30 September 2011


SĀRIPUTTA WAS ONE OF THE TWO chief disciples of Gotama the Buddha. He was born a Brahmin and wandered with his companion Moggallāna in search of the deathless. A chance meeting with Assajī lead to his breakthrough insight and becoming a Buddhist. He was held in extremely high esteem by all who knew him, including the Buddha.

Later however Sāriputta was identified with a brand of formalistic Buddhism, and several texts were composed in which he is portrayed as stiff and rather stupid. Of course Buddhists have always portrayed their enemies this way in texts, but it is particularly infelicitous that such a great figure should become the butt of jokes for the purpose of sectarian pissing contests. One of the things that turned me off Mahāyāna Buddhism was precisely the derogatory attitude towards, and denigration of, Sāriputta. So I offer this translation of the Susīma Sutta where Sāriputta gets his due.

Susīma Sutta
SN ii.29 S i.63

Connected with Sāvatthī. Then indeed Ānanda approached the Blessed One, saluted him and sat to one side. The Blessed One asked him “are you pleased with Sāriputta?”

Could Sāriputta not be pleasing to anyone who is not stupid, wicked, confused or mentally deranged? The Elder Sāriputta is wise, Sir. He has great wisdom, precise wisdom, joyful wisdom, swift wisdom, piercing wisdom. Sāriputta is contented, satisfied, [enjoys] seclusion, living alone, energetically resolute, a speaker [of truth], gently spoken, he exhorts, he censures evil. Could Sāriputta not be pleasing to him who is not stupid, wicked, confused or mentally deranged?

Quite right Ānanda, I agree with everything you’ve said.

Once these virtues of the Elder Sāriputta were spoken Susīma the deva [1], surrounded by a great retinue of devas, approached the Blessed One, saluted him, stood to one side and said:

It is just as you say Blessed One, just so Excellence. I totally agree with you.

Whichever company of devas I approached, I hear this very same full report [in praise of Sāriputta].

Then indeed the deva-company of the deva Susīma, at the telling of the qualities of Sāriputta were pleased and delighted.

Just like a beautiful, excellent, perfectly symmetrical crystal of beryl, artfully arranged on a saffron cloth, shining, glittering, and scintillating

Just like a nugget of gold from the Jambu River, skilfully refined in the furnace by clever goldsmith from a family of smiths, artfully arranged on a saffron cloth, shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Just as in the morning star appears in the sky towards dawn on an cloud free autumnal evening shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Just as the autumnal sun, rising above the morning mists into a cloud free sky, dispels the darkness of the heavens, shining, glittering, and scintillating.

Then indeed Susīma the deva spoke these verses with reference to the Elder Sāriputta in the presence of the Blessed One:
Known as wise,
Sāriputta is loving;
Content, humble, restrained,
a sage conveyed by the teachers praise
Then indeed the Blessed One replied in verse to Susīma the deva regarding Sāriputta:
Known as wise,
Sāriputta is loving;
Content, humble, restrained,
biding his time well restrained and developed.

  1. Thanks to Sabio Lentz for pointing out a confusion in my translation. Susīma is a devaputta, and I had left the term untranslated at first. A devaputta is a human being who has been reborn in the devaloka i.e. the realms of devas. The word literally means "son of a deva" - just as Sāriputta is the "son of (his mother) Sārī". They often seem to retain a sense of connection to the manussaloka or realm of human beings. There is no obvious single English word that conveys this concept that is unique to India. PED suggests "angel" but this is so wrong as to be laughable. Still unable to choose a better translation I've opted to use 'deva' which should be more straight-forward, and at least does not introduce foreign ideas into the discourse.

Image: a Sri Lankan monk from Scribner's magazine. 1891. I imagine Sāriputta would have looked a bit like this.

23 September 2011

In My Eye

In my eyeI'VE COMMENTED BEFORE on the episode where the Buddha speaks to Bāhiya in a post entitled "In the Seen...". He begins the famous speech with: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard...". This is somewhat cryptic, but I noted that I had found another sutta which acts as a commentary on the Bahiya incident: The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72).

