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Name-&-Form and Consciousness

We may now consider the general structure of an experience in some detail. My present experience is that seated on the chair, I am conscious of a bottle of ink in front of me.

This is a description of my present situation or experience in everyday language. However, closer examination of this experience reveals a state of affairs that is rather alien to this everyday manner of thinking and speaking.

It is easy to see that my experience is really my being conscious of some perceptions (black color, a certain shape) some feelings (pleasant bodily feeling of sitting, pleasant mental feeling that the bottle contains sufficient ink) and some determinations (intention to dip the pen in it, etc.). And of course, to be conscious of these feelings, perceptions and determinations, a lump of matter called ‘my body’ and a lump of matter called ‘bottle of ink’ must also be present.

Any experience can be analyzed like this into the five clinging-aggregates. However in an experience, each and every one of the five clinging-aggregates is not explicit in its totality. For instance, the entire aggregate of perception (sight-, sound-, smell-, taste-, touch- and idea-perception) may not be explicit. So also with the aggregate of feeling. But we do see quite clearly that in an experience there are matter, feeling, perception, determinations and consciousness, though we may not see that there are feeling, perception and consciousness sprung from all the six bases. In any case we can refer to an experience as a set of five clinging-aggregates; and each new experience is a fresh set.

It would be misleading to regard a part of an experience as ‘in me’ and another part as being ‘in the object’. ‘I see a book’ is the experience, and without this experience there is no book and no ‘I’. Since both book and ‘I’ depend upon the experience, we have to give priority to the experience. The true situation is: “There is an experience of ‘I’ seeing the book.” This experience can be analyzed into the five clinging-aggregates. Note that the constituents of the experience are the five clinging-aggregates, and not just the five aggregates. That is because subjectivity is present: “’I’ see a book.”

Thus any experience can be described as being conscious of the four aggregates of form (matter), feeling, perception and determinations. (We are not now dealing with the Buddha refers to as experience in the arūpa or ‘immaterial’ spheres.) Since clinging is also present, the experience is further described as being with clinging (sa-upādāna). This clinging—considering as ‘I’ and ‘mine’—being involved with the primary significance or intention in the experience, can be classified primarily within the aggregate of determinations; but of course, it envelops all the aggregates.

Further examination of the experience reveals that the totality of the aggregates of feeling, perception and determinations is really the manner in which I am conscious of matter. We may there fore call this the totality of the aggregates of feeling, perception and determinations as the appearance of matter—’appearance’ being taken in a broad sense, not limited to visual appearance alone. For this reason it is convenient for us to consider the three aggregates of feeling, perception and determinations as a whole; and as a whole they are referred to as nāma: name rather than appearance. The four aggregates of matter (form), feeling, perception and determinations would then be name-&-form (matter or nāmarūpa) and any experience would then be name-&-form and consciousness (nāmarūpa saha viññāna).

Our use of the term ‘appearance’ (rather than ‘behavior’ or ‘substance’) and ‘reality’ have nothing to do with the fictitious distinctions between appearance and reality of Bradley, Kant and others. Appearance is also something real; it is present. The view that there is some reality beyond or behind appearance is most misleading. What is wrong with that view is that it assumes a reality behind or beyond things, and thus independent of the individual’s consciousness. A reality is an existence, and any existence is always within the sphere of consciousness, it is always related to consciousness because existence is always existence in some form, and form is always an involvement with consciousness. No one can find anything existing that has nothing to do with his consciousness. Anything that is existent for me must be related with my consciousness, at least in my imagination. This is precisely why matter (rūpa) cannot be said to exist by itself. Matter is that which presents itself as matter, and this presence as matter or existence as matter is always related with consciousness.

Phenomena or appearances are there just as they are, and they can be observed and described just as they are, although they may not be obvious or simple. Kant says that it is a scandal of philosophy and of human reason in general that there is still no cogent proof for the ‘being-there of things outside of us’ that can withstand the attack of skepticism. Heidegger calls the bluff by remarking, “The ‘scandal of philosophy’ is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such impossible proofs are expected and attempted again and again.” [Being and Time] When the spurious problems of the ‘external world’ or so-called ‘objective reality’ independent of the perceiver are relinquished, materialism is also relinquished, though matter is not. This futile quest for an ‘objective reality’ has rendered philosophies like Kant’s meaningless and divorced from actual experience. Their quest requires positing some ‘pure original unchangeable consciousness’ or similar thing to get one step nearer to the ‘objective reality’ which would be forever identical for all. But such a consciousness is a contradiction, simply because consciousness is individual and individuality. That claim is a kind of mysticism going over and above the individual’s consciousness—a ‘transcendental apperception’ that bears more than a passing resemblance to theological belief.

The Buddha defines name (nāma) as:

Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention—this is called name.” — Vibhaṅga Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.2)

In this definition, intention, contact and attention are taken to represent determinations. The justification for this is twofold:

  1. Perception directly involves contact—which is the coming together of the internal and external bases for consciousness and a particular kind of consciousness, e.g. the eye (internal base), sight (external base) and eye-consciousness.
  2. The fourth aggregate of determinations as intention includes attention, for attention is structurally inseparable from intention.

