A diagram of the traditional 12 nidānas and
explanations from Pāli and Chinese Āgama texts.
Click for a larger image.
I'm aware of a few modern attempts to rationalise this term and will gloss some of them.
What is clear is that once we move away from simplified popular presentations of Buddhist doctrine, there is no single and coherent understanding of what this term means or represents. And this is a continuing quandary because it suggests that we have lost touch with the spirit of the texts. If we no longer understand key terms (and I would suggest that saṃkhārā is another candidate for this category) then there is a discontinuity. Being stuck with the term we have come up with different and mutually incompatible explanations, but this only adds to the sense of confusion (rather like commentaries on the Heart Sūtra which are all from incompatible sectarian points of view).
I have no better explanation to offer. No theory, and no sense that any one of the existing theories has recover the lost meaning of the term.
Another issue with nāmarūpa and its place in the 12 nidāna chain is that it suggests that viññāna is a precondition for form, which the received tradition usually treats as the physical body. Although Buddhists complain when they perceive consciousness being treated as an epiphenomenon of the brain, they apparently have no problem believing that the body is an epiphenomenon of the mind. Not even the Three Lifetimes Interpretation can save us from this conclusion. The Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna are mutually conditioning, but this doesn't really help us. However elsewhere we find viññāna arising in dependence on the āyatanas (the six sense faculties and the six sense objects). This suggests we can have sense faculties, which includes the eyes, before we have a body. It seems to me that the received tradition has lost the thread somewhere along the line. Buddhists usually gloss over these kinds of inconsistencies and do their best to make sense of them. And unfortunately there is no scholarly consensus on what nāmarūpa might have originally meant in a Buddhist context. Perhaps it's time to rethink this strategy of papering over the cracks?
- Bucknell, Roderick S. (1999) Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 22 (2), 312-342,
- Frauwallner, E. (1973). History of Indian Philosophy. (Vol. 1). (V. Bedekar, trans.) Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
- Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Curzon.
- Hamilton Early Buddhism a New Approach.
- Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. Paṭiccasamuppāda in Context: The Buddha in Debate with Brahmanical Thinking. M.Phil Dissertation. Cambridge University [unpublished]
- Jurewicz, J. Playing with Fire: the pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic Thought. Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26, p.77-103