The Buddha’s Definition of ‘Matter’ (Rupa) (色 – Se4)


The Pali word ‘रूप’ (rupa) is used by the Buddha to describe the entirety of physical existence and the material world, and translates into the Chinese language as ‘色’ (se4), an ideogram that that appears to depict a person kneeling – as in an act of ritualised worship – or a person using the physical body in a manner that suggests the fulfilment of carnal desire. The exact meaning is unclear, but all definitions agree that this ideogram denotes the physical appearance, physical expression, and physical dimension. The top particle looks like a contraction for ‘刀’ (dao1) which would suggest a knife, sword or even a knife-shaped coin used in ancient China (perhaps alluding to something used in the physical world). However, Chinese dictionaries suggest that ‘刀’ as used in ‘色’ stands for ‘人’ (ren2), which, of course, refers to a person or more specifically a ‘human-being’. It maybe that in ancient China a person used a knife (or a sword) in a particular manner (or ‘physical expression’) during religious rituals, and that these two meanings have been preserved in the upper particle. The lower particle is written as ‘巴’ (ba1) and is associated with ‘卩’ (jie2). Whereas  ‘卩’ (jie2) refers to a person kneeling out of respect (as in during a ritual or ceremony),  ‘巴’ (ba1) refers to the use of the body and its senses. This can include the ‘closeness’ associated with sexual relations between different human bodies, but also denotes the entirety of the physical world as experienced through the senses (including the human mind that correlates all this data and makes sense of it). Interestingly, originally ‘巴’ depicted a snake (presumably with ‘two eyes’ that perceive the material world – which enables the snake to successfully navigate the terrain safely). Therefore, the Pali word ‘रूप’ (rupa) as translated into the Chinese language as ‘色’ (se4), denotes the entirety of mind-body perception as it exists in (and through) the material world. This would suggest that ‘mind’ as the Buddha defines it, is not separate or distinct from the material world it inhabits senses, perceives, interprets or projects meaning upon, even though for important and profound philosophical reasons, the Buddha’s definition of ‘mind’ can still be conceptually ‘distinguished’ from the material world it is undoubtedly an intrinsic part of.

The Buddha places matter (rupa) as first within his teaching of the five aggregates, and defines it as being comprised of the four great elements (cattari mahabhutana), which are:

  1. Solidity
  2. Fluidity
  3. Heat
  4. motion

Deriving from the four great elements, the Buddha further explains that matter (rupa) also includes the five material sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, and their corresponding sense-objects in the material world – which include visible form, sound, odour, taste, and tangible things – as well as some thoughts, ideas and conceptions, which exist in the sphere of mind-objects (dharmayatana). (The Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula further states that a human being is comprised of the four great elements plus the further two elements of ‘space’ and ‘consciousness’). Within the received chain of dependent origination (paticca-samuppāda), the Buddha uses the term ‘namo-rupa’ or ‘mind-body’ – to explain that these two otherwise distinctive entities are inherently ‘linked’ or ‘entwined’ at source, and within his schematic of interpreting reality, cannot be considered ‘separate’ in any manner. Namo can also mean ‘naming’ – but is taken here to refer to all psychological processes that interpret the material world, or project meaning onto the material world. This explains why the five aggregates teaching is also referred to within Buddhist thinking as ‘namo-rupa’, or the in-depth and precise explanation of how the mind-body nexus operates in (and through) a material world – irrespective of the fact that the material world is impermanent and forever changing. The point is that no matter what part of the cycle of change the material world is traversing through, a material world is always manifesting itself to the six senses found within Buddhist thought. This would suggest that a material world is present to the senses, even though such a material world is ’empty’ of any substantiality, whilst being interpreted by a mind that is ’empty’ of any permanent self construct, (or that is non-reliant upon any theistic entity or concept). Finally, the Buddha states that in the unenlightened state the mind-body nexus is misinterpreted and misunderstood, (assuming falsely that ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are separate, that personalities or material forms are permanent, or that gods and rebirth literally exist, etc), but that in the enlightened state, the conditionality of everything is correctly understood within its proper context. Attachment (and desire) for sense objects in the physical environment is permanently transcended, and the realisation of ’emptiness’ of mind (through the sustained practice of non-identification with thought) is attained.

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