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.