Rupa, Karma and Dharma


Rupa may be described as attachment, or invested perception in something we’ve judged important to us, something that fulfils a need. This can be a possession, such as your neighbour’s motorcar which you look enviously upon, a piece of fruit you want to eat, or a person, such as a wise master you believe can teach you. All these are shades of delusion.

The mind is constantly grasping at what it perceives to be outside of and separate from itself. It does this over and over, creating tracks in the mind (samskara) which can best be described as habit or expectation. In other words, as you feed a rupa it becomes a permanent attraction, something that you can’t let go of. This may be an addiction, but it also can apply to many other things, such as cognitive rigidity, thinking there’s only one way of doing things. This rupa/samskara creates a state of trance (or sleep) in the mind. By going into this trance we’re really trying to escape suffering (dukkha).

Rupa is habit

Did you ever watch a habit form in your life? Try it, it’s fascinating. If you like computer games try it with the latest one that has just come out. First you enter into the habit voluntarily, it’s fun, recreational, maybe even resourceful. Then after some time you find you can’t stop doing it, it becomes a compulsion, it owns you. You’ll notice you do this when you’re bored. We do something, anything to distract ourselves. Now this is just an example, (you can watch habits form in your own life, it’s a good way to become mindful).

However, the concept of rupa goes much deeper than the formation of daily rituals, it goes right to the heart of who we are. The reason you’re in a body is because you hold a great inner desire for something. You entered into that desire voluntarily, then it took you over, and a body formed around the desire so that you could experience it fully. Now the Buddha isn’t saying it’s wrong to do this, simply this is how things are.

In a sense everything is rupa; everything is habit.

However, from the moment you do this (create your body) you desire escape (another paradox) so now you create death. And since death is the nadir, the lowest point of consciousness you have no choice but to return again to a body. Thus you set in train a vicious circle. Many argue it is only when in the body that we can awaken and so escape the wheel of life altogether.

Meditation is the method the Buddha advocated for this, as well as following the eight-fold path.

There’s a particular type of meditation called Tonglen (from the Tibetan line), whereby the practitioner draws the suffering of others into his/her heart (without become affected by it) and then breathes it out as love. Only very experienced meditators should attempt this as you may unwittingly take on the other people's illnesses.


The idea of karma as we understand it is drawn more from the Indian tradition. The Buddha’s teachings on this represented a very significant break from the past. His teaching is that karma is also something we create, it’s connected with habit formation, and ultimately with rupa, and the concept of the self. From our desires we create our patterns, then we begin to identify with them; ‘I am an honest person,’ ‘I am afraid of heights,’ ‘I am a people person,’ and so forth. This builds layers and layers of self until it completes the story of who we are.

The more we engage in a particular practice the more we ‘grow’ that practice in ourselves.

It's as if rupa, or habit, are tiny 'seeds' that we have planted in the mind which keep showing up in our lives until it seems like they're an intrinsic part of us.

We carry these 'seeds' with us across lifetimes, because we have a need of them, they serve us in some way. They exert a gravitational pull that keeps us earthbound until we learn to let go of whatever it was we planted.

The seed resides in the mind as a kind of first imprinting, then every time it gets activated (by something that reminds the person of the original imprint, usually at an unconscious level) it becomes a little bit stronger, bit by bit, until it becomes a weight on the psyche.

Therefore karma is really the ‘seed’ we carry from life to life that seeks out a certain response to its own yearning, from the kernel of its own need.

The self is a form of rupa

So, we see that we can never pin down or define ‘self’, it’s really a label we give to some vague, nebulous idea of who we think we are. What the self really amounts to is a concept, an idea you have about yourself. It’s not real. Therefore, to get to the ‘real you’ it may be helpful if we can bypass, or put aside this concept altogether. This may not be an easy thing to do, after all we created and live with this concept every day. We falsely believe it’s who we are.

It’s especially not easy for the Western mind, brought up on a diet of sin and sacrifice to grasp. Believing the self to be sinful or bad is really adding to it, rather than bypassing it. And to believe in sacrifice is to introduce the complexity of desiring that which we have now forbidden ourselves.

Let’s use chocolate as an illustration.

To think ‘I want to eat that bar of chocolate’, is rupa, it is a craving. However, to think, ‘I want not to eat that bar of chocolate’ is the same thing. That too is rupa, that too is a craving. It was never about the chocolate, it was always about the wanting. To want to give up some desire is the same as wanting that desire in the first place.


   I want to have X (desire)
   I want not to have X (also desire!)

The Dharma

Beyond this limited sense of the self is Oneness, union with the Origin.

The Buddha never spoke of 'God'. Consequently a lot of people think Buddhism denies the existence of a deity. But this is not necessarily so. It merely refuses to define that which cannot be defined. To do so  would be an attempt to put form on what is formless, timeless, limitless. A Course in Miracles, which is very Buddhist in its thinking does the same. It teaches that the mind cannot fix the mind, only a Higher Power (in this case the Holy Spirit) can. It too refuses to define God other that to say 'God is'.

The Buddha was not talking about nihilism, that nothing exists and you may as well resign to your fate. Unfortunately that’s the way many people in the West view Buddhism. They see the rejection of the self as a doctrine of abandonment, and Buddhism as a kind of a non-religion, a spiritual no man's land.

Buddhism, I believe, is poorly understood by many.

See also:

Zen Meditation

Zen Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths

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Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a persistent one.

Albert Einstein