Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the suttas
Name-and-form and the sense spheres
I stated that name-and-form (viewed in terms of its inner structure), dependent co-arising and the sense spheres represent three perspectives on cognition in Early Buddhism. I want to take up the perspective of the sense spheres and then of dependent co-arising and the role of name-and-form (viewed in terms of its outer function) in each of these. But I begin with emphasizing the experiential basis that characterizes all of early Buddhist psychology.
Dhammas: elements of experience. Early Buddhist psychology has a phenomenological orientation, that is, it is almost completely restricted to elements as they occur in experience, with almost no interest in mechanisms that might underly experience or persist behind the scenes, or even in a world “out there,” beyond our experience.1 In fact, “the world” itself is most generally understood not as something “out there,” but as just this world of experience. Quite to the point,
(9) “It is in this fathom-long living body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.” (AN 4.45)
This perspective is just the opposite of what many of us, including the most scientifically oriented of us, tend to think, who give “objective reality” and the world “out there,” primacy and may even, along with American behaviorists, deny the reality of experience altogether. And indeed the Buddha himself seems to speak of the world “out there” when he talks about bodily and physical actions and their consequences in the world. However, even his ethics is primarily psychologically based, in terms of the arising of wholesome and unwholesome intentions. The Buddha called the elements or factors of experience dharmas (dhamma) – in contrast to the Dharma – which in modern philosophical terms is accurately translated as phenomenon.
A primary reason for the phenomenological perspective is that the human condition arises in and through experience. As Ronkin2 points out, the Buddha’s interest lies fundamentally in epistemology, how we think we know what we do, rather than in ontology, what actually exists in the world. In particular, the Buddha was concerned with the arising of delusion in human experience, which he saw as the root of the human condition. The failure to recognize this perspective is responsible for many common misunderstandings of the Dharma.3 It is in experience that suffering arises, and it is the elements of experience that condition its arising. It is for the elements of experience that we develop mindfulness, it is the elements of experience that we examine with clear comprehension and into which we develop insight or see as they really are. The Buddhist practitioner will find the shift to a phenomonological perspective, once completed, very satisfying since it produces what we can verify empirically for ourselves, particularly in quiet meditative states.
The main principle to keep in mind in the phenomenological perspective is that the world “out there” – assuming it exists at all, which we cannot prove – is beyond direct experience. When we think we see something “out there,” a cow, for instance, our experience is a name-and-form, something more akin to an internal image, mediated by the playing out of shapes and colors on the retina, then processed physiologically through our neural hardware before the experience arises. Nonetheless, we can have the impression that we are looking at a cow “out there,” impute the existence of a cow “out there,” and reason about that cow “out there.” We can even impute and reason about abstract objects, untouched by name-and-form. But our impressions, imputations and reasoning are themselves just experiences. Our thoughts and language characteristically have a referential quality, the ability to seem to point to something “out there,” but a pointing-to is itself just an element of experience. The thing “out there” itself is never directly experienced, and therefore is not in “the world,” as the Buddha uses the term in (9) above.
Sense Spheres. Now, the world of experience arises in our senses: eyes, ears, nose, etc. Without the senses, there could be no experience. But wait: even if the material senses were cut off, we would still experience thoughts and emotions and imaginings, wouldn’t we? Yes! That is why in Buddhism, rather than five senses, we have six, the five physical senses that we are already familiar with (eye or seeing, ear or hearing, tongue or tasting, nose or smelling, and body or touching), and as a sixth the mind sense (mano) through which we experience our inner thoughts and mental processes, in times of introspection, of remembering or of imagination, for instance, or of abstract imputations about the things “out there.” Happiness, lust, products of reasoning, dreams and even the imputation that something exists “out there”, are thereby included in our world of experience, and so we can reflect on these things and talk about them. The following is the echo of (9) from the sense bases.
(10) In the six the world has arisen,
In the six it holds concourse.
On the six themselves depending,
In the six it has woes. (SN 1.70)
We might suppose that name-and-form is limited to the five physical senses, but consider memories or imaginings of physical experiences. For instance, if someone asks us how many windows our house has, we are likely to bring up an image from memory, then walk around that image counting windows. We seem to treat this image as a name-and-form even though none of the physical senses is actually active in this case. As far as I know, the Buddha said nothing about such cases, and we need not reflect on them further
The senses are generally discussed in terms of spheres (āyatana), a word which suggests a space or location, or a realm of activity associated with the respective sense faculty. Sometimes translators prefer bases to spheres, but I find bases less clear. The Saḷ’āyatana-Saṃyutta (Six Sphere division of the Saṃyutta Nikāya) variously lists a number of factors that belong in each of the six spheres. For instance in the eye sphere we have:
(11) … eye, form, eye consciousness, eye contact and whatever arises with eye contact as a condition. (SN 35.24-28)
Feeling and craving, in particular, have contact as a condition. It should be noted that form (rūpa) conventionally refers, but only in the context of the sense spheres, specifically to an object of sight, where elsewhere it can refer to any materiality. There are exactly analogous lists for the other five sense spheres, each with a distinct name for its sense object. The factors for all sense spheres accordingly look like this:
Notice that contact, feeling and craving – themselves like consciousness classified in terms of the respective sense – in each sense sphere match a causal sub-chain within the links of dependent co-arising:
(12) contact → feeling → craving
In fact the causality obtains straight across, for contact itself is defined as the coming together of the dyad of eye and eye-object with consciousness:
(13) Dependent on eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. (MN 18)
Similarly for ear, sounds and ear-consciousness, etc. Various suttas refer to the six spheres as “the all” (sabba), in the sense that they exhaust the world, the realm of experience. This reassures us once again of the aptness of the phenomenological view in the Buddha’s thinking. The All Sutta states:
(14) 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. … that would not be within his domain.” (SN 35.23)
Sense objects. Our concern here will be primarily the sense objects, which appear, it will be claimed, as name-and-form (except, as mentioned, sometimes in the case of mind objects). Most of us have a commonsense model of how our senses work that is something like the following, taking the eye sense as an example:
(15) object “out there” → contact → consciousness
Briefly, an object “out there,” let’s say, um, a cow, makes contact with the eye (by means of light), and as a result we become conscious of that external object. However, this account is inadequate in terms of the unfolding of experience, since an object “out there” is not experienced directly or independently. And, in fact, until consciousness arises, we cannot impute, refer to or otherwise indirectly experience an object “out there.” The best we can say is that experientially consciousness or something following upon consciousness refers to the visible object existing out there in the world, and what we experience actually unfolds like this:
(16) eye → eye-consciousness → reference to object “out there”
We will see later that consciousness itself has a characteristic referential quality, which allows us to say that we are conscious of something.
