25 December 2020

Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Intro and Rūpa

Thanks to a benefactor I was able to purchase a copy of Tilmann Vetter's The Khandha Passages, which came out in 2000. The book is largely what it says, i.e. a collection of Pāli passages related to the khandhas in a single volume. It came out in the same year as Sue Hamilton's book Early Buddhism: A New Approach (2000). In this essay (in two parts), I aim to summarise and critique aspects of Vetter's overview of the khandhas (2000: 19-82) and to compare and contrast with Hamilton's overview (2000: 72-84). The aim is to create a synthesis based on these two indepth, nonsectarian studies. In part one I'll introduce the topic and cover rūpakkandha.

Vetter is aware of (cites) Hamilton's earlier book on the khandhas, Identity and Experience (1996) but he makes little use of it and (surprisingly) says that there has been no comprehensive study of Pāḷi khandha passages. Identity and Experience is an edited version of Hamilton's doctoral dissertation and looked at every occurrence of the khandha in the four Nikāyas. Vetter includes the uses of khandha in the Vinaya and perhaps this is what he means by "comprehensive". Pāli as a language and the ideas conveyed in it both exist in layers. A comprehensive account would include comments on the diachronic as well as synchronic uses of the word. Hamilton, with some justification, treats the Nikāyas as a single chronological unit; Vetter, with less justification, treats the Vinaya as part of the same chronological unit. While there is minimal evidence for stratification in the Nikāyas, there is some. Unfortunately, Vetter proposes a chronological development of the relevant terminology but does not attempt to tie this to the chronological development of the Nikāyas. 

In some places the five khandhas are only four (Vetter 2000: 15, n. 12), i.e. rūpa, vedanā, saññā, and saṅkhāra (e.g. AN. 4.16). Also the five khandhas appear to have been unknown to the original compilers of the Dīghanikāya or Aṅguttaranikāya. Vetter mentions these two facts in passing and moves on, since they are incidental to his project. However, such discrepancies really ought to catch our attention and motivate us to explain them. 

In Pāli, there are two terms for the five items collectively: khandha and upādānakkhandha. Sometimes these two words are synonymous, though sometimes they are opposed (e.g. Sn 22.48). However, upādānakkhandha is by far the most common term. Vetter takes this to mean that the collection of five khandhas came first (sans-label), then were labelled upādānakkhandha, which was later abbreviated with khandha (2000: 19). This is of course possible but the rationale for it is weak. What if the kandha/upādānkkhandha is a sectarian difference? Or geographical? 

Vetter overlooks or ignores Richard Gombrich's observations about the word khandha when used in words such as aggikhandha and dukkhakhanda (1996: 67-9). Gombrich placed the term within the context of an extended cognitive metaphor: EXPERIENCE IS FIRE (Cf. Lakoff and Johnson). Buddhist texts make broad use of this metaphor to characterise sensory experience and the khandhas are another way of talking about experience. And in the context of fire, upādāna takes the meaning "fuel". The khandas, in this view, are the fuel that supports the fire that is experience. A key to this is the Ādittipariyāya (SN 35:28) in which the Buddha is made to say "everything is on fire" (sabbaṃ ādittaṃ). And what is "everything", it is the sense faculties and sense objects (i.e. rūpa qua appearance rather than substance), i.e. sensory experience is on fire (compare this to the Sabba Sutta, SN 35.23 and the subsequent suttas). From Hamilton we know that "dukkha is not contingent to experience. Rather, one cannot have experience that is not dukkha" (2000: 68) and "dukkha is better understood as the fact of experience" (71). Note that Gombrich was Sue Hamilton's PhD supervisor and he was strongly influenced by her conclusions about the khandhas

Hamilton notes 

"The term [khandha] is not one used by any of the other religious teachers of the day, and they are hardly explained in any coherent way anywhere in the Sutta Piṭaka: there is no text which gives a full and clear account of what is being referred to by the term khandha. (2000: 70. Emphasis added)

Nevertheless, khandhas are mentioned frequently in early Buddhist texts and form an essential part of later Buddhist metaphysics (especially in accounts of Prajñāpāramitā). I outlined the etymology and meaning of word khandha (Skt. skandha) in an essay in 2013: Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics. The etymology is obscure, but seems to relate to the idea of "branch" and, in particular, the way the torso branches into limbs and the arm branches into five fingers. Hamilton (1996) notes that, in Vedic, skandha means "trunk" as in the trunk of a tree, but she provides no references for this. I have also proposed that the word prapañca relates to this branching of the arm into five fingers. I often refer to pañcakkandha as "the five branches of experience".

Following his assumed pattern of historical development, Vetter opts to define the individual khandhas first (20-73) then the terms upādānakkhandha and khandha (73-82). He notes that outside of this context several of the terms have other uses and are defined accordingly. This is common in Buddhist literature. Sometimes context is all important in deciding how a word is being used. 

