Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the suttas
The interplay of name-and-form with consciousness
The two constantly swirl around one another. Recall that this interplay is described as the source of the whirlpool (vaṭṭa) that underlies the entirety of saṃsāric life. Ñāṇānanda1 states that consciousness vitalizes name-and-form, but we could just as well say that name-and-form vitalizes consciousness. In this section we will look at consciousness and its relationship to name-and-form more closely, and we will do that within the context of dependent co-arising, in which the interplay becomes clearest.
Overview of dependent co-arising. Dependent co-arising in its standard formulation is the following causal chain, with name-and-form as the fourth factor:
(22) ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six spheres → contact →
feeling → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering
This chain is an account of (1) the arising of the illusion of self, (2) the affective consequences of a self-centered world view and (3) the resulting perpetuation of the continuation of existence, that is of samsara. As such, it falls naturally into three parts. The first is fundamentally cognitive in nature:
(23) ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → six-spheres → contact →
That it begins with ignorance, a kind of cluelessness, tells us that in what follows we are dealing with unskillful cognition, the arising of delusion rather than of knowledge. This delusion comes to completion in contact, in which the illusion of the self already has its foot firmly in the door. The Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) famously defeats sixty-two speculative views current at the time of the Buddha, dismissing each with “that too is dependent on contact,” that is, on the climax of the cognitive subchain implicated in delusion.2
The second sub-sequence of dependent co-arising is fundamentally affective or emotional in nature:
(24) → feeling → craving → attachment →
Briefly, this represents more than an escalation of the emotional response: Feeling is a momentary assessment of the object of contact: positive, negative or neutral. Craving is very much forward-looking in that it seeks a satisfactory future condition. Attachment is an accumulation of dispositions and attitudes conditioned by repeated craving, including the development of views in cognitive support of dispositions.
The final sub-series represents a kind of overlaying of affective and cognitive factors, the consolidation of the human personality in all its complexity and in its relation to the world, and its propensity to propel itself into a new birth in which the anguish of life repeats itself:
(25) → being → birth → old age, death, this mass of suffering
Although the standard form of dependent co-arising presents a linear sequence, this is a stalk with branches that also become part of its dynamics. Sprouting out of feeling and thereby in parallel with craving, the following branch describes the tendency of cognition to spin out of control (MN 18):
(26) → contact → feeling → perception → thought →
proliferation → besetting of perceptions-and-notions
Similarly, sprouting out of craving is a branch leading to behavior in the world charged with cunning, passion and interpersonal conflict (DN 15):
(27) → feeling → craving → seeking → acquisition → decision-making →
lustful desire → attachment → appropriation → avarice →
defensiveness → taking up of stick and sword; quarrels,
disputes arguments, strife, abuse, lying …
Although the Buddha described dependent co-arising in terms of these tidy linear chains, the actual dynamics plays out in a more complex way. One aspect of this is that consciousness is forever arising anew and can arise in relation to any of the other factors of the chain; in fact, we would not know about the other factors if we were not conscious of them. Particularly interesting to track, aside from the interplay of consciousness and name-and-form, is the interplay of consciousness and craving, for not only does consciousness give rise to craving further up the chain, but craving is a strong attractor for new instances of consciousness. We tend to give what we crave our full attention. I’ve come, in my attempts to fully comprehend dependent co-arising, to think not so much in terms of feedback loops, but as a repeated staggered overlaying of new activations of the chain.
Notice that the perspective of dependent co-arising tends to draw out the various name-and-form factors within name-and-form in order to get clearer about how these factors condition one another. This is not to say that these factors as they occur in dependent co-arising are separable from their occurrence in the sense-sphere perspective, nor in the internal perspective of name-and-form.
