Vinnana v. Phassa

I’m still not clear about the practical difference between vinnana (cognition) and phassa (contact).
In the Loka Sutta, contact is the “meeting of the three”, eg eye-consciousness, eye and form. But the Loka Sutta also explains that eye-consciousness has arisen in dependence upon eye and form, so phassa appears redundant.
So what’s the practical difference between vinnana and phassa here? And why doesn’t vedana just arise from vinnana, eg a pleasant feeling arising from a pleasing sight?

Meanwhile, in “full” versions of DO with all 12 nidanas (eg SN12.1), contact arises in dependence upon the sense-fields. But given what the Loka Sutta says, wouldn’t it be more consistent to say that sense-consciousness arises in dependence upon the sense-fields, rather than contact? It gives the impression of vinnana and phassa actually being the same function.



You asked for thoughts, here you go! This isn’t an attempt to answer the OP, it’s just me jotting down thoughts, trying to put it together in my mind.

When I consider DO, I see it kind of as a mechanism, a system of processes in place which activate in a chain. When ignorance is present, the systems that are in place act as a domino effect, a chain reaction.

Since you need both a physical brain and functions of a mind to process the raw data captured by a sense organ, you can’t continue the chain of DO without namarupa and viññanā. Namarupa includes phassa but does not include consciousness.

Analayo explains name-and-form thus:

“Form” represents the material side of experience.

“Name” stands for the functions of the mind apart from viññanā . In SN 12.2 the mechanism of “name” stands for the following mental factors:

  • vedana
  • perception
  • intention
  • phassa
  • attention

“Phassa” ensures the conjunction of the other factors in experience, their coming together in a particular time-and-space-instant with the material dimension of contact taking the form of experience of resistance (patigha) and the nominal dimension of contact taking the form of designation (adhivacana).

“Viññanā” is the mind’s ability to be conscious of something.

(end of quoting Analayo)

In MN 148 the Buddha says “And what is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind consciousness. This is called consciousness.”

It could be that viññanā are simply the regions of the brain which are stimulated by by data sent by sense organs. These are the primary sensory areas which are the primary cortical regions of the sensory systems in the brain, the regions that light up in an fMRI when stimuli arise.

The classes of consciousness that the Buddha described rely on namarupa to do something with that data, thus the mutually reciprocal relationship between namarupa and viññanā.

In this case I’m finding it helpful to work backwards through DO.
You can’t have old age, sickness and death without rebirth.You can’t have rebirth without the process of kammabhava.
You can’t have kammabhava without clinging.
You can’t have clinging without craving.
You can’t have craving if vedanā has not arisen.
You can’t have arisen vedanā if there has not been phassa.
You can’t have phassa if there are no bodily sense organs to capture data.
Since you need both a physical brain and functions of a mind to process the raw data captured by a sense organ, you can’t continue the chain of DO without namarupa and viññanā.

Note: I think it’s interesting that phassa (and vedana) are each in DO twice.
Each as a link and both in nama within namarupa.

I wish I were better able to express my thoughts. :blush:

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Thanks. I suppose my question is as follows: Wouldn’t it be more intelligible, and more consistent, to replace contact with consciousness above?
So we’d have: “You can’t have vedana without consciousness, and you can’t have consciousness without bodily sense-organs.”
It’s the apparent redundancy of contact that I’m questioning, given that it seems to be the same function as consciousness - cognition of sense-objects.

In the Loka Sutta, contact is “the meeting of the three”, but here consciousness has already arisen from “the meeting of the two”, eg eye and form. So here contact is consciousness.

To ask the question another way, what is the practical difference between consciousness and contact? I can’t see one.
And if there is no practical difference, then why introduce contact in the first place? Or is it just to avoid consciousness appearing twice in the DO sequence?

Perhaps it depends on how you read “in dependence on”?

From SN 12.44:

In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact.

I read the first sentence as describing the necessary conditions for eye-consciousness to arise. I.e. “when you have eye and forms, eye-consciousness is able to arise”.

I read the second sentence as “Contact is when these three things actually meet [to create an experience]”.


Eye-consciousness arises in dependence on the eye and forms. It’s contact when the three meet.

This is how I read it anyway.


Possibly, though when you read the Loka Sutta it’s describing a succession of dependent arisings. It’s the same pattern as all the other DO suttas, one nidana arising in dependence upon the preceding one. An actual arising, not just the potential for one.

In the Loka Sutta we have eye-consciousness arising from the meeting of the two (eye and form) - which is contact, the meeting of the three. So contact appears redundant here, it’s just another way of saying that sense-consciousness has arisen.

In the Loka Sutta, why not just say that feeling arises in dependence upon sense-consciousness?
And with the full version of DO (12 nidanas), why not just say that feeling arises in dependence upon sense-consciousness, which in turn has arisen in dependence upon the sense-bases?

I still don’t get the point of contact being there. I don’t understand what purpose it serves.

If I say, “a car drives in dependence on fuel and wheels”, IMO, a natural reading of this English sentence is that the car wont drive if it’s out of fuel or the wheels are gone.

I’m not sure what you mean by actual vs. potential arising tbh, maybe you can elaborate?

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Here is my thought experiment based on neurology.

