What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!

May 13, 2017; revised November 4, 2017; December 8, 2022; April 23, 2024

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 sense faculties. Dhammā represents the sixth type of rupa that “cannot be seen or touched” (anidassana/appaṭigha.) These are not included in the 28 types of rupa.

Dhammā Are Subtle Rupa Below Suddhāṭṭhaka 

1. Many people think rūpa means just “material things” that we can see in the world, but anything we sense through our six senses is a rūpa. I will systematically explain this.

  • Those things that we detect with our five physical senses are what we can call “dense rūpa” made of suddhāṭṭhaka, i.e., they are made of mahā bhūta (pathavi, āpō, tejō, vāyō) and are located in ākāsa dhātu; see, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāṭṭhaka.”
  • 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 (with a long “a”) refers to such fine (or subtle) rupā.
  • Let us discuss those two types of rūpa in detail first.
The Six Sense Faculties Detect Six Types of Rupa

2. All things that we experience through our SIX senses are rūpa. However, only the first five types of sensory inputs come through the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). Science is unaware of the SIXTH one, called mana indriya (located in the brain). But all six are clearly stated in the Cha Chakka Sutta, as discussed below.

  • All six types of rupa are EXPERIENCED by the mind, i.e., with citta (thoughts) with cētasika (mental factors) in them.
  • 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 Made With Suddhāṭṭhaka 

3. 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 “cattāri mahā bhūtā.”

  • Those five kinds of rūpa are all in our “material world,” the world we experience with the five physical senses.
  • We touch with our body or see with our eyes the rūpa familiar to everyone. They are “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.

4. 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,” i.e., solid food or liquids.
  • Scents are very small particulates detected with the nose. So, they are also “rūpa.”
  • When we hear sounds, our ears detect disturbances in the air caused by that sound. Sound, therefore, involves energy, just like light. Sometimes sound energy is attributed to energy packets called “phonons.”
Dense Rupa Are in Kāma and Rupa Loka

5. Therefore, the detection of rūpa in kāma loka and rūpa lōka involves matter or energy, and all those 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.
  • suddhāṭṭhaka could be a billion times smaller than that photon.
Science Verified Light as a Type of Rupa Recently

6. 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.

Experiencing Dhammā Requires Only the Mind

7. 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, 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.

8. 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) — are also part of dhammā. They bring kamma vipāka back from time to time. We think of these as “random thoughts” that come to us about things and people.
  • Such 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 rūpam. “
  • Here, “anidassana” means “cannot be seen,” and “appaṭigha” means “cannot be touched or sensed with even the finest instrument.” And, “dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpam” means “rupa that belong to dhammāyatana”; see, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis.”
Five Physical Senses and the Mana Indriya

9. We see a person when light reflected off that person comes 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, noses, tongues, and our bodies. They are called cakkhu, sōta, ghāna, 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 known components of the brain. Of course, scientists do not think about it that way. That is how the Buddha described it.

10. We detect “dhammā” with the mana indriya, like pictures with cakkhu indriya or sounds with sōta 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.”

  • Such dhammā are also rūpa in Buddha Dhamma, but they are even finer (subtle) than those light particles or photons.
  • Dhammā” are just energies that lie BELOW the suddhāṭṭhaka stage. We cannot detect them with even the most advanced scientific instruments.
  • 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 Kamma Bīja

11. Just like the dense rūpa that we detect with our five physical senses are in Kāma loka and rūpa lōka. Dhammā (which are the same as kamma bīja) are in the viññāṇa plane; see “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”

  • This manō lōka is also called “bhava” because that is where one’s kamma bījā are (see #8.) We all have numerous kamma bīja that can give rise to various bhava at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. The strongest kamma bīja is selected for a new bhava at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment.
  • Of course, kamma vipāka during a given life can also arise due to “smaller kamma bīja,” as mentioned above.
  • When kamma bīja lose their energies over a long time, they become just “records.” of what happened. Now they cannot bring any more vipāka but become only “memories.”

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

  • The “mental world” is all around us, just like the “material world,” but of course, we cannot “see it,” just like we cannot “see” all those signals from radios, televisions, and cell phones that are all around us.
  • But we know that those 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 may come to mind about a friend far away or some incident at work. That is due to “dhammā” impinging on mana indriya due to kamma vipāka.
  • Also, we can recall such memories at our will, too.
Six Types of Sensory Experiences – Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)

13. Chachakka Sutta (MN 148) (Ref. 1) describes the sensory interactions with all six senses; see “Chachakka Sutta – Six Types of Vipāka Viññāna.”  For example, a “seeing event” is a sensory input through the eyes: “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, “i.e., “eye-consciousness arises when a rūpa rūpa (with the aid of light) impinges on the eyes.”

