What is the meaning of Nama in Nama Rupa?

Thank you Banthe. I was aware some might go in that direction because I know some translate namarupa as “mind and body” witch is not correct and is not leading to understanding them properly. The idea of “mind” is never used in the suttas as an analytical category and is misleading to think of things in terms of this dualism as you have explained. It is used some times for practical purposes but not in an analytical sense and not in matters dealing with complicated doctrinal points.

I was not aware the Abhidhamma actually treats them like that and goes into that direction. Thanks for explaining it to us. I too believe it is very important to start by reading the suttas first and only then maybe read abhidhamma otherwise the person will understand the suttas through abhidhamma lens weather consciously or unconsciously. The suttas are very subtle and difficult to understand by themselves. It’s even more difficult if not impossible to understand such subtle teachings with abhidhamma lens on our eyes.

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It’s good to keep in mind that nama-rupa is a pre-buddhist term and not invented by the buddha. It received a semantic change before him, and further in the buddhist development.

Maryla Falk wrote a detailed treatment on it back in the days: Origin And Aspects Of An Ancient Indian Conception : Falk, Maryla : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

more recent, but much shorter is:
Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought, by Joanna Jurewicz

Like Bhante Sujato already stated, it’s a complex matter, mainly because the concept changed so often its meaning and has to be understood on the basis of the vedic knowledge back then


As far as nāmarūpa is concerned, we find the same meaning in the BṛĀr.Up, than in early Buddhism - Although in EB, there is a clear-cut difference between a purely sensorial and non-sensorial manifest.

This immortal (imperishable) is covered by the real (manifest):
|tad etad amṛtaṃ satyena channam |
Prāṇa is the immortal,
| prāṇo vā amṛtam |
and name and form are the real (manifest-satya),
| nāmarūpe satyam |
and by them Prāṇa is covered.
| tābhyām ayaṃ prāṇaś channaḥ |
(BṛĀr.Up I-vi-3)

Name & form are the manifest.

This name & form feeds our Satta with its khandhas; and we appropriate them or not.
To believe that these khandhas could be ours (SN 22.33, SN 22.59,) is to believe in the brahmanic idea of a continuous and pervasive Self/self (SN 22.47).

Nāmarūpa is matter, energy and ignorance (“knowledge”).

Magic (the first, most sophisticated, yet less evolved religion, as Hegel once put it,) is about playing with these energies and elements of matter.

There is, however, something higher to be found.
Nāmarūpa must do something to arrive at true knowledge. And that is to grant a somewhat freedom to Satta. Otherwise, Ignorance would always have itself as Knowledge.
How could ignorance know if something is good or not, if it does not grant that privilege to some other? - the body is made to be felt (SN 12.37), but mano is the ultimate decider of the appreciative outcome, and also the (somewhat free) and only means of an escape (SN 22.82).

The Asmi born of nāmarūpa, and present in Satta (like the “Being” of Aristotle’s Categories,) must be granted the freedom of his own Citta (along with its debased “wordly” mano) (SN 47.8).
Mano has the right to choose between the magic of playing with matter and energy; OR stilling the stressful synergetic energies involved in the accumulation of matter (elements).
The tapas (which means “heating up”) must be cooled down and not used, either as magic; or as harsh ascetism - as it was done (and done again) in Indian philosophy. The saṅkhāras must be stilled; not excited. There is also no control to be taken on things and creatures; but instead, control to ward off from things and creatures.

By getting rid of the idea of a Self and the “I” and the “am” (asmi) and the “mine”, and the “self” - and by definitely stilling the saṅkhāras, etc. - one liberates the “imperishable” through true knowledge.
What does that “imperishable” becomes after death, no one knows; for it can’t be definable in words.

So what does nāma has to do in that picture?
Again, it involves:

  • First the nāma of nāmarūpa nidanā purely concerned with the non-sensorials (although “feeling”, perceiving and conscious) khandhas, that, with the establishing of consciousness, descends in saḷāyatana:

When (non-sensory) consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is a descent of name-and-form.
Tasmiṃ patiṭṭhite viññāṇe virūḷhe nāmarūpassa avakkanti hoti.

With name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases come to be.
Nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ
(SN 12.39)

Which in turn triggers the sense-consciousness, etc… in Satta.

  • So, secondly, is a quite different nāma in nature, in saḷāyatana, defined as contact + feeling (vedanā nidāna) + perception + manasikāra.

