Harmony (5/6)

July 1, 2016

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.

The Ideal Society

An important conditioning factor in communal harmony or disharmony that goes beyond individual interactions and relations is certainly governance or the institutional structures of the society. This also was not beyond the Buddha’s purview, for the Buddha was the architect of a community, the  Saṅgha of monks and nuns. It is instructive to see what kinds of choices the Buddha made to form this ideal society writ small.

In Gotama’s time, the Gangetic plain encompassed a number of small kingdoms and republics. The two dominant kingdoms of the region were Magadha and Kosala. The republics were largely lined up along the northern edge of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, which were coming increasingly under the dominance of the kingdoms. The westernmost of these was the Sakyan Republic where the Buddha-to-be was grew up. These republics were generally governed by an unelected assembly of elders from the khattiya or warrior/administrative caste. It is likely that the Buddha, as a khattiya, was familiar with matters of governance. This was also a patriarchal society that would become more patriarchal with time, such that spiritual practice and education were widely (though not entirely) considered masculine pursuits and women were generally subject in all stages of life to masculine authority.

Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”iv  that is, who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its practice and teachings. The Buddha never attempted to organize the lay community except indirectly by putting the monastic community in their midst and letting them sort out what to do about it. The monastic Saṅgha is a multi-functional institution, defined in the Vinaya with a mission statement, a code of conduct, rules of governance, guidelines for handling grievances and many other features.v

Some of the notable hallmarks of the Saṅgha as conceived by the Buddha are as follows: The Saṅgha observes no class distinctions and an exemplary level of gender equality.vi It is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, and observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise. It rules by consensus of all monastics in a local community and, as such, is only minimally hierarchical. For instance, there is no system of pope and bishops, so that although monastics live under the code of the Vinaya, they are not subject to any distant centralized authority. Serious transgressions of the monastic code entail no corporal punishments, but rather sanctions, none more severe than expulsion from the local community. Rectifying transgressions is much dependent of acknowledgement of guilt. Committing one of the most serious offenses, for instance killing another person, is simply by definition no longer to be a monastic; if one hides the offense, one is impersonating a monastic. Aside from limited coercive control over each other, monastics have no coercive power whatever over the laity. There is, for instance, nothing like excommunication. Their authority derives entirely from the respect they receive as teachers and role models for those committed to the Dhammic life. In fact, the laity has significant coercive power over the Saṅgha, since a displeased laity can at any time withdraw the support on which the Saṅgha depends.

The constitution of the Saṅgha embodies so many social ideals that it might seem rather pie-in-the sky. But keep in mind it has outlived every other system of governance in existence at its birth,  and almost every one that has arisen since. It has seen great empires come and go and persists to this day. This in evidence of the practical understanding with which the Buddha carefully constituted the monastic Saṅgha. It just keeps going.

The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:

“Whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”

This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:

“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in unlocked houses.”

We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, even thieves and brigands, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be changed, at least by kings. The advice to the king here is also an instance of the practice of appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), literally, “thinking from the origin”), a hugely important practice in early Buddhism which we will encounter a number of times in this textbook. The plague addressed in this passage arises directly from observable social conditions, not from some unseen unconditioned evil of thieves and brigands, which would be a more commonplace assumption, but one that would lead to a counterproductive and hateful response.

Harmony (4/6)

June 26, 2016

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.

Social responsibilites

Two other conditions of harmony in the Buddha’s thought is how we fulfill our social roles and what we expect of others concerning their social roles. Where fulfillment and expectation are in accord, harmony results. Reading further in the Sigalovada Sutta, we find that each of the six quarters actually corresponds to two reciprocal roles, each of which carries five responsibilities, except for six responsibilities in the last case.

“In five ways … a child should minister to his parents as the East:

 (i) Having supported me I shall support them,
(ii) I shall do their duties,
(iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
(iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
(v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.

