Difference Between Physical Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha

Revised October 20, 2018; April 24, 2020; re-written April 3, 2021; revised August 4, 2021; August 8, 2022


1. Translation of rūpakkhandha as “form aggregate” may give the wrong impression that it is a “collection of solid objects.” It is critical to understand the difference Between rūpa and rūpakkhandha. Innumerable rupa exist worldwide, and only those experienced by a person are included in their rupakkhandha.

  • Therefore, one person’s rūpakkhandha is different from another person’s rūpakkhandha.
  • Instead of memorizing Pāli words, we need to understand what is meant by such Pāli words and use the Pāli words when there is ambiguity. Many key Pāli words do not have equivalent English words.
What Is a Rupa?

2. Before we understand the difference between a “rūpa” and “rūpakkhandha,” we need to understand what the Buddha meant by a “rūpa.” The Pāli word “rūpa” is customarily translated as “form.”

  • A rūpa is defined in many places in Tipiṭaka, for example, SN 22.56 and SN 22.57. Simply put, ” A rūpa consists of the four great elements, derived from the four great elements.”
  • A rūpa made of the four great elements is not necessarily a solid object like a tree (those are vaṇṇa rūpa.) Types of energy (like light and sound) are included in the rūpa category. All sensory inputs to the five physical senses are rūpa.
  • The Buddha defined rupa as ALL those that can provide a sensory experience (viññāna.) Therefore, dhammā that we experience with the mind are also a type of rupa. See, “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!” That subject is a bit deep. Don’t worry about that right now if you are unfamiliar with it.

3. Therefore, light, sound, odors, taste, and touch are all types of rūpa. Only within the past 100 years or so have scientists admitted that matter and energy are the same.

  • In modern-day terms, physical rūpā are “solid matter” (human bodies, trees, houses, etc.) OR “energy” (light, sound, heat, etc.). With Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2, modern science acknowledged that matter and energy are intrinsically the same.
  • In terms of Buddha Dhamma, all those rūpa are collections of suddhāṭṭhaka, the “smallest unit of rūpa.” We usually call visible objects “matter.” And invisible energy forms (like heat, sound) “energy.” Both types consist of suddhāṭṭhaka. A suddhāṭṭhaka is the smallest unit of energy/matter in Buddha Dhamma. It is unimaginably tiny, billions of times smaller than an atom or even an electron in modern science.
  • By the way, dhammā that we detect directly with the mind are rupa below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage (just energy.)
  • The 28 types of rūpa are listed in “Rupa (Material Form) – Table.” We can see that the ten types of rūpa on the right-hand side of the Table are not what we usually think of as “matter.”
Khandha Is a “Collection” or an “Aggregate” of Rupa Experienced

4. Before we discuss rūpakkhandha, it also helps to understand what a “khandha” is. In Pāli (and Sinhala), it means a “heap” or a “pile.” In Sinhala, a hill or a “pile of things” is called a “kanda” (කන්ද). So, aggregate is not a bad translation for khandha (ඛන්ධ in Sinhala for the Pāli word).

  • Rūpakkhandha includes all types of rupa that one has experienced/expects to experience/is experiencing now, as discussed below.
  • We see an object in a series of high-speed “seeing events.” Those individual “snapshots” don’t register in our minds. Only the overall effect of a large number of snapshots is registered and added to rūpa khandha. It rhymes like “rūpakkhandha.” We have seen such a combination of words (sandhi) in Pāli terms like Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the same as Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta.
  • Another example is dhammassavana.Dhamma savana” rhymes with dhammassavana. Dhamma savana” is listening to the dhamma (discourse).”
Rūpakkhandha is All Mental

5. It is essential to realize that rūpakkhandha is all mental. It is NOT a “collection of material things,” as the term “form aggregate” may imply towards the end of the “Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28),” Ven. Sariputta explains rūpakkhandha.

  • Just the presence of an object, a sound, odor, taste, or touch is not enough to be included in rūpakkhandha. For example, if X is sitting in a pitch-dark room, X will not see anything there, even though there may be many objects in the room. If X shines a flashlight on a chair, then X can see that chair. If the chair’s image registers in X’s mind, it becomes a part of the rūpakkhandha for X. 
  • Let us take another example. X and Y are in a room reading books, and X is fully absorbed in reading, but Y has not had much interest in his book. Y hears a dog barking, and that sound registers in his mind, i.e., the “dog bark” becomes a part of his rūpakkhandha. However, even though that sound would have reached X’s ears too, he had his attention entirely focused on the book and did not hear that “dog bark.” Thus, the “dog bark” is NOT a part of X’s rūpakkhandha. 
  • Now it should be quite clear that each person has their rūpakkhandha. 
Rūpakkhandha is Unimaginably Huge!

