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We find plenty of similar discussions in the Theravada tradition, cf. (for example) kv6.1 or kv5.5 kv5.5 https://suttacentral.net/kv5.5/en/aung-rhysdavids?lang=en

In my answer to the following question What is the meaning of 'compounded' & 'uncompounded'? I mention in passing that (fantasy) hobbits are non-existents. Why? Because they are not subject to cause and effect, because they do not momentarily disintegrate, and because they leave no trace on the world. 'Unreal' and 'non-existent', to me, are synonyms.

This leads onto a thread of comments discussing the putative existence of hobbits, hypotheticals, and whether or not one can distinguish the existence of hobbits from, for example, chairs.

My grounding in this is presentation of the divisions of the selfless in as found in volume three of Jam-yang-shay-pa’s (1648-1721) "Great Exposition of Tenets" (there is a commentary on this in Chapter 1 of Hopkins "Meditation on Emptiness"). While the text itself is a Mahayana text rooted in Madhyamaka, volume three enumerates some important aspects of Buddhist reality, primarily following Abhidharma stemming from the Sarvāstivāda.

What do we find? The first is the division into that which is (skt: sat), and that which is not (skt: asat). The word that describes this dichotomy is 'reality' or 'truth', or 'existence' (skt: satya, pali: sacca) - but 'existence' here is not to be confused with 'bhava' - because permanents (Pali: nicca) are sat, while nicca are not bhava (Bhava are things - compounded, while nicca are absences, and are uncompounded. Both nicca (as absences) and things can be found, therefore they are 'sat'). If we deny nicca, then we deny cessations - if we deny cessations, we have denied the third noble truth.

Classical examples of non-existents are a hare's horn, turtle hair, clothing made from turtle hair. Things like a reflection's laugh. Also, inherently existing phenomena, or a self-created god, or an omnipotent being, or permanent products, or souls.

So, the questions are: Are fictional hobbits 'sat' or 'asat'? Are hypotheticals 'sat' or 'asat'? How about a chair, or an elephant? What about the constant, π (pi)?

I might be wrong - and am happy to be corrected, but I would consider hypotheticals, hobbits, constants, abstract objects (platonic abstracts) to be asat. Why? Because they are fabrications, narratives, stories - the stories they belong to are sat, and the stories themselves can instruct and inform us, but the objects in those stories are asat : they do not exist, they are not true, they are not real.

If we allow for hobbits to exist, and if our rationale for such allowance similarly pervades all non-existents then we must also allow for omnipotent, self-created gods to exist, and souls. If we do that, then we cannot differentiate between what is a noble truth and what is not, and Dharma no longer holds truth, but is merely another story.

Non-existent things, being unreal, they are both selfless, and are uncompounded. Being uncompounded they are neither able to create causes nor suffer them: They are not dependent arisings (as they are not subject to cause and effect) but they are dependent designations.

Am I wrong? How so?

Addendum - My question is concerned with conventional truths. I'm not attempting to establish or discuss objective/intrinisc truths.

  • If we allow for (fantasy) hobbits and if such rationale similarly pervades all non-existents, then we must allow for souls (because our reasons for how hobbits can exist do not exclude how souls can exist).

  • If we have allowed for souls, we do not have the three marks of existence. Because: anatta

  • If we do not have the three marks, we do not have insight into anattā / anātman

  • If we do not have insight then we do not have the three higher trainings (tisikkhā/triśikṣā).

  • Without the three higher trainings there is no noble truth of the path.

  • Without the truth of the path there is no Buddha dharma.

  • Without Buddha dharma there is no refuge, nor is there the awakening of enlightenment.

(amended in light of a good point made by Yeshe Tenley below)

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    @blue_ego, please put your views in as an answer, rather than a comment. I do not understand a single sentence: I am happy to understand, but I believe you need to expand on your position to provide clarity: Pls explain the distinctions between sacca, nicca, bhava.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 11:56
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    is the question Buddhism? are sat & asat found in Buddhism, including in Mahayana? Or is sat & asat from the Brahmanism Veda? Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 19:57
  • Satta/Satya is indeed found in Buddhism - both Theravada and Mahayana. How centrally? Well, the (four) noble truths are a good example: Aryasatya in Sanskrit - ariyasatta in Pali. Sat / asat is truth and non-truth. How could such things not be found - unless you consider Buddhism cannot distinguish between truth and falsity.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 20:50

8 Answers 8

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There's an issue here over the distinction between 'existence' and 'the knowledge of existence': i.e., objects vs mental objects. I mean, assume there's a cow standing in a field under the sky. Does the cow know that it's a cow, or that this is a field, or that that's the sky? Does the cow have mental objects? And if not, to what extent do these 'real' objects exist (as opposed to being, say, a singular cow-field-sky experiential thing)?

