The Namarupa

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The Namarupa – insights for the students

who Sincerely and Truthfully aim to Transcend it

Written by Adina Riposan-Taylor (Saraswati Devi)

Satya Sattva, Amelia Island, USA

Nāmarūpa means “name (nāma) and form (rūpa)”. Thus Nāmarūpa is sometimes defined as “individuality”, or “individual being”, since nāma and rūpa distinguish the individual by ‘name and body’ from other individuals. Transcending the Namarupa can therefore be interpreted as transcending the limitations that keep us in individuality.

While transcending the “name” seems to be easier to approach and less scary to all students, transcending the “form” is always less understood, mostly often ignored, and sometimes entirely left aside even by the most persevering students who otherwise have set themselves on a grounded and disciplined path of spiritual growth and aspiration. The Form seems to create the most severe and persistent attachments in an era of illusory societal value-systems, stereotype thinking and behavioural patterns based on subliminal inclinations and tendencies, superficial hierarchical conditioning and collective psychosis. To give a more Scholastic expression and a Spiritual dimension to the modern way of saying “size doesn’t matter” and “shape doesn’t matter”, I am providing bellow a brief synthesis of what Nāmarūpa and mainly Rūpa really mean, and the aspects and elements that a spiritual seeker and an aspirant to authentic spiritual evolution should address and be aware of – with open heartedness, mind clarity, discernment and Witness Consciousness.

This term and concept of the Nāmarūpa appears in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

In Hinduism, nāma describes the spiritual or essential properties of an object or being, and rūpa is the physical presence manifested by it.

In Buddhism, nāma refers to psychological elements of the human person, and rūpa refers to the physical elements, nāma and rūpa being mutually dependent and inseparable. Nāmarūpa thus designates an “individual being” and the constituent processes of the human being.

Namarupa is considered to comprise the five aggregates – the five skandhas (in Sanskrit) or khandhas (in Pāḷi) – which represent constituents of the sentient being, generating aspects of the way the individual manifests: matter (or form), sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness (see Sutta Pitaka, reference bellow). However, the Buddhist teachings state that none of these is really “I”.

The Theravada tradition teaches that suffering arises from one’s identification with an aggregate, or clinging to an aggregate, and suffering is extinguished when one lets go of the attachments to the aggregates. The Mahayana tradition emphasises that ultimate freedom is realized when the nature of all aggregates is penetrated as being inherently empty of independent existence.

It means to distance ourselves from our personality, usually related to our name and form, to get access to the reality of our Divine being, an existence without attributes, which is beyond name and form.

The Rūpa

In both Hinduism and Buddhism, rūpa refers to material objects in regard to their appearance – “form” or “matter” – which includes external and internal matter, the external and internal manifestations of rūpa: externally, rūpa represents the physical world, while internally it comprises the material body and the physical sense organs of the being.

In Rigveda, rūpa is defined as “any outward appearance or phenomenon or colour, form, shape, figure”. In the Sanskrit Lexicon of the Monier-Williams Dictionary (reference bellow), the definition we find is “having the form or appearance or colour of”.

The Pali Canon (Tripitaka), which is the Pali collection of Buddhist writings (the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism), traditionally analyses the rūpa in two ways: as four primary elements (earth, water, fire and air), and as ten, twenty-three or twenty-four secondary or derived elements. Abhidhamma Pitaka (abhidhammapiṭaka), the last of the three divisions of Tripitaka, and Visuddhimagga (“The Path of Purification”), the ‘great treatise’ of Theravada Buddhism, identify the twenty-four secondary or derived elements (upādā) of the rūpa: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, form, sound, odour, taste, touch, femininity, masculinity or virility, life or vitality, heart or heart-basis, physical indications (movements that indicate intentions), vocal indications, space element, physical lightness or buoyancy, physical yieldingness or plasticity, physical handiness or wieldiness, physical grouping or integration, physical extension or maintenance, physical aging or decay, physical impermanence, food.

