I’m still baffled by the start of the sequence. Ignorance. Constructing activities, consciousness, name and form. From there on it seems clear, but in the initial 4 parts are we talking about a pre-incarnation sequence, or are we talking about a preconscious sequence?
I don’t understand how name and form can precede the senses. Both Thanissaro Bikkhu and Peter Harvey acknowledge that this is confusing.
Would a deeper acquaintance with the hindu background help? Just what exactly is nama-rupa?
Could you summarize how he explains the nama-rupa problem? The most complex concept can be described simply, by an analogy. And the Buddha always expressed key concepts with deliberate simplicity, even when others were very frustrated by his refusal to go off on tangents. That’s why I’m skeptical of explanations requiring diagrams and feedback loops, at least when the solution is not offered up front in a way that suggests the direction taken.
“Chapter 6. Causal condition” (pp. 150-205; particularly 169-192) in The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A Comparative Study Based on the Sūtrāṅga portion of the Pāli Saṃyutta-Nikāya and the Chinese Saṃyuktāgama (Series: Beitrage zur Indologie Band 32; Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2000) by Choong Mun-keat.
It baffles me, and I don’t find any of the interpretations entirely convincing, particularly those that mess around with the nidana “definitions” in SN12. 2.
I assume the nidanas from formations to feeling are a description of how experience develops, and that they reflect pre-Buddhist ideas. Though I agree the order of the nidanas is thoroughly confusing.
Anyway, if you replaced the nidanas from formations to feeling with a single link called “experience”, then you could say that while ignorance is present, then experience leads to craving, and suffering. Similar to the Second Truth, but adding ignorance as the root cause of suffering. That would suggest a focus on understanding what ignorance is, and how to remove it.
nama-rupa is the connection between the mind (nama) of the experiencer to the object (rupa). That’s what I understand. However, I think I am the only person who thinks this way! I addressed this idea here before, but it seems to me that nobody takes this idea. However, this is the most important key to understand DO as I can see.
Once the connection is made to the object, the six senses will arise to fully experience the object.
You first experience by one or some of the sense bases. Example: you first see the object. Then after the connection is made, all senses are available for the experience. Now you also hear, smell, think… That’s what we called six senses arise.
Something I say often but cannot stress enough is that DO is about the arising of this mass of suffering, and does not seem to describe an immediate flow of experience or anything to that effect. No matter how it is “flowing”, whether past, future or present, these twelve aspects are the arrangement of suffering. Why one thing is the necessary condition for the other, as an aspect of that arising, seems to be what is most relevant. Without ignorance those twelve aspects no longer constitute that mass of suffering. Volitional formations are no longer supported by ignorance, therefore name-and-form aren’t supported by volitional formations that could, in any way, constitute suffering.
Again, this does not seem to be describing how experience-in-general is constructed or how it flows and grows; it is purely about why suffering is standing and the position of those twelves aspects in that mass.
Or let’s take a look at a very long form of the principle of DO from SN 12.23:
Thus, bhikkhus, with ignorance as proximate cause, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as proximate cause, consciousness; with consciousness as proximate cause, name-and-form; with name-and-form as proximate cause, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as proximate cause, contact; with contact as proximate cause, feeling; with feeling as proximate cause, craving; with craving as proximate cause, clinging; with clinging as proximate cause, existence; with existence as proximate cause, birth; with birth as proximate cause, suffering; with suffering as proximate cause, faith; with faith as proximate cause, gladness; with gladness as proximate cause, rapture; with rapture as proximate cause, tranquillity; with tranquillity as proximate cause, happiness; with happiness as proximate cause, concentration; with concentration as proximate cause, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are; with the knowledge and vision of things as they really are as proximate cause, revulsion; with revulsion as proximate cause, dispassion; with dispassion as proximate cause, liberation; with liberation as proximate cause, the knowledge of destruction.
These aren’t things that just happen; one causing the other in succession. These are things that are either supported or they aren’t. Have footing or don’t. Suffering doesn’t simply lead to faith. No. That requires effort and wisdom (little dust in the eyes). Same thing in the generic 12 factors. Wrong view and that mass of suffering require the wrong effort and the wrong view in order to stand. With ignorance, all of those twelve things are wrongly understood and wrong view is maintained.
Point being, it seems parts 1-4 are related in that order in their mutual support of suffering, not as aspects of perception or the creative force behind just any given experience. That’s just my take and I understand if many don’t agree.
