27 January 2023

Reading rūpa (phenomeno)logically

Because I read everything that academics publish on the Heart Sutra, I see a lot of translations of the Sanskrit word rūpa (Chinese: 色). The most common translation of the word is "form", but one often sees it translated as "body" or, especially in relation to Tibetan Buddhism, even as "matter". Even when selecting "form" many translators and commentators appear to have substance in mind. Over the years I've become convinced that this must be incorrect.

I've written about rūpa before, especially in the context of the skandhas, based on extended essays on the khandhas in Pāli found in Vetter (2000) and Hamilton (2000). As I noted in my previous essay, the modern definition of rūpaskandha has been influenced by an ancient mistake in the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79), which related the word to a verb ruppati "to strike" (Skt rupyati), when in fact it was meant to be rūpayati "appearing", a denominative extrapolated from the noun. However, the denominative doesn't occur in Pāli, which may explain the incorrect etymology that follows from ruppati.

In this essay I want to try to show the utility of what I'm now calling a "phenomenological approach". I had been calling it "epistemic", but I realised that the focus is phenomena and the cessation of all phenomena in meditation. The result is certainly a kind of knowledge, prajñā, but the focus is on phenomena and prajñā appears to be context dependent. I believe, but cannot yet prove, that the cessation of experience in meditation, and the subsequent contentless awareness (aka emptiness), were common knowledge in ancient India. Contrary to the perennial philosophy, I do not believe that all religions point to a single truth. Rather, I believe that each sect interpreted contentless awareness in their own way, giving us a multitude of religions all based on one kind of experience, but quite diverse in how they understood the meaning and significance of contentless awareness.

We can begin with dictionary definitions, but in order to understand rūpa we need to see how it is used in context. I will argue that, in a Buddhist context, we should always at least try to understand it in terms of phenomenology. In this view, rūpa always means "appearance" whether visual or across sensory modes.

The noun rūpa refers to "any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour" (Monier-Williams). Mayerhofer (1976: III 70-71) tells us it means "appearance, colour, shape, beauty". According to William K. Mahoney (1998: 247, n.5), the word is based on the verbal root rūp "to exhibit" or "display"; however, there is no such root in W. D. Whitney's The Roots, Verb-forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language. Monier-Williams does include an entry for rūp but states the verb is probably a denominative, which is to say that the verb rūpayati means "to appear; appearing" since, in this case, it derives from the noun rūpa "appearance". As noted there is an unrelated root √rup "to harm" which forms a third person singular indicative rupyati "he/she/it harms" (Pāli ruppati). For example, in the Sutta Nipāta someone who is deprived of kāma is sallaviddhova ruppati "hurt as though pierced by an arrow" (Sn 767).

In Pāli, rūpayati and ruppati became confused. This may be because rūpayati doesn't occur in Pāli until the medieval commentaries began to be composed (likely by people knowledgeable about Sanskrit or, at least, grammar). Around one third of the occurrences of ruppati in the suttas occur in the Khanjjanīya Sutta. I've previously noted that I became aware of this because in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā we find:

yā śāradvatīputra rūpaśunyatā na sā rūpaṃ... tathā hi śāradvatīputra yā rūpaśunyatā na sā rūpayati | (Zacchetti 2005: 393)

Śāriputra, that absence of appearance, is not appearance... since the absence of appearance does not appear.

And the same is true of the other skandhas (vedanā does not vedayati and so on). As it happens this is the line immediately preceding the opening line of the core passage of the Heart Sutra. What comes next is the question "And why is that?" (tat kasya hetoḥ) and the answer is the now famous lines (though in their generally unfamiliar original form ): "For, Śāriputra, appearance is not different from emptiness; " (na hi śāradvatīputra anyad rūpam anyā śunyatā).

Given this as a starting point, we now need to look more closely at how the word is used in a Buddhist context.

