What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpā too!

May 13, 2017; revised January 25, 2021; March 29, 2023; March 5, 2024

Dhammā are rūpa. They are rūpā that have not condensed to the suddhāṭṭhaka level. All our conscious thoughts start with one of the six senses getting input from the external world. We detect six types of rūpa “out there” in the world with those six sensory faculties.

Dense Rupa Sensed With Five Physical Senses

1. Many people think rūpa means just “material things” that we can see, touch, smell, taste, and touch in the world, but everything we experience with our six senses is rūpa. I will go through a systematic analysis.

  • Those things that we detect with our five physical senses are what we can call “dense rūpa” made of suddhāṭṭhaka. They are made of mahā bhūta (pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo.) See “The Origin of Matter – Suddhaṭṭhaka.”
  •  Such rūpa that we detect with the mana indriya are called “dhammā.” These are just energies and have not condensed to the suddhāṭṭhaka level, i.e., they are below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.
  • It is good to remember that dhamma refers to a doctrine (like in Buddha Dhamma,) and dhammā refers to such a very fine rupā.
  • Let us discuss those two types of rūpa in detail first.
Dhammā Sensed With Mana Indriya

2. The six types of rupa (and the six indriya that detect them) are discussed, for example, in “Cha Chakka Sutta (MN 148)“: “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ,” i.e., “eye-consciousness arises when a rūpa rūpa (with the aid of light) impinges on the eyes.”

  • Similarly, hearing is due to: “sotañca paṭicca sadde ca uppajjati sotaviññāṇaṃ,” etc., for other physical senses of ghāṇa (smell), jivhā (taste), and kāya (body).
  • Finally, the detection of dhammā with the mana indriya is stated as “manañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññāṇaṃ.”

3. All things that we experience through our SIX senses are rūpa. Still, the first FIVE types of sensory inputs come through five “sensors” evident to everyone (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). The SIXTH one, called mana indriya (located in the brain), is unknown to science.

  • All six types are eventually EXPERIENCED by the mind, i.e., with citta (thoughts.) 
  • For details of how the mind experiences the sensory inputs that come through the six “sense doors,” see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
Dense Rupa in the Rūpa Loka

4. Those we experience through our FIVE physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the body) are “dense rūpa.” They have suddhāṭṭhaka made of the four great elements or the “cattāri mahā bhūta.”

  • Those five kinds of rūpa are all in our “rūpa loka,” the world we experience.
  • We touch things with our bodies or see types of rūpa familiar to everyone with our eyes. They are sometimes called “rūpa rūpa” or “vaṇṇa rūpa” (varna rūpa in Sinhala or Sanskrit) to distinguish from the other four types.
  • However, we need light to “see” those “rūpa rūpa.” Light consists of tiny particles called photons. Those photons have tiny masses due to their energies.

5. Now, let us look at the other four types of rūpa that we detect with our ears, noses, and tongues.

  • It is easy to see that what we taste is also “rūpa rūpa,” i.e., solid food or liquids.
  • We detect scents with the nose, which are very small particulates. So, they are also “rūpa rūpa.”
  • When we hear sounds, our ears detect disturbances in the air due to that sound. Sound, therefore, involves energy, just like light. Sometimes, sound energy is attributed to energy packets called “phonons.”
Dense Rupa Can be Matter or Energy

6. Detecting rūpa in the “rūpa loka” involves matter or energy. Both are above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.

  • Yes. The light particles or photons are also made of suddhāṭṭhaka.
  • They are above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage, so one can see how minute a suddhāṭṭhaka is; it is much, much smaller than an atom in modern science.
  • For example, a photon in the visible range (a suddhāṭṭhaka) is a billion times less massive than a hydrogen atom, the smallest atom. That is like the mass difference between a grain of sand and an average airplane.
  • A suddhāṭṭhaka could be a billion times smaller than that photon.

7. That is another example of how Buddha was ahead of modern science 2500 years ago. He had categorized all five “objects” sensed by the five physical senses as “rūpa” made up of suddhāṭṭhaka. Only about 100 years ago, with the advent of quantum mechanics, science identified photons as particles.

Sensory Experience Without Five Physical Senses

8. Now, let us consider what else we experience other than those detected with the five physical senses. Imagine someone trapped in a cell with soundproof walls with no light inside, and nothing in that room except its walls.

  • That person can only touch the walls. He cannot see, hear, smell, or taste anything.
  • But touch is not the only sensory experience he has. He can think about anything he wants to. He can think about past events and what can take place in the future.
  • Those thoughts do not come at random but due to kamma vipāka. Of course, one can willingly recall them, too. They are one’s memories and future hopes, among others. That is the part that most people don’t even consider.
  • The five types of rupa that can be experienced with the five physical senses are made of the “four great elements” above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. They are called “sappaṭigha rupa” in contrast to “appaṭigha rupaor dhammā.
Dhammā Are Anidassana Appaṭigha Rupa

9. As we discussed above, those are the finer rūpa detected by the mind lie below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. They are detected by the mana indriya in the brain (another fact unknown to science) and subsequently sensed by the mind.

