The Buddhist Analysis of Matter

1. Introduction

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ON THE BASIS of its occurrence in the philosophical terminology of the Pāli canon, at least four meanings of rūpa can be distinguished: Frequently it occurs in the (generic) sense of what is material, and with almost equal frequency in the more specific sense of what is visible — to be more precise, “the sphere of visibility.” Rarely it is seen to figure as a simple substitute for the more specific compound rūpa-dhātu (-loka), which signifies the second of the three planes of existence recognized in Buddhist cosmology — what Mrs. Rhys Davids calls “the realm of attenuated matter” — and with almost equal rarity, as referring to four stages of ecstatic experience, technically and more specifically known as rūpajjhāna. These four may be represented as the generic, the specific, the cosmological, and the “psychological” meanings of the term.

Ācariya Buddhaghosa and Ācariya Dhammapāla, the two illustrious commentators of Theravāda Buddhism, collate as many as nine meanings (attha) in which the term in question is said to occur in the canonical works:

1. rūpakkhandha — the material aggregate

2. sarīra — the physical body of a living being

3. vaṇṇa — color

4. saṇṭhāna — form, figure, configuration

5. kasiṇa-nimitta — the “meditation-object”

6. paccaya — condition, cause

7. sabhāva — nature


The eighth and ninth are what we have introduced as the cosmological and “psychological” meanings. That the number is not exhaustive is recognized by the addition of the word ādi, “etc.”1

Some of these items could, however, be brought under rūpa in the generic sense of matter. Rūpakkhandha (no. 1) is the first of the five components into which Buddhism analyzes the empiric individuality, the other four being vedanā (feelings), saññā (perceptions), saṅkhāra (synergies, formations), and viññāṇa (consciousness). Sometimes it is used in a wider sense to mean the totality of matter (sabbaṃ rūpaṃ).2

It may also be noted that in the Nikāyas sometimes it is used in a subjective sense, too, a usage that does not seem to have been retained in the post-Nikāyan works.3 For the moment, we may overlook this latter usage. Sarīra (no. 2) can be considered as referring to the matter that enters into the composition of a living being.

That rūpa sometimes occurs in the sense of vaṇṇa, color (no. 3), is said to be supported by the oft-recurrent canonical statement cakkhuñ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ,4 “depending on eye and the visible arises visual consciousness.” According to the commentarial exegesis, the visible in this context means color.5 But according to the Dhammasaṅganī of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, color as well as shape, form, or figure constitute the sphere of visibility (rūpāyatana).6 The commentators,7 however, ousted the latter from its traditional domain on the ground that in an absolute sense it was not visible and, as the Sautrāntika school of Buddhism did, explained it as a mental construction “superimposed on the difference of coloration.”8 It is in light of this subsequent development that we need to understand why the term “visible” in the quoted sentence is sought to be interpreted as color.

The mention of saṇṭhāna, form, figure (no. 4), is perhaps in order to recognize one of the general meanings of rūpa. But its mention separate from color (no. 3) is also a logical necessity arising from the above-mentioned development.

For the moment let us confine ourselves to the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and take both items (nos. 3 and 4) as being represented by rūpa in its 3specific sense of what is visible. This, as interpreted in Buddhism, constitutes one of the subdivisions of rūpa in the sense of matter.9

Why rūpa is sometimes used to refer to kasiṇa-nimitta, the “meditation-object” (no. 5), is of course not far to seek. This is a name given to an object that could be profitably used for the practice of concentration that has the attainment of jhāna (absorption, ecstasy) as its end. According to the classical account given in the Visuddhimagga, at the initial stage of concentration the selected object is called parikamma-nimitta, the preparatory image. As the process of concentration gathers more and more intensity there comes a time when the original sensuous object is replaced by its corresponding mental image called uggaha-nimitta, the acquired image. With further progress in concentration, there emerges what is called paṭibhāga-nimitta, the counterimage, which is subtler than the immediately preceding one.10

Image, figure, sign, appearance — these are some of the general meanings of rūpa. And if the object of concentration is sometimes referred to by rūpa, then it is one of these general meanings that comes to our mind.