Buddhist Usage

The Buddhist account of sensory perception is spelled out in some Pāḷi texts, e.g. The Loka Sutta (SN 12.44):

And what, monks, is the origin of the world. Conditioned by eye and appearances, visual discrimination occurs. The three together are contact. With contact as condition, valence occurs; with valence as condition, desire occurs; with desire as a condition, grasping occurs; with grasping as condition, becoming occurs; with becoming as condition, birth occurs; with birth as condition, aging and death occur: grief, lamenting, misery, depression, and despondency are born. This, monks, is the origin of the world.

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, lokassa samudayo? Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā; taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ; upādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Ayaṃ kho, bhikkhave, lokassa samudayo.

This pericope is repeated for each of the sensory modes.

  • eye and appearance give rise to eye-discrimination
  • ear and sound give rise to ear-discrimination
  • nose and smells give rise to nose-discrimination
  • tongue and tastes give rise to tongue-discrimination
  • body and tangibles give rise to body-discrimination
  • mind and dharmas give rise to mind-discrimination

In the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23) and elsewhere, these twelve items (eye and appearances, etc.) are called āyatana and they are everything (sabbaṃ). In the Pahāna Sutta (SN 35.24), the twelve āyatana are to be abandoned (pahātabba). In terms of understanding, and therefore translating, rūpa, we can see that rūpa stands in the same relation to the eye as sound does to hearing, or the body to the sense of touch. Certainly, in this context, rūpa is not "body".

Note that, for in each sensory mode, there is no consideration of the object being sensed; rather, we have the sensory organ (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) and something (appearance, sound, smell, taste, touch, dharma) that crosses the space between us and the object so that it contacts (phassa) our sensory organ and causes the arising of discrimination (viññāna). Here, then, rūpa is not "the object of perception", it is the medium through which visual objects are perceived.

In modern terms the something, the medium, related to the visual sense, is simply the light reflecting off the object and striking the eye, from which we extract visual information concerning the colour, shape, contrast, edges, etc of the object. While we can think of rūpa as reflected light, it would be anachronistic to use this concept in talking about early Buddhist religious doctrines. The ancient Buddhists do not seem to have thought in terms of reflected light facilitating seeing. Rather they thought in terms of a vague "visual appearance" emanating from the object and striking the eye to create a moment of visual awareness.

Evameva kho, bhikkhave, assutavā puthujjano cakkhusmiṁ haññati manāpāmanāpehi rūpehi (SN IV 201)

Thus also, monks, the uneducated hoi polloi are struck in the eye by pleasant and unpleasant appearances.

If rūpa were the object of perception, then being "struck in the eye by an appearance" (cakkhusmiṁ haññati rūpehi) is not vision, it's a trip to the hospital. There is no object that strikes the eye and gives rise to pleasure.

Corā gāmaghātakāti kho, bhikkhave, channetaṃ bāhirānaṃ āyatanānaṃ adhivacanaṃ. Cakkhu, bhikkhave, haññati manāpāmanāpesu rūpesu; sotaṃ, bhikkhave…pe… ghānaṃ, bhikkhave…pe… jivhā, bhikkhave, haññati manāpāmanāpesu rasesu; kāyo, bhikkhave…pe… mano, bhikkhave, haññati manāpāmanāpesu dhammesu. (SN IV.175)

Monks, "like thieves who attack a town" is a way of talking about the six external senses. Monks, the eye is attacked (haññati) by pleasant and unpleasant appearances; the ear..., nose.., the tongue is attacked by pleasant and unpleasant tastes; monks, the body... the mind is attacked by pleasant and unpleasant thoughts.

