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Rūpa (T. gzugs གཟུགས་; C. se; J. shiki; K. saek 色) is typically translated as "form". It generally refers to material form, including both the body and external matter.

The term rupa is used in the following contexts:

Visible form

As a standalone term, rūpa typically refers to visible forms; that is objects that can be seen using the eye faculty.

Visible forms are also referred to as:


Rupa-ayatana is translated as "visible objects" or "sights".

In the context of the twelve ayatanas, rupa-ayatana refers to visual objects (or objects knowable by the eye through light). This should not be confused with the term "rūpa-skandha" in the context of the five skandhas, which refers to all material objects, both of the world and the body.

Thus, when comparing these two uses of rūpa, the rupa-skandha includes the rūpa sense-object (rupa-ayatana) as well as the four other material sense-objects (sound, odor, taste and touch).


Alexander Berzin defines rupa-skandha as follows:

The network of all instances of all types of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, physical sensors, and forms of physical phenomena included only among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena. Any of these can be part of any moment of experience on someone's mental continuum.[1]

According to Dan Lusthaus, rūpa is more essentially defined by its amenability to being sensed than its being matter: just like everything else it is defined in terms of its function; what it does, not what it is.[2]

Pali tradition

In the Pali Abhidharma tradition, rupa-skandha is traditionally analysed in two ways: as four primary elements (Pali, mahābhūta); and, as ten or twenty-four secondary or derived elements.

Four primary elements

The primary elements are: earth, water, fire and air.

Derived matter

Derived material phenomena (upādāya rūpa) are material phenomena derived from, or dependent upon, the four great essentials. These are twenty-four in number. The great essentials may be compared to the earth, the derivative phenomena to trees and shrubs that grow in dependence on the earth.[3]

The texts of the Pali tradition identify ten or twenty-three or twenty-four types of derived (upādā) matter.

Sanskrit tradition

In the Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition, rupa-skandha is classified in terms of causal and resultant forms.

Sensory qualities

Rūpa means both materiality and sensibility—it signifies, for example, a tactile object both insofar as that object is tactile and that it can be sensed. Rūpa is never a materiality which can be separated or isolated from cognizance; such a non-empirical category is incongruous in the context of early Buddhism.

Rūpa is not a substratum or substance which has sensibility as a property. It functions in early Buddhist thought as perceivable physicality. Matter, or rūpa, is defined in its function; what it does, not what it is.[5] As such, the "four great elements" (mahābhūta) are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic.[6] They are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.[7]

Dan Lusthaus states:

Frequently Buddhist texts substitute the term "sensory contact" (Pāli: phassa, Sanskrit: sparśa) for the term "materiality." This substitution is a reminder that physical forms are sensory, that they are known to be what they are through sensation. Even the earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements (mahābhūta) are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction. Instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.[8]


According to the Monier-Williams Dictionary (2006), rūpa is defined as:

  • ... any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour (often pl.) , form , shape , figure RV. &c &c ...
  • to assume a form ; often ifc. = " having the form or appearance or colour of " , " formed or composed of " , " consisting of " , " like to " ....[9]

Regarding rupa-skandha, contemporary scholar Mark Siderits states:

The literal meaning of rūpa is ‘form’ or ‘shape’, and you will sometimes see the word rendered as ‘form’ in translations of Buddhist texts. But as the name of the first skandha, rūpa actually means ‘that which has form or shape’, that is, anything material or physical. This is one case where it’s best to stick with the Sanskrit original rather than try to come up with an acceptable English translation.[10]

See also


  1. StudyBuddhism icon 35px.png Rupa-skanda, StudyBuddhism
  2. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  3. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Compendium of Matter.
  4. see Khenjuk
  5. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  6. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 184.
  7. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, 2005, page 56.
  8. What is and isn't Yogacara (2018)
  9. Monier-Williams Dictionary, pp. 885-6, entry for "Rūpa," retrieved 2008-03-06 from "Cologne University" at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/monier/ (using "rUpa" as keyword) and http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/cgi-bin/serveimg.pl?file=/scans/MWScan/MWScanjpg/mw0886-rUpakartR.jpg.
  10. Siderits 2007, Chapter 3: Non-self:Empty Persons.


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