  • Similarly, hearing is due to: “sōtañca paṭicca saddē ca uppajjāti sōtaviññāṇaṃ, “etc., for other physical senses of ghāna (smell), jivhā (taste), and kāya (body).
  • Finally, the detection of dhammā with the mana indriya is stated as “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ.“
Abidhamma Description

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

  • Thoughts (citta)
  • Thought qualities or mental factors (cētasika)
  • Matter (rūpa) (includes energy and dhammā.)
  • Nibbāna

Here, “paramattha dhamma” does not refer to “dhammā” (or “causes” or “kamma bīja.”) 

  •  One must be able to grasp the meaning of a word based on the context. ‘For example, “right” in “Turn right” and “You are right” mean very different things!

16. Dhammās (kamma bījas) eventually lead to the formation of dense rūpa, which we enjoy with our five physical senses.

Such dense rūpa have finite lifetimes (they are impermanent). Besides, they change unpredictably during their existence, called viparināma lakkhana.

  • But no matter how hard one tries, one cannot maintain such dense rūpa to one’s satisfaction. Thus, such dense rūpa leads to more suffering than any pleasure.
  • Five types of dense rūpa are in our “rūpa lōka,” and the less dense dhammā are in our “manō lōka“; 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 cētasika). That is the basis of existence in a sentence.
Sabbē Dhammā Anattā

17. The Buddha said, “sabbē dhammā anattā,” i.e., “all dhammā are without essence at the end” and must be given up to attain Nibbāna. But that cannot be done by sheer willpower: One has to comprehend the true nature — Tilakkhanna — to see the fundamental and true nature of all rūpa, including dhammā.

  • We make our world by creating dhammā on our own. That is a critical point that I will try to explain in future posts in this “Living Dhamma” section.
  • The basis for making dhammās are our thoughts with javana citta. A javana citta generates “kamma bīja,” and they give rise to future kamma vipāka. So, kamma bīja are dhammā. They are very tiny packets of energy below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.
  • But some javana (especially in jhāna samāpatti) can create energies above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage, i.e., they can produce tangible rūpa. That is how one with abhiññā powers can “create” physical objects.

18. 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, such rūpa can and will change unexpectedly while in existence; that is the viparināma characteristic and is a root cause of suffering.
  • The only dhammās that are “permanent” are nāma gotta, records of our saṅkhāra, which do not have energy in them; “Nāmagotta, Bhava, Kamma Bīja, and Mano Loka (Mind Plane).”

19. When one sees the perils of this rebirth process (after one grasps the Tilakkhana), one stops making those causes via abhisaṅkhāra and also gives up the craving (taṇhā) for them, which leads to Nibbāna.

  • Nibbāna results when all those causes are removed; no rūpa can arise. Hence, Nibbāna is permanent. No more suffering!

1. The six sense inputs (āyatana) and the six types of rūpa we experience with them are discussed in several suttā. For example, in the “Cha Chakka Sutta (MN 148)“:

Cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni veditabbānī’ti—iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? Cakkhāyatanaṃ, sotāyatanaṃ, ghānāyatanaṃ, jivhāyatanaṃ, kāyāyatanaṃ, manāyatanaṃ. ‘Cha ajjhattikāni āyatanāni veditabbānī’ti—iti yaṃ taṃ vuttaṃ, idametaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ. Idaṃ paṭhamaṃ chakkaṃ(1)”

Cha bāhirāni āyatanāni veditabbānī’ti—iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? Rūpāyatanaṃ, saddāyatanaṃ, gandhāyatanaṃ, rasāyatanaṃ, ­phoṭṭhab­bā­yatanaṃ, dhammāyatanaṃ. ‘Cha bāhirāni āyatanāni veditabbānī’ti—iti yaṃ taṃ vuttaṃ, idametaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ. Idaṃ dutiyaṃ chakkaṃ(2)”

  • Thus, there are six (Cha) internal āyatana (ajjhattikāni āyatanāni) and six external (bāhirāni āyatanāni).
  • The sixth internal āyatana is manāyatana, and it detects dhamma (called manāyatana, just like sadda or sound is called saddāyatana).

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

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