From all this we can deduce an important definition:

rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear

This is a general definition of rūpa in a Buddhist context. Making analogies was a very popular method of inferring knowledge in ancient India, so it is fitting that our general definition of rūpa should emerge from an analogy. Rūpa is not, and cannot be "the body", since in this context "the body" is part of the scheme as kāya (literally "a collection") and is in a different category, i.e. the category of sense organs, not the category of sense media. Moreover, rūpa cannot be the object of vision, since the object itself striking the eye does not result in vision, usually the opposite. Rather, we visually know an object (cakkhu-viññāṇaṃ) by seeing the light reflected from it. This reflected light is conceptualised in Pāli as "appearance" (rūpa).

However, this definition raises a problem in terms of how rūpa is used in other terms, notably rūpaskandha and nāmarūpa. In these terms rūpa is traditionally defined as meaning "the entire physical universe" and "the body". And neither of these definitions offers much in the way of coherent interpretation. How can one word mean both "visual appearance" (and definitely not "body" which is kāya), "body", and "the entire physical universe"? My answer is that it cannot. It does not. This interpretation is old, but it misses the point.

So how does the phenomenological reading help here?


As noted in previous work on rūpakkhandha, the traditional definitions are based on incorrect information, especially the folk etymology in the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79). As Sue Hamilton (2000: 70) noted: "there is no text which gives a full and clear account of what is being referred to by the term khandha.". Still, there is another way in which rūpakkhandha is defined, in the Mahāhatthipadoma Sutta (MN 28) that carries a little more weight and is more amenable to metaphysics:

Katamo cāvuso, rūpupādānakkhandho? Cattāri ca mahābhūtāni, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ. Katamā cāvuso, cattāro mahābhūtā? Pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu.Katamā cāvuso, pathavīdhātu? Pathavīdhātu siyā ajjhattikā, siyā bāhirā. Katamā cāvuso, ajjhattikā pathavīdhātu?

Yaṃ ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ upādinnaṃ, seyyathidaṃ – kesā lomā nakhā dantā taco maṃsaṃ nhāru aṭṭhi aṭṭhimiñjaṃ vakkaṃ hadayaṃ yakanaṃ kilomakaṃ pihakaṃ papphāsaṃ antaṃ antaguṇaṃ udariyaṃ karīsaṃ, yaṃ vā panaññampi kiñci ajjhattaṃ paccattaṃ kakkhaḷaṃ kharigataṃ upādinnaṃ. Ayaṃ vuccatāvuso, ajjhattikā pathavīdhātu. (MN I 185)

And what, comrade, is the branch whose fuel is appearance? It is the four great "beings" (bhūtā) and the appearances dependent on them. And what, comrade, are the four great "beings". The elements (dhātu) of earth, water, heat, and wind. And what, comrade, is the earth element. The earth element may be internal or external. And what, comrade is the internal earth-element?

That which is internal to oneself and is hard (kakkhaḷa) or solid (kharigata) when grasped, such as: head hairs, body hairs, fingernails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowel, stomach, excrement

And the proper attitude to all this solidity is

taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā (MN I 185)

This is not mine, I am not this, this is not the essence of me.

This is all usually construed in a metaphysical framework because our Theravāda informants tell us that they believe that it concerns metaphysics (based on their traditional commentaries on the Abhidhamma). This reinforces the sectarian idea that rūpakkhandha is substance generally. As I say, I no longer believe this to be true or even plausible.

A lot of this material comes either from the general Indian background at the time of the second urbanisation (from ca 600 BC onwards) or from Brahmanism. We learn a lot about the conception of the elements from Vedic texts. For example, the idea of the element of tejo "heat", is not simply "fire". Rather, the element of tejo is conceptually connected to actual flames, but also to the sun, anything hot, and digestion. Fire might be the prototype that defines the category, but clearly the category itself is not composed only of "fire". Moreover, the general word for fire is agni (Pāḷi aggi).

This language of prototypes defining categories and membership of the category being based on similarity to the prototype comes from George Lakoff's expansion on Wittgenstein's family resemblances, especially as set out in his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). I've often cited Lakoff's work on metaphors, but his approach to categorisation is useful here. The "beings" (bhūtā) in this view represent prototypes (or models) by which the categories are defined. Earth is the conceptual model for defining solidity, water for cohesion, heat for transformation, and wind for movement. We could still define these in ontological terms (leading to metaphysics), but we can also define them experientially (leading to phenomenology).

