Rupa (Material Form)

Please see, “What are Rupa? Relation to Nibbana” for an introduction.

Most people have many misconceptions about rupa. So, we will systematically look at different kinds of rupa. Rupa are basically everything that the five physical senses sense: we see vanna rupa (physical objects that bounce light off; also called “rupa rupa“), we hear sadda rupa (sounds), we smell gandha rupa (odors), we taste rasa rupa (food), and we touch pottabba rupa (physical objects). Our internal senses that sense those external rupa are also fine rupa that are controlled by the mind. Those that are sensed by the mind are dhamma (concepts), and mind is not a rupa.

  • Here is a simple way to figure out the five types of rupa: If we take a toasted slice of bread that is rupa rupa or a vanna rupa; if it is freshly toasted, when we break it, it will make a sound, which is a sadda rupa; the smell of that bread is a gandha rupa; when we taste it, we taste the rasa rupa in the bread; when we touch it, we touch the pottabba rupa in the bread.

There are many ways that rupa can be analyzed. The basic “building blocks” of all rupa are the four great elements (maha bhuta): patavi (element of extension with the characteristic of hardness), apo (The element of cohesion with the characteristics of cohesiveness and fluidity), tejo (the element of heat or heat energy with the characteristics of hotness and coldness), and vayo (the element of motion or kinetic energy with the characteristics of pushing and supporting).

  • It must be noted that in many cases, the Buddha took existing terms and redefined them to be consistent with Buddha Dhamma. The terms patavi (earth), apo (water), tejo (fire), and vayo (wind) were thought to be the basic building blocks for matter in the pre-Buddha era, including the Greeks.
  • But those names have deeper meanings too; for an in depth discussion see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka“.

There are 28 types of basic rupa, and the other 24 are derivatives (upadaya rupa) of the four maha bhuta.

1. Rupa can be put into two categories regarding whether they are internal (ajjhattika) and external (bahira). The internal rupa are the five pasada rupa associated with the physical body: eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghana), tongue (jivha), and body (kaya). Here are a few things to note:

  • These five internal or pasada rupa are essential for experiencing the outside world. Without them, people will not be different from inanimate logs.
  • It must be noted that these are NOT the physical organs that we see. These are fine rupa (matter) that stop being regenerated at death. Thus cakku is NOT the physical eye. FROM THE MOMENT OF DEATH, cakku is not there anymore. However, the physical eye is there and can be even used in another person’s body within 24 hours or so.
  • Out of the six senses, only the five physical senses have a rupa associated with them. The mind is not a rupa, it is a nama dhamma. However, the brain does help with working of the mind.
  • Other than those five pasada rupa, ALL OTHER rupas are external (bahira). Within our physical body, it is not possible to separate the internal pasada rupa (which are very fine) from the gross external rupa that constitute the body we see.  At death, all internal rupas stop being regenerated (see the lifetimes discussed at the end), so what remain is the external rupa that had been associated with the internal pasada rupa.

2. Out of all the external (bahira) rupa, seven are called gocara rupa or objective rupa because those are the ones that can be sensed by the five internal (pasada) rupa.

  • These are: visible (vanna) rupa, sound (sadda) rupa, smell (gandha) rupa, taste (rasa) rupa, and tangible rupa (pottabbha). There are no separate rupas called pottabbha rupa; they are patavi, tejo, and vayo, three of the four great elements (maha bhuta). Thus things we see with our eyes are the visible (vanna) rupas; they are only part of the class of rupa.
  • It is important to note that the gocara rupa or objective rupa are the only rupa that we EXPERIENCE with our five physical senses. For example the remaining great essential, apo, is not experienced by our senses.
  • The five pasada rupa and the seven gocara rupa that are sensed by them are collectively called the olarika (gross or coarse) rupas because they can touch (strike) each other. The other 16 rupas are subtle or fine (sukhuma) rupa.

