Name-and-Form (5/5)

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf of the entire five-part essay, especially if you would like to read footnotes and references.

Name-and-form as cognition or as biology?

We have understood name-and-form as a factor implicated in cognition, that is, in how we conceptually construct the world, and have found that this understanding is coherent and that it makes sense of a wide variety of otherwise quite obscure teachings found throughout the discourses. It remains to acknowledge that many Buddhist traditions see name-and-form quite differently, identifying it with the psychophysical organism, that which is conceived, grows as a fetus, is born, lives, ages and dies. The strongest scriptural source for this is the following passage in the Mahānidāna Sutta:

(47)    “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)

It should be noted that an equivalent passage is found in the Chinese Agamas (MA 97)1, as well as in the Pali Canon, making it hard to dismiss this passage as a later addition,as I was tempted to do at one time. We also note that much of the support cited here for name-and-form as a factor of cognition comes from this same key discourse, but also that his particular passage does not serve to define name-and-form, only to provide an illustration of the dependence of name-and-form on consciousness. This suggests that a proper understanding of name-and-form must be general enough to encompass both its cognitive and its biological roles such that the discussion can shift fluidly between the cognitive and biological realm as it seems to in this sutta. Notice that the interlocutors in this discourse, the Buddha and Ānanda, seem to presuppose such an understanding, that the relationship between this biological example and the broader cognitive implications of name-and-form seems to require no further elaboration. What is perhaps troubling is that this relation should seem so obscure to us now. In short, our task will be to try to discover a root understanding of name-and-form that accounts for its biological as well as cognitive implications.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his book on the discourse in question,2 attempts to do the same thing. His view is that the traditional biological interpretation of name-and-form provides the basic meaning. But then he observes that some passages – in particular (18) above, which mentions “external name-and-form” –  seem to extend the meaning to “the entire experiential situation, from the psycho-physical organism to the objective sense spheres.” My view is similar, but that the entire experiential situation is the core interpretation and the experience of the psycho-physical organism and instance.

The biological understanding of name-and-form. The biological interpretation generally is such that name-and-form is the psycho-physical organism, that the sixfold-sphere are the sense organs that grow in the organism in the womb and that consciousness is a prerequisite for the existence of the organism.

(48)     ignorance → fabrications→ consciousness →
name-and-form →  sixfold-sphere → contact →

In the biological account, the psycho-physical organism arises from, and then is sustained by, consciousness, and without the psycho-physical organism there are no senses and therefore no sixfold-sphere. Contact can only arise on the basis of the sixfold-sphere. This is simple and compelling, and easier to comprehend than the account offered above (albeit not as far-reaching). Consciousness is itself conditioned by ignorance and fabrications.

Furthermore, what became the dominant interpretation assumes more specifically that this is a description of conception and the development of the fetus in the womb such that ignorance and fabrications belong to a previous life whose effects are transmitted by consciousness. This is called the “three lives” model of dependent co-arising in which two births occur in the standard chain of dependent co-arising, one at consciousness and the other at,uh, birth.

Although the “three lives model” is quite distinct from what I have described here, this interpretation should not be dismissed lightly. As points out,3 this interpretation aside from being dominant in the Theravada school – where it is found in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga as well as in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (chapter 27) – is also found in the early Sarvastivādin and Mahāsanghika schools and even in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 26).

As a relatively orthodox Buddhist, I feel put in an awkward position here, though I am not alone. On the one hand, the biological/three-life interpretation of name-and-form has a lot of weight behind it: It is compelling and it has been represented and upheld by a variety of Buddhist traditions and wise Buddhist teachers throughout the history of the Sāsana. On the other hand, the biological/three-life interpretation cannot possibly be right in itself, for these reasons:

  • The biological interpretation displaces the role of cognition in the chain of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, which is incongruent with the alleged profundity of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation provides no basis for practice or insight.

I realize this a a bold statement, but I’ll be darned if I can find a way around it. I am open to any counterarguments.

Dependent co-arising is intended to be comprehensive, it is equated with the Dharma. It is alleged to be profound and difficult to understand. The Dharma tells us repeatedly that delusion underlies the human dilemma, that that self-view is particularly implicated, and that insight and wisdom cut through delusion. And, consistent with this,  the standard chain begins with ignorance. Moreover, the account of name-and-form in cognitive terms described here shows how name-and-form is implicated in the arising of the subject-object duality, in how this provides space for these sense of self to take root and in how the affective factors, like craving, depend on the consequential cognitive structures. The biological interpretation, on the other hand, eviscerates this cognitive account within dependent co-arising and leaves many of the statements that we have analyzed here concerning name-and-form along with the first few links of the standard chain, unintelligible.