The functions of consciousness. We have seen that consciousness and name-and-form are in constant conversation. Name-and-form arises where consciousness is present and consciousness is present where name-and-form is most interesting. Sometimes the alighting of consciousness within name-and-form brings the whole body into play in order to guide what will next falls on the retina or strikes the ear drum. In the the Great Causation Sutta we learn that each serves as a condition for the other:
(28) This consciousness turns back from name-and-form, it does not go beyond. In so far can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far as this is, namely: consciousness is dependent on name-and-form, and name-and-form on consciousness. (DN 15)
We can represent the mutuality of consciousness and name-and-form like this:
(29) consciousness ↔ name-and-form
The Venerable Sāriputta, in the Naḷakalāpī Sutta,3 compares consciousness and name-and-form to two bundles of reeds. When two bundles of reeds stand, one supporting the other, if one of those is removed, the other would fall down. Neither stands on its own.
Aside from awareness and attention, consciousness brings another characteristic and critical property. We mentioned briefly with regard to the sense spheres. This is the ability to refer to or to be cognizant of something, that is either to imagine something “out there” or to know of it “out there,” or, more typically, to engage in some blend of imagining and knowing. We can call this the referential property of consciousness. Recall that we cannot experience anything “out there” directly, but we can objectify our experiences by attributing to them a causal connection with something “out there.” We can be conscious of something without – or actually in lieu of – experiencing it directly, just as we can use words to describe something in its absence. This opens up name-and-form to an entire new dimension.
Now, this referential property of consciousness can be seen alternately as something quite functional, or as a source of great delusion. The Buddha’s real interest was in the arising of suffering and therefore, in the present context, on how our cognitive apparatus gets us into trouble. Accordingly he emphasized the illusory quality of consciousness and of the other factors of cognition. In the Phena Sutta, we find the following statement concerning the five aggregates (khaṅda), with consciousness as the fifth:
(30) Form is like a mass of foam,
And feeling but an airy bubble.
Perception is like a mirage,
And fabrications a plantain tree.
Consciousness is a magic-show,
A juggler’s trick entire. (SN 22.95)
A plantain or banana tree is characterized as having no core or hardwood, but just layer over layer of the same woody substance. The Buddha likens consciousness (viññāṇa) to a magical show in that it fabricates a reality by slight of hand and illusion, but one which the wise are able to see through if they look carefully:4
(31) Now suppose that a magician or magician’s apprentice were to display a magic trick at a major intersection, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a magic trick? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any consciousness that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in consciousness?” (SN 22.95)
So, what is it that consciousness conjures up “out there,” and how is it related to name-and-form as an internal experience? Typically name-and-form provides the material for objectification. For instance, we experience the perception of a cow in name-and-form, and consciousness imputes the existence of a cow “out there,” with the various further characteristics perceived in the cow. But the cow “out there” is much more than that: It may be identified with a cow we’ve seen before, such as Ol’ Betsy. It is a cow located in three dimensions, that we could walk around and see from various angles, whereas the cow experienced in name-and-form is from a single angle. It is also an object of thought and reasoning – a producer of milk, a hazard when it wanders into the flower garden or an obstruction the path of our car, and so on – in a way a mere internal experience cannot be.
(32) Saraputta once asked a disciple, in order to check his understanding, “On what basis, Samiddhi, do intentions and thoughts arise in a person?”
Samiddhi correctly answered, “On the basis of name-and-form, Bhante.” (AN 9.14)
The thing “out there” becomes the object not only to thoughts and reasoning, but to intentional manipulation by bodily and verbal actions, in a way mere internal experience cannot be. As Ñāṇānanda5 states, consciousness, in this way, vitalizes name-and-form.
Nonetheless, the cow “out there” is still experienced with the immediacy, richness and vividness of the internal experience in name-and-form. Internal name-and-form is reflected in our consciousness of what is “out there.” In fact, we attribute almost our entire cow experience to the object “out there,” imagining that we are experiencing that object directly in all its immediacy, richness and vividness. It sure seems like we are looking at and experiencing directly the cow standing in a field, richly illuminated by the bright sun and populated by oak trees at irregular intervals, rather than looking at some internally generated “virtual reality.” Consciousness, in short, has bifurcated name-and-form into internal and external aspects, one a reflection of the other.
