What is the meaning of Nama in Nama Rupa?

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

A bit on Avyakata/Avyākṛta.

BṛĀr.Up. I-4-7:
This world was then not developed (not manifested, not divided) [Olivelle translates it as “without real distinctions”]. It differentiated only into name and form - He is so and so by name, and has this sort of form. So to this day it is differentiated only into name and form.
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt |
tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti |
tad idam apy etarhi nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyata asau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti |

The same formula occured earlier in ŚBr.

So both the Brāhmaṇas and the Āraṇyakas (the “forest texts”) [~Āraṇyakas/Upaniṣad], convey this meaning of a divided determination.


Avyakata = from Vyākata,[pp.of vyākaroti] 1.answered,explained,declared,decided – avyākata unexplained,undecided,not declared,indeterminate.

Vyākaroti [vi+ā+kṛ] explain,answer.
2. to prophesy,predict


व्याकृत avyākṛta undeveloped (phil: undetermined) (ŚBr.)

व्याकृ vyākṛ [vi-ākṛ] to undo, sever, divide, separate from (RV., AV., VS., ŚBr.)

आकृ ākṛ [ā-kṛ] to bring near or towards (RV.)
to drive near or together (RV.)

√कृ kṛ to do, make, perform, accomplish, cause, effect, prepare, undertake (RV.)

So far so good for the determination.
But where does it take place in the Buddhist’s chain of causation, as far as nāma per se is concerned?

It is interesting to note that, in Buddhism, the first vaci process (vacisaṅkhāra,) appears in the cosmic, unmanifested realm; where the cosmic consciousness has not yet severed itself into nāma-rūpa, aka the manifest.
The first vaci (“naming”) process happens in the immaterial realm.

Nāma in Buddhism, comes later on as a debased vaci process, that has to do with rūpa; namely the four great elements and the forms derived from them (upādāya) (SN 12.2).

If we should struggle to fit magic into that, it would certainly be to ward it off.

For if in the ŚBr, not having a name is kind of evil (e.g. [which does not mean that there is necessarily evil in the avyākṛta]; there is definitely, coming from Buddha himself, the authoritative instruction to first and before all, get rid of any naming (vitakka/vicāra) activity.


  1. For what I remember, Brahmins had their heads upside down.
  2. “Manifest” does not mean that things have to be seen as obvious. There can be hidden things (things in the background,) in the manifest.


Dear Bhante
Can you please give some references to the above from the Suttas. It will be very beneficial for everyone.
Thanks in advance
With Metta

My apologies, I was feeling mischievous. :pray:
So what your concern is not the Abhidhamma in Topitaka but the Abhidhammatthasangaha?
But monks like Ajahn Braham teaches that Buddha did not teach Abhidhamma. Then I would say even Sutta is not taught by the Buddha. They all are latter compilation by Arahants based on what Buddha taught.

I was not aware of this problem. This is as bad as some monks advocating Abhidhamma is not necessary. I am discussing Abhidhamma in my home (50 weeks course) for a group of people. They all said that the monks in their temple discourage them learning Abhidhamma.
I see some problems in Abhidhammatthasangaha but I see more problems in Sutta Pitaka!
So we should encourage students to learn both and realise for themselves by practice.
I agree that we should read Sutta first then read Abhidhamma. (Even though I read Abhidhamma first and Sutta latter) Why I am saying is that Abhidhamma has the tone of objectification the non-objectified. I am not very comfortable with it. But this is the problem with of all teaching methods except Sutta.

Well I agree with you. But reading Abhidhamma in Sutta pitaka is like eating grass. (Similar statement made by Bikkhu Bodhi) So that is why Abhidhammaatthasangaha came to the rescue. Now we all can have the taste of Abhidhamma. For me the next step is to learn the Abhidhamma in Tipitaka.
We should not throw the baby with the bad water.
So what you propose ? Should we read Abhidahmma in Tipitaka instead of Abhidhammatthasangha?

This is not “what Ajahn Brahm teaches”, it is a simple fact. After the Buddha’s death, the Suttas were compiled and edited, while the Abhidhammapitaka was composed. These are quite different kinds of processes.

This historical situation has nothing to do with the interpretation of the teachings in these texts.

No, you should ignore them, read the Suttas and meditate!


I agree. Abhidhamma is in most parts a different story than the suttas. In what do we put our trust when there are contradictions ? In abhidhamma or the suttas ?

I agree that we should read Sutta first then read Abhidhamma. (Even though I read Abhidhamma first and Sutta latter)

When we read a book, we become attached to the book. Be it abhidhamma, the bible or any other book. Then we will try to say this book is in line with the suttas, not different than the suttas. We will try to interpret the suttas in a way that does not contradict abhidhamma. We will have an unconscious bias in our reading. But if we start with sutta first and have no attachment towards other books, we can be much more objective.

Suttas are hard enough to understand by themselves. They are subtle, hard to fully grasp. It is even more difficult if we try to do it with abhidhamma lens put on our eyes.

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Is this a thread on abhidhamma?

But this issue is very important to me.
Perhaps moderator may split this thread.