Nama-Rupa: The Mind-Body Essence of Buddhism


‘Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states.  Mind is chief; mind-made are they.  If one speaks or acts with a wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.

Mind is the forerunner of (all good) states.  Mind is chief; mind-made are they.  If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, because of that, happiness follows one, even as one’s shadow that never leaves.’ 

(The Dhammapada: Translated by Narada Thera, (1993), Pages 1-5)

Buddhism is not a religion, nor is it an idealistic theology or philosophy.  The Buddha did not teach that the mind creates physical matter (the idealism of religion), nor did he advocate that all there is to existent is physical matter.  In fact, the Buddha taught ‘nama-rupa’ – that existence is an integration ‘mind’ and ‘matter’.  A misunderstanding in the West regarding the teachings of Yogacara (a misunderstanding that ‘contradicts’ the Buddha by assuming that the temporary agency of ‘mind’ is ‘permanent’), has misled many into assuming that Buddhism is a theistic religion that advocates a form of mind-led theological ‘creationism’.   This is compounded by inadequate or wrong translations of the opening stanzas of the Dhammapada, which give the false impression that the physical universe is ‘created’ by the ‘mind’ (translated correctly by Narada Thera – see above).  Others have wrongly assumed that as the Buddha taught that there was ‘no permanent self’ (or ‘soul’), his path must be one of hard materialism.  The Buddha acknowledged that a conscious mind exists (whilst rejecting ‘idealism’ and ‘creationism’) within a physical environment (whilst rejecting ‘deterministic materialism’), and that these two distinct entities are inherently entwined and functionally integrated.  When all the accruement of misunderstanding is wiped away, what is clear is that the Dharma is a science, and that the Buddha’s teaching represents humanity’s first ‘science’ premised upon the use of ‘logic’ and ‘reason’.  The Buddha’s development of the use of logic and reason represents a departure from the use of ‘imagination’ as the prime-mover of human understanding,  The Buddha developed logic and reason through an act of will, motivated by his need to truly ‘understand’ reality as it directly presented itself to his senses. The Buddha’s sustained awareness upon his bodily functions and responses to environmental stimuli, without recourse to the old theology and philosophy of Brahmanism, essentially ‘re-aligned’ his thought processes, (so that his inner mind correctly ‘reflected’ his external environment).  This ability to a) generate cognitive awareness (without recourse to theology), and b) thereby directly ‘perceive’ the objective world, are the prerequisites for building logic and reason.  The Buddha was a person living in ancient India, who through an act of will, quite literally ushered in a new epoch in human thinking.  By the use of old systems of (yogic) meditation applied in new ways, he rejected mysticism, emotionalism, superstition and the literal belief in gods and spirits.  Through this act of will, he freed his own mind from the conditionality of the era within which he lived, and can be described, therefore, as being the first ‘modern’ human.

Buddhism can seem very complex, because as a body of knowledge comprising of at least 5.000 sutras, and thousands of commentaries, its content can seem too broad to fully or easily comprehend in a short space of time.  This is because the Buddha spent around 45 years teaching exactly the same message to thousands upon thousands of different people, in a manner that best suited the varying understanding and ability of his audiences.  Broadly speaking, he viewed the fast-track to enlightenment as that of the ‘home-leaver’ (or forest-dwelling ‘monastic’), and the slow-track as that of the ‘house-holder’ (or ‘town-dweller’), but recognised that both groups could realise exactly the same enlightenment if his teachings were appropriately applied.  In the earliest strata of sutra, the Buddha teaches ‘equality’ between social groups (thereby rejecting ‘caste’ and the ‘racism’ that justified it), and between men and women (although ‘later’ insertions from sources external to Buddhism, appear to add an unnecessary element of misogyny, that is not in anyway inaccordance with the spirit of the Buddha’s original teaching).  Certain interpretations of the Vinaya Discipline also discriminate against people with disabilities entering the Sangha as a monk or nun, but again, such proscriptions are not suitable for the Buddha’s teachings upon compassion and loving kindness, and represent a monkish ‘editing’ of the original (and pristine) teachings of the Buddha, away from his original intention of self-empowerment through the development of logic and reason, and toward a factional understanding (relevant to this or that school vying for doctrinal authority).  As the development of logic and reason rejects theology and any bigotry premised upon it, then misogyny and discrimination against the disabled are ‘illogical’ and obviously not part of the original Buddhism.  Stripping away the layers of religiosity in this manner from the outer shell of Buddhism in this manner, is the quintessential exercising of both logic and reason.  The Buddha taught that pursuers of the way must never take anything upon ‘blind faith’, or accept ‘surface’ presentations.  His use of logic and reason ‘deconstructed’ each and every philosophical or theological system it encountered, to get to the root of its founding ignorance, or wisdom.

