From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Ākāra (T. rnam pa རྣམ་པ་; C. xingxiang; J. gyōsō) is translated as "aspect," "mode," "form," "image," etc.[1] This term has multiple meanings in Buddhist texts.

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics (Vol. 2) states:

aspect (rnam pa; ākāra). Image, feature, way of apprehending. In the case of a sense consciousness, this refers to the image that is transferred onto that consciousness by its objective condition. And in the case of any conceptual or nonconceptual consciousness, it refers to that consciousness’s way of holding its object (i.e., its object as cognized). It may also refer to any feature of an object or subject of awareness.[2]

Birgit Kellner and Sara McClintock state:

The term ākāra literally means shape or form, with a secondary meaning of appearance, aspect, or image. Classical Indian philosophers, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, have long debated the status and role of ākāra in cognition and in consciousness more generally, with major questions including whether the forms in awareness are intrinsic to cognition and whether such forms can be taken as evidence of an external world.
Birgit Kellner’s contribution to this issue thus brings us back to some of the earliest technical uses of the term ākāra in Indian Buddhist Abhidharma and Yogācāra treatises, showing how those usages should not too quickly be conflated with later uses in the logico-epistemological or pramāṇa tradition stemming from Dignāga (ca. 480–540 CE) and elaborated by Dharmakīrti (between mid-sixth and mid-seventh century CE). In particular, she points to another meaning of the term ākāra' found in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (ca. second half of fourth century CE) in which the word indicates “a mode of mental functioning” such that all mental events (citta) and their associates (caitta) can be said to have their own distinct manner of operating.
The term ākāra' plays an important role also in discussions of the path to liberation, as indicated in the well-known rubric of the sixteen aspects (ākāra) of the four noble truths. Although Kellner concludes ultimately that this usage can be seen as a sub-species of the mode-ākāra she has already delineated from the object-ākāra prevalent in Buddhist epistemological use, her search for an “umbrella concept” that would unite these various usages leaves her unsatisfied.
Variations in the meaning and usage of the term ākāra in Buddhist texts is just one of the complicating factors in any thematic study of ākāra across time. Disagreements have most characteristically revolved around the question whether the ākāra of a cognized object—its “form,” its particular way of presenting itself–may be said to “belong” to the external world or more properly to cognition alone. The question seems to have been explicitly raised first in Śabara’s Bhāṣya on the Mīmāṃsāsūtras in the late fifth century, and it continued to occupy thinkers for centuries.[3]

The Rangjung Yeshe Dharma Dictionary defines the Tibetan term rnam pa as follows:

1) type, kind, variety, form.
2) situation, condition, circumstances
3) face, image, look, appearance
4) you [pl], they (h).
5) aspect, [mental] image / imprint, appearance, cognitive image, aspect, attributes, expression, object, observable quality.[4]


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ākāra.
  2. Thupten Jinpa 2020, s.v. Glossary.
  3. Kellner & McClintock 2014.
  4. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg rnam_pa, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki


Further reading

  • Tomlinson, D.K. (2018), "The Tantric Context of Ratnākaraśānti's Philosophy of Mind.", Journal of Indian Philosophy, 46: 355–372 
    "The conflicting positions of the two early eleventh century Yogācāra scholars, Ratnākaraśānti and his critic Jñānaśrīmitra, concerning whether or not consciousness can exist without content (ākāra) are inseparable from their respective understandings of enlightenment."
  • wisdomlib.org, akara