Clinging causes future suffering

Going back to the five aggregates of the Namapupa (the skandhas), the Twelve Nidanas describe twelve phenomenal links that perpetuate suffering between and within lives: mental formations (saṃskāra) condition consciousness, which conditions name-and-form (nāma-rūpa), which conditions the precursors to sensations, which condition craving, and condition clinging (upādāna), which further causes “the entire mass of suffering”.    

The five aggregates are the determinants for clinging and therefore “contribute to the causal origination of future suffering”. The Upadaparitassana Sutta (reference bellow) – “Agitation through Clinging Discourse” – describes how non-clinging to form prevents agitation:

“…The instructed noble disciple … does not regard form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his changes and alters.”

Buddha’s advice was that, through mindfulness contemplation, one should see an “aggregate as an aggregate”, arising and dissipating. Clear seeing should create a space between the aggregate and clinging, thus preventing the arising and propagation of clinging, which will further diminishing future suffering. When clinging disappears, the notion of a “separate self” disappears too.

These Buddhist models of causation and conditioning show that mental formations have a key compelling role in both the origination and cessation of suffering!

In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, the Mahamudra teachings identify the form aggregate as the “solidification” of ignorance, leading to the creation of a dualistic relationship between “self” and “other”. According to Trungpa Rinpoche, “the whole development of the five skandhas is an attempt on our part to shield ourselves from the truth of our insubstantiality,” while “the practice of meditation is to see the transparency of this shield.”

In India, the Prajnaparamita teachings emphasise the “emptiness” of everything that exists, which means that there are no eternally existing “essences” and even the skandhas (aggregates) lack any substantial existence.

The classic “Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra” (“Heart Sutra”) states:

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,

while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita

looked upon the Five Skandhas,

seeing they were empty of self-existence,

said, “Here Shariputra,

form is emptiness, emptiness is form,

emptiness is not separate from form,

form is not separate from emptiness;

whatever is form is emptiness,

whatever is emptiness is form.”

To give a brief conclusion to this article, and coming back to more life-oriented expressions like “size doesn’t matter,” or shape, or color, or race, or gender – we could consider the positive topical societal trends that progressively try to eliminating prejudice in cells of society where higher states of awareness have been reached and there is less need for separation and nurturing of individuality by illusory hierarchical conditioning and superficial value-systems, superiority/inferiority ranking scales, or psychotic competition for beauty or popularity.  With open heartedness and mind clarity we should observe and meditate on the values we follow, we respect and we cherish – in ourselves and the others, we should regard our own values with Witness Consciousness, freed from mind-conditioning and mental formations, then we should regard the values we seek in others with spiritual discernment and maturity, freed from subliminal inclinations, worldly ego-tendencies, judgemental vasanas and stereotype thinking.  True liberation and the cessation of suffering can only be attained when such attachments and clinging disappear, thus the feeling of separateness disappears, allowing us to perceive reality beyond the world of illusion, to become aware of the Oneness that we are, of the emptiness within all form;  and of the only beauty we can really ever find – the beauty of the Heart, the beauty of the Self beyond form, the beauty of Divinity in Naturalness, the beauty of Pure Love beyond conditioning.

“The only beauty that lasts is the beauty of the Heart.”


Notes and References:

  • The Sutta Pitaka (suttapiṭaka) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (abhidhammapiṭaka) are the first and the last of the three divisions (pitakas) of the Tripitaka or Pali Canon, the Pali collection of Buddhist writings, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism.
  • The Upadaparitassana Sutta (“Agitation through Clinging Discourse”), is part of the Sutta Pitaka that contains the Khandhavagga (“The Book of Aggregates”), a book compiling over a hundred suttas related to the five aggregates.
  • The Visuddhimagga (“The Path of Purification”), is the ‘great treatise’ on Theravada Buddhist doctrine.

For more References, see also:

  • Monier-Williams Dictionary, “Cologne University”, Sanskrit Lexicon (search for rūpa):
  • “Abhidhamma Pitaka,” Encyclopædia Britannica (2008)
  • Hamilton (2001)
  • Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-1925)
  • Trungpa (2001)
  • Thanissaro (1997)
  • Red Pine (2004)

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