My translation of part of the text says:
Having seen a form with mindfulness [sati] forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance;
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that;

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form,
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.
The gist is that without mindfulness, delight in the pleasures of the senses overcomes our minds and our minds are impaired. As a result we heap up suffering and are unlikely to be liberated - we will remain in thrall to pleasure seeking. Those who are mindful, do not delight in the pleasures of the senses, do not heap up suffering, and for them nibbāna is close.

In contemporary Buddhist presentations we usually find the idea that there is something other than the "seen in the seen" attributed to Brahmins. Compare the text above with this passage from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (CU)
atha yatraitad ākāśam anuviṣaṇṇaṃ cakṣuḥ sa cākṣuṣaḥ puruṣo darśanāya cakṣuḥ | atha yo vededaṃ jighrāṇīti sa ātmā gandhāya ghrāṇam | atha yo vededam abhivyāharāṇīti sa ātmā abhivyāhārāya vāk | atha yo vededaṃ śṛṇvānīti sa ātmā śravaṇāya śrotram || CU 8.12.4 || [1]

Where the eye is gazes into space, that is the puruṣa of the eye. The eye is for seeing. The one who experiences "let me smell this" is the ātman. The nose is for smelling. The one who experiences "let me say this" is the ātman. The voice is for talking. The one who experiences "let me hear this" is the ātman. The ear is for hearing.

atha yo vededaṃ manvānīti sa ātmā | mano 'sya daivaṃ cakṣuḥ | sa vā eṣa etena daivena cakṣuṣā manasaitān kāmān paśyan ramate ya ete brahmaloke || CU 8.12.5 ||

The one who experiences "let me think this" is the ātman. Mind is its divine eye. [The ātman] sees the delights and
pleasures of the world of Brahmā, with this divine eye, the mind. [2]
Here CU is proposing that there is something other than the seen in the seen. In the seen we find 'the one who sees', which here is described as both puruṣa 'person' and ātman 'self' - the two are synonymous.[3] It is this ātman which, through the divine eye, sees the pleasures of the world of Brahmā/brahman (the word could mean either the creator god, or the universal essence; a distinction entirely lost in the Buddhist Canon). Elsewhere we find that this self is to be sought within the heart (i.e. through introspective meditation) and having once identified it, it becomes one's whole world (idaṃ sarvaṃ). The analogy I use is that when one falls in love, one's lover becomes one's whole world. We might also think of a meditator absorbed in samādhi, where the samādhi itself becomes their whole world.

Buddhist critiques of this kind of material are probably familiar to Buddhist readers. CU seems to propose that there is an 'entity' behind experience, an experiencing 'person' or 'self' which has the experiences. Discovering this self within oneself is what enables the seer to be liberated. However note that there is a discrepancy. The Brahmin does not aim to see the delights of this world. This is confirmed in many passages throughout CU as well as other Upaniṣads. Ordinary desire and the delights of this world are as much an anathema in the early Upaniṣads as they are in early Buddhist texts. The Brahmin ascetic aims at union with brahman, and thereby escape from saṃsāra. However the Buddhist criticism focusses on paying attention to delights of the senses. Is it because they deny the possibility of anything behind the senses, or have they just missed the point? I think it's not out of the question that the Buddhists simply did not understand the main points of the Upaniṣads and that the beliefs being criticised were not in fact held by Brahmins. Indeed as far as I can see such beliefs are not even attributed to Brahmins in the Pāli texts.

