Why it is called Rupa?

I just wonder why it is called Rupa in the case of Rupa Jhana, Rupa Raga and Rupa Loka etc?
To me Rupa means the four great elements.


I think rūpa is a term that alludes to way more than just the 4 elements…

Rūpa,(nt.) [cp.Vedic rūpa,connected etymologically with varpa (Grassmann).-- The Nom.pl.is rūpā & rūpāni] form,figure,appearance,principle of form,etc.-- A.
Definitions.(…) “form,” and as better (philosophical) terms “matter,” “material quality” are recommended). (…) form, either contrasted with what is unseen,or taken for both seen and unseen, representations, statue, beautiful form,beauty, (…) drawing,or arts & craft,(…) form,like,kind,of a certain condition or appearance.
In all these representations of rūpa we find that an element of moral psychology overshadows the purely philosophical & speculative aspect.
2.(metaphysically) as the representative of sensory or material existence:(a) universally as forming the corporeal stratum in the world of appearance or form (rūpa- bhava) as compared with the incorporeal (arūpa-bhava),being itself above,and yet including the kāma-bhava.(The kāmabhava is a subdivision of rūpabhava,which has got raised into a third main division.) This triad is also found in combns with loka or dhātu (see dhātu 2 a & d),or avacara.
(…) in the making up of the individuality as such (nāma-rūpa),where in contrast with nāma (as abstract,logical,invisible or mind-factor) rūpa represents the visible (material) factor,resembling kāya (cp.phrase nāma-kāya in same sense).
The following are current defns of nāma-rūpa
rūpa(–kāya)=cattāro mahā-bhūtā catunnaṁ m-bhūtānaṁ upādāya rūpaṁ (otherwise kāya-saṅkhārā)

Source: http://palidictionary.appspot.com/browse/r/rūpa

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This is an excellent and very important question! Please forgive my somewhat technical answer, but it is not a simple matter.

This rūpa is the same as the “vision of forms” as seen in meditation.

The confusion comes because this is the same or similar to what today we call nimitta. However, the word nimitta is never used in that sense in the EBTs. Rather, in the context of meditation nimitta means “cause, basis”, or more specifically: an aspect of experience that, when you focus on it, tends to support the development of other qualities either good or bad. It is in this sense, for example, that satipaṭṭhāna (mindfulness meditation) is the nimitta for samādhi. In other words, you do mindfulness meditation in order to get into jhāna.

The fact that nimitta is not used in this sense has prompted some to claim that nimittas are unknown in the suttas. But it’s just that a different word is used. There are plenty of places where such visual manifestations are referred to, and they are commonly referred to as rūpa. Indeed, all the names of the jhana realms and so on emphasize the experience of light (gods of refulgent glory and so on), and I strongly suspect that the word jhāna itself is intended to suggest “illumination”.

So that hopefully clarifies usage: but what about meaning? Why use this word?

Well, when we come back to the roots of the word rūpa it is, of course, also used in the sense of “sight, something that is seen”. And it seems that this is a very old sense. The basic idea seems to be that it refers to the manifest physical world; that is, the world as it appears to the senses. In fact, “appearance” is a possible translation.

This contrasts greatly with the western conception of matter as being an underlying substance. This is why we really can’t translate rūpa with “matter” or any similar English word.

Since rūpa refers to the manifestation of physical phenomena in consciousness, the rūpakkhandha can be perceived not only via the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body, but also by the mind. When you imagine color blue, it has the property of “blueness” and it is regarded as rūpa. Such rūpa as perceived in mind consciousness is, if you like, an echo or reflection or interpretation of perceptions through the exterior senses. (“Reflection”, incidentally, is another of the meanings of nimitta.)

If we think of the four elements as somewhat similar to the states of matter + energy in the western model, this mentally perceived rūpa would be the upādāyarūpa, form derived from the four elements.

Hopefully this helps clear up not just the original question, but also why we use the word “form” for rūpa. Even though the sense of it is far from transparent, it really is necessary to avoid considering it as “matter”.


Bhante, would it be that rūpa in the case of rūpa jhanas imply an experience similar to the sight at eyes visual field and not tactile?

Let’s consider the word form in English, I can see and feel forms - i.e I can both see a cube with my eyes and feel it with my hands.

Do you reckon the same would apply to what the idea of rūpa jhanas allude to in meditation? Is it possible for a subject to retain a memory of such form-derived absorption in terms of tactile information as well? Or the suttas would be more biased towards framing these experiences as something that would be recalled as happening at or around the level of one’s usual experience of vision field?

Exactly! that’s why, despite the vagueness, it works the way other renderings don’t.

