Physics and Buddhism: 4 elements and rupa kalāpa

I am in the middle of writing a book called Physics and Buddhism. I have a bachelor’s degree in Physics from National University of Singapore.

I have some materials on this topic of 4 elements, but I find it hard to find parallels between rupa kalāpas in Buddhism claiming to be the smallest particle yet still have colour, smell etc.

Colour wise, wavelength of visible colour is actually bigger than atoms. So going at atomic size, we cannot see colours anymore.

Smell is molecules triggering the nose receptor.

Both atoms and molecules are certainly not the smallest thing there is.

So anyone got any ideas, solutions or metaphysical reason for not trying to understand rupa kalāpas in terms of current basic science?

Note that the knowledge of the wavelength of visible light and the nature of smell is unlikely ever to change due to any future paradigm shift in science.


Vanna (color) Gandha (odour), Rasa( taste) are present in each momentary kalapa, but one isolated kalapa doesn’t arise. They arise in groups, many.


Namo buddhaya. Rupa kalapas have nothing to do with physics (in its western sense) of elemental particles, or even with matter in the scientific sence. Kalapas are based on phenomenological analysis of that scope of phenomena, which can be termed as “rupa”, being a mere useful tool for grouping rupa-dhammas of Dhammasangani. Dhammas are just elements of bare experience itself without any “classical” dichotomies being added beyond strict description of experience as it appears [for a purified mind], including dichotomies of “only-consciousness vs. only-matter”. In other words, attempts to extrapolate western materialistic concepts on tipitaka’s rupa-dhammas will always fail, since the epistemology of each group-of-terms is very different to the point of non-comparability. “Colour” means actually experienceable-phenomenon-of-visibility-itself, and can be found even in smallest particles of matter (which can be seen only with dibbacakkhu, of course). I cannot go further on this point here, I would just recommend to study some principles of phenomenology, since it is the closest western counterpart of the method we see in tipitaka’s epistemology (especially in Abhidhamma), and the difference between paramattha-dhammas and paññatti-dhammas.

At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the all. Listen to that….

“And what, bhikkhus, is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.

“If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus: ‘Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all’—that would be a mere empty boast on his part. If he were questioned he would not be able to reply and, further, he would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, that would not be within his domain.”


That’s part of why a lot of Buddhists are losing faith in Buddhism, like a lot of Sri lankans after learning some science, sees that the materiality as described in classical Theravada is not the same as what is taught in science.

One idea I have now is that there’s the world of gross materiality which physics can measure, and there’s a subtle level of materiality, which only divine eye, or meditators can experience.

We cannot see subatomic particles, but via the instruments we have in science, we converted their signal to our 5 physical senses, mainly sight, as in records of what is observed in particle colliders and we use mind sense to piece together what smashed.

The issue here is that if divine eye doesn’t see subatomic particles of physics, then could it be just some form of mass delusion (on the part of meditators) from the point of view of those who doesn’t hold the concept of subtle materiality?

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Again: even if you see (including literally with eyes) whatever particles of the modern science via some tech. means, even in the most elementary particle, rupadhammas there still can be experienced , which may be then grouped in various kalapas (lit. “groups”) ((again, kalapas are not something different from rupadhammas listed in Dhammasangani, but just particular ways to group them according to frequency in this or that specific piece of materiality)) It is not about atomism. If one were try to think of rupadhammas as of something beyond the bare giveness-of-experience, it will be only papañca, since (paramattha) dhammas are just most basic elements of experience regardless any “logic” systems upon it, be it “realism-materialism” where one is believed to be able to analyse fully separate “external world” (the field of scientific believes), or be it “idealism”, where everything is believed to be only of mind, meaning that there is nothing beyond it and that the mind itself creates all, or whatever else. Theravada is interested only in the phenomena as they appear (I’ll repeat: regardless any attempts to “explain” those via some ultra logic system with “proved postulates”), since they are the problem itself, because any elements of experience bear the marks of anicca, anatta and dukkha, and it’s precisely enough for the task to be done (attaining Cessation). And again notice: that being said, it doesn’t mean that we reject or accept any extremes, and it is not a form of idealism, since we don’t make any “logic deduction” of kind like “everything is just mind (experience) and there is nothing beyond”, we just abstain from such “need”, and work within the safe epistemologic zone in the middle, i.e. just descripting what appears as it appears in the way, which can bring about vipassana-ñanas and further destructions of the defilements, i.e it is yoniso manasikara, and the main point of the simsapa sutta.