The Buddhist critique of ātman rests on the idea that, as an immanent aspect of brahman, it is substantial, permanent and makes us happy when we find it. Although the idea does not occur in the suttas, compare this description of nibbāna from the canonical Cūḷaniddesa:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
"Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable." [4]
Such a statement is common enough in Buddhism. How is this different? The essential difference here is that Buddhists assume Brahmins to be speaking literally, and take their own almost identical statements metaphorically. This assumption goes unchallenged amongst Buddhists. Why? I suggest that it is because of deep seated prejudices against, and antipathy towards, Hinduism. Our identity as Buddhists is bound up with rejecting Hinduism - even if only nominally. However I do not believe that the Brahmins were speaking literally. Rather, I'd say they were struggling to put into words their own meditation experiences, and were themselves inventing a new metaphorical language to do so, and rejecting their own 1000 year old traditions in the process. There's no a priori reason to assume unsubtly or stupidity on the part of Brahmins. In fact Brahmanical thinking of this period is scintillating and full of subtlety. A few centuries later the Buddhists of India adopted precisely the same kind of essentialist metaphor for tathāgatagarbha! Buddhists also posit a faculty other than the six senses—with no name I've been able to discover—which can discern nibbāna or "the Unconditioned" [sic] or "things as they really are". How is this different from the 'eye' which sees the brahmaloka? Note that Buddhists also adopted this Brahmanical idea of the brahmaloka, but again they took it literally. Which suggests that they simply did not understand the idea. The Buddhist criticisms of those seeking rebirth in the brahmaloka are wide of the mark, and more or less irrelevant from the point of view of the Upaniṣads. This is not to say that criticism is not possible, only that early Buddhist texts are wholly unconvincing in their criticism.

I am not suggesting that there is no difference in the doctrinal positions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. Clearly there are differences. However Buddhists have long exaggerated and distorted these differences. Modern Buddhists, like their ancient counterparts, seem largely ignorant of the Upaniṣads or the nuances in them. And as I come to better understand them myself, I am becoming increasingly doubtful about the idea that Buddhist doctrine is a reaction against Upaniṣadic Brahmanism: one can hardly react against what one is ignorant of. This raises interesting questions which I hope to address in the future.

For an inspiring and vivid account of the Brahmanical religion I heartily recommend this book:
William K. Mahoney. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. State University of New York Press.
I must warn traditionalist Buddhists however: this book may cause you to experience sympathy and respect for Brahmins, which could be detrimental to your Buddhist faith.


  1. Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Sanskrit text from www.sub.uni-goettingen.de.
  2. My translation follows Valerie Roebuck's which is more literal than Patrick Olivelle's.
  3. As an aside I would once again like to point out the mad way we capitalise these words when they are in a religious context. We want to say that 'Self' is somehow different from, more important than, 'self'. Capitalising suggests either something substantial (a thing), or something transcendental (beyond our ability to sense or understand). Sometimes, paradoxically, both . Neither is very helpful. The Sanskrit 'ātman' is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is part of the fun. If we try to make clear a distinction when our source text is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous we are not doing justice to the text: ātman means 'body, and self, and the immanent aspect of brahman.' And especially in the early Upaniṣads all three meanings are found. If we try to fix it as one or other we lose nuances, and we may in fact obscure the meaning.
  4. The CST version of the Pāli Canon does not include PTS page numbers for this text. It is from the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-niptāta. CST p.201.

16 September 2011


Music of the Spheres
music of the spheres
FIRST USED IN ENGLISH in 1570s the word phenomenon is traced back to the Greek phainesthai 'to appear, to seem' from phainō 'to show, to bring light'. For instance in The Odyssey, when marking the start of a new day, Homer often used the lovely phrase: phanē rhododaktulos Ēōs "Dawn's rosy fingers appeared". Phainō can also mean 'to make known' via the metaphor 'to see is to know'.

From the Greek come such words as fantasy, fancy, phantom, emphasis, and diaphanous. The PIE root is *bhā 'to shine'. Via Germanic cognates we get words such as banner, beacon, berry. In Latin a phantasma is the name for an apparition or spectre. Also via Latin we get epiphany, sycophant, hierophant. The root goes into Sanskrit as bhāsati 'to shine' and prabhā 'shining' and vibhāta 'shining forth'.

In English the meaning of phenomenon varies according to the context but basically it refers to the something known through the senses rather than by the intellect or reason. It can also mean any kind of observable event. Of course a Buddhist definition of phenomena, would include objects of the mind and observable mental events (not all such events are observable from within).

