Three-fold classification of the physical


I keep hearing this in DN33:

1.10.75 A threefold classification of the physical:
Tividhena rūpasaṅgaho—
1.10.76 visible and resistant, invisible and resistant, and invisible and non-resistant.
sanidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanasappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ, anidassanaappaṭighaṃ rūpaṃ.

Normally, things I hear in DN33 bring up lots of fruitful study. Sometimes, however, there are dead-ends. This is one such dead-end. Does anyone have further information on what this classification is and why it is important? The obvious interpretations using triples such as matter, electromagnetic force and entanglement aren’t really meaningful in any useful way. I see that there are these classifications, but how are they relevant to study and practice?


Just a thought that occurred:

Could it be connected with the three realms of existence: sensual, form, and formless, as explained in the same sutta at SC 1.10.44?


Very close…and yet…

  • Sensual stuff for touch makes sense. I touch a table and it resists. The table pushes back.
  • Physical forms like boxes and balls aren’t invisible or resistant, however. So there’s not a direct match.
  • And light is formless and visible and non-resistant, which also breaks the classification.

Most puzzling this verse, isn’t it? :thinking:


The three realms of existence are explained as:

  • Sensual realm: all forms of existence that rely on sensual perception and enjoy some form of sensual pleasure, whether gross or refined (or experience unpleasant sensual feelings), namely the human realm, beings in the underworld, and some forms of heavenly beings.
  • Form realm: forms of existence without experience of sensual feelings, namely the gods of the Brahma realms (whose experience corresponds to the jhanas).
  • Formless realms: those gods whose experience corresponds to the formless meditations like infinite space etc.

The form realm is invisible for human beings (without psychic powers), and the formless realm is still more subtle.


I don’t think this shows up anywhere else in the early texts, but there seems to be a lot in the Dhammasangani. Try a general search for “impinge” and I think you’ll find a lot of results. The Exposition of Form in the Dhammasangani may be a good place to start.


Bhikkhu Bodhi says in his notes 1040 to DN;
“This refers to very subtle matters”


I suspect this relates to the elements, ie earth, water, wind, fire and space.

Earth, water, wind ( air ) and space are progressively less resistant.

And form is either visible or invisible - note how “visible form” is the sense-object for the eye.


Thank you for the reference to Caroline Rhys Davids translation. It is tantalizing and opaque. Her vocabulary is different than Bhante Sujato’s and there are no inline Pali terms to assist in discovery of meaning. Here is one such tantalizing passage that uses invisible and suggests that there may be some connection between “resisting” and “reacting”:

What is that form which is the sphere of vision?
The eye, that is to say the sentient organ, derived from the four Great Phenomena, forming part of the nature of the self, invisible and reacting, which eye, invisible and reacting, has impinged, impinges, will, or may impinge on form that is visible and impingeing

Indeed. What is fascinating is that these subtle matters should be omitted from the EBTs

Thank you for pointing out the “less resistant aspect” of this progression, which I know as six elements from DN33. This also lines up with Ang. Sabbamittas additional comment about the three realms:

Six elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness

I think perhaps the word “physical” is confusing me in the original quote. In Pali, I believe that is rūpasaṅgaho, which only appears three times in SuttaCentral. Bhante @sujato has translated this as “physical”. However, I see “rupa” and “sanga”, which suggest “forms of attachment”. But that is a wild guess.

So, is Sariputta here warning us that the physical (i.e., existence and therefore suffering in the MN1 sense) can be broken up into three things we can become attached to?

  • visible and resistant
  • invisible and resistant
  • invisible and non-resistant

Because if Sariputta is indeed warning us, then Ang. Sabbamitta’s answer about the realms starts looking more and more accurate because even gods die. It also suggests by omission that empty of the above three, we arrive at:

  • visible and non-resistant

In other words, Emptiness.

NOTE: Although the translation uses “invisible”, I am understanding from the CAF interpretation that it may mean “directly perceivable” and therefore would apply to all six sense fields.


This to me is in the first instance of visible and resistant, the sensual world (human, lower deva, animal, etc.). Rupa is found in both the form and sensual realms and suggests ‘invisible and resistant’.

And then, with the complete transcending of perceptions of form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not heeding perceptions of diversity, [perceiving,] ‘Infinite space,’ the monk enters & remains in the dimension of the infinitude of space.form (Rupa) plane. Beings on the form realm (Brahmas) are invisible to the sensual plane. SuttaCentral

This was the formless (arupa) realm as beings in this realm would be invisible.


