Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the suttas
Abstract. Name-and-form (Pali, nāmarūpa) is, according to what you are about to read, the richest part of experience. It is the subjective experience that plays out in each of the five material senses: for instance, that which appears as patterns of shapes and colors on the retina, as sound vibrations on the eardrum, as an aroma in the nose, as a stimulations on the tongue, or as local sensations anywhere in the body. It spans physical sensation and percept.
Name-and-form is further discriminated by consciousness, which locates the percepts as objects, typically giving them ontological status out there in the real world and establishing identities with previously encountered objects. In relation to consciousness, name-and-form stands as evidence of what is “out there.” Many consequences arise from the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form.
Name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) is an important but often poorly understood, concept in the discourses of the Buddha that has given rise to some disagreement in recent decades. Yet it is fundamental. The Buddha spoke in the Jaṭā (Tangle) Sutta, in reference to the entanglement of the worldly mind:
(1) Where name-and-form as well as sense and the designation are completely cut off, it is there that the tangle gets snapped. (SN 7.6)
It is also said of name-and-form that it is “the root of both subjective and objective disease.” (Sn 530)
The Pali word nāma-rūpa is often translated as mind-and-body or mentality-materiality, but we will translate it more literally as name-and-form. It shows up primarily as a causal factor in Dependent Co-Arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), itself an important but often poorly understood account of human experience found in the discourses of the Buddha, generally as the fourth in the standard twelve-linked causal chain.
(2) ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six spheres → contact →
feeling → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering
In the Great Causation (Mahānidāna) Sutta (DN 15), the most detailed description of dependent co-arising in the discourses, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning, that is,
(3) consciousness ↔ name-and-form
In illustrating this relationship in this discourse, name-and-form and consciousness are given patent biological roles in the conception and development of the human organism:
(4) “If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, lord.”
“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)
This particular passage is the primary support for the most traditional understanding of name-and-form, and will be the last taken up in our account. In contrast, the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form in the same discourse is described as a cycle, round or a whirlpool (vaṭṭa) that underlies the entirety of saṃsāric life:
(5) “In so far only, Ānanda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is the range of wisdom, in so far only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” (DN 15)
In a sutta already cited, name-and-form together with consciousness is called “a tangle within and a tangle without” (SN 7.6). Name-and-form is most explicitly defined in the same sutta by listing the constituents of name and of form (SN 12.2):
(6) Name: feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention
Form: earth, water, air, fire and derivatives thereof
We also learn that these factors are involved in a cognitive process, or two mutually conditioning processes, verbal impression (adhivacana-samphassa), driven by the factors of name and sensory impression (paṭigha-samphassa), driven by the factors of form, that together array (give form to) and conceptualize (give name to) sense data.
In another sutta we see that name-and-form is indeed involved in sense perception:
(7) So, there is this body and external name-and-form: thus this dyad. Dependent on this dyad there is contact. There are just six sense bases, contacted through which – or through a certain one among them – the fool experiences pleasure and pain. (SN 12.19)
More commonly contact is defined as based on the duality of sense faculty – eye, ear, etc. – and sense object – visual form, sound, etc. –, that consciousness arises dependent on these two, and that contact is the co-occurrence of these three. Body, in this context, appears to stand for any or all of the sense faculties, so external name-and-form seems to stand for any kind of sense object.
I will return in the course of this essay to each of these examples, after we get a better experiential handle on just what name-and-form is.
What is name-and-form?
The expression name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) seems to have a pre-Buddhist origin in the Rg Veda and in the early Upanishads, and specifically in the brahmanic jātakarman ceremony, in which a father gives a name to his newly born son.1 Here form represents the outward appearance of the son, and name the father’s designation for his son. The ceremony thereby confers a conceptual status upon the son which is said to complete the son’s creation out of the formless chaos. Notice that, although this use of name-and-form is connected with birth and creation, its task is conceptual; in particular it does not refer to the body and mind of the son, but to how the son is understood from without.
The position of this paper is that name-and-form is best understood as the most immediate, intimate, rich and vivid part of conceptual sense experience. The closest example at hand is the conscious visual experience of the reader as you perceive this page, or, if you will now look out an available window, your visual experience as you behold what is seen there. Name-and-form might also be an audible experience, perhaps of music, traffic or birds, or a gustatory, aromatic or tactile experience. In each case, it is a rich and dynamic sense experience, including raw sense data but also alive in pursuit of comprehension. We have experiences that are not name-and-form, such as a sudden inspiration or a step in a reasoning process, but these lack this immediate, intimate, rich and vivid quality of name-and-form; they are more anemic.
Cognition within name-and-form. As I look out at, say, a forest – consciousness has alighted there – certain physical elements touch my eye faculty, experienced as vibrant colors, shapes and movements. Sensory impression is based on identifying the traditional fundamental elements of the physical world: earth or solidity, water or liquidity and cohesion, fire or heat and cold and process, air or motion, and compounds of these four elements and their properties, such as colors and shapes. The Pali for sensory impression, paṭigha-samphassa, also translates as impingement contact and suggests the impact of a physical force. We can understand this as beginning with raw sense data.
