Why does Noa Ronkin claim the Abhidhamma does not present an account of mind independent reality (which would imply the Abhidhamma is a form of subjective idealism, skepticism, or similar, and negate the four ultimate realities)?

As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic. From this perspective, they are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality
Note: Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, 2005, page 56.

-Wikipedia page on Mahabhuta

According to Ronkin, the canonical Pāli Abhidhamma remains pragmatic and psychological, and “does not take much interest in ontology” … Ronkin does note however that later Theravāda sub-commentaries (tika) do show a doctrinal shift towards ontological realism from the earlier epistemic and practical concerns.
Note: Ronkin, Noa; Early Buddhist Metaphysics , p. 77

Similarly, Noa Ronkin argues that in Theravāda Abhidhamma, "sabhāva is predominantly used for the sake of determining the dhammas’ individuality, not their existential status.
Note:Ronkin, Noa; Early Buddhist Metaphysics , p. 111

-Wikipedia on Theravada Abhidhamma


“All form is that which is…

void of idea,
neither feeling, nor perception, nor synthesis,
disconnected with thought,”
“form exists which is not due to karma having been wrought”

-Dhammasangani 2.2.3

Points of Controversy
9.3 Of Matter as Subjective
Controverted Point: Whether matter should be termed subjective or objective.

Theravādin: If that is so, you must also affirm of matter or body, that it has the mental features of “adverting”, ideating, reflecting, co-ordinated application, attending, willing, anticipating, aiming—things which you would, on the contrary, deny of matter.

All, or any of them you can rightly affirm of mental properties, such as contact (mental reaction), feeling, perception, volition, cognition, faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, understanding, lust, hate, illusion, conceit, erroneous opinion, doubt, mental inertia, distraction, immodesty, indiscretion—all of which you admit as subjective. But matter is not one of these, and therefore such things may not be affirmed of it.

You deny in the case of matter all those mental features—adverting, etc.—but claim for it the term “subjective”, which is really applicable to “contact”, sensation, etc. These, as you admit, do not lack those mental features named.

Uttarāpathaka: But is not matter correlated (as an object)? Of course you assent. Then as correlated it is surely right to apply the term “subjective” to matter, etc. since “object” is one of the twenty-four (causal) relations.

“If, friends, internally the eye is intact but no external forms come into its range, and there is no corresponding conscious engagement, then there is no manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness. If internally the eye is intact and external forms come into its range, but there is no corresponding conscious engagement, then there is no manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness. But when internally the eye is intact and external forms come into its range and there is the corresponding conscious engagement, then there is the manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness.” “Now there comes a time when the external water element is disturbed. It carries away villages, towns, cities, districts, and countries.”
-MN 28

And, of course, there are plenty more quotes in the Abhidhamma pitaka, and Kathavatthu, and the suttas, as well, that make it abundantly clear that the composers of these texts did see dhammas, just as the later commentators, as objectively real, and rejected subjective idealism. Why does Ronkin seem oblivious to this fact, and promote viewing the Abhidhamma, at best, as a form of skepticism, and, at worst, as a form of subjective idealism, thus reducing the paramattha dhammas (ultimate realities) to mere unknown, indeterminate sensory qualities (ie. not at all ultimate realities), or imaginary things (the opposite of ultimate realities), despite these clear and obvious statements in the Abhidhamma? How could Ronkin read that the specifically delineated as external Mahabhuta of water can destroy countries, and then claim that the Abhidhamma teachings based on the suttas, that also clearly state that matter is disconnected from thought do not denote an external, mind independent reality?

In what world is an external Mahabhuta of water, that is disconnected with thought, and powerful enough to cause natural disasters, not referencing an external, mind independent reality? In fact, this very statement contains contradictions, clearly. Unless I have some serious difficulties with simple logic, and basic English, something is fishy here.

Is Ronkin a crypto-Yogacara apologist, acting under the guise of an expert presenting Theravada Abhidhamma?

Here is what venerable Maggavihari sees as the verification of “paramatthadhammas as existents” by considering the usage of nominal-case-endings.

What do you think?

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.

Handouts of 2021 Fundamentals of Theravada Buddhism lecture series


The Western scholars assume that Abhidhamma came later. This is where everything falls apart. Obviously the Buddha only saw Dhammas in the Beginning. Suttas came afterwards from the Dhammas.

But Western people read suttas first… then they “stumble upon” Abhidhamma and learn from others that it was formulated later. So their whole bearing is messed up from the beginning. Anyone who knows “How to teach” would tell you that you assemble key points that you want to teach, then you make a lesson from it. It is painful to learn Abhidhamma from Ven. Bodhi as well. He says the same thing, but he is a little more positive towards Abhidhamma as “useful”.


Ronkin has occasional useful comments on Pali words but that is all.


A convincing argument.

Thank you, Venerable, I agree. My theory, if I could provide it here, in addition to yours, is that much of the world learned of Mahayana initially, and considered it superior to our supposed Hinayana (hate that term, but it’s relevant here). This was certainly the case when Buddhism was first being introduced, and booming, in the West. Then, the internet made information much more available, and these same people were suddenly exposed to undeniable consensus by scholars that the Theravada is actually the oldest school, the most likely to go back to the Buddha himself, and that the Mahayana sutras are inauthentic, and composed anonymously, beginning somewhere around five hundred years after his death.

Now, these people who completely agree with Mahayana teachings, feel really embarrassed and awkward, because they don’t want to admit they are part of anything inauthentic, and they’d prefer to be part of the most authentic tradition. So, they ostensibly come over to Theravada, but only in appearance. In reality, they are still 100% Mahayana. So they reinterpret the suttas and Abhidhamma to be saying the exact same thing as their Mahayana sutras do.

Now, with careful analysis, the historical Buddha taught the exact same thing as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and all the Mahayana sutras. This, despite the fact that these teachings strictly are in no way found in, nor compatible with the suttas and Abhidhamma, easily evident from an honest reading of them, and, further evident in that this is precisely why they created the Mahayana sutras, and developed their own aberrant traditions and philosophies. If they were already identical, the Mahayana would have never existed.

I find it particularly perplexing, if not amusing, that Ronkin seems to follow this pattern, but bizarrely tries to rope in the Abhidhamma as well, while the vast majority of other crypto-Mahayanist “Theravada” people throw out the Abhidhamma entirely, because it is so unflinchingly devastating to their case, due to it being unambiguously worded, while the suttas are more poetic, or story based, which allows them to reinterpret them and disingenuously “find” their Mahayana teachings within. Yet Ronkin inexplicably believes even the Abhidhamma can be claimed to support Mahayana subjective idealism/extreme skepticism/relativism. What a laughable example of “scholarship”, and rather a better example of confirmation bias.

This has always amused me as well. They all agree that the matikas are mentioned in the suttas, and that the Buddha referred to the three divisions of teachings, and that the matikas reference the early Abhidhamma, and then turn around and say that the Abhidhamma was created long after the Buddha’s death, and try to paint it as inauthentic for this reason. Wow. Truly baffling, especially when we consider the above, along with the fact that much of the Abhidhamma literally restates what is inarguably already in the suttas, frequently using the exact same wording, but in summary form and/or list format. A summary of an authentic text cannot be inauthentic. That would make zero sense.

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