Hobbits, unicorns, turtle hair, etc., all exist as mental objects. As mental objects they are dependent arisings, and they are both causes and effects. They may not have a 'real' reference (whatever you decide that means), but they are talked about, speculated on, argued over, worked into feature films, and all that. Doubtless there are people for whom hobbits are more 'real' than actual living people from other countries...

The work here isn't to figure out which mental objects are 'real' and which aren't. The work is to recognize that no mental objects are 'real', and that we should be compassionate and circumspect about our attachments to them.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:17
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By & large, Kaccayana, this world is based upon a duality: existence and non-existence.

...

'Everything exists': Kaccayana, this is one extreme. ‘Nothing exists’: this is the second extreme. Kaccayana, without approaching either of these two extremes, the Tathāgata teaches Dhamma by the middle.

(SN 12.15)

The way I understand this is, the categories such as existence and non-existence are abstractions, and as such they try to describe and categorize the world in broad terms.

As with all abstractions though, when you zoom in, you see a bunch of extra details that don't fit simplistic categorization.

So when it comes to hobbits and other fantasies, and even natural phenomena such as e.g. "the horizon" or "a rainbow" - they satisfy some definitions of existence but not others — illusions exist as phenomena but "not in the way they appear" (a fairly standard Mahayana assertion, see e.g. Vasubandhu's commentary on Madhyantavibhaga), hobbits exist as representations in our minds while we're discussing them, and so on. This is to say that existence and non-existence are leaking abstractions. As with all abstractions, this may be a useful analytical tool when used appropriately, or it may be a source of dukkha if we get too hung up on it.

I am familiar with a standard Mahayana line of reasoning that differentiates between types of non-existence such as e.g. non-substantial-existence of rainbows and selves vs. "stronger" non-existence of turtle hair scarfs. The point is to highlight the difference between Emptiness and mere absence.

Then there is the "pragmatic" camp of Karma Kagyu that says, in the words of late Thrangu Rinpoche 🙏, that it's not as important whether this chair really exists or not, but our attitude towards the chair. Are we attached to this chair? Do we hate this chair? Do we think we are the chair? Are we free from this chair? That's what really matters in practice, not whether it exists or not - they say in Karma Kagyu, and I don't disagree.

And yet for me it goes still deeper than that. In my view, the arguments about semantics and hair-splitting definitions of various types of existence and non-existence of selves, rainbows, hobbits etc., make this a perfect case-study of Emptiness of phenomena at large. The issue is not with exhaustively identifying all types of existence and non-existence and giving them precise definitions. The issue is with phenomena themselves. They are not delineated ontologically, their delineation is part of the process of perception. Reality is an interpretation we make and delineating phenomena is a part of interpretation. Existence and non-existence (and everything in-between) are secondary to delineation.

When we say phenomena are empty (of svabhava aka intrinsic existence), we mean phenomena are perspective-dependent. When we clearly see that phenomena (including the mental phenomena such as the concepts!) are perspective-dependent, how can we seriously argue about existence and non-existence!

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    The "world" in SN 12.15 is related to this question: What is world (loka) in SN 12.44? Why is it called "world"?
    – ruben2020
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 2:15
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:17
  • you said: illusions exist as phenomena but "not in the way they appear". isn't it the opposite? only in the way they appear?
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 18:04
  • That's a standard phrase from the Mahayana texts, it means their actual existence does not match their appearance. Whether I said it correctly or not (but I think I did?) that's what it means.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 21:54
  • I see what you are saying but what the texts mean is that rainbow's ontological nature (the drops of water hanging in the air, illuminated by the sun at certain angle to the observer) is not at all in sync with its appearance. There's no arc in the sky at all, it only looks like that to an observer.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 22:57
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it is not a matter of boundaries, but a question of true or false. sabbe sankhara anicca means all conditioned things are transient, everchanging, impermanent, so from an ontological point of view illusory or non-existent. so only Nibbana, the Unconditioned, Asankhata is constant, always the same and eternal, meaning ontologically real and existent.