Well, certainly the suttas have a strong tendency to depict these experiences in a visual way. But there are also plenty of ‘embodied’ metaphors, too. I suspect that, since at this level we are talking about modes of perception, not external phenomena, there is no reason it couldn’t be either.


It seems to be because ‘rūpa’ jhānas have an OBJECT, whether it be the breathing, a kasina, or the qualities of the Buddha, whereas arūpa jhānas have no object, just the general awareness of “no object”, or unlimited space or consciousness.

Hi @synesius,

I know what you mean, but there’s no such thing as an “object” in the Suttas. The words that are used to mean this in later Abhidhamma texts don’t mean the same thing in the suttas. For the Buddha, all experience is interdependent. That means there is no such thing as “object”. What can “object” mean, if not “things that exist objectively, independent of the observing mind”?

But rūpa, like everything else in the suttas, is never spoken of in this way. Instead, consciousness arises in the conjunction (tinnaṁ saṅgati phasso) of the inner and outer sense fields. It’s a subtle point, but it changes a lot about how you look at meditation.


You are, of course, quite right - but I think I was right too!! Rūpā ARE the "objects"
of cakkhu-viññāṇa, just as saddā are to sota-viññāṇa, . .
. and dhammā are to mano-viññāṇa. Ultimately they are all
mano-dhammā, objects of the mind. That is why I always translate the
first verse of the Dhammapada as “Mind precedes its objects.
They are mind-controlled and mind-made.” This does not mean they
are REALITIES, of course. They are fleeting and interpreted. After
all there is no reality to colour. It is just the mind’s
interpretation of certain wavelengths of light. The objects we seem
to see so clearly are EMPTY of any ultimate reality, though
subjectively they seem to be very real. So we must, with sati, apply
the corrective - “Yathā bubbulakaṃ passe yathā passe marīcikaṃ.”

I don’t think you are right though to say so categorically that
"there’s no such thing as an “object” in the Suttas."
When being used in the psychological sense, I think "objects"
fits “dhammā” pretty closely. Even dhammā are empty of
reality though, which is why the Buddha could even make the, at first glance, rather
disconcerting statement, “Yo dhammaṃ abhinandati dukkhaṃ so
abhinandati.” (SIII.71)

I trust we can agree to disagree in peace.

Bhante, would you mind shedding some light on the expression ‘nama-rupa’ in this context? Often we find it as ‘mentality-materiality’ which would be misleading if I understand you correctly.

SN 12.2 has “And what, bhikkhus, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form.”

Which is confusing because in the paṭic­ca­samup­pāda (e.g. SN 12.1) we find nama-rupa in the midst of totally non-material limbs (plus phassa appears two limbs later indepentendly, even though it’s an aspect of nama?). So here it’s almost like rupa plays no role and just the aspect of mental representation of materiality is important. Why do we need rupa there at all next to nama? Those overlappings make it confusing for me…

btw is there any chance for the vissudhimagga’s Viss. XVII.48 to hold up?
“It bends (namati), thus it is mentality (náma). It is molested (ruppati), thus it is materiality (rúpa).”

An American monk in the Burmese tradition with an eye towards the early suttas, Bhikku Cintita, recently published an essay on name & form:

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SN 36.11 states:

Having attained the fourth absorption, inhalation and exhalation have ceased… calmed… quietened’.

My speculative guess is the rupa jhana have some relationship to the nervous system & breathing of the physical body, which is why they are called ‘rupa’. For example, although the physical body & breathing is not consciously discerned in the 1st jhana (due to rapture & happiness being the dominant sense object), the rapture & happiness of the 1st jhana is from the rapture & happiness produced by the nervous system of the entire physical body. Thus, it appears that the culmination of the 4th jhana is when physical (rupa) influences upon the jhana factors end completely.

If they are merely ‘interpreted’, this sounds like the mind is like God or Brahma, in that the mind creates its whole world. If they were merely ‘interpreted’, then why is everyone supposed to ‘interpret’ four elements (as described in MN 62 and MN 140) in exactly the same manner when, alternately, each individual could interpret 1, 2, 3, …or 10,000 elements?

From the viewpoint of the Buddhist teachings, they appear to be objective ‘realities’ to me rather than subjective interpretations. My impression is ‘subjective-phenomenology’ is the ‘nama-rupa’ (‘naming-forms’) of Brahmanism rather than the ‘nama-rupa’ (‘mentality-materiality’) of Buddhist paticcasamuppada.

MN 149 states:

For him — infatuated, attached, confused, not remaining focused on their drawbacks — clinging to the five aggregates heads toward future accumulation. The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that — grows within him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances grow. His bodily torments & mental torments grow. His bodily distresses & mental distresses grow. He is sensitive both to bodily stress & mental stress.

