Is the Theravada system one of direct realism?

I know it is a realist system, that is beyond any doubt or discussion, but today I saw this on Wikipedia, and wondered if it is specifically, as the author says, direct realism:

Regarding their theory of sense perception and the nature of the cognitive object, the Theravāda Abhidhamma view is a kind of direct realism that says we do perceive external physical objects.

As a reference is linked this quote: Karunadasa, Y. Buddhist Analysis of Matter, pp. 149.

Also relevant:

Karunadasa, Y. Buddhist Analysis of Matter, pp. 14, 172; "If we base ourselves on the Pali Nikayas, then we should be compelled to conclude that Buddhism is realistic. There is no explicit denial anywhere of the external world. Nor is there any positive evidence to show that the world is mind-made or simply a projection of subjective thoughts. That Buddhism recognizes the extra-mental existence of matter and the external world is clearly suggested by the texts. Throughout the discourses it is the language of realism that one encounters. The whole Buddhist practical doctrine and discipline, which has the attainment of Nibbana as its final goal, is based on the recognition of the material world and the conscious living beings living therein.


I managed to track down the reference. It seems, indeed, Theravada is a form of direct realism.

This theory ensures that the object of direct and immediate
perception is not an object of mental interpretation but something that is
ultimately real.
-Karunadasa, Y. Buddhist Analysis of Matter, pp. 149.

This quote is also relevant:

Thus the Theravādins were able to establish the theory
of direct perception of the external object despite their recognizing the
theory of momentariness.
-ibid. page 146


The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: Pain, the Cause of Pain, Relief, the Cause/Way of Relief. Knowing these Four Truths is Yathabhuta Nana Dassana, which is simply put, being free from delusion or perception/view.

When a grain of salt is put onto the tongue, salty taste appears. And one knows salt is salty. This is direct knowledge - yathabhuta nana dassana, with which one can notice the ‘relief’ when it arises.

When an itch is too strong, we wants to scratch and we do and we know when there is the itch no more. We have direct knowledge of the itch and its disappearance. We cannot find this itch anywhere after we experience the relief, as the relief remains permanent. This relief is permanent, as much as the disappearance of the itch is permanent. This knowledge is yathabhuta nana dassana.

But scratching is unnatural, but manmade. By scratching to achieve relief, one cannot know the natural relief that is what a yogi is sought after passively. Being active is atta and allowing the itch to disappear naturally is to understand the natural phenomena of anicca/impermanence, dukkha/pain and anatta/being-natural. Yes, an itch is actually a pain too so we want immediate relief rather than natural relief. By scratching, we cause (kamma) and create effect (vipaka).

Perception is one of the five aggregates, and not panna/wisdom (in this case Bhāvanā-maya Paññā). In Buddhist context, it is not imaginary.

Bhāvanamaya (भावनमय).—a. imaginary. There are Buddhist links (Burmese and Siri-Lankan) on this page.

The Essence of Wisdom by S. N. Goenka What is wisdom? Wisdom means right understanding. Knowledge of superficial apparent truth only is not true wisdom. In order to understand the ultimate truth, we must penetrate apparent reality to its depths.

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What if we create a name combining the both?


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When we look at the moon and then turn away, it’s still there. :grin:

I know that sounds pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many (including some buddhists) who say that it’s not there unless there is an observer.

Somewhere in the desert there is a large boulder. If no human or animal is looking at it, it’s still there.

I guess I’m a direct realist.


In some conventional sense yes, it is always there.
However, it is actually four elements that are arising and passing away. Yes all four.

These four elements arise and pass away ingroups (kalapa)

Your sensory interaction (nāma, maybe seeing processes, etc.) with that object (the rock) (the color) only exists when you are observing it.

The eyes see only for a moment .
The mind then processes that “seeing” and then falls into bhavanga (life continuum). Then it sees this again and repeats uncountable times per second.

What sees?
What knows?

It is actually the “person” that does not really exist.
It exists as a collection of momentary nāma rūpa and causes.


