What are Dhammā? – A Deeper Analysis

April 15, 2016; revised November 5, 2017; February 9, 2018; December 27, 2022

1. This is an advanced topic (yet, hopefully, made easy even for those who are not into Abhidhamma). Please don’t hesitate to comment if something is not clear. A simpler version is at: “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!

  • In contrast to touching, smelling, and tasting, we do not directly “touch” the external world (matter) with our eyes, ears, or mind.
  • While we experience the “outside world” as it is (or objectively) with our five physical senses, what we interact with our minds are our own “perceptions, feelings, plans, and hopes” for that external world.
  • We will get into more details on those two aspects in the future, but in this post, we will look at what “dhammā” are in relation to the mind. That will help us address those other two issues in the future.
  • It is to be noted that dhammā are rūpa below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. On the other hand, dhamma, as in Buddha Dhamma or Abhidhamma, refers to Buddha’s teachings.
  • As I mentioned in the “Abhidhamma – Introduction,” I want to make Abhidhamma easy to grasp for anyone. I also want to highlight that the Buddha Dhamma is well ahead of science (quantum mechanics) in understanding our material world; science has not even begun to explore the mind.

2. Existence in this world of 31 realms is maintained via our attachments to “things” in this world. These “things” are rūpa.

  • When a mind makes contact with an external rūpa, it may generate a brief sense of enjoyment called assāda; see “Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana.”  Since we perceive these sense contacts to be long-lasting and enjoyable (and ignore the sufferings that we go through to acquire them), we willingly desire such sensory pleasures.
  • However, any rūpa that arises is subjected to unexpected change (viparināma) and eventual decay and destruction, which is the basis of anicca nature.

3. Another factor that we have not discussed much in detail is that rūpā has different levels of texture or solidity.

  • Rūpa that we experience in the human realms (and those realms below us) are the densest form, called dhātu. The deva realms above us have finer dhātu that we cannot see. In the rūpa lōkas, rūpi Brahmā have even finer rūpa called mahā bhūta. And in the arūpa lōka, there are just traces of bhūta (just the hadaya vatthu) made of the smallest unit of matter called suddhāṭṭhaka, and of course, much finer gati (or gati).
  • You may want to review the concepts discussed in the following posts: “What Are rūpa? (Relation to Nibbāna)“,  “The Origin of Matter – suddhāṭṭhaka. “

4. It is conventional knowledge that we experience the external world with our five physical senses: We see with our eyes, hear with the ears, smell with the nose, taste with the tongue, and touch things with our physical bodies.

  • Is that all one experience? Imagine being in a dark chamber isolated from the rest of the world. A good example is a punishment by the military called solitary confinement, especially in the old days. One is kept in an isolated dark cell for many hours.
  • Does such a person experience the outside world? Of course. He/she can think about all sorts of things: recall past events, think about the future, recall any place that he has been to, etc.
  • We do this any given day, not only by recalling past experiences but also by imagining desired future events.

5.  Sense contacts other than the five physical senses are due to the sixth sense: the mind. One is unaware of the external world only when one is unconscious.

  • So, what are the rūpa that we experience with our minds? These are dhamma! As stated in the phrase, “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ“, contacts of dhammā with the mana indriya leads to manō viññāna.

6. The arising of viññāna due to different types of sensory inputs is described in Abhidhamma (and also in “Cha Chakka Sutta (MN 148)“) as:

cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“,

sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōtaviññāṇaṃ“,

ghānañca paṭicca gandhē ca uppajjāti ghānaviññāṇaṃ “,

jivhañca paṭicca rasē ca uppajjāti jivhāviññāṇaṃ”,

kāyañca paṭicca phōṭṭhabbē ca uppajjāti kāyaviññāṇaṃ”, and

manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ

  • Thus it is clear that manō viññāna arises when dhammā makes contact with the mana indriya, just like cakkhu viññāna arises when (vaṇṇa) rūpa or light makes contact with the cakkhu indriya (eyes) or sōta viññāna arise when sadda rūpa (sound waves) make contact with the sōta indriya (ears).
  • kāya viññāna result from contacts that are the most coarse (pottabba or touch due to dhātu), and manō viññāna results from contacts that are extremely fine, dhamma.

7. Thus, we can categorize our six types of contacts with the external world according to the “coarseness” of the contacts.

