Meaning of rūpa and its implications

Rūpa corresponds to 色 in the Chinese translations of Buddhist texts. I would like to ask whether rūpa in Pali has meanings other than material form, perhaps color?

In the context of ordinary Chinese language, 色 as a noun almost always points towards imagery concepts, such as 景色 (scenery), 面色 (complexion), 彩色 (color). Does the meaning of rūpa in the non-Buddhist context touch upon visualness too? If not, I wonder why 色 was chosen as the translation.

The translation of rūpa as a word so closely connected to visual forms seems to imply the domination of visual perception among the six sense-organs in the perception of material forms. Can we say the order of the six sense-organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) is arranged according to its involvement in perception of material forms from high to low?


@cdpatton is the person you want to talk to for this question.

No, it is rather that the five physical organs are separate from the mind, thereby constituting the mind/body duality. It is by thinking in terms of that duality that insight arises.

“Friend, there are these five faculties each with a separate range, a separate domain, and they do not experience one another’s range & domain: the eye-faculty, the ear-faculty, the nose-faculty, the tongue-faculty, & the body-faculty. Now what do these five faculties — each with a separate range, a separate domain, not experiencing one another’s range & domain: the eye-faculty, the ear-faculty, the nose-faculty, the tongue-faculty, & the body-faculty — have as their [common] arbitrator? What experiences [all] their ranges & domains?”

“Friend, these five faculties — each with a separate range, a separate domain, not experiencing one another’s range & domain: the eye-faculty, the ear-faculty, the nose-faculty, the tongue-faculty, & the body-faculty — have the intellect as their [common] arbitrator. The intellect is what experiences [all] their ranges & domains.”—MN 43

This division forms the basis for the foundations of mindfulness, which are of body, feeling, and mind, feeling being the connection between body and mind.


I don’t know why the six sense spheres are listed in that particular order, but it could be that it’s a stock phrase kept uniform for the purposes of oral reciting.

Each sense organ is just that, a receptor of the body which detects the outer world’s structure and sends that information to the brain for processing. Each sense organ is directly connected to a region of the brain which processes that type of signal. The sense organ has no bearing on vedana or sañña, it simply captures and sends data. It’s further on the flow chart where other brain organs like amygdala receive data and feeling, perception, cognition arises.

Vision is the dominant sense, accounting for about 40 % of all sensory processing combined (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch,: sans mind), perhaps that’s why it’s listed first. Mind is listed last but, in my opinion, thoughts arising from the untrained mind seem to be quite powerful!

Perhaps rupa is a noun because it really comes down to physical form. Photons are form, sound waves are form, even thoughts are synaptic firings.

I’ve noticed that rupa is sometimes more specifically the object of sight. Whenever the six sense bases are paired with their objects, in the Fire Sutta for example. You see forms (rupa), hear sounds (sadda), smell smells (gandha), etc.

It does. In Buddhist texts, it seems that rupa has two specific meanings. One is the imagery that’s seen with the eye and the other is the material form of the five khandhas. I think the second meaning is an extension of the first in some way, but I’m not an expert on Indic languages. I sometimes wonder, though, if rupa in the khandhas wasn’t originally a shorthand for all the sense objects. But at some point, it became a general term for whatever isn’t part of the mental process. I’ve not seen anything to suggest this in the texts, it’s just a speculation that makes sense.


I’m not sure about the northern Agamas, but in the suttas and in Vedic literature we find:


  • form
  • figure
  • appearance
  • principle of form

रूप [ rūpa ]

  • any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour
  • form
  • shape
  • figure
  • dreamy or phantom shapes

This comes from the thematic verb रूप् (rūp) which is in the 10th Gaṇa:

√ रूप् [ rūp ]

  • to form
  • figure
  • represent

Sadly I cannot locate any Proto Indo European roots as of yet. Still, without this the meaning of rūpa here is quite clear. It is the “image” or “form” that occurs at contact. Based on this understanding rūpa-khandha would then not be the physical body, but the image of the body at contact. We do see this distinction between rūpa and the physical body in the suttas:

