Name and Form in the Śāriputra Abhidharma

I noticed the other day that the Śāriputra Abhidharma (ŚāA) has a chapter devoted to nāmarūpa. Given that there’s been a fair amount of interest in meaning of this concept in various sources, I thought it would be good to share. The chapter is not in a place that would suggest that it’s particularly old material. It’s placed in the last division of ŚāA with other add-on chapters. However, it does provide a witness to how the concept was understood outside of the dependent origination context.

Briefly on the origins of this source: ŚāA has been identified by scholars as being the Abhidharma collection of a Buddhist school known as the Dharmaguptakas. It was translated in the early years of the 5th c. CE (400 AD) by a pair of monks, Dharmayaśas and Dharmagupta, who had gone to China from Central Asian or northwest Indian regions (the former was said to be from Kashmir in particular). It was during a period of accelerated translation work by such monks. They often worked under auspices of a series of Buddhist kings who had invaded and occupied northern China at the time.

The entire chapter is very similar to the Vibhaṅga’s Dependent Origination chapter in format: A section defining terms is followed by a lengthy treatment placing nāmarūpa in context with a large number of technical categories, in that verbose combinatory fashion that’s common to Abhidharma texts. This second section forms the bulk of the chapter.

But the introduction takes the form of commentary on a sutra quotation (for which I haven’t found a Pali parallel), and it’s brief enough to translate in a sitting. I’ve added the punctuation, which is almost entirely lacking in the Taisho edition.

Chinese English
「有人出世,名如來、無所著、等正覺。說名色、解射名色、斷名色。」 “A person appeared in the world called the Tathāgata, Arhat, and Completely Awakened One. He taught name and form, the release from name and form, and the ending of name and form.”
云何「名色」?若憶想、假稱、制(1)名,此謂名。何謂色?若法色,此謂色。 What is “name and form”? If it recognizes, designates, and makes names, then this is called name. What’s called form? If a thing is form, this is called form.
復次,由憶想、假稱生受、想、思、觸、思惟,此謂名。十色入及法入色,此謂色。 Furthermore, feeling, conception, intention, contact, and thinking that arises from recognition and designation is called name. The ten form senses and the idea sense that’s form are called form.
復次,觸首五法,此謂名。四大及四大造,此謂色。 Furthermore, contact that leads to those five things (above) is called name. The four elements and what’s made of the four elements is called form.
復次,若法(2)非色、有為,此謂名。色有三種:可見有對、不可見有對、不可見無對。此謂色。 Furthermore, if something isn’t form and conditioned, it’s called name. Form has three kinds: Visible and interactive, invisible and interactive, and invisible and not interactive. This is called form.
如是「名色」。是謂名色。 Thus is “name and form.” This is called name and form.
何故「說名色」?欲令此名色應正說、開解、分別、顯現、假稱。是故,說名色。 Why did he “teach name and form”? He wanted to ensure this name and form should be correctly explained, clearly understood, discerned, made plain, and designated. This was why he taught name and form.
云何「解射名色」?若於名色知見解射方便,是名解射名色。 What is “the release from name and form”? If someone knows and sees the methods of being released from name and form, this is called the release from name and form.
云何「斷名色」?若於名色調伏欲染、斷欲染,是名斷名色。 What is the “ending of name and form”? If one suppresses the defilements of desire and ends the defilements of desire for name and form, this is called ending name and form.
[0689001] 制=製【宋】【元】【明】【宮】 (T1548.28.689a20-b2)
[0689002] 〔法〕-【宋】【元】【明】【宮】

There a few things I would note about the translation.

I translate 憶想 as “recognize,” but it seems to be a particular reading of S. saṃjñā that lit. means “recall concept.” I believe it refers to some recognition process of matching existing ideas to what one is perceiving. So, I translated it as “recognize.” It might also be a compound in the underlying (something like “smṛti-saṃjñā”?).