Phenomena are sometimes contrasted with noumena (from Greek noeō 'to perceive, to observe, to notice'; probably from a non-IE source since there are no other attested forms, and no PIE root). Before Kant philosophers took noumena to be synonymous with Plato's ideal forms. Plato likened human perception to seeing shadows cast on the wall of a cave, suggesting that we don't ever see the things that cast the shadows, i.e. the ideal forms (this gives us the label 'Idealist'), or presumably the light which illuminates them. In Kant's philosophy the appearance of thing (phenomenon) is contrasted with the 'thing in itself' (German Ding an sich) or noumenon, and, according to Kant, noumena are not directly perceptible, we can only intuit their existence from appearances - hence his philosophy is called Transcendental Idealism. Other philosophers hold that noumena can be perceived by the intellect, or pure reason, which might appear to make them akin to the Buddhist notion of the mental sense objects (dharma), however the differences are great enough to warn us off suggesting noumena as a translation. Although most Buddhist traditions would deny the possibility of noumena outright, some Buddhists find it hard to let go of the notion that there is something beyond phenomena, a transcendental reality, which can be experienced "directly".

The adjective noumenal (related to noumena) is sometimes conflated with the adjective numinous, though the latter is from a different root. 'Numinous' is mainly used by theologians to suggest the felt presence of God. This word comes from the Latin numen 'divine will'. Ultimately we can trace it to the PIE root *√neu "to nod"; and it suggests ascent by a nod of the head. A related English word is innuendo.

Because dharma/dhamma is often used in the sense of an object of the senses, particularly the mind-sense (manas), and because it can mean 'a thing', or 'an item' we often translate it as 'phenomenon'. The fit is not exact however. Dharma comes from the root √dhṛ 'to hold, to support'. There is a word which would be well translated by phenomenon and that is vedanā. The root of this word is √vid 'to know, to find' and is regularly used in words to do with knowledge such as veda 'sacred knowledge' and vidyā 'secret knowledge'. We often translate these Indic words with English from the same root, i.e. wisdom 'experience and knowledge combined with the ability to judiciously apply them'. Vedanā then is 'the thing known', in effect it is 'what appears', i.e. the phenomenon. Though again Western thinkers don't typically include mental objects under the rubric of phenomena.

Vedanā is often translated as 'feeling' because in Buddhist doctrine it is associated with pleasure and displeasure (sāta/asāta or sukha/dukkha), leading to attraction and repulsion. I tend to translate 'sensation' because 'feeling' allows for vedanā to be confused with emotions which are colloquially also called 'feelings'. We could say that emotions have a felt component, and a cognitive component. A feeling without a corresponding thought process is possible, but it is usually hard to know what to make of it. In modern terms the feelings of pleasure and pain associated with sensations are part of our internal sense network which includes proprioception, the inner-ear balance organs, the viscera and digestive tract, and other sources of information from within the body itself. We sometimes talk about 'raw sensations' in Buddhism, but this is a bit of a misnomer because even in Buddhist psychology a lot of complex processes have to be active in order for us to become aware of a sensation. What in effect we mean by raw sensation is the vedanā before it gives rise to craving or aversion. To experience this we have to be relatively detached from pleasure and pain.

From the Buddhist point of view one of the important things about vedanā is that it arises in dependence on conditions. It is said to arise when there is contact, and contact occurs when sense faculty meets sense object giving rise to sense consciousness - and the three together constitute the condition for the arising of vedanā. We see a crucial difference in the Buddhist and Western approaches here. The Western intellectual tradition sees our internal world as subjective, as synonymous with the subject. Buddhists see this as a mistake. The subject is involved in creating experience, but only in active interaction with the object. Experience itself then is neither subjective nor objective; it is not a function of either alone, but of the interactions of the two together. I have observed before that this technically means that early Buddhist thought is dualistic - it acknowledges that subject and object are two different things. This is a metaphysical position, and it has wide ranging implications should we choose to follow them up, but the authors of the suttas never did.

Buddhism in the West is still in the process of settling on terminology. Perhaps for the first time in history a culture is having to deal with multiple competing forms of Buddhism which are using radically different oriental vocabulary e.g. Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean. Of these languages only Japanese and Korean are even remotely related (and the relationship is remote in this case). Phenomenon and it's counterpart noumenon are widely used, but the discussion about suitability has yet to really take place. I'm reasonably well versed in Indian Buddhist terminology, but I find I cannot read books on Tibetan Buddhism because they use another set of terms with may neologisms that I don't understand. Similarly I often flounder when reading about Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist jargon is often impenetrable, even to Buddhists.