Do the moon as an external rupa appear and disappear too?

The four elements cannot appear independently so they always appear and disappear together.

With stars the reverse is probably true, we can observe them but the object is not necessarily exist anymore because the light that reach the earth might have travelled for millions of years and the star might have been destroyed in the present.


“Delay to see” doesn’t matter. It existed. (Not mind-made or empty)

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In some sense… we see only vaṇṇarūpa (color). We do not see earth, water, fire, or air elements.
4 elements is a generalization. There are actually 8 universal elements from earth to nutriment.
Note: Despite the movie in the 90’s, vaṇṇarūpa is actually the real 5th element.


Thanks for elaborating, Venerable.

This is the way I understand it, as well.

In other words, “the moon” exists conventionally. However, ultimately “the moon” doesn’t exist. That said, there are mind independent dhammas there, where we see “the moon” arising and falling rapidly, regardless of whether or not they are perceived and mentally processed into “the moon.”

“The moon” is pannatti (conventional reality), but, beneath the conventional reality are paramattha (ultimate reality), in the form of dhammas.

I’ll add, for anyone new to Buddhism, or new to this specific idea:

For the sake of discussing this issue with anti realists and subjective idealists like the Madhyamaka and Yogacara, who would declare that the moon does not exist in any way whatsoever, as nothing does, or it is purely imaginary, and only mind exists, respectively, and a huge swath of unrelated philosophies today which say the same, it is safe to say; “the moon” absolutely exists in the form of ultimately existing objective dhammas. Even though the “moon,” as the word and idea itself is a mental construct, the Arahants could look at it and see that, where we see “moon” there are, in fact, rapidly arising and passing away dhammas that ultimately exist, and are mind independent. Otherwise it becomes an inroad for people to rope in the Theravada, and lump it together with Madhyamaka and Yogacara, and say all three traditions teach the same thing: extreme nihilism/subjective idealism, nothing is real/everything is imaginary, which is patently false.

I think everyone is tired of me bringing this up lol! However, I have watched too many people who are not deeply enmeshed in Theravada devolve from Theravada to Mahayana, and these foundational issues are frequently the turning point, so I will always try to point the way, for anyone new to Buddhism who may be reading, to the proper Theravada points that allow for a valid philosophy, because Mahayana is not valid, since “nothing exists/everything is imaginary” is a self refuting position.

There is a great desire among people to bridge Theravada and Mahayana, but they are fundamentally incompatible, and this is one of the most significant reasons they could never be combined: if the moon does not exist in any way whatsoever, neither do the suttas, and so on, until Buddhism is meaningless, and doesn’t exist, at all. From there, only a fool would practice a bunch of written down rules and teachings, because whatever they may dream up is just as valid, since none are real in any way. The goal ends up being seeing through the very tradition itself, as it isn’t even real, and “true” Mahayana Buddhists should be above and beyond the dharma itself (as the Zen teaching goes “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”). Thus, it’s important to note: in the Theravada, the dhammas, including matter, are 100% real, in fact they are considered ultimate reality, so, by extension, in a sense, are the teachings, etc. In Theravada, if you see the Buddha on the road, touch your head to the ground, and beg him to teach you. It would be a huge mistake to think he’s imaginary, and to try to kill him. Actually, this, in the Theravada, is considered one of the greatest sins imaginable.

This is one of the reasons it is so wonderful that we have Venerable Subhuti, Robertk, and everyone else and this forum! We have a place where the truth, and valid Buddhist philosophy is held high.

It is the dhammas alone that possess ultimate reality: determinate existence “from their own side” (sarupato) independent of the minds conceptual processing of the data. Such a conception of the nature of the real seems to be already implicit in the Sutta Pitaka, particularly in the Buddha’s disquisitions on the aggregates, sense bases, elements, dependent arising, etc.,…

Thus by examining the conventional realities with wisdom, we eventually arrive at the objective actualities that lie behind our conceptual constructs. It is these objective actualities – the dhammas, which maintain their intrinsic natures independent of the mind’s constructive functions…

…the commentaries consummate the dhamma theory by supplying the formal definition of dhammas as “things which bear their own intrinsic nature” (attano sabhavam dharenti ti dhamma).