“In five ways … the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:

(i) they restrain them from evil,
(ii) they encourage them to do good,
(iii) they train them for a profession,
(iv) they arrange a suitable marriage,
(v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

“In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … a pupil should minister to a teacher as the South:

        (i) by rising from the seat in salutation,
(ii) by attending on him,
(iii) by eagerness to learn,
(iv) by personal service,
(v) by respectful attention while receiving instructions.

“In five ways … do teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion:

        (i) they train them in the best discipline,
(ii) they see that they grasp their lessons well,
(iii) they instruct them in the arts and sciences,
(iv) they introduce them to their friends and associates,
(v) they provide for their safety in every quarter.

“The teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion towards them in these five ways. Thus is the South covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a wife as the West be ministered to by a husband:

(i) by being courteous to her,
(ii) by not despising her,
(iii) by being faithful to her,
(iv) by handing over authority to her,
(v) by providing her with adornments.

“The wife thus ministered to as the West by her husband shows her compassion to her husband in five ways:

(i) she performs her duties well,
(ii) she is hospitable to relations and attendants,
(iii) she is faithful,
(iv) she protects what he brings,
(v) she is skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

“In these five ways does the wife show her compassion to her husband who ministers to her as the West. Thus is the West covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a clansman minister to his friends and associates as the North:

(i) by liberality,
(ii) by courteous speech,
(iii) by being helpful,
(iv) by being impartial,
(v) by sincerity.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they protect him when he is heedless,
(ii) they protect his property when he is heedless,
(iii) they become a refuge when he is in danger,
(iv) they do not forsake him in his troubles,
(v) they show consideration for his family.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the North covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees as the Nadir:

(i) by assigning them work according to their ability,
(ii) by supplying them with food and with wages,
(iii) by tending them in sickness,
(iv) by sharing with them any delicacies,
(v) by granting them leave at times.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir by their master show their compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they rise before him,
(ii) they go to sleep after him,
(iii) they take only what is given,
(iv) they perform their duties well,
(v) they uphold his good name and fame.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the Nadir covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a householder minister to ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith:

(i) by lovable deeds,
(ii) by lovable words,
(iii) by lovable thoughts,
(iv) by keeping open house to them,
(v) by supplying their material needs.

“The ascetics and brahmans thus ministered to as the Zenith by a householder show their compassion towards him in six ways:

(i) they restrain him from evil,
(ii) they persuade him to do good,
(iii) they love him with a kind heart,
(iv) they make him hear what he has not heard,
(v) they clarify what he has already heard,
(vi) they point out the path to a heavenly state.

“In these six ways do ascetics and brahmans show their compassion towards a householder who ministers to them as the Zenith. Thus is the Zenith covered by him and made safe and secure.” (DN 31)

I quote this at length because of the importance of this teaching. It provides what we could consider a fourth system of ethics alongside generosity, precepts and purity. Although elements of all three of these are found in this itemization of responsibilities, this is, like precepts, a kind of duty ethics, a code of obligations. However, like the Confucian code, its focus is on the harmonizing or ordering of human affairs. This code is often referred to as a lay Vinaya, corresponding to the monastic code of conduct.

We can note a few qualities of this itemization. First, it is balanced, allocating equal responsibilities to each side of each reciprocal relation. In this way, it is not exploitive as long as all adhere to their own responsibilities. I think the point is that if the reciprocal relation is out of balance, as when slaves or wives are simply treated as property, harmony suffers. Second, this itemization focuses on responsibilities, not on rights. A common modern tendency is to see the social landscape in terms of my rights but their responsibilities. Finally, although the specifics might require some adaptation to modern cultural circumstances, this  allocation of responsibilities speaks remarkably well, and very critically, to our modern circumstances.

Harmony (3/6)

June 16, 2016

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.


Another condition for harmony in the Buddha’s thought is respect (gārava). The larger ascetic tradition to which the Buddha and Buddhism belonged in ancient India, quite readily rejected prevailing cultural norms, as often did the Buddha. The ascetic tradition was generally also characteristically raucous and disrespectful.iii  The Buddha was different: he placed great emphasis on the social lubricants of courtesy, etiquette and respect. The Saṅgha met with mutual respect, was expected to meet “in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes,” (MN 31) and to adjourn in harmony. A large part of the monastic code consists of rules of etiquette. The attention Buddhist monastics characteristically give to proper attire and grooming, in contrast to matted-hair ascetics, is a further example.