I'm all in favour of just ditching traditional jargon and Buddhist Hybrid English (English vocabulary with Sanskrit syntax) that doesn't make sense. Perhaps it is time to drop all the words and have a new attempt at describing the procedures of Buddhism, and the experiences that result? A word like phenomenon shows that it won't be easy, because words come with baggage. On the other hand we are constantly redefining words: think of terrific (i.e. terrifying OEtD), or silly (originally 'happy, blessed' OEtD). It suggests that there will be a role for philologists—those people who tell us what words mean, and why they mean that—in Buddhism for a long time to come.


09 September 2011

Everything changes, but so what?

πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.
Everything flows and nothing stays.

Heraclitus quoted in Plato. Cratylus. 402a. Perseus Digital Library.
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations]

IT CAN SOMETIMES SEEM that Buddhists take the great insight of the Buddha to be that "everything changes". It can sometimes seem that "everything changes" is equated with paṭicca-samuppāda. While it is certainly true that everything changes, I think we Buddhists are often wrong in the way we present change. In particular we present this idea that everything changes are some kind of revelation from the exotic East, previously unknown to the mundane West. But the fact that everything changes is actually passé in the West, at least as old in our intellectual history as in Indian. So here I want to present a few quotes on the subject from pre-Buddhist Europe:
Nothing endures but change. Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
What can we take on trust in this uncertain life? Happiness, greatness, pride—nothing is secure, nothing keeps. Euripides, Hecuba.

Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD),

ὁ κόσμος ἀλλοίωσις, ὁ βίος ὑπόληψις. The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, V, 3.
I have never come across any credible suggestion that these Greek and Roman thinkers were influenced by Buddhism, and indeed Heraclitus most likely predates the Buddha. And yet some of these observations are indistinguishable from the phrases repeated by Buddhists as representing our most profound wisdom. I want to take this a little further by quoting a paragraph from David Sedley's stimulating commentary on Plato's Cratylus Dialogue—here he is actually talking about the Timaeus Dialogue:
According to the Timaeus, the sensible world is gignomenon, something which constantly 'becomes' but never 'is'. It is therefore not an object of knowledge, on the Platonic principle that the contents of knowledge should not, even in theory, admit of being falsified at a later date: items of knowledge are permanent possessions, not subject to revision; their objects must therefore be entities incapable of change, that is primarily at least, the Forms. The sensible world is, by contrast, the domain of opinion, doxa, which shares the instability of it's objects and which, even if true now, can be falsified at any time. [Plato's Cratylus, Cambridge University Press, 2003; p.101]
A similar kind of distinction is made in Buddhism. Our views (dṛṣṭi) about experience are expressed as opinions on the world, and on reality. But with insight and wisdom we begin to see that what we comment on is merely perception which is subject to change even when the object being perceived does not change. However it is possible to see experience just as it is (yathābhūta) and this kind of insight has certain characteristics which do not change. The knowledge gained is called prajñā. I would see this in terms of knowledge about the underlying dynamics and processes of perception - it has no object as such, hence it is without condition (asaṃskṛta). And I see no hint that Sedley is in any way familiar with, let alone influenced by, Buddhism in his reading of Plato. So it seems that Platonists also see the world as something which is always 'becoming' but never 'is'.

I think this is sufficient to establish that "everything changes" is not an observation unique to Buddhism. There are two possibilities. Either the statement tells us that the Greeks were on the same wavelength as the Buddha; or the statements are both equally banal. And I suggest it is the latter. I don't think that observation that everything changes is very profound; or that the Greeks were awakened in the Buddhists sense; or that "everything changes" is what the Buddha was on about.

Hopefully this opinion doesn't come as a surprise. I've written a number of times that I do not think that paṭicca-samuppāda was intended to be a theory of everything. This is argued at length in my commentary on the Kaccānagotta Sutta, and summarised in my blog post: A General Theory of Conditionality? The theory paṭicca-samuppāda was intended to explain the arising of experience, and guide us towards insights into why we suffer, with suffering distinguished from painful sensations. It might be argued that this is an attempt to discover 'the original Buddhism' which I myself have described as folly, and criticised others for. However I think there are good doctrinal and methodological reasons for adopting this approach and these are set out in many previous blog posts, and longer essays.

