Difference between Phassa and Samphassa

Samphassa” must be used for “phassa” in “phassa paccayā vēdanā” in Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.

Revised November 6, 2018; June 2, 2019; re-written May 7, 2021

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Phassa and Samphassa – Incorrect Translations

1. No differentiation is made between “phassa” and “samphassa” in most English translations of Paṭicca samuppāda. Both words are translated as “contact” in English translations without making the distinction. 

  • For example, the “Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (SN 12.1)” provides the uddesa (utterance) version in Paṭicca samuppāda as “saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso.” The niddesa version of that (brief description) appears in the following “Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 12.2)” as “cakkhusamphasso, sotasamphasso, ghānasamphasso, jivhāsamphasso, kāyasamphasso, manosamphasso.”
  • However, no distinction is made in the translations of the above links. Both are translated as “contact.”
  • As we will see below, “samphassa” has a very different meaning than “phassa” and makes the connection of how our instinctive reactions to external sense experiences arise based on our “samsāric habits” or “gati.”
Phassa Is in All Citta

2. When we see, hear, etc., a citta arises that recognize the sensory input. Seven cetasika (mental factors) arise with ANY citta, and phassa and vedanā are two. We will have no sensory experience without the phassa (contact) cetasika.

  • When the mind contacts that image of the external object, a series of citta arises. We experience only the overall effect of millions of such cittās due to that contact.
  • Some of the seven universal mental factors that arise with the citta instantaneously identify the object. These include vedanā and saññā. Both are universal cetasika.
  • If samphassa takes place, there will be an additional, mind-made vedanā called “samphassa-jā-vedanā” as discussed below.
Samphassa – How Does It Arise?

3. An average human will form a like or a dislike for some of the sense inputs (but not for all).

  • If a like or dislike is formed, then that sensory contact is  “saṅ phassa“(“saṅ” + “phassa,” where “saṅ” are defilements (greed, anger, ignorance); see, “What is “San”?“). It rhymes as “samphassa.” 
  • This “combination effect” or “Pāli sandhi” leads to the pronunciation of many “saṅ” words with an “m” sound: “saṅ” + “” to “sammā.” In the same way, “saṅ” “yutta” to “samyutta,” “saṅ” “bhava” to “sambhava,” and “saṅ” “sāra” to “samsāra“; see, “List of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots.” In English texts, “Saṅ” in combined words may be written as San/Saṅ/Sañ/Sam.
  • Thus, when one sees, hears, smells, tastes, or touches something, whether there will be any likes or dislikes towards that sensory experience depends on that person, or more specifically, the “gati” (habits/character) of that person.
Examples of Samphassa

4. Let us discuss some examples to illustrate how “samphassa” arises. First, let us look at the connection with those people/things in the world that we have special relationships with or what we “upādana,” i.e., like to either keep close or stay away from.

  • Think about the worst “enemy” you have. When you even think about that person X, you generate unpleasant feelings. But X’s family will have loving thoughts about X. Here, you and X’s child (for example) would have generated very different “samphassa” when thinking, seeing, and hearing about X.
  • When you travel by car or bus and look out the window, you may see zillion things, but those are just “seeing”; you don’t pay much attention to them. They are “phassa.” But now, if you happen to see a beautiful house, it piques your interest, and you may even turn back and take another good look at it and even think about how nice it would be to live in a house like that. That is “samphassa.”

5. A critical point is that one’s perception of what is “valuable” can lead to “samphassa.” Suppose someone inherits a valuable gem from his father. Every time he sees it or even thinks about it, he becomes happy. But his mind is also burdened by it since he is worried that he may lose it; he is keeping it in a safe and has put burglar alarms in the house to protect that gem.

  • Suppose one day, he asks a professional to evaluate the gem and finds out that it is not a gem but a fake. He may not even believe that initially, but once confirmed, he will become “detached” from it. He will no longer keep it in the safe and may even throw it away in disgust.
  • Now he may be generating neutral or hateful thoughts about the SAME OBJECT he once loved. Nothing changed about the “gem”; it is still the same object as before. What has changed is his PERCEPTION of the value of that object. Whereas he generated “samphassa” on thinking or seeing that object before, now he may generate just “phassa” (neutral feelings) or “samphassa” with quite the opposite feelings of disgust.
Phassa/Samphassa and Cetanā/Sañcetanā

6. Phassa and cetanā are both universal cetasika that arise with every citta. A citta vithi starts with an “undominated citta” but gets contaminated if the mind gets attached to the ārammaṇa. We do not experience individual cittās but only the cumulative effect of millions of cittās that arise in a second. As cittās get contaminated, asobhana (defiled) cetasika are incorporated by cetanā cetasika it turns into sañcetanā. That happens simultaneously with phassa leading to samphassa.

  • If the “intention” does not involve lobha, dosa, or moha (avijjā), it is only a cetanā or “intention” to get something done. Here, kamma done is just an action without kammic consequences. For example, if one walks to the kitchen to get a glass of water, that is done with a neutral cetanā; the “intention” is to quench the thirst. It is NOT  a sañcetanā. There is no “defiled contact” or “samphassa” either.
  • However, almost all current English translations do not make that critical distinction. For example, sañcetanā in the “Sañcetanā Sutta (SN 27.7)” is translated as “intention,” and samphassa in the “Samphassa Sutta (SN 18.4)” is translated as “contact.” The translators do not understand the difference between Phassa/Samphassa and Cetanā/Sañcetanā.
  • cetanā becomes a sañcetanā (sañ + cetanā) — and phassa becomes samphassa — if it involves “sañ” or lobha, dosamoha (avijjā.) See “San – A Critical Pāli Root” and “Details of Kamma – Intention, Who Is Affected, Kamma Patha.”
Phassa Can Turn to Samphassa in an Instant

7. Let us take another example that Waharaka Thero gave. This one clearly shows how the transition from “phassa” to “samphassa” can happen very quickly.

