What Are Rupa? (Relation to Nibbana)

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

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

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

  • There are five types of rupa that we experience with our five senses: with eye (cakkhu), we experience vanna rupa (whatever that is visible); with ear (sota), we experience sounds (sadda); with nose (ghana), we experience smells (gandha); with tongue (jivha), 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 rupa (or varna rupa) 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 “cakkhunca paticca rupeca uppaddati cakkhu vinnanan“, is the light (vanna rupa) impinging on the eye indriya to  give us the sensation of vision. Thus, in rupa, sadda, gandha, rasa, and pottabba (the five senses), rupa are really vanna rupa or (the image of objects carried by) light.

4. Thus the rupa 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 “gathi” stage, they overlap with energy; in the “bhuta” stage, they are more solidified but the human eye still cannot see (this is why some beings that the humans cannot see are called “bhuta” in Pali or Sinhala); it is only in the “dhathu” stage that the human eye can see; see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka“.
  • At Parinibbana (death of an Arahant), the mind is not attached to a rupa in any of the three forms: dhathu, bhuta, or gathi.

5. When one is born anywhere in the 31 realms, it is the vinnana (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 dhatu form.
  • In the deva 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 rupa still in the dhatu” form, but less dense.
  • In the rupa loka and arupa loka, the mind is devoid of both hate and greed, and are thus even more pure. In the rupa loka (realms 12-27), the bodies of the beings are much more less dense than the devas, and are in the bhuta” form.
  • In arupa loka (realms 28-31) there are no rupa even in the sense of bhuta. But the four maha bhuta are still associated with those being’s “gathi (Kevaddha Sutta in Digha Nikaya); there, rupa can be thought of as indistinguishable from energy.
  • When the mind becomes purified, vinnana becomes “anidassana vinnana“, which is the vinnana of an Arahant (also called panna). Here there is no association of the mind with even fine rupa associated with “gathi; the mind is completely detached from rupa. The mind becomes pure and free. When one attains Aranthood, one still lives with the “solid body” of a human being until death. At Parinibbana, the mind becomes completely free of rupa.

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 rupa is subjected to not only decay (impermanence), but also to unexpected change (viparinama nature).

7. Thus to attain Nibbana 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 (rupa loka), or only a trace of “matter” in the form of “gathi” (arupa loka).  Nibbana is attained when the mind becomes free of a body anywhere in the 31 realms. This is another way to understand Nibbana.

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”.

Next, “Power of the Human Mind – Introduction“, ……….

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