What Are Rūpa? (Relation to Nibbāna)

Revised May 25, 2018

1. In Buddha Dhamma, everything in “this world” of 31 realms can be put into two categories: manasa or manō (mind) and rūpa (material form).

  • Mind is citta (thoughts) and the mental properties in the thoughts, cētasika.
  • Everything else is rūpa (material forms).

2. Now let us look at rūpa: Many people think rūpa is just the body or “material things”. A better translation for rūpa is “matter and energy”. As stated in #1 above, everything else in the 31 realms that is not citta or cētasika is rūpa.

  • There are five types of rūpa that we experience with our five senses: with eye (cakkhu), we experience vanna rūpa (whatever that is visible); with ear (sōta), we experience sounds (sadda); with nose (ghāna), we experience smells (gandha); with tongue (jivhā), we experience taste (rasa); with body (kaya), we experience touch (pottabba).

3. We can see that smells are due to tiny material particles that enter the nose; taste is also due to food and drinks that touch the tongue; touch is also contact between “material things”.

  • But what about visible objects? We need light to see any objects; without light we cannot see. Thus “seeing” involves matter and energy. Same for sound. Thus vanna rūpa (or varna rūpa) are really “matter and energy”, which in the end is just energy. Since the turn of the 20th century, science has confirmed that matter is just energy: they are related by Einstein’s famous formula of E = mc2.
  • It is important to realize that what is meant by “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ“, is the light impinging on the eye indriya to  give us the sensation of vision. Thus, in vanna (also called varna or rūpa rūpa), sadda, gandha, rasa, and pottabba (the five senses), rūpa are really types of energy or particles.
  • Modern science now agrees that there is no distinction between matter and energy. However, matter/energy is created by the mind (as “dhammā“) and will eventually be destroyed in the “lōka vinasaya” in a supernova type explosion. Therefore, the even the conservation of matter/energy holds only within the time scales of a Maha kappa; see, “Sansaric Time Scale, Buddhist Cosmology, and the Big Bang Theory“.

4. Thus the rūpa can vary in “density” from almost pure energy to the solid objects that we can see with our eyes.

  • They go through three stages: At the “gati” stage, they overlap with energy; in the “bhūta” stage, they are more solidified but the human eye still cannot see (this is why some beings that the humans cannot see are called “bhūta” in Pali or Sinhala); it is only in the “dhātu” stage that the human eye can see; see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka“.
  • At PariNibbāna (death of an Arahant), the mind is not attached to a rūpa in any of the three forms: dhathu, bhūta, or gati.

5. When one is born anywhere in the 31 realms, it is the viññāna (impure consciousness) that keeps the mind bound to a material body. As the purity level of the mind goes higher one moves up from the lower realms with dense bodies to higher realms with less dense bodies.

  • In the lower realms, the mind is normally attached to a dense body that the human eye can see (at or below the human realm, which is the fifth realm). This is dense dhātu form.
  • In the dēva lokas (realms 6-11), the bodies are finer; their minds are devoid of hate and thus are more pure. In the realms 6-11, the bodies are made of rūpa still in the dhātu” form, but less dense.
  • In the rūpa loka and arūpa loka, the mind is devoid of both hate and greed, and are thus even more pure. In the rūpa loka (realms 12-27), the bodies of the beings are much more less dense than the dēvas, and are in the bhūta” form.
  • In arūpa loka (realms 28-31) there are no rūpa even in the sense of bhūta. But the four maha bhūta are still associated with those being’s “gati (Kevaddha Sutta in Digha Nikaya); there, rūpa can be thought of as indistinguishable from energy.
  • When the mind becomes purified, viññāna becomes “anidassana viññāna“, which is the viññāna of an Arahant (also called pannā). Here there is no association of the mind with even fine rūpa associated with “gati; the mind is completely detached from rūpa. The mind becomes pure and free. When one attains Aranthood, one still lives with the “solid body” of a human being until death. At PariNibbāna, the mind becomes completely free of rūpa.

6. At a deeper level, the anicca nature, i.e., our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction, is based on the fact that any rūpa is subjected to not only decay (impermanence), but also to unexpected change (viparināma nature).

7. Thus to attain Nibbāna is to attain the perfectly purified mind, which refuses to be burden with a physical body that leads to decay and rebirth repeatedly (and thus to dukkha). 

8. In the 31 realms, one is born with a dense body (kama loka), fine-material body (rūpa loka), or only a trace of “matter” in the form of “gati” (arūpa loka).  Nibbāna is attained when the mind becomes free of a body anywhere in the 31 realms. This is another way to understand Nibbāna.

9. In Buddha Dhamma, any given thing or concept can be looked at  from many different angles. They are all consistent. It is a complete “world view”. Some people think, why do we have to worry about 31 realms, etc., but the world is very complex. Scientists are just beginning to appreciate this complexity.

  • The amazing fact is that the Buddha discerned all this with his mind, and was able to present it all in a coherent manner.

10. Please re-read and contemplate on the above. In the long run, it will be very helpful. If you do not really understand it now, you may be able to understand it later, when you get familiar with other concepts discussed in other posts. Everything at this site is inter-connected, and it may take some time to “fill-in-the-blanks”.

More details at, “Nāma & Rūpa to Nāmarūpa“.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email