Does all experience derive from form?

Does all experience derive from form, directly or indirectly?

By “experience” I mean the khandhas (aggregates), and by “form” I mean the four great elements of rupa, ie earth, water, wind and fire.

What do you think?

does all experience derive from form?

The world only understands existing and not existing. But the Buddha’s Right view is the third option of causality; SN12.15. Kaccayanagotta sutta.

Internal/external, body/mind are all about the a world which exists. The alternative option, also called ultimate reality in the commentaries, is causally arisen experiences, but the experiences just are (they might be arising from a world ‘outside’ but that is speculation, as clearly a lot of our experiences are fabricated).

I guess one counter-indicator to your theory would be the formless (arupa) realms in the suttas. If they exist, then that would indicate at least a base of citta experience (feeling and perception) independent from ordinary matter (and holding citta sankhara too I guess). Though perhaps vinnana is a derived property of sankhara? It does come directly after it in both the aggregates and the dependent origination sequence. A lot of this stuff isn’t very clear in the suttas (probably not meant to be). Though might make sense in terms of transmission of kamma/sankhara between lives (hard to see how that would work in terms of matter as physics understands it) for there to be some extra mental base/strata independent from form or in terms of explaining abhinna abilities.


Yes, the formless realms would be a problem for the assertion that all experience is derived from form - but maybe we could leave those to one side?
I also wondered about the arupa-jhanas, though I think you could argue those are derived from form in an indirect way - since they are attained by a flesh-and-blood meditator.
A similar argument could be made for “mental” experience like thoughts and feelings, and of course these are usually a response to our experience via the five “physical” senses.

In the suttas consciousness is described as transient, and as arising in dependence upon sense-base and sense-objects. The sense objects (sights, sounds, etc) are derived from form, so it follows that consciousness is also derived from form.
To put this another way, if you removed form from the equation there would be nothing to be conscious of, and therefore no experience.

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It’s valid to take a phenomenological approach, but I don’t think the suttas support solipsism.

For example MN140 does clearly describe both internal and external examples of the four great elements (see the OP).

The suttas don’t say there is nothing “out there”, they say that our experience is defined by conditionality. For example, seeing (eye-consciousness) requires both the ability to see (eye) and something to see (visible form).
And of course there is the general principle of conditionality found in DO:
“When this arises, that arises…”

Mano vinnana does depend on the mind-base and mind objects (dhamma), which I suppose is mental form. So the question then is whether the mind-base itself is derived from the usual form elements or is something apart. I’m not sure it’s very clear from the suttas.

And there are always other options. To confuse things further, there is panpsychism (and some some related theories), which has some supporters even in physics, which postulate that awareness or consciousness is an intrinsic rather than an independent property or a derived/emergent property of matter! :slight_smile:

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Mind-base and mind-objects are themselves formless, but I would argue that they still depend on form. Partly because you can’t have a mind without a physical body (assuming we’re not in the formless realms!), and partly because mental activity is intimately connected with experience via the five “physical” sense bases, which rely on form.

It’s interesting to consider different theories of consciousness. For example I’ve read some Hindu texts, and there is a quite different explanation of consciousness in those.
I have some assumptions about consciousness, but I wouldn’t claim to really know what it is, or where it comes from!

The first verses of the Dhammapada:

All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind and happiness follows as a never departing shadow.

translation Fronsdal

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In terms of types of sankhara, vaci sankhara (verbal formation) and kaya sankhara (bodily formation) do seem tightly intertwined with form. However, citta sankhara seems to be a candidate for mentality that may not necessarily be so. Vedana and sanna seem to be the principal activities of citta, and you can have vedana and sanna purely in terms of the mind base. Citta sankhara seems to be the only sankhara that is left in the arupa jhana. So I guess citta is the primary candidate for where formless mentality may occur.

I’m not saying that there is some separate citta realm/independent aggregate (I don’t know). In more materialistic systems, mind is supposed to be derived from matter. In many religious/metaphysical systems, it is the other way around (the physical universe is supposed to be somehow derived from mind/spirit). Buddhism is perhaps somewhere in the middle (matter and mind having equal billing). What that means I’m not sure. Separate but equal? Part of a unified whole? Or something else? :slight_smile: :man_shrugging:

Per DN33 and MN115, there are six elements, not four, to experience with skillful means:

“But sir, could there be another way in which a mendicant is qualified to be called ‘skilled in the elements’?”

“There could, Ānanda. There are these six elements: the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness. When a mendicant knows and sees these six elements, they’re qualified to be called ‘skilled in the elements’.”

DN33 also mentions ten universal meditations, which include the above as well as blue, yellow, red, and white. However, I think the list of six addresses your OP. Basically, I think we cannot limit experience to four elements except conventionally, discussing the material world.

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The six element model is actually in the OP sutta, MN140. Or the six properties of a person.
I regard it as a ‘form-heavy’ version of the aggregates.
I don’t think it detracts from the idea in the OP, that all experience is derived from form, directly or indirectly.

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:thinking: for me this doesn’t work regarding space. Space is formless–it is an aggregate of formless possibility. How would one exclude space from khandha?

Space is the absence of form, and as such it is quite difficult to “experience”.

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Actually it is easy. This is how I experience space:

At night in a strange room in the dark move about with your eyes closed. You will experience dread and terror.

Last year I practiced this extensively. Now there is no dread and terror. I practiced this specifically because I am going blind. What I learned was how to move in space.

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Oh, I see. But I’d suggest that in a dark room what you’re really experiencing is a local absence of form - at least till you bump into something!
I’ve done some “noticing” of space as part of satipatthana, but again it’s more like noticing an absence than seeing a presence.


The first two verses of the Dhammapada are interesting here, though I think it depends which translation you favour.
The translation here gives a different impression for example:

Anyway, I’d argue that mind and its states are derived from form because:

  1. You can’t have a mind without a body (as far as we know!), and bodies are based on form.
  2. The activity of mind is intimately connected with input via the “physical” senses, and therefore with form.

And of course the Dhammapada verses are about speaking or acting with a pure or impure mind, and those activities depend on form, most obviously on the body.

:laughing: that is exactly what causes the terror.

There are many interesting things about the exterior space element, i.e., that “unknown room in the dark”:

  • It is definitely “not mine, not me, not my self” :man_cartwheeling:
  • The terror of moving in space is anticipatory but not founded in the present reality. Essentially it is a type of suffering. :scream_cat:
  • Grasping at the possiblities of form in unknown space increases the terror. :see_no_evil:
  • It is possible to move gently and mindfully in the exterior space element with clear and present awareness. Doing so, terror disappears. :open_mouth:
  • We can’t experience a dark room sitting in it. We have to move about. Therefore sitting meditation is incomplete practice. We have to meditate sitting, walking, standing and lying. :thinking:



While that is true, I think it’s important to consider form in the context of namarupa-viññāna in the twelve links of dependent origination.

Namarupa consists of form + feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention.
Viññāna (consciousness) is that which experiences namarupa.
Ultimately, when ignorance has been cut off, one knows that namarupa and Viññāna are conditioned and thus inessential.

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