Yes, this could well relate to attachment. It could be about the three realms, though I think it could also just be referring to the elements of form. I notice that “rupam” applies to all three categories in the OP quote, and “arupa” ( formless ) doesn’t seem to be there.

“Visible and non-resistant” here could just mean empty space.
“Visible and resistant” could just mean visible earth element, while “invisible and resistant” could just mean invisible earth element ( eg all the earth beneath the surface layer we can actually see ).

Interesting stuff!


Even though I hypothesized “visible and non-resistant”, this would be sanidassanaappaṭighaṃ, which I could not find in the EBTs nor in Google. We have reached uncharted waters of idiosyncracy given that the Buddha had no secret doctrine. It would appear that we have all arrived here at a neutral feeling regarding the three-fold classification of the physical.

It is a pity, because consider the following scenario:

Someone points a gun at us out of ill-will. If the gun is:

  • visible and resistant, we cringe, stiffen and seize up in terror and anger. (conventional identity view)
  • visible and non-resistant, we look up at the gun-wielder’s eyes and, in equanimity, act with perfect freedom, empty of ill-wll or attachment, live or die. (emptiness view)

But sanidassanaappaṭighaṃ cannot be found in the EBTs. :pray:


No answers, but I do notice that sanidassanaappaṭighaṃ is the fourth corner that is missing. Perhaps the implied message is that “All forms which are visible are resistant” or some-such? Can we make anything out of that approach?


For example, it makes me think of “things exist, things don’t exist: these are two extremes. Avoiding these two extremes the Thatagata teaches the Dhamma of the Middle”

So, perhaps in reminding us that there can be things that are invisible, we are encouraged to not fight with others over matters we can’t see, since such things may exist or may not. But when we see and know something for ourselves, we should take that seriously and not dismiss it, since nothing visible is insubstantial.


“Visible” means “capable of being sensed”. Literally it might be the tree falling in the forest by itself with no observer. What makes this interesting is that contact may or may not have happened. From AN6.63, we have:

Contact, mendicants, is one end. The origin of contact is the second end. The cessation of contact is the middle.

Therefore, “visible” would imply potential for contact without implying actual contact. So “visible and non-resistant” could mean “phenomena un-contacted”. With the cessation of contact, the gun could be visible yet the sage would be free to act, not caught up in the details of life and death.

Unfortunately, tantalizing as that is, we still have to declare “off-limits and not in EBTs”. :see_no_evil:

However, perhaps I am getting literally stuck on the translated meaning of “visible”. Perhaps sanidassa refers to that which is sensed, not that which is potentially sensible. If so, then ¨nothing visible is insubtantial¨ as you say and there is no missing corner.


+1 - Sounds like you’re getting caught up on English semantics. The Pāḷi term seems to also mean “revealed, showing, within sight” not strictly “able to be seen”


Yes. Sadly, wrangling with this verse has not brought clarity. A thought just plopped into my head that the sky is visible in daytime and non-resistant. Aieeeeeeee!

Well. I think I shall have to leave Sariputta’s odd verse alone for now…
I shall simply continue to note the verse as it is heard. Thank you all for your comments. I’ll leave this unanswered, but that just means I’m confused.


Empty space is not of the form aggregate and cannot be perceived, except in relationship to objects that do exist.

…could be invisible and resistant, from a mundane perspective. However if it originated from the Buddha he isn’t likely to assert the existence of objects he couldn’t directly experience, though he wouldn’t reject them either, but he may analytically or experimentally prove it’s existence (devas) or non-existence (Self) to himself so that other might benefit from his insight.

I have an impression that resistance (patigha) is a characteristic of Rupa, though perhaps a teaching which became prominent later. I understand this to mean form can be ‘held in the hand’ or tangible. Patigha however means aversion more commonly in EBTs, as in patigha-sanna which is counteracted by loving-kindness.


Then the sky or a rainbow would be visible and non-resistant (which makes sense to me). However, that combination of words is not in the EBTs. So I am not sure how to proceed in understanding.

And if we stick with “tangible” for physical, then we have to deal with “tangible” but invisible and non-resistant. :see_no_evil:


@karl_lew this paragraph you quoted from DN33 is a little ‘wonky’ and I would attempt not to draw too many conclusions from it! But its a good discovery. I understand the DN must be handled carefully, in general!


Perhaps it is a history of Sariputta saying something idiosyncratic because nobody else said this triplet. And the Buddha was asleep at the time even though he awoke and approved the talk. Yet nobody objected at the First Council, so…

Maybe it will show up in the Agamas and we shall just have to wait.