Obviously, mental stress & suffering also impact the physical body internally, which is why mental disorders can create physical diseases.

When ignorance & its asava (MN 9) generate hindrances that trigger off the body, speech & mind _sankhara_s, the hindrance-laden-_sankhara_s also disturb or agitate the nama-rupa internally, even before they stimulate the nama via intention (cetana) to seek out external sense objects via contact (passa).

For example, when you sit still with eyes closed in meditation & a hindrance (nivarana) flows-out or erupts (asava) spontaneously (non-volitionally) from the substratum of the mind due to ignorance, does not this hindrance also disturb the rupa (physical body) internally as well as the nama (mentality)? For example, a hindrance born of ignorance may cause the physical body (rupa) to generate hormones, endorphins, etc, prior to external contact (passa) arising.

Forgive my hyper-sensitivity: I was traumatized by Abhidhamma.

In early Buddhism there is no such thing as an object because there is no independent objective existence. Experience only occurs in the relationship between inner and outer. Introducing the language of “object”, which is entirely absent from the suttas, may be convenient, but it opens the suttas to a range of philosophical and psychological problems that the Buddha carefully avoided.

Later forms of Buddhism struggled with this, sometimes leaning to affirm an objective existence (Abhidhamma, especially Sarvastivada, but also Theravada) or denying it (late Yogacara aka cittamatra), while others tried to chart a “middle way” (Madhyamaka), which in my view is correct. Nagarjuna tried to combust this whole field of philosophy, but it keeps coming back.

When we use the English word “object” we lean on a whole history of Western philosophy, one that overwhelmingly regards the physical world as existing independently “out there”. In such a scenario, a percept impinges on consciousness, but is itself unchanged by the fact (hence the scientific notion of the “neutral observer”).

Consciousness and its objects therefore exist separately, and their conjunction is purely contingent. This leads directly to the greatest problem of western philosophy, the mind/body problem. If these things are essentially independent, how do they relate? From this (non-)problem comes the materialist dismissal of consciousness as a mere epiphenomenon of the brain, with all of the ethical and practical problems this entails.

The word “object” draws us into this mire, whether we like it or not. The treatment of consciousness and experience in the Suttas is as fresh, radical, and powerful today as ever, and we need to step as carefully as the Buddha did to avoid getting stuck in unnecessary and harmful philosophical distractions. So far I’ve managed to translate half the suttas without using the word “object” in this sense. It can be done!


Thank you for pointing this out which I never heard before!
However I can recall reading something like this:
There is eye (subject) and the object (say an apple) in meeting the two (in between) there is consciousness.

But that is precisely what the sutta does not say. What it says is:

cakkuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṁ
Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights.

There is nothing, here or anywhere else in the suttas, about an “object”.

We should be clear on this. When we use the word “object”, the only thing we can be saying is that it is something that exists “objectively”. That is, whether the eye is there or not, whether consciousness perceives it or not, it remains just the same.

If that’s not what we’re saying, why are we using the word “object”? Even if it’s not what we mean to say, it’s there in the connotations and assumptions that the word brings.

The suttas carefully and consistently avoid making this assumption. What matters is the sight as perceived, which only appears in relation to consciousness.


Does AN 3.136 infer independent objective reality, when it states the lawfulness of Dhamma stands whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas?

In discussing sense percepts, we are discussing dependently originated phenomena (paṭiccasamuppannā dhammā), not the principle of dependent origination (paṭic­ca­samup­pāda) (see SN 12.20). These are quite different kinds of things, and we should be careful to distinguish them.

Nevertheless, I would say that neither the phenomena nor the principle exist objectively. The phenomena (i.e. sense percepts) don’t exist objectively because they only appear in relation to consciousness.

The principle of dependent origination has even less of a claim to exist objectively. It’s a pattern, a way things work. It can be discerned in the same way that we can discern “heavy objects fall down”. Principles such as these are inferred from experience, they are not directly perceived in the same way as a sense percept. So if the principle is inferred from that which does not exist objectively, how can it exist objectively?

What AN 3.136 and similar texts are pointing to is that the principle is always relevant. Things are always impermanent, always, dependently originated, always suffering. Things can always be seen in this way, and seeing them in this way always leads out of suffering. This is the “constancy” of the Dhamma.


Hi Bhante,

Thanks for expanding on your thoughts. I honestly didn’t think that calling something “objects” would be taken as implying that they had to be “objective”, I took it as just a convenient classifier. It’s a bit of a stretch to think that “mind objects”, for example, would have objective reality.

However, I do agree that it could be misleading and I see Bhikkhu Bodhi does avoid the use of “objects” in SN 35.23:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.