January 15, 2021; revised January 16, 2021
Phassa (Contact) comes in the middle of the Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) process. However, PS processes start with “salāyatana paccayā phasso” or “an āyatana making contact.” That contact is between a rupa and one of the six āyatana (cakkhu, sota, gandha, jivhā, kāya, mano.) At the fundamental level, a rupa makes contact with the mind via one of the five pasāda rupa or directly with the mind (hadaya vatthu.)
Importance of Phassa (Contact) in Paṭicca Samuppāda
1. The standard PS cycle starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā.” However, we do not just start generating saṅkhāra. Furthermore, avijjā is not there in a mind all the time. Only when we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think about an enticing “thought object” (ārammaṇa) that we start generating saṅkhāra due to avijjā.
- For example, if we eat something tasty, we may generate greedy thoughts (saṅkhāra) of eating more even if we are not hungry. If we see an enemy X, we may generate angry thoughts (saṅkhāra) about that person.
- Do those two “contacts” occur between the food and the tongue/eyes and person X?
- In other words, does the vedanā (feeling) of “good taste” arise in the tongue? Does “seeing of X” happen in the eyes? No.
- Some say those vedanā arise in the brain. But the brain is also made of inert atoms/molecules. Those cannot SENSE anything!
- Only a Buddha can accurately describe the actual sensing process. That “experience” takes place in the mental body (gandhabba.)
Contact (Phassa) Is Between a Rupa and an Āyatana (Pasāda Rupa)
2. When we see person X, for example, that is contact (phassa) between our internal āyatana (eyes or more correctly, cakkhu pasāda rūpa) and external āyatana (an image of person X in this case). That is the process stated in verse, “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ.” The word “paṭicca” here refers to that contact (phassa).
- Due to that contact, a series of cittā flow in mind. That is a citta vithi. We discussed that in detail in “Citta Vithi – Fundamental Sensory Unit.” Also, see Ref. 1.
- That leads to a mental phenomenon that we call consciousness (in this case, cakkhu viññāna). When we look at person X, we can instantly identify that person. This is amazing because the image that falls in the back of the eye is tiny. See Ref. 1.
- Humans and animals generate such “awareness” or consciousness when seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, or thinking about an external rūpā.
Cakkhāyatana Is Cakkhu Pasāda Rupa
3. Cakkhāyatana is not the eyes. The “seeing” takes place in the mind, and the “seat of the mind” is the hadaya vatthu. The image captured by the eyes gets transmitted to the cakkhu pasāda rupa, which transfers the image to the hadaya vatthu. See the previous post, “Citta Vithi – Fundamental Sensory Unit.” It is a good idea to review that post.
- All five physical senses (cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya) work that way. See Ref. 2 for a Tipiṭaka reference.
- Memories and other concepts come to the mind via mana indriya in the brain. Those signals get directly transferred to the hadaya vatthu. We may get to those details in future posts.
What Is Meant by “Cakkhu, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ”?
4. Many suttas state, “Cakkhu, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ.” (and similarly for sota, ghāna, etc.) It should be clear that “cakkhu” does not refer to the physical eyes. The cakkhu pasāda rupa in the gandhabba can last many thousands of years.
- After the human bhava, we get another cakkhu pasāda rupa (with another mental body corresponding to the new bhava).
- However, what kind of bhava we get will NOT be due to our liking/expectations. It will be due to our past kamma and will be dictated by the uppatti PS process; see Ref. 3. That is what is meant by “anicca.”
Vēdanā and Saññā Can Arise Without a Mind
5. There are a couple of “mental factors” (or cetasika) that may arise without a “mind.” Crude versions of vēdanā and saññā can arise even without a mind in “living things” (like plants) in the absence of a mind.
- Vēdanā comes from (“vē” + “danā”) which means “වීම දැනවීම” in Sinhala. That means to “become aware of something.” When we make contact with an “external āyatana” via our six senses, we become aware of that external rūpā; that is vēdanā. See, “Vedanā (Feelings).”
- At the fundamental level, saññā means “recognition” of an object or a person, or a concept, for example. In general, it is the recognition of an “external āyatana” or “external rūpā.” See, “Saññā – What It Really Means.”
- Therefore, plants and trees have a crude basic form of vēdanā and saññā. A plant can “feel” when sunlight falls on it (vēdanā), and “recognize” (saññā) that as useful for its survival.
Awareness in Living Things (Plants) and in Living Beings
6. Therefore, plants and trees also seem to be aware of the external world and can even respond in some cases. For example, a plant or a tree can “turn” towards sunlight. Their roots grow towards water sources and away from dry soil. One may ask: “Then how does a plant turn towards sunlight?.”
- Plants are like robots. A moving robot may have sensors that can detect obstacles in the way. That involves vēdanā and saññā in the elementary sense.
