02 September 2011


A diagram of the traditional 12 nidānas and explanations from Pāli and Chinese Āgama texts. Click for a larger image.
TODAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the rather mysterious term 'nāmarūpa' in a Buddhist context. The word has a history pre-dating its use in Buddhist texts, but I don't have space for a fully fledged archaeology. Most of us will only be familiar with the received tradition which defines what this word means, but there are problems with this tradition, and when we begin to explore it things are less than clear.
The word is most often translated as 'name and form', though one also sees such variants as 'sentient-body'. It is the fourth of the 12 nidānas. However, nāmarūpa is a difficult term to pin down precisely. For instance, it does occur in the truncated nidāna sequence in the Mahānidāna Sutta, but unlike the other terms it is not defined in that text.
Elsewhere in the canon the nāma in nāmarūpa is defined in terms of: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, phassa, and mansikāra. However, saṅkhārā precedes nāmarūpa in the nidāna sequence, and both phassa and vedanā follow it. So this does not make sense. Another fairly well known definition, found in the Chinese Āgama texts according to Roderick Bucknell (1999) and in the Pāli (S ii.3), equates nāmarūpa with the five khandhā: rūpa is the four elements (catumahābhūta: paṭhavī, āpo, tejo, vāyo; earth, water, fire, wind) while nāma is the remaining khandhas, i.e. vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāna. This is no better. Again, vedanā comes later; and both saṅkhārā and viññāṇa come before. I'm left wondering why the tradition would explain things this way. I find that the simplified popular presentations of this material make a certain kind of sense, but in reading the Pāli Canon and examining the texts that sense drops away, I'm left feeling puzzled. There is no coherence.

I'm aware of a few modern attempts to rationalise this term and will gloss some of them.

Eric Frauwallner (1973) observed that a sequence beginning with taṇha was quite common and concluded that the nidāna sequence was originally two shorter sequences. This has become a popular notion. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to solve the problem of cross-over in the definitions. The shorter versions of the sequence may equally be an abbreviation as an elaboration. Even so, this only places the confusing aspects of the sequence together into the second group. Frauwallner's hypothesis doesn't help us solve the problems of interpreting nāmarūpa.
Dhīvan Thomas Jones, in his 2009 M.Phil thesis, has taken a slightly different approach. He notes that the Suttanipāta contains another (better) candidate for a primitive nidāna sequence in the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Sn 168-170) with synonymous but different terms to the standard model. This sequence begins with nāmarūpa, and leaves out viññāṇa, which helps, but includes sāta-asāta (pleasant and unpleasant) as an equivalent of vedanā which still leaves us with a contradiction if this is part of the definition of nāmarūpa.
One of the most interesting developments of recent times is the attempt by Joanna Jurewicz to show that the terms in the nidānas were deliberately chosen as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. Richard Gombrich (2009, esp. ch.9) has taken this idea and wedded it to Frauwallner's 'two sequence' explanation to suggest that the original list was the short sequence from taṇha onwards, and that this was extended using terms from the Vedic lexicon to form a deliberate parody of Vedic cosmogony. Dhīvan Thomas Jones has shown that this not unproblematic, mainly because there is no evidence to show that Frauwallner's sequence is primitive. The same kind of process might have occurred with the Kalahavivāda Sutta (or something like it) as the nucleus of a teaching on becoming, that was given an ironic twist so that it could also serve as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. This is reasonably plausible, though of course there is no sign of cognizance of such a strategy in the Buddhist tradition itself, so if this is what happened it was almost immediately forgotten by the tradition which adopted it. Such forgetfulness is not easily explained with reference to teachings of such central importance, especially in the face of open and explicit criticism of Brahmins elsewhere. However, the context shows that the commentarial tradition (including those suttas which comment on the sequence) is not internally consistent, so something has gone wrong somewhere.
Bucknell (1999) summarises Reat who sees nāmarūpa as referring to objects of consciousness: nāma refers to conceptual (adhivacana) and rūpa to sensory (paṭigha). As Bucknell points out this view is criticised by both Peter Harvey and Sue Hamilton. However, Reat's suggestion would fit nicely with Dhīvan's model of the development from a nucleus - the primitive nāmarūpa qua objects of consciousness giving rise to 'contact' (phassa) makes some sense. Hamilton's view is that nāma "should be taken to refer to abstract identity and [rūpa] to physically (though not necessarily visibly) recognisable identity." (p.151) For Hamilton nāmarūpa is closely tied to viññāṇa as is shown by the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) that links the two of them in a mutually conditioning relationship. Reat and Hamilton's positions are subtly different, but not incompatible I think.

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?


[I'll be away from 2-9 Sept]
  • 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
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