Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha

Revised October 20, 2018; September 18, 2019; April 24, 2020; re-written April 3, 2021


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 in the world and only those experienced by a person are included in his/her rupakkhandha.

  • 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 Pali word “rūpa” customarily translated as “form.”

  • The definition of a rūpa is in many places in Tipiṭaka, for example, SN 22.56 and SN 22.57. In simple terms, ” A rūpa consists of the four great elements, or is 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 not familiar with it.

3. Therefore, we can see that light, sound, odors, taste, and touch are all types of rūpa. It is only within the past 100 years or so that scientists admitted that matter and energy are the same.

  • In modern-day terms, rūpa are either “solid matter” (human bodies, trees, houses, etc.) OR “energy” (light, sound, heat, etc.). With Einstein’s formula of 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 the mind are rupa below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage (just energy.)
  • The 28 types of rūpa are listed in “Rupa (Material Form) – Table.” As we can see, especially 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 is meant by a “khandha.” 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/one expects to experience/one is experiencing now, as we will discuss below.
  • We see an object in a series of very fast “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 as “rūpakkhandha.” We have seen this kind of combination of words (sandhi) in Pāli terms like Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta.
  • Another example is dhammassavana.Dhamma savana” rhymes as dhammassavana. Dhamma savana” is listening to 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 will be able to see that chair. If the image of the chair registers in the mind of X, then it becomes a part of the rūpakkhandha for X. 
  • Let us take another example. Two people, X and Y, are in a room reading books, and X is fully absorbed in reading, but Y has not 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, his attention was entirely focused on the book, and he did not hear the “dog bark.” Thus, the “dog bark” is NOT a part of X’s rūpakkhandha. 
  • Now it should be quite clear that each person has his/her rūpakkhandha. 
Rūpakkhandha is Unimaginably Huge!

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

  • A critical point is that when we experience a rūpa, that present moment is quickly gone. Most of rūpakkhandha is what one has already experienced. In fact, everything that we have experienced in all our past rebirths are in the rūpakkhandha!
  • Those rūpā that one has seen in the past are one’s atita rūpā, including anything that one ever saw (including in previous births). Obviously, 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 when one was 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 thinking about building) can change with time. That does not even involve a real 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 be there.
More Types of Rūpa in Rūpakkhandha

7. Internal (ajjhatta) rūpa are those that 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 rūpa are located far (dūre), and some are located 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) ajjhattaṃbahiddhāoḷārikaṃsukhumaṃhīnaṃpaṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, ayaṃ vuccati rūpakkhandho.”
  • A crude translation of the 11 types: 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 rūpa and rūpakkhandha.

  • A 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, star, etc.) Those are what we usually call “solid objects.” Then there are other sensory inputs coming through the other three sense doors (smells, tastes, or sounds).
  • Rūpakkhandha are MENTAL IMPRESSIONS of all external rūpā that one has EXPERIENCED. Rūpakkhandha are NOT tangible or have 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.”
  • That is why those with iddhi (supernormal) powers can recall events that took place billions of years ago. The Buddha, of course, recalled how he received first “niyata vivarana” or confirmation that he will become a Buddha trillions of years ago, from Buddha Deepankara. See, “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?
  • Some people have a natural ability to recall ANY event during the current life (for example, what one ate for lunch on a particular day 10 years ago.) We will discuss that in the next post.

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

  • The twin towers in New York destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attack.
  • If someone had seen those 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 they are in his rūpakkhandha!
  • But the actual rūpa (twin towers) that were there in New York are no longer there.
  • Furthermore, if someone had not seen them while they were there, those towers would not be in that person’s rupakkhandha.
Rūpakkhandha Is Personal

10. Since we have seen very different things in our lives (and in past lives), our rūpakkhandha are very different. Each has his/her rūpakkhandha.

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 – No “Self” in Initial Sensory Experience.”

  • We can also see that each has his/her vēdanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, and viññānakkhandha.
  • All of them can be analyzed in the same way. That is how the pañcakkhandha (five aggregates) arises. Therefore, pañcakkhandha is also unique to each person.
  • We will discuss an important example to crystalize the concept of rūpakkhandha in the next post.
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