What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!

May 13, 2017; revised November 4, 2017; March 20, 2021

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.

Dhammā Are Subtle Rupa Below Suddhāṭṭhaka 

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 is 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 (patavi, 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 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. But only the first FIVE types of sensory inputs come through the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). Science is not aware 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 are eventually 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 that 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 that we experience with the five physical senses.
  • We touch with our body or see with our eyes the rūpa that are familiar to everyone. They are “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. 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, 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 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 Are in Kāma and Rupa Loka

5. Therefore, detection of rūpa in kāma loka and rūpa lōka involve 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 (which is 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 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. It was only about 100 years ago that science identified photons as particles with the advent of quantum mechanics.

Experiencing Dhammā Requires Only the Mind

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 sensory experience he has. He can think about anything he wants to. He can think about past events and 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 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 — that are 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.
  • 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, “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 “can make contact only with the dhammāyatana or mana indriya”; see, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis.”
Five Physical Senses and the Mana Indriya

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 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, just like we detect 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.”

  • These 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.

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 bīja are (see #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 can also arise due to “smaller kamma bīja,” as mentioned above.
  • When kamma bīja lose their energies over long times, 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 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.
  • Also, 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 stated as “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ. “

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

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

15. For those familiar with Abhidhamma, we can state the above with the Abhidhamma language. 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

16. These dhammā 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 during their existence, and that is called viparināma lakkhana.

  • But no matter how hard one tries, one will not be able 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 willpower: 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 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, 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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