I have never been clear on the exact nature of rupa. Is rupa the experience of the physical, is rupa not experiential but instead it's what is in 3D space and is there whether or not it's being experienced(like how most people view material reality before practicing Dhamma) or can rupa be both experiential and not experiential(conceptual?) at the same time? We are supposed to see reality through our individual experience but it seems to me that rupa might not be an "experiential reality kind of teaching". Is rupa only about when we are experiencing "hardness","coldness","wetness" when we touch an ice cube or is rupa the "formation" of the ice cube or could Rupa just be the concept of the ice cube? How I interpreted the teachings on rupa told me rupa might be conceptual at times and ultimate at other times but really I don't know. -Thank You :)

4 Answers 4


Well when you knock yourself against something hard? Do you feel the hardness?

When you drop something from you hand because it is too hot or too cold to hold, do you feel the heat?

Well rupa is made up of the 4 great elements (mahabhuta) of pathavi(earth element -hardness), apo (water element - cohesiveness), tejo(heat) and vayo (air element - motion). What you have sensed above would be the characteristic of one of the 4 elements of rupa.

Eye-object and the other sense-objects - which are derived matter -can only be sensed by their sense organ's sensitivity.

The rest of the secondary derived matter can only be sensed by the mind. Below are more details of rupa.

These are secondary derived matter:

In the Abhidhamma Pitaka and later Pali literature, rūpa is further analyzed in terms of ten or twenty-three or twenty-four types of secondary or derived (upādā) matter. In the list of ten types of secondary matter, the following are identified:


If twenty-four secondary types are enumerated, then the following fifteen are added to the first nine of the above ten:

masculinity or virility
life or vitality
heart or heart-basis
physical indications (movements that indicate intentions)
vocal indications
space element
physical lightness or buoyancy
physical yieldingness or plasticity
physical handiness or wieldiness
physical grouping or integration
physical extension or maintenance
physical aging or decay
physical impermanence

Even though there are 28 paramattha rupas, they do not arise in isolation. At least some arise together. And they vanish together. They have to arise on mahabhuta rupas and they co exist in a form called rupa kalapa. There are 21 rupa kalapas. 9 kalapas are kammaja rupa kalapas, 6 are cittaja, 4 are utuja and 2 are aharaja rupa kalapas...etc

All other rupas that is 5 pasada rupas and 16 sukhuma rupa or subtle materials are all sensed by mind only; that is 5 pasada rupas and 16 sukhuma rupa can never be sensed by any of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body.

More on rupa

Mahabhuta rupas are four great elements. They are pathavi or solidity, tejo or temperature, apo or liquidity, and vayo or movement or resistence.

Pathavi is earth element. It is the nature that is firmness or hardness or softness which depends on density and organisation between and among atoms, molecules, compounds, and complexes of materials from science sense. Its nature can be sensed through kaya pasada rupa that exist in the body and pathavi will be perceived as hardness softness of materials.

Tejo is the nature that can be known by sensing through the body as warmness or coldness or anything like that which serves as temperature. While temperature is a word, the true nature of tejo can clearly be sensed by the body. Any matter in conventional sense has a temperature and this can be sensed by the body.

Apo is the nature that unites the materials.

It is cohesion.
It is flowability,
it is spreadability,
it is stickiness,
it is driness wetness state of materials in conventional sense.

But the true nature of apo cannot be sensed through the body. It can only be sensed through mind sense door.

Vayo is the nature that pushes or pulls materials together.

It is compressibility repressibility.
It is supportiveness through pressure.
It is movement.
It is motion.
It is resilience.

The true nature of vayo can be sensed through the body.


I'm sorry if this answer is ignorant but I think you're asking whether form has an existence independent of one's experience of it.

Like asking, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

My guess is that non-self (by which, I don't mean "they're not me", I mean "they are not themselves") implies that a form doesn't have any independent existence as that form.

In summary:

  • Rupa means 'appearance'
  • I guess that that appearance is experienced (by senses and/or mind)
  • I guess it seems to me unlikely that experienced-appearance has (independent) existence (outside experience) (because if I describe what I see then without me there's no description).
  • Whether the thing-described (whose appearance I experience) has some (independent) existence also seems to me unlikely (I suppose that would be some projection/fabrication on my part, similar to the "chariot" being a reification)

I'm not sure of the above: hopefully someone will explain what's wrong about it if it is wrong or what else it's missing (or if it doesn't answer the question you were asking).