Vetter relies on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) for his definitions because it is "the only passage in Vinaya- and Sutta-piṭaka where an attempt has been made to 'define' all five items" (19). It will soon be apparent why this source is problematic, but in advance Vetter notes that the sutta is "late" according to his understanding of the development of the terminology (it uses the term upādānakkhandha). It's not clear what "late" means here (since Vetter has already asserted that the use of upādānakkhandha predates the use of khandha) and, as I noted, this is not connected with any of the descriptions of the chronological stratification of the suttas. This brings to mind Jan Nattier's quip about textual stratification:

"If I like it, it's early; if I specialise in it, it's very early; if I don't like it at all, but it's in my text, it's an interpolation." (2002: 49)

Vetter gives some obvious caveats—the text could be late, it is stylistically different, and definitions are inconsistent (19). Still, when it comes down to it, Vetter starts with this text and is much less critical than I would like him to be.


Vetter's definition of rūpa is the shortest of his book, which is focussed more on saṅkhāra and viññāna. I think this is a little unfortunate because some important nuances are lost in the process. Vetter (20) notes that rūpa is often defined with respect to the verb ruppati "harm, suffer". This definition is confused, precisely because of the passage found in the Khajjanīya Sutta which relates the five nouns that make up the khandhas to five verbs ostensibly from the same root. Abbreviating, we get:

Ruppatīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘rūpa’nti vuccati... Vedayatīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘vedanā’ti vuccati... Sañjānātīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saññā’ti vuccati... Saṅkhatam abhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati...Vijānātīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘viññāṇa’nti vuccati. (SN III.86-7)
It harms, monks, therefore it is called "form", it feels, therefore it is called "feeling", it perceives, therefore it is called "perception", it constructs the constructed, therefore it is called "construct", it cognizes, therefore it is called "cognition."

Even with only my English translation anyone can see that something is wrong here. There is a pattern and the rūpa passage does not conform to it. The reason is that someone has misread the text. It is simply incorrect to derive rūpa from √rup "to break, to harm", which has a indicative form ruppati (Skt rupyati; causative ropayati). Compare a similar passage in the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra:

tathā hi śāradvatīputra yā rūpaśunyatā na sā rūpayati | yā vedanāśunyatā na sā vedayati | yā saṃjñāśunyatā na sā saṃjānāti | yā saṃskāraśunyatā na sābhisaṃskaroti | yā vijñānaśunyatā na sā vijānāti | (Karashima et al. 2016, 21r–v).

“Therefore Śāriputra, what is empty of form does not form; what is empty of feeling does not feel; what is empty of perception does not perceive; what is empty of willing does not will; and what is empty of cognition does not cognise.”

Here, instead of a verb from √rup we find the denominative of rūpa, i.e. rūpayati "appears, forms". The expected Pāli form—rūpayati or rūpeti—does not occur in the Nikāyas. Examples of denominatives from Warder's Introduction to Pali (316-7) include sukheti "he is happy" (from sukha "happy"), tīreti "he accomplishes"  (from tīra "river bank, shore"), and udāneti "he speaks joyously" (from udāna "a joyous utterance") This tautological definition of rūpa does fit the pattern noted above: "it appears, therefore it is called appearance."

It's not just that rūpa is unrelated to ruppati but that the definition of rūpa in the Khajjanīya Sutta makes no sense. Vetter calls the Pāḷi etymology "doubtful" (20) but it's just wrong and it is not clear why he prevaricates on such an obvious mistake. However, this text does a lot of heavy lifting in his definition of rūpa. In fact, Vetter's understanding of rūpa as "body" appears to be based mainly on the Khajjanīya Sutta where, having mistakenly equated rūpa with ruppati, "harming", the text continues to ask "by what is it harmed? (kena ruppati). The answer is: 

sītenapi ruppati, uṇhenapi ruppati, jighacchāyapi ruppati, pipāsāyapi ruppati, ḍaṃsamaka-savātātapa-sarīsapa-samphassenapi ruppati. (SN III.86)

It is harmed by cold. It is harmed by heat. It is harmed by hunger. It is harmed by thirst. It is harmed by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and snakes.

Note that Bodhi (2000: 915) has opted to translate ruppati here as "deformed". One can see that he is trying to pun on rūpa as "form" but this falls flat in my view. Clearly this text suggests that rūpa means "body" and Vetter appears to rely on this text as his main support. But we've just shown that the author of this text was confused. This text is wrong about the definition of rūpa as ruppati (rather the rūpayati). The issue of what is harmed is not relevant given that "harm" is the wrong word. The question is what appears? In which case, why should we take this text seriously, let alone as definitional? Even with scripture, one has to evaluate the quality of sources. Not all suttas were created equal. 