Anyways, strictly speaking, you cannot really decisevely “prove” something beyond the phenomenological epistemology, it was pretty clear even to the western philosophy (starting from Pyrrho and ending with Derrida, via Hume in the middle), thinking is just endlessly hindered by itself (for more: see the principles of Pyrrhonism, for example).

What are you trying to do is not completable within the theravada’s epistemology, and one can “lose faith” only in the case of making wrong connections between the two doctfines, but I’ll again say: the one doctrine doesn’t reject another, they are just based on completely different foundations and complete different tasks, having different goals. It is like comparing the sky and a tea thermos only because they are blue in colour, or something like that. I would again recommend to read books on definition of paramattha dhammas, at least, for example, the first chapters of “Manual Of Insight” by Mahasi Sayadaw.


My Phd was in science education. Not physics though, that was for the smart ones. :slight_smile:

I said to my 10 year old recently, now that he is learning science, that I have always been impressed that science was able to develop models - the various depictions of ‘atoms’ - that align in some ways with what the Dhamma says about material phenomena. We learn about electrons and neutrinos and what not, and how atoms are incredibly tiny: the concepts of physics taught in school. It does sound similar to kalapas…

But science still thinks these atoms while changing still last, they have a permanence.

These scientific models are not so easy to visualise accurately. Do we imagine the old planetary models with electrons whizzing around the core? or we try to see something more sophisticated? Still hard to picture isn’t it.
The nature of kalapas is also hard to grasp - but we know they arise and pass away instantly, they are not different from their charateristics. They can be known directly in the sense that right now color is appearing or hardness or sound…Insight can begin a little to see about the nature of rupa.

see this topic also

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Then you haven’t read enough physics.

Atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons.

protons, neutrons are made of up and down quarks.

Electrons and the quarks are in the most elementary particle lists we have now and are firmly within the quantum realm.

In the quantum realm, quantum foam can and do arises from the vacuum. For a short period of time, virtual particle-antiparticle pairs arises and disappears. The more massive they are, the shorter the time they can exist for.

and these virtual particle pairs do interact with the real particles. What we see on the experiment is the average interaction results of all these chaotic fluctuations.

So an electron inherently already is interacting with virtual positrons, and electrons and all the possibilities from the quantum foam.

quarks are so bounded up in interactions that if we try to separate them out of protons and neutrons, we need to put in so much energy that new quarks are created to hide them in hadronic particles.

At this subatomic realm, there’s no notion of colour, smell, taste, as these are more concepts applicable at the molecular levels. This is much smaller.

So whatever the meditators sees as colour of kalāpas are not actual photons from physics. Or else the easiest way is to map kalāpas to molecules.

there’s no classical picture of quantum due to the uncertainty principle. Position and momentum are unable to be pinned down exactly at the same time.

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I don’t think so either. :slight_smile:
We might believe photons are absolutely real - but are they not still representations, sophisticated models?
I agree with ven.Dhammanissita:

one can “lose faith” only in the case of making wrong connections between the two doctfines


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What do you think when you see the word photon?

It’s directly visible as in visible light photon.

Experiments shows that it’s made of electromagnetic waves, can be emitted only in quantum, individual packets. And there’s even equiments which can emit single photons at a time and equipments which can record down these single photons emitted.

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And do these packets of waves last for a period of time? So If i look at a star am I seeing a photon emitted from it?

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yes, you do see many photons arriving from light years away, as many years ago it got emitted from that star.

From the point of view of the photon, it experiences no time. So the moment of it’s production to ending in the retina of us, it’s the same time for it.

But for us not moving at light speed, there’s a finite time limit for the photon.

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So these photons last for quite a long period right, before it/they arrives at earth?

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You’re trying to contrast and say that all matter should be arising and ceasing all the time according to classical theravada?