For example, if we grasp some hair we will have an experience of solidity or resistance. Hair is an example of "earthiness" because the solidity of hair is analogous to the prototype of solidity, i.e. the earth. Moreover, although Buddhaghosa goes into similar detail about where we experience "earth" in the body (Vism XI.27 ff), it's clear that this is not an ontology (i.e. not an account of real things) and not intended to be an ontology; this is a meditation practice. Making it into an ontology was a project of later Buddhist monks who seem to have completely missed the point (perhaps because they didn't meditate).

This means that we are not forced to read rūpakkhandha (metaphysically) as "the body" as Vetter and Hamilton suggested. We might even say, given comments on rūpa above, that it would incoherent to think of rūpakkhandha as "the body". There is no doubt that we can experience solidity in our body as well as outside it, but our body is not the prototype for solidity, earth is the prototype.

This opens up the possibility of reading rūpakkhandha phenomenologically, in which case the way the word is used ought to reflect the basic meaning, i.e. appearance. I take rūpakkhandha to refer to the "appearance" of sensory experience across the six sensory modes. Here rūpa is a metonym for appearance across the sensory spectrum: appearance, sound, smell, taste, tangibles, and thoughts (rūpa, saddo, gandho, raso, jivhā, phoṭṭhabbo, dhammo).


Like rūpakkhandha, there is a long tradition of treating nāmarūpa as an ontology. In this ontology we divide the world into "physical" and "mental". We have Pāli technical terms for these categories, viz. kāyika and cetasika. These terms are adjectives meaning "concerned with or pertaining to the body (kāyo)" and concerned with thought (ceto). Theravāda exegetes take kāyika to be another metonym for the entire physical world, along with with rūpa. This is a dualistic ontology that simply divides the world into material and non-material. We are quite familiar with this dualistic ontology in Europe, because it was central to our intellectual tradition. For Descartes, for example, this dualism allowed a place for God in an otherwise materialistic universe.

That said, we can make a valid epistemic distinction between what we know about what goes on in our body and what we know about the world. This is the distinction between internal (ajjhattika) and external (bāhirā). The distinction is epistemic because we get different kinds of information from our different senses. Interoception gains us knowledge of our internal physical state, and exteroception knowledge of the external world. We may well infer metaphysical conclusions from such knowledge, but we don't have to. We can think of this as a basic distinction between the kinds of knowledge we can have and how we get it. And, notably, different people infer different metaphysics apparently from the same kinds of experience (especially where meditation is concerned).

Again, we are not forced to read nāmarūpa as an ontology or as rooted in a particular kind of metaphysics. I think we can read rūpa here as appearance also. Note that as a nidāna, nāmarūpa is conditioned by viññāṇa, which I have defined as "discrimination of the object ". I have contrasted this with saññā which is "recognising (and thus naming) the experience". Two different kinds of knowledge, both sharing the etymological root jñā "to know".

In the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) we find a curious variant of the nidānas. In this sutta, viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa, but nāmarūpa is also the condition for viññāna. In the usual presentation of nidāna doctrine as an ontology (a way of dividing up reality) this doesn't make any sense. How can two things mutually condition each other? Conditionality requires the presence of the condition for the effect to arise. If the effect is also the condition for the condition, then conditionality ought to break down. Thus, at face value, in an ontological reading, this sutta is incoherent.

In a phenomenological reading viññāna involves identifying the object of experience from the experience of it. We can do this because the experience has a sui generis quality (or a sabhāva; Skt svabhāva). We know from the inside that greed and generosity are different, that anger and love are different. And such differences are essential to Buddhist soteriology because they influence how we act and, therefore, where we are reborn. This in turn either supports or undermines our attempts to end rebirth (the ultimate goal of all Buddhist traditions). As we know from considering the khandha doctrine, viññāna depends on the appearance (rūpa) of a sensory experience and putting a name (nāma) to it. In a sense ,then, viññāna and nāmarūpa are two different ways of talking about the same aspect of sensory experience.