Worse, Pāli has a number of words for body and Vetter says:

"[rūpa] was probably preferred to other words for body such as kāya, deha or sarīra, because it showed the body as attract to the eye, and as such causing attachment." (2000: 20. Emphasis added)

The etymological confusion notwithstanding, this is a poor explanation. This is a central Buddhist doctrine. Vetter has to guess at the meaning here precisely because this important and oft-used term is not defined by early Buddhists themselves and is not drawn from other religious teachings (unlike saññā, saṅkhāra, and vijñāna). But I think here he has guessed wrong. 

Rūpa doesn't primarily mean "body" and, as Vetter notes, there are a number of words that are consistently used in this sense (kāya, deha, sarīra) although curiously "body" is a derived sense the case of  kāya "collection" and deha means "moulded". The etymology of sarīra is not clear. Generally, rūpa means "outward appearance" and early Buddhists used words for body when they meant body. For example, the sense of touch has body (kāya) as its organ and tangibles (P. phoṭṭhabbā; Skt. spraṣṭavya) are its objects.

In sensory terms, rūpa is to the eye what sound is to the ear, i.e. it is not the matter or substance of an object but the visual stimulus that reaches the eye considered independently of the object. Even though we may say "I hear a conch", we know this is shorthand for "I hear the sound of a conch". We don't hear the object, we hear the sound it gives off. Similarly rūpa as sense object is the visual impression that the object gives off not the object itself. This aspect of Buddhist epistemology is thoroughly confused across the board of Buddhist exegesis. 

Of course the context here is different. It is possible for rūpa to mean something else, but it strikes me as unlikely that it means "body" in any context. Vetter's argument is based on misreadings and guesses which does not inspire confidence. 

Sue Hamilton also translates rūpa as "body"; however, she adds: "It is not the matter of the body qua matter that is relevant, but that one's body is the physical locus of one's experience" (2000: 72) and "A central feature of the body is that it is the locus of the senses, which further emphasises that what is being referred to here is the living functioning body and not just its substance" (73). 

There is a question here regarding the nature of experience as understood by moderns and ancients. See for example my 2012 essay, The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor. It seems entirely natural in the modern Anglosphere to think of experience as occurring in a "theatre", as being internal to us and contained in our minds. This also a cognitive metaphor: THE MIND IS A CONTAINER. What I argue in that essay is that Pāli texts lack this metaphor. I have not seen any evidence that they had the metaphor of the body as container either, certainly not of experience. Here I think Hamilton's approach is problematic. It seems so obvious and intuitive to us what kind of thing that sensory experience is. But our views are socially conditioned and not as natural as we think. I'm not convinced by the "locus of experience" idea. But I also think it's an open question: my blog posts are fairly thorough but not peer-reviewed. I aim for them to be topics of serious discussion, not definitive statements.  

Part of the reason for taking rūpa to concretely mean "body" is that it is said to be composed of body parts. In Buddhist meditations, such as found in the Satipaṭṭḥāna Sutta (MN 10) or the Kāyagatāsati Sutta (MN 119), one contemplates rūpa in the body by imaginatively noting all the constituent parts including things like viscera and bones (one cannot directly experience one's viscera or bones, for example, so the practice must be imaginative). But note here that it is kāya (literally "the collection") that is treated thus, not rūpa. We've already seen that Buddhist definitions of jargon terms are highly context dependent. So the idea that a definition or understanding  of kāya is directly applicable without any caveats to a definition of rūpa in a whole different context is dubious at best. Both authors have made a rather devious manoeuver here and have hidden it with hand waving. 

Vetter and Hamilton (at much greater length) also observe that rūpa is defined as the four great elements, i.e. catumahābhūta: paṭhavī, apo, tejo, vāyu or  earth, water, fire, and wind. Here it is definitely rūpa in the context of the khandhas that is defined and we are back on track. Still, as Noa Ronkin points out: 

"[the elements] are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality" (2005: 56). 

Rather the words are used metaphorically for aspects of experience. Earth represents solidity; water, fluidity and cohesion; fire, heat; and wind, movement. The temptation to read the mahābhūtas as synonymous with the Greek four element theory is strong, but early Buddhists were not theorising about metaphysics as the Greeks were. Strangely, given the thesis of her book, Hamilton notes the metaphorical use but seems to stop short of acknowledging the implications of it - i.e. that kāya does not appear to mean "body" in this context. It may at best mean the experience of body or embodiment. 

Generally speaking, then, rūpa is not an ontological term; it is an epistemic term. It refers to the visual appearance of objects, not to objects per se, nor to the matter they are made of (on which subject the suttas are silent). And most dictionaries seem to take this view also. On the other hand, some Pāli suttas clearly do use rūpa as a ontological term and consider it to mean "body", although this is associated with a mistaken folk etymology of ruppati. And this definition has crept into dictionaries as well. 