Moreover, as we take name-and-form to be real, to be “out there,” the name factors take on different qualities. Feeling responds not just to raw sense experience itself, but now to the abstract relations imputed to exist “out there.” Perceptions are now constrained by the physical laws that obtain “out there.” Volition now extends to thoughts of manipulating the conditions “out there” to gain benefit and avoid harm. Contact and attention now relate to he objects “out there.” Remarkably, these seemingly mental factors that constitute name generally are reflected “out there” in the external name-and-form as well. For instance, we take the feeling of the name-and-form experience, say unsatisfactoriness, to be an intrinsic property of the thing “out there,” rather than a subjective evaluation, and we talk about it that way. Our volition becomes the usefulness or obstructiveness intrinsic to the things “out there.” What we attend to becomes an intrinsic highlight of the thing “out there.” And what we contact out of interest will become the most detailed aspect of the thing “out there.” Our attitudes are projected to become intrinsic to the things “out there.”
Let me give some examples that might help the reader appreciate the experiential quality of the internal as opposed to external aspects of name-and-form. Generally it is hard to experience both at the same time. We experience most instances of hearing as hearing something “out there,” a bird chirping, a train approaching and so on. We can also experience music this way, as the orchestra playing or as a loudspeaker producing sounds. However, music is a somewhat exceptional case since we generally do not regard its value in providing evidence about what is going on “out there,” but in the internal experiences themselves that music evokes. This makes it relatively easy to back off from the external aspect of music and instead to dwell in the internal experience. We do this when we lay back, close our eyes and let the music flow through us or bubble up in the mind. This is depicted graphically in the Tocata and Fugue segment of Disney’s Fantasia, for instance, which begins by showing the orchestra playing, then moves into a display of mind-generated visual imagery to accompany the music. A similar backing off happens with regard to obvious illusions, for instance, due to imperfections in the sense faculties, such as ringing in the ear or floaters in the eye. One might occasionally experience these as existing “out there,” as a vexing electronic buzz or as annoying flying insects, but then, realizing they are neither, we back off from the objectification of the experience and simply let them remain as internal experiences. More typically in the case of a visual experience, we become locked into the external experience such that it becomes difficult to see it as anything else, though even this circumstance may occasionally break down in meditative practice. Looking out the window at a squirrel we are almost always convinced that we see the squirrel directly rather than an internally generated visual image.
Growing the world. It is remarkable that on the basis of sensory impression, raw sense data, that a coalition of consciousness and name and form can not only make some sense of shapes and colors, sounds and smells, but fabricate an elaborate reality “out there” with far more mastery that the best magician, one of enduring identities and relationships subject to attitudes, views and manipulation. How is this possible? It is the marvel of human cognition. In terms of dependent co-arising it is made possible through fabrications, which are like slights of hand or the mirrors, false bottoms and other tricks of the magician’s trade and are themselves grounded in ignorance.6 We fabricate a reality “out there” and then, as far-fetched as this may sound, actually believe in it.
Now, as consciousness attends to name-and-form and objectifies what it finds there, external reality grows. As we might expect, consciousness is attracted toward things of interest, things of desire and especially things of craving. The Buddha states,
(33) … all things are rooted in desire [canda]. They come into being through attention [manasikāra]. They originate from contact [phassa]. (AN 10.58)
For instance, the hunter is interested in game, so attention is drawn there and contact with the bunny occurs when consciousness alights there. The birdwatcher sets her sights a bit higher. In this way, the external reality that is grown from name-and-form is highly individuated, largely excluding altogether what is beyond personal interest, desire or craving. Your external reality is likely to be quite different from mine or that guy’s. Hamilton (2000, 92) points out that the internal and external worlds nonetheless appear to the worldling as two independently originated but parallel streams, such that internal cognitive processes are intent on keeping up with what is happening in the external world. Accordingly we treat the external world as an independent “objectively” given reality. We fail to recognize that almost the opposite is true: the internal processes are actually fabricating the reality “out there.” Ñāṇānanda reminds us in this regard of that the very beginning of the Dhammapāda reads,7
(34) All things have mind as their forerunner, mind is their chief, they are mind-made.
