What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!

May 13, 2017; revised November 4, 2017

All our conscious thoughts start with one of the six senses getting input from the external world. With those six sense faculties, we detect six types of rūpa “out there” in the world.

1. Many people think rūpa means just “material things” that we can see out in the world. But EVERYTHING that we sense through our six senses are rūpa. I will explain this in a systematic way.

  • Those things that we detect with our five physical senses are what we can call “dense rūpa“; they are made of suddhāshtaka, i.e, they are made of satara mahā bhūta (patavi, āpō, tejō, vāyō).; see, “The Origin of Matter – suddhāshtaka“.
  • Such rūpa that we detect with the mana indriya are called “dhammā. These are just energies and have not condensed to the suddhāshtaka level, i.e., they are below the suddhāshtaka stage.
  • It is good to remember that dhamma refers to a doctrine (like in Buddha Dhamma) and dhammā refers to such very fine rupā.
  • Let us discuss those two types of rūpa in detail first.

2. All things that we experience through our SIX senses are rūpa, but the first FIVE types of sense inputs come through five “sensors” obvious to everyone (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). The SIXTH one called mana indriya (located in the brain) is not known to science. This is clearly stated in the Cha Chakka Sutta, as discussed below.

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

3. Those that we experience through our FIVE physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the body) are “dense rūpa“, meaning they are made of suddhāshtaka, which are made of the four great elements or the “satara mahā bhūta“.

  • Those five kinds of rūpa are all in our “rūpa lōka“, which is what we are quite used to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and making bodily contacts with.
  • What we touch with our body or see with our eyes are the rūpa that are familiar to everyone; they are sometimes called “rūpa rūpa” or “vaṇṇa rūpa” (varna rūpa in Sinhala or Sanskrit) to distinguish from other four types.
  • However, we need light to “see” those “rūpa rūpa“. Light consists of tiny particles called photons; they have very small masses due to their energies.

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

  • It is easy to see that what we taste are also “rūpa rūpa“, i.e., solid food or liquids.
  • What we detect with the nose are scents, which are really 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”.

5. Therefore, detection of rūpa in the “rūpa lōka” involve matter or energy, and all those are above the suddhāshtaka stage.

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

6. This is actually 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 suddhāshtaka. It was only about 100 years ago that science identified photons as particles, with the advent of quantum mechanics.

7. Now let us think about 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 sense experience he has. He can think about anything he wants to. He can think about past events and he can think about 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 his memories and future hopes, among others. This 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 suddhāshtaka stage. They are detected by the mana indriya in the brain (another fact unknown to science), and subsequently sensed by the mind.

  • Kamma bīja — that are generated by our minds (via our thoughts) — are also part of dhammā. They bring kamma vipāka back to from time to time. These are what we think of as “random thoughts” that come to us about things and people.
  • Those dhammā are not coarse enough to be “seeing” even with abhiññā powers and do not make contact with other five coarse senses. Thus they are called, “anidassan appaṭighan dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpan“.
  • Here, “anidassana” means “cannot be seen” and “appaṭigha” means “cannot be touched or sensed with even the finest instrument”. And, “dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rūpan” means “can make contact only with the dhammāyatana or mana indriya”; see, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis“.

9. We see a person when light reflected off of 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 five sense inputs. They are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, 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 in the brain. Of course, scientists do not think about it that way. This is how the Buddha described it.

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

  • These dhammā are also rūpa in Buddha Dhamma, but they are even finer than those light particles or photons.
  • Dhammā” are just energies that lie BELOW the suddhāshtaka stage. They cannot be detected with even the finest scientific instrument.
  • That person locked up in an isolated room generates thoughts about his past or future when dhammā that represent such past events or future hopes make contact with the mana indriya.

11. Just like the dense rūpa that we detect with our five physical senses are in our “rūpa lōka“, these dhammā (which are the same as kamma bīja) are in our “manō lōka“; see, “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental“.

  • This manō lōka is also called “bhava” because that is where one’s kamma bīja are, as we mentioned above in #8. We all have numerous kamma bīja that can give rise to a variety of bhava at the cuti-patisandhi moment, when a new bhava is grasped (the strongest kamma bīja corresponding to an appropriate bhava is selected).
  • Of course, kamma vipāka during a given life also arise due to smaller kamma bīja, as mentioned above.
  • When kamma bīja lose their energy over long times, they become just “records.” of what happened. Now they cannot bring any more vipāka, but become just “memories”.

12. So, these dhammā (or kamma bīja) are rūpa that are below the suddhāshtaka 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 radio, television, and cell phone signals that are all around us.
  • But we do know that those radio, television, and cell phone signals are there because we can receive them with our radios, TVs, and cell phones. Just the same way, we receive those “dhammā” with our mana indriya.
  • One may be engaged in some task, say washing dishes in the kitchen, but all of a sudden 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.
  • In addition, we can recall such memories at our will too.

13. Those who are familiar with Abhidhamma know that a “seeing event” is a sense 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, detection of dhammā with the mana indriya is stated as, “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ“.

14. We also need to realize that “dhammā” can have somewhat different meaning too, depending on the where used.

  • Buddha Dhamma means the teachings of the Buddha. Here it is normally written as “Dhamma”, but some do write it as Buddha Dhammā.
  • So, we need to take the appropriate meaning of a given word depending on the context.

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

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

16. As we will see later, it is these dhammā that 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). In addition, they change unpredictably during their existence and that is called viparināma lakkhana.

  • But no matter how hard one tries, one is unable to 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,” the less dense dhammā are in our “manō lōka“; see, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental.”
  • A living 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.

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 will power: One has to comprehend the true nature — Tilakkhanna — to see the real 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 dhammā 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 suddhāshtaka stage.
  • But some javana (especially in jhāna samāpatti) can create energies above the suddhāshtaka 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 too; 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!

20. Finally, our six sense inputs (āyatana) and the six types of rūpa that 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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