The following happened a long time ago in Sri Lanka. A mother had to go overseas when her son was less than a year old. She had been overseas for many years and returned to see her son. She had not even seen any pictures of the boy, who was now a teenager. When she gets home, she is told that the boy is visiting a neighbor, and she starts walking there. On the way, she bumps into a teenager; she admonishes the teenager for not paying attention and resumes walking. But then another person on the street says, “Don’t you recognize your son? Well. How can you? You have been away all this time”.  Hearing that, she says, “Oh, is that my son?” and immediately runs back and hugs him.

  • She saw the boy when he bumped into her and even got upset with him. But at that time, he was just a teenager to her. That “seeing” event involved “phassa.”
  • But when someone pointed out that it was her son, her perception of the boy took a giant leap instantly. Now she looks at the same boy with a new set of “mental baggage.” Now it is not just a teenager but her son; attachment is involved. Now when she looks at him, “samphassa” is involved.
  • While “phassa” is a natural sensory contact, “samphassa” is mind-made.

8. We can also see how “samphassa” leads to an intensified vēdanā or feelings. This is called “samphassa-jā-vēdanāor “vēdanā arising due to samphassa.” This “mind-made defiled vēdanā” is different from the universal vēdanā as we discussed in #7 above.

  • She had neutral thoughts (may be even some annoyance) when the boy bumped into her and apologized. But when she learned it was her son, her feelings instantly turned to joy.
  • To take it a bit further, if that teenager got hit by a car after several minutes, that joy would turn instantly to sorrow.
  • These different types of “vēdanā” arise based on the type and level of “attachment” to a given object, in this case, the boy.
Samphassa/Sañcetanā – Connection to Gati

9.  “Samphassa” is intimately connected to one’s “gati” or habits, most of which come from our past lives, even though some may be strengthened or weakened by what we do in this life. We may even start forming new “gati” in this life. Note that “gati” is pronounced “gathi,” like in “Thief.”

  • For example, a young lady looking at a dress may form a liking for it. Another person seeing his enemy will form a dislike. Upon hearing a song, a teenager may form a liking/craving for it, etc.
  • This “contact with saṅ” (or samphassa) happens instantaneously. That initial samphassa arises automatically purely based on our “gati.” But since our actions based on that initial reaction take some time, we still have time to control our speech or bodily actions. Even if bad thoughts come to our minds, we can stop speech or bodily actions. That is Kāyānupassanā in Satipatthāna meditation or Ānāpānasati.
  • Many posts on this site discuss “gati,” and at the fundamental level, both Ānapāna and Satipatthāna meditations are all about removing bad “gati” and cultivating good “gati“; see, “9. Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati)“.
An Arahant Has Phassa but Not Samphassa

10. Now, let us consider what happens when an Arahant sees or hears similar things (phassa or “contact” occurs.) He/she will see or hear the same thing as any other person.

  • But an Arahant will not be attracted to it or repelled by it. There will be no samphassa. Thus, there will be no “samphassa jā vēdanā” either.
  • Put another way, an Arahant sees, hears, etc., without bias or samphassa.  He/she will also generate vēdanā, but not “vēdanā due to samphassa.”
  • An Arahant has removed all such defiled “gati,” closely related to cravings or “āsava.” An Arahant has removed all “āsava“; this is what is meant by “āsavakkhaya” at the Arahanthood. This is a technical detail that may not be clear to some; don’t worry about it if it unclear yet.
  • Samphassa cannot be removed with willpower. It gradually fades away as one attains higher stages of magga phala (starting with comprehending “saṅ” by becoming “Sandiṭṭhika“; see below.)
Samphassa Leads to Samphassa-jā-Vēdanā

11. Therefore, now we can see that the step “phassa paccayā vēdanā” in Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda is the “uddesa version” and “samphassa paccayā samphassa-jā-vēdanā” is the “niddesa version;” see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”

  • However, in most English translations, “phassa paccayā vēdanā” in Akusala-MulaPaṭicca Samuppāda is translated as “Contact is a condition for feeling” (“Paṭiccasamuppāda Sutta (SN 12.1)“) and just below that (at the marker 3.6) “phassa nirodhā vedanā nirodho” is translated “When contact ceases, feeling ceases.” after one attains Arahanthood. That INCORRECTLY implies an Arahant would not have feelings! However, an Arahant would have “vēdanā” but NOT “samphassa-jā-vēdanā.”
  • For an Arahant, there is only “phassa” or mere contact with the external sensory input. An Arahant will thus “see,” “hear,” “smell,” “taste,” or “feel” the same things as any other person. But an Arahant will not be attached or repulsed by that sensory experience.
  • I have discussed many problems with translators directly translating the “uddesa versions” of key verses; see “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
  • More details on how “samphassa” leads to samphassa-jā-vēdanā at: “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways,” “Vipāka Vēdanā and “Samphassa jā Vēdanā” in a Sensory Event,” and “Dukkha Samudaya Starts With Samphassa-Jā-Vedanā.”
Samphassa-jā-Vēdanā Starts to Fade Away When One Becomes  “Sandiṭṭhika”

12. The defiled contacts (“samphassa“) (and also defiled intentions or sañcetanā) start fading away when one becomes a Sotapanna Anugāmi.

  • That happens when one starts comprehending the Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana or “seeing saṅ” or “sandiṭṭhika (san diṭṭhi.)
  • All posts in the new section on “Buddhism – In Charts.”

Next, “Phassa paccayā Vedana….to Bhava“, ……….


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