Must we read rūpa as "body"?

I have a problem that I think will suit the kind of discussion that typically goes on here.

Some Buddhists argue that rūpa means “body” in some cases and some suggest that it can mean “matter” (i.e. substance) in some cases.

However, in the āyatana and dhātu ontologies: rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear. Thus rūpa in these contexts must literally be something like “reflected light” though this thought would be an anachronism if it was attributed to the sutta-kāra. Rūpa can be generalised as "that which emanates from an object, crosses the intervening space, and strikes the eye causing a cakkhuviññāṇa. I argue that in rūpakkhandha, rūpa is a metonym for the appearance of light, sound, smell etc in our sensorium. And in nāmarūpa, rūpa still refers to appearance rather than substance.

In light of this, please disprove the following proposition:

We are never forced to read rūpa in a Pāḷi sutta as “body” or “substance”.

The most obvious refutation would be some passage in Pāḷi that can only be understood as a reference to “body” or “substance”. I’ve not found one and I no longer believe that any examples exist. I think the proposition as stated is true. Please, prove me wrong.


Well, kāya (body) is certainly rūpa (form):

kāyo rūpī cātumahābhūtiko mātāpettikasambhavo odanakummāsūpacayo aniccu­c­chādana­pari­maddana­bheda­navid­dhaṁ­sa­na­dhammo­.

Their body consists of form, made up of the four primary elements, produced by mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, liable to impermanence, to wearing away and erosion, to breaking up and destruction. -SN 55.21

Imañca kāyaṁ ārabbha,
bhūripaññena desitaṁ;
Pahānaṁ tiṇṇaṁ dhammānaṁ,
rūpaṁ passatha chaḍḍitaṁ.

Āyu usmā ca viññāṇaṁ,
yadā kāyaṁ jahantimaṁ;
Apaviddho tadā seti,
parabhattaṁ acetanaṁ.

With reference to this body
The One of Broad Wisdom has taught
That with the abandoning of three things
One sees this form discarded.

“When vitality, heat, and consciousness
Depart from this physical body,
Then it lies there cast away:
Food for others, without volition. -SN22.95

In the end, what other rūpa is as important as the body when it comes to Dhamma practice? So, sure not all rūpa is kāya, but key contemplations must be in regards to the form that is the body:

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it form? ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold, deformed by heat, deformed by hunger, deformed by thirst, deformed by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and serpents. ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form. -SN 22.79

Bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling might experience revulsion towards this body composed of the four great elements; he might become dispassionate towards it and be liberated from it. For what reason? Because growth and decline is seen in this body composed of the four great elements, it is seen being taken up and laid aside. Therefore the uninstructed worldling might experience revulsion towards this body composed of the four great elements; he might become dispassionate towards it and be liberated from it. -SN 12.61


Well light and sound are form. This much is obvious. And, as far as the sensorium goes, light is a part of it, as is sound and anything else experienced by a human being. Technically, our understanding of experience itself can be gathered into the term sensorium, since experience (construction of meaning) is premised on difference. There is a sutta in which Buddha states that difference is premised on eye, ear, nose, etc. So, as far as I can tell, rupa always means body, substance and form. Whether that meaning is under erasure or deferred in various uses of the term (rupa) is beside the point. Conversely, rupa does not mean EITHER hyle or eidos, as far as I can tell.

I agree with you here. I think the puzzle pieces of early Buddhism snap neatly into place when we think of rupa as the seen, the heard, the smelled, the tasted, and the felt. Likewise, the same can be said for phassa as the seen, the heard, the smelled, the tasted, and the felt and kaya as the totality of the sensorium(the seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, known).

Here are some examples:
I can rewrite parts Ud 1.10 and MN 119 to make these fit together

How do you train for this?

These pieces now snap into place.
They also snap into place with Snp 4.2

Snp 4.11 also makes a whole lot more sense and snaps into place with the others when rupa is the seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt and its disappearance is merely the seen, merely the heard, merely the smelled, merely the tasted, and merely the felt.

I see your point. Defining rupa as body doesn’t cover all the bases. However, when it comes down to it, isn’t a photon matter, odor a particulate, thought a chemical and electrical process? Couldn’t appearance actually be phassa?

What term would we use to translate rupa?

I think that the clearest place we can induce the distinction is in the types of existences.

Kāmabhava, rūpabhava, and arūpabhava. The ‘rūpabhava’ does not contain coarse sensual stimulation, but rather is associated with mind-made bodies, radiance, light, beauty, universal love, bliss etc.

Kāma, sensuality, seems to refer to the “physical” and rūpa to the “appariential(?)” in this context. The physical elements, physical touch, sex, diverse things to interact with vs. the appearance of a projected image-like body, light, and perceptions of love, rapture, joy, etc.

