Nama-rupa: Name and Form

The Bodymind

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Nama-rupa, sometimes spelled namarupa, is a Sanskrit and Pali term that comes up frequently in Buddhism. It literally means "name and form," although it is sometimes translated "mind and body." And sometimes "mind and body" is run together into "bodymind." The term originated in Hinduism, although I believe Hindu teachings about nama-rupa are not exactly the same as Buddhist teachings.

It's important to understand that nama-rupa is not two completely separate things somehow glued together.

Nama and rupa inter-exist; they are inter-dependent on each other. When one becomes, so does the other. When one fails, so does the other. Some teachers encourage us to think of nama-rupa as a dynamic process rather than as "things."

Nama-rupa in the 12 Links

The 12 Links of Dependent Origination is a doctrine originating with the historical Buddha. Dependent Origination explains how things are caused to be, are, and cease to be. Very simply, this doctrine says that no creator god or supernatural force causes anything to be. Instead, the many beings and phenomena are caused by the conditions created by other beings and phenomena. All of this causing and conditioning takes place in an all-pervading field of existence that is constantly in flux. Everything inter-exists; nothing can exist apart from other things. This is something like natural law.

The 12 Links is a simple explanation of how beings become, exist, and cease.

Nama-rupa is the name of the fourth link, which is associated with conception and also marks the joining of the five skandhas into an individual existence. The skandhas are the physical and mental properties that come together to make an individual.

According to the Twelves Links doctrine, nama-rupa is preceded by awareness, or in this case vijnana.

The Sanskrit word vijnana sometimes is translated as "mind," also, but it is a particular function of mind. This is not the mind that thinks or reasons. Some teachers call vijnana the central psychological "organ." It is the awareness that creates sensory experience. For example, through vijnana a sound combines with the ear to create the sensation of hearing.

The condition of vijnana conditions nama-rupa, and nama-rupa then conditions the fifth link, faculties and objects, which are the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind -- in this case "mind" is not vijnana but manas, which is the intellectual, thinking mind) and their corresponding objects (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thoughts).

Nama-rupa as Physical and Mental Conditions

The venerable Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah once said,

"What do you have sitting here right now? Just body and mind, that's all, only these two things. Everything sitting in this physical lump here is 'body.' 'Mind' is what's aware of sense impressions and is thinking in the present. These two things are also called nama and rupa. Nama refers to what has no rupa, or form. All thoughts and sensations, such as feelings, perceptions, thought-fabrications, and consciousness, are nama. They're all formless. When the eye sees forms, those forms are called rupa. The awareness of forms is called nama. Together they're called nama and rupa, or simply body and mind." ["Still, Flowing Water," translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

This interplay of nama and rupa is what life, and the experience of life, is made of. This nama-rupa is the same thing as the skandhas. But while, in a narrow sense, it is you, you are not it. The Buddha was clear that the skandhas, the body-mind, are not the self. See, for example, the Cula-Saccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 35). What is the self? Please see "Self, No Self, What's a Self?"