Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the suttas
Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references. Please note also that I have made small but significant changes in previous sections of the pdf version, adding a section on Designation. Also I have inserted a series of images to better illustrate the cognitive architecture involved with name-and-form. The last image is reproduced here to give the derived experience of contact between self and reality “out there”:
Figure 5. Contact for the worldling.
Here internal name-and-form, shown as a cow, is displaced to reality “out there,” where consciousness has alighted. This leaves the impression of contact as a relationship between a seer and a seen mediated through a sense door. These changes are not critical for what follows, but may provide some additional orientation.
What name-and-form means for Buddhist practice
We fabricate our own world in a particular shape, then we become enamored with what we find there. As a result, w find life to be a problem, full of neediness, aversion and anguish. In short, we find ourselves almost hopelessly entangled in circumstances of our own making. The cognitive architecture we fabricate is quite astonishing: Starting with raw sense experience, we progressively stack up levels of designation ending with an elaborate imputed reality “out there,” beyond experience but of enormous complexity. In the process we split our world into inner and outer, mediated through sense contact through the sense doors, implying a seer and a seen, which turns out to be the heart of the human dilemma. On the basis of this architecture craving and attachment with regard to the things “out there” make sense as we seek personal advantage, and these become the guiding factors of our samsaric lives.
Practice is how we disentangle all this. We do that through insight into the fabricatedness of the world, to see it as the Buddha sees it:
(40) … a Tathagata does not conceive of a visible thing apart from sight; he does not conceive an unseen; he does not conceive of a thing worth seeing; he does not conceive about a seer. (Kāḷaka Sutta, AN 4.24)
Practice seeks to resolve the human predicament by shining the light of wisdom to reveal its many slights of hand, false bottoms and hidden mirrors, so that we become disenchanted with the illusions. And we discover that name-and-form is deeply implicated.
(41) Where name-and-form as well as sense and designation are completely cut off, it is there that the tangle gets snapped.” (SN 7.6)
Like Cold War Berlin, name-and-form lives on both sides of the wall, internally and externally. It is …
(42) … the root of both subjective and objective disease. (Sn 530)
Delusive implications. Primary evidence that our conceptualizations of reality “out there” are in error is that they simply do not keep pace with how things really play out. We fabricate a reality “out there” of relatively fixed entities and relations mistakenly assuming them to be relatively independent of our inner experience. Whereas subjective experience is in constant flux, when we objectify elements of experience we abstract away from what we actually experience. For instance, our immediate experience of a bird is from a particular angle and has a limited duration. We objectify the bird into something that remains the same bird no matter what angle we see it from, or even whether or not it is visible at a particular time. We seem to go too far in attributing an unrealistic degree of permanence. This is revealed in our surprise that our possessions and loved ones age. The three signs (ti-lakkhaṇa) are reminders of the degree to which our fabrications are in error. Our fabrications are biased in ways that lead us too easily to regard things as permanent, as pleasant and as self. The three signs are impermanent (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) and we are admonished to regard all things as such. Often a fourth quality is added, which is ugly (asubha), intended to offset the error of regarding many things as beautiful.
Of course we cannot verify these signs by comparing our fabricated objective world to the world “out there” as it really is, since the latter is beyond our domain. But we can discover contradictions among the many perspectives we fabricate concerning reality “out there,” including how our fabricated world plays out with time. For instance, we regard things as permanent, but watch them change and disappear. We regard things a beautiful, but discover many ways they are not beautiful, including the way in what beauty that seems to be there disappears with time. We discover the suffering that accompanies every pleasant experience, or that what we identify with the self as out of control, changing and painful. What we fabricate does not seem to keep pace with the way things really are. We know that as internal contradictions reveal themselves.
Investigating the self. The self is a special case. It is generally fabricated as a constant presence, permanent and in control. It is that which sees, that which hears, that which decides. It is the experiencer, it is what craves and what hates. It is also an abstraction, but one that does not exist “out there,” but rather in the inner space created by the split between subjective and objective. Our primary practice in deconstructing the self is introspection, which is to objectify the subjective world.
In general we tend to identify the subjective world with our own bodies and with the mental aspects of experience. However, the boundary between subject and object can be stretched as much as we like, revealing its artificiality. We can contemplate our breath, for instance, viewing it independent of our intention to breath. In this way we can objectify the breath, noting its qualities as if we were watching someone else’s breath. In this case aspects of the inner tactile name-and-form lead to contact with, and attention to, experiences attributed to things that, although located within our own body, are conceptually treated exactly like things “out there.” Given that our feelings, perceptions and volitions are already attributed to things “out there,” even out inner mental states can be objectified in this way.
