The world II – concept and reality

There is one major misconception in current mainstream – understanding of Buddhism (if there is such a thing 🙂 ) IMHO, brought about by a rather misconceived interpretation of one very important and frequent term in the discourses of the Buddha, nama-rupa.

Nama-rupa is a compound, a noun, made up of two words. They are really easy to translate. “Nama” is “name” in English and many other indo-european languages as well, and rupa is form or picture, as in “the form on a canvas”.

Well, if that is so easy, why do we nowadays seem to find this term almost exclusively translated as “mind-matter”??

How does that sound to you? Ah, maybe you are familiar with this word in a Buddhist context. But, dare we say, doesn’t it sound a bit…materialistic. And the reason for the common translation is pretty simple: Modern day scholars follow the late commentarial interpretation which on this important topic is.. shall we say .. a bit abhidhammic-like materialistic in that it views mental phenomena as compartmentalizable “realities” by themselves. Which they are not. They are all concepts. Names.

It may sound very “scientific”, talking about “mind-matter”. Well, if we compare Newton to Einstein and Niels Bohr, of course his laws play a much more important part in our daily lives…on the surface, that is. In the same way, talking about mind and matter on a conventional basis makes sense. However, especially this term “nama-rupa” shows the depthness of the Buddha’s realization. Therefore, “psychologically” looking into name and form, could then be considered a “postmodern” physics topic where your four quantum theory semester would be the preliminary course in Buddhist vipassana meditation.

In fact, if the Buddha would have meant “mind and matter” in his language it would have been something like “mana-kaya” or “cittakaya”.

However, as it happens, Buddha had something very important “in mind” when he used the term “nama-rupa” not in this conventional materialistic connotation.

Nama-rupa definitely relates to “mental” phenomena and reality, but, from the perspective of the insight meditator, in a more “idealistic” sense: those mental phenomena which are at the root of proliferating the world in time and space around us based on 6 (sense) impression, that is the viewpoint which the Buddha had in mind, when he was looking for a term which could appropriately denote this deeper perspective, beyond the conventional terms of “mind” and “body”. Those terms, used separately, are “concepts” of content fabricated by the mind and are thus only useful in a very conventional type of communication. All just said where concepts as well, generated in the way outlined. You can sense an endless loop here.

If you will, there is a “wisdom-speak” and a “conventional-speak” in the suttas. Both deal with the same things, but the first talks in technical terms trying to catch the experience someone practicing vipassana or insight meditation may garner. That is hard, being at the event-horizon of reality, but Buddha came up with some pretty neat and accurate labels describing what is “going on” – if you try to translate them literally, that is. It is hard to grasp their meaning without practice and personal experience, because they talk about things which can only be seen by experience – now translating them in a very abstract and alienated way just to capture a readership used to the materialistic mechanic positions of last century physics doesn’t help in appreciating the novelty and depthness of the Buddha-Dhamma.

So, what is nama rupa? Here some suggested translations:

  • “name and form”
  • “concept and reality”
  • “concept and forms”
  • “representation and reality”

Nama or “Name/Concept” stands for a number of mental phenomena which are all necessary to fabricate and generate mental concepts which are then perceived as “reality” by our mind. It is a tricky process, and a quick one as well, but bare attention can shed some real light into this. If you like to read more about what constitutes “name” and produces concepts by which we live, have a look at this post.

Rupa or “form” is the physical counterpart on which our sixfold sense consciousness bases it concept-creation. The basic objective for our samsaric thirst for continuity is getting a “picture” or “representation” of the physical reality so that we can go on feeding the whirlpool. But the “physicalness” of the world is very evasive, as we can only interpret and infer it. And if we do a good job doing that, we end up with quantum physics pointing the finger back at the finger who is pointing. Anyway, if you like to read more about the definition on rupa, have a look here.

So, the next time you write/read a text on Buddhism, try to re-consider “mind-matter” as “name and form”. Using terms like “concept and reality” so much more precisely points us in the right direction, i.e. a direction of mindfulness and insight.

There could not be any liberation from a “mind created by matter”. But there very well can be a liberation from “concepts and forms”.

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  1. I agree completely! I have been thinking about this issue for quite some time and have been rather perplexed why many people translated this as ‘mind and matter’ as you said. This is especially the case in the Thai Theravada tradition. People seem to accept this interpretation and translation as given without giving much thought to it. Even though both the words ‘nama’ and ‘rupa’ are used in Thai language meaning exactly what they mean in the original Pali — name and form or picture respectively.

  2. Peter

    Thanks very much for this post. I have to admit to being one of those who just accepted what I was told without investigating the term for myself. I shall try to more careful in future.

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