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  • so you are saying existence is dependent on permanence (nirvana)?
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 1:26
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    ontologically speaking, existence is independent. if you meant whether existence has the same meaning as permanence , the answer is yes, it does.
    – john-doe
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 2:10
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    if the purpose of your approach is relativistic intellectual entertainment, it should stop. it is neither in accordance with the buddhist doctrine nor is it useful. if you are interested in understanding the terminology, please read the answer again carefully since it is self-explanatory. to also clarify the questions, yes, nibbana is eternal and no, there is no I or self that exists
    – john-doe
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 2:44
  • no, it's not like that. i just think your answer is subjective
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 2:56
  • @john-doe, while I agree with the sentiment, you have not clarified the unconditioned. have you considered cessations, or even mere absences? Also you do not seem to distinguish between tathata (natural state) vs nibbana (cessation of suffering).
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 8:08
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So, the questions are: Are fictional hobbits 'sat' or 'asat'?

I don't know what the Mahayana canon might say.

I think that according to the philosophy of modern science, a theory or statement is "true" if it is useful, a description of observations, and perhaps predictive -- including for example "Darwin's theory of evolution", "Newton's law of gravitation", "Einstein's relativity"; and "germ theory" in medicine, etc.

I find the Four Noble Truths to be excellent in this way -- useful and predictive and a good description of what I observe.

Following from this, I question, what is the "usefulness" of "a hobbit"? I think its use is to act as the narrative perspective:

Narrative perspective is the vantage point from which events of a story are filtered and then relayed to the audience.

The story begins with the Shire which is a place and society not very unlike England at the time, perhaps the reader would find it familiar and relate to that. The hobbits -- and therefore the reader -- gradually meet other characters and plot points, e.g. the wizard and other adventures.

So I guess that hobbits are true and useful within the context of the story.

The fact that that is only in a certain context (i.e. "within the story") isn't wholly bad -- e.g. Newton's laws too for example are only useful in a certain context, i.e. when you care to be solving that kind of problem, and even then not at "relativistic" speeds or "quantum" sizes.

Maybe whether it's useful (or true) isn't an inherent property of the thing.

Part of the genius of Buddhism is its formulation of a value system, i.e. that what's valuable is to reduce or end the suffering of sentient beings (and so to encourage good qualities and not bad).

Are hypotheticals 'sat' or 'asat'?

Perhaps "it depends" on how useful they are -- or how moral.

Consider "Russel's teapot" for example -- it's a hypothetical teapot but not IMO very useful, at best it's used to explain "falsifiability" which I find a dry subject (but I've never been taught philosophy).

Conversely consider a hypothetical crime or misdeed, or good deed -- and whether it would be for better or for worse if it were put into practice -- those may be a relatively useful hypotheticals, doctrine, guidelines, if it informs every-day morality and skilfulness. Or is that not so?

But maybe what's "true" in the latter case -- by analogy with the scientific "laws" or "theories" listed earlier -- is the moral law or law of consequences.

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  • Again, If we allow for hobbits then we must allow for souls (because your reasons for how hobbit exist do not exclude how souls can exist) - if we have not excluded souls, we do not have the three marks of existence. If we do not have the three marks, we do not have insight into the three marks. If we do not have insight then we do not have the three higher trainings. Without the three higher trainings there is no noble truth of the path. Without the truth of the path there is no Buddha dharma. Without Buddha dharma there is no refuge, nor is there the awakening of enlightenment.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 8:27
  • Because I'm saying that hobbits exist as a narrative device and within a work of fiction?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:09
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    Using conventional English I'd say that a hobbit "doesn't really exist" -- I understand the word "really" to mean, etymologically, "in a thing-like or tangible way" (though I believe the Latin word "re" was also used for money).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 13:25
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    @blue_ego Are you talking about a fictional character "taking on a life of their own" in the mind of the author, maybe like in a dream? A character's saying (i.e. an author writing) such a thing would be "breaking the fourth wall". Or Wikipedia mentions "post-modern" literature and "metafiction", which I've never read. The LotR and The Hobbit are famous and popular, I suppose they'd be less so (less widely read) if the author had written them other than as he did.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 4:40
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    But seriously @Konchog is right...a real forest is not going to ooze out of a hobbit forest, even I know that. Let’s get with what is real before it’s already too late 😹
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 7:04
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In Pali, there is the word 'atthi', which means 'exists'. At times, 'atthi', such as in 'atthita' in SN 12.15, refers to a wrong view. At other times, 'atthi' refers to absolutely existing things, such as:

Atthi, bhikkhave, tadāyatanaṁ... Esevanto dukkhassā.

