The Buddhist Teaching on Physical Phenomena

by Nina van Gorkom | 2002 | 24,604 words

Rupas by Nina van Gorkom: An explanation about an absolute reality around and inside us....

Chapter 5 - Subtle Rupas Produced By Kamma

The objects which can be experienced through the sense-doors and also the sense-organs themselves are gross rupas, the other rupas are subtle rupas. The sense-organs are produced solely by kamma, not by the other three factors of citta, temperature and nutrition which can produce rupas. There are also subtle rupas which are produced solely by kamma. They are: the femininity-faculty, the masculinity-faculty, the life-faculty and the heart-base. With regard to the femininity-faculty (itthindriyam) and the masculinity-faculty (purisindriyam), which are collectively called bhavarupa or sex, these are rupas produced by kamma from the first moment of our life and throughout life. Thus, it is due to kamma whether one is born as a male or as a female.

The “Atthasalini” (II, Book II, Ch III, 322) explains that birth as a male and birth as a female are different kinds of vipaka. Being born as a human being is kusala vipaka, but since good deeds have different degrees also their results have different degrees. Birth as a female is the result of kusala kamma which is of a lesser degree than the kusala kamma which conditions birth as a male. In the course of life one can notice the difference between the status of men and that of women. It is a fact that in society generally men are esteemed higher than women.

Usually women cannot so easily obtain a position of honour in society. But as regards the development of wisdom, both men and women can develop it and attain arahatship. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Part III, Kindred Sayings about Womankind, 3, § 34, Growth):

Increasing in five growths, monks, the ariyan woman disciple increases in the ariyan growth, takes hold of the essential, takes hold of the better. What five?

She grows in confidence (saddha), grows in virtue (sila), in learning, in generosity, in wisdom. Making such growth, monks, she takes hold of the essential, she takes hold of the better....

The “Atthasalini” (II, Book II, Ch III, 321) explains that women and men have different features, that they are different in outer appearance, in occupation and deportment. But the feminine features, etc. are not identical with the rupa which is the femininity faculty. The “Atthasalini” states:

...They are produced in course of process because of that faculty. When there is seed the tree grows because of the seed, and is replete with branch and twig and stands filling the sky; so when there is the feminine controlling faculty called femininity, feminine features, etc., come to be.... The same is said about the masculinity faculty. The “Atthasalini” (same section, 322) gives the following definitions of the femininity faculty and the masculinity faculty:

Of these two controlling faculties the feminine has the characteristic of (knowing) the state of woman, the function of showing “this is woman”, the manifestation which is the cause of  femininity in feature, mark, occupation, deportment. 

The masculinity controlling faculty has the characteristic of (knowing) the state of man, the function of showing “this is man”, the manifestation which is the cause of masculinity in feature, etc. (See also Dhammasangani § 633, 634 and Visuddhimagga XIV, 58.). 

These two faculties which, as the Visuddhimagga (XIV, 58) explains, are “coextensive with” or pervade the whole body, are not known by visual cognition but only by mind-cognition. But, as the “Atthasalini” (321) states, their characteristic features, etc., which are conditioned by their respective faculties, are known by visual cognition as well as by mind-cognition.

Seeing experiences only visible object, it does not know “This is a woman” or “This is a man”. The citta which recognizes feminine or masculine features does so through the mind-door, but this recognizing is conditioned by seeing. When the commentary states that these characteristic features are known by visual cognition as well as by mind-cognition, it does not speak in detail about the different processes of cittas which experience objects through the eye-door and through the mind-door.

Generally, women like to emphasize their femininity in make up and clothes and men like to emphasize their masculinity. One clings to one’s feminine or masculine features, one’s way of walking and deportment. We should not forget that it is the femininity faculty or masculinity faculty, only a rupa produced by kamma, which conditions our outward appearance or deportment to be specifically feminine or masculine. We take our sex for self, but it is only a conditioned element devoid of self.

Life faculty, the rupa which is jivitindriya, is also a subtle rupa produced by kamma from the first moment of life and throughout life (There is nama-jivitindriya and rupa-jivitindriya. Nama-jivitindriya is a cetasika among the “universals”, cetasikas which accompany every citta.). Since this kind of rupa is produced solely by kamma, it arises only in living beings, not in plants (Plants consist of rupas produced by temperature or the element of heat.). It is a “controlling faculty” (indriya), it has a dominating influence over the other rupas it arises together with since it maintains their life. The “Visuddhimagga” (XIV, 59) states about life faculty (See also Dhammasangati § 635. The Atthasalini (I Part IV, Ch I, 123, 124) refers to its definition of nama-jivitindriya.):

The life faculty has the characteristic of maintaining conascent kinds of matter (The rupas arising together with it.). Its function is to make them occur. It is manifested in the establishing of their presence. Its proximate cause is primary elements that are to be sustained.

