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There can be different kinds of reality. Reality as experienced by dogs, cats, elephants, lions, pigs, snakes, humans, gods, maras or reality as experienced in hell or reality as experienced in heaven or reality as experienced by water born animals or by birds etc., differ widely in their nature.

The word I am comfortable using for reality is dhamma. However, sankhara is another word which might be used as all realities are impermanent therefore they must be a sankhara.

My question is : Which word - dhamma or sankhara - should be used to translate the meaning of reality from english to pali?

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  • Please see the question "What is world (loka) in SN 12.44? Why is it called "world"?"
    – ruben2020
    Oct 17, 2023 at 17:19
  • Please also see the question "SN 35.116 - Is "the world" ("loka") an objective reality perceived via the senses?"
    – ruben2020
    Oct 17, 2023 at 17:26
  • Nibbana is a reality that is not impermanent & not sankhara Oct 17, 2023 at 23:40
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    There are over 80 different connotations of the word dhamma/dharma. Likewise, there are many different connotations of the word reality. Your question asks for a 1 word "description" of reality which is more like asking for a translation. Context-less translations (or even transliterations) can be quite inaccurate. It may help you to have specific contexts to be precise. Oct 18, 2023 at 1:16
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    @DheerajVerma part of the problem here is you're not specifying the definition of 'reality' or 'real' that interests you. When answering this question the first thing I did was look up the most common definition on Google and use that. But other people are using different definitions. You should specify next time what definitions you are using to make things as clear as possible otherwise it will lead to confusion.
    – user13375
    Oct 18, 2023 at 13:31

9 Answers 9

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Reality is a word that has two opposite meanings:

Sentient being's subjective reality, known in the modern semiotic science as "Umwelt", is the world a sentient being finds itself in: a world of a frog, a world of a bat, a hell, and so on. This is what Pali Canon refers to as a "loka".

The objective or ontological reality, is the supposed basis or ground underlying the subjective experience, common to all the different perspectives and interpretations and giving rise to them.

Historically, Buddhism had difficult relationship with this second type of reality. The Buddha famously described The All in terms of subjective experience (the seen, the heard, and so on) and refused speculations about the metaphysics, leading some students of Dharma to think that Buddhism denies any objective reality. Indeed, the dhammas in their narrow technical meaning — Abhidhamma's fundamental building blocks of reality — are expressed in terms of their phenomenology, they are things like solidity, wetness, hotness and so on. At the same time, early buddhist texts speak about "external forms" and describe consciousness as something dependent on the body, so it seems clear that Buddhism is not a form of subjective idealism.

That said, I don't remember a historical text, whether EBT or Mahayana, that would explicitly define or use a concept equivalent to what we would call ontological reality. When we hear that all dhammas are empty, or impermanent and deceptive, or that their existence does not match their appearance, we kind of understand that we are talking about subjective reality vs ontological reality, but no Pali or Sanskrit text ever uses such terms. Perhaps bhava (existance) comes close but it refers to existence of each individual thing, not all of them as in "reality". Another word I can think of is "dharmata" but it refers to the way things work not the way things are.

Back to your question whether it's dhamma or sankhara that refers to subjective reality, it is neither. Just like bhava, dhamma refers to each individual phenomenon, not the overall Umwelt of a sentient being. Sankhara is even less fitting, since it refers to the objective composition of phenomena in the ontological reality of causes and conditions, not to appearance.

So I guess the best Pali word for what you are asking about would be "loka", a world sentient being find itself in.

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  • Can I say “Sabbe Loka Anatta” ? If yes then loka is a Dhamma which means subjective reality is a Dhamma. So what is the problem in calling reality a Dhamma ? Oct 18, 2023 at 7:39
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    If a sentient being lives in hell for 100 years, would you call those 100 years as one dhamma, or do you consider every moment of experience of hell a separate dhamma? In English when we say subjective reality we assume that it lasts for some period of time, even if it is not identical from one moment to next. But what about dhamma, is it like that?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 18, 2023 at 7:53
  • why is the subjective reality not identical from one moment to the next? if you say it lasts for some period of time, then it must be identical for that lasting time
    – blue_ego
    Oct 30, 2023 at 2:56
  • why? you last for some time, but you are not identical. Subjective reality is you, just inside out.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 30, 2023 at 3:20
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Reality is the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. (common definition)

For something to be real means that it actually exists exactly as it appears to exist. An example of an unreal thing is an illusion or mirage in the desert. It isn't real because it actually exists in a way that is deceptive and different from how it appears to exist.

Neither dhamma nor sankhara are good translations of this concept. There are suttas where the Buddha uses the adjective real or not real. I'd look for those suttas and the translations from the pali experts on sutta central to find suitable words in pali of a similar meaning.

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Reality is called "the world".

Whatever in the world through which you perceive the world and conceive the world is called the world in the training of the Noble One. And through what in the world do you perceive the world and conceive the world?

Through the eye in the world you perceive the world and conceive the world. Through the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind in the world you perceive the world and conceive the world.

Whatever in the world through which you perceive the world and conceive the world is called the world in the training of the Noble One.
SN 35.116

In Piya Tan's commentary on SN 12.44, he drew a connection from the arising of feeling to the arising of mental proliferation (papanca).

And what, bhikshus, is the arising of the world10?

Bhikshus, dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises.
The meeting of the three is contact.
With contact as condition, there is feeling.12

10 On the 3 types of “world,” see Rohitassa S
12 From hereon, Madhu,pindika S (M 18.16) continues: “What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one mentally proliferates. What a person mentally proliferates is the source through which perceptions and notions due to mental proliferation impacts one regarding past, future and present forms cognizable through the eye.”

