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Understanding Nama-Rupa

January 23, 2014

By the contemplative recluse monk Arahatta Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

When we examine the literature of Buddhism in English translation we often find the interpretation of Nama-rupa as "mental materiality."  This I believe is a most unfortunate choice of translation for a number of reasons.  First of all, there is no compound word in common use in the English language 'mental materiality.' 

The actual Sanskrit/Pali terms being used are 'nama' and 'rupa'.  The Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are used throughout the sutta, as well as other Indic literature.  It is important to realize that these terms are applied in various ways, which are difficult to translate into a single English term for all applications.  Most translators unsuccessfully try to do this, and they end up with nonsense-terms like: 'mentality-materiality,' and 'mind & body,' which suggests these translators were simply clueless.

The way in which the Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are used throughout Indic literature suggests four prominent uses:

1] The Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are used in Indic literature in the way western psychiatry uses the phrase 'psycho-somatic,' which is recognizing that there is a relationship of social, psychological, and behavioral factors on bodily processes and quality of life in humans and animals.

2] The Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are also used in Indic literature in the way western languages also recognize intellectually a difference between abstract concepts and concrete objects.

3] The Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are also used in the sense of a mind, and a body.  Nama is the mind, and rupa is the body.

4] The Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' are also used in the sense that nama represents non-physical universe, verses rupa represents the physical universe.

In the case of Dependent Origination it is closely tied to Siddhartha Gautama's concept of the Five Clinging Aggregates.

The Five Clinging Aggregates or heaps of Cognition,
(khanda, S. skhanda)


Body, matter, physical form









Mental formations, structures, beliefs or projections



Cognition, or volition


Here rupa forms the first 2 aggregates, and nama forms the last 3 aggregates.

I believe if we want to understand Nama-Rupa within the context of Dependent Origination, then we need to realize that there is a psychosomatic aspect to the use of the term. In this case other English terms that could be used are: psychophysiology, or neurophysiology.  This would at least represent a better use of the English language and not serve to confuse a simple concept, such as nama-rupa.

However, if one reads the Vedas one will find the concept of nama-rupa is much broader than what the term ‘psychophysiology’ reveals, although I think Siddhartha Gautama’s use of the word to refer to psychophysiology was rather genius.  But, this choice of interpretation unnecessarily restricts the translation of nama-rupa to purely a reference to the psyche and the body, when it was clearly originally intended in the Vedas for a much broader concept that embraces the entire universe, both physically and subjectively.

Concepts, ideas and beliefs are “nama” both in Buddhism and its foundational religion, Hinduism, through the Vedas.  Nama pertains to the abstract and non-tangible.  Where as rupa pertains to the tangible, so it refers to material forms, our body, and possessions, as well as ritual objects and practices, such as the meditation object kasina.  However, because ritual objects are also an object imbued with meaning, then they also have an abstract, or nama, component.

The purpose of all spiritual philosophies is to introduce to the mind a series of concepts (nama) that help to elucidate the philosophy and thus guide an individual to liberation.  All ritual objects, such as the kasina meditation object, are rupa, because they are simply objects or tools.  However, since ritual objects have the purpose of directing an individual to the spiritual endeavor, like philosophical concepts (dhammas) do, and as such they contain a context for the philosophy, thus they are “containers” as such for the nama, or philosophy of the religion.

Using nama-rupa in one's practice path (dhamma) could be seen as invoking vitakka and vicára as an aide in one’s endeavor. If you recall vitakka and vicára are the means of access or vehicle for attaining the first stage of absorption into the religious experience (Samadhi), and as such they are the idea of directing and redirecting the mind and body (nama-rupa) toward the spiritual endeavor.  Thus nama-rupa is not only the perceptual and conceptual universe that holds us, as it were, in delusion, but we can use nama-rupa in the form of the ritual object, and the philosophical meaning those objects represent, as a means of liberation.

So, as you can see the many uses of the Sanskrit/Pali terms 'nama' and 'rupa' in Indic literature can make understanding Dependent Origination very difficult.  I hope this has helped.

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

Originally posted to the DSG Wed, 12 May 2004 07:43:00 -0700 (PDT).  Updated 01-28-05

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