Mind and Body: The Problem of Formless Realms

I was watching this video:

And he raises an interesting problem (from 15:05). What is your opinion on the subject?

As I was listening to him, I was thinking that the problem could be solved simply by saying that the devas did have a form, and that the error seemed to lie in the identification of “form = physical” when it could only be a phenomenological (and not ontological) description… But it is true that in the end it would imply that there is a form (even subtle or phenomenological) in formless realms… This seems contradictory. :thinking:


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:slightly_smiling_face: Thanks for bringing it up @Satananda, it was just a weird thought and there is probably some explanation out there somewhere. It would be interesting to hear! :anjal:

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In the formless attainments / realms there’s no visual imagination. The visual cortex has completely shut down. There’s absolutely no experience of seeing things.

The “forms” at the deva / jhana level are imaginary. The visual cortex is still capable of sputtering out some experience of seeing, even if those sights don’t come from the eyes.

The “forms” in the ordinary human realm are physical, originating from photons striking the wet balls at the front of our faces, though of course we all know what it’s like to remember what a cake looks like (non-physical form) or to have a dreamless sleep (formlessness).

Hope that helps!


That’s very interesting, thank you for your answer. So the devas would have an imaginary form (like an idea); that would imply that a spirit can subsist without a physical body. Is there a difference in nature between body and spirit? Formless realms are therefore just devoid of physical form, not necessarily imaginary forms? :thinking:


“Formless” suggests the absence of form, ie the absence of the four great elements. So no body, no sense organs, and no sense objects derived from form.
So mind only, but with no dreams or imaginings, or even thoughts. I’m not sure what that would be like.

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rupa as the physical characteristics is admittedly one interpretation of the suttas, but it’s not too wide-spread. I feel that Buddhists are too quick in assuming that this was the original and generally valid interpretation of rupa, while it is not.

Rupa is first and foremost what its literal translation is, namely ‘form’ or ‘visual appearance’.


Aren’t the four primary elements the usual “definition” of rupa in the suttas?
See for example the description of the nama-rupa nidana in SN12.2. Also see MN140.

That’s true, if there is an explicit definition then it’s with the four mahābhūtāni. But I see this definition only in SN 12.2 and SN 22.56-57. Where is it in MN 140?

For some two or even four definitions are enough. For me the probably hundreds of times where rupa is the visual object is just so much more relevant than such a minority voice.

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So with a narrow definition of rupa as visible objects, what would the formless realm be like? Just walking round with your eyes shut or something?

It leaves open the possibility that it’s a meditation realm, and not a place you go to.

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Possibly, though according to AN10.13, desire for rebirth in the formless realm is a fetter. How would that work if the formless realm is only a meditative state?

In the case that rebirth in formless realms is a later inauthentic interpolation :wink:

For whatever my opinion is worth, that’s not my prefered translation of “arūparāgo” (note: the Pāli doesn’t mention rebirth or realms).

I much prefer “craving to not be” i.e. craving to not be ugly, to not to be sick… It’s aversion to states of existence. To get to arahant you have to get to the point where you’re okay with continuing to exist and okay with ceasing to exist. Only then can you transcend such categories.

But that’s the advanced stage, after non-returner. To even get to stream entry you first have to get really fed up with existing.


But how do we establish that AN10.13 is an “inauthentic interpolation”?
Or do you mean that the translation is incorrect?
“Aruparago” appears to mean craving for the formless, but it’s not clear what formless refers to here.

So is it craving for any kind of existence? Craving for continuation? More like survival instinct?

“rūparāgo” is something like that - the craving to exist: to be this or that. To stick around and see how this all turns out.

“āruparāgo” is the craving to not exist. To disappear or annihilate. To not have to see what comes next. Something more like that.

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First of all it’s my interpretation and not a fact. My basis is though that the suttas don’t tell us anything about the arupa devas. They don’t even have real names - it’s just the cumbersome ayatana-name appended by ‘deva’. With other devas we can get at least a feeling when we see different layers in the suttas, for example the Akaniṭṭha Devas who have a real mythology shining through the suttas. But with the arupa devas, zero. Even at the Buddha’s liberation when he could have said that his former teachers became these devas - no, just “Āḷāra Kālāma passed away seven days ago”, nothing of deva, or his state, or realm.