6. Let us look in more detail to see that these rūpakkhandha are “mental impressions” of rūpa and NOT the rūpa out there.

  • The critical point is that when we experience a rūpa, that present moment is quickly gone. Most of rūpakkhandha is what one has already experienced. Everything we have experienced in all our past rebirths is in the rūpakkhandha!
  • Rūpā that one has seen in the past are one’s atita rūpā, including anything that one ever saw (including in previous births). These cannot be physical rupā. They are just memories of a rūpa that existed in the past. For example, one may remember a tree in the backyard as a child. That tree is no longer there, but one can still “see” that tree in one’s mind. Same for one’s dead parents or grandparents who may be no longer alive.
  • Any rūpa about the future or an anāgata rūpa (for example, a sketch of the type of house one is considering building) can change with time. That does not even involve a real physical rūpa.
  • Any rūpa that one sees at present (paccuppanna rūpa) goes to the category of atita rūpa in a split second. Even if we never see that object again, that memory will remain.
More Types of Rūpa in Rūpakkhandha

7. Internal (ajjhatta) rūpa are part of oneself: all body parts, including the ones inside the body. External (bahiddha) rūpa are, of course, anything outside of one’s body. Coarse (olārika) rūpa are what we call “solid matter,” and fine/subtle (sukumarūpa are “energy” (heat, sound, dhammā, etc.).

  • There are rūpa that are “bad” (hīna), and there are others that are “good” (panita).
  • Some rūpā are far (dūre), and some are near (santike).
  • Therefore, we see that there could be some overlaps between these categories.
  • Many of these in the rūpakkhandha we have not even seen. For example, we have a mental impression of our hearts, but we have not seen our hearts. We may not have seen some landmarks like the Chinese Great Wall, but only pictures of them. Yet, we do have mental impressions of those.
  • Altogether there are 11 types included in rūpakkhandha. The Khandha sutta (SN 22.48) (among many other suttā) summarizes what is included in rūpakkhandha.Yaṃ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ atītā­nāgata­pac­cup­pan­naṃ (atita, anāgata, paccuppanna) ajjhattaṃbahiddhā oḷārikaṃsukhumaṃhīnaṃpaṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, ayaṃ vuccati rūpakkhandho.”
  • The 11 types are past, future, current, internal, external, coarse, subtle, good, bad, far, and near.
Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha

8. Now, we can see the main difference between physical rūpa and rūpakkhandha.

  • A physical rūpa is either of the following two kinds. A solid object that one sees with one ‘s eyes or touches with one’s body (a person, a person’s body or a body part, a tree, a planet, a star, etc.) Those are what we usually call “solid objects.” Then, other sensory inputs come through the other three sense doors (smells, tastes, or sounds).
  • Rūpakkhandha has MENTAL IMPRESSIONS of all external rūpā that one has EXPERIENCED. Rūpakkhandha is NOT tangible or has any energy in them. One’s rūpakkhandha is INFINITE. It has records of ALL one has seen in ALL past lives going back and back in time without “an actual beginning.”
  • Those with iddhi (supernormal) powers can recall events billions of years ago. The Buddha recalled how he received his first “niyata vivarana,” or confirmation that he would become a Buddha, trillions of years ago, from Buddha Deepankara. See, “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?
  • Some people can recall ANY event during their current life (for example, what they ate for lunch on a particular day ten years ago.) See “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).” That confirms that all events are “recorded” and kept intact in vinnana dhatu. See “Where Are Memories Stored? – Viññāṇa Dhātu.”

9. Let us take another example to visualize this difference between actual rūpa and rūpakkhandha.

  •  The 2001 terrorist attack destroyed the twin towers in New York.
  • If someone had seen the twin towers in New York, those towers would be in that person’s rupakkhandha. That person can still recall them in his mind. Those physical structures are not there anymore but are in his rūpakkhandha!
  • But physical rūpā (twin towers) in New York are no longer there.
  • Furthermore, if someone had not seen them before their destruction, those towers would not be in that person’s rupakkhandha.
Rūpakkhandha Is Personal

10. Since we have seen very different things in our current lives (and in our past lives), our rūpakkhandha are very different. Each person’s rūpakkhandha is unique.

When experiencing a rupa through any of the six sense faculties leads to the generation of vedana, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna. That is discussed in many suttās, and we have discussed in detail the Chachakka Sutta (MN 148). See “Chachakka Sutta – Six Types of Vipāka Viññāṇa.”

  • We can also see that each has their vēdanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, and viññānakkhandha.
  • They are analyzed in the same way. That is how the pañcakkhandha (five aggregates) arises. Therefore, pañcakkhandha is also unique to each person.
  • An important example of crystalizing the concept of rūpakkhandha in “Rūpakkhandha and Rūpa Upādānakkhandha.”
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