How Simple is Paticcasamuppada?! ”Phassa” .. The Importance of Contact

I’m considering making a series on paticcasamuppada, beginning here with contact.

I welcome and appreciate your corrections and comments on this essay. Thanks.


Abstract:

“Contact” (phassa) represents the very gate through which all that can be experienced is experienced. Thus it is the gate through which both pleasure and pain enter through the body (six senses) into one’s mental world. If there was no contact, there would be no conditioned existence and no suffering (SN 12.24). The goal is ultimately to prevent further birth, so that there would be no further contact. But since we are already born, contact cannot be undone; but not only that, liberation from further birth can only happen through interacting with what we experience rather than rejecting it. Thus, just as suffering happens through contact, liberation from suffering also happens only through contact. This makes contact so important as to require a Buddhist practitioner to develop a fuller understanding of and response to it. It is of great importance to learn what types of contact there are and when is the best time to engage with or withdraw from them. This is the same balance needed for knowing when, what kind, and how much, of pleasure and pain we need to expose the mind to, or withdraw from, in order to maintain psychological health and fitness as we persevere in practice. Practice holistically allows the citta to develop this wisdom, but since the experience of contact is overwhelming due to its intensity and continuity, and due also to the kamma which spurs the mind to respond to it emotionally; a meditative attitude is essential in order to allow the citta to maintain a stable and steady relationship with the experience of contact at all times due to its continued presence.


“Contact” (phassa) refers to the brute(!) process of sensorial receptability, the moment when any one of the senses is touched by a corresponding environmental object (sounds and lights with the ear and eye for example, and so on). Since “mind” (mano) is considered to be a sixth sense in Buddhist psychology, it refers here to the contact between ideas and the faculty which cognizes the very presence of ideas (technically it also refers to the processing of other sensorial data (MN 43). Thus the flow of imagination, the formless, non-physical verbalised thoughts which do not cease even in sleep, are to be regarded as “environmental” in a similar fashion as we consider external physical objects; which is curious because, though physicality is regarded as objectively real, thoughts are often considered as phantoms, not really existing in space. But none of this matters: what makes thoughts considered environmental or external (rather than internal) is that their arising is automatic and spontaneous, and the mind cognizes them instantly just as they arise, in just the same way as the eye or ear will necessarily and immediately see or hear as soon as an object appears or vibrates within reach of their cognizing sphere. What matters further is that thoughts are “real”, that is, regardless of whether they exist in space or not, what matters is that they exist in “time”, that is, that we actually “experience” them. And there is no ontology in Dhamma; there is no concern for whether things are objectively real or not, nor is this something that we find knowable for sure or with certainty. The only thing that we can at all know for certain is that which we actually experience, and it is “experience” and nothing else that we can consider real or reality in so far as we can directly and certainly cognize it. Thus, this is the true meaning of “bhava”; it does not refer to “existence” or “being” as a physical or abstract sphere or condition, but only as a situation of sensorial contact and stimulation, and that which which constitute the very fabric or possibility of experience and experiencing through contact.

In this sense, all experience and all experiencing is sensorial; without the senses (including mind), there is no experiencing, there is no bhava, and there is no dukkha. But since we are here “born”, then there is a body and a mind (nāmarūpa) with the senses stuck on it (salāyatana), and there is a vibrant, living force and activity of cognizing (viññāna), and from that condition of the reborn being, contact necessarily and unavoidably follows, and there is no escaping dukkha after that (SN 12.43-45). In a rare occasion (SN 12.24), Venerable Sāriputta attributes dukkha to contact rather than tanhā (desire), and in (MN 28) Buddha himself attributes upādāna or emotional attachment to contact. But all of this is not surprising because tanhā and upādāna arise only because contact happens in the first place (”te vata aññatra phassā paṭisaṃvedissantīti netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.” : ”it is impossible to experience [anything] without contact”). And in several other instances (MN 29, MN 33, SN 12.63 for example) we hear the Buddha describing contact itself (and consciousness too) with severe words: “dart, spear, fire, heavy load, etc.” This is so because “experiencing” begins just based on contact, and from that there intimately arises an emotional reaction (vedanā) in response to any sensorial experience. And it is a dart and a spear and a burning heavy load not only because contact can and does cause negative emotions, but it remains so even when the sensation is pleasant and enjoyable! How and why? Because we have no control over how we should feel upon sensorial contact, and because our own corresponding feelings are never chosen, never rational, and never up-to-us, but only spontaneous, reactionary, arising first, ahead even of our very awareness of them. Thus our emotional response to contact is ‘karmic’, impulsive and habitual, and based on past experience that is stored in the mind’s emotional memory (sañña), (it takes a creature to respond to contact in the same spontaneous way just ‘twice’, in order for a habit to be born! That’s why sati or self-awareness is essential for the reversal of kamma or mental habits, and the avoidance of making new ones). This situation renders the heart of sentient beings continually alarmed and apprehensive, always on the look out for pleasure to seize it, and pain to escape from; this is dukkha on a profound level, constant, natural, ever-present.

