How ‘name-and-form’ came to mean something obscure and esoteric

dve nāma kiṃ? nāmañca rūpañca.

“What is the ‘two’?” “Name-and-form.” — Kumārapañhā

Every Buddhist monk knows this catechism: ten questions Buddha put to Venerable Sopāka, who attained Arahantship at the age of seven. All ten questions are deep. This is the second question, and its answer is precisely what we are concerned with here: nāmañca rūpañca, name-and-form.

Name-and-form is an early stage in the process of becoming, Dependent Origination (paṭicca-samuppāda) discovered by the Buddha. The reciprocal relationship between name and form creates a vortex, a dynamic feedback loop that generates the energy and information required for further stages of becoming.

The Process of Becoming

It is plain that nāma means ‘name’ in the Suttas. However the Commentaries hesitate to recognize this obvious meaning. Even in the context of the simple question above, the Paramatthajotikā commentary employs contorted etymology, explaining nāma to mean ‘bending’. It says that all immaterial states are called nāma, in the sense that they bend towards their respective objects and also because the mind has the nature of inclination.

Unfortunately this forced, obscurantist misinterpretation became the standard definition of nāma in all subsequent Abhidhamma compendiums and commentaries. The complex idea of bending towards an object is unnecessarily brought in to explain the simple word nāma. Maybe they thought because it has to do with deep insight, explaining nāma as ‘name’ was too simplistic for good exegesis. However, nāma still has a great depth and power even when understood simply as ‘name’.

“Name has conquered everything
There is nothing greater than name
All have come under the sway
Of this one thing called name.” — Nāma Sutta (S I 39)

The mechanism of delusion operates primarily through language: “I think, therefore ‘I am’.” We assign verbal labels and semantic tags to our experience, and then begin to reason with and about them without further reference to the actualities they represent. Heidegger called this ‘idle talk’, because it produces no value in terms of actual understanding.

Reality is dynamic, ever-changing, but the symbols we assign to phenomena are static. Consequently even if we take pains not to distort the definitions of our terms, as soon as they are created the underlying reality changes, robbing them of support. Then when we come back to actual experience expecting to find the results of our ‘impeccable logic’, we are sorely disappointed. This is a major source of suffering due to cognitive dissonance, especially for ‘educated’ but unenlightened people.

Here is another verse whose original meaning is often ignored by commentators:

“Beings are conscious of what can be named
They are established on the nameable
By not comprehending the nameable things
They come under the yoke of death.” — Samiddhi Sutta (S I 11)

This verse reveals a basic relation between ontology and consciousness: ordinarily we are aware only of what we can name. In other words, we perceive a world of ‘things’ that are mainly symbols and concepts. Conversely, if we lack a word or symbol for a perception or experience, we tend to throw it into our mental trash bin, and as a result often remain completely unconscious of it. To register in our attention, a thing or experience must be recognizable.

Recognition marks the shift from immediate experience to reflexive experience, from the world of the senses to the delusive conceptual world we normally inhabit. This is explained elaborately in the Mūla-pariyāya SuttaAt first we simply perceive an object of the senses pre-conceptually. Once we recognize it, however, we shift to the conceptual mode. Then step-by-step we conceive its relationship to ‘I’, projecting the conceit of ‘self’ on the object and marking its acquisition as ‘mine’. This egoistic conceit is the origin of our delusion about that perception or thing. This all happens automatically, habitually, in an instant. We don’t actually comprehend what we are doing, therefore our conceptualizations become a source of suffering.

All this shows that the word nāma has a deep significance, even when it is simply taken in the sense of ‘name’. But just to be certain, let us see whether there is anything wrong in rendering nāma as ‘name’. Here is the definition of nāma-rūpa given by the Venerable Sāriputta:

“Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention — this, friend, is called ‘name’. The four great primaries and form dependent on the four great primaries — this, friend, is called ‘form’. So this is ‘name’ and this is ‘form’; this, friend, is called ‘name-and-form’.” — Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (M I 46)

Now is there any justification for regarding feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention as ‘name’? Suppose there is a toddler who is unable to speak or understand language. Someone gives the infant a rubber ball for the first time. If he is told “This is a rubber ball,” he will not understand. How does he get to know that object? He smells it, feels it, tries to eat it, and finally throws it or rolls it on the floor. His face brightens as at last he cognizes it as a toy. Now the child has recognized the rubber ball — not by the name that the world has given it, but functionally and pre-conceptually by the factors included under ‘name’ in nāma-rūpa: feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention.

We can recognize an object and make it ‘mine’ even without language. The world attaches a name to the object for easier communication. When the name gets the agreement of others, it becomes a consensus reality. This shows that the definition of nāma given by the Venerable Sāriputta is actually a fundamental or functional notion of ‘name’, the pre-conceptual prototype or sensory template for later development of language.

Now however much he may be conversant with the conventional world, a meditator also has to understand and realize this elementary, pre-conceptual name-and-form world. But if a meditator wants to explore this pre-conceptual name-and-form, he has to return to the state of a child, at least from the point of view of consensus reality. This is why a meditator develops mindfulness and full awareness of feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention — sati-sampajañña — instead of words to understand name-and-form through his practice.

Of course for the meditator, the equanimity of innocence is accompanied by knowledge, not by ignorance. Even though he is able to recognize objects by their conventional names, a meditator prefers to develop mindfulness of the factors that are included in Venerable Sāriputta’s definition of nāma: feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention. This practice for comprehending name-and-form is given in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and elsewhere. The meditator does not forget the consensus reality of language and semantic conceptual understanding; he merely sets it aside for the duration of his meditation.

The point is that the pre-conceptual world is specific to each individual; that is why the Dhamma has to be realized by oneself: paccattaṃ veditabbo. You have to understand your unique pre-conceptual world of name-and-form by yourself. No one else can do it for you. Nor can it be defined or denoted by technical terms, because such terminology is also part of name-and-form, subject to the limitations of semantic conceptual conceits and the definitions of delusive consensus consciousness. To comprehend nāma-rūpa and attain Nibbāna, one must find a standpoint outside of conceptual consciousness. We will deal with this issue in the next essay.


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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