"'This body of mine is endowed with form, composed of the four primary elements, …

ayaṃ kho me kāyo rūpī cātumahābhūtiko …"

The body is one thing, rūpa is another. This would make little sense if rūpa was the physical body, or even if it meant “matter”. Regarding the 4 mahābhūta in the upaniṣadaḥ they started out as deities, thus being rather abstract:

सेयं देवतैक्षत हन्ताहमिमास्तिस्रो देवता अनेन जीवेनात्मनानुप्रविश्य नामरूपे व्याकरवाणीति ॥ ६.३.२ ॥

seyaṃ devataikṣata hantāhamimāstisro devatā anena jīvenātmanānupraviśya nāmarūpe vyākaravāṇīti || 6.3.2 ||

  1. That god [Existence] decided: ‘Entering into these three deities [fire, water, and earth], as the individual self, I shall manifest myself in many names and forms’.


In the suttas they are no longer deities, but they are still abstract qualities. For example, examining the body in relation to the earth element means examining it in the sense of hardness or softness. This is the noticing of a phenomenal experience, rather than being a theory of matter. The Abhidhamma/Abhidharmas took a different view, which is in line with their more metaphysical and ontological nature.

Can we say the order of the six sense-organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) is arranged according to its involvement in perception of material forms from high to low?

I’m not sure about the order, but I’m sceptical of translating āyatana as “sense organ”:

Āyatana (आयतन)

  • resting place
  • support
  • seat
  • place
  • home
  • house
  • abode

I won’t delve into the roots with this one. It is said then there are 6 Āyatana:

  1. Cakkhāyatanaṃ
  2. Sotāyatanaṃ
  3. Ghānāyatanaṃ
  4. Jivhāyatanaṃ
  5. Kāyāyatanaṃ
  6. Manāyatanaṃ

1. Cakkhu

According to Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary (the dictionary I have been using throughout) we find:

Cakṣu (चक्षु)

  • the eye

Yet, when we look at the Proto-Indo-European root we find:


  • To see
    -To look

In the suttas we very often find the following:

“The arising and vanishing of the eye is evident,
Cakkhussa uppādopi vayopi paññāyati.”
MN 148


“Mendicant, if someone meditates observing rise and fall in the eye faculty, they grow disillusioned with the eye faculty.
“Cakkhundriye ce, bhikkhu, udayabbayānupassī viharanto cakkhundriye nibbindati … pe …"
SN 35.154

Now, does it even make sense to say one dwells observing the “rise and fall” of the eye, be it eye or eye faculty? I would submit it does not. It does however make sense if we translate cakkhu in accordance with its Proto-Indo-European root of “kʷeḱ”, that is to say “vision”. For the physical “eye” the suttas use “akkhi” from the sanskrit “ákṣi”:

akṣi (अक्षि)

  • the eye
  • the number two

This is the same meaning we find in the PIE root:


  • the eye

I would repeat the same arguments for the other sense bases (excluding the mind). The āyatana then are the abodes/domains where sensual beings like humans are found, between “vision & forms” etc since this is what we seek and grasp hold of (and when there is grasping, there is a being). I see this as being more in line with the Buddha’s overall epistemology and general outlook rather than “sense bases” and “eye and forms” which is, once again, more of an Abhidhamma perspective.


There’s a few sutras that outright define the five khandhas in Pali (SN 22.56-57) and Chinese (SA 41-42). Rupa is defined as the four elements and what’s made of the four elements. It does seem like a stretch of the word’s meaning to me. But stretching the meaning of words is something Buddhists did.

There’s another sutra that doesn’t define rupa that way, but instead describes it in Pali as “what gets deformed or harassed” (SN 22.79) and in Chinese as “what’s obstructive and divisible” (SA 46). It still sounds like a description of physical matter (not just a person’s body), but the two traditions say different things in that case.

What would make sense to me is if the first item of the khandhas was meant to be all five or six sense objects, which give rise to feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. It would be an experiential model like the six ayatanas, collapsing the physical component into the first item (while the ayatanas collapse the mental component into the last item). It’s just a thought, though.