So far we have an account of what a sense object is not, but not what a sense object is. We still need sense objects because the eye faculty by itself conveys no specific information that would account for what kind of external object, say, a cow, to impute or refer to. We are able to impute or refer only because the eye exhibits colors and shapes dancing around on the retina, the ear exhibits vibrations in the ear drum and so on. The eye, ear, nose, etc. are faculties (indriya) that allow the events that constitute seeing, hearing, smelling and so on to occur. Physiologically our original model makes sense, that an external object impinges on the eye and is mapped by that faculty onto some form related to that external object. However, experientially, the sense object simply arises in the eye apparently from nowhere. The reader can anticipate where this is going:
(17) Sense objects (forms, sounds, odors, tastes, etc.) belong to name-and-form.
Notice that I do not say sense objects are names-and-forms. Unlike objects, name-and-form does not have a plural in the early discourses; it is not countable. Rather, as I have described it, it is a field of activity arising in any of the senses, out of which specific objects are perceived. The attribution of sense object to name-and-form, though generally overlooked, is not unprecedented. Bucknell, Reat and others4 have also identified name-and-form with sense objects with varying arguments. For us, name-and-form, as we have described it, acts exactly how we expect a sense object to act, and since the sense spheres are “the all,” name-and-form must fit in there somewhere. Although the term name-and-form is not generally used in the context of the sense spheres (in which form itself has the specialized meaning of eye object), that also is not unprecedented. In the Bālapaṇḍita Sutta we learn indeed that name-and-form is a sense object:
(18) 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)
Similarly, in the Chinese Samyuktāgama we find the equivalent passage:5
(19) Within the body there is this consciousness and outside the body there is name-and-form. Conditioned by these two arises contact. Contacted by these six sense-contacts, the ignorant, untaught worldling experiences painful and pleasurable feelings variously arisen.
Notice the use of the word external (bahiddhā) in (18) and the care taken to distance this from the body in (19). We will see later how name-and-form is in fact bifurcated by consciousness to produce an external reflection of name-and-form as inner sense experience.
The understanding of sense object as name-and-form brings the causal sequence within the sense spheres even closer to the chain of dependent co-arising. In both we find the following sequence.
(20) name-and-form → contact → feeling → craving
Consciousness still appears to match awkwardly, as do the six spheres (saḷāyatana), since consciousness occurs between name-and-form and contact in the sense spheres, but the six spheres occur in that position in some versions of dependent co-arising. We will resolve the apparent discrepancy when we understand consciousness better below.
Before that, let’s ask, What exactly is a sense faculty? It would seem that the eye, the ear, the nose, etc. need no definition, or that they might alternatively be regarded as something given physically or as a kind of functionality. However, the Buddha says something remarkable about this when he calls the six senses old karma:
(21) “What, bhikkhus, is old karma? The eye is old karma, to be regarded as fabricated (abhisaṅkhata) and planned by volition, as something to be perceived.” (SN 35.146)
The same passage is then repeated substituting ear, nose, tongue, body and mind for eye. Now, if karma is intentional action to which we are heir, old karma must be our inheritance, conditioned potentialities that will play themselves out in the future. This quote attributes to the eye faculty, etc. a habituated way of processing dependent on accustomed fabrications or volitional formations (saṅkhāra). For instance, where the farmer might see a cow, say, the hunter might see a moose. Where the shopkeeper might see broken glass, the jeweler might see spilled diamonds. Where the farmer might see a fertile field, the realtor might see an excellent home site. Such dispositions have been learned through past karma, and in view of the depth of the interpretations we place on sensual experience, seemingly through many lives of of accumulating such karma. The eye faculty, etc. is conditioned to see in certain ways, as old karma, and thereby as a critical determinant of the entire world (of experience). The closest correspondent of the sense faculties in the chain of dependent co-arising seems to be fabrications (saṅkhāra), which precede name-and-form, via consciousness, in the chain.
At this juncture we can report that name-and-form, as we have described it here, has a clear role in the sense spheres that fits well with the causal structure of their presentation in the early discourses. It remains to explore the role of consciousness, which is intimately involved in name-and-form.
… to be continued.