  • Kamma bīja — generated by our minds (via our thoughts) — is the same as dhammā. They bring kamma vipāka from time to time. We think of these as “random thoughts” that come to us about things and people.
  • Dhammās are not coarse enough to be “seeing” even with abhiññā powers and do not make contact with the other five coarse senses. Thus they are called, “anidassanaṃ appaṭighaṃ dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpaṃ.” They are energies BELOW the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.
  • Here, “anidassana” means “cannot be seen,” and appaṭigha means “cannot be touched or sensed with even the finest instrument.” And, “dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpaṃ” means “included with dhammāyatana”; see, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis.”
  • From, Section Sanidassanattika of “2.4.1. Tikaatthuddhāra” of Dhammasaṅgaṇī of the Tipiṭaka:
    “..yañca rūpaṃ anidassanaṃ appaṭighaṃ dhammāyatana pariyāpannaṃ, nibbānañca—ime dhammā anidassana appaṭighā.”
Mana Indriya Receives Dhammā

10. We see a person when light is reflected off that person to our eyes. A sound is heard when the air disturbances due to that sound reach our ears. We smell a scent when tiny particulates of scent reach our noses. When food particles make contact with our tongues, we taste the food.

  • So, we have five physical “sensors” on our bodies to detect those five sensory inputs. They are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and our bodies. They are called cakkhu, sota, ghāṇa, jivhā, and kāya indriya.
  • The sixth sense that we have is called the mana indriya. It is located in the brain. But I have not yet been able to identify it with the brain’s known components. Of course, scientists do not think about it that way. This is how the Buddha described it.

11. We detect “dhammā” with the mana indriya, just like we detect pictures with cakkhu indriya or sounds with sota indriya (ears). But all these sensory inputs are “felt” by the mind (hadaya vatthu) located close to the physical heart; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”

  • Dhammās are also rūpa in Buddha Dhamma, but they are finer (subtle) than those light particles or photons.
  • “Dhammā” are just energies that lie BELOW the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. They cannot be detected with even the finest scientific instrument.
  • That person locked up in an isolated room can generate thoughts about his past or future. That involves dhammā and the mana indriya.
Dhammā Are in Viññāṇa Dhātu

12. Just like the dense rūpa that we detect with our five physical senses are in our “rūpa loka,” these dhammā (which are the same as kamma bīja) are in our “mano loka” or viññāṇa dhātu; see, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”

  • This mano loka is also called “bhava” because that is where one’s kamma bījas are, as mentioned above in #8. We all have numerous kamma bīja that can give rise to various bhava. At the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, a new bhava is grasped, corresponding to the strongest kamma bīja available.
  • Of course, kamma vipāka during a given life also arise due to smaller kamma bīja.
  • When kamma bīja lose their energies over time, they become just “records” (nāmagotta) of what happened. They cannot bring more vipāka but become only “memories.”
Viññāṇa Dhātu Has No Spatial Boundaries

13. So, these dhammā (or kamma bīja) are rūpa that are below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage and are in our “mano loka” or “mental world,” as opposed to dense rūpa that are in our “material world” or “rūpa loka.”

  • The “mental world” (viññāṇa dhātu) is all around us, just like the “material world,” but of course, we cannot “see it,” just like we cannot “see” all those radios, television, and cell phone signals that are all around us.
  • We know that radio, television, and cell phone signals are there because we can receive them with our radios, TVs, and cell phones. Similarly, we receive those “dhammā” with our mana indriya.
  • One may be engaged in some task, say washing dishes in the kitchen, but suddenly, a thought about a friend far away or some incident at work may come to mind. That is due to “dhammā” impinging on mana indriya due to kamma vipāka.
  • Also, we can recall such memories at our will, too.
Other Meaning of Dhamma

14. We also need to realize that “dhammā” can have somewhat different meanings depending on where it is used.

  • Buddha Dhamma means the teachings of the Buddha. It is usually written as “Dhamma,” but some write it as Buddha Dhammā.
  • So, we need to take the appropriate meaning of a word depending on the context.
Abhidhamma Analysis

15. For those familiar with Abhidhamma, we can state the above using the Abhidhamma language as follows. According to Buddha Dhamma, EVERYTHING in existence can be put into four ultimate realities (paramattha):

  • Thoughts (citta)
  • Thought qualities or mental factors (cetasika)
  • Matter (rūpa), which (includes energies or dhammā.)
  • Nibbāna

16. As we will see later, dhammās eventually lead to the formation of dense rūpa that we enjoy with our five physical senses. Such dense rūpa have finite lifetimes (they are impermanent). Besides, they change unpredictably, and such unexpected changes (aññathatta) lead to dukkha dukkhatā.

  • But no matter how hard one tries, one cannot maintain such dense rūpa to one’s satisfaction (anicca). Thus, such dense rūpa leads to more suffering than any pleasure.
  • Five types of dense rūpa are in our “rūpa loka,” and the less dense dhammā are in our “mano loka”; see “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”
  • A sentient being exists to experience such dense rūpa and hopes to enjoy them with the mind (with citta and cetasika). That is the basis of existence in a sentence.

17. Any rūpa (including kamma bīja) that one makes for oneself cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction.

  • Any rūpa with energy will eventually be destroyed, or that energy will wear out. Furthermore, any such rūpa is destroyed (vaya), and that leads to vipariṇāma dukkhatā. That is the viparināma characteristic and is a root cause of suffering.
  • Some dhammās are “permanent.” They are nāmagotta (without kammic energy) and record our experiences. See, “Namagotta, Bhava, Kamma Beeja, and Mano Thalaya (Mind Plane).”

A more in-depth analysis of dhammā is at “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis.”

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