Rūpa and the connotation of light

A year ago, in the Feedback category, I asked Venerable @sujato the following question:

In DN 9, the sentence “ Tassa yā purimā rūpasaññā, sā nirujjhati ” is translated as “The perception of luminous form that they had previously ceases.”

If this isn’t a typo, I’m curious as to how the adjective “luminous” comes into this translation.

To which he replied:

Rūpa began life as the idea of what is “seen”, i.e. something that shines or is visible. It still keeps the connotation, even after its use has become much broader. In the context of jhana, the term rūpa does not mean simply “body” or even “sight”, but rather a subtle apparition or vision that manifests to the mind, which these days is usually called nimitta . The rūpajjhānas are the states of meditation that are based on such visions of “luminous form”.

To which I replied:

This is interesting to me. I knew about the original meaning of rūpa as what is seen, but I’m curious to know more about how light comes into play as part of its original meaning. Can you point me toward any early sources for this understanding (or works discussing it)?

To which he replied:

Sorry, I don’t have sources to hand right now. If I get the chance I’ll publish something.

Can anyone provide early sources, or articles discussing such sources, that would indicate that the early Buddhist usage of the term rūpa implied light?


It does not mean luminous, just that what is seen is composed of differences in light:

“The visible object ( rūpāyatana ) is described in Vibh. II as “that phenomenon which is built up of the four physical elements and appears as color, etc.” What is’ seen by-visual perception, i.e. by eye-consciousness ( cakkhu-viññāṇa ) are colors and differences of light, but not three dimensional bodily things.”—‘ayatana,’ “Buddhist Dictionary,” Nyanatiloka.


It is true that rupa is properly understood as an image in the visual field, not unlike an image on a screen. It’s luminous in the sense that there must be a source of light to be visible, whether the image produces it (glowing) or not (reflected). It’s not really analogous to our concept of matter.

Now, the context of the passage is the arising and passing away of perceptions when transitioning from the four dhyana to the first of the formless samadhis. So, it wouldn’t be describing actual sensory imagery, but perhaps mental imagery. It reminds me a little of the sutras that discuss the arising of light and forms in the mind while meditating.

The Chinese parallel in DA 28 is fairly literal: “All perceptions of form cease, and the perception of the abode of space arises.”


Thanks for your reply, Charles. A few thoughts:

I agree that this is an aspect of the meaning of rūpa, such as in the context of the sense spheres, but don’t you think that other contexts, such as the aggregate of form (rūpakkhandho) seem to carry a meaning of materiality? For example, I’d find SN 22.48 less meaningful if the meaning of rūpa were restricted to a visual image:

Whatever kind of form there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: this is called the form aggregate.

While this is true, it doesn’t really address my question asking for sources that indicate that, in the Buddha’s time, the term rūpa carried an implication of luminosity. As far as I know, sounds require air (or water) to be heard, but that doesn’t seem to justify translating “sound” as “airy sound”.

The sense that I get is that the rūpasañña that ceases in the first formless state entails any perceptions of the physical world, i.e., the world of the five physical senses. This seems supported by the additional qualifier that perceptions of sensory impact (paṭighasaññānaṃ) disappear at this point (MN 25, for example).

To me, these suttas seem to usually have a context of the development of the divine eye, and I suspect that the light and forms in these cases indicate the deva realms and their inhabitants.

To clarify my OP, I’m not taking a stand on whether Ven. Sujato should have added the word “luminous” to his translation or not. He has stated his reasons for doing so, and I respect his views, but I would like to assess the evidence that led him to his understanding for myself.

So my question is:
What are some early sources that indicate that early Buddhists’ understanding of the term “rūpa” included a connotation of light?


Yes, in the case of the five skandhas, that’s true. I wonder if there wasn’t a later redefinition of rupa in exegetical traditions in that case. In most sutras, the elements (four or six) are used to describe a person’s physical existence, whereas the skandhas are the categories of things that we attach to and form views around. The rupa in the DN passage we’re discussing is an object of perception in a series of meditations. That puts it more in a experiential context to me; one that implies more of a “mind’s eye” type of rupa.

But to get back to your question: Another avenue of inquiry might be the original meaning of rupa dhatu. I wouldn’t brush off those sutras that connect light and form as meditation experiences. It’s probably connected to that same meaning, referring to the gods and heavens. That usage probably harks back to the older meaning Sujato was mentioning.


I assume his understanding here is based on the Visuddhimagga, no?


That could be. Hopefully he’ll be inclined to share his sources here.

Looking at both the Pali-English dictionaries and the Sanskrit-English dictionaries, I couldn’t find any nuance of light in the definitions of rūpa. I also researched discussions of rūpa in works by Harvey, Gethin, Hamilton, and Kalupahana and found nothing there. A general Google search with the keywords “rūpa”, “light”, and “luminous” was also a bust. I have one more source to try, an excellent one, but I won’t have access to it for another month. Stay tuned!


Let us know what you find out, Christopher. I’ve not the time to do the leg work, just have impressions from usage in the sutras I’ve worked with.


I was finally able to ask Venerable Anālayo this question, and he feels it’s incorrect to add “luminous” to the translation.


It’s certainly interpretative. Rupa and light are directly associated with each other in a couple suttas that are important in the Agamas, too. MA 72 & 73 in Chinese, which are MN 128 and AN 8.64. It’s not as though there’s no basis for the interpretation. Rupa is used in that way and also as a shorthand for things made of the four elements, basically.