Life faculty maintains the other rupas it arises together with in one group, and then it falls away together with them. The “Visuddhimagga” (in the same section) states: 

It does not prolong presence at the moment of dissolution because it is itself dissolving, like the flame of a lamp when the wick and the oil are getting used up....

We cling to our body as something alive. Rupas of a “living body” have a quality which is lacking in dead matter or plants, they are supported by the life faculty. We are inclined to take this quality for “self”, but it is only a rupa produced by kamma. The heart-base (hadayavatthu) is another rupa produced solely by kamma. In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa cittas have a physical place of origin, a base (vatthu). Seeing-consciousness has as its base the eye-base, the rupa which is eyesense, and evenso have the other sense-cognitions their appropriate bases where they arise. Apart from the sense-bases there is another base: the heart-base. This is the place of origin for all cittas other than the sense-cognitions.

At the first moment of life the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi-citta) which arises is produced by kamma. If this citta arises in a plane of existence where there are nama and rupa it must have a base: this is the heart-base, which is produced by kamma. Kamma produces this rupa from the first moment of life and throughout life.

The rupa which is the heart-base has not been classified in the “Dhammasangani”, but it is referred to in the “Book of Conditional Relations” ( Patthana), the Seventh Book of the Abhidhamma. In the section on “Dependance Condition” (Part II, Analytical Exposition of Conditions) it is said that dependant on the five sense-bases the five sense-cognitions arise, and dependant on “this matter” mind-element and mind-consciousness-element arise. “This matter” is the rupa which is the heart-base and the mind-element and mind-consciousness-element comprise all cittas other than the five sense-cognitions (Mind-element are the five-sense-door adverting-consciousness and the two types of receiving-consciousness which are kusala vipaka and akusala vipaka. Mind-consciousness-element are all cittas other than the sense-cognitions and mind-element, a group of ten rupas including the heart-base in Book II, Ch III, 316. As I shall explain later on, from the first moment of our life kamma produces three decads, groups of ten rupas: the bodysense-decad, the sex-decad and the heart-base-decad.).

The “Visuddhimagga” (XIV, 60) gives the following definition of the heart-base (The Atthasalini does not classify the heart-base separately, but it mentions the “basis-decad”):

The heart-basis has the characteristic of being the (material) support for the mind-element and for the mind-consciousness- element. Its function is to observe them. It is manifested as the carrying of them....

The “Visuddhimagga” (VIII, 111,112) states that the heart-base is to be found on dependance on the blood, inside the heart. It is of no use to speculate where exactly the heart-base is. It is sufficient to know that there is a rupa which is base for all cittas other than the sense-cognitions. We may not experience the heart-base, but if there would be no heart-base we could not think at this moment, we could not know which objects we are experiencing, we could not feel happy or unhappy. In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa all cittas must have a physical base, they cannot arise outside the body. When we, for example, are angry, cittas rooted in aversion arise and these originate at the heart-base. If we had not studied the Abhidhamma we would have thought that all cittas originate in what we call in conventional language “brain”. One may cling to a concept of brain and take it for self. The Abhidhamma can  clear up misunderstandings about bodily phenomena and mental phenomena and the way they function. It explains how physical phenomena and mental phenomena are interrelated. Mental phenomena are dependant on physical phenomena and physical phenomena can have mental phenomena as conditioning factors.

The conditioning factors for what we call body and mind are impermanent. Why then do we take body and mind for something permanent? We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (III, Khandha-vagga,  Kindred Sayings on Elements, First Fifty, Ch 2, § 18, Cause) that the Buddha said to the monks at Savatthi:

Body, monks is impermanent. That which is the cause, that which is the condition for the arising of body, that also is impermanent. How, monks, can a body which is compounded of the impermanent come to be permanent?....

The same is said about the mental phenomena (classified as four aggregates or khandhas). We then read:

Thus seeing, the welltaught ariyan disciple (An ariyan is a person who has attained enlightenment.) is repelled by body, is repelled by feeling, by perception, by the “activities” (Cetasikas other than feeling and perception are classified as one khandha, that of the activities or formations, sankharakkhandha.). He is repelled by consciousness. Being repelled by it he lusts not for it: not lusting he is set free. Thus he realizes: ”Rebirth is destroyed, lived is the righteous life, done is my task, for life in these conditions there is no here-after.”



  1. Why can life faculty not arise in plants?
  2. What is the base for citta rooted in aversion?
  3. Does the brain have the function of base for cittas?
  4. What is the base for rebirth-consciousness in the human plane of existence?
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