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On Understanding Namarupa  

Kingsley Heendeniya

Bertrand Russell defines matter (Rupa) as the series of appearances of substance that obeys the laws of physics. That is, (appearance of) Rupa is independent of the observer, place and time. The Buddha defines it differently for his purpose to describe the arising and ceasing of Dukkha.

Matter or Rupa is inertia or patigaha and consist of the mahabhuta: earthy or solid or persistent, watery or cohesive, fiery or ripening, airy or distended or moving. This is an elemental description of behaviour of matter. To be experienced, in any one or a combination of sights, smell, sounds, tastes, tangibles and ideas or imagination, Rupa appears as shape, size, colour; putrid, fragrant; melody, rhythm; sweet, sour; coarse, soft; exciting, dull etc. These are the percepts or qualities by which the mahabhuta are recognized or perceived.

Widely misunderstood

Thus, Nama is the appearance of Rupa, 'what it looks like' and not 'how it is', whether solid, watery, fiery or airy. In other words, Rupa by itself cannot be said to exist. It must appear and there must be consciousness to recognise it. Space can be added but it has no standing of its own. Russell and the Buddha agree up to this point.

Namarupa  as widely misunderstood, is not mind and matter. The Buddha did not teach how to bend teaspoons or influence the throw of a dice with the mind! Namarupa  is name and matter. Nama is designation, or name - adhivacana. It is defined as vedana, sanna, cetana, phassa and manasikara (feelings, perceptions, intentions, contact, attention).

When objects come within range and appear as shape, size, colour; putrid, fragrant; melody, rhythm, sweet, sour; coarse, soft; exciting, dull etc, and when there is the intact eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind with respective eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-consciousness, there is engagement or contact (phassa). Contact is with me and things.

The experience instantly evokes or provokes feelings, perceptions and intentions. This is how there comes to be the amassing, storage, memory and growth of matter, feelings, perceptions and, intentions. (Mahahatthipadopama Sutta). When we see and touch a flower and cognize shape, colour, fragrance, and silkiness there is accompanying pleasant feelings and intentions.

When we see and touch say, a naked body, and as our attention (manasikara) shifts around parts of the naked body, the experience produces varying lust or revulsion. But no two persons may have identical feelings, perceptions and intentions.

The observer has affected the object. No amount of physics can explain this though quantum theory tries to close the stable door after the horse has been stolen. Without an observer there is no object.

The eye cannot experience sound, smell and taste. The ear cannot experience colour, sweetness or roughness. And so on. That is, Rupa is independent of all six modes of consciousness.

Experience is a complex generation from the impact of two or more senses with things. A feeling is not perceived and a perception is not felt. Feelings and perceptions are cognized. That is, Nama or the appearance of Rupa requires or entails consciousness.

What is felt is only Nama. What is totally cognized is Namarupa  and there must also be consciousness.

Notes on Dhamma

Namarupa  and vinnana is an overlapping, an imbrication like tiles on a roof. There is more to be said here that is outside the scope of this essay. Interested persons are referred to the writings of Ven. Nanavira Thera in 'Notes on Dhamma'.

Since the Dhamma is about Dukkha, about feelings, about the inherent tendencies of the body and inclinations of the mind, Namarupa  and vinnana are basic for understanding Dhamma.

The Buddha says that whatever is felt is Dukkha. How should the meaning of this be understood?

We can now immediately say that is because whatever is experienced is namarupa. 'A stupid or intelligent man, monks, constrained by nescience and attached by craving, has thus acquired this body. So there is just this body and name and matter externally: in that way there is a dyad.' (Samyutta. II, 24).

Perceptions and intentions

The body or Rupa is independent of consciousness but together with its appearance, as we normally take it, it is Namarupa. Namarupa  externally is all cognized things apart from one's own body. We exist in relations with the surroundings and our feelings, perceptions and intentions are determined by sense data from contact with surrounding objects, thoughts and imaginations.

The advertising people, unlike physicists, have understood rupa. Notice how they contrive to get objects to evoke and provoke feelings, perceptions and intentions by manipulating shape, colour, smell, sound, touch etc. Things on a supermarket shelf seem to be screaming 'Take me!' 'Eat me!' Everywhere, in the home, on the road, in the forest or anywhere anyhow, we are confronted with Namarupa  - human, animal, plant or inanimate. Their impact is pleasant or unpleasant feeling.

Feelings lead to craving or attachment. This is the origin of Dukkha. So long as we have intact senses and mind, Namarupa  will hold us in their thrall. So long as we let ourselves be caught in this trap, because we possess six senses, often unguarded, so long will the end result be Dukkha.

All feelings are dependent on contact. 'The world is tormented by contact' says the Buddha. All things dependent on other things (Sankhara) are impermanent. All things impermanent and subjective (Aniccata) are Dukkha.

So how do we get out of this Namarupa  trap? Theoretically, we can understand from the foregoing that the way to do it is to excise or de-couple the nama-body from the rupa-body (Namakaye-patigaha, rupakaye-adhivacana). That is precisely the aim of Dhamma.

There is then left only Rupa and vinnana - six elements of earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness - as in the Arahat.

The end of Dukkha

When this scission is achieved, in the seen shall only be the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed, in the cognized only the cognized. We shall then not be 'with that' and when we are not 'with that' we shall not be 'in that'. When we are not 'in that' then we shall not be here nor there nor in between the two.

We shall have neither pleasant, nor unpleasant nor neutral feelings and perceptions. It shall be the end of Dukkha.

For most of us, that is a million miles away. Nevertheless we should beware of Namarupa, internally and externally. We should attenuate the havoc of Namarupa  on consciousness. We should strive to achieve dispassion (Viraga) from understanding the operating principle of Paticcasamuppada, of dependent arising. We should practise, meditate and cultivate mindfulness and control of the five senses and the mind. This is understanding Namarupa.


Source: Sri Lanka Daily News, 19 April 2004 - https://www.dailynews.lk

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last updated: 11-07-2004