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I agree and see different conceptualizations at work in the suttas: a) rupa as a cognitive element vs. b) rupa as a material one. Actually b) in its explicit form is quite rare (i.e. rupa = mahabhuta). Under the influence of abhidhamma and commentaries this became the dominant one.

Rightly so as I show in my essay on ayatana

And again old habits of wrong conceptualizations are hard to eradicate… Olivelle in the introduction to his translation of the Upanishads writes (p.22):

“In dealing with sight and hearing, and to some extent also in the case of the other faculties, these documents clearly distinguish the power or the act of seeing and hearing from the respective external organs, the eyes and the ears. Indeed, they consistently use different Sanskrit terms for the two — cakṣus and śrotra for sight and hearing, and akṣan and karṇa for eye and ear, respectively.”


Hi cd
The sixth object appears to be not of first khanda category .
Isnt the sequence should be feeling perception volition rises after consciousness in each duo case ?

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Yeah. Well, to me, it would depend on whether the first khandha is only what’s external to the mind or whether it’s all the sense objects that give rise to these others things (feeling to consciousness).

As to the sequence, I wouldn’t think of the five khandhas as a literal sequence of events. They are categories, though it does have a vague logical sequence if we think of the rupa as a sense object rather than material form.

Anyway, there’s wisdom in not pursuing logic too much. It turns into a tangle of possibilities that can’t be resolved. Then we get caught in the tangle and fall down, flustered. The main idea is that rupa didn’t originally mean material things but the imagery the eye sees. At some point, philosophical advances in the ancient world caused it become a shorthand for what’s material. Words drift in meaning like that over the centuries.


That is certainly the basis for the Ābhidharmika position, but in contrast to that one line we have tons of suttas (you are more of an expert in the Chinese canon here) which make the distinction between physical form and rūpa and indeed, in certain meditative states, still treat rūpa as an “image”. In conjunction with this we have the etymology of the word and how it was used in the Vedic literature. Further still I think rūpa as “image” is more in line with the Buddha’s epistemology, which I touched upon prior. If we look at a sutta like DN1 and its parallels we can see that the basis for views that the Buddha knows and rejects, but other ascetics so willingly embrace, are a mixture of inductive reasoning and synthetic a priori (bar the sceptics). These two forms of reasoning form the basis of metaphysics. Think Descartes for the synthetic a priori and St Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument from design for induction. The Buddha rejected them because they are not knowledge, do not lead to knowledge yet lead people to claim knowledge, to claim to “know and see”, when they do not. The Buddha instead preferred direct experience and analytic a priori reasoning, which we see in dependent origination. In other words, knowledge. Seeing as how the Buddha rejected these two forms of reasoning as unsound, it becomes difficult to see how he would suddenly launch into a theory of matter (I also doubt the Buddha accepted causality, but that is a different topic). To establish a theory of matter you either have to rely upon synthetic a priori or synthetic a posteriori. You can’t get there via direct experience or analytic a priori. Synthetic a priori would be pure reason, metaphysics. This is not knowledge, since the predicate is not contained within the subject. To establish it via the synthetic a posteriori you would need induction or deduction, with a deductive approach being the domain of science. As DN 1 has shown, the Buddha rejected the synthetic a priori and synthetic a posteriori based on inductive reasoning (which, as Hume would later point out, is an irrational line of reasoning). This leaves the synthetic a posteriori based on deduction, but this doesn’t lead to knowledge either. It merely tells you what is probable, which is why in my own field (science) we never actually claim to have proven anything. We merely have the best theory at the time. As the Buddha was concerned with knowledge, and seems to have been aware of the epistemological pitfalls of these types of reasoning, is it credible to then claim that he adopted a theory of matter, framed in terms of the mahābhūta and taught in the shorthand via a redefinition of rūpa? I would have to submit that it is not. It is, however, in line with his epistemology if we treat the mahābhūta as simple fundamental qualities of direct experience (bar the formless realms). For example, if we look here:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha on Vulture’s Peak Mountain. Then early in the morning, Ven. Sariputta put on his robes and, carrying his bowl and outer robe, was coming down from Vulture’s Peak Mountain with a large group of monks when he saw a large wood pile off to one side. Seeing it, he said to the monks, “Friends, do you see that large wood pile over there?”