We see the same connotation in phrases that put ‘rūpa’ and ‘obhāsa’ together, usually referring to the divine eye (dibbacakkhu) and devas (etymologically referring to radiance/light).

In the Vedic corpus, ‘nāmarūpa’ refers to the names and shapes/appearances of things. So again, rūpa relates to the shape, figure, or appearance rather than physical sensual stimulation. We see the same type of thing with ‘rūpa’ in the context of the six senses as mentioned before.

I think ‘rūpa’ is about appearance and form. It just so happens that in the sensual sphere, what we see corresponds to physical elements and physical things to interact with via the sensual senses. This is not part of ‘rūpa’ itself but rather in how ‘rūpa’ operates within certain domains.


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Myself, I have no idea whether thought is simply a chemical and electrical process. I doubt it is, since psychosis is thought, but a particularly damaging type of involuntary “electrochemical” process that can actually burn your capacity for things like sensible perception, cognition and reason right out. Psychosis can be both a symptom of something (e.g., chronic acute depression, having taken PCP, etc.), and or, a syndrome (e.g. manic-depression, schizophrenia) the causal and other factors of which can be difficult to ascertain, little own fix.

Myself, I deal with things like outsider art, and a whole body of thought that has emerged around this kind of stuff, so you are not talking to anyone who is going to give you “rational sense” as a necessarily valued human attribute that I share. I primarily focus on expression, which in Canada is protected under Article 2 (b) of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As for this:

each word is problematic for me, and I cannot respond to it. Can you please define what you mean by appearance, actually, be, and phassa for me.

I get the sense that the Kāmabhava is where beings are stuck on pursuing and enjoying the 5 strands of sensuality (Kāmabhava) rather than referring to the 5 senses per se. The rūpabhava then is where desiring and enjoying the pleasures of the senses is removed, but the form is all that remains. There is just sounds, sights etc but no desire for them. Naturally the arūpabhava is where even the form is left behind.

As far as I know kama means desire. There was a transition in vedic thought from sacrificing to the gods to have your desire (kama) met (some of which sanctified, others not) to realizing that desire itself was, perhaps, some type of powerful force that overwhelms and is destructive. Kama is, not surprisingly then, also Shakti when elevated to a cosmic force. The idea that desire, simply desire, is a good thing, is practically an anathema to all of human history.

The interesting thing about Buddhism, at least as some people will argue, is that it understands that desire is transformative.

As far as I know, the only way the brain (as an organ) works in any capacity is via chemicals and electrical processes.

rupa is outside phenomenon that contacts our sense organs and my understanding is that sense impression is the basic definition of phassa. Since the source phenomena (rupa), the sense organ and contact are all necessary for phassa to occur, it doesn’t make sense to me for rupa and phassa to be metonyms of one another.

Whatever floats your boat. Enjoy.

Yes, the above is true

The above is also true. Obviously, the word “rupa” is not restricted to one contextual meaning. My impression of Western translators, possibly due to past life indoctrination by monotheism, is inflexibility with translation. No amount of learning Pali grammar can prevent the misconstruing of contextual meaning.

SN 12.2; MN 62; SN 22.79; AN 9.15; SN 12.61; SN 22.95

The above sounds questionable. Sutta quotes are required to support the above.

Sounds tenuous & sectarian. Dibbacakkhu is a psychic power and the ‘rupa’ seems to refer to external forms seen inwardly. For example, in AN 6.55, it seems the Buddha inwardly saw the external form of Sona.

It seems the above requires substantiation from Sutta quotes. :sun_behind_small_cloud:

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The word ‘kaya’ means ‘group’ or ‘collection’. In other words, the ‘kaya’ of four elements when called ‘rupa’ is merely one type of ‘kaya’. For example, DN 15 refers to ‘nama-kaya’ or MN 44 refers to the five aggregates as ‘sakkaya’ or MN 118 refers to in & out breathes as a kaya among other kaya. Possibly one of the greatest misinterpretations of the term ‘kayanupassana’ is it referring to contemplating the physical body. At least the Paṭisambhidāmagga is clear that ‘kaya’ here refers to both rupa-kaya & nama-kaya.

Rupa is never kaya. Instead, kaya sometimes refers to rupa.

But they don’t.

This seems to me the best reconciliation of these two different terms, kāma and rūpa. (Was the word you were looking for “apparitional”?) However, I would not say that, of the two, it is kāma exclusively which refers to the physical: I would think they both refer to physical realty, but refer to it from different perspectives or refer to different aspects of that single realty.

