It is obvious that nāma means 'name', and in the suttas also, nāma, when used by itself, means 'name'. However when we come to the commentaries we find some kind of hesitation to recognize this obvious meaning. Even in the present context, the commentary, Paramatthajotikā, explains the word 'name' so as to mean 'bending'. It says that all immaterial states are called nāma, in the sense that they bend towards their respective objects and also because the mind has the nature of inclination: Ārammaṇābhimukhaṃ namanato, cittassa ca natihetuto sabbampi arūpaṃ 'nāman'ti vuccati.
And this is the standard definition of nāma in Abhidhamma compendiums and commentaries. The idea of bending towards an object is brought in to explain the word nāma. It may be that they thought it too simple an interpretation to explain nāma with reference to 'name', particularly because it is a term that has to do with deep insight. However as far as the teachings in the suttas are concerned, nāma still has a great depth even when it is understood in the sense of 'name'.
Nāmaṃ sabbaṃ anvabhavi,
nāmā bhiyyo na vijjati,
"Name has conquered everything,
There is nothing greater than name,
All have gone under the sway
Of this one thing called name."
Also there is another verse of the same type, but unfortunately its original meaning is often ignored by the present day commentators:
yogam āyanti maccuno.
"Beings are conscious of what can be named,
They are established on the nameable,
By not comprehending the nameable things,
They come under the yoke of death."
All this shows that the word nāma has a deep significance even when it is taken in the sense of 'name'.
But now let us see whether there is something wrong in rendering nāma by 'name' in the case of the term nāma-rūpa. To begin with, let us turn to the definition of nāma-rūpa as given by the Venerable Sāriputta in the Sammādiṭṭhisutta of the Majjhima Nikāya.
Vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro - idaṃ vuccatāvuso, nāmaṃ; cattāri ca mahābhūtāni, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāyarūpaṃ - idaṃ vuccatāvuso, rūpaṃ. Iti idañca nāmaṃ idañca rūpaṃ - idam vuccatāvuso nāma-rūpaṃ. "Feeling, perception, intention, contact, attention - this, friend, is called 'name'. The four great primaries and form dependent on the four great primaries - this, friend, is called 'form'. So this is 'name' and this is 'form' - this, friend, is called 'name-and-form'."
Well, this seems lucid enough as a definition but let us see, whether there is any justification for regarding feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention as 'name'. Suppose there is a little child, a toddler, who is still unable to speak or understand language. Someone gives him a rubber ball and the child has seen it for the first time. If the child is told that it is a rubber ball, he might not understand it. How does he get to know that object? He smells it, feels it, and tries to eat it, and finally rolls it on the floor. At last he understands that it is a plaything. Now the child has recognised the rubber ball not by the name that the world has given it, but by those factors included under 'name' in nāma-rūpa, namely feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention.
This shows that the definition of nāma in nāma-rūpa takes us back to the most fundamental notion of 'name', to something like its prototype. The world gives a name to an object for purposes of easy communication. When it gets the sanction of others, it becomes a convention.
While commenting on the verse just quoted, the commentator also brings in a bright idea. As an illustration of the sweeping power of name, he points out that if any tree happens to have no name attached to it by the world, it would at least be known as the 'nameless tree'. Now as for the child, even such a usage is not possible. So it gets to know an object by the aforesaid method. And the factors involved there, are the most elementary constituents of name.
Now it is this elementary name-and-form world that a meditator also has to understand, however much he may be conversant with the conventional world. But if a meditator wants to understand this name-and-form world, he has to come back to the state of a child, at least from one point of view. Of course in this case the equanimity should be accompanied by knowledge and not by ignorance. And that is why a meditator makes use of mindfulness and full awareness, satisampajañña, in his attempt to understand name-and-form.
Even though he is able to recognize objects by their conventional names, for the purpose of comprehending name-and-form, a meditator makes use of those factors that are included under 'name': feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention. All these have a specific value to each individual and that is why the Dhamma has to be understood each one by himself - paccattaṃ veditabbo. This Dhamma has to be realized by oneself. One has to understand one's own world of name-and-form by oneself. No one else can do it for him. Nor can it be defined or denoted by technical terms.
Now it is in this world of name-and-form that suffering is found. According to the Buddha, suffering is not out there in the conventional world of worldly philosophers. It is to be found in this very name-and-form world. So the ultimate aim of a meditator is to cut off the craving in this name-and-form. As it is said: acchecchi taṇhaṃ idha nāmarūpe.
Now if we are to bring in a simile to clarify this point, the Buddha is called the incomparable surgeon, sallakatto anuttaro. Also he is sometimes called taṇhāsallassa hantāraṃ, one who removes the dart of craving. So the Buddha is the incomparable surgeon who pulls out the poison-tipped arrow of craving.
We may say therefore that, according to the Dhamma, nāma-rūpa, or name-and-form, is like the wound in which the arrow is embedded. When one is wounded by a poison-tipped arrow, the bandage has to be put, not on the archer or on his bow-string, but on the wound itself. First of all the wound has to be well located and cleaned up. Similarly, the comprehension of name-and-form is the preliminary step in the treatment of the wound caused by the poison-tipped arrow of craving.