There exists, monks, that dimension... the end of suffering

Ud 8.1

“Well, is there no such thing as suffering?”

‘Kiṁ nu kho, bho gotama, natthi dukkhan’ti?

“It’s not that there’s no such thing as suffering.

‘Na kho, kassapa, natthi dukkhaṁ.

Suffering exists.”

Atthi kho, kassapa, dukkhan’ti.

SN 12.17

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  • This is useful.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 14:16
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"If we allow for hobbits to exist, then we must also allow for omnipotent, self-created gods to exist, and souls."

I think this assertion is wrong in the context you assert in your addendum: conventional truth.

Your quote at the start of this answer is analogous to saying that if people mistakenly believe hobbits to exist conventionally, then they have to accept that souls truly exist or something. I don't think that is the case at all.

If someone mistakes a rope (conventionally existent thing) to be a snake on a moonlit night (conventionally non-existent thing eg a snake doesn't actually exist at all in that place where the rope is... much in the way a hobbit doesn't exist), that doesn't obligate them to accept that souls truly exist. The conclusion does not follow the premise.

UPDATE:

Your new claim still seems faulty:

“ If we allow for (fantasy) hobbits and if such rationale similarly pervades all non-existents, then we must allow for souls (because our reasons for how hobbits can exist do not exclude how souls can exist).”

I am guessing you wish to claim that a person believing that hobbits exist (from mistaken evidence… ie, they saw a small person with big feet and assumed they were looking at a hobbit) would be forced to conclude that souls exist. But this does not follow. Someone could mistakenly believe hobbits to exist, but still disbelieve that souls exist. The opposite is also possible: believing souls exist, but not hobbits.

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  • Okay - as far as it goes. However, imagine (as below) that someone says that the means of non-existence is only perception, then it follows that souls and hobbits are as possible as each other. Hobbits are not real - neither are souls. This is true of them both conventionally and ultimately. But I can imagine that hobbits could exist whereas souls cannot. So we must explain how one cannot exist whereas the other might.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 14:22
  • Reading your response more closely, it must be understood that a hobbit is similar to the horn of a hare. It is something that does not exist. As you are clearly familiar with my background, replace ‘hobbit’ with ‘horn of a hare’.: If we accept that a horn of a hare exists in any way, then we must allow for souls. In madhyamaka neither are real (or exist) in conventionally or ultimately.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 14:30
  • You are confusing. First you say an important point is that hobbits could exist, but then say actually they are like the son of a barren woman: an impossible mode of existence. I don’t know what point you are trying to make.
    – user13375
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 0:44
  • I agree that I might be confusing - but I do not intend it. I ask that we think for ourselves - based on that which guides us. The classic "son of a barren woman" is an impossible, and a non-existent. But a hare could have evolved to have horns but did not, so is non-existent. The distinction is that one (the hare) could arise out of the appropriate causes and conditions whereas the other (the son) could not. Both are non-existents - but one is non-existent through reason, and the other is non-existent from evidence. Insight depends upon reason, not evidence.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 9:59
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – blue_ego
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 15:57
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To my understanding, the Buddha discouraged such philosophical speculation on the nature, origin etc. of the physical world. He preferred to focus on the goal, which is the ending of suffering.

There the Buddha addressed the mendicants:

“Once upon a time, mendicants, a certain person left Rājagaha, thinking ‘I’ll speculate about the world.’ They went to the Sumāgadhā lotus pond and sat down on the bank speculating about the world. Then that person saw an army of four divisions enter a lotus stalk. When he saw this he thought, ‘I’ve gone mad, really, I’ve lost my mind! I’m seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

Then that person entered the city and informed a large crowd, ‘I’ve gone mad, really, I’ve lost my mind! I’m seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

‘But how is it that you’re mad? How have you lost your mind? And what have you seen that doesn’t exist in the world?’

‘Sirs, I left Rājagaha, thinking “I’ll speculate about the world.” I went to the Sumāgadhā lotus pond and sat down on the bank speculating about the world. Then I saw an army of four divisions enter a lotus stalk. That’s why I’m mad, that’s why I’ve lost my mind. And that’s what I’ve seen that doesn’t exist in the world.’

