Untangling the Tangle

Dhamma is what actually is, as opposed to what only appears to be.

“There’s a tangle within, a tangle without, The world is entangled with a tangle. Of that, O Gotama, I ask you: Who can disentangle this tangle?” — Jaṭā Sutta(SN 7.6)

According to the Buddha, suffering is not out there in the ‘objective’ world theorized by conventional worldly philosophers. The origin of suffering is found in our subjective conceptual world of name-and-form. As it is said: acchecchi taṇhaṃ idha nāmarūpe: the aim of a meditator is to “cut off the craving in this name-and-form.” (Samiddhi SuttaS I 12)

Let’s use a simile from the Suttas to clarify: the Buddha is called the ‘incomparable surgeon’, sallakatto anuttaro (Sela SuttaSn 56). Also he is sometimes called taṇhāsallassa hantāraṃ, ‘one who removes the dart of craving’ (Pavāraṇā Sutta, S I 192). So the Buddha is the incomparable surgeon who pulls out the poison-tipped arrow of craving.

Therefore nāma-rūpa is like the wound in which the poisonous arrow of craving is embedded. When one is wounded by a poison-tipped arrow, first of all the wound has to be cleaned up. Then the bandage has to be applied, not on the archer or on his arrow, but on the wound itself. Similarly, comprehension of name-and-form is the preliminary step in the treatment of the wound caused by the poison-tipped arrow of craving. Trying to ‘fix saṃsāra’, or improve the external condition of the world, will be of absolutely no help in overcoming suffering.

Thus a meditator, however proficient he may be in conventional worldly usage of words, has to pay special attention to the basic pre-conceptual components of nāma, as defined by Venerable Sāriputta: feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention. This requires a process of deconditioning, awakening from the hypnotic trance induced by family, schooling, media and society. It involves unlearning habitual verbal associations down to childlike simplicity. But of course, the meditative equanimity thus developed is not based on ignorance but on knowledge.

The significance of rūpa in nāma-rūpa is similar. Here too we have something deep, but many take nāma-rūpa to mean ‘mind and matter’, ‘mind and body’ or even ‘mentality-materiality’. Like uninstructed materialists, they assume that mind and matter are disjunct. But in Dhamma there is no such rigid Aristotelian duality. Nāma and rūpa are intimately interrelated, and taken together the pair forms an important link in the chain of paṭicca samuppāda, Dependent Origination.

Rūpa exists in relation to nāma. That is, form is known with the help of name. As we saw in the previous article, the infant gets first-hand knowledge of the rubber ball through contact, feeling, perception, intention and attention, even before he knows its name. Similarly, the definition of rūpa is given by Venerable Sāriputta as:

cattāri ca mahābhūtāni, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ

“The four great primaries and form dependent on the four great primaries — this, friend, is called ‘form’.” —Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta

Air, water, fire, earth

The four great primary elements constitute the most primal pre-conceptual notion of form. Just as feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention represent the primary notion of nāma in conventional understanding, the four great primaries form the basis for the primary notion of form as the world sees it.

It’s not easy to recognize these primaries without deep contemplation of their natures. But out of their interplay we get the perception of form, rūpasaññā. In fact what is called rūpa in this context is actually rūpasaññā. The world builds up its concept of form in reference to the behavior of the four great elements. The perception, recognition and designation of form is experienced in terms of the behavior of the elements. And that behavior is known with the help of nāma: feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention.

The earth element is recognized through the qualities of hardness and softness, the water element through the qualities of cohesiveness and dissolution, the fire element through hotness and coolness, and the wind element through motion and inflation. In this way one gets acquainted with the nature of the four great primaries. And the perception of form, rūpasaññā, that one has at the back of one’s mind, is the net result of that acquaintance. So this nāma-rūpa is one’s ontology, one’s background notion of ‘the world’.

The relationship between rūpa and rūpasaññā will be clear from the following verse, where a deity puts a riddle before the Buddha for solution:

“There’s a tangle within, a tangle without,
The world is entangled with a tangle.
Of that, O Gotama, I ask you:
Who can disentangle this tangle?” — Jaṭā Sutta

The Buddha answers the riddle in three verses, the first of which is fairly well known, because it happens to be the opening verse of the Visuddhimagga:

“A wise monk, established in virtue,
developing concentration and wisdom,
being ardent and prudent,
is able to disentangle this tangle.

“In whom lust, hate
And ignorance have faded away,
Those influx-free Arahants,
In them the tangle is disentangled.

“Where name and form
As well as resistance and the perception of form
Are completely cut off,
It is there that the tangle gets untangled.”

The reference here is to Nibbāna, where the tangle is disentangled.

The coupling of name-and-form with paṭigha and rūpasaññā in this context is significant. Here paṭigha is used, not in its common meaning of ‘repugnance’, but ‘resistance’ — the resistance of inert matter. For instance, when one blindly knocks against something in passing, one turns back to recognize it. But even before that, one knows generally what kind of object it is by its resistance. The Buddha has said that the worldling is blind until the Eye of the Dhamma (dhamma-cakkhu) arises in him. So the blind worldling recognizes an object by the resistance he encounters in contacting it.

Paṭigha and rūpasaññā form a pair analogous to nāma-rūpa. Paṭigha is the resistance experienced when we contact an object, and rūpasaññā, perception of form, is the resulting recognition of that object. This perception is in terms of feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention to what is hard or soft, hot or cold and so on. Out of such perceptions of sense contact common to blind worldlings arises the conventional reality, the ontological conception of ‘the world’.

Knowledge and understanding are almost always associated with words and concepts — to the point that if one simply knows the name of a thing, one is thought to know it. Because of this misconception the world is in a tangle. Names and concepts — nouns and verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions — perpetuate ignorance in the world.

Actual knowledge is non-conceptual

Therefore phenomenological insight into the actual non-conceptual nature of reality is the only possibility of release. And that is why a meditator practically comes down to the level of a child in order to understand name and form. He is working to disentangle the notions of paṭigha and rūpasaññā from nāma-rūpa. He may even have to pretend to be disabled, slowing down his movements to develop mindfulness and full awareness of every action.

So there is something really deep in nāma-rūpa, even if we render it simply as ‘name-and-form’. There is an implicit connection with ‘name’ as conventionally so called, but unfortunately this connection is obscured in the Commentaries and Abhidhamma by bringing in the idea of ‘bending’ to explain the word ‘name’. So we need not hesitate to render nāma-rūpa byname-and-form’. Simple as it may superficially appear, nāma-rūpa as used in the Suttas goes far deeper than the worldly concepts of name and form.

In conclusion: ‘name’ in ‘name-and-form’ is a formal name, an apparent name. ‘Form’ in ‘name-and-form’ is a nominal form, a form only in name. Both are products of fabrication. Actual reality is unknowable by words, concepts and symbols; ordinarily we can be conscious of only that fraction of experience for which we have a name-and-form on file in our ontology. The key to overcoming this pervasive illusion is to decondition ourselves from the conventional understanding of nāma-rūpa by long training in specific attention informed by the Buddha’s teaching of Dhamma: what actually is, as opposed to what only appears to be.


Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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