And it is for that purpose that a meditator has to pay special attention to those basic components of 'name' - feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention - however much he may be proficient in words found in worldly usage. It may even appear as a process of unlearning down to childlike simplicity. But of course, the equanimity implied there, is not based on ignorance but on knowledge.
We find ourselves in a similar situation with regard to the significance of rūpa in nāma-rūpa. Here too we have something deep, but many take nāma-rūpa to mean 'mind and matter'. Like materialists, they think there is a contrast between mind and matter. But according to the Dhamma there is no such rigid distinction. It is a pair that is interrelated and taken together it forms an important link in the chain of paṭicca samuppāda.
Rūpa exists in relation to 'name' and that is to say that form is known with the help of 'name'. As we saw above, that child got a first-hand knowledge of the rubber ball with the help of contact, feeling, perception, intention and attention. Now in the definition of 'form' as cattāri ca mahābhūtāni, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ the four great primaries are mentioned because they constitute the most primary notion of 'form'. Just as much as feeling, perception, intention, contact and attention represent the most primary notion of 'name', conventionally so called, even so the four great primaries form the basis for the primary notion of 'form', as the world understands it.
It is not an easy matter to recognize these primaries. They are evasive like ghosts. But out of their interplay we get the perception of form, rūpasaññā. In fact what is called rūpa in this context is rūpasaññā. It is with reference to the behaviour of the four great elements that the world builds up its concept of form. Its perception, recognition and designation of form is in terms of that behaviour. And that behaviour can be known with the help of those members representing name.
The earth element is recognized through the qualities of hardness and softness, the water element through the qualities of cohesiveness and dissolution, the fire element through hotness and coolness, and the wind element through motion and inflation. In this way one gets acquainted with the nature of the four great primaries. And the perception of form, rūpasaññā, that one has at the back of one's mind, is the net result of that acquaintance. So this is nāma-rūpa. This is one's world. The relationship between rūpa and rūpasaññā will be clear from the following verse:
Yattha nāmañca rūpañca,
paṭighaṃ rūpasaññā ca,
etthesā chijjate jaṭā.
This is a verse found in the Jaṭāsutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. In that sutta we find a deity putting a riddle before the Buddha for solution:
Anto jaṭā bahi jaṭā,
jaṭāya jaṭitā pajā,
taṃ taṃ Gotama pucchāmi,
ko imaṃ vijaṭaye jaṭaṃ.
"There is a tangle within, and a tangle without,
The world is entangled with a tangle.
About that, oh Gotama, I ask you,
Who can disentangle this tangle?"
The Buddha answers the riddle in three verses, the first of which is fairly well known, because it happens to be the opening verse of the Visuddhimagga:
Sīle patiṭṭhāya naro sapañño,
cittaṃ paññañca bhāvayaṃ,
ātāpī nipako bhikkhu,
so imaṃ vijaṭaye jataṃ.
This means that a wise monk, established in virtue, developing concentration and wisdom, being ardent and prudent, is able to disentangle this tangle. Now this is the second verse:
Yesaṃ rāgo ca doso ca,
avijjā ca virājitā,
tesaṃ vijaṭitā jaṭā.
"In whom lust, hate
And ignorance have faded away,
Those influx-free Arahants,
It is in them that the tangle is disentangled."
It is the third verse that is relevant to our topic.
Yattha nāmañca rūpañca,
paṭighaṃ rūpasaññā ca,
etthesā chijjate jaṭā.
"Where name and form
As well as resistance and the perception of form
Are completely cut off,
It is there that the tangle gets snapped."
The reference here is to Nibbāna. It is there that the tangle is disentangled.
The coupling of name-and-form with paṭigha and rūpasaññā in this context, is significant. Here paṭigha does not mean 'repugnance', but 'resistance'. It is the resistance which comes as a reaction to inert matter. For instance, when one knocks against something in passing, one turns back to recognize it. Sense reaction is something like that.
The Buddha has said that the worldling is blind until at least the Dhamma-eye arises in him. So the blind worldling recognizes an object by the very resistance he experiences in knocking against that object.
Paṭigha and rūpasaññā form a pair. Paṭigha is that experience of resistance which comes by the knocking against an object, and rūpasaññā, as perception of form, is the resulting recognition of that object. The perception is in terms of what is hard, soft, hot or cold. Out of such perceptions common to the blind worldlings, arises the conventional reality, the basis of which is the world.
Knowledge and understanding are very often associated with words and concepts, so much so that if one knows the name of a thing, one is supposed to know it. Because of this misconception the world is in a tangle. Names and concepts, particularly the nouns, perpetuate the ignorance in the world. Therefore insight is the only path of release. And that is why a meditator practically comes down to the level of a child in order to understand name and form. He may even have to pretend to be a patient in slowing down his movements for the sake of developing mindfulness and full awareness.
So we see that there is something really deep in nāma-rūpa, even if we render it as 'name-and-form'. There is an implicit connection with 'name' as conventionally so called, but unfortunately this connection is ignored in the commentaries, when they bring in the idea of 'bending' to explain the word 'name'. So we need not hesitate to render nāma-rūpa by 'name-and-form'. Simple as it may appear, it goes deeper than the worldly concepts of name and form.
Now if we are to summarise all what we have said in this connection, we may say: 'name' in 'name-and-form' is a formal name. It is an apparent name. 'Form' in 'name-and-form' is a nominal form. It is a form only in name.