It should be noted that almost all themes of mindfulness meditation, for instance, those enumerated in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, are easily regarded as part of the internal world of feelings and of one own body. We generally don’t contemplate the things most readily interpreted as “out there,” such as trees, cows or houses. Notable exceptions are the charnel ground contemplations, but even there the tendency is to come back to the equivalent conditions of one’s own body. Given this, it is significant that the “insight” refrain of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta begins with the following statement:
(43) In this way he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as body/feelings/mind objects internally, or he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as body/feelings/mind objects externally, or he abides contemplating body/feelings/mind objects as body/feelings/mind objects both internally and externally. (MN 10)
This is often interpreted as having to do with contemplating one’s own body, for instance, then others bodies, but I am convinced something more subtle is going on here. When we abide contemplating internally, we let the inner name-and-form be the inner name-and-form and resist the tendency to objectification. When we abide contemplating externally, we give way to objectification and displacement. When we contemplate both internally and externally, we keep both in mind; this is most revealing of the way we fabricate the external reality, for both the beginning and end of the process are laid bare. Earlier we considered circumstances in which we can resist the marked tendency to fabricate an external reality, for instance, in the case of music, and even shift from the internal to the external name-and-form. The present circumstance is more subtle because the external name-and-form is very close to the internal.
This is how we may investigate the fabricated nature of the subject-object duality and thereby of the self.1 As we objectify what at first seems to be internal, we notice that this too is not self. Introspection allows us effectively to look for the self by temporarily shifting the boundary of subject and object and fail to find a self there.
Ñāṇānanda (2007, 38) states that penetration into the conditioned nature of consciousness is like storming the citadel of the illusory self, and quotes:
(44) Having understood name-and-form as manifoldness, which is the root of both subjective and objective disease, he is completely released from bondage to the root of all disease. (Sn 530)
Investigating fabrications. A third technique in our toolbox for exposing the way we fabricate the world to the light of wisdom is to observe the process of fabrication itself step by step. What do we base our fabrication on? Fabrications of course, the second factor of the standard chain of dependent co-arising:
(45) ignorance → fabrications → consciousness → name-and-form →
These come into play as notions about how the world works, of what birds and bunnies look like, of what televisions or books designate, of what proper emotive or karmic responses are to given situations, of what the roles of the self are, of what the proper way of going about a given task is, of what things are worth seeing, feeling and craving, of what the potential dangers things pose toward our interests, and so on. Fabrications flourish as a general rule and can be everything from calcified age-old ways of viewing things to wonderfully innovative notions. They are the colors with which we paint the world, the magician’s slights of hand.
When we cultivate mindfulness and composure (samādhi),2 we begin to appreciate the workings of our own minds. In particular, rather than viewing our self as looking through the sense doors upon a independently existing reality “out there” with its opportunities and dangers, we can no longer fail to see the prestidigitation going on continuously to create that reality, nor the streaks in the fresh paint.
Mindfulness is particularly important as an instrument of insight, to tease apart the roles of name-and-form, consciousness and fabrications in the process whereby the world is fabricated. Mindfulness itself has the power to stop at will perception at bare perception, that is, at inner name-and-form, – “contemplating the body in the body” – or to let it proceed step by step, or to bring perception-thought-proliferation under perfect control. Composure sharpens mindfulness and, as it deepens, may bring certain mental processes implicated in fabricating the world to a sudden halt with an equally sudden shift in the nature of that world. Proliferation is the first to shut down, but also it will become possible to halt perception at name-and-form, even failing to attribute what we experience to reality “out there.”
The result is as in the Buddha’s advice to the monk Bāhiya, which precipitated the latter’s awakening.
(46) “When, Bāhiya, there is for you in the seen only the seen, in the heard, only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no ‘you’ in connection with that. When Bāhiya, there is no ‘you’ in connection with that, there is no ‘you’ there. When, Bāhiya,there is no ‘you’ there, then, Bāhiya, you are neither here nor there nor in between the two. This, just this, is the end of suffering.” (Ud 1.10)
Name-and-form is, for the worldling, compelling: it is vivid and when it is displaced into the reality “out there” it comes truly alive. However, when we see reality “out there” as cheap props, cardboard and thin paint, we become disenchanted.
(47) The one untrammeled by name-and-form,
And passionless, no pains befall. (Dhp 221)
Next week, on the biological interpretation of name-and-form, to conclude the series.