Respect has two aspects: a mental attitude and a physical or verbal expression. As an attitude it is most essentially to regard something or someone as mattering, to keep in mind the value of something or somebody. Literally the English word respect means “see again.” It is what we do when we refuse to dehumanize or demonize someone who annoys us. There is wisdom in respect. We don’t have to agree with someone, or find them agreeable, to respect them as a human, someone who is in the most essential respects just like us. It is easy to appreciate that respect can contribute to harmony. And, as a matter of fact, as we practice non-harming and develop qualities of kindness towards living beings, we find we naturally come to respect them increasingly. As we respect them more, it becomes harder for us to harm them, feel anger toward them or speak divisively about them. In fact, respect puts to rest the dehumanizing quality of anger discussed above.
The most basic physical expression of respect in India was, and still is, placing one’s palms together in añjali (in Pali or Sanskrit), much like the Christian prayer posture. The fact that añjali has been preserved in all the diverse Asian cultures into which Buddhism has been transmitted indicates the importance accorded respect. Just as practicing ethically toward living beings encourages respect for them, acknowledging people and even things in this way encourages respect for them. This coming together of attitude and expression is not unfamiliar to us in the West, though perhaps not so ubiquitous as in Indian or Buddhist culture: a handshake, a hug or a wave is an expression of attitude.

The famous Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31) tells of a young man, Sigala, the son of a householder, who rises early in the morning, leaves town with wet clothes and wet hair, and then bows to the East, the South, the West, the North, up and down. Then the Buddha comes along with a valuable lesson for young Sigala.

Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rājagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:

“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”

“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: ‘The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship’. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, revering and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”

“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”

“How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshiped in the discipline of the noble.”

“The following should be looked upon as the six quarters.

    The parents should be looked upon as the East,
teachers as the South,
wife and children as the West,
friends and associates as the North,
servants and employees as the Nadir,
ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.” (DN 31)

Now, although Sigala’s practice was motivated by respect for his father and involved a lot of bowing, the six quarters toward which Sigala was bowing had no particular significance for him. The Buddha’s reply is a primary example of the Buddha giving a non-Buddhist conceptual scheme a Buddhist interpretation, in this case turning of what to Sigala was an empty ritual into a valuable teaching about living harmoniously and responsibly in the world. The Buddha provided an interpretation of each of the six quarters as a distinct social relation that would, or at least should, matter to him. And the Buddha did not stop there, as we will see momentarily.

Respect is the primary of an escalating series of attitudes that honor others in one way or another which includes deference, reverence, homage, veneration and worship. We find veneration for the Buddha himself clearly expressed physically in the early sources through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha would enter the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. He also asked that monastics refuse to teach lay people who do not express a sufficient degree of deference.

It seems that these honoring attitudes have a harmonizing role in two ways: Externally we thereby make ourselves subject to the influence of another. We cannot learn from a teacher, for example, that we do not respect, and we learn all the more quickly from a teacher that we revere or venerate. Internally we thereby develop humility, with the higher attitudes even knocking the ego out of its accustomed position at center of the universe. (In fact this might be a basic function of the worship of God in many religions.) We will have more to say about reverence and veneration in the context of refuge later.

Harmony (2/6)

June 11, 2016

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.

The error of retribution

Much of natural human behavior is based on reciprocation. Friendship is reciprocated, our economy is based on the principle of mutually agreeable exchange. It is not surprising that our natural response when someone harms us is retaliation. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is a pervasive ethic to this day. Much of American criminal justice, not to mention foreign policy, is based on retaliation.