That rūpa is at times used in the sense of paccaya, condition (no. 6), does not seem to be supported by the example cited, a quotation from the Aṅguttaranikāya, which runs as follows: “Sarūpā bhikkhave uppajjanti pāpakā akusalā dhammā no arūpā.”11 The commentary notes that rūpa in “sarūpā” and its negative “arūpā” should be understood as synonymous with paccaya.12

When the original passage where the sentence occurs is taken into consideration, considerable doubt arises on the validity of this explanation. Therein we find nine similar sentences, each differing only in respect of the first and the last words. Five of them come before the above sentence; they begin with (a) sanimittā, (b) sanidānā, (c) sahetukā, (d) sasaṅkhārā, and (e) sappaccayā, and end with the respective negatives. Four of them come after it; they begin with (f) savedanā, (g) sasaññā, (h) saviññāṇā, and (i) saṅkhatārammaṇā, and end with the respective negatives.13


Commenting on them, the commentator observes that nidāna, hetu, saṅkhāra, paccaya, rūpa in (b), (c), (d), (e), and sarūpā are all synonymous with kāraṇa, reason.14 That nidāna, hetu, and paccaya as used in the Pāli texts carry more or less the same sense is, of course, understandable. But one fails to understand why saṅkhāra and rūpa too should be treated similarly. For one cannot fail to notice here the names of the five khandhas in sarūpā, savedanā (f), sasaññā (g), sasaṅkhārā (d), and saviññāṇā (h). However, it should be noted that in the passage in question the names of the five khandhas do not occur in the same order as they are usually enumerated. For the sentence beginning with sasaṅkhārā does not come between the two beginning with sasaññā and saviññāṇā.

It is to be noted that in respect of savedanā, sasaññā, and saviññāṇā, the same treatment is not given. It is specifically stated that savedanā means “vedanāya sati” — that is, when there is or because of vedanā. And it is also stated that the other two terms (and saṅkhatārammaṇā), too, should be understood in the same manner.15

This explanation fits in well with the context. And it seems to us that sarūpā and sasaṅkhārā, too, should be approached in the same way. That is to say, sarūpā = when there is or because of rūpa, and sasaṅkhārā = when there is or because of saṅkhāra. Viewed in this way, the two terms cannot be understood as synonymous with cause or condition. On the contrary, it shows that the two aggregates, rūpa and saṅkhāra, are causes or conditions in relation to something — that is, the arising of evil and unwholesome states of mind (pāpakā akusalā dhammā).

It is of much significance that in the list of meanings given by Ācariya Dhammapāla, rūpa in the sense of paccaya does not occur. Along with this may be mentioned that in one of the manuscripts collated by the PTS editor of the Aṅguttaranikāya Aṭṭhakathā II, the statement that rūpa and saṅkhāra are synonymous with nidāna, hetu, and paccaya is missing.16

Coming to no. 7, the example cited to show that rūpa sometimes means sabhāva, nature, appearance, is: “Piyarūpe sātarūpe rajjati,”17 “One delights in what is of pleasant nature, in what is of delightful na-5ture.” This is reminiscent of a passage in the Yamaka of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka where, in the form of questions and answers, an attempt is made to unfold and delimit the implications of the term rūpa:

QUESTION: Rūpaṃ rūpakkhandhoti? (Is rūpa rūpakkhandha?)

ANSWER: Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ rūpaṃ, na rūpakkhandho; rūpakkhandho rūpañ c’eva rūpakkhandho ca. (Piyarūpa and sātarūpa are rūpa but not rūpakkhandha; rūpakkhandha is rūpa and is also rūpakkhandha).

QUESTION: Na rūpakkhandho na rūpanti? (What is not rūpakkhandha is not rūpa?)

