Difference between Phassa and Samphassa

Revised November 6, 2018; June 2, 2019; re-written April 14, 2021

Phassa and Samphassa – Incorrect Translations

1. No differentiation is made between “phassa” and “samphassa” in most English translations of Paṭicca samuppāda. Both words translated as “contact” in English translations without making the distinction. See, for example, “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)” and the English translations 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 many suttā like “Chachakka Sutta (MN 148)”.
Phassa Is in All Citta

2. When we see, hear, etc. a citta arises that recognizes the sensory input. There are 7 cetasika (mental factors) that arise with ANY citta and phassa and vedanā are two of them. We will have no sensory experience without the phassa (contact) cetasika.

  • When the mind makes that contact with that image of the external object, a citta arises a citta arises, and that is what we experience.
  • Some of the seven universal mental factors that arise with the citta instantaneously identify the object. These include vedanā and sanna. Both those are universal cetasika.
  • If samphassa takes place, there will be an additional vedanā, which is called “samphassa-jā-vedanā.”
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 sense contact is  “san phassa“(“san” + “phassa,” where “san” 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 “san” words with an “m” sound: “san” + “” to “sammā.” In the same way, “san” “yutta” to “samyutta,” “san” “bhava” to “sambhava,” and “san” “sāra” to “samsāra“; see, “List of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots.”
  • Thus, when one sees, hears, smells, tastes, 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 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 thinking about how nice it would be to live in a house like that. That is “samphassa.”

5. 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 to protect that gem.

  • Now, suppose one day he asks a professional to evaluate the gem and finds out that it is not a gem. 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 generate just “phassa” (neutral feelings) or “samphassa” with quite the opposite feelings of disgust.
Phassa Can Turn to Samphassa in an Instant

6. 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 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 see 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 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, her perception of the boy took a big 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.

7. Now, 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 mentioned in #2 above.

  • 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 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 – Connection to Gati

8.  “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 “Thailand.”

  • 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 “contact with san” (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 any speech or bodily actions. That is Kāyānupassanā in Satipatthāna meditation.
  • There are many posts at this site that 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

9. Now, let us consider what happens when an Arahant sees or hears similar things (phassa or “contact” takes place.) 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.
  • To put it in another way, an Arahant sees, hears, etc. without any bias or samphassa.  He/she will also generate vēdanā, but not “vēdanā due to samphassa.”
  • 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 not be clear to some, but don’t worry about it if it does not.

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

  • In an Arahant‘s case, there is only “phassa” or mere contact with the external sensory 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 sensory experience.
  • For example, the Buddha identified different people. But he did not give special treatment to Ven. Ananda (his personal assistant.) He did not treat Ven. Ananda any different from Devadatta, who tried to kill him. He treated the poorest person the same way as he treated a king.
  • The Buddha ate the most delicious food offered by the kings and also ate meager meals offered by poor people.
  • In all those sense contacts, it was just “phassa” and not “samphassa.”
Samphassa Leads to Samphassa-jā-Vēdanā

11. Therefore, now we can see that the step, “phassa paccayā vēdanā” in Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda really is “samphassa paccayā samphassa-jā-vēdanā.” Such Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda processes do not operate for Arahants.

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


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