Rupa (Material Form)

Revised February 3, 2018

Please see, “What are Rupa? Relation to Nibbāna” 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 vaṇṇa 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 vaṇṇa 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 (mahā bhuta): patavi (element of extension with the characteristic of hardness), āpo (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), āpo (water), tejo (fire), and vayo (wind) were thought to be the basic building blocks for matter in the pre-Buddha era, including the Greeks. Those terms come from the previous Kassapa Buddha, but that is for another discussion.
  • But those names have deeper meanings too; for an in-depth discussion see, “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka“.

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

1. Rupa can be put into two categories regarding whether they are internal (ajjhattika) and external (bahijja). The internal rupa are the five pasāda rupa associated with the physical body: eye (cakkhu), ear (sota), nose (ghāna), tongue (jivhā), and body (kāya). Internal rupa also include our physical body (including the physical eyes, ears, etc). Here are a few things to note:

  • These five internal or pasāda rupa are essential for experiencing the outside world. Without them, people will not be different from inanimate logs. Those internal  rupa associated with the physical body become inert (and external) when the gandhabba leaves the body.
  • It must be emphasized that pasāda rupa 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 the death of the physical body, cakku is not there anymore; it is gone with the gandhabba. However, the physical eye is there and can be even used in another person’s body within 24 hours or so.
  • Therefore, those physical senses are internal only as long as the gandhabba is associated with the physical body. As soon as gandhabba leaves at the death of the physical body, they become external rupa.

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

  • These are: visible (vaṇṇa) rupa, sound (sadda) rupa, smell (gandha) rupa, taste (rasa) rupa, and tangible rupa (phoṭṭhabba). There are no separate rupā called phoṭṭhabba rupa; they are patavi, tejo, and vayo, three of the four great elements (mahā bhuta). Thus things we see with our eyes are the visible (vaṇṇa) rupā; 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, āpo, is not experienced by our senses.
  • The five pasāda rupa and the seven gocara rupa that are sensed by them are collectively called the olarika (gross or coarse) rupā because they can touch (strike) each other. The other 16 rupā are subtle or fine (sukhuma) rupa.

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

  • Hadaya vatthu (heart base) –together with the five pasāda rupa — are located close to the heart.
  • Jivitindriya rupa (vital force of kammaja rupa) is spread throughout the body.
  • There are two bhava rupā 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 pasāda rupā, seven rupā that constitute the external rupa (vaṇṇa, sadda, rasa, gandha, patavi, tejo, vayo)  that are sensed by the pasāda rupa, and the five other rupa (hadaya, jivitindriya, two bhava rupa, and oja) in #3.

5. The remaining mahā bhuta or the great element is āpo. It is the rupa that holds any structure together, but it is not sensed by the body (kāya) rupa. With the āpo 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 pasāda 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 rupā: vinnatthi rupa or material qualities of communication. We use both the mouth and and the body to communicate with each other. Kaya vinnatthi (bodily intimation) is gestures by hand, head, physical eye, leg, etc, to indicate one’s intentions to another. Vaci vinnatthi (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 rupā: Upacaya and santati rupa are associated with the arising of a rupa, jarāta rupa is associated with the decay, and aniccata rupa is the dissolving stage.  See the lifetime discussed below.

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

8. The mahā bhuta can never be detected separately. The eight rupa of patavi, āpo, tejo, vayo, are always found together with vaṇṇa, gandha, rasa, oja in inseparable units called pure octads or suddhashtaka, which are the fundamental units of matter.  These eight rupā 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 a reference base to look up if needed. Abhidhamma goes to much more detail and shows how mental energy can form different kinds of rupa.

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

Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Vipaka, Kamma Bīja“, ……

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