ANSWER: Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ na rūpakkhandho, rūpaṃ. Rūpañ ca rūpakkhandhañ ca ṭhapetvā avasesā na c’eva rūpaṃ na ca rūpakkhandho. (Piyarūpa and sātarūpa are not rūpakkhandha, but rūpa. Apart from rūpa and rūpakkhandha, the rest are neither rūpa nor rūpakkhandha).18

This catechism is rather enigmatic. At first sight it seems to suggest that the Yamaka has recognized certain kinds of matter (rūpa) that it excludes from the aggregate of matter (rūpakkhandha).

Shwe Zan Aung, while agreeing that rūpa is often used in the sense of matter, refers to this catechism to show that sometimes the term is used to express states of mind. He translates and understands it as follows:

Does [everything that is called] rūpa [belong to] the material group? [The eighty-one worldly classes of consciousness and their concomitants called] rūpa that is “attractive” and “pleasant” are called rūpa, but they do not belong to the material group. The twenty-eight material qualities . . . that 6go to make up the material group are designated rūpa and they belong also to the material group.

[Again,] is anything that does not belong to the material group ever called rūpa? [such is the question.] Things attractive and desirable are called rūpa though they do not belong to the material group. Those things and that group apart, the remainder [namely, the eight classes of transcendental, i.e., lokuttara, consciousness and their concomitants; and nibbāna] are neither called rūpa nor do they go to make up the material group.19

It will be seen that this translation, with our bracketed clarification, explains satisfactorily the whole catechism. It will also be seen that the whole translation has become coherent and meaningful because of the two underlined and bracketed interpretations. To repeat:

1. “Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ” is interpreted to mean the eighty-one worldly classes of consciousness and their concomitants.

2. na c’eva rūpaṃ na ca rūpakkhandho” = “avasesā” (neither rūpa nor rūpakkhandha = the rest) is interpreted to mean the eight classes of transcendental consciousness, their concomitants, and nibbāna.

It is implied that the items in (1) can be described as piyarūpa and sātarūpa, and that the items in (2) cannot be so described.

On the basis of this interpretative translation one could certainly say that in this particular passage of the Yamaka, rūpa is used not only to refer to the material aggregate but also to express states of mind. This same explanation appears in Mrs. Rhys Davids’s Introduction to the Yamaka.20 And Surendra Dasgupta, too, seems to have understood the passage in the same way when he refers to Yamaka I, 16, as an instance where rūpa is sometimes used in a subjective sense.21

There are, however, certain difficulties that militate against such a 7conclusion. At the very outset it should be stated that neither in the Yamaka nor in the commentary is it explicitly said that “Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ” and “avasesā” are to be understood in the same way as they are interpreted above. Could it, then, be taken as implied in the catechism and demanded by the context?

This, too, does not seem to be possible because of more positive difficulties. It may be noted here that in the Nikāyas a wide variety of things, mental as well as material, are described as piyarūpa and sātarūpa22 — a fact pointing to the generality of their usage. Coming closer to the Yamaka: the same situation obtains even in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. In the Vibhaṅga, for instance, we find sixty items enumerated as an answer to the question: What is piyarūpa and sātarūpa? Among them, ten are the first five sense-organs and the corresponding objective fields.23 These ten items, it may be noted here, are included in the rūpakkhandha. It may then be asked that if some items included in the rūpakkhandha are describable as piyarūpa and sātarūpa, why is it that in the Yamaka what is piyarūpa and sātarūpa is completely excluded from the rūpakkhandha?

The question does not arise if the catechism is understood in light of certain exegetical methods pursued in the Yamaka. In unfolding the implications of terms, sometimes it lays emphasis on what appears to be obvious and seems to make more complex what is manifestly clear. The nature of the work is summarized by Nyānātiloka Thera when he observes: “To me it looks, as if this book was composed for examination purposes, or to get versed in answering sophistical and ambiguous or captious questions, on all the manifold doctrines and technical terms of Buddhist philosophy. The questions of identity, subordination, and coordination of concepts are playing a prominent part in our work, which tries to give a logical clearing up and delimitation of all the doctrinal concepts as to their range and contents.”24

Following is an example of how it attempts to unfold the import of the term gandha.