3. There are several fine rupas that are associated with our body.

  • Hadaya vatthu (heart base) is spread in the blood in the heart.
  • Jivitindriya rupa (vital force of kammaja rupa) is spread throughout the body.
  • There are two bhava rupas that determine whether it is a male or a female: itthi bhava (femininity) and purisa bhava (masculinity). One kind is spread throughout a body.
  • Ahara rupa (oja) are nutritive essence that sustains the body. It is extracted from the food we eat.

4. So far we have discussed five pasada rupas, seven rupas that constitute the external rupa (vanna, sadda, rasa, gandha, patavi, tejo, vayo)  that are sensed by the pasada rupa, and the five other rupa (hadaya, jivitindriya, two bhava rupa, and oja) in #3.

5. The remaining maha bhuta or the great element is apo. It is the rupa that holds any structure together, but it is not sensed by the body (kaya) rupa. With the apo rupa, up to this point we have discussed 18 types of rupa. These 18 types of rupa are called nippanna rupa (concretely produced rupa) because they are caused and conditioned by one or more of four things: kamma, citta, utu (tejo) and ahara (food);  thus they are suitable for contemplation by insight.

  • The five pasada rupa, two bhava rupa, hadaya vatthu and jivitindriya rupa (9 in all) are produced by kamma and kamma alone.
  • Sadda (sound) rupa are produced by citta and utu (tejo). Vocal sounds such as speech, laughter, whistling, etc are produced by citta. Non-vocal sounds, such as thunder and music from instruments are produced by utu.
  • The different ways that kamma, citta, utu, and ahara produce the 24 types of rupa is summarized in the Tables and Summaries Section; see, “Rupa – Generation Mechanisms“.

6. The remaining 10 rupa are more abstract in nature.  They are called anippana rupa (non-concretely produced rupa).

  • Akasa dhathu (space element) is not so much “space”, but more like the inter-atomic space or intra-atomic space. It occupies whatever is not occupied by any other rupa. Thus it is everywhere, even in the deep inter-galactic space where there is no “detectable matter”. Scientists are beginning to suspect that there is much more energy in the vacuum (zero point energy) than the energy that we experience. It is like the deep ocean and what we see are only the ripples.
  • We communicate using two fine rupas: vinnatti rupa or material qualities of communication. We use both the mouth and and the body to communicate with each other. Kaya vinnatti (bodily intimation) is gestures by hand, head, physical eye, leg, etc, to indicate one’s intentions to another. Vaci vinnatti (vocal intimation) is the movement of the mouth to produce vocal speech.
  • There are three vikara (mutable) rupa that helps with the movements of the body. The lahuta (lightness or buoyancy) rupa suppresses the heaviness of a body. This make it possible for up jump, for example. Imagine trying to toss up an equivalent weight! Muduta (elasticity) removes the stiffness in the body. Kammannata (weildiness) gives strength to hold up body parts.  All these make possible our body movements.
  • Finally, there are four lakkhana (material qualities) rupa that are common characteristics of all rupas: Upacaya and santati rupa are associated with the arising of a rupa, jarata rupa is associated with the decay, and aniccata rupa is the dissolving stage.  See the lifetime discussed below.

7. The four great elements (maha bhuta) are the primary rupa. Each of the four has its own character: patavi element of hardness; the apo element of fluidity and cohesion; tejo of heat; vayo of motion and pressure.

8. The maha bhuta can never be detected separately. The eight rupa of patavi, apo, tejo, vayo, are always found together with vanna, gandha, rasa, oja in inseparable units called pure octads or suddhashtaka, which are the fundamental units of matter.  These eight rupas are inseparable and indivisible, and thus are known as avinibbhoga rupa; for an in-depth discussion see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka”

9. It is not necessary to memorize all these details about different rupa. But it is good to have reference base to look up if needed. Abhidhamma goes to much more detail, and shows how the mind energy can form different kinds of rupa.

If you have not read about sankhara (the remaining one of the five aggregates):

Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Vipaka, Kamma Beeja“, ……

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