Journey into the Thought-World of Early Buddhism: Contact (Phassa)

Time and again, I am reminded of how absolutely essential it is to understand the thought-world of the Pāḷi canon — and by extension, Early Buddhism generally — on its own terms. Within reason, we can never merely assume that the way they thought about the world, their philosophical dialogues, or the questions and answers flying around, were on the same terms as how we relate to our world today. Far too often modern commentators, teachers, etc. seem to make mistakes that, although seemingly relevant and accurate to our own ideas, are removed from the proper context of Early Buddhism. There is a lot we can learn about the fluid puddy of words and concepts that were being molded by the Early Buddhists according to the philosophical discourse of the time and their own needs.

One interesting example of this that I came across is the concept of contact, or phassa (lit. ‘touch’). It turns out that the concept of phassa in the EBTs carries connotations of rebirth and types of existences that one can have. I think that while this may seem somewhat obvious in certain respects, it is also highly overlooked, and there is a lot of confusion or simply missed understanding around different ways that this concept is used in the texts that are resolved as we dive deeper into the connotations it had for the Early Buddhists.

Let me share some examples. It seems best to allow the texts to show rather than tell. I find that the latter is a dangerous custom that is often at the root of these philosophical misunderstandings: when we extract concepts from the vast body of literature that contextualizes and interact with them, and then explain or commentate on them in isolation, we very quickly lose touch with the philosophical climate they inhabited.

Contact, reverends, is one end. The origin of contact is the second end. The cessation of contact is the middle. And craving is the seamstress, for craving weaves one to being reborn in one state of existence or another.
AN 6.61
(Note: This means that contact begins at rebirth, and originates as rebirth is re-established via craving, passing over the cessation of contact)

And what is old action [kamma]? The eye is old action … The ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is old action. It should be seen as produced by choices and intentions, as something to be felt.
SN 35.146
(Note: six-sense bases of contact are old kamma)

And what is the source of deeds [kamma]? Contact is their source. And what is the diversity of deeds? There are deeds that lead to rebirth in hell, the animal realm, the ghost realm, the human world, and the world of the gods. … And what is the cessation of deeds? When contact ceases, deeds cease.
AN 6.63
(Note: Notice again the strong connection between contact and kamma)

They recollect many kinds of past lives, that is, one, two, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand rebirths … They remember: ‘There, I was named this, my clan was that, I looked like this, and that was my food. This was how I felt pleasure and pain, and that was how my life ended.
DN 2
(Note: the stock passage on recollecting past lives mentions the feelings born of contact one experiences, related to the type of rebirth — determined, of course, by one’s kamma. Once again, the presence of contact is related to a rebirth, and it is characterized by the type of rebirth one lands in)

I’ve seen the hell called ‘the six fields of contact’. There, whatever sight you see with your eye is unlikable, not likable; undesirable, not desirable; unpleasant, not pleasant. … I’ve seen the heaven called ‘the six fields of contact’. There, whatever sight you see with your eye is likable, not unlikable; desirable, not undesirable; pleasant, not unpleasant.
SN 35.135
(Note: What characterizes these different types of existences — one in hell, one in heaven — is the type of contact / feeling one experiences born of contact there)

“Reverend Sāriputta, there are ascetics and brahmins who teach the efficacy of deeds. Some of them declare that pleasure and pain are made by oneself. Some of them declare that pleasure and pain are made by another … made by both oneself and another … arise by chance, not made by oneself or another. What does the Buddha say about this?” …
“Reverend, the Buddha said that pleasure and pain are dependently originated. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.”
SN 12.25
(Note: I recommend you read this sutta to get more context; there is a lot of detail. It later describes how ignorance gives rise to karmic intentions that then cause the basis for one to experience pleasure and pain, i.e. they cause the origination of contact in another rebirth. So this sutta is explaining once again the connection between contact, kamma, and the types of contact in different rebirth stations. The solution is the cessation of all contact, meaning no more rebirth)

The other thing to consider with all of this is how the Buddha defines the world (loka) as dependently originated contact via the six-sense domains. The end of the world is the same as nibbāna or the end of rebirth. So once again, contact is the experience of being reborn (i.e. the experience of the world), and the end of rebirth is equated to the end of contact, the world. See SN 12.44, AN 4.23, AN 4.45, SN 2.26, etc.

Feel free to discuss this! I hope that it is helpful. I know that this is a small detail, but it is these types of connotations that are almost impossible to pick up on even in translation. How does one translate ‘contact’ in a way that implies that it means one’s affective experience of their state of existence—that is a rebirth—via the sense domains? It just is to be assumed or understood as background context.

Mettā :slight_smile:


Hi. SN 12.44 seems to say the end of the world occurs when sense contact occurs but craving ends.

And what, mendicants, is the origin of the world? Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. Craving is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. This is the origin of the world.

And what is the ending of the world? Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for craving. When that craving fades away and ceases with nothing left over, grasping ceases. When grasping ceases, continued existence ceases. … That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases. This is the ending of the world.

SN 12.44

If the end of the world is the end of sense contact, how can the end of the world be “seen”?

And when you truly see (passato) the cessation of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of existence regarding the world.

SN 12.15

For more such “excursions” see my course based on the books of that name by Bhante Analayo:



SN 35.93 and its counterpart SA 214 state that the six contacts (phassa) give rise to feeling, volition, and perception; but SA 214 differs slightly:

Pages 85-6 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (146.8 KB)

Cf. also pp. 82-3 on SN 35.106 = SA 218:

Pages 82-3 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (138.8 KB)

Reminds me of this intense simile from SN 12.63:

And how should you regard contact as fuel? Suppose there was a flayed cow. If she stands by a wall, the creatures on the wall bite her. If she stands under a tree, the creatures in the tree bite her. If she stands in some water, the creatures in the water bite her. If she stands in the open, the creatures in the open bite her. Wherever that flayed cow stands, the creatures there would bite her. I say that this is how you should regard contact as fuel. When contact as fuel is completely understood, the three feelings are completely understood. When the three feelings are completely understood, a noble disciple has nothing further to do, I say.


The Sutta reference is SN 12.63.
With Metta


Regarding the notion of phassa ‘contact’ in Early Buddhism (not just Pali Buddhism), one needs to study both the Salayatana Samyutta (Connected with the Six Sense Spheres) of SN and its counterpart of SA. The two versions (SN and SA) of the same collection frequently refer to the sense spheres (ayatana) in terms of the six contact-spheres (cha phassayatana).

See p. 77, “Chapter 3. The Sense Spheres” (pp. 73-107) in Choong Mun-keat’s Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism.

Whoever said this

didn’t say this

We must be careful not to proof text across strata.