If dependent co-arising is so succinct and profound, why would the Buddha clutter it with a biological account of the conception of the human fetus?  Such an account tells us simply that something that relates to the cumulative karma of the previous life is necessary for conception and for the subsequent thriving of the psycho-physical organism. (It is however unclear that consciousness, given the way it is described in the early discourses, is the proper vehicle for that.) How does this account help us end suffering if we cannot observe it in day-to-day or meditative experience and if we can do nothing to disrupt this biological process?4 Why would the Buddha teach this, rather than simply give us,

(49)     ignorance → fabrications→ contact →

… thereby leaving out the biological factors altogether?

My argument here is, first, that the biological/three-life account of name-and-form makes little pedagogical sense in view of the general purpose and nature of the chain of dependent co-arising and, second, that it leaves gaps in our understanding of cognition. A number of scholars have likewise attacked the biological/three-life view in terms of internal inconsistency. I will not review these arguments here.5 It is astonishing to me that this view seems to have been seriously questioned only beginning in the twentieth century.

An alternative biological but non-three-life account goes back to early sources but has been largely eclipsed until recent decades. The Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, for instance, states that (re)birth in dependent co-arising can be meaningfully interpreted, as an alternative, as the arising of any phenomenon in one moment. Dependent co-arising becomes an arising moment-to-moment. To some extent this addresses some of the concerns listed above. A modern example is the account of of the Thai scholar-monk Payutta,6 who describes how consciousness arises moment by moment in the six sense spheres,  as elsewhere understood in the suttas, but “consciousness → name-and-form” represents the influence of consciousness on the state of mind and body: “Body and mind, especially mental qualities, dependent on the instant of consciousness, will assume qualities harmonious with consciousness.”7  Notice that name-and-form here must stand not for the entire psycho-physical organism, since that is not what arises and falls dependent on instances of consciousness, but certain psycho-physical processes or states within the organism. Likewise “name-and-form → six-fold-sphere” is interpreted as the six sense spheres alerted by the state of body and mind.8

The alternative, biological/moment-to-moment interpretation gives a basis for practice and insight, since our psycho-physical responses arise in moment-to-moment experience. I have not made up my mind if it says anything particularly interesting, or how helpful it is to observe the consciousness-conditioned body preparing the eye for perception. Nonetheless it does, like the biological/three-life interpretation, leave a significant gap in the understanding of cognition in dependent co-arising, having little of interest to say about subject-object dualism and disease, about designation, about the arising of the world “out there,” about the cognitive conditions underlying a sense of self, etc., leaving dependent co-arising rather thin for a teaching that is said to encompass the entirety of the Dharma.

Reconciling the cognitive and the biological. This still leaves us with the question of how, in the passage (47), we have a seemingly biological illustration of what we have argued is fundamentally a cognitive factor: name-and-form.

Recall that the term name-and-form seems to have its origin in the Vedic and Upaniṣadic jātakarman ceremony, in which a father gives a name to his newly born son. What happens here is that the father has a conceptual sense experience of his son (who is a psycho-physical entity) resulting in objectification and naming, before which the son did not fully exist. Name-and-form as a Buddhist concept is simply a generalization of the jātakarman situation to any conceptual sense experience (not just of the son, or of a psycho-physical entity) by anyone (not just by a father) at any time (not just after the son’s birth). The illustration of consciousness descending into the mother’s womb is actually close to the jātakarman situation in that name-and-form is a conceptual sense experience of a psycho-physical entity, but this time at conceptualization rather than birth, and again at a later time in the growth and development of the psycho-physical entity. Therefore, (47) is no more than an illustration of name-and-form as we have described it here, with consciousness playing its accustomed objectification role.

As Ñāṇānanda puts it,9 “Consciousness established in the mother’s womb makes the concept of person valid.” The question naturally arises: Whose consciousness are we talking about? It is presumably not the father’s, since at the time of conception his mind is probably elsewhere. Presumably it is of the psycho-physical organism itself; it is self-awareness of itself as a psycho-physical being. And this self-awareness is necessary for the psycho-physical organism to take shape, to grow up, to develop and to reach maturity. This makes sense in terms of what happens before anything descends into the womb, that is, in the previous life, for there we have:

(50)    being →  birth

Without consciousness of oneself as a fully developed being, rebirth cannot occur.


Let’s end this essay with one of the most sweeping statements about the implications of name-and-form, and its constant companion consciousness.

(51)    “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)

Name-and-form and consciousness set the parameters in which saṃsāra plays out. They give us our sense of self that ripens, via craving and attachment, in being. It is only through objectification of this self that there is something there to be born, to grow old, to die or to reappear. It is on the basis of designation and the role of name-and-form in designation that consciousness can conjure up a reality “out there.” Consciousness does the same with language as it objectifies experience.

We fabricate our own world, but divide it up into a kind of cognitive architecture, separating seer from seen, this-ness from that-ness, with levels of designation spanning raw sense data at one end to an elaborate imputed reality “out there.” We become enamored in what we have fabricated, and then become entangled in it.  Life becomes a problem, full of neediness, aversion and anguish. Untangling this is the range of wisdom. Until then we are stuck in the round of saṃsāric existence, due to name-and-form.


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