“Yes, friend,” the monks replied.

“Friends, if he wanted to, a monk with psychic power, having attained mastery of his mind, could will that wood pile to be nothing but earth. Why is that? There is earth-property in that wood pile, in dependence on which he could will that wood pile to be nothing but earth.

“If he wanted to, a monk with psychic power, having attained mastery of his mind, could will that wood pile to be nothing but water… fire… wind… beautiful… unattractive. Why is that? There is the property of the unattractive in that wood pile, in dependence on which he could will that wood pile to be nothing but unattractive.”

AN 6.41: Dārukkhandhasutta—Thanissaro Bhikkhu (

The Buddha is not giving us a speculative metaphysics or scientific theory of the wood pile. He is directing us to what qualities it has rather than what it actually is. The Abhidhamma does go into what an object is, but this is moving in a direction away from what the Buddha was interested in in my opinion. To get an Abhidhamma you need the synthetic a priori or induction, but that brings it closer to the ascetics of DN 1 than the Buddha.


Great essay and thanks for the quote too!

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Prior to this discussion, I would not disagree with the statement that “body is rūpa.” I would comprehend that the physical body is a constituent of human being which belongs to the rūpa-khandha category for its materiality. As you point this out and thank you very much for doing so, I find that the interpretation of rūpa as material form, where form being an abstract object or image, makes even more sense to me in line with the doctrine of impermanence. There is no such concrete thing that we can point to and call it the body, as it is in constant flux. There is only a common form of body that is perceived through the six āyatanas of contact and composed of the four elements. Such forms are what rūpa-khandha points at, rather than sense objects per se.

I notice the SN 22.56-57 and their Chinese parallels SA 41-42 not only provide definition of the five khandas but also explain their origin, cessation and path towards cessation. They are the content of suffering. It would only make sense if rūpa is a cognitive element that can be extinguished via practice, rather than an elimination of bodily matter.

Hence, the mind/body duality @paul1 suggests is an emphasis of the power of mind that is incomparable and separated from the five faculties of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body. It is mind that endows the physical organs with cognitive powers of seeing, hearing, and etc. and formed the sphere of senses - the āyatanas.

Thus understood, bodily matter seems to be entirely translated into cognitive phenomena, while bodily experience correspond to cognitive processes. Is that correct?

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“Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.”—Anguttara Nikaya 4.45.

The implications of this are that cause and effect are not only mechanical and physical, but thoughts produce physical consequences.

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Yes, the context does change the exact meaning of the word…

In the context of senses, we have sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactiles & spirits. We can quiet down each of these discern them in succession.

Quiet down sights, and you are attuned to sounds…
Quiet down sounds, and you are attuned to smells…
Quiet down smells, and you are attuned to tastes…
Quiet down tastes, and you are attuned to tactiles…
Quiet down tactiles, and you are attuned to spirits…

Become unpassionate then and there…

I’ve come very to this late, but I want to comment on and reinforce a trend in the thread, which is that we understand rūpa as reflecting sensory experience rather than substance. I’m in the middle of trying to articulate this so what I’m writing here is entirely provision and subject to revision.

I don’t think rūpa was ever intended to convey ideas like “body” and “matter”, that said, it is an historical fact that Buddhists ourselves have attributed this meaning to the word. Indeed I routinely see academics translating rūpa as “matter” (e.g. Prof. Jonathan Silk). Still, we can in fact understand rūpa entirely in epistemic/phenomenological terms without doing any violence to Buddhavacana.

When we look at rūpa amongst the āyatana/dhātu schema we see this relation:

rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear.

That is to say, just as sound emanates from an object, crosses the space between us, hits the ear, and causes an aural sensation; so also with rūpa and the eye.

If rūpa meant “substance”, “body”, or “matter”, then seeing would be caused by matter entering the eye. Ouch. In modern terms, entirely anachronistic in a Pāli context but nonetheless our own framework, rūpa must simply be “reflected light”. In this context, I think “form” tends to make English-speakers think in terms of substance which is misleading. To avoid this misinterpretation, I translate rūpa as “appearance”.

