Are the ultimate realities (paramattha dhammas) purely subjective? Or, if they exist, and are not simply subjective, why are they regularly said to be purely subjective, or subjective perceptual experiences? Where is it stated otherwise in abhidhamma?

Our friend Ceisiwr posed a form of this question to me. I’m sure you’ve all noticed that I was hostile to him previously, believing he was trolling us. I sincerely apologize to him, and everyone else for my misunderstanding. That out of the way, I would like to discuss his questions with everyone, as they are quite valid. I would also like to suggest that we actually address the issue, rather than brushing it aside as unimportant to practice, or otherwise try to escape actually answering it.

The dhammas are explained thusly by Ledi Sayadaw:

The earth element (paṭhavī-dhātu), in the ultimate sense, is the mere property of hardness. By earth is not meant any substance— not even a hundred-thousandth part of an atom. It lacks shape, mass, form, core, or solidity. Therefore, this element exists in very clear spring water or river water; in all forms of light, including sunlight, moonlight, and even the lustre of gems; in all sounds, including the vibrant sounds of gongs or pagoda bells; in moving air, from the softest breeze to a gale ; and in smells, good or bad, that spread near and far…In the case of light and smell, however, although the element of extension is definitely there, this element is too subtle to notice. No empirical data can be drawn from them. We simply have to rely on the authority of the scriptures…

When hundreds of thousands of crores of the earth element— by themselves the mere property of hardness—happen to be held together by the element of cohesion or the water element (āpodhātu), a form appears, which is given the name “atom.” When thousands of crores of such atoms come together, certain forms of life come into being, beginning with tiny insects.

Now, how can the earth element be an ultimate reality, but also not exist at all, beyond the purely subjective descriptor “hardness?” This may seem unimportant, but if it is accepted that this is all that there is to the paramattha dhammas, we leave the abhidhamma as a form of subjective idealism, which means that all of Buddhism is reduced to a teaching that everything is purely imaginary. Of course, there are ways to ostensibly dial that back, but if the ultimate realities, the foundational building blocks that make up reality are strictly subjective, and have zero actual existence, then there really is no other way to slice it: This would mean that ultimate reality in Theravada Buddhism is purely imaginary.

Again, the urge may be to somehow try to cap that up, by saying something along the lines of: that doesn’t mean things are imaginary, just that we absolutely never have contact with reality. This still reduces all Buddhist teaching to subjectivity, by definition, as we’ve never had contact with the teachings, only subjective things in our own minds. From there, it’s easy to see how this isn’t different from saying everything is imaginary, because we can strictly, and only experience the imaginary, never the real. and the ultimate realities taught to us, and discovered by us are not ultimate realities at all, but rather are simply our subjective experience. They would go from the true building blocks of reality, to simply how it feels to touch something hard. Obviously, there is an extremely wide gulf between knowing the true elements that make up reality, and knowing strictly how you feel when you touch certain objects that you perceive. This would open Theravada Buddhism up to the myriad, constantly proliferating problems that plague subjective idealism.


Only when a person get in touch with the external world that there is an arisen of feeling sense by the body get interpreted by the mano to be perceived as hardness , which is called the ultimate reality . In fact this is a wrong understanding and interpretation . Because without getting into contact in the first place , the concept of hardness cannot be known by the mind . One cant dissect it into two part between the perceiver and the perceived . In the constructed conventional world where we function , in order to communicate a bridge were build with the support of knowledge and language running parallel in between inner and outer .

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Thank you. How is this different from saying “I am seeing seeing.”? I don’t understand how it’s even possible to have a sensation that itself is a sensation of a sensation, rather than a substance, nor how a sensation can exist outside of the mind. In other words, how can the subjective feeling sensation of “hardness” be external, mind independent, and exist from its own side?

This have to consider whether we are speaking of dependent arising as doctrine similar to mind only school or paticcasamuppada per the Buddha teachings which included internal external . The Buddha’s position is that , you dont lean to material side or lean to mind side . It takes the middle by describing it so that it wont becomes a target of criticism by the eternalist and annihilist . Perhaps , you will understand the hardness you are experiencing cannot be perceived without the mano as it medium . Eg. When you are sleeping , any sensation or feeling occurs will not be interpreted by the mind when you are in unconscious state . If there are any thing out there which Buddha didnt deny , its characteristic such as hardness/solidity , fluidity/cohesion , temperature/heat , and mobility/motion , but they are not in and of itself fundamental essences whereby they are also part of dependent arising system of the nature . Thats how i understand it .