  • The body contacts (touch), taste, and smell are the coarse contacts; they involve direct touching (pottabba), and those involve solid particulates (taste and smell).
  • Vision involves light particles (photons) interacting with the physical eye. The light was not even considered a particle until Einstein, Compton, and others proved that in the early 1920s.
  • In the language of physics, sound involves phonons having even less energy than light photons, i.e., they are “even softer”.

8. We can also see that the sensor elements in the body also get less and less coarse in that order. It must be noted that the sensing elements in the ear are not the ear we see but a very sensitive area deep inside the ear.

  • According to Buddha Dhamma (confirmed by science), two things respond to each other and last longer when in heavy usage if they have similar densities. For example, if a steel rod rubs against a wooden rod, the wooden rod will soon wear out. But two steel rods (or two wooden rods) can be rubbed against each for long time.
  • Thus going from touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing, both the external influences — touch, tasty things, smells, light (photons), sound (phonons) — and the sense elements (body, tongue, nose, eyes, ears) become finer in that order.

9. The finest sensing element is the “mana indriya” inside the brain. It is likely to be one of the following: the thalamus, amygdala, or hippocampus. I have not had enough time to investigate the functions of these sensitive elements of the brain, but according to Buddha Dhamma, the “mana indriya” is inside the brain and is analogous to the eyes or the ears; more details will become clear as we discuss below.

  • What come down in the legend as the “third eye” is this “mana indriya.” It is supposed to be located behind the forehead.
  • The rūpa that come into contact with the mana indriya are finer than a suddhāṭṭhaka and are still in the “gati” stage, but they are on the way to becoming suddhāṭṭhaka. They are not coarse enough to be “seeing” even with abhiññā powers and do not make contact with the other five coarse senses. Thus they are, “anidassanaappaṭighaṃ dhammāyatanapariyāpannaṃ“. See the last verse of “2.2.2. Mātikā” in Dhammasaṅgaṇī of the Tipiṭaka.
  • Here, “anidassana” means “cannot be seen,” and “appaṭigha” means “cannot be touched or sensed with even the finest instrument.” And, “dhammāyatana pariyāpanna” means “belongs to dhammāyatana.

10. In the post, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāṭṭhaka,” we discussed how the smallest material element, a suddhāṭṭhaka, is created by the mind with origins in four basic “gati” of humans that arise due to avijjā: “thada gati” (in Sinhala) means the “coarseness,” corresponding to pathavi; “bandena gati” means the “bind together” which leads to liquidity corresponding to āpo; “thējas gati” means the “fiery or energetic,” corresponding to tējo; and,  “salena gati” means the “motion,” corresponding to vāyo.

  • craving for these material things leads to four more gati due to taṇhā: Due to our tendency to think highly (“varnanä karanava” in Sinhala), another gati of “varna” is created as different manifestations of the satara mahā bhūta. Similarly, three more units, gandha, rasa, and ōja, are created due to taṇhā corresponding to our desire to be in touch with them, keep them close (rassa), and regenerate them (ōja.)

11. Before these eight inseparable units solidify into what we call matter, there is the precursor stage of gati: cultivation of gati leads to bhūta, which are in the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. Further solidification of bhūta leads to mahā bhūta. The fine rūpa of Brahmā is composed of mahā bhūta.

  • The gati stage of rūpa — the origins of rūpa — are also called “manō rūpa: these are really what we visualize in our minds. We can visualize scenes from the past, and those are manō rūpa. In the process of making gati, we constantly think about associated material things; those are manō rūpa.

12. mahā bhūta, upon further condensation, become dhātu. The bodies of devas are of finer dhātu, and our bodies — as well as all material things we see — are composed of denser dhātu.

  • Therefore, the origin of all matter is gati! But our gati (of normal humans) do not lead to the formation of significant amounts of even suddhāṭṭhaka. So, we still have a long way to go before explaining how these solid objects in our world were formed, as described in the Agganna Sutta.

13. Just like the eye receives visual information or the ear the sounds, the “mana indriya” receives “dhammā.” And dhammā are much finer than light or sound rūpa. All five physical senses deal with signals transmitted via solidified particles made out of suddhāṭṭhaka, but dhammā are just energy below what we call “matter.” Even most physicists do not consider light as matter or “particles”; I will write a post on why light photons are particles according to quantum mechanics.