I have this very bad habit, trying to find an early non-sectarian Buddhism in the suttas.
The “neither, nor” so dear to me, (as an ultimate transcendental means - also here, ) seems to be found across all the early sects (Pudgalavāda, Sarvāstivāda, Vibhajjavāda [(Theravada]). But particularly in the very early Pudgalavāda sect.

What the pudgalavadins are saying is that, beyond the mere “world,” as defined by Buddha, the pudgala is neither the aggregates, nor is it different from them. Pudgala kind of transcends that.

On one hand, if I am identical to the aggregates, then “I” should be annihilated; because the khandhas are intrinsically impermanent (anicca), says the pudgalavadin.
On the other hand, if I am different from the aggregates, then “I” should be eternal; (which Buddha rightly denies).

For the pudgalavadins, the pudgala transcends this, as the middle way.

Here are the texts of the Pudgalavadins:
here and here (something else even more interesting [in french though]).

And here are the (pretty sapless) criticisms from the Theravadins:

For the Pudgalavadins, pudgala is a paññatti; namely a concept - not an absolute reality. It is a notion (the manifestation of the truth in things).

  • Paññatti,(f.) [fr.paññāpeti,cp.paññatta1] making known,manifestation,description,designation,name,idea,notion,concept.
  • Paññāpeti,[Caus.of pajānāti] make known,declare,point out,appoint,assign,recognise,define.
  • Pajānāti,[pa+jānāti] to know,find out,come to know,understand,distinguish.

This is where Paññatta [ññā] = wisdom takes its real meaning. Viz. a discerning knowledge.

As far as neither, nor is concerned, I would not say “neither paranoid nor deluded”, but instead “neither paranoid nor not paranoid”.
And I would definitely try to know what’s behind that. And once known, not to use this magic; but obviate it, as utterly loathsome & uninteresting; and therefore, do my best to transcend it.
For the illusion we experience, is not as bad as the false truth behind it - a false truth that has possessed more than an ignorant.
Truth in Buddhism is not the hidden reality behind the illusion - but the emetically nature of its expression and deviant use. :expressionless:

So…what does nāma mean in the suttas?

It means “name”. But see above, I talked about the evolution of the use of nāma as a philosophical term. The Sutta use is dialectical, i.e. based not on an absolute sense but on a response to the pre-existing uses and ideas and baggage.


And further down you go an at some length about how -

But surely the four khandhas don’t imply such a dualism. If they did, the Buddha’s teaching would be internally inconsistent.


Indeed not. Which is why, when a single one of the khandhas is isolated in contast with the others, it is viññāṇa, not rūpa.

Obviously this is a significant parallel between the sutta treatment of nāma and the three immaterial khandhas apart from viññāṇa—and it is not the only one.

But similarity is one thing, identity another. To equate them is to carry out the Abhidhamma project, seeing all dhammic terms as interchangeable concepts with fixed, absolute meanings. This is the first step on the dark path to the sabhāvavāda.

Nāma has a distinct contextual nuance and dialectical force which differs significantly from the way the khandhas are treated. For a start, the khandhas are never said to be dependent on adhivacanasamphassa. Furthermore, the historical dialogue on viññāṇa and nāmarūpa is specifically responding to Upanishadic ideas, whereas the khandhas are more general, and seem to be designed to encompass all the sectarian philosophies.


Bhante, thank you very much for your response.

[quote=“sujato, post:23, topic:4600”]
But the basic problem is that the Abhidhamma treats the nāma as “mind”, which it never means in the suttas, and then rūpa becomes “body”, which it sometimes means in the suttas, but not here. (Rūpa is broader than “body”, as it includes the objects of the five sense, and even the objects of the sixth sense that have material properties such as color and position).
[/quote] [my emphasis]

Alright, I’m trying to get my head (and heart) around this!!

It’s, as they say in Oz, “doing my head in!”

But possibly, perhaps…I’m might be sort of getting it now…(I feel like I’m metaphorically holding my head in my hands and twisting it about here and there!!!)


Nāma is the naming of that pre-verbal place we can all access to some degree, during, for example, the experience of meditating. It’s also the naming of all the “things” we notice in that pre-verbal place. Yes?

Nāma is basically a type of Noun used to name that which is deeply internal within us (or deeply internal within something/anything, “the essence of that thing” as you call it; and Rūpa is a type of Noun that describes those things that flow from the Nāma Nouns. Gosh, this is weird stuff. 'Am I on the right track?