  • See this question here and my answer to it: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/9063/…. Is any of that what you mean?
    – user2424
    Jun 2, 2015 at 15:15
  • Yes some of that is what I mean. For example if you replace "tree" in your answer with "form of tree" or "appearance of tree" then that's similar to what I'm arguing here. One sentence in your answer would be problematic in mine here, i.e. you say, "That does not mean that they are not real" whereas in my answer I think I was arguing are "forms" (or more specifically "things-which-have-form") are reified rather than real. Then you quote explanations of emptiness which is probably what I'm trying to say (I say "probably" because I'm not completely certain of the definition of "emptiness" yet).
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2015 at 15:23
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    @Lanka I guess the thing that bother me in my answer above is "independent": I thought the question was, "do forms exist independent of their being experienced?" ... and I'm not sure that's what sunyata means ... perhaps sunyata means "independent of the conditions in which they exist", which isn't necessarily quite the same thing ... however I can't think about it too much without it becoming a thicket of views. :-)
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2015 at 15:53
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    @Lanka I think you're right that that is a related question. Samadhi and I both tried to answer that question too.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2015 at 16:01
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    My advice would be to not think too heavily on stuff like this since conceptual thinking can be detrimental for understanding the true nature of reality. Previously in my life, i.e. before buddhism i loved to "analyze-stuff-to-death" such as the origins of the universe etc. But now i know what the risks of that is. As the Buddha said thinking about these things (which have no answer unless one is a Buddha) will only leave the mind agigated and unsuitable for clear seeing. Just a personal advice.
    – user2424
    Jun 2, 2015 at 16:07

Rupa is also known as the 1st aggregate - the aggregate of material form. Here are some notes on it by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi:

"...This includes all the material factors of existence, every type of material phenomena. The most important of these is the body, the physical organism through which one experiences the world. The Buddha analyses the aggregate of material form into two basic substances..."

There is also an audio dhamma talk by him on "The Five Aggregates".

Here is a quote from the book "What Buddhists Believe" by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda, p. 111:

Mind and Matter (Nama-Rupa)

‘What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.’

ACCORDING to Buddhism, life is a combination of mind (nama) and matter (rupa). Mind consists of the combination of sensations, perceptions, volitional activities and consciousness. Matter consists of the combination of the four elements of solidity, fluidity, motion and heat. Life is the co-existence of mind and matter. Decay is the lack of co-ordination of mind and matter. Death is the separation of mind and matter. Rebirth is the recombination of mind and matter. After the passing away of the physical body (matter), the mental forces (mind) recombine and assume a new combination in a different material form and condition another existence.

The relation of mind to matter is like the relation of a battery to an engine of a motor car. The battery helps to start the engine. The engine helps to charge the battery. The combination helps to run the motor car. In the same manner, matter helps the mind to function and the mind helps to set matter in motion.

Buddhism teaches that life is not the property of matter alone, and that the life-process continues or flows as a result of cause and effect. The mental and material elements that compose sentient beings from amoeba to elephant and also to man, existed previously in other forms.

Although some people hold the view that life originates in matter alone, the greatest scientists have accepted that mind precedes matter in order for life to originate. In Buddhism, this concept is called ‘relinking consciousness’. Each of us, in the ultimate sense, is mind and matter, a compound of mental and material phenomena, and nothing more. Apart from these realities that go to form the nama-rupa compound, there is no self, or soul. The mind part of the compound is what experiences an object. The matter part does not experience anything. When the body is injured, it is not the body that feels the pain, but the mental side. When we are hungry it is not the stomach that feels the hunger but the mind. However, mind cannot eat the food to ease the hunger. The mind and its factors, make the body digest the food. Thus neither the nama nor the rupa has any efficient power of its own. One is dependent on the other; one supports the other. Both mind and matter arise because of conditions and perish immediately, and this is happening every moment of our lives. By studying and experiencing these realities we will get insight into: (1) what we truly are; (2) what we find around us; (3) how and why we react to what is within and around us; and (4) what we should aspire to reach as a spiritual goal.

To gain insight into the nature of the psycho-physical life is to realise that life is an illusion, a mirage or a bubble, a mere process of becoming and dissolving, or arising and passing away. Whatever exists, arises from causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions cease to be, the thing will cease to exist.

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    "Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is Form." So refreshing!
    – user2341
    Jun 13, 2015 at 17:53

So many great answers in this and the linked questions! Lots to consider. But I think that this is essentially a simple question and should have a simple answer. I tried to ask it before here, got good answers.

My answer is: "The realm of Experience ("reality") is a hologram of light, with no screen and no projector." Carry that around and see if it reveals anything for you. But I think that this question is about words and concepts, and so has the potential to become "vexatious".

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