The growth of the world culminates in being (bhava), a late factor in dependent co-arising. What constitutes being is a matter of some complexity in its own right, but seems to involve a folding together of affective factors, particularly attachment, with cognitive factors. A rather compelling simile of the Buddha is the following:
(35) “Thus, Ananada, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an /inferior/middling/superior/ realm.” (AN 3.76)
Here consciousness is a seed that results in further being when watered by craving. It grows out of kamma, which can be roughly equated with fabrications.
Subject and object. The bifurcation between internal and external name-and-form is also known as the subject-object duality. We have seen that eye and form give rise to eye consciousness and the coming together of the three is contact. This is what the wise know. However, this is not how the wordling generally experiences contact. Ñāṇavīra8 points out that for the wordling contact appears to be a direct relation between “me” and a thing “out there.” Once consciousness has conjured a reality “out there” to be experienced, there seems to be a contrasting world “in here” as the seat of experience, and – this is the rub – an experiencer who occupies that seat and looks out at what is “out there.” This is the very beginning of the illusion of a self that underlies human suffering. The Contemplation of Dualities Sutta states,
(36) Just see the world, with all its gods,
Fancying a self where none exists,
Entrenched in name-and-form it holds,
The conceit that this is real. (Sn 756)
The Pali word for internal or subjective is ajjhatta, which is derived from atta (self). (Objective or external is bahiddhā.) This dualistic way of conceptualizing the world is what I call the fortress world for its conceptual and behavioral consequences. Ñāṇānanda puts it in brief as,9 “Where there is a fence, there is offense and defense.” The world divides naturally into needs and wants on the inside and resources and dangers on the outside. Outside the walls of the fortress are the things to desire and exploit and things to fear and avoid. Inside is “me,” doing the exploiting and avoiding. This dichotomy entails a evaluation of objects beyond the walls in terms of attraction or aversion, which implicitly underlies the links of feeling, craving and attachment that follow.
And how do we look out through the walls of the fortress? Through the senses, or through six doors (dvāra) as they are generally called in this context. And so a contact is a peek through one of the six sense doors. In the Great Causation Sutta name-and-form is the direct condition of contact. However, more commonly we find an intervening condition, the six spheres, as follows:
(36) name-and-form → six spheres → contact → feeling → craving
The six spheres have to do with the senses, but they should not be confused with the sense faculties. Ñāṇānanda (2009, 26-27) equates the rising of the spheres (āyatana-uppāda) with the discriminative function of consciousness, that is, with the bifurcation of name-and-form into internal and external.10 We don’t generally see this discriminative function as we experience its results, we think we are simply looking through one of the six sense doors at something that is really “out there.” When we see the arising of the spheres clearly in our wiser moments, the mind is released from this delusion. Ñāṇānanda cites the Sona Sutta:
(37) In one who is intent upon the destruction of craving,
And the non-delusion of the mind,
On seeing the arising of the six spheres,
The mind is well released. (AN 6.55)
As Ñāṇānanda states, “The discrimination between an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ is the outcome of the inability to penetrate name-and-form, the inability to see through it. There is an apparent duality: I, as one who sees, and name-and-form, as the objects seen. Between them there is a dichotomy as internal and external. It is on this very dichotomy that the six sense-bases are ‘based’. Contact, feeling, craving and all the rest of it come on top of those six sense-bases.”11
This account of name-and-form is complex and probably challenging to the reader. But recall that dependent co-arising is stated by the Buddha to be profound and difficult to understand, and that the interplay of name-and-form with consciousness is right at the heart of dependent co-arising. This matter is worthy of careful and detailed study. On the other hand, this account is not arcane; it is presented entirely in experiential terms subject to personal verification step by step. Sometimes I’ve differentiated between what the wise sees and what the wordling sees, but this too is subject to verification as we transition through our practice and understanding from worldling to wise. Let me end this section with a statement from the Mahānidāna Sutta about the implications of the whirlpool driven by consciousness and name-and-form. Notice the emphasis not only to life processes that adhere around the self, but also to language, the manifestation of the referential property of consciousness arising from name-and-form.
“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)
Coming soon: (4/5) What name-and-Form means for practice.