I think Ven. Thanissaro’s The Shape of Suffering is quite good on DO. Even if you don’t want to read the whole book (not that long and mostly suttas), in the first couple of pages he goes through a few different practical examples of how exactly DO leads to suffering using the hypothetical example of eating dinner with someone you have a bad relationship with. Honestly I got as much out of those pages as I did out of the rest of the book (not a knock on the book)
They don’t precede it; they arise together. Just like consciousness and “name and form” happen together.
The factor of consciousness refers to the mind continuing after death. When reborn, the mind adopts a new body (form), becoming a new person with its “name” (this is a strange use of the word nowadays, but was based on Brahmin concepts of identifying people (and things) by their name).
The new person with its name and form has six senses. So therefore “name and form” and the six senses are not truly distinct. This is indicated by the Mananidana Sutta (DN15) for example, because it simply skips the six senses in the sequence, going straight from “name and form” to contact. Another sutta, somewhere in SN12 (forgot where exactly), skips the six senses instead, putting in its place “the being” (bhuta). So we can take either one out and the essence of the sequence doesn’t change. This means they are almost synonymous.
AN3.61 makes it clear that by “name and form” is meant the being (the way it is understood in the commentaries) not external objects or something like that. Because this sutta calls “name and form” the embryo: “When it [the embryo] is conceived, there are name and form.” For the grammarians, notice that this sentence does not use usual construction of dependent factors, “dependent on A there is B”, (using the paccaya). Instead the embryo is just equated to name and form (using hoti).
Based on this we could perhaps say that “name and form” can refer to a less developed form of the being compared to the six senses. Because MN38 talks of the development of the six senses only after the embryo is grown and born. But again, the two factors are not truly distinct.
Using name and form to refer to external objects happens just once in the suttas (SN12.19), and there it is explicitly called “external name and form”, which Bodhi correctly notes is not the usual “name and form” of dependent arising. In that text it also does not occur in the standard sequence of dependent arising.
It seems reasonable to question how the literal Hindu idea of ‘name and form’ can precede the senses. Thanissaro Bhikkhu seems to have various interpretations of namarupa over his lifecycle. In his PDF titled ‘Shape of Suffering’, Thanissaro seems to abandon the common Western Hindu interpretation of nama-rupa and adopts a realistic interpretation of the definition in SN 12.2. I suggest to google & read the hypothetical examples in ‘Shape of Suffering’ for an alternate view.
Note: It seems it was standard in Asian Theravada to regard namarupa as ‘mentality-materiality’ rather than as the literal Hindu ‘name-form’. However, in later years, ‘name-form’ seems to have gain in popularity, particularly in the West but also the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Nanananda who is popular amongst Western solipsismistarianites. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi originally used ‘mentality-materiality’ in his MN but changed to ‘name-form’ in his SN. ‘Mentality-materiality’ seems to be the Abhidhamma viewpoint. The Abhidhamma says:
Herein, what is ‘with consciousness as condition: mind and bodily form?’
There is mind, there is bodily form.
Herein, what is ‘mind?’
(There is) the feeling constituent [aggregate], the perception constituent, the (volitional) processes constituent: this is said to be ‘mind’.
Herein, what is ‘bodily form?’
The accumulation (that produces) the eye sense sphere, the accumulation (that produces) the ear sense sphere, the accumulation (that produces) the nose sense sphere, the accumulation (that produces) the tongue sense sphere, the accumulation (that produces) the body sense sphere, or whatever other bodily form there is born of mind, rooted in mind, originating in mind: this is said to be ‘bodily form’.
Thus, this is mind and this is bodily form.
This is said to be ‘with consciousness as condition: mind and bodily form’.
Therefore, if the Abhidhamma interpretation of the Suttas is adhered to, as literally explained, name (mind) and form (body) precede the senses. Very easy, simple, not complex, plus accommodates the Theravadin three-life-time model.
In summary, the Chandogya Upanishad seems to be the earliest and most primitive Hindu reference to nama-rupa. Here, the Great Deity (Devata) seems to exercise their will to multiply the basic three deities (elements) of earth, fire & water into a multitude of names & forms. Since the Chandogya Upanishad is found within the Samaveda (the 2nd Veda) and since the Buddha included intention (the will) in his basic definition of namarupa in SN 12.2, it seems realistic, per only the Vedas mentioned in the Suttas, that the Buddha redefined the notion of namarupa from the Chandogya Upanishad.
Yet most Western scholars seem stuck on the later Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, namarupa seems to have its modern Hindu definition, namely, The Self (Atman) differentiates the undifferentiated into names & forms. This definition is different to the Chandogya Upanishad, which is about the multiplication or mental proliferation of the basic elements into numerous names & forms.