Well, the photons are not unchanging even as they travel here. The cosmic microwave background radiation, the furthest thing we can see with microwave telescopes was emitted 13.8 billion years ago. If there’s anything which blocks it on the way to earth, we couldn’t see that particular photon. But when it was emitted, the frequency and thus the temperature it represented was much higher. Due to space stretching and accelerating expansion, it has redshifted to microwave frequency. It was once upon a time at the visible light level. So we can imagine many years ago, the whole cosmos was purple, then blue, then green, yellow, orange, red, then fade to infrared and so on.

The photons wavelength got stretched along with space, and lost some energy on the way here.

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Yes according to the Theravada rupa arises and ceases very quickly.

Paññādhammika: Then you haven’t read enough physics

So this was my point earlier. Atoms/photons/subatomic particles, ie.e the representations discussed in physics are incredibly tiny. So in that respect to develop these models that to some degree show this (tinyness)nature of materiality is impressive. It is almost amazing that science could get to this stage.

Yet this understanding is still not at all at the level of the Buddha and ancient monks. Not even close. You mention the ‘photons’ are not unchanging as they travel through space. But rupa ceases instantly, so fast, and new, different rupas, conditioned by the tejo of the last rupas arise.

.> What is the lifetime of a photon? – Physics World.

what are the limits on the lifetime of a photon? That is the question asked by a physicist in Germany, who has calculated the lower limit for the lifetime of the photon to be three years in the photon’s frame of reference. This translates to about one billion billion (1018) years in our frame of reference.

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Depends, at some point it could be just semantics.

According to quantum field theory, there’s only fields. Particles are just energetic excitations on the fields. So if at this location of the photon field, there is enough energy, a photon is said to exist there. And that energy (tejo) according to the dynamics and kinematics, moves to the next location, which we interpret as the particle is moving.

One way if we wish to label things is that one photon ceases at location A, another arises at location B. different photon because of different location, but otherwise properties are the same. Or the same photon moves from A to B. This could be semantics.

Regardless of how it is interpreted, quantum field theory applied to electromagnetism (called the quantum electrodynamics) is one of the best theories we have, it predicts the results of experiments to an astonishing number of decimal points. Some popular writers compared it to measuring the distance from london to new york to within a hair’s breath. Actually should be more accurate, but I didn’t memorize this one.


that sounds better to me :slight_smile:

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What if technology has not caught up to actual small immutable realities?
Quarks are the closest thing… but it does not match up totally. But perhaps there is another level?

In any case. It is best to learn about rūpa first and understand that they are characteristics to be observed in materiality. The color or vaṇṇa rūpa is the only thing that is visible. “if it can be seen… it is color”


If divine eye capable of seeing rupa kalāpas are actually seeing the gross materiality same as physics, chemistry, etc, I would think the best match for rupa kalāpa is molecules, and the claim that it’s the smallest is just due the meditators to not smashing atoms together to produce subatomic particles.

This fits in with the claim that rupa kalāpas split into more of them in digestion. complex carbohydrates split into simple ones.

Subatomic particles is so far removed from chemical digestion that it doesn’t seem to have any casual effect on it.

And visible light is limited to 400 nm wavelength. an atom is about 1 nm in size. what can be seen is surely not subatomic particles. what if it’s higher wavelength em wave? then the rupa kalāpas need to lose a lot of energy all the time? we would be bathed in uv, x ray, gamma ray and the like…

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Divine eye is abhiñña. But seeing kalapa is merely vipassana knowledge.
You should ask your ebt teacher (Ven Ariyadhammika) about the difference and as it relates to kalāpas… He will be able to tell you the Classical way they are different.

I suggest you learn abhidhamma first and watch some videos by Ven Maggavihari on rupa. I also suggest you refrain from writing books until you get more educated in Classical Theravāda. Why not wait 5 years?

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it’s on pause because indeed, the more I learn, the more I know I need to learn a lot more. I had some basic abhidhamma class before, but certainly still need a lot more study into it.

So interesting, I would had thought that any claim to be the smallest would involve supernormal powers to verify, not just Vipassana.