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I am speaking about the school that declares the opposite of mind only. The school that declares that the dhammas are external, exist mind independently, and exist from their own side. And I do not see how this is squared with being only able to experience a ghostly hardness that exists without any substance.

Little support:

Okay, I have resolved this issue via Y. Karunadasa’s work “A Buddhist Analysis of Matter”. He explains that originally, in the suttas, the elements didn’t make a radical departure from the traditional Indian understanding of the elements as substances:

Most of the schools of Indian thought, notably the Sāṃkhya, the Vedānta, and the Medical Tradition as represented by Caraka and Suśruta, recognize five mahābhūtas, or elemental substances… In the Nikāyas they are defined in simple and general terms and are illustrated mostly with reference to the constituents of the human body. Earth-element is that which is hard (kakkhaḷa) and rigid (kharigata) —for example, hair of the head or body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, etc. Water-element is water (āpo), or that which is watery (āpogataṃ) —for example, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, tears, etc. Fire-element is fire or heat (tejo), or that which is fiery (tejogataṃ) —for example, the heat in the body that transmutes food and drink in digestion. Air-element is air (vāyo), or that which is airy (vāyogataṃ) —for example, “wind discharged upward or downward, wind in the abdomen or belly, vapors that traverse the several members, inhaling and exhaling of breath.” These definitions seem to suggest that from its very beginning Buddhism did not make a radical departure from the popular conception of the mahābhūtas.

Then, the abdhidhamma began saying that the earth element is hardness itself, rather than the earth element being what is hard, or rigid, as it is in the Nikayas. A slight difference, but it brought on Ceisiwr and my confusion. This is because there is no conflict to say “Things that are hard are the earth element.” because the attribute of “hard” is applied to things, and these things would then be the earth element. In other words, when you touch something hard, you are experiencing the earth element. This is nearly identical to how many ancient people described the elements. It is no different than saying “Things that are wet contain water, so when we feel wetness, we feel the water element.” Perfectly logically, and linguistically sound.

But there is difficulty in saying, “Things that are the earth element are strictly hardness, and nothing else.” The difference being that things can have the attribute of being hard, and be the earth element, but things cannot be the attribute of hardness alone, because that is linguistically, and logically unsound. You would be experiencing an experience, with no underlying thing to hold that attribute, yet the attribute is said to stand independent of mind, and only experienced when contacted by the senses. It makes no sense. This is like saying “Things that are wet are the water element, which is nothing but wetness.” it doesn’t work linguistically. “Wetness” and “hardness” are sensations, and reducing a physical object to only a sensation is impossible, and incoherent.

Things that are hard can be the earth element, because, linguistically, things exist that are the earth element, which bears the attribute of being hard. But if we say those things are strictly the attribute or hardness, which is a sensation, we run into problems. There is nothing to be sensed in the first place, which violates the fact that consciousness depends on a dyad. The finger must touch a physical object before consciousness of hardness can arise. Hence, the conscious experience of hardness cannot be all that exists, as it cannot exist without a physical object. The finger cannot touch a sensation, and then experience a sensation. That’s circular logic. The finger must touch the earth element, a physical object, which bears the attribute of being hard, and is thus experienced in consciousness as hardness.

It will be seen that according to the Nikāyan definition what is comparatively hard or rigid (kakkhaḷa, kharigata) is the earth-element, whereas according to the Abhidhammic definition the fact of hardness or rigidity (kakkhaḷatta) is itself the earth-element.

However, what brings us back home again, and resolves the whole thing, is the earth element is also the element of extension, which bears other elements. This means that the earth element is not strictly the attribute of “hardness” with nothing to be attributed to. It is a lot like a force of nature that allows other elements to be borne on it, and it is the reason objects can occupy space.