Thus, contact and experience as existential situations are not good or bad in and of themselves (that’s why we never have samma or micca phassa or bhava!), but are only the existential “medium” through which emotional preferences and attachments occur (upādāna), and they will necessarily give rise to emotional attachment due to the original condition of avijjā, which is the very first and ultimate cause of birth to begin with.

Bhavanirodha or nibbāna cannot possibly be achieved through an act of will or choice, but only through the gradual reversal of tanhā and upādāna; that is to say, by training in such a way as to grow non-reactionary (cool, steadfast, and self-possessed!) with regard to the experience of contact, any contact and all contact. It is very important to contemplate this point because it is precisely here that the ultimate significance of the experience of contact will appear, especially when juxtaposed with the habit or practice of “avoiding contact”! For, the only way to decrease emotional reactionariness and to transcend tanhā and upādāna is through becoming increasingly proficient in observing and recognising their spontaneous unfolding based on contact (sati); and therefore sustaining contact is absolutely necessary, and avoiding contact only hampers and retards progress in practice. The natural circumstance of a conditioned being is to regulate and control contact based on the emotional effect it gives rise to, seeking the pleasant and rejecting the painful. This natural attitude would be highly problematic for any seeker of a transcendental exit! Precisely because this is the very mechanism through which tanhā is reinforced rather than abandoned.

The Jains understood this very well but went to the extreme of depriving themselves of pleasant contacts and exposing themselves to negative ones believing that this will result in a direct reversal of tanhā; but the Buddha, recognising that such reversal of tanhā is not a quantitative performance of will, but a qualitative event of transcendental seeing and knowing (ñāna, gnosis) that ripens naturally through the exercise of attention and awareness of Dhamma, he advised against exposing oneself to negative contacts with the purpose of suffering them and nothing more, as this alone and in itself will not lead to the transcendence of tanhā. For Buddha, it did not matter ‘how much’ or ‘what kind’ of positive or negative contact one experiences; what matters is recognising the event of contact itself as a natural, impersonal event, that is necessitated by the materialisation of “citta” into a body and a mind (nāmarūpa) due to birth - [so “citta” is like “water”, it can solidify through tanhā and become ice, or through the reduction of tanhā evaporates to a vanishing point (nibbāna)]. Only through this understanding and recognition of contact, in experience and in the present moment, that tanhā is naturally reduced.

What follows is to develop an understanding, experience, and skill, of the balance needed regarding both such contacts that we cannot control (increase or avoid), and those which we can. As practitioners we need to be able to make informed decisions about how to respond to unavoidable contacts, and which contacts to seek or avoid; we need to grow skilled in responding and making decisions about the experience of contact.

We have established the futility of exposing our senses to negative contacts; what about unavoidable negative contacts? This is an occasion where sati is our only option, both to endure the hardship of the experience and also to incline the heart or citta toward Dhamma even more. Often, they are such humbling hardships which bring people to spiritual and renunciate paths in the first place; they seem to stimulate human’s recognition of tilakkhana, and at the same time highlight human’s capacity of transcendence. This is also why we do have certain exercises of hardships in a Buddhist renunciate context (dhutanga), which aim to stimulate the citta of a renunciate practitioner to push it further unto Dhamma. A diligent practitioner, lay or renunciate, will know the right time to push themselves harder, and will accumulate the experience in the course of time which will enable them to discern “what kind” of pressure works best for their unique kamma and citta. Thus only with sufficient wisdom and experience should one expose oneself to such negative contacts, or deprive oneself of pleasant ones, in such a way as to add, rather than take away, from the overall sweetness of the renunciate journey. This is the biggest trouble with negative contacts or self deprivation done unwisely; they render the path too uninviting, too harsh and punishing, to the extent of reducing a practitioner’s happiness and contentment along the path rather than increasing them.