There really is no discussion of objects or the nature of objects in Pāḷi. What we see is more like discussion of sensory experience in terms of the arising and ceasing of sensory experiences, with a view to ending them all (nibbāṇa). Although all Buddhists trade in metaphysics, in these discourses the topic is experience rather than reality. An objective reality is entirely consistent with Buddhist doctrines, but Buddhists themselves didn’t have anything much to say about it because they were obsessed with the cessation of sensory experience in meditation and the subsequent state of absence of sensory experience.

Moreover, we can extend this usage. As some of the previous posters argued, we can see rūpakkhandha as a generalisation of rūpa qua visual appearance, to a general sense of “sensory appearance”. In other words, rūpa stands as a metonym for the arising of sensory experience across the sensory modes. With this shift in emphasis, all of the khanhas now refer directly to aspects of sensory experience, which makes the set more coherent. Having appeared in our sensorium the sensory experience creates a valence of positive or negative affect (vedanā); we recognise and name the experience we are having (saññā), we have an occasion to commit kamma (saṇkhārā), and then we discriminate the object we are experiencing (viññāṇa).

So we can talk about khandhas from an entirely epistemic point of view without invoking substance or matter. Note also that from discrimination of the object, comes papañca.

Again, we can extend this reading to nāmarūpa and in doing so we see why the Mahānidāna Sutta begins with viññāna and nāmarūpa conditioning each other.

If rūpa is appearance, then in the context of nāmarūpa, rūpa can be seen as the basis on which one attaches a label (nāma). For a person, their rūpa is how the look (facial features, habitual expressions, haircut, etc), how they sound, and so on. Rūpa is again “appearance” in a general sense. The appearance depends on an object and that gives it a set of distinctive qualities that are recognisable.

If viññāna-skandha is the discrimination (or identification) of the object behind the sensory experience, then we can see that this might entail first recognising the attributes of it, and then giving it a name. Or in other words viññāna consists of recognising an object from its characteristics: nāma on the basis of rūpa. In this view, viññāna and nāmarūpa amount to different ways of looking at the same process. And from this emerges papañca.

So rūpa means “appearance”: more specifically “visual appearance”, but figuratively speaking any kind of “sensory appearance”.

Now. It may or may not be the case that anyone in the ancient world thought this way. I think this way and it appeals to me for several reasons. Firstly, I have one (flexible) definition of rūpa and it serves all the functions I need it to: the basic definition “appearance” doesn’t radically change with the context. Secondly, I can discuss the idea entirely in epistemic or phenomenological terms without invoking metaphysics (i.e. existence, reality, truth and their negations). Thirdly it unexpectedly helps to make sense of an odd bits and pieces like the weird nidānas in the Mahānidāna Sutta: not an inconsequential text. Lastly it is broadly consistent with my attempts to read all Buddhist texts as concerned with the arising and, especially, the ceasing of sensory experience (following on from Sue Hamilton’s epistemic account of the khandhas).

The avoidance of metaphysical commitments based on the texts in which this concept is described is important because it side-steps interminable discussions about the existence or non-existence of this or that. Do dharmas exist? The question is ayukta (unconnected, irrelevant). Do dharmas not exist? Ayukta. Any discussion of the metaphysics of dhammas or self or whatever misses the point. The point is that we can, through concerted and systematic efforts, make all dhammas cease and then dwell in a state in which no dhammas arise aka suññatāvihāra.

I suspect that everyone in Indian knew this, but they all came to different conclusions about it. For Brahmins the state of emptiness was interpreted as brāhmana (or Brahmā); for Saṃkhyā it was puruṣa manifesting when prakṛti became quiescent. And for Buddhists it was nibbāna: suññatā is like death - we have a text to help us tell the difference between one in that state and a dead man, i.e. MN 43 (PTS MN I 296).