In Piya Tan's commentary on the Rohitassa Sutta (SN 2.26), he explains the three types of worlds:

In the Rohitassa Sutta, the word “world” (loka) is used in two senses: in the sense of the physical world and the world of formations. Rohitassa asks the Buddha a question on the physical world (cakka-vāla loka, “universe world”), but the Buddha answers him referring to the world of formations. Through-out the Buddhist texts, the word “world” has three senses:

  1. Sankhāra loka - the world of formations,
  2. Satta loka - the world of beings,
  3. Okāsa loka - the world of space (ie the space-time reality).
    (Vism 7.37/204 f; DA 1:173; MA 1:397, 2:200)

The world of formations is defined in the Patisambhidā,magga thus: “One world: all beings are sustained by food.” (Pm 1:122).

So, the "world" of SN 12.44 corresponds to the world of mental formations (sankhara loka) arising from mental proliferations (papanca), that is derived from the feelings (vedana) coming from the contact of consciousness with the six sense media and their sense objects (The All).

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  • Good answer. Is it true that “ Sabbe sankhara loka Anatta” ? If yes then can we call sanskar Loka a Dhamma ? If yes then why can’t we call reality , as mentioned above, a Dhamma? Oct 18, 2023 at 13:25
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The English word "reality" is ambiguous or has a broad set of meanings.

To me its primary or basic use is to refer is to refer to the universe of tangible or thing-like objects -- and as such, perhaps it corresponds to the Pali word for "form" i.e. rupa.

The antonym of "real" is "imaginary" -- including unicorns and so on -- objects which exist or can be "seen" in the mind but not touched (they're not solid, not liquid, not gaseous, and not fire, i.e. none of the four elements).

You also mentioned "reality as experienced in heaven" and so on. I'm not sure but the word for this, i.e. for what's "experienced", might be "feeling" (vedana) or "perception" (sanna).

Dhamma is another word with several meanings. According to this glossary's entries for dhamma and ayatana it can be used to mean (generically) "thing" but perhaps more precisely "mental phenomenon".

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yathābhūtaṁ jānāti passati = know and see according to reality/what really exists (AN 11.2)

yathābhūtaṁ

that is reality = etaṁ yāthāvanti (Iti 49)

yāthāva

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  • Can I say “Sabbe Bhutam Anatta” ? If yes then Bhutam is a Dhamma which means reality is Dhamma. So what is the problem in calling reality a Dhamma ? Oct 18, 2023 at 7:41
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There is nothing called reality in buddha-dharma. Or at max you can say sunnata is reality. Everything is perceived. and perception is dependent on past experience or sankhara.A perception of one person need not to match perception of other.

However we have perception based on generality and that we call Reality.

Can you say what is reality in case when few people says earth is flat. and majority says earth is round. And remember, just 200 year back the reality was opposite.

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The arising and vanishing trillion times per second of five aggregates are called dogs, cats, elephants, lions, pigs, snakes, humans, gods, maras, hell, heaven, etc.

Anybody could say "Alexander is good man" which could be truth or not because of wrong or right view, but Alexander is right to be called "good man" while his awesome mind arising and vanishing period.

One could imagine whatever but the arising or not will prove the reality.

And how to see trillion times per second arising and vanishing?

Meditate (Eight)Vijja(Fifteen)Carana in VijjaCaranaSampanno of "Itipiso..." with Svakkhato Bhagavata Dhamma. Then you will be purify enough see the real complicated & advance dependent origination.

I type it in pali because it is important to understand what you daily reciting in deep.

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Science has pointed out that our senses are really limited when it comes to comprehending our surroundings and its reality. We see only a fraction of a percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. We unable to hear infrasound or ultrasound. Dogs’ senses of smell are far superior than ours. Our sense of taste and touch are equally inferior. In truth, the reality we are aware of is only a very tiny subset of the actual reality based on the information gathered by our limited senses. This tiny subset is our internal representation of reality and this tiny subset is all that we ever know about the actual reality.

Unfortunately, on top of this tiny subset of reality, we add false narratives, subjective interpretations and fictitious details. We also filter out objective information that goes against our likes or matches our dislikes. These actions further skewed what we know about reality. We may think everyone have their own interpretations of reality and as long as the interpretations are similar there is no problem. Yes, often they are very similar but at times different interpretations can arise w.r.t. the same event and the reality surrounding it. Sadly, these different interpretations lead to breakdowns in relationships, conflicts amongst various groups and even war between countries. It is also difficult to admit that our internal representation of reality is inaccurate. Frequently, we will only do so when reality shove it down our throats by crushing our expectations, hopes and dreams i.e. by making us suffer.

I think this is the message the Buddha is trying to bring across. That there is something wrong with our internal representation of reality and it is making us suffer. At first, we will try our best to be objective and impartial in the process of representing reality once we understood that sufferings come from getting it wrong. But it will always fall short. This is because there is an invisible perpetrator that just keep colouring and tainting the whole process. The moment the mind comes into contact with sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, they are already coloured. When feelings, perception and thoughts arise, they are already tainted. In time, the realization hits us that this invisible perpetrator is none other than ourselves.

It doesn't matter if we use dhamma or sankhara or whatever word to describe reality. We can even use a symbol @ to express it. But it is all pointless if we don’t realize that there is a problem even before we start describing and interpreting reality. With Metta.

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if you think that reality is about experience, dhamma (phenomena), sankhara (dukha) might work.

"So you should view this fleeting world -- A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightening in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream."

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  • Anubhāva might translate to experience in pali
    – blue_ego
    Oct 30, 2023 at 4:25

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