If I can bring the terms back down here to the kāmaloka for a moment, because, of course, kāma and rūpa co-exist here. So, if we take human beings, for example, they obviously all have a very real physicality with which we interact in various ways. Among them, we might interact more sensually–that is, on a very intimate level, likely involving touch–which ancient Indians identified very closely with, or defined in terms of, sexuality or enjoyment of food. This is what the English “physical” seems to connote.

But, just as often (perhaps more so), we might interact with them in a significantly less sensual way, limited to distant identification and based more generally on sight alone. This emphasis on visual identification of physical entities goes far, I would think, in explaining rūpa’s almost default association with nāma, even when the former appears singly. So, while @SDC is correct in asserting that kāya and rūpa often have the same referent, they make reference to it from two very different perspectives, and, thus, they are not fully equivalent.

In fact, and perhaps I’m overreaching with this, but I think it would be interesting as an additional challenge to attempt to find a functional usage of rūpa (that is, not simply a vibhaṅga definition like SN 22.79) where it can be divorced from this idea of visual identification. Maybe they abound in the texts: I don’t know.

Hi knotty36,

Just to be clear, I was not attempting to show an equivalence, but only to show that while the body consist of form, not all form is in direct reference to the body.


Could you clarify what you mean by this?

I was going to write my interpretation but @SDC seems to have covered most of it, so I’ll add:

The entire dhamma must fall under the 4 noble truths, especially the first two.

The first noble truth clearly states what the problem is, and that is clinging to the five aggregates, which means the body and mind.

The body is a huge source of suffering, and we think we’re in control of it when in reality the circumstances are only temporarily favourable and we confuse this for control, but when the circumstances swing the other way and you can’t sleep for a month due to anguishing pain then you’ll quickly realize that “the self in control” has become “the self that is a slave to this body”.

Any view regarding a self is clinging to the aggregates.

So form means the body, and nama means the mind.

So to answer both OP and @knotty36 - The purpose in seeing the body as the 4 elements is to depersonalize and forfeit ownership of the body. The elements in the body do their own thing, when the elements do a random combination of rubbing eachother, the circumstances are favourable and the body is invisible. When they do another random combination of rubbing eachother, the circumstances are unfavourable and you have hellish anguishing pain for a month. Eitherway, the self has no say over the 4 elements, as the self is dependent on having a body which is dependent on having the 4 elements, not the other way around. If the 4 elements were dependent on a self, then one could merely wish for pain, disease and old age to instantly disappear.

So the function of the 4 elements is to see the dependency (Idappaccayatā) of things, and adopt the proper attitude. The proper attitude towards something that is not in your possession or control is to have nothing to do with it, to let it go and leave it alone.

As per Maha rahula sutta

Develop the meditation in tune with water. For when you are developing the meditation in tune with water, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when people wash what is clean or unclean in water—feces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood—the water is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation in tune with water, agreeable & disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind.

If your view, attitude and habits aligned with things as they really are then you would not try to have more pleasure when it is present or get rid of pain when it is present, instead you would be equanimous just like you are equanimous with observing things happening to other things in nature which have nothing to do with you. Likewise the elements, and therefore the body, have nothing to do with you.

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On top of references given earlier:

  • MN28, after saying the four internal elements are various parts of the body, says the space enclosed by flesh and skin is called rūpa
  • SN1.76 says the rūpa of mortals gets old.

Also interesting:

  • Ud8.9 uses kāya instead of rūpa as one of the aggregates in the verse.

That is not to say all instances of rūpa mean the body (clearly that is not the case) but it is evidently an important aspect of rūpa. And sometimes rūpa is synonymous to the body.


Myself, I would say this is, at best, an incomplete understanding of dhamma because of its division between the self, the body and the mind, and its attempt to establish that the self is divorced from entities that are non-self, in this case body and mind.

As a Western point of view, it reflects the disputes that occurred among the Rationalists, (e.g., DesCartes, Liebniz, Spinoza) and their various attempts to reconcile the long-standing mind-body split and denigration of the body as mere substance (e.g., through Liebniz’s Monad, Spinoza’s God as substance-attribute/thought-extension) that DesCartes aggravated with his Meditations.

The old Cartesian-Kantian debate is still present in schools in Canada, and Gilles Deleuze, notably is a Rationalist. Nonetheless, I would have been thrown out of school had I come forward with an impoverished understanding of Buddhism like this.

Aside from the explicit description in SN 55.21 (“kāyo rūpī cātumahābhūtiko The body consists of form, of the four great elements.”) there is the broader description in MN 28 that Ven. Sunyo mentioned. I may have missed your objection in your earlier post, but in terms of clarifying, I wouldn’t say much more. The form that is this body will break down, and it is important that the individual understands that.

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