QUESTION: Is gandha the gandhāyatana, the sphere of smell?


ANSWER: Sīlagandha (fragrance of virtue), samādhigandha (fragrance of concentration), and paññāgandha (fragrance of wisdom) are gandha but not gandhāyatana.25

The purpose is to show that gandha in its figurative usage (e.g., paññāgandha) should not be confused with gandha when it stands for smell, the objective field corresponding to the olfactory organ.

To take another example:

QUESTION: Is sota the sotāyatana (the organ of hearing)?

ANSWER: (Yes, but not always, e.g.,) taṇhāsota (the stream of craving) is (also) sota but not sotāyatana.26

Here, both sotāyatana, the organ of hearing, and taṇhāsota, the stream of craving, are called sota because it occurs in both words — although of course sota in sotāyatana is different in meaning from sota in taṇhāsota. In the former it means “ear” and in the latter “stream.” And it is precisely in order to point out this difference that the whole catechism is set forth.

The catechism in question, too, should be understood in a similar way. In this particular context, Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ should be translated not as “things pleasant and desirable” (= Aung) but as “of pleasing and delightful ‘nature’” (= Nyānātiloka).27 Usually (but not always) when Pāli works refer to things pleasant and desirable they use the words yam piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ28 (= that which is pleasant and desirable). But that is not the main argument here. The moment we understand it as “things,” we are at a loss to understand why they are completely excluded from the rūpakkhandha. For, as observed above, in the Vibhaṅga what is included in the rūpakkhandha is also described as piyarūpa and sātarūpa. And it is very unlikely that the Yamaka has deviated from this tradition.

Taking all these facts into consideration, we may then explain the four points of the catechism as follows:


1. Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ (of pleasing and delightful nature or appearance) is called rūpa in the same way as taṇhāsota is also called sota.

2. Rūpa (= Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ) is excluded from rūpakkhandha (material aggregate) in the same way as sota (=taṇhāsota) is excluded from sotāyatana. The exclusion of piyarūpa and sātarūpa from rūpakkhandha is tantamount to saying that the meaning of rūpa in the first two words is different from the meaning of rūpa in the compound rūpakkhandha. In the former it means (of pleasant and delightful) nature or appearance; in the latter, (aggregate of) matter.

3. Rūpakkhandha is called rūpa as well as rūpakkhandha in the same way as sotāyatana is called sota as well as sotāyatana. Here only one meaning of the term is taken into consideration.

4. The last statement: “Apart from rūpa (= Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ) and rūpakkhandha, the rest (avasesā) are neither rūpa nor rūpakkhandha” could be understood in the same way as: “Apart from chairs and tables, the rest are neither chairs nor tables.” The words “the rest” (avasesā), according to this explanation, cannot be interpreted as referring only to the eight classes of transcendental consciousness, their concomitants, and nibbāna. They too are certainly included. But “the rest” means much more — that is, all except rūpa (Piyarūpaṃ sātarupaṃ) and rūpakkhandha.

The explanation we have given here may look strange. But when one considers how the Yamaka seeks to unfold the implications of gandha and sota, strangeness ceases to be a disqualification. Be it also repeated here that neither in the Yamaka nor in its commentary is it stated that “Piyarūpaṃ sātarūpaṃ” and “avasesā” (the rest) should be understood in the same way as they are interpreted in the quoted translation (underlined and given within brackets). Moreover, the present explanation does not contradict but falls in line with the situation that obtains in the Vibhaṅga. The whole purpose of the catechism is to clarify the 10implications of the term rūpa in the compound rūpakkhandha and to avoid its being confused with rūpa as it occurs in piyarūpa and sātarūpa. In fact, the commentary rightly observes that the questions in this catechism are asked for the sole purpose of clarifying the implications of terms — vacana-sodhanatthaṃ.29

We may then conclude that as far as this particular Yamaka catechism is concerned it is not correct to say that rūpa is used to express states of mind.

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