Thus there is general agreement among the Buddhist schools in maintaining that what is called earth-element stands for the phenomenon of hardness, rigidity, solidity, or compactness in matter. The earth-element is also defined as that which extends or spreads out, pattharatī ti paṭhavī. 63 Extension is occupation in space. “Tri-dimensional extension gives rise to our idea of a solid body. As no two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time, Buddhists derive their idea of hardness (kakkhaḷatta-lakkhana) from paṭhavī.”64 Thus the interpretation of earth-element as the element of extension brings into relief a different method of approach. In the commentaries we get futher discussions on the peculiar function of this element. Venerable Buddhaghosa observes that it acts as a foundation, a sort of fulcrum, and that it manifests itself as receiving (sampaṭicchana-paccupaṭṭhānā). 65 This has been further explained to mean that the other three primary elements are established on it (paṭhavī-patiṭṭhitā) and that therefore it serves as a support, a basis (patiṭṭhānaṃ) for them. That this view is shared by the Vaibhāsikas, is shown by their contention that the “bearing up”or supporting (saṃdhārana) of ships by water ( = ocean) is a sufficient ground for the inference that that the earth-element is present in water. 67 A Pali sub-commentary observes that what we conventionally call earth is the support of trees, mountains, etc., even so the earth-element is a support for the other material

And, so, the conflict is resolved. There is more to the earth element than strictly “hardness,” and, if we simply relax on the word itself, and allow the Nikaya usage to guide our understanding of abhidhamma, we end up with a perfectly sound understanding. The earth element is hardness and extension which can bear other elements and qualities. An elemental force that allows other elements to occupy space can surely bear the attribute of hardness. Just like a magnetic field can bear the attribute of strongness, even though there is no substance to be found there. Yet, saying that there is nothing whatsoever to a magnetic field but “strongness” would be nonsense, because “strongness” is an attribute borne by something else, not alone. Hence, the earth element is not unlike a force. It is not a substance, but is the force that allows objects to occupy space, and bears the attribute of hardness.

Dear Zans, I just guess at least part of your problem is due to the feeling/notion that “space is real”.

The Abhidhamma and Commentary clearly distinguish the Suttha-method and Abhidhamma-method while accepting both. The Sutta-method only considers “Sasambhara (in general sense) mahābhūtas”.

This idea is at least very risky. A person in modern era can’t conclude that Sutta-method is the “Original method” or the “Only method mentioned by the Buddha”.

The Atthakata says both sutta-method and abhidhamma-method are original methods.

The four vinayas don’t accept personal opinions as authority over Atthakata or Abhidhamma.

If we try to define what we think as the “the thing” other than the characteristic, then we will find the answer. I guess, we will not find any nature other than the “Function (rasa)”, as the “thing”.

Hardness can also be defined as bearing, receiving etc. by considering its function or manifestation. All these are the same element.

Who does perform “bearing”? Hardness perform “bearing”.

Yes, if we know that the space is not real.
I would say as “The earth element is hardness which can bear other elements” for more security.

Kathavatthu Atthakata says that there are 3 spaces, namely: delimitation-space, kasina-ugghata-space and boundless-space. Out of these 3 spaces, only the “delimitation-space” is a Sankhata-paramattha and other 2 spaces are Pannatti.

We see as if mahabhutas occupying 3D-space, but 3D-space is unreal. Only the delimitation is real.

This force is nothing other than the function of the characteristic.
Space should be taken as conventional space.

We may say it in the conventional sense, but we have to be careful to not to take “space” as real, just like we don’t take “time” as real when we describe mind-moments.

When the body touches Pathavi, the triad “kaya-potthabba-kayavinnana” can be written as 'kaya-hardness-kayavinnana". Here the Kayavinnana is the “Sensation of hardness”.

What Classical Theravada defines as the hardness is not the “sensation of hardness” but the “objective hardness (bearing nature)”.

So rupa, matter, always arises in kalapas. Kalapas of inanimate objects are composed of Pathavi , Apo , Tejo , Vayo , Vanna , Gandha , Rasa and Oja and each kalapa is extraordinarily tiny. They sound kind of like atoms right?