Incidentally, this way of thinking has been mainly inspired by studying the Heart Sutra (in which rūpa plays a prominent role). And one of the really neat things about this is that the same explanation for rūpa in early Buddhist texts works equally well in the Prajñāpāramitā context. I’m coming around to thinking of Prajñāpāramitā as an ancient (largely oral: guru to śiṣya) lineage within Buddhism that found a new literary voice under the Kushan kings in Gandhāra; not as a new or breakaway lineage. Once we repair the persistent errors in the Heart Sutra, it is very much consistent with the Pāḷi discourses on cessation of sensory experience in samādhi.

Summing up

As a technical term:

  • rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear (and tangibles are to the body).
  • rūpa is “appearance”; in the narrow sense of the appearance of a visual sensory experience.
  • rūpa can also stand as metonym for all the senses in general (sight often stands in this relation to the other senses).
  • The rūpa of an object is how we recognise or discriminate (viññāna) the object and thus give is a name (nāma).

This does not obviate the conventional, non-technical use of rūpa in Pāḷi. It’s an attempt to make sense of doctrine, not language more generally.


Please forgive me if I am guilty of any of the following: a) stating the obvious, b) stating something already contained in a previous response, or c) stating something completely off-base. But could it not just be that these people, when conceiving of matter or form, considered its apparitional aspects as primary, where we consider it more from a tactile or substantial perspective?

Greetings, @Jayarava. I have enjoyed your blog on-and-off for years. You obviously don’t know me, but I am obsessed with all thing DN 15 (or any of its parallels). So, I’m going have to insist that you unpack this tantalizingly pregnant statement.


As you know the nidānas in the DN 15 are unusual because at the beginning of the sequence we don’t have avijjā or saṅkhārā, rather we start with viññāna and nāmarūpa conditioning each other.

nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṁ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṁ, nāmarūpapaccayā phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā,

Conventionally this is translated as

Name and form are conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form.

But this doesn’t really make any sense. For a start viññāṇa isn’t and cannot be “consciousness”, especially in this context. No such thing exists in the Pāli account of experience. Rather viññāna in this context refers to the discrimination of objects via sensory experience. Just as it does in the khandhas. The sense of viññāṇa as providing continuity for rebirth seems to be the odd one out, in that we are also instructed not to think of viññāna as providing continuity for rebirth.

If I’m right about rūpa meaning “appearance” [of sensory experience] in all contexts (which remains to be seen) then nāmarūpa has to mean something like “label” and “appearance”. How do we recognise an object through experience? We recognise the rūpa of it, how it looks, how it sounds, etc. So nāmarūpa would means something like: that by which we recognise an object and what we call it.

This partly emerges from thinking about these stories as being concerned with epistemics rather than metaphysics. Here I’m applying the insights of (the late) Sue Hamilton about the concerns of the stories being about how things work rather than what something is or whether it exists (or not).

In which case, it seems to me that viññāna and nāmarūpa in the Māhanidāna Sutta would have to be in precisely the relation specified: one experiences discrimination when one experiences the appearance of the object and gives it a name; or we could say that having recognised the appearance of the object and named it, we have discriminated it. So of course they condition each other.

I think, at the very least, that this epistemic reading is a valid reading even if it doesn’t fit with traditional interpretations. We can choose to understand the texts this way without doing any violence to the Pāḷi. The question of whether this is a better reading is moot. We may never know exactly how early Buddhists interpreted their texts, except to say that in every single Buddhist sect they radically changed the core teachings to suit their needs.


Great answer. What stands out most for me is when you said,


I love your use of the word “discriminate” to translate viññāna, as it takes into account the vi- prefix in a way which I haven’t found any other translations do: that is to say, it actually takes it into account.

(I’d be interested in how you deal with the saṁ- viz. saññā.)

I was already pretty much in agreement of most of the rest of your post.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but @Vaddha and I have been following a similar line of dialogue as it pertains to DN 15 on the Best Namarupa Translation thread (here). That thread has paused, but we are poised to continue with it. (In fact, I will be posting there shortly after this.) Please, you are invited to join in. As I remember, you subscribe to Gombrich’s and Jurewicz’s views on the continuities between DO and Vedic theories of cognition. Your contributions would be most welcome, I think, especially regarding nāmarūpa.