So…in practical terms, where the term nāmarūpa is found, nāma and rūpa cannot (should not? in all cases?) be separated. Right? That means…nāmarūpa is basically everything that we experience? Thus…okay…wow…I’m remembering @Brahmali said:

So…my understanding of what you’ve said, correlates with what Ajahn Brahmali has said… because, please correct me if this isn’t right, consciousness and nāmarūpa are mutually dependent? If one falls, so does the other, yes? This is what the Buddha said in the EBTs right?

If I’m right in the above questions/statements, then what I’m coming to is this: it’s actually a heck of a lot simpler than what I thought it was!!! I was getting all twisted up because of translations like name and form and mentality/materiality. @sujato and @Brahmali, what is the English translation that you both favour. I can see that Bhante S, prefers “name” for what I’m now seeing as the first part of the compound word, nāmarūpa; but what does Bhante S prefer for the translation of rūpa? And if it is indeed a compound word, or perhaps more specifically, a compound noun, then can we perhaps have an English neologism that reflects this and is easily understood?

With many thanks indeed! :anjal:

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Dear Bhante, dear @Brahmali

This is intensely fascinating…

Please can you tell me what these mean:

Thank you.

I’m trying to get my head around the notion of [quote=“sujato, post:31, topic:4600”]
dialectical force

Ok, so strictly speaking we should say that the nāma is conditioned by the station of consciousness. The problem with this is that it is rather obscure. By using the three khandhas instead, the idea is more easily graspable.

Also, although nāmarūpa in viññāṇa paccaya nāmarūpa may not be equivalent to the four non-consciousness khandhas, I would suggest that the conditioned nature of the four khandhas is implied. Nāma is obviously closely related to these khandhas. I’ll leave the deeper philosophical issues to you!


@sujato, @Brahmali

Dialectical force

So…our notion of nama must be informed by the history of how the word has changed in usage?

Otherwise we run the risk of simplifying it so much that we overcomplicate it and misunderstand the Buddha’s point? Like the Abidhamma does?

Yet, we want to simplify it. Well, I do. I want some kind of intellectual concept that I can hang my perceptual hat on! At least, until I don’t need it anymore. Perhaps this isn’t so dangerous, when - I’m qualifying it - when I remember and keep in mind the complicated history of the word nama?

I appreciate the round about “history” lesson and as it “talks in a circle”. I get that and indeed, I love it! It gives heartful meaning in a way a linear conversation never can. But sometimes, I need something that just cuts to the heart of something, to the main point. I mean, you are both teachers, with different and equally wonderful styles; when someone asks you to your face what ‘nama’ means, were there a variety of responses that you’ve given in the past that you can say, in hindsight, were probably useful? Or just one or two?

Sorry for the constant nattering…but this is just really cool…

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Dear Ajahn

Clearly I need to walk away from this because I feel rather clouded and stupider than usual after reading the above quote…but I can’t help myself, I shan’t walk away yet, I have to ask: can you please elaborate what you mean by the above?

I’m glad to see that you’re struggling through a cloud of incomprehension: this shows you’re on the right track!

If you haven’t already, I would strongly recommend that you have a read of the Golden Bough, or some similar work on the anthropology of magic, especially on the role that “names” have in pre-rational society.

I believe that we have become so distant from that way of thinking that we miss its implications in ancient works; but at the same time, it still informs and affects us in deep ways. Consider, for example, the meditation practice of noting, or “naming”, phenomena as they occur. This is based on a distinct psychological reality, that naming things is reassuring. We still somehow feel that if we have a name for something, it is understood, under control. Much of science is still about the correct way of naming things: when they have a name, we can begin to understand them.

Partly, yes, but remember that it is a primitive concept. To understand it, dumb yourself down. Imagine that objects in the world came labelled with hidden metadata: that’s name.

Everything that’s comprehended in experience, yes. The unnamed is the fearful, the unknown.


The sabhāvavāda is the late Abhidhamma doctrine that all phenomena are divided into discrete entities that have fixed properties. It’s a kind of pseudo-permanence doctrine. This is why it was heavily criticised by other schools of Buddhism.

Adhivacanasamphassa comes from DN 15 which distinguishes between two forms of contact: paṭighasamphassa, “impingement contact,” and adhivacanasamphassa, “naming contact.” Both of these contacts are necessary for us to have an experience. Impingement contact is simply the sensory apparatus being stimulated. Naming contact is the processing of that impingement by the mind, so as to make sense of it. We are “naming” the experience so as to make it meaningful. “Naming” is here used very broadly and roughly refers to recognising.