- A robot has a built-in computer that can instruct how to go around an obstacle, for example.
- The working of a plant is very similar. A plant seed has necessary “programs” installed in its cells to deal with the external environment. We discussed this in the section on “Origin of Life.”
Plants Do Not Generate Saṅkhāra and Viññāṇa
7. Therefore, some “live things” like plants can generate rudimentary versions of vēdanā and saññā. However, a plant CANNOT generate saṅkhārā (thoughts) about those vēdanā and saññā.
- Saṅkhārā arises via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā.” Based on avijjā, a mind generates defiled thoughts. Plants do not have minds to have avijjā. Therefore, plants do not generate saṅkhārā and viññāna via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” and “saṅkhārā paccayā viññāna.”
- Of course, totally inert things like rocks do not have vēdanā and saññā either.
Living Beings Have All Four Nāma Dhammā (Vedanā, Saññā, Saṅkhāra, Viññāṇa)
8. Now, let us go back to the discussion in #1 above. A sensory contact (phassa) leads to some mental activity in a living being. We are happy to encounter “pleasing sights, sounds, etc.” and dislike the opposites.
- As we discussed in #1, if we eat something tasty, we may generate greedy thoughts of eating more even if we are not hungry. If we see an enemy X, we may generate angry thoughts about that person.
- First, in both cases, an idea about enjoying/disliking that contact comes to mind. That is the mano saṅkhāra stage.
- Then we start thinking about enjoying/getting rid of that sensory input. This is the vaci saṅkhāra stage, EVEN IF we are not saying anything out loud. Talking oneself — as well as talking — involves vaci saṅkhāra. In this case, two types of cetasika (vitakka and vicāra) are involved.
- If one really gets “attached” (via like or dislike) to that ārammaṇa, one may take physical actions. Such physical actions are done with kāya saṅkhāra that arise in mind.
Two Types of Viññāṇa
9. In the beginning of a cakkhudvāra citta vithi, we “see” the image. This is the cakkhu viññāṇa. It is a visual sensing experience, and it is a vipaka viññāṇa. These citta DO NOT have javana power to create new kamma. They experience the presence of a rupa (sight, sound, taste, etc.). Thus cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya viññāṇa are ALWAYS vipaka viññāṇa.
- If we “attach” to what we saw/ate, etc., we start generating vaci and kāya saṅkhāra. That is when we start acting with avijjā and generate kamma viññāṇa via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāṇa.” Such kamma viññāṇa are EXCLUSIVELY mano viññāṇa. The unique aspect here is the presence of javana citta.
- That kamma generation happens with javana citta in the second stage of a citta vithi, as we will discuss. However, mano viññāṇa can be vipaka viññāṇa too (for example, when we recall memories).
- Such javana citta (generating new kamma via kamma viññāṇa) are absent in the citta vithi of Arahants. However, Arahants do experience the vipaka viññāṇa. That is another way to see the difference between kamma viññāṇa and vipaka viññāṇa.
- We will be able to clearly see that there are two types of viññāṇa when we analyze a citta vithi in upcoming posts.
2. “Āyatanavibhaṅga” explains a āyatana as follows:
Dvādasāyatanāni— cakkhāyatanaṃ, sotāyatanaṃ, ghānāyatanaṃ, jivhāyatanaṃ, kāyāyatanaṃ, manāyatanaṃ, rūpāyatanaṃ, saddāyatanaṃ, gandhāyatanaṃ, rasāyatanaṃ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṃ, dhammāyatanaṃ.
Tattha katamaṃ cakkhāyatanaṃ? Yaṃ cakkhu catunnaṃ mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya pasādo attabhāvapariyāpanno anidassano sappaṭigho, yena cakkhunā anidassanena sappaṭighena rūpaṃ sanidassanaṃ sappaṭighaṃ passi vā passati vā passissati vā passe vā, cakkhumpetaṃ cakkhāyatanampetaṃ cakkhudhātupesā cakkhundriyampetaṃ lokopeso dvārāpesā samuddopeso paṇḍarampetaṃ khettampetaṃ vatthumpetaṃ nettampetaṃ nayanampetaṃ orimaṃ tīrampetaṃ suñño gāmopeso. Idaṃ vuccati “cakkhāyatanaṃ”.
- The others are explained similarly.
- In the above verse, “anidassano” means “cannot be seen.” Thus, cakkhāyatana is not the physical eye. It refers to cakkhu pasāda rupa in the mental body (gandhabba) that cannot be seen. As we know, in Out-of-Body Experiences, that gandhabba comes out of the physical body and can see without physical eyes. Details at “How Do We See? – Role of the Gandhabba.”
Other posts in this subsection are at, “Understanding the Terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”