Vetter's definition of rūpa as "body" is an inauspicious beginning because it means that he leans into the idea of rūpa as "substance" rather than rūpa as "appearance". In fact he specifically rejects the definition as "visible form" (20). Where the word rūpa is equated with "body" is precisely where it is confused with Pāli ruppati in exegesis. And this mistake is not repeated in some other occurrences outside the Theravāda tradition. 


It's worth repeating that the khandhas are never clearly defined in the early Buddhist texts. One of the partial definitions is either based on a misreading (rupyati "harm" for the denominative rūpayati "appear") or it is a tautology "appearance is that which appears". Either way this is not helpful. That scholars conflate definitions and overlook context when it is convenient is not helpful either. Both Vetter and Hamilton make the issue seem more clear than it is. The one thing it seems rūpa cannot be is the body as substance. Whether Hamilton's reading of body as "locus of experience" is what was intended is moot, but I have doubts how this would fit the context since the relevant cognitive metaphor is missing from Pāli as far as I can tell.

Another problem I have with rūpa qua body, is how anyone can think that body makes a set with vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, and viññāna. The body and four terms concerned with mental functioning. Some Buddhists make an analogy with the term nāma-rūpa "name and appearance". However, as I pointed out in 2011 in my essay, Nāmarūpa, this term too is vague and can't really serve as an anchor for other definitions. The Pāli tradition is conflicted as to what constitutes nāmarūpa, a term borrowed from late Vedic literature. Furthermore, Buddhists more characteristically used a threefold division of the person into body, speech, and mind (kāya, vāca, citta) and speech does not easily fit into the khandha analysis (note the threefold division does not occur in Vedic literature, but it does occur in pre-Buddhist Zoroastrian literature). In addition, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, and viññāna are all epistemic terms (in Buddhism) and if there is any pattern then rūpa should also be an epistemic term, i.e. appearance rather than substanceThe set of khandhas cannot possibly accommodate "all phenomena" even if many Buddhists consider this plausible based on a very old tradition. Even if we follow Hamilton and reduce the scope of early Buddhist interest to just experience (as opposed to reality), there is still an explanatory gap between rūpa and the other four khandā (and missing vāca).

How do we know we have a body? Because we feel it and see it. Note that when these two channels of information get out of sync we have out-of-body experiences as Thomas Metzinger described in The Ego Tunnel. Feeling and seeing are sensory experiences. So our awareness of our body, as with all other instances of intentional awareness is subjective by definition. Moreover, one of the most common altered states that occurs early in meditation is that our sense of embodiment is affected. The body may feel very large, for example, or very light. Or we may lose our sense of being located in space. As we go deeper we may lose our sense of being extended or bounded in space. 

Later Buddhist traditions notwithstanding, I don't think "the body" can be what is meant by rūpakkhandha. I keep coming back to the basic idea that rūpa is to the eye what sound is to the ear. Clearly rūpakkhandha is some kind of abstraction or metaphor (perhaps a metonym) based on this idea. Lacking a clear definition, Buddhist traditions drifted into various interpretations based on the needs of sectarian doctrinal entailments. Making sense of rūpakkhanda may well be impossible given what we have to work with, at least in terms of first principles. The idea that it must make sense is plausible enough and I'm sympathetic to it, but it should be not become a defence of procrustean efforts to force the definition to fit. Similarly, I'm sympathetic with attempts to reverse engineer what kind of thing rūpakkhanda might be based on the hermeneutics of later, but still ancient, exegetes. But we cannot discount the possibility that they were just as much in the dark as we are. And we have to take into account that in the ancient world exegetes were firmly embedded in sectarian doctrinal systems. 

This level of confusion of terminology, definition, and application so close to the centre of Buddhist orthodoxy is fascinating. And it makes me wonder why I seem to be almost alone in being fascinated by it. I'm reading two professional academics on the subject (writing 20 years ago!), both of whom were trying to smooth over the inconsistencies and present what's in the suttas as a coherent discourse. But that is the job of theologians or religieux not the job of academics! Why are they not studying the content of the texts critically? This seems very weird to me. 

Next up the other khandas, but I haven't even started yet so don't hold your breath. 


Attwood, J. 2018. "Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass." Contemporary Buddhism, 18(3): 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959
Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. 
Gombrich, Richard F. 1996. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London, Athlone. Reprint New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2007. 
Hamilton, Sue. 1996. Identity and experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental.
Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. University of Chicago Press.
Ronkin, Noa. 2005. Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge.
Vetter, Tilmann. 2000. The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas. Wien Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
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