in that it reads into the immediate present a set of distinctions — I/not-I; being/not-being; thinker/thought; identity/non-identity — that then can proliferate into mental and physical conflict. The conceit inherent in this perception thus forms a fetter on the mind. To become unbound, one must learn to examine these distinctions — which we all take for granted — to see that they are simply assumptions that are not inherent in experience, and that we would be better off to be able to drop them.

The commentary also briefly explains how this leads to suffering.

How is this related to Madhyamaka?

Madhyamaka teaches that all phenomena is empty of inherent substance, which is really the meaning or reality given to phenomena, by the mind, as a result of objectification-classification / reification / papanca. This is exactly the message of the Lump of Foam Sutta (SN 22.95).

But does reality REALLY REALLY REALLY exist?

Well, the Buddha answered that in AN 4.77 and the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.

From AN 4.77:

"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

So, whichever way you slice Buddhist teachings, we find that any reality that matters is the one that is based on the observer. Any other reality is soteriologically irrelevant and also irrelevant to Buddhism.

  • I have no idea how you relate AN 4.77 to this question. To me they are totally different. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 1 at 16:52
  • “Monks, these have the nature of birth, ageing, death, ceasing, and rebirth. Monks, all compounded things are as an illusion, a flame, ceasing in an instant; being not real they come (arise) and go (cease)." -> To me that is a straightforward answer. Reality doesn't exist. And it alludes to what I think is a sutta definitive in meaning: suttacentral.net/sn22.95/en/sujato – Yeshe Tenley Apr 1 at 17:10
  • As to "Any other reality is soteriologically irrelevant and also irrelevant to Buddhism". I think it is a fact that such other reality is denied in Sabbe Sutta where it says that if someone were to propose existence of anything repudiating the six sense media & it's objects, it would not be possible. I have met a person who held the view that there maybe is some reality repudiating that of sensory percepience and held that it is either way not important, i am still not convinced you and him aren't the same person. – Buddhism Apr 1 at 17:13
  • @YesheTenley No. SN 22.95 is talking about papanca. Form and the rest of the five aggregates are empty of the reality or meaning that is given to it by the mind, as a result of objectification-classification / reification / papanca. – ruben2020 Apr 1 at 17:14
  • He referred to that other reality as adhamma and maintained that ie space is such adhamma and that the nature of such things had nothing to do with the dhamma. He also had a boner for the word papanca. Is not a criticism but i think it's curious that two people have such similar views because it's quite rare to find two people familiar with the texts and arriving at a seemingly similar interpretation – Buddhism Apr 1 at 17:16

With only reading the question, the Pali suttas say a fixed reality exists regardless of perception of it. Refer to AN 3.136.

  • I found this answer remarkable -- I hadn't considered the "three characteristics" as the topic of this question, i.e. what the physicist meant when referring to "reality". And it might seem tempting to see those characteristics (or Ven. Sujato translates, "law of nature" and "natural principle" -- dhammaṭṭhitatā and dhammaniyāmatā) as being more existent than any "thing" (or "substance"). There is also for example the "Law of Gravity" (which Persig fwiw implied might predate people's descriptions of it). Or the sutta may say "persists", not "exists" -- ṭhitāva, from tiṭṭhati ("stand"). – ChrisW Apr 5 at 7:34
  • all my answers are remarkable. – Dhammadhatu Apr 5 at 11:56
  • This answer is truly remarkable in that it is the only one that called out a subtle problem with the OP. Bravo! I think the Buddha did in fact say that there is a reality. That there is at least one thing (here 3 things) that are in fact real. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 5 at 14:25
  • @ChrisW So, the fixed reality is the three characteristics? – ruben2020 Apr 5 at 14:27
  • 3
    @ruben2020 I think that the three characteristics are observations or descriptions (of "all sankharas" and of "all dhammas"); and they're "true" in that they're observed to be descriptive, predictive, and useful -- even enduringly and universally true. Like other models they're concepts, and descriptions of interactions, or according to a given measure; and are not "the fixed reality" itself in the physical sense of that word -- e.g. they are not a substance! Even what they're characterizing seems to me experiential not just physical (and so Buddhism addresses problems which physics doesn't). – ChrisW Apr 5 at 21:04

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