When you get reborn (that is, consciousness establishes itself in a new station), the sort of rebirth you have will affect your feelings, perception, and even volitions. Animals experience the world in a different way from us, etc. I think this is fairly easy to grasp. But if you say that “name” is affected in the same way, there is much more meaning to unpack, and unless you are quite familiar with the discussion you will at a loss to understand it.


In this sense, yes, I agree completely. The khandha are far more amenable to rational discourse, and much easier to unpack. I think, in fact, that it was precisely because nāma is so tightly embedded in the Brahmanical/Upanishadic context that the Abhidhammikas felt the need to give it a more independent and absolutist meaning. So if it’s a matter of explaining the Dhamma, using the khandhas is much better. That doesn’t help us translators, though!


@Brahmali and @sujato Thank you so much!! :anjal::bodhileaf::dharmawheel::anjal::mudra:

Bhante S, will this book do? There seems to be a 12 volume set which I can’t actually afford!

Much metta :sunglasses:

Oh wow! Forgive me, but I have talk/write aloud here…it seems to help…

If it’s not an experience that’s been comprehended or recognised or “noted”…then it’s just not in our “world”. The whole, is there a sound if no one’s there to hear it thing… Obviously, according to this, no there isn’t a sound, is the answer.

Basically, if it’s not relevant to us, it’s speculative and the Buddha never really encouraged irrelevant speculation anyway! So in using “namarupa” he’s getting us to look deeply at what makes us. And the act of knowing (you’re blowing my mind here) something is what creates that recognition and brings to life that thing which now is part of us and our world. Oh my goodness!!! So, the Buddha brings us back to the whole consciousness and namarupa are mutually dependent thing. What a complete genius!! Genius!! Seriously, totally, bizarre and awesomely cool…these are all understatements!!!


In my opinion, this is leaning a little too much in the philosophical idealism direction. This is a problem regarding the angle of looking at things. We can look at the same thing from different angles and understand a thing better or worse depending on the angle of looking.

There can exist a sound even if there is no being capable of perceiving it. There can exist a planet even though nobody is perceiving that planet. After millions of years somebody might perceive it. The planet was there the whole time, it was not created by the mind of the beings that can now perceive it. A philosophical idealist would say that the planet was not there and only when beings that could perceive it appeared, only then did a notion of the planet existing appeared and the planet existing back then is nothing more than a notion in their heads. At least that is not the way Buddha saw the world according to my understanding of him. The problem of the link between consciousness and matter is difficult and the solution of philosophical idealism seems fast and easy, but it has other implications that contradict logic and it is not the way Buddha saw the world. As Buddha would say, “you are overshooting what can be known through direct experience” and end up contradicting what is known to be true in the world. (through other implications of such a view)

The buddhist way of thinking about the world is something like: there is this universe with planets, beings roaming these planets etc. This complex of aggregates that makes up a being needs to experience certain things based on kamma at a particular point. Therefore, it will “go” towards a particular plane, “descend into the womb” and experience different degrees of pleasure, pain etc. and poses different qualities based on kamma. This machine, this computer made out of 5 aggregates gravitated towards a particular “field” while roaming through samsara at a particular point, for example got to develop a lot of anger due to conditions. Blinded by ignorance, it gravitated towards a certain field and spent a lot of time developing anger. This will “drag” the computer towards that kind of field into the future and make it be reborn into a particular field, in this case hell. The qualities that machine/computer will have there depend on the faculties developed by it. He can be reborn in a particular field but have some good qualities such as wisdom or faith.

At first sight, it may seem strange why would such a non-material thing link with the material world. Looking from one point of view, it may look strange how this non-material being (at the time of death or while in bardo) would “descend into the womb” and be reborn in a womb and in material conditions perfectly suitable for his kamma. The problem here is looking from a slightly different point of view. I don’t know how to put this better in words but this first point of view is an angle of looking closer to the materialist side. We can look at the same thing from different angles and understand better or worse depending on the ange of looking. If we look from this angle as described above and put the problem like that, it is comprehensible but looks a little strange. If we look from the point of view as described by you, then we are looking from another extreme and not seen things clearly either. We are looking from the philosophical idealist angle not from the middle.