Now what about enjoying pleasant contacts? In (MN 36) the Buddha speaks of such pleasures that are “separate from the sensual and the unwholesome”; [”na kho ahaṃ tassa sukhassa bhāyāmi, yaṃ taṃ sukhaṃ aññatreva kāmehi aññatra akusalehi dhammehī”]. Presently Buddhist practitioners may disagree among themselves about the exact scope of that valid pleasure, with some on one extreme asserting that this refers exclusively to jhāna, and others on the other extreme asserting that this refers to any non-harmful pleasure short of excessive or overindulgent sensuality. However this aught not be a matter of opinion but rather of understanding. In the quote above, the Buddha said “those pleasures I shall not ‘fear’”, and I believe that it is in “fear” that our clue is found. For one who is seeking bhavanirodha, what is it exactly in experience that is to be feared? It is whatever that hinders progress toward bhavanirodha or worse, reinforces bhava. Thus, such a one fears only such pleasures which consumption ‘necessarily’ results in challenging or reducing sati and thereby reinforce tanhā rather than reduce it. These are the kinds of pleasurable contacts that are to be avoided, and of which one should make an effort to deprive oneself.

The thing about the experience of pleasure in general is that -like falling asleep!- it mostly requires the absence of self-awareness; and in just the same way as awareness helps us transcend negative reactionary emotions upon painful or unwanted contacts, it just as well muffles or renders “mute” the pleasurable effect of preferred contacts! And “nibbida” arises necessarily along with true dharmic awareness; one is “estranged” at once from the object of experience and from the experiencer himself (that is, the self)! This gives the formula: whatever it is that is still pleasurable with nibbida and sati is what the Buddha is referring to here. Whatever pleasure that is -like falling asleep- arises on the expense of awareness, that is to be feared. Hence, not only this applies to sensual gratification, but also to subtler forms of pleasure pertaining to mental experience, such as the imagination and conceptualisation (and we do find in Pāli “wandering” in thought and imagination being described as an experience in which one “indulges”: ”papañcārāma”).

Given the target of bhavanirodha and the nature of the practice-path leading thereto, it is the ramifications of pleasure that is being evaluated here; and the “grossness” or “fineness” of a certain mode of pleasure is determined with view to this target and that path. The trouble here is that such pleasures as neutral to one’s tanhā and exercise of sati are so soft and gentle, while those of sensual or conceptual or imaginative nature are gross and impressive; thus they are more effective in stimulating citta and causing it to convulse with pleasure! Though many people (including Western psychology in general) report that sensual, sensorial, and conceptual pleasures actually balance the mind and lead it to calm, the Buddha [sometimes] states the exact opposite about such gross forms of pleasure; he describes them as something that agitates and wreaks havoc in the mind (MN 54, MN 99) and particularly at (MN 66), he uses perhaps the strongest words in condemnation of such pleasures:

“… a filthy pleasure, a coarse pleasure, an ignoble pleasure. I say of this kind of pleasure that it should not be pursued, that it should not be developed, that it should not be cultivated, that it should be feared." _(MN 66) Latukikopama sutta (tr. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi).

The strange thing is not only that the observation of many people and Western psychology are based on actual and true experiences of mental balance and calm after sensorial pleasurable experiences, but also in other suttas the Buddha himself does not seem to have been opposed to such pleasures in principle, most notably at (MN 73):

“There are not only one hundred, Vaccha, or two or three or four or five hundred, but far more men [& women] lay followers, my disciples, clothed in white enjoying sensual pleasures, who carry out my instruction, respond to my advice, have gone beyond doubt, become free from perplexity, gained intrepidity, and become independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation.” _(MN 73) Mahāvacchagotta sutta (tr. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi).

How are we to explain this apparent paradox? It simply arises in the speech of Buddha because it is all relative: experiencing calm after such gross pleasures happens only to such minds as characterised by stress, excitement, and overactivity; but for an already balanced, calm and steady mind, it is true that such gross forms of pleasure will cause precisely excitement and stress (even simply “chatter” can cause such agitation). So though an agitated mind may become calmer with gross pleasures, a calm mind becomes agitated with the same gross pleasure!