A very common error is assuming that nāmarūpa refers to ‘mind-&-matter’. Rūpa certainly refers to matter; but it should be clear that nāma is not mind. Related to this erroneous assumption is another (promoted in some exegetical books) that nāma includes consciousness (viññāna). Name does not include consciousness; it only involves it as a necessary or inevitable consequence. An experience is not only name-&-matter; it is name-&-matter and consciousness. In Pāli, this means that an experience is not only nāmarūpa, it is nāmarūpa saha viññāna, where saha means ‘together with’. (Paṭiccasamuppādo, Dīgha-Nikāya 15.1)

The totality of feelings, perceptions and determinations present when one is conscious of a material object A is different from when one is conscious of another material object. At least name (nāma) must be different in each case, though the general structure of the experience remains similar. We distinguish different experiences by giving different designations (adhivacana) to them. ‘Name’ in its common meaning can also refer to this differentiation by designation.

Thus designation actually pertains to nāma. But since nāma is the appearance of the object, we refer to the object by this designation. ‘Book’ is really a designation given to a particular appearance (nāma); and this appearance is the appearance of a particular lump of matter (rūpa). Indirectly, by way of name (nāma), we designate the lump of matter as ‘book’. The nāma is a pointer to the rūpa.

This creates two interesting interrelations between nāma and rūpa:

  1. Since matter has the characteristic of inertia or persistence, its appearance is seen to persist, remain the same. Since matter has the property of inertia (patigha), we discern in name (nāma) an inertia.
  2. Since appearance has some particular designation, its substance—the matter which when cognized gives this appearance—is seen to have a designation. Since name (nāma) has the characteristic of designation (adhivacana), we discern in matter (rūpa) a designation.

The first case is called ‘inertia in name-body’ (nāmakāye patugha) by the Suttas; the second is called ‘designation in matter-body’ (rūpakāye adhivacana).


  1. inertia is a characteristic of matter, and matter is behavior—the four primary modes of behavior (solid, liquid, fire & air)—therefore inertia is a characteristic of behavior;
  2. name (nāma) is also the appearance of matter, thus it is the appearance of behavior.

Accordingly, ‘inertia of name-body’ corresponds to ‘behavior of appearance’, and ‘designation in matter-body’ corresponds to ‘appearance of behavior’. And in experience we do observe that there is a behavior of appearance and an appearance of behavior. We see that appearance behaves and behavior appears. For example, the appearance of a clock behaves in a certain way, and the behavior of a clock appears in a certain way.

All this shows why we cannot speak of matter or form (rūpa) without name (nāma), or of name without matter. We can only speak of them in combination, which is called name-&-form (nāmarūpa). Again we cannot speak of experience in terms of name-&-form only; it is always name-&-form and consciousness.

Now, matter is both internal (ajjhattika) and external (bāhira) to the individual; and since name-&-form is cognized matter, we can have two kinds of name-&-matter: internal and external. Since in an experience we can cognize both internal and external matter, we can have both kinds of name-&-form in the same experience. The internal and most important is  ‘this cognized body of mine’ and the external is the cognized matter just now present around me. Thus there is a dyad of name-&-form. The Buddha says:

So there is just this body and name-&-form externally. In this way there is a dyad.” — Bālapaṇḍita Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.19)

‘Body’ (kāya) is the designation for the cognized internal matter.

So the position is that when we say our experience is name-&-form and consciousness, in this statement we reckon name-&-form as the total cognized matter: both internal and external. For example, “I am sitting on this chair in this room, writing.” Not only am I cognizing my own body (internal) but also the matter around me (external). Ultimately, I am not concerned purely and simply with myself, but with myself as determined by the whole situation. And this ‘myself as determined by the whole situation’ is also ‘my world’ at that particular time, and that means it is spatiotemporal.

It is not difficult to see from the analysis of experience we have made so far  to see a most important characteristic of the relationship between name-&-form and consciousness. It can be described as simultaneity, a characteristic we will have to speak more about later on. Name-&-form and consciousness arise, simultaneously together; likewise they cease together. There is no lapse of time between the two. There is a time-lapse between breathing in and breathing out, since one precedes or follows the other in time. Breathing in and breathing out therefore are ‘involving time’ (kālika). But with name-&-form and consciousness, if one is there, so is the other. Indeed it cannot be otherwise, precisely because an experience is constituted of both name-&-form and consciousness.

The Buddha points out the simultaneous relationship between name-&-form and consciousness thus:

In what being there, is name-&-form there? Dependent on what is name-&-form? In consciousness being there, name-&-form is there. Dependent on consciousness there is name-&-form.

“In what being there, is consciousness there? Dependent on what is there consciousness? In name-&-form being there, consciousness is there. Dependent on name-&-form there is consciousness.

“This consciousness turns back from name-&-form; it does not go beyond.” — Mahāpadāna Sutta (Dīgha-Nikāya 14)

So consciousness determines name-&-form, and name-&-form determine consciousness. One is the determination (sankhāra) for the other. Since each is the other’s determination, there is a relationship of simultaneity. They arise together, persist together and cease together; there is a total reciprocal simultaneity, total reciprocal dependence between them.

Inasmuch as any experience is purely a matter of name-&-form and consciousness, wherein one is the determination for the other, the whole of life runs its course being a matter of name-&-form and consciousness—with the qualification that in the case of the puthujjana with whom we have been concerned so far, it is with clinging.

Thus far, Ānanda, one may be born or age or die or fall or arise, thus far there is a way of designation, thus far there is a way of language, thus far there is a way of description, thus far there is a way of understanding, thus far the round proceeds as manifestation in a situation—so far, that is to say, as there is name-&-form together with consciousness.” Paṭiccasamuppādo (Dīgha-Nikāya 15.1)

Cultivation of Dependent Origination ← Prev | Next → Craving

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