Difference between Phassa and Samphassa

Revised November 6, 2018

1. No differentiation is made between “phassa” and “samphassa” in most current explanations of paticca samuppāda. Both word phassa and samphassa are most times translated as “contact” in many English translations; see, for example, “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)” and the English translation there.

  • However, 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“.
  • With the distinction made between “phassa” and “samphassa“, the true meanings become clear in suttas like “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)“.

2. When our eyes make contact with an external object, that is not “phassa“. That is just like a camera taking a picture; that picture is sent to the brain, which processes and sends that “snapshot” to the mind. The mind then makes contact with this “snapshot” or “image” and this is what “phassa” really is: It is a mental contact.

  • When the mind makes that contact with that image of the external object, a citta (actually a series of citta called citta vīthi; see, “What is a Thought?“) arises and that is what we experience; in fact what we experience is the cumulative effect of many such citta vīthis that arise in a very short time, and this cumulative effect we call a “thought”.
  • Some of the seven universal mental factors that arise with the citta instantaneously identifies the object and based on our “gati” or “samsāric habits” help form an opinion on what is seen. For example, a young lady looking at a dress may form a liking for it. Another person seeing his enemy will form a dislike. A teenager, upon hearing a song may form a liking for it, etc.
  • This mental contact happens instantaneously. We do not have any control over it, and it is purely based on our “gati“. But since our actions based on that initial reaction takes some time, we still have time to control our speech or bodily actions. Even if bad thoughts come to our mind, we can stop any speech or bodily actions. This is what is supposed to be done with “kayānupassanā” in “satipatthāna meditation”.

3. Now, let consider what happens when an Arahant sees or hears similar things. He/she will see or hear the same thing as any other person. But since an Arahant has removed all such samsāric habits or “gati“, he/she will not be attracted to it or repelled by it.

  • An Arahant has removed all such defiled “gati” which are 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 be clear to some; but don’t worry about it if it does not.

4. We can now see the difference between “phassa” and “samphassa“.

  • In the case of an Arahant, there is only “phassa” or mere contact with the external sense input. An Arahant will thus “see” or “hear” or “smell” or “taste” or “feel” the same things as any other person. But an Arahant will not be attached or repulsed by that sense experience.
  • For example, the Buddha identified different people. But he did not form a special liking for Ven. Ananda (his personal assistant) or had any hateful thoughts about Devadatta who tried to kill him. He treated the poorest person the same way as he treated a king.
  • The Buddha ate most delicious food offered by the kings and also ate the meager meals offered by poor people without any preference.
  • In all those sense contacts, it was just “phassa“, and not “samphassa“.

5. On the other hand, an ordinary person 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 sense contact is  “san phassa“(“san” + “phassa“, where “san” is what we accumulate to extend the samsāric journey; see, “What is “San”?“). It rhymes as “samphassa“. 
  • This “combination effect” or “Pāli sandhi” leads to the pronunciation of many “san” words with a “m” sound: “san” + “” to “sammā“; “san” “yutta” to “samyutta“; “san” “bhava” to “sambhava“; “san” “sāra” to “samsāra“; see, “List of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots“.
  • Thus, when we see, hear, smell, taste, touch something, whether there is going be any likes or dislikes towards that sense experience depends on the person, or more specifically the “gati” of that person.

6.  “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.

  • There are many posts at this site that discuss “gati“, and at the very basic level both “anapana” and “satipatthāna” meditations are all about removing bad “gati” and cultivating good “gati“.
  • Samphassa” is also intimately connected to the relationships we have with other people and material things. Any kind of sense input on such people/things will automatically generate “samphassa“. On the other hand, an Arahant has removed all bonds with people/things, and thus will generate only “phassa“.

7. 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 to like to stay away from.

  • Think about the worst “enemy” you have. When you even think about that person X, you generate distasteful feelings. But that person’s family will have loving thoughts about that person. Here, you and X’s child (for example), would have generated very different “samphassa” when thinking, seeing, hearing, about X.
  • When you travel by car or bus and looking out of 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 may be even think about how nice it would be to live in a house like that. That is “samphassa“.

8. Our samsāric habits (“gati“) play a key role in generating “samphassa“.

  • Some people enjoy harassing animals; they pay to go see cockfighting. Others are repulsed by that. Those are samsāric habits. So, the scene of two animals fighting for life leads to the enjoyment of some and to the disgust of others; both are “samphassa“, but one is obviously immoral.  The other is moral but still keeps one bound to samsāra; this latter statement may take time to digest.
  • Ladies, in general, like nice clothes, jewellery, etc. and men are more into sports. When a husband is watching sports on TV the whole day, the wife may not have any interest and may even get angry at him for not paying attention to other things that need to be done around the house.
  • These and zillion other things come from our samsāric habits.

9. Now let us see how 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 just to protect that gem.

  • Now, suppose one day he gets to a professional to evaluate the gem and finds out that it is really worthless. He may not even believe that initially, but once it sinks in that it is indeed worthless, 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 either neutral or hateful thoughts about the SAME OBJECT that he once loved so much. 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 generating just “phassa” (neutral feelings) or “samphassa” with quite opposite feelings of disgust.

10. Let us take another example that was given by one of my teacher Theros. This one clearly shows how transition from “phassa” to “samphassa” or the other way around can happen very quickly.

This story is based many years 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 came back to meet her son. Apparently, 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; the teenager apologizes and she 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 clearly saw the boy when he bumped into her and apologized. 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, the whole perception of the boy took a quantum leap in an instant. Now she looks at the same boy with the whole new set of “mental baggage”. Now it is not just a teenager, but her son; there is attachment involved. Now when she looks at him it is “samphassa” that is involved.

11. Now we can also see how “samphassa” lead to vēdanā or feelings.

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

More details on how “samphassa” leads to vēdanā (feelings) can be found at: “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“.

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


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