Verbal impression begins as feelings arise alongside colors and shapes. Specific objects emerge as perceptions, for instance tree trunks, leaves, rabbits ahoppig, and bluebirds aflittering. My present volitional task – maybe I am a hunter, intent on prey, or a birdwatcher, binoculars in hand, or a fire lookout – provides an overlay, tending to bring certain objects to the fore, such as bunny, bluebird or a billowing smoke. As a result, the eye will then make contact with that object such that consciousness then alights there. Attention induces further analysis of the particular object and the process repeats itself, in this example with a narrower focus that backgrounds the rest of the forest that constituted a previous name-and-form. The suttas tell us, “All things have attention as their origin” (AN 8.83), or as Ñāṇānanda2 puts it, “Attention is the discoverer of ‘the thing’.” Contact and attention, conditioned by volition, are also noticeably augmented by bodily movement perhaps with respect to all five physical senses. For instance, as the eye itself moves to establish contact, the head turns or the entire body turns around with attention. These movements are probably both voluntary and involuntary.
Now, these cognitive processes not only shape the content of name-and-form, the way they play out is the sense experience of name-and-form itself. Recall that name and form are defined in terms of these factors, as repeated here.
(6) Name: feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention.
Form: earth, water, air, fire and derivatives thereof.
Name-and-form is not simply a static result of the processes of verbal impression and sensory impression, but is alive, typically at once, with all of the factors that constitute name and form as the elements of the complete sensual experience, raw matter and our ways of relating to it. In fact, the description of the interaction between the name and the form components is quite elegant.
(8) “If those various characteristics by which name were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of verbal impression with regard to form?” “No.”
“If those various characteristics by which form were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of sensory impression with regard to name?” “No.”
“If those various characteristics by which both kinds were conceived were absent, would there be any corresponding discernment of either verbal or sensory impression with regard to name?” “No.” (DN 15)
In short, form can discern nothing without name and vice versa. Even the four elements cannot be discerned on their own account. As a former cognitive scientist, I found this quite insightful when I first encountered it; in fact it reminded me of computational architectures in artificial intelligence in which quasi-independent parallel processes communicate and constrain themselves according to each other’s intermediate results. It has been pointed out3 that the resulting complex interdependence between name and form, undermine the alleged dichotomy between the physical and the mental, since neither is here independent of the other.
Hamilton4 calls name-and-form the structure of the cognitive system. Indeed, it seems self-sufficient in this way. Now, much of what happens within name-and-form is also found outside of name-and-form in the description of the standard chain of dependent co-arising, which itself includes name-and-form as a primary factor. Feeling and contact are directly named as factors in the chain. Perception is found in a side-branch of dependent co-arising that splits at feeling. Volition is related to the fabrications and to craving. And attention is described elsewhere as a factor of consciousness also conditioned by craving. Many of these same processes are also found in descriptions of the sense spheres. Each of these three contexts seems to contain a self-sufficient cognitive system. I think of these as not really separate systems, but simply different contextual perspectives on the same apparatus. What follows should make that clearer.
Examples. Illustration 1 allows us to observe the dynamic unfolding of the name-and-form experience in slow motion, simply because it is a difficult image to process. This is a photograph of an entity abundantly familiar to all, but in which light and dark colors are sharply contrasted. The sensory impression of form is simple, just black and white earthy areas contacting the retina, no motion, no heat, no liquidity, for it’s a still image. Feeling arises; the sharp contrast in shading might seem initially somewhat ominous. We perceive the area as an image, but then perception typically balks. We might observe ourselves speculating whether certain shapes are recognizable objects: For instance, is that a clenched fist holding some small object reaching from the upper right corner? Volition is also in play, for the introductory remarks are likely to be taken by the reader as a challenge to succeed in recognizing what the heck this is a picture of. The volition also drives contact and attention, tracked as the eye moves quickly from one region to another looking for something recognizable. Moreover, we can watch the interplay of the processes of verbal impression and sensory impression as we alternatively work bottom-up from the raw image data itself, or top-down from the concepts we might impose. If perception should succeed in isolating the mysterious entity depicted, contact will occur with attention focused then on the now apparent entity, intent on perception of further properties.5
Another, particularly prominent and almost continuous, example of name-and-form is the awareness we have of our own bodies. This has many components: Our tactile sense is aware of impingement with the surface of our skin, which can be fairly passive, but also active, for instance, as we explore the surface of something in the dark by running our fingers over it. Our tactile sense reports on touch, tingling, pricking, itching, hot and cold, and so on. Our kinesthetic sense tracts the positions of the parts of the body in three dimensions. We are also able to monitor the functioning of various internal organs in terms of muscle tension, heat, fullness, nausea, a sense of suffocation, and so on. We discover all of the four elements of form. With regard to name, feeling is a particularly prominent component as the first indicator of distress in the body. Perception can identify tactile sensations, or diagnose particular problems in the state of the body. Volition may vary as we make particular demands on the body, for instance to perform at a high level during a work-out, to look good on social occasions or to recover from an illness. We have a different relationship to the body under each of these circumstances, which affects our feelings and perceptions about the body. Contact occurs as consciousness alights on a particular part of the body for further analysis. Pain or other discomforts draw our attention to a particular part of the body that may be in distress.
In the rest of this paper I will discuss how name-and-form integrates with the broader teachings of the discourses, attempt to account for the various statements about name-and-form in the discourses, draw implications for the arising of the sense of self (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) for which dependent co-arising is meant to account and look at what all this means for practice.
… to be continued next week.