Nonetheless, Buddhist ethics is different. Recall that generosity is not pure if some kind of payback is expected, and an equal exchange is two missed opportunities for merit-making. Harmlessness is practiced toward all living things across the board, just as mental qualities of of renunciation and kindness are not selective.ii We don’t exclude some as not deserving of our practice. This makes our practice simple: our job is to embody generosity, harmlessness and kindness toward others in all circumstances, regardless of how they behave. Their practice is their own, ours is our own; we cannot do it for them.

The Dhammapāda wisely states in this regard:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By kindness alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapāda 5)

Hatred is both cause and result of abuse. Where hatred is alive, bringing more hatred to bear only adds fuel to the fire. Yet foolish people think and behave this way. Kindness is that which seeks benefit and is therefore most capable of correcting disharmony.

He practices for the welfare of both,
His own and the other’s,
When, knowing that his foe is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace. (SN 11.4, SN 7.2)

The famous simile of the saw presents one of the strikingly gruesome of the Buddha’s images. Through this vivid image the Buddha challenges us to give up the error of retribution even under almost impossible circumstances.

“Monks, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.” (MN 21)

We should, in brief, bend over backwards in our effort to maintain harmony even in the most adverse conditions.

Anger, a kind of hatred, is our great retributive emotion and one of the primary and most immediate conditions of disharmony. Anger has no wisdom; it knows only one thing. Yet many of us are so afflicted by anger that ridding ourselves of its grip becomes a primary focus of our practice. In one of the Buddha’s discourses he describes three kinds of persons: The first is like a line etched in stone; he gets angry and anger persists for a long time. The second is like a line etched in the ground; he gets angry, but his anger erodes quickly. The third – and this is what we should aspire to be – is like a line etched in water; even if spoken to harshly he does not anger, but “remains on friendly terms with, mingles with and greets,” the one who would make the first two types of people angry. (AN 3.132) The last has a mind most conducive to harmony.

We reserve our most virulent anger for fellow humans. We do not, for instance, generally get angry at gravity or rain, no matter how implicated these may be in our personal hardships. Yet even a hint of disregard or an unskillful word from a human can put us into an instant rage. Anger also has a tipping point, past which the object of our vexation becomes dehumanized, demonized, becomes – at least temporarily, for this same person might, paradoxically, at other times be one of our dearest friends – a source of irremediable evil, rather than a conditioned complex of pleasing virtues and vexing faults like the rest us. This is the great delusion anger evokes.

Anger is a conditioned response that can be unlearned as a part of purification of mind. However, there are also a number of reflections or thought experiments that many find useful in this regard. The Buddha suggests that we put ourselves in the shoes of others (SN 55.7), fully recognizing our common humanity, our suffering, our desire for happiness. He also points out, in view of anger’s kammic implications, that in responding by anger we are doing to ourselves just what our most ill-intentioned foe would want for us (AN 7.64).

In the end, we should be able to echo Sāriputta’s lion’s roar, spoken to the Buddha:

Just as they throw pure and impure things on the earth – feces, urine, spittle, pus and blood – yet the earth is not repelled, humiliated or disgusted because of this; so too, Bhante, I dwell with a mind like earth, vast exalted, and measureless, without emnity and ill will. (AN 9.11)

This is how we learn to harmonize in a disharmonious world.

Harmony (1/6)

June 3, 2016

pdf_24x18Herewith I begin a series on the topic of interpersonal and social harmony. This is a serialization of a chapter to appear in the next draft of the text I have been progressively improving as I teach a semiannual introductory course in Buddhism. Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click on the pdf link for the whole chapter. Incidentally, the following book on this topic is scheduled to appear in November:

The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications.


“… although they wish to live without hate, harming, hostility or malignity, and in peace, they yet live in hate, harming one another, hostile and malign …”  (DN 21)

We are a social species; we live in relationship to others, occupy social roles and obligations and are in constant negotiation with one another. But our interpersonal and communal lives are all too often marked by discord, ruffled feathers, infighting, argument, insult, exploitation, violence and war.