The solution is to look from another angle, more closer to the middle. We need to see things something like this: There exists a field. This field has many posibilities. It is vast, big, with huge posibilities. This field is the material world (or even formless spheres). The planets, the embryos where beings can “descend”, etc. If we look from an angle of looking close to the materialism extreme, me will see this field of posibilities as too solid and therefore perceive somewhat of a separation between the being that gets reborn (non-material at that point while in bardo) and the material world. And if we look from the philosophical idealism angle, we see them as completely conjoined but we see them much more conjoined than they are in reality, we see them as almost identical. They are conjoined but not in such a strong way so to say. What we need to do is look at form as having as much substance it is as consciousness (Buddha words). We need to see the material world with planets and embryos as been a big field of inumerable possibilities. If we were to create a virtual field on a computer with unlimited posibilities and let it evolve, it will develop in a very complicated way just like this material world. Imagine a virtual world that constantly evolves based on algorithms and it’s made out of more than just the material side, it also has this immaterial aggregates that are part of it and have relationships with it. We need to look at this world from above, seeing it all not just the material aggregate in order for it (and also rebirth) to make sense. Looking from this angle, there is no problem of material/immaterial link. We need to see the material world as a field. For one seen with wisdom, the material world “is like a bubble, like a mirage”. There is no problem of a “link” been required between “immaterial” and “material” in this case, they are linked just like the other 4 aggregates are linked if we look at them from the middle, not from a materialist-leaning angle of looking.

This is how we need to see it in my opinion, and not fall into the other extreme of philosophical idealism or monist direction. (not perfect words but the idea is not to lean towards the other extreme, not to look from that angle either)


  1. Bardo is rarely mentioned in theravada but that is how rebirth happens according to the suttas. It was removed by theravada because of their debates with other sects because they perceived the bardo as something that could give rise to wrong ideas about a self existing.

  2. The questions about how can such a selfless machine/computer that is the being can have free will can only be understood through the same process of looking from the correct angle. We can look at the problem from an angle and conclude there is no free will because of our wrong angle of looking. I can elaborate if needed.

Trying a very brief pre-buddhist positioning of nama-rupa…
When the primordial “desire/hunger” creates itself an atman, its hungers for ‘experience’. And the atman it creates is its tool for experiencing. Like a blind king who sends out capable messengers to inform him what is going on. This ‘experience’ was believed to have two aspects, the experienced-object, and the experiencing/naming-faculty. To recognize an object with its appropriate name was taken as an equally important part of creation as the object ‘itself’.

Remember for example how in the old testament god lets the animals parade in front of adam to see which name he gives them. Here the animals ‘exist’ already - in the old Indian thought it seems those two qualities are much more dialectically intertwined.

Instead of focusing on the philosophical implication I think it’s important to remember that nama-rupa in some suttas is a decidedly negative aspect of the perceived reality. No wonder as the Buddha follows the pre-buddhist understanding that they both came from a false/created atman and are rooted in desire/hunger. I think we tend to overlook that because the dependent origination is held in such a neutral, merely processual, tone.

SN 1.23 Where name-and-form ceases, Stops without remainder, And also impingement and perception of form: It is here this tangle is cut.

SN 1.34 No sufferings torment one who has nothing, Who does not adhere to name-and-form.

Snp 5.12 For one whose greed for name-and-form has completely gone, brahman, there exist no asavas, by reason of which he would go into the power of death.

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The above excerpt appears to contradict the Buddha-Dhamma, which states nama-rupa & consciousness are mutually dependent.

With the arising of consciousness there is the arising of mentality-materiality. With the cessation of consciousness there is the cessation of mentality-materiality.

MN 9

Well then, friend, I will make up a simile for you, for some intelligent people here understand the meaning of a statement by means of a simile. Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with name-and-form as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form comes to be.

SN 12.67

SN 1.23 & DN 11 do not refer to the stopping of consciousness but only the stopping of nama-rupa, which contradicts the Buddha-Dhamma.

In SN 1.23, which is from SN 7.6, the Buddha is answering the questions of Jata the Brahman, who is obviously completely unfamiliar with the Buddhist teachings. Thus nama-rupa in the Buddha’s answer obviously has its Brahmanistic meaning.


[quote=“Gabriel, post:43, topic:4600”]
SN 1.34
No sufferings torment one who has nothing,
Who does not adhere to name-and-form.
He abandoned reckoning, did not assume conceit;
He cut off craving here for name-and-form.[/quote]

The excerpt above refers to not clinging to nama-rupa rather than stopping namarupa thus appears different to SN 1.23.


Same. Snp 5.12 is different to SN 1.23 or DN 11.

Consciousness that is signless, limitless, all-illuminating,
Then water, earth, fire, & wind find no footing,
Then long & short, small & large, pleasant & unpleasant
Then “name-&-form” are all brought to an end.

DN 11