制 usually means to rule or decide, but often carries the meaning of 製, which means to make or manufacture, so I read 制名 as meaning “name making.”

The “idea sense that’s form” (法入色) is a category that’s defined elsewhere in the ŚāA as: “Physical and verbal [acts that are] not ethical (非戒) and unintentional (無教), contaminated physical and verbal [acts that are] ethical and unintentional, contaminated physical [acts that] advance and contaminated physical [acts that] withdraw, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right physical [acts that] advance, and physical [acts that] withdraw.”

Basically, it refers to physical and verbal actions, which the abhidharmika considered something perceived with the cognitive sense.

The “ten form senses” refers to the five physical senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body) and their objects.

I’ve translated 對 as “interactive,” which works for the Chinese readings, which can mean “to reply, to contrast, to oppose, to be an opposite or adversary, form a pair.” I think the underlying basically means that a thing can be detected with the senses.

The underlying for “defilements of desire” (欲染) is probably kāma-rāga. In a chapter about afflictions (at 650a12), this term is given a more expansive reading as shorthand for desire for existence in any of the three realms, so it could mean more than the usual gloss.


In line with a comparison of Chinese and Indian Buddhist art and architecture, the Chinese version is rudimentary compared with sutta treatment, however provides stimulus for examination of the subjects, and one such has been selected. These are from the view as stages of perception:

"Possessed of form, he/she sees forms. This is the first direction.

"Not percipient of form internally, he/she sees forms externally. This is the second direction.

“He/she is intent only on the beautiful. This is the third direction.”—Majhima Nikaya 137

There are in all eight directions listed in the sutta, and the Chinese three seems to be a reduction of these.

Furthermore they are also described this way, following the usual sutta method of spatial expansion:

“There are these four perceptions. Which four? One perceives the limited [ordinary perceptions]. One perceives the enlarged [the mind in jhana]. One perceives the immeasurable [the mind in the Brahma attitudes]. One perceives the dimension of nothingness: ‘There is nothing.’ These are the four perceptions.”—Anguttara Nikaya 10.29, Thanissaro

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Thank you very much!

Just to add to this: normal physical actions are also included in the meaning of rūpa in e.g. the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. There, the breathing, speaking, etc. of the ātmán are said to be various forms/manifestations of it which we give names to (among the normal meaning of the word rūpa for physical things or things which appear).


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I am so glad you brought this up. @Bird-of-Paradise brought this up this topic in a conversation about Snp 4.11.

I believe you are saying name means recognition in early texts. Based on that it would seem that name and form together are a recognized object or form. The cessation of name and form would seem to result in bare unrecognized forms.

In Snp 5.2 we have the following

The cessation of consciousness would appear to be a very deep formless state or nibanna. Name here appears to be used in the broader sense, that or form is used in a very strange way. The cessation of consciousness as bare unrecognized object or form would make no sense.

Snp 4.2 seems to be more in line with resulting in a bare object or form.

The cessation of perception as recognition would seem to allow for a resulting bare object or form, not a formless attainment.

I should have been more explicit. This was a translation of a text brought to China by monks from modern day Pakistan and Central Asia. Scholars identify it as the Abhidharma of the Dharmaguptaka school. The differences I think reflect the Buddhism that was in those regions at the time, around 400 AD. The text itself would be much older in origin, and it’s similar to the Theravada Abhidhamma in the way it’s formatted.

I’ve added a section to the OP about the origins of the Śāriputra Abhidharma.

Interesting. I have seen motion added to the definition of the rupa-skandha in some Abhidharma texts like Asanga’s Yogacarabhumi.

This particular Abhidharma text is definitely saying perception and naming was a meaning of nama in the term namarupa. Dharmaguptakas typically list several definitions for terms like they do here. I’m not sure if they were documenting the views of different Buddhists or different usages of the word (I lean towards the latter). It might occur elsewhere in the vast Buddhist literature, but it’s the first time I’ve seen this more literal interpretation.

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