I've gathered many quotes from Westerners who, as far as I know, were not aware of or influenced by Buddhism.

All things change, nothing is extinguished. There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement. Ovid (BC 43-AD 18) Roman poet.

In human life there is constant change of fortune; and it is unreasonable to expect an exemption from the common fate. Life itself decays, and all things are daily changing. Plutarch (46-120) Greek essayist, and biographer.

The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead? Thomas Paine

Today is not yesterday: we ourselves change; how can our works and thoughts, if they are always to be the fittest, continue always the same? Change, indeed is painful; yet ever needful; and if memory have its force and worth, so also has hope. - Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) British historian and essayist.

Change doth unknit the tranquil strength of men. Matthew Arnold, A Question.

Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, novelist and dramatist.

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) British political writer.

Change is inevitable. Change is constant. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) British politician and author.

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. William Somerset Maugham

When you're finished changing, you're finished. Benjamin Franklin
"Everything changes". Amongst Buddhists "everything changes" has become a cliché. But, so what? Awareness of it should, and does affect the way we choose to live, however I do not think it was the radical insight seen by the Buddha. I have tried to show in my essay on the Kaccānagotta Sutta that the idea of that everything changes was, from the Buddha's point of view, demonstrably false. With only his bare senses and mind he couldn't have imagined that gem stones for example changed imperceptibly over millions of years: they simply did not change. However our experience of everything is always changing, even when presented with an apparently unchanging object, and here we are closer to the mark.

02 September 2011


A diagram of the traditional 12 nidānas and
explanations from Pāli and Chinese Āgama texts.
Click for a larger image.
TODAY I WANT TO EXPLORE the rather mysterious term 'nāmarūpa' in a Buddhist context. The word has a history pre-dating its use in Buddhist texts, but I don't have space for a fully fledged archaeology. Most of us will only be familiar with the received tradition which defines what this word means, but there are problems with this tradition, and when we begin to explore it things are less than clear.

The word is most often translated as 'name and form', though one also sees such variants as 'sentient-body'. It is the fourth of the 12 nidānas. However nāmarūpa is a difficult term to pin down precisely. For instance it does occur in the truncated nidāna sequence in the Mahānidāna Sutta, but unlike the other terms it is not defined in that text.

Elsewhere in the canon the nāma in nāmarūpa is defined in terms of: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, phassa, and mansikāra. However saṅkhārā precedes nāmarūpa in the nidāna sequence, and both phassa and vedanā follow it. So this does not make sense. Another fairly well know definition , found in the Chinese Āgama texts according to Roderick Bucknell (1999) and in the Pāli (S ii.3) equates nāmarūpa with the five khandhā: rūpa is the four elements (catumahābhūta: paṭhavī, āpo, tejo, vāyo; earth, water, fire, wind) while nāma is the remaining khandhas, i.e. vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāna. This is no better. Again, vedanā comes later; and both saṅkhārā and viññāṇa come before. I'm left wondering why the tradition would explain things this way. I find that the simplified popular presentations of this material make a certain kind of sense, but in reading the Pāli Canon and examining the texts that sense drops away, and I'm left feeling puzzled. There is no coherence.

I'm aware of a few modern attempts to rationalise this term and will gloss some of them.

Eric Frauwallner (1973) observed that a sequence beginning with taṇha was quite common and concluded that the nidāna sequence was originally two shorter sequences. This has become a popular notion. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to solve the problem of cross-over in the definitions. The shorter versions of the sequence may equally be an abbreviation as an elaboration. Even so this only places the confusing aspects of the sequence together into the second group. Frauwallner's hypothesis doesn't help us solve the problems of interpreting nāmarūpa.

Dhīvan Thomas Jones, in his 2009 M.Phil thesis, has taken a slightly different approach. He notes that the Suttanipāta contains another (better) candidate for a primitive nidāna sequence in the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Sn 168-170) with synonymous but different terms to the standard model. This sequence begins with nāmarūpa, and leaves out viññāṇa which helps, but includes sāta-asāta (pleasant and unpleasant) as an equivalent of vedanā which still leaves us with a contradiction if this is part of the definition of nāmarūpa.

One of the most interesting developments of recent times is the attempt by Joanna Jurewicz to show that the terms in the nidānas were deliberately chosen as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. Richard Gombrich (2009, esp. ch.9) has taken this idea and wedded it to Frauwallner's 'two sequence' explanation to suggest that the original list was the short sequence from taṇha onwards, and that this was extended using terms from the Vedic lexicon to form a deliberate parody of Vedic cosmogony. Dhīvan Thomas Jones has shown that this not unproblematic, mainly because there is no evidence to show that Frauwallner's sequence is primitive. The same kind of process might have occurred with the Kalahavivāda Sutta (or something like it) as the nucleus of a teaching on becoming, that was given an ironic twist so that it could also serve as a parody of Vedic cosmogony. This is reasonably plausible, though of course there is no sign of cognizance of such a strategy in the Buddhist tradition itself, so if this is what happened it was almost immediately forgotten by the tradition which adopted it. Such forgetfulness is not easily explained with reference to teachings of such central importance, especially in the face of open and explicit criticism of Brahmins elsewhere. However, the context shows that the commentarial tradition (including those suttas which comment on the sequence) is not internally consistent, so something has gone wrong somewhere.

Bucknell (1999) summarises Reat who sees nāmarūpa as referring to objects of consciousness: nāma refers to conceptual (adhivacana) and rūpa to sensory (paṭigha). As Bucknell points out this view is criticised by both Peter Harvey and Sue Hamilton. However Reat's suggestion would fit nicely with Dhīvan's model of the development from a nucleus - the primitive nāmarūpa qua objects of consciousness giving rise to 'contact' (phassa) makes some sense. Hamilton's view is that nāma "should be taken to refer to abstract identity and [rūpa] to physically (though not necessarily visibly) recognisable identity." (p.151) For Hamilton nāmarūpa is closely tied to viññāṇa as is shown by the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) that links the two of them in a mutually conditioning relationship. Reat and Hamilton's positions are subtly different, but not incompatible I think.

What is clear is that once we move away from simplified popular presentations of Buddhist doctrine, there is no single and coherent understanding of what this term means or represents. And this is a continuing quandary because it suggests that we have lost touch with the spirit of the texts. If we no longer understand key terms (and I would suggest that saṃkhārā is another candidate for this category) then there is a discontinuity. Being stuck with the term we have come up with different and mutually incompatible explanations, but this only adds to the sense of confusion (rather like commentaries on the Heart Sūtra which are all from incompatible sectarian points of view).

I have no better explanation to offer. No theory, and no sense that any one of the existing theories has recover the lost meaning of the term.

Another issue with nāmarūpa and its place in the 12 nidāna chain is that it suggests that viññāna is a precondition for form, which the received tradition usually treats as the physical body. Although Buddhists complain when they perceive consciousness being treated as an epiphenomenon of the brain, they apparently have no problem believing that the body is an epiphenomenon of the mind. Not even the Three Lifetimes Interpretation can save us from this conclusion. The Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna are mutually conditioning, but this doesn't really help us. However elsewhere we find viññāna arising in dependence on the āyatanas (the six sense faculties and the six sense objects). This suggests we can have sense faculties, which includes the eyes, before we have a body. It seems to me that the received tradition has lost the thread somewhere along the line. Buddhists usually gloss over these kinds of inconsistencies and do their best to make sense of them. And unfortunately there is no scholarly consensus on what nāmarūpa might have originally meant in a Buddhist context. Perhaps it's time to rethink this strategy of papering over the cracks?


[I'll be away from 2-9 Sept]

  • Bucknell, Roderick S. (1999) Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 22 (2), 312-342,
  • Frauwallner, E. (1973). History of Indian Philosophy. (Vol. 1). (V. Bedekar, trans.) Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. Curzon.
  • Hamilton Early Buddhism a New Approach.
  • Jones, Dhīvan Thomas. Paṭiccasamuppāda in Context: The Buddha in Debate with Brahmanical Thinking. M.Phil Dissertation. Cambridge University [unpublished]
  • Jurewicz, J. Playing with Fire: the pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic Thought. Journal of the Pali Text Society, 26, p.77-103
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