However this ‘atomic’ model while applicable to size goes astray when considering other factors.
Rupa - and consequently each kapala - is utterly evanescent (unlike the supposed long lasting atoms). Remember that according to the texts all nama arises and passes away very fast indeed: "Spk notes by Bhikku Bodhi:

note 190: Spk: a bubble ( is feeble and cannot be grasped, for
breaks up as soon as it is seized; so too feeling is feeble and cannot be
grasped as permanent and stable. As a bubble arises and ceases in a drop
water and does not last long, so too with feeling: 100,000 koti
feelings arise and cease in the time of a fingersnap (one ko.ti = 10

Rupa is a little slower but still in a split second countless arise and pass away.
So our old thinking, before we heard Dhamma, that rupa is something ‘solid’(“a substance”) that stays is very wrong.
Thus experiencing rupa or not experiencing it is irrelevant. Kalapas arise and pass away - and there are trillions of them in what we refer to as a glass for example. But just because we are not touching a glass or looking at it doesn’t mean that there are no longer kalapas arising and ceasing that make up what we refer to as a glass…

So the idea that there should be something behind what is hardness or heat is not correct. These ARE rupa. And there is no need to be ‘experiencing’ these elements for them to momentarily exist- that is like some idea from 17th century philosophy(such as Berkeley).

The comment that “hardness are sensations” is again not something found in Dhamma. Heat, hardnessetc are intrinsic to rupa.

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Thank you Robertk. I still don’t see how that explains how a subjective quality, like mere “hardness” can exist in this way.

@Ceisiwr I defer to you, sir. What do you think of this? You generally form questions about these issues, where I find them to be concluded. So, would you please give us your assessment?

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Consider it then in purely conceptual terms.
Is a diamond hard ? Does that hardness depend on someone touching it, or is it hard even when sitting in the jewellery shop at night?

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But the diamond doesn’t really exist.

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But the rupas that make up what we refer to as a diamond are real.

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Certainly the diamond is hard even when no one is around. And the Nikaya understanding is faultless because of this line of reasoning: things that are hard are earth element. No problem, because it’s not particularly specific.

But the issue with the commentary position is the linguistic difficulty in that “hardness” being all that there is would be an attribute with no bearer. What is this “hardness” applied to? Just hardness is like saying the earth element is just “tallness” or “ugliness” which exists even when no one is around. Doesn’t really make any sense. These are descriptors. Linguistically and logically they cannot be used in this way.

Might we need to parse out what “hardness” means in this usage? Perhaps that’s not a good translation? Is “hardness” a polyseme or something?

Didn’t someone say you’re an English teacher? Or am I misremembering? If you are, surely you could solve this issue from a perspective of language?

On the other hand, might we need to break out of these categories, and decide that “hardness” necessarily means something different than we normally assume it does? If so, what does it mean?

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The way is to understand directly the nature of any reality. That of course is a very long process but if it is not begun now then when.
Saddha( confidence) builds together with understanding. As direct understanding grows so the theory becomes clearer and then that supports more direct understanding. A virtuous circle.

I mentioned kalapas earlier. Rupa arises always in these atom-like momentary arisings. As I mentioned hardness or earth element can’t arise by itself. It always comes with a minimum of seven other types of rupa. So it is not really a case of '“hardness” being all that there is". The tika shows the real nature of rupa , something so anicca, yet still arising. Something that seems solid and lasting yet has fallen away completely so instantly. No one but a Buddha or his disciples could explain that.

Circling back to direct understanding. Really this is key. I take a somewhat minimalist approach to thinking about Dhamma: if it is directly related to what is real at this moment then it is worthy. Beyond that it doesn’t hold my attention.

I am sure you know Abhidhamma is what is real in life - it is always revealing itself for those with the background to see it.

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Thank you.

What are the other things “hardness” depends on? What are the words used as the minimum for the other seven kinds of rupa, equivalent to how earth is strictly “hardness?”

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The 8 Avinibbhoga (inseperables) rupas are the 4 great elements plus colour odour flavour
and nutrition.
They arise and pass away together in each Kalapa.
However let’s just consider the 4 great elements, Pathavi , Apo , Tejo , Vayo
Tejo (heat ) is inseparably bound up with pathavi (hardness/extension/solidity)and the other great elements.
Surely all these are enough and there should be no need to demand some additional thing that pathavi and the other elements should fix onto? I can’t see how there could be anything more,or anything substantial at all, considering how infinestimally tiny and short lived the kalapas are.

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True, and, to be fair, because I’m seeing contradiction, does not mean that the abhidhamma actually contradicts. In other words: If an arahant says “hardness” exists independent of consciousness, then, it does. How? Who knows, but it does. Only arahants can see it properly.

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