Difference Between Rupa and Rupakkhandha

October 20, 2018; revised September 18, 2019


1. Difference Between rūpa and rūpakkhandha is necessary to understand. Translation of rūpakkhandha as “form aggregate,” gives the wrong impression that it is a collection of “solid objects.” 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.

  • In modern-day terms, rūpa are either “matter” (human bodies, trees, houses, etc.) OR “energy” (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 suddhātthaka, the “smallest unit of rūpa.” We usually call visible objects “matter.” And invisible energy forms (like heat, sound) “energy.” Both types consist of suddhātthaka. A suddhātthaka is the smallest unit of energy/matter in Buddha Dhamma. It is unimaginably tiny, billions of times smaller than an electron in modern science.
Khandha Means a “Pile” or an “Aggregate” or a “Collection”

2. It also helps to understand what is meant by a “khandha.” In Pāli (and Sinhala), it means a “heap” or “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).

  • A heap or an aggregate of rūpa is a rūpa khandha. It rhymes as “rūpakkhandha.” We have seen this in 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 the dhamma (discourse).”
Rūpakkhandha is all Mental

3. On the other hand, rūpakkhandha  is all mental. The Khandha sutta (SN 22.48) (among many other suttas) summarizes what is in the rūpakkhandha.Yaṃ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ atītā­nāgata­pac­cup­pan­naṃ (My comment: atita, anāgata, paccuppanna) ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, ayaṃ vuccati rūpakkhandho. “

Translated: “Whatever kind of rūpa, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, disliked or liked, far or near: this is called the rūpakkhandha.”

  • Eleven types of rūpa (mental impressions) are in the rūpakkhandha: past (atita), present (pacuppanna), future (anāgata), internal (ajjhatta), external (bahiddha), coarse (olārika), fine (sukuma), dislikes (hīna), likes (panita), far (dūre), near (santike).
  • Other four khandhas or aggregates (vēdanā, saññā, sankhāra, and viññāna) have the same 11 categories.
  • An acceptable English translation of the Khandha sutta is available online: Khandha Sutta: Aggregates.

4. Let us discuss them a bit more detail to see that these rūpakkhandha are “mental impressions” of rūpa and not the rūpa that are out there.

  • 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 rupa 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 is retained. Of course, not all memories can be recalled. However, some people have the capability to recall memories from the present life in great detail. See, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”
More Types of Rūpa in Rūpakkhandha

5. 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 (sukumarūpa are “energy” (heat, sound, etc.).

  • There are rūpa that one dislikes (hīna), and there are others that one likes (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.
Difference Between Rūpa and Rūpakkhandha

6. 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.). OR, it is a form of sensory input that we get through the other three sense doors (smells, tastes, or sounds).
  • rūpakkhandha are MENTAL IMPRESSIONS of those external rūpā. They 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.

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

  • I will take, as an example, the twin towers in New York that were destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attack.
  • If one had seen those twin towers in New York, one could still recall them in one’s mind. Those physical structures are not there anymore, but they are in one’s rūpakkhandha!
  • But the actual rūpa that were there in New York are no longer there.

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

  • We can see that each has his/her vēdanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, sankhārakkhandha, and viññānakkhandha.
  • All of them can be analyzed in the same way. But all those (unlike some rūpa of solid matter) exist only while being experienced.
Pancakkhandha Are Mostly Memories

9. Without those mental impressions  (pancakkhandha), we will not be able to live our lives.

  • For example, we have seen, smelled, touched, and tasted apples in the past (we have also heard the sound of biting into an apple. They are all in our pancakkhandha, and our minds automatically use those records to identify an apple INSTANTLY.
  • We discussed this recently in the post, “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories).”
  • All those concepts that we have discussed fit in well in this jigsaw puzzle of the workings of the mind. It is complex, but once one understands the basics, it becomes much more manageable.
Sankhāra Lead to Panca Upādāna Khandhā (Pancupādānakkkhandhā)

10. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with recalling past events. The problem arises when we get attached to them and start re-creating those events in our minds and enjoy them.

  • Kammā (which lead to kamma vipāka) generated in three ways: manō kamma, vaci kamma, and kāya kamma. They are done via manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra. See, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”
  • Mano kamma (our spontaneous thoughts) arise automatically according to our gati.
  • Vaci kamma (“talking to ourselves” and speech) arise due to conscious thoughts.
  • kāya kamma also arise due to conscious thoughts and have the highest javana power; see, “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power.”
  • Many people think “talking to ourselves,” or “daydreaming” is not bad because we don’t physically do anything. Even though they are less potent than kāya kamma, vaci kamma can add up and lead to strong kamma vipāka.

11. When we “daydream,” we mostly recall a past event that we enjoyed and re-experience that again and again. Also, one could make up a “future event” that one would LIKE TO experience and that also becomes a part of pancakkhandha (this is the “anāgata” component in #3 above).

  • Then one keeps generating more and more vaci sankhāra on that event; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”  Of course, if we get “really into it,” we may do kāya sankhāra too.
  • That is called “pancaupādānakkhandha” (panca upādāna khandha). In other words, one is now “pulling that event back, close to one’s mind” and consciously generating more vaci (and possibly kāya) sankhāra.
  • That is why “upādāna” is such an essential step in a Paticca Samuppāda cycle. The two stages of “tanhā paccayā upādāna” and “upādāna paccayā bhava” really involves many, many Paticca Samuppāda cycles running inside them.
  • We will discuss this in detail in the next post.
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