  • As we discussed in the post, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāṭṭhaka,” even a single light particle (photon) is made of a very large number of suddhāṭṭhaka.
  • As we discussed there, a  suddhāṭṭhaka is made by the mind. Dhammā can be considered the early stages of a  suddhāṭṭhaka. They are kammic energy packets made by the mind in javana citta and arise due to our gati. This is the link between mind and matter!

14. Therefore, all six senses allow our minds to interact with the material world. We interact with the material world and the mental world or the manō plane.

  • Different types of rūpa (varna, gandha, rasa, ōja, pottabba) in our physical world (rūpa lōka) are built with suddhāṭṭhaka. Dhammā or kamma bīja (in the manō lōka) are basically “energy packets” not yet solidified to the state of a suddhāṭṭhaka.
  • The pancakkhandha of a living being has “components” from both worlds. Rūpakkhandha are our mental impressions of the material world (as mental records); see “Pancakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept.” The other four khandha (vedana, sanna, saṅkhāra, viññāna) are our mental impressions of the mind world.
  • Every living being is associated with its pancakkhandha because one makes one’s mental impressions. The Buddha said one could not define a living being with less than five khandhās.
  • To repeat: One’s pancakkhandha is not one’s body as is commonly described. It is not even physical. It is all mental: “Pancupādānakkhandha – It is All Mental.”

15. The creation of suddhāṭṭhaka by the mind in javana citta starts by enhancing one’s gati. As we will discuss in a future post on the “Asēvana Paccaya,” the more one does activities related to a given gati, the gati grows.

  • The growing of a gati is the accumulation of a kamma bīja (seed), and that is deposited in the kamma bhava in the mind plane. These are dhammā that is in “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manō viññāṇaṃ.”
  • And they (dhammā or kamma bīja) can return to one’s mind when the mind is receptive to such a gati. Thus it is a self-feeding feedback loop.
  • This is a crucial point to contemplate on. This is why a drunkard gets the urge to drink or a gambler to visit a casino. People who don’t have such gati do not get such urges because they do not have the corresponding dhammā, repeatedly coming back to impinge on the mana indriya.
  • By the way, as discussed in the “Living Dhamma” section, any such “bad gati” can be reduced and eventually eliminated by a two-step method: (i) forcefully stop activities — and conscious thoughts about them — that contribute to that gati when one becomes aware DURING such an act OR a conscious thought, (ii) keep learning Buddha Dhamma to comprehend how that process can actually work (as discussed starting with fundamentals of Buddha Dhamma in the “Living Dhamma” section); one key aspect here to contemplate on the bad consequences of such actions/thoughts.

16. To emphasize, dhammās arise due to kamma that we commit. The more kamma we do, the corresponding dhammā will grow and become gati.

  • Dhammā means “to bear”; one bears what one likes and what one engages in.
  • When one cultivates “dog gati,” that is what one bears, and that is what comes back to one’s mind at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment and can lead to the next bhava and thus birth (jāti) as a dog.

17. However, creating a suddhāṭṭhaka requires trillions of citta vithi running consecutively. Thus it does not happen significantly in a normal human being. It requires not only jhānā but being able to get into samāpatthi. Those with abhiññā powers can get into samāpatti very quickly.

  • When in jhānā, cittā can still switch back to five physical senses in between. When one is in a jhāna, one can hear external sounds, for example.
  • However, when in a samāpatti, the jhānic cittā can flow unceasingly for long periods. Thus, pancadvāra citta vithi cannot run in between; thus, one is unaware of the external environment in samāpatti.

18. Furthermore, when in samāpatti,  jhānic citta flow unceasingly and make each new javana citta stronger than the predecessor with the “Asēvana Paccaya.” We will discuss this in detail in the future.

  • This is how those with abhiññā powers (i.e., who can quickly get into samāpatti and have practiced it well) can even make physical objects: One can start with a picture of a flower in one’s mind and then by creating more and more suddhāṭṭhaka with each new javana citta, create an actual flower in a very short time!

19. Finally, dhamma in the nāma lōka are the same as those viññana established in the kamma bhava. This is a subtle point; see “Viññāna Aggregate.”

  • Dhamma or viññana are called anidassana, appaṭigha rūpa (rupa that cannot be seen or made contact with), and they are just energies lying below the suddhashtaka stage; see, “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”
  • kamma bhava is the same as the nāma lōka; Dhamma in the nāma lōka are the same as viññana that are established in the kamma bhava.; see “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental.”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email