What Are Rūpa? (Relation to Nibbāna)

Revised May 25, 2018; February 19, 2020

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

  • The 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 the eyes (cakkhu), we experience vaṇṇa rūpa (whatever that is visible.) We experience sounds (sadda) with ears (sōta) and smells (gandha) with the nose (ghāna.) Taste (rasa) is experienced with the tongue (jivhā) and the touch (phoṭṭhabba) with the body (kāya.)

3. We can see that smells are due to tiny material particles that enter the nose. The 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 vaṇṇa 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 uppajjāti cakkhu viññāṇaṃ.“That means the light impinging on the eye indriya to give us the sensation of vision. Thus, in vaṇṇa (also called varna or rūpa rūpa), sadda, gandha, rasa, and phoṭṭhabba (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.“) See, “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..
  • Matter above the bhūta stage will eventually be destroyed in the “lōka vināsa” in a supernova type explosion. See, “Saṃsāric 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 Pāli 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: dhātu, 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 (at or below the human realm, which is the fifth realm), the mind is normally attached to a dense body that the human eye can see. This is a dense dhātu form.
  • In the dēva lokā (realms 6-11), the bodies are finer (subtle.) Their minds are devoid of hate and thus are purer. In the realms 6-11, the bodies are made of rūpa still in the dhātu” form, but less dense.
  • The minds are devoid of both hate and greed, and are thus are purer, in the rūpa loka and arūpa loka. In the rūpa loka (realms 12-27), the bodies of the beings are much 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 mahā bhūta are still associated with those being’s “gati ( see, Kevaddha Sutta in Digha Nikaya.) In those realms, 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 paññā). Here there is no association of the mind with even fine rūpa associated with “gati.” The mind completely detaches 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. See, “Pabhassara Citta, Radiant Mind, and Bhavaṅga.”

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 (kāma loka), fine-material body (rūpa loka), or only a trace of “matter” in the form of “gati” (arūpa loka).   When the mind becomes free of a “body” anywhere in the 31 realms, that is Nibbāna. 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. Furthermore, he 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, do not worry. You will be able to understand more when you become familiar with other concepts discussed in other posts. Everything at this site is inter-connected. It may take some time to “fill-in-the-blanks”.

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

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