Do things exist outside our experience of them? Realists say yes, of course. Idealists say no, everything is mind. In between these two extremes, there are many shades of grey (50? Maybe more?).
Gotama was not too interested in this question, judging from his discourses in the earliest strata of Buddhist texts in Pali and Chinese. In these texts, he came across more as an empiricist and pragmatist, more existentialist than not, and not too bothered by ontological and metaphysical speculations. Later Buddhist thinkers did take a different slant as they grappled with what is real (ontology) in addition to what is knowledge and how one knows what is to be known (epistemology). Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, Dignaga, Chandrakirti are some big names. Unlike their Indian counterparts (e.g. Advaita Vedantins) stemming from the Upanisadic heritage, these Buddhist thinkers refute the idealist qua idealist view. There are exceptions in the Buddhist fold, namely the Cittamatrins or Yogacarins who posit a quasi-idealist view but let’s leave them out for now.
For the Buddha and Nagarjuna, and for me (I am not merely following but corroborating them), both the realist and idealist views are flawed. Reality and knowledge is/are not one, not two. Even this statement is fraught with sliding into extremes. But for discourse’s sake, let’s say this: what exists does not exist from its own side alone, but exists by way of conceptual-linguistic construction that makes our experience what it is but does not fully exhaust the possibility of its actual existence. Whew! To be precise, what I just wrote is my take on what is philosophically known as “svatantrika madhyamika” or the Middle-Way Autonomist dialectic. It is also what I have come to realise as the closest view to how things are and appear. As an aside, I’ve published a scholarly article relating this dialectic to the Christian formulation of the Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—published in the Journal of Reformed Theology.
Suffice to say here: I remain more empirical and pragmatic than not, more existentialist than not, though I am not resistant to ontological inquiry but only to the extent necessary for fruitful spiritual growth and transformation. In everyday life, we come face to face suffering and affliction. When everyday ‘reality’ hits us in the face, and suffering is at our nose, what is more urgent and important: speculative metaphysics or practical liberation? Let me use a prosaic example: my hamstrings are quite tight after years of not stretching them properly. I used to do yoga asanas that I no longer do, blame it on my laziness. When I stretch them now and then, I feel the tension and pain, which intensify the more I stretch. Now do my tight hamstrings exist from their own side apart from my experience of them, or are they only an experience constructed entirely in and by consciousness?
As far as ‘my’ experience of ‘my’ hamstrings go, it is entirely a construct of experience. For there is nothing outside that experience that tells me what I am experiencing. In the experience of tight hamstrings, there is only the experience. In that experience there is only the mere experiencing, no subjective experiencer apart from the experienced object. Both subject and object are mere concepts formulated from the flow of experiencing. Experiencing itself is sheer awareness that is not a thing or a self. Seek for it, it cannot be found! Only a bare absence, not there as something that exists yet is self-knowingly present—indescribable, naked.
But if tight hamstrings do not exist at all outside this pure experiencing that is selfless thing-less bare aware-ing, how does hamstring get looser through exercise and tighter through neglect? Do not the hamstrings follow rules of physics, biomechanics, anatomy, and physiology in how they operate? Even when we have no direct awareness of these laws and operations of hamstrings, yet their causal effects can be observed and experienced—in terms of tightness and looseness of the muscles. In effect, we can conceive of these laws and operations as well as of the muscles themselves but as far as immediate direct contact with their reality outside our aware knowing, we have no access or clue. Our experience of them is but the flow experiencing only. We cannot unilaterally claim that outside this experience, there is nothing that truly exists. Nor can we conclusively claim that something does exist.
However, the fact that muscles and the laws governing them continue to operate outside our awareness, this suggests ontological reality outside experience. But even if we can be conscious of these laws and operations by some other means, they remain ultimately impervious to our direct, unmediated knowledge that is beyond all mental construction. Hence, it is fair to say that reality does have its place outside the realm of experiencing awareness. Even though we do not and may never know reality as it is from its own side, free from all constructs and consciousness, we can function to a degree in this world of idea and experience.
If reality does obtain outside experience, I put it to you that this reality was, is, and will be spoken into being by the only One who can—our self-existent, sovereign, eternal God transcending our weak capacities of apprehension. Even our concept, description, and experience of God are saturated by the onto-epistemic constraints posited above. Our only hope is in the self-revelation of God that pierces into the horizon of our history and consciousness. Only then can we glimpse and grasp Him to the best possible extent in this fading world, with these fumbling faculties. Only then will we realise the relativity and contextuality of all our previous ideas of reality and experience.
When God reality strikes, we can only be humbled. Fear and trembling is our only response.