The “breath” manifests clearly as one such type of pleasure that is refined and wholesome, but to whom can something so simple, so regular, so normal and ordinary, be pleasurable? Learning how to truly enjoy such very simple experiences is the hallmark of true renunciate humility; and it is indispensable for the growth of one’s ability to withdraw from bhavatanhā, that is, to seek no pleasure or self-stimulation that thwarts sati and solidifies tanhā. Learning how to appreciate the heart that is free from the stress of excitement and stimulation, and free also from the continual seeking thereof; learning how to value this spaciousness, uneventful passage of time; recognising how just that absence of bhava, is peace - all these things to be learnt are necessary in order to finally allow us to withdraw from the natural, but tremendous ‘momentum’ of bhava, being carried forth across incalculable births, seeking emotion, seeking feeling, seeking to experience something, seeking itself!

Nothing compares in depth and ferocity to the citta’s desire for self-stimulation. But the perfect renunciation is not that of battling with the momentum of bhava and seeking to crush it through an act of willpower; but rather to understand bhava as an impersonal existential process, and to develop thereby an understanding of and faith in the reality of its possible, eventual, and final ending (bhavanirodha) through the exercise of awareness (sati), and to thereafter shift the attention and the awareness to such dharmic understanding and faith whenever the momentum of bhava manifests closer to the surface of consciousness and influences it, or even completely takes the reigns of the flowing heart, always in the form of seeking and yearning and longing, either to experience something (craving, bhavatanhā), or to stop experiencing it (aversion, vibhavatanhā). Thus it is also equally important to withdraw from the pleasurable and comforting with the same wisdom and reflective experience which we employ in venturing into the ascetic. And in both cases, learning how to enjoy simple and wholesome pleasures, and find rest and peace in awareness alone, is essential for progress.

Much of all this again remind us of the unfreeness and continual dukkha in which we live, on a very profound, basic, fundamental existential level, way deeper than the outer forms of dukkha manifesting in bodily ailments, social conflicts, and emotional turmoil; and it is for this fundamental level of dukkha that Buddha describes contact and emotion with the sever words he had chosen for them. We find similar attitudes respecting sensorial experience in the colorful Taoist and Chan literature, where objects of contact are being depicted as stupifying and numbing to their corresponding senses.

While we now understand that those objects are in fact innocent and neutral, possessing no inherent essence whatsoever, and all they do is simply come across the scope of the sense’s sphere of cognition, and that it is the desirious heart that makes good and bad, lovely and ugly, craved and rejected phenomena out of them - we must still develop a strategy of experiential practice with which to respond to this unceasing, continually unfolding flow of contact and experience. For it will prove “not enough” to think about contact in dharmic terms, and to sit conceptualising and pondering and considering, that contact is contact and nothing more! The heart will still suffer between one moment and the next spurred by nothing other than what it had just experienced, it will not have the time to think, or to see, what really just happened! Sitting alone in a dark cave, where only naught is to be found, the heart will still experience “something” and thereby suffer; it will experience even the “lack of experience”, in compensation of which devils and demons will be conjured by the mind itself to stir the starving heart; through fear, through anguish, through sensuality, through doubt, thousandfold more serious, more uncompromising in ferocity than that experienced in normal settings - it will torment the heart even to a point of madness! And after all that, again, nothing is achieved, since all that can be achieved requires contact and experience out of necessity.

There is no single path of training, or single element of training, which enhances the citta’s capacity to see contact just as contact and nothing more; everything taught by Buddha is connected together and holistically leads to that end. However there is one particular faculty that facilitates this practice greatly, that of the “attention”. This is particularly the case because contact does not cease for a moment; whatever strategy or methodology we devise in response to contact, it will necessarily start with our being able to properly attend to whatever that is taking place in the present moment, which will in turn evoke a correct response to these manifold environmental stimuli that we experience. It is a meditative attitude to the present moment, to every present moment, and it is precisely this that the expression “appamāda” refers to.

We’ve all seen such depictions of Buddha, sitting in meditation posture with the eye gazing down, not looking at anything in particular outwardly, rather directing the attention and awareness inwardly.

This symbolises the kind of meditative attitude that is needed in every moment, towards all experience and all contact. The citta is being turned inwardly, continuously examining the qualities associated with body and mind. This meditative attitude makes the senses not easily touched or impressed by external stimuli, yet they are open and accepting, and the citta is able to go beyond representations and preferences of pleasure and pain. What is curious here is also to discern that this meditative attitude regarding the experience of contact -all of it- does not require us to sit down in the lotus posture and exercise formal meditation, but with training, we can become increasingly skilled in wielding and manipulating the attention, until it becomes a more or less stable part of our everyday life.

