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Translations of
English form, material object
Pali rūpa
Sanskrit rūpa
(rōmaji: shiki)
(RR: saek)
Sinhalese රෑප (rūpa)
Tibetan གཟུགས
Thai รูป

Rupa or rūpa (Sanskrit; Pāli) 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:


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]

Theravada classifications of rupa-skandha

In the Theravada 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

Existing rūpa consists in the four primary or underived (no-upādā) elements:

  • earth or solidity
  • fire or heat
  • water or cohesion
  • air or movement

Derived matter

In the Theravadan Abhidharma,[3] rūpa is further analyzed in terms of ten or twenty-three or twenty-four types of secondary or derived (upādā) matter. In the list of ten types of secondary matter, the following are identified:

  • eye base
  • ear base
  • nose base
  • tongue base
  • body base[4]
  • visible objects or sights (rupa-ayatana)
  • sound
  • odour
  • taste
  • touch[5]

If twenty-four secondary types are enumerated, then the following fifteen are added to the first nine of the above ten:

  • femininity
  • masculinity or virility
  • life or vitality
  • heart or heart-basis[6]
  • physical indications (movements that indicate intentions)
  • vocal indications
  • space element
  • physical lightness or buoyancy
  • physical yieldingness or plasticity
  • physical handiness or wieldiness
  • physical grouping or integration
  • physical extension or maintenance
  • physical aging or decay
  • physical impermanence
  • food[7]

A list of 23 derived types can be found, for instance, in the Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhammasangani (e.g., Dhs. 596), which omits the list of 24 derived types' "heart-basis."[8]

Mahayana classifications of rupa-skandha

In the Mahayana traditions, rupa-skandha (the aggregate of form) is classified in terms of causal and resultant forms.

  • Causal forms are the elements of earth, water, fire and wind
  • Resultant forms are made from the four elements just mentioned – they include the five sense faculties and their objects, as well as a category called ‘imperceptible forms’


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).


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 StudyBuddhism, Rupa-skanda
  2. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  3. Hamilton (2001), p. 6.
  4. Here, "body" (kāya) refers to that which senses "touch" (phoṭṭhabba). In the Upanishads, "skin" is used instead of "body" (Rhys Davids, 1900, p. 172 n. 3).
  5. The first ten secondary elements are the same as the first five (physical) sense bases and their sense objects (e.g., see Hamilton, 2001, pp. 6-7).
  6. According to Vsm. XIV, 60 (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 447), the heart-basis provides material support for the mind (mano) and mind consciousness. In the Sutta Pitaka, a material basis for the mind sphere (āyatana) is never identified.
  7. The list of 24 can be found, for instance, in the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XIV, 36 ff.) (Buddhaghosa, 1999, pp. 443 ff.; and, Hamilton, 2001, p. 7).
  8. Compare Dhs. 596 (Rhys Davids, 2000, p. 172) and Vsm. XIV, 36 (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 443).
  9. Monier-Williams Dictionary, pp. 885-6, entry for "Rūpa," retrieved 2008-03-06 from "Cologne University" at (using "rUpa" as keyword) and
  10. Siderits 2007, Chapter 3: Non-self:Empty Persons.


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