A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #4 Name and Form

It is with this link in the chain that this secular understanding of dependent arising finds a deeper insight into the processes through which we create anatta, deeper insight than offered by the confusion of the traditional views of what’s going on. The Pali word for this step is namarupanama shares a root with our “name” and “rupa” means form. My preferred term for these — not in translations but in explanations of what they’re about — is “identification”.

But let’s let Sariputta have his say (from MN 9, as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi):

“Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements, and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are called name-&-form.

At first glance, this explanation of Sariputta’s seems to have broken the pattern — it seems to be describing what each part of name and form is, rather than describing the field namarupa‘s activities grow in, but that’s not what’s going on here; it is still the field.

What namarupa is, is the way we identify things, and the way we identify with them. We use feeling, perception, intention, contact, and the direction of our attention to sort out what’s what; we also use the shape of things, their physical, material forms. These habits of thought are the fields in which we grow the things we do that are sankhara-based.

The previous step’s “awareness” is a primary cause of the events in this step, because it is our sankhara-driven awareness that is behind our drive to sort everything in the world in a way that relates to us — this is why I say it’s about identification: we identify what we encounter — recognize its form, give it a name — and then we identify with it, sorting into (in the Buddha’s terms) “pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of these” or (in my terms) of advantage to us, or disadvantage, or “makes no difference”. We define everything by how it relates to us. It is simply our nature to do this — we do it without being aware that we are doing it (out of ignorance).

Awareness — driven by our need to exist (sankhara), to protect ourselves, to know ourselves in relation to the world — is, itself, the driving force for the way we use our abilities and our senses to identify whatever we encounter (be it objects or experiences or ideas) in terms of whether it supports our ideas about ourselves, or denies them, whether it will help us, or hinder us.

But awareness doesn’t exist without something to feed on, and it feeds on the way we identify the world in relation to our selves. Sense data comes in and we identify with it in some way, and because we do this, awareness can keep on seeking. Having found confirmation of itself, having been fed, it goes on looking for more, more, more, always needing to be fed. So, for example, our hungry awareness encounters an idea — it turns the idea over, examining its form, its qualities, and compares it to itself. Is this idea “like me”? Or is it very different from me? If it fits in my concept of myself, I am drawn to it; if it is too strange, too different from my own ideas, I am averse to it. If it seems to have no value at all, it gets ignored.

Again, this is just what we do by nature, no blame, no sin, just the default behavior we all share.

The desire to exist drives awareness to seek confirmation that we exist (and looks for detail about who we are) through the way we identify with the world — awareness drives identification — and confirmation that we exist through identification with the world drives awareness to keep seeking. The two are mutually dependent.

 

 

Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Dana Nourie on May 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Linda, thank you for another great article in this series! Name and form were something that often confused me in reading the suttas. I thought of course everything has name and form. How can that be the cause of suffering? It wasn’t until the last year or so that I begun suspecting what was meant was our identification through name and form, as we have often discussed in terms of labels.

    I’ve been watching this more and more within myself, and I’ve noticed it strongly, not in areas of suffering, but areas of learning. I’m discovering that topics that interest me are of interest because they fit with my worldview, my identification. While I was listening to a talk on neurobiology, I realized the reason I found it so satisfying was because first it matched my own beliefs about the brain, and then it added additional information on top. I realized that if it had not be in concordance, maybe I would not have enjoyed it so much, or maybe not have even believed it. I’m watching this process with my beliefs and views and seeing how I’m drawn to those that match my view and less so to do that don’t because of identification.

    I lit onto this a bit when reading the book The Believing Brain, and what you describe above makes even more sense of that. Will look for other areas I can dig deeply into this as well. Thank you!

    More and more I find myself attempting to read or listen without this sense of identification of self to see if this opens my thinking and my attachment to views.

  2. PopeEggsBenedict on May 31, 2012 at 3:16 am

    Hi, just wanted to say a big ‘Thanks!’ for this series, really interesting stuff and delivered with a lot of clarity. Thanks a lot!