For example, on a primal level, the Chandogya Upanishad or SN 12.2 refers to mentally proliferating the basic urge/hunger for & thoughts about eating/food into fantasies & actual kamma of eating at a luxury five star French restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower. Where as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad definition is simply about calling some strange shaped & smelling objects “truffles”.
Of note, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad definition of namarupa seems found in DN 15, which is not a sutta referred to in the sutta commentary called Patisambhidamagga or in the Abhidhamma Vibhanga. This & another Jataka style comparative suttas (such as MN 123) seems to be evidence DN 15 is a later text that responds to the later Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
In summary, namarupa in the early suttas, such as SN 12.2, seems related to the more primitive Chandogya Upanishad found in the 2nd Veda. Where as namarupa in possible later suttas, such as DN 15, seems related to the more contemporary & later Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
In conclusion, I also recommend Bhikkhu Sujato’s essay on the DN and its relationship to converting & debating with Brahmins (Hindus). This again may offer insight into what seems to be a Brihadaranyaka Upanishad definition of namarupa in DN 15. Sujato’s essay is here: The Long Discourses: Dhamma as literature and compilation
I also recommended the above for an alternate viewpoint.
Yes, in SN12. 2 the rupa aspect of nama-rupa is described as the four great elements and the form derived from them. And derived form is equivalent to sense-objects like sights and sounds.
Meanwhile nama is comprised of mental factors, but not including consciousness.
So looked at one way, nama-rupa is everything one can be conscious of, including mind-objects and sense-objects. This would tie in with the mutual dependence of nama-rupa and vinnana described in some DO suttas. To put it crudely, experience requires both consciousness, and stuff to be conscious of.
The main treatment of DO in the suttas is in SN12, so I regard the nidana “definitions” in SN12.2 as the most reliable.
DN15 might well be a later addition, but in any case it doesn’t say what is actually included in nama-rupa. SN12.2 is much more specific.
I don’t disagree, but it seems DO is purely a description of how those factors depend on one another in terms of suffering. I don’t see any indication that they are a blueprint of how just any experience comes about. (I don’t believe that is your position either.)
One thing causing another, causing another, is an infinite framework of multiple intersecting planes, but no tracing of it could ever reveal why the whole thing amounts to suffering - not in the manner the Buddha describes it, at least. To see that, a person must look to intention and view. Why even attempt such a tracing to discover suffering here and now? Is it valid only as a specific occurrence, with a specific sequence? Or is it going to be revealed on account of craving in regard to feeling and not understanding that relationship? Did I suffer just this second because this craving just occurred? Is that what DO describes? Or is craving perpetually present on account of feeling that is either wanted or unwanted? Do I even have a choice in the matter?
Back to the OP, perhaps instead of trying to see these first four aspects in order of occurrence, it could be beneficial to investigate how they are fulfilling one another on account of view, intention and effort. Just as in SN 12.23 with the simile of the pools; they fill up on account of trending in the direction of either wholesome or unwholesome. Without a certain degree of either ignorance or wisdom, there cannot be any enduring support.
My thanks to everyone who has replied and made suggestions. The difficulty however remains. DO is presented in a cause/effect sequence. “If this, then that.”
From the Sense bases to death, this is clearly the logic of the list.
But in the first four, we don’t have a sequence, and some of the content of the first four seem repeated in what follows.
It doesn’t seem as though we can attribute this to a faulty transmission of the text: the same list is given many times in the canon.
It doesn’t seem as though there was a great mystery involved, as there is with the Christian Trinity. Buddhism prides itself on going right to the point and not getting involved in elaborate metaphysics. Where there is a subtlety, the Buddha either explains it in great detail or tells us not to bother with it.
I am led to conclude that something was there for the original listeners that was so obvious that it didn’t seem necessary to explain.
I would suggest, not as the real answer, but as a mere hypothesis of what the real answer might look like: punctuation.
A little less concisely:
Ignorance and Constructing Activities. (The basic human condition, we choose and do without really understanding).
(Our life is made up of) Consciousness, (which is the engagement of) Mental (with) Physical Being, (which entails) the Senses, Contact, Craving, (and finally) Clinging.
(The bad beginning, decisions and actions made in Ignorance, plays out in the whole greedy business of physical and mental life. The momentum of this keeps us in the cycles of Becoming, (which entail) Birth (and), Death (over and over again.)