Another aspect of the ancient account of sensory experience is that when an object is discriminated we name that discrimination according to which sensory mode it occured in:

yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇāṃ tena teneva saṅkhaṃ gacchati. cakkuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇanteva saṅkhaṃ gacchati... (MN I 259)

Whatever condition gives rise to a discrimination, it goes by that name. A discrimination arising on the basis of the eye and appearances, goes by the name "eye-discrimination"...

I think we cannot overstate the importance of this. "Goes by that name" translates saṅkhaṃ gacchati. If, for example, there is a viññāna dependent on cakkhu and rūpa, then the name (nāma) of that is cakkhuviññāna. How do we know that it is a cakkhuviññāna? Because we perceived it via the eye and because it has the appearance of a visual percept. Vision is different from other modes of perception, i.e. vision has a sui generis character than enables us to distinguish visual sensory experience from other kinds of sensory experience.

We may notice that all these doctrines that Theravādins treat as ontologies are simplistic. The idea that just five categories cover all possible phenomena is overly simplistic. The fact is that these doctrines are mostly meditation practices rather than ontologies. They are subjects to contemplate in an attempt to gain liberation, not existential explanations. They all seek to undermine our conviction that sensory experience is the acme of being, because the authors were familiar with the idea of the cessation of sensory experience and possibly with the experience of cessation.

Early Buddhists (and Prajñāpāramitā Buddhists) did not, for example, make much of the contrast between pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences. Clearly there is some discussion of these in relation to karma and rebirth. But the much clearer contrast is between any sensory experience (kāma) and no sensory experience (aka nibbāna, suññatāvhāra).

What the Mahānidāna Sutta appears to argue is that discrimination of the object and its name and appearance are much the same thing. That if they really are two different processes, then they coexist. And this is a phenomenological argument, based on epistemology; it is not a metaphysical argument based on inferences drawn from experience.


In this essay I've tried to make two co-existing arguments. On one hand the traditional interpretation of rūpa is incoherent in many ways, largely because it is misinterpreted as "body" or "substance". This seems to be due to a tendency towards metaphysical speculation in the post-canonical period (and up to the present). On the other hand, a phenomenological reading of rūpa as "appearance" stops short of inferring a particular metaphysics and avoids the kind of incoherence that we see in, for example, Theravāda orthodoxy.

We notably conclude that: rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear.

In a Buddhist context, then, rūpa means "appearance". In modern terms, this amounts to reflected light, but I have tried to avoid the anachronism of attributing knowledge of physics to the Iron Age authors of the Pāli suttas. The translation "appearance" is a much better reflection of the state of their knowledge of the physics of visual perception.

I have tried to show that we can retain this approach to better account for the idea of rūpakkhandha. Here, also, rūpa means "appearance" but in a more general way. And the same applies to nāmarūpa

I believe that this means we are not forced to take the metaphysical speculations of Theravādins, or any other Buddhists, seriously. We can, and I argue that we should, read these passages as concerned with phenomenology in the service of soteriology. Early Buddhists did not speculate about the nature of phenomena or the nature of reality. Because they can, and did, reduce sensory experience to the point where from their point of view it was completely absent (suñña), they were simply not interested (at first) in the nature of experience, they were interested in the implications of the cessation and absence of sense experience in meditation. 



Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago University Press

Mahony. William K. (1998). The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. State University of New York Press.

Mayrhofer, Manfred. (1976) Kurzgefaßtes etymologisches wörterbuch des Altindischen. A Concise Etymological Sanskrit Dictionary. Heidelberg: Carl Winter. Universitätsverlag.

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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