‘Well, mister, you’re definitely mad, you’ve definitely lost your mind. And you’re seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

But what that person saw was in fact real, not unreal. Once upon a time, a battle was fought between the gods and the demons. In that battle the gods won and the demons lost. The defeated and terrified demons entered the citadel of the demons through the lotus stalk only to confuse the gods.

So mendicants, don’t speculate about the world. For example: the cosmos is eternal, or not eternal, or finite, or infinite; the soul and the body are the same thing, or they are different things; after death, a Realized One still exists, or no longer exists, or both still exists and no longer exists, or neither still exists nor no longer exists. Why is that? Because those thoughts aren’t beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. They don’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

When you think something up, you should think: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’. Why is that? Because those thoughts are beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. They lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment.

That’s why you should practice meditation …”
SN 56.41

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  • I agree with the sentiment - but consider it inapplicable to the context: Buddha taught against being false: He recognised false view: ergo we can differentiate between false and true. Buddha talked of cessations - ergo we can talk of cessations. I’m not involved in determining an ontology or even metaphysics - but when Buddha says ‘it is uncompunded’ we need to understand what that means. Right view involves determination of right and wrong. The context is not the world but the Dharma.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 8:22
  • kv5.5 Andhaka: You admit that there is such a thing as spiritual or supramundane discernment; is that not analytic? Theravādin: That I do not deny
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 13:58
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The middle ground on which buddha rest is in paticca samuppada. which itself is in between existence and phenomena.

Most people wrongly interpret 'anatta' to sanskrit anatman. and this is historical mistake. but I never find any words uttered by buddha to deny existence or to be specific deny soul.

If you closely study buddhas teaching. Soul is referred every where. But its called dukkha.

Whole teaching of buddha is revolving around dukkha. And in fact dukkha means soul. Nothing else.

Ok if you skeptical. There is other name.its called 5 aggregates. And buddha frequently says 5 grasping aggregate is dukkha.

In other traditions(hindu/Christian/islam) soul is called source of knowledge. Thats exactly 5 grasping aggregates.. Or in simple word its memory that participate in building perception/saññā

Memory = soul = dukkha.

And soul exist until you are arhat/ buddha.

we all exist. we all stay connected to soul(5 grasping aggregates) until we reach arhat stage.

Only arhat is free from soul/dukkha/grasping-aggregates. so no more rebirth.

---- NOTE ----

Thanks all for all your concern. I know this seems bit away from buddhas teaching . but trust me its not. I request all not to , downvote this answer( let it be at -3) and let it be here as some food for thought for every one.

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  • I find your claims surprising and unlikely. You say "in other traditions" but do not define your own. Not only that, but you do not show any text that backs your claim. In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) and it's Sanskrit cognate anātman refers to the truth of "non-self" or selflessness – the complete lack of any intrinsic nature or essence of any phenomenon, the absence of which is obscured by ignorance, the effect of which is that we are bound to suffering and it's causes.
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:06
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    Equating soul to dukkha is something new. Do you have a reference? Note: the 5 aggregates (or khandhas) in and of themselves are not dukkha, its the clinging part that causes dukkha. Clinging to the khandhas (i.e. attraction) is the burden and the goal is to put this burden down, (Bhara Sutta, SN 22.22). Attraction to forms (bodies), feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness can be observed, recognized and perhaps measured.
    – Desmon
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:08
  • Attraction to soul can this be observed, recognized and measured? Show pictures of young faces versus old haggard faces, people prefer the youthful pictures (forms). Show a sad face, people can usually tells it apart from a happy face (feelings). People knows when they are sleep deprived (dull consciousness) vs when they are fresh and energetic and definitely prefer the latter to the former state.
    – Desmon
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:08
  • Attraction to memory is questionable, good memories perhaps but bad memories? I strongly suggest not injecting new elements until the existing framework is well understood.
    – Desmon
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:09
  • @enraiser, The sutta Anatta-lakkhana-sutta SN 22.59 is a very early discourse on anatta. In the first few lines he says that the five aggregates is not self. "Bhikkhus, form is not-self. [...] Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self [...] Bhikkhus, perception is not-self [...] Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self [...] Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self."
    – Konchog
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:17

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