…concretely produced matter…possess intrinsic natures and are thus suitable for contemplation and comprehension by insight.

Great seers who are free from craving declare that Nibbana is an
objective state which is deathless, absolutely endless, unconditioned,
and unsurpassed.
Thus as fourfold the Tathagatas reveal the ultimate realities—
consciousness, mental factors, matter, and Nibbana.
-Bhikkhu Bodhi, Acariya Anuruddha, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, pages 3, 15, 26, 235, 260


Well said, Venerable.

Great movie though :smile:

Both Magyamaka and Yogacara happen to meet with FUNDAMENTAL ERRORS,
where the practitioners will be answerless if anyone question them properly,
Abhidhamma scholar venerable Maggavihari says.

Actually, if any newcomer who is unaware of deep fundamentals of each sect, is still be able to get some clues on “what can be the truth” by comparing the qualities that each early sect possessed, such as higher emphasis on morality and virtues, asceticism, appeal to matured wisdom, down-to-earth-ness, simplicity, gratefulness, integrity of fundamentals, profound analysis, Anatta …etc.

Please make a new topic:

Questions to ask Magyamaka and Yogacara Cannot Answer and Why

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Yes, @Mahavihara please do, I just came here to ask you to clarify what these fundamental errors are, and also where Venerable Maggavihari says this. These are definitely topics I’d like to learn about!

Update: This Venerable is mustard on this topic! I want to hear more, and specifically where he addresses Madhyamaka and Yogacara, but I can’t find it.

I found this, though, from @ekocare on Dhammawheel:

ekocare: Here is what venerable Maggavihari at IIT sees as the verification of “paramatthadhammas as existents” by considering the usage of Nominal-case-endings.

1.18. The idea of considering paramatthadhammas as existents can be verified with evidence from the canon itself. In number of suttas the Buddha mentions rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāṇa to be dukkha (natures that bring suffering). When it is mentioned in suttas as “Rupaṃ dukkhaṃ” and “Vedanā dukkhā” usage of similar nominal case endings in rūpa and dukkha and vedanā and dukkha suggests that the terms are in apposition. It means what is referred by the term rūpa is the same that is referred by the word dukkha. The same should be understood with regard to the other two terms, vedanā and dukkha.

Then in the Acelakassapa Sutta, when being questioned by Acelakassapa whether there is no dukkha “Kiṃ nu kho, bho Gotama, natthi dukkhaṃ (Venerable Gotama, isn’t there dukkha)?”, the Buddha gave the direct answer, “Na kho, Kassapa, natthi dukkhaṃ. Atthi kho, Kassapa, dukkhaṃ (Kassapa, it is not that there is no dukkha. There is, indeed, dukkha)”.

Therefore, as for the teachings of the Buddha, if dukkha exists, rūpa and vedanā (and the remaining aggregates of clinging - upādānakkhandha) also should exist, because dukkha is the five aggregates (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāṇa).

It is very evident that the Buddha advocated the existence of dukkha and, also, propounded that what he considered as dukkha is the five aggregates, which in turn leads to the inference that five aggregates do exist according to him. Five aggregates are the citta, cetasika and rūpa which were explained above.

In the Puppha Sutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Buddha clearly advocates that he accepts the idea that five aggregates i.e., rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāṇa, that are impermanent, subject to change and which bring forth suffering do exist.

Moreover, in number of suttas the Buddha has clearly advocated the existence of spiritual qualities such as eight-fold noble path (ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo), seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhaṅgā), four-fold-mindfulness (cattāro satipaṭṭhānā), three types of feeling (tividhā vedanā) and so forth. These are also concrete evidences to prove that according to the Theravāda canon the Buddha himself has propounded the existence of paramatthadhammas.

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