Resistance and designation

What are the resistance and designation aspect of thoughts

I assume you are referring to a specific passage from DN 15 (Mahānidāna Sutta) which describes how sensory contact (phassa) is dependent on ‘name-and-form’ (nāmarūpa). It breaks this down by showing how contact has two parts: the physical conditions coming together (called ‘resistance,’ patigha) and the mental conditions which draw attention, process, and react to the experience (called ‘designation,’ adhivacana).

As for ‘thoughts,’ I guess you mean the mano-samphassa (‘mental sense contact’) with the ‘dhammāyatana,’ or the domain of mental stimuli that arise dependent on the manas (‘mind’) with mental awareness (mano-viññānam).

Just breaking this down to make the question + answers meaningful to others who may be reading, and to help with clarity. Buddhism gets technical!

As for the answer, people more familiar with the Theravādin Abhidhamma could give you a formal answer from those texts where this is surely analyzed or discussed in detail. I’m not super familiar with that ATM, so I’ll answer w/ my reading of the EBTs.

In the suttas, the domain of mental-contact is not considered physical in the same way as the other five sense domains. That is, it is differentiated in certain ways from the other five senses, which are all said to have recourse to the mind-sense. In the Theravādin Abhidhamma, as I understand, the mind-sense is basically considered identical to mental consciousness in general, not to a specific physical organ. In later Abhidhamma texts there is the idea of matter in the heart where the mind consciousness is based in some way (hadayavatthu), but that is a later idea and also not the same as e.g. the eye. I think that this exegesis — the former, where the mind-sense is just general awareness in the mind — is the general position of the EBTs.

At SN 35.235, there is a discussion of the various sense faculties (indriya). There, it says:

You’d be better off mutilating your body faculty with a sharp spear, burning, blazing and glowing, than getting caught up in the features by way of the details in touches known by the body. …
You’d be better off sleeping. For I say that sleep is useless, fruitless, and unconsciousness for the living. But while you’re asleep you won’t fall under the sway of such thoughts that would make you create a schism in the Saṅgha. I speak having seen this drawback.

Notice how the passage talks about the other sense organs as physical faculties that can be damaged or mutilated, but when it comes to the mind it doesn’t talk in the same way, and instead talks about sleeping, i.e. temporarily blurring or shutting down conscious experience. This again implies that the mental sense is basically referring to the faculty or potential of mental awareness generally, which does not have resistance like the body or ear but can only be shut down.

Now, the suttas talk about sense contact at all six senses in the same way, which makes the mind look like it is equivalent to the first five senses. That is,
(sense faculty + sense stimuli → sense consciousness) = sense contact. From this though we should not assume that there is no nuance to how these things operate. For example, the eye receives light, it doesn’t actually make contact w/ a physical object, unlike the body. Likewise, as said before, the five senses are contrasted to the mind, which receives and knows the input from all of them, whereas physical sense-consciousness alone is almost non-sensical and non-reflective. So it’s really mental consciousness, the mind ‘knowing,’ that makes us conscious beings.

Whew! That’s a lot. And still haven’t directly touched on your question. I think this context should help shed light indirectly on the issue though. I would say that, from one perspective, the ‘resistance’ aspect of contact applies to the five physical senses, which are all known and picked up by the mind sense (i.e. consciousness, basically), as well as the other mental processing faculties (basically vedanā, saññā, sankhārā/cetanā, as in the ‘nāma’-group).

On the other hand, we could say that ‘resistance’ refers to the structural components of the organ+stimuli itself coming together, in which case the thought would be like some kind of external, mental rūpa. Often these have rūpa-characteristics, i.e. a mental image or concept carrying physical characteristics of shape, dimension, color, time, etc. It also gets a bit more complicated if we want to understand how to work mental stimuli that are beyond mental impressions of experiences in the five physical senses into this model, like if we talk instead about rūpāvacara contact, i.e. in describing jhānic experiences. There, it could be that the mental stimulus + faculty of mental awareness coming into contact for the experience to occur is the ‘resistance,’ and that the corresponding vedanā/saññā are the ‘designation.’ After all, these still fall within ‘rūpa’ and nāmarūpa. It’s hard to say though.

My broad opinion is to take the ‘rūpa’ part as the components coming together, and the ‘nāma’ part as the derived mental factors that process and react to those components. ‘Feeling’ for example is part of ‘nāma,’ but technically ‘feeling’ is said to arise from basic sense contact. So this gives me the impression that all sense contact itself is more ‘rūpa,’ but in actual experience, you cannot separate these things and they co-exist, hence the resistance-designation discussion.

Practically speaking, it’s not that important to understand how these specific labels apply, but it does of course have some relevance and importance to understanding and letting go of sense contact. The most important thing is:

Forget sleeping! I’d better focus on the fact that the mind, ideas, mind consciousness, and mind contact are impermanent. And the painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling that arises conditioned by mind contact is also impermanent.’