Let’s say there is a form. When the eye focuses on the form, the eye doesn’t embody consciousness itself, it’s just the organ that captures the photons and sends form data to the thalamus. When the data goes to the thalamus, it crudely processes the data and then two signals are simultaneously sent: one initial relay to the amygdala and one slower path to the visual cortex.

The amygdala is the first quick response of the sympathetic nervous system which activates autonomic bodily functions. The visual cortex sharpens the picture of the data with a better understanding of what it is and sends the clearer data to the amygdala for an update. This assembled data could be nama with its contact, raw bodily feeling tone, rudimentary perception, asava of intention, and attention that gives consciousness something to be aware of. Since there is form and it’s been named, consciousness arises.

So the links could be as follows:
Viññanā and namarupa arise using salāyatana for phassa to arise. With viññanā and namarupa providing a subjective sense of what the form is, vedanā arises and craving follows and the remainder of DO follows course.

I’m not sure the car example works too well. The Loka Sutta appears to be saying the car has begun driving (consciousness), then saying that the car is now driving (contact).
Vinnana here is consciousness actually arising, not just the potential for it to arise.

Another possible explanation is that vinnana represents the totality of incoming sense data, while phassa is just what we’re actually noticing at any one time.
However, if vinnana is just what we’re noticing at one time, then phassa appears completely redundant.

How would you defend that reading of the Loka Sutta based on just the English, with no added assumptions?

This isn’t found in the Loka Sutta though, so you seem to be working from some additional assumptions about DO.

I don’t know what these assumptions are, so I’m not able to fully make sense of what you’re saying.

(I’m using ‘assumption’ since I’m assuming neither of us is coming from an experiential understanding / direct knowledge of DO).

I don’t get your point about actual vs. potential. The way I see it, causal sequences are both actual and potential.

Take ‘smoking causes cancer’ as an example. In one who smokes, it actually causes cancer. For one who doesn’t smoke, it would have actually caused cancer if they smoked. I.e. the potential to get cancer from smoking is always there.

Fun fact, one prominent framework for causal analysis is based on the idea of ‘potential outcomes’. There the causal effect is defined as the difference between “what actually happened” and what “would have happened, if what actually happened didn’t”.

The Loka Sutta says: “In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises”.
This describes the arising of consciousness clearly and straightforwardly.
So I’m saying that adding the bit about contact here is pointless and redundant.

Adding contact only makes sense if it means something quite different to the arising of consciousness. But what is that different meaning, exactly? What is the functional difference between vinnana and phassa?
See my reply to Adutiya above for one possible explanation of the difference.

I am disagreeing with you on your interpretation of this sentence.

Your understanding of this sentence seems to be something like: eye and forms come together and create a moment of eye-consciousness.

But take a sentence like “I live in dependence on food and water”. It doesn’t mean that food and water come together and create a moment of life, it means that I would die if I went long enough without food and water.

By the same logic, “In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises” doesn’t mean that eye and forms come together to create a moment of eye-consciousness, it means eye-consciousness would not arise if the eye or the forms (or both) were missing.

(More specifically, I am proposing that this is how the sentence should be understood for the sake of the discussion. I could be wrong of course)

To dismiss this argument you bring in an assumption about DO being actual and not potential. I still don’t understand what you mean by this.

Perhaps you are coming from a materialist viewpoint here? You’re assuming that consciousness is a result of the interactions between matter (the eye and forms)?

If you feel we are just going around in circles feel free to not reply and we’ll stop this discussion for now :slight_smile:


I’m saying that the Loka Sutta sentence is describing the actual arising of eye-consciousness. It’s not merely a theoretical explanation of how consciousness arises.
And note that the Loka Sutta is an abbreviated version of DO - here the arising of consciousness is substituting for the usual nidanas up to contact.

A sailing analogy might illustrate this better: In dependence upon sails and wind, movement of the boat arises.
There is no need to add anything about the meeting of sail, wind and movement, it’s a redundancy.

“In dependence upon sails and wind, movement of the boat arises. Let’s call it contact when the wind actually meets a sail attached to a boat.”

Why wouldn’t I want to introduce that extra term if I felt that made things clearer? If I felt it was necessary to properly explain how boats work, why wouldn’t I?

First, I don’t understand this distinction. A good theoretical explanation explains how things actually work? Isn’t a theory just words attempting to describe what is actual?

Secondly, what’s your evidence/arguments in favor this point of view? Can it be found in the suttas?


Cakkhu might not mean the physical eye, eh? Something more like the ability to see. Since a blind man has a physical eye and yet sees no external forms… We might even say he still has cakkhu if he doesn’t have eyes, yet sees internal forms… Don’t mean to get off-topic, but I think it’s relevant.

As I said, in the Loka Sutta the arising of consciousness is clearly part of the DO process, since it substitutes for the usual nidanas up to contact. So the arising of consciousness is part of the process, something actually happening. Not just an explanation of how consciousness can happen, which is what I think you’re saying?
And generally in the suttas, vinnana is described as something actually happening, part of a process, eg as an aggregate.

As for the sailing analogy, the addition you suggested doesn’t work. “Contact” here wouldn’t be the meeting of wind and sail, it would need to be the “meeting of the three”, ie the meeting of sail, wind and boat movement. And that doesn’t make much sense. Hence the OP.

Yes, I would say something like “In dependence upon the ability to see, and something to see, then seeing occurs.”
This means that seeing is the inevitable result of: ability to see + something to see.

I think we are not getting through to each other, so I will