Still, it is substantially within the realm of interpersonal and communal relations that the practices of generosity, harmlessness and purity of mind that we have discussed in previous chapters play out. As we perfect our generosity, our harmlessness and our purity, our relationship with our fellow social beings improves. We treat them with more kindness and compassion, we take care not to step on their toes nor harm or insult them in other ways, and we do what we can to help them rather than to exploit them. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone developed in this way!

Nonetheless the interpersonal/communal realm has its own peculiarities and pitfalls that most of us are slow to master. Fortunately the Buddha has given us provided abundant wise advice about these. That is the topic of this chapter.

Be careful of what you say

A primary conditioning factor of interpersonal and communal harmony or disharmony is how skillfully we wield the instrument of speech. The Buddha has a lot to say about this skill; we will see later that one of the eight factors of the Buddhist Path (the topic of Book Two) is Right Speech, which in particular censures false, harsh, divisive and frivolous speech. Here are the primary requisites for speaking skillfully in a nutshell:

“Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five?

1. It is spoken at the proper time;
2. what is said is true;
3. it is spoken gently;
4. what is said is beneficial;
5. it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness.

Possessing these five factors speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” (AN 5.198, enumeration mine)

We notice all three systems of ethics intersect here; avoiding harm, producing beneficial consequences and a checking the purity of one’s intentions come into play. Furthermore, finding the right time and speaking gently harmonize with the sensitive nature of human receptivity.

For instance, a common, and one of the most awkward social situations, arises when there is need to reproach someone for doing something felt to be inappropriate or harmful – someone is stepping on your foot, for example, or failing to complete an agreed task –, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted. Considering the right time takes note, for instance, of whether the person to be admonished is now in a good or receptive mood. Sometimes a bit of friendly small-talk will serve to set the mood before the more topic is broached, “It’s good to see a familiar face. By the way, can I give you some friendly advice on that project you are doing?”

Nonetheless, most people are difficult to admonish, easily offended and some fly off the handle no matter how skillfully we present the situation. If no benefit is likely to accrue, then discretion suggests saying nothing, thereby cutting our losses and preserving harmony. Incidentally, the monastic code includes a rather important precept that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many people do by nature. Our practice typically makes us more thick-skinned, such that our egos are not so easily bruised, so that we begin to see admonishment as advice, which may be either useful or useless, but which demands no emotional response.

One of the greatest dangers to communal harmony that the Buddha warns us about is speaking divisively. Rather than attempting to admonish someone for his perceived errors, this person speaks about them to others, generally in his absence. Unfortunately such speech is often repeated by others and may even go viral.

Having heard something here, he repeats it elsewhere in order to divide [those people] from these; or having heard something elsewhere he repeats it to these people in order to divide [them] from these Thus he is one who divides those who are united, a creator of divisions, one who enjoys factions, delights in factions, a speaker of words that create factions. (AN 10.176)

Divisive speech may target individual people or entire groups of people. It can occur quite frivolously, often as an attempt at humor or wit. Or it can be used as a way of building countervailing group solidarity. Many people routinely speak ill of others in an attempt to build self-esteem or to reassure themselves of their own righteousness. Increasingly, particularly with the rise of mass communications, it arises deliberately and with great precision as a way of controlling populations. Consider that racism and ethnic cleansing begin with divisive speech and colonial empires could not have been built without the policy of “divide and conquer.” Divisive speech is poison to both large societies and small communities. It undermines our trust in the targeted people and populations and ultimately our trust in each other. We should take great care not to divide with our speech, nor to repeat divisive speech we have heard elsewhere.

Next Week: Harmony (2/6), the Error of Retribution.


Name-and-Form (5/5)

May 27, 2016

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.


Name-and-form (4/5)

May 7, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  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.


Name and Form (3/5)

April 19, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

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.



Name and Form (2/5)

April 12, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18 Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

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.

Screenshot from 2016-04-11 16_34_42

The Muppets Explain Phenomenology. (click)

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:

ScreenshotNotice 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.

Name and Form (1/5)

April 6, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf if you would like to read footnotes and references.

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.

mysteryEntityExamples. 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.