The effect of such meditative attitude immediately manifests in the calm and self-containment of the senses, all of them and not just the eye! Through it, one is able to abide in inward peace, incomparable to any mundane peace, even in the midst of a battleground! The eye is not affected by lights, the ears by noises, and so on. When the senses are thus withdrawn, one experiences a temporary kind of freedom, freedom from the dart, the fire, and the heavy load, because there are no conditioned or reactionary feelings arising from contact during this meditative exercise. The goal is to arrive at a point where contact looses even the capacity or potential to evoke a conditioned emotional response from citta; gradually, bit by bit, we train the mind in growing more skilled in that ultimate goal. And as we persevere in this practice, we discover that there are so many subtle forms of contact that we previously didn’t even know exist; it goes so deep and at first it may even appear to be of unfathomable depth, but one sees oneself making steady progress; one compares one’s shakiness in response to contact earlier, and one’s growing inner fortitude in response to the same experience of contact now, and one discerns: “this is what’s meant by sanditthika akālika!” Both negative and positive conditioned emotions are gradually decreasing, fear and aversion are going down, not necessarily being replaced by courage and love, just going down, down to nothingness. Excitement and desire for self-stimulation, also going down, and one is able to feel that the agitation and restlessness that used to arise as a result of the absence of stimulation or deprivation of gross sensorial experiences are going down too. One discerns that there must eventually be a point at which there will be no more of these states; and so one perseveres in practice and experiences a sense of urgency, seeing in one’s own experience the reality of the ultimate promise of bhavanirodha and nibbāna.

Conclusion:

Entering into an experience of contact for a practitioner must always be a conscious act, which is difficult because the mind is always experiencing something, but that doesn’t mean that a “self” is experiencing it too! The experience of the senses belongs to the senses, such experiences are devoid of any meaning, value, or purpose. The awakened heart is aware of the situation of contact continuously, and is able to respond to it with emotional stability and wisdom; it is no longer agitated or stressed by its non-stop presence and effect on the mind; just that is the removal of the dart, the extinguishing of the fire, and the lifting of the heavy load that is contact and the conditioned emotions to which it gives rise.

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The training also includes beginning to be mindful of contact in the same manner:

'In the seen will be merely what is seen Ud1.10 Bahiya sutta

"Monks, forms are inconstant, changeable, alterable. Sounds… Aromas… Flavors… Tactile sensations… Ideas are inconstant, changeable, alterable…

"Monks, eye-contact is inconstant, changeable, alterable. Ear-contact… Nose-contact… Tongue-contact… Body-contact… Intellect-contact is inconstant, changeable, alterable.

"Monks, feeling born of eye-contact is inconstant, changeable, alterable. Feeling born of ear-contact… Feeling born of nose-contact… Feeling born of tongue-contact… Feeling born of body-contact… Feeling born of intellect-contact is inconstant, changeable, alterable.

"One who has conviction & belief that these phenomena are this way is called a faith-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.

"One who, after pondering with a modicum of discernment, has accepted that these phenomena are this way is called a Dhamma-follower: one who has entered the orderliness of rightness, entered the plane of people of integrity, transcended the plane of the run-of-the-mill. He is incapable of doing any deed by which he might be reborn in hell, in the animal womb, or in the realm of hungry shades. He is incapable of passing away until he has realized the fruit of stream-entry.

“One who knows and sees that these phenomena are this way is called a stream-enterer, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening.” SN25.2

with metta

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● Salāyatana (nose + olfactory potency) ↓
● Phassa (nose contact with odour) ↓
● Vedanā (pleasure) ↓
● Tanha (craving) ↓
● Upādāna (substantiating experience, now with another salāyatana, the gustatory) ↓
● Bhava (seeking: again, more!) ↓
● Jati (the natural consequence of further experience and further being).


● Salāyatana (body, touch potency) ↓
● Phassa (body contact with object, the cat’s tail) ↓
● Vedanā (pain, discomfort, etc.) ↓
● Tanha (aversion) ↓
● Upādāna (substantiating experience, arouses spikes) ↓
● Bhava (seeking: not again, no more!) ↓
● Jati (the natural consequence of further experience and further being).


& the great folly that is conditioned existence …

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What an insightful essay! I had been looking for an exposition on phassa. Thank you for posting it. Do you know of any suttas that detail how phassa is different in an Arahant compared to a regular person? That seems to be at the heart of how dependent origination is disrupted in an enlightened person. Thanks again @ anon61506839.