Regardless of how Buddhism has developed over the last two to three thousand years, the Buddha never intended monastics to be lay-people, or lay-people to be monastics.  This flawed interpretation is tantamount to making a ‘category error’ that nullifies the Buddha’s otherwise pristine logic and reason.  If the categories of those following his Dharma are not understood in the correct manner, then it follows that the prescribed paths that he taught for each ‘specific’ entry-stream will not work.  A lay person who claims to be a monk, but who eats meat, drinks alcohol, kills and engages in sexual activity, is not a monk, and the monkish path will not work for that person.  As the monkish path will not work, more suffering is produced for that lay individual (thus contradicting and defaming the logical path of the Buddha). Conversely, hellish karma is produced if a fully ordained Buddhist monastic does not follow the Vinaya Discipline, but instead behaves as if he or she is a lay person.  If ordinary people seeking guidance in escaping from suffering, see a monk or nun eating meat, drinking alcohol, or engaging in sexual activity, then they will not encounter the Buddha’s ‘true’ path of logic and reason, and mistakenly think that the Buddha was corrupt as a teacher.  This assessment has nothing to do with theology or superstition, but is a product of the correct reading of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in the mind and body, and through behaviour – the effect such modes of behaviour have upon the environment (and all beings living within it).

The Buddha explained that physical existence is ‘nama-rupa’, or ‘mind-body’.  This analysis is found in the received Chain of Dependent Origination (specifically in the 4th link which is conditioned by consciousness [mind], and which in turn conditions the sixfold sense-base [body]).  This ‘mind-body’ nexus is also present in the variations of the Chain of Dependent Origination (Paṭiccasamuppāda), as well as a crucial aspect of ‘insight’ (Vipassana) meditation, where the correct ‘understanding’ and ‘perception’ of the mind and body nexus is considered an essential component of Buddhist developmental training.  The sutras further state that the mind and body are mutually supporting, inseparable, and interdependent, as if they were two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another for support – take away one, and the other drops to the ground.  The Buddha explained that ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ existence is the dependent interplay of the conscious mind, living body, and ‘sensed’ environment, and that ‘idealism’ (or ‘imagined’ existence) was not reality, and neither was a ‘material’ existence devoid of any conscious or functioning mind (existing within a living body).  Reality for the Buddha appears very pragmatic when his system of thought is stripped of accrued mysticism and religiosity.  Existence for a human-being is a continuous ‘integration’ and ‘interaction’ of consciousness and matter.  This position of the Buddha excludes ‘idealism’ and metaphysical notions of ‘materialism’.  Whatever reality is when properly perceived, it cannot, within Buddhist philosophy, be reduced to the theology of ‘idealism’ (the Buddha is not a ‘god’), or reduced to an inert ‘material’ universe (devoid of conscious awareness).  For the Buddha, reality is as much ‘consciousness’, as it is ‘material’, whilst avoiding the traps of ‘idealism’ and hard ‘materialism’.  The world is undoubtedly comprised of material elements, that is beyond dispute for the Buddha, and the conscious mind is irrefutably ‘aware’ of its own functionality and the world around, but as this insight is the product of logic and reason, no other spurious explanation is required.  The imaginations of religions, and the machinations of hard materialists represent a departure from the Buddha’s pristine use of logic and reason, and are, therefore, rejected by him as being one-sided and incorrect definitions of reality.  For the Buddha, reality is a non-dichotomised integration of mind and matter.

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