  3. Linda on May 31, 2012 at 8:13 am

    PEB, Glad you’re finding it useful. I’m pretty sure the reason it is, is not because I’m a terrific writer but because the fellow who figured out how to describe what was going on, over 2,000 years ago, did an amazingly good job of putting the lesson together. I just got lucky and rediscovered what he said. The clarity is coming from understanding what he was saying, not so much from my writing.

    Dana — I never could quite understand what it was that made “name and form” and “consciousness” dependent on each other, the way they are described in the suttas as being dependent, until I saw the way the Prajapati myth was the basis for the order of the first five steps (thanks to Joanna Jurewicz article “Playing With Fire”). It was clear to me we were missing something important because whenever I read about DA, no one could really explain what was being said in the suttas with any kind of precision. It was all this vague “it goes sorta like this” type of explanation.

    I’m glad to hear that you, too, were persisting in trying to pick up the meaning and sense of namarupa from the suttas and had gotten the idea of it. That’s how anyone — all of us who are interested in understanding what’s actually being said in the suttas — can work (together I hope) on figuring out what’s in there, which may not always be exactly what we’ve been told (though often what the traditions tell us is quite accurate — I’m not saying they are all wrong; I am saying they haven’t got it as totally figured out as they seem to indicate sometimes). I had gotten the sense that these early steps were the “givens” long before I found the Jurewicz article, which gave me the needed clues to see *how* and *why* these early steps would be “the givens”. That this is what they are also makes sense of the breaks in order we find in many suttas about DA — where sankhara is given after feeling, for example; because the early bits are larger, overall definitions, which are given detail later.

    I find the solving of the mysteries here tremendous fun; but I guess that’s stating the obvious, eh?

  4. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Linda, I listened to a talk the other day on neuroscience and consciousness. I was really struck by something that harkened back to eye consciousness, ear consciousness, taste consciousness, etc. When I first read that in the suttas, I thought it rather silly to think of consciousness as arising with the sense bases. I could kind of see why they might thing that but it sounded absurd to me.

    Yet, in my own experience I notice how peaked consciousness seems to be with sensory perception. Then I listened to this talk last week on consciousness from a neuroscience perspective, and guess what, he said the same thing but in different wording! The professor said that consciousness is not a steady state that we have when we’re awake. That is just how it “seems.” What’s really happening is that consciousness arises and falls away as the senses take in the world around us. When the eye sees, then consciousness arises with vision. When we smell something, consciousness arises with the sense of smell. I thought, wow, that is exactly what the Buddha was saying!

    Then he went on to how they are trying to figure out how the brain is doing that and it appears not to be in brain regions, but in networks throughout the brain. Thoughts are created by individual and small groups of neurons, but they don’t yet know what stimulates thoughts.

    It’s always fascinating and a bit exciting for “me” when neuroscience validates what I’ve learned in Buddhism. I’m amazed how how fine grained Buddha’s perception and mindfulness of how our mental process work was.

    Decartes said, “I think therefore I am.” And we all have that feeling don’t we. But Decartes didn’t dig deeply enough, he didn’t go beyond what the mind wants us to think. That’s what’s been exciting for me in Buddhism, that we can dig even more deeply into how processes actually arise allowing us more options in how we behave than just stopping at “I am.”

  5. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Sorry I meant to leave the link to that talk in case anyone is interested. I also highly recommend all the podcasts from Brain Science: http://www.brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/update-on-consciousness-research-with-christof-koch-bsp-84.html

  6. Candol on May 31, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Dana, buddhism tells us thoughts are stimulated by a range of things but one of them is contact with our senses. i’m surprised you dno’t already know that. perhaps you’ve just forgotten.

    For example, we hear something and it stimulates a thought. But perhaps you mean something within the brain. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be a neurone in the case of having heard something. But i also believe that many of our thoughts are stimulated by the ups and downs of brain chemicals. So i guess for me i expect them one to day tell us its a combination of or either electrical impulses and brain chemicals and of course set off by one of six senses a la the buddha.

    You see i don’t think our thoughts are as random as we are told in buddhism. There is obviously a degree of what appears to be randomness but strictly speaking they are not random. Otherwise i would be more capable of having more thoughts like yours and you more like mine. Obviously memory has a lot to do with the thoughts we have. Just it has to do with our dreams.

    • Linda on May 31, 2012 at 10:41 am

      The Buddha isn’t saying they are “random”. He is saying that even before they are triggered by the senses, we are pre-disposed to react in a certain way. The idea that “thoughts arise with the senses” is tied to the very vague understanding of dependent arising that’s been hanging around for so long — because the context was not understood, it was thought that when the link “consciousness” was defined, and it was described in terms of the senses, that was *all* consciousness was about. But the larger context makes it clear that the senses aren’t the only influence on consciousness — they are just the field — the seeds that land in the field come from the step before, sankhara’s desire for existence/knowledge of the existence of a lasting self. What grows in the field of the senses sprouts from that seed. Not random at all.

      • Candol on May 31, 2012 at 8:57 pm

        Ok maybe the buddha didn’t say they were random but the way buddhist teachers talk about our thoughts is pretty much to suggest that they are largely and this is given as the reason why can just dismiss them. that they are not us for example (ie not belong to us) as if they have no connection to the bigger picture of this organism. As if they are independent of this organism.

        Do you disagree that this is how thoughts are mostly portrayed in buddhism?

      • Linda on June 1, 2012 at 12:52 am

        Yes, Candol, I do agree that is the way thoughts are quite often portrayed in Buddhism. I’m reminded of the cartoon that was on FB recently of the conversation between two monks: “You’re the most thoughtless person I know.” “Thank you!”

        It seems to be a common perception that the ideal is to stop thoughts altogether, but I see nothing in the suttas to indicate that is what the Buddha had in mind. As I was suggesting above, I’m pretty sure it comes from misunderstanding dependent arising. If we think the object is to “end consciousness” (in all forms) then every thought that arises in response to the senses is under the gun; but DA isn’t saying “all forms of consciousness” (and therefore all thoughts) need to be ended to end dukkha.

  7. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Candol, you misunderstood me. I was referring to consciousness, not thought. Yes, thoughts are stimulated by a multitude of things from sensory perception to chemistry, emotions, and interaction with the world around us. I was referring to suttas that refer specially to sensory perception and how Buddha and neuroscience say consciousness is not continuous but arises from the senses. Thoughts arise within consciousness.

  8. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Candol, I agree with, Linda that senses give rise to consciousness, which may give rise to a trout or some other reaction. This means that thoughts are not random, but are a part of a multitude of processes. When we become mindful, we notice this process at work and can’t star to see what may trigger negative thoughts, positive thoughts, pointless circling thoughts, etc.

    When we say thoughts aren’t you, we don’t mean they aren’t coming from you, or they aren’t personalized. What we are saying is given the nature of thoughts, it’s best not to identify through them. The less attached you are to how you think or your opinions, the more open you are to new information, and the less power your thinking has to create stories that cause you suffering.

    This is the heart of mindfulness, and DO refers to what we can mindfully observe more closely. I suspect some teachers may make it sound as though thoughts are disembodied because taking an attitude as though you are watching someone else’s thoughts during meditation can help one be more objective and less apt to cling to thoughts or thought stories. Or maybe you are misunderstanding.

  9. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Damn auto correct, I did not mean trout! I meant thought or reaction.

  10. Dana Nourie on May 31, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Also, when I said neuroscience doesn’t know what prompts thoughts I mean on a brain matter level. Of course they know thinking is prompted as a reaction to stimuli, such as the senses taking in info, the body receiving info, interaction with the world. But we don’t know how the brain does that, only that it does.

  11. […] Name-and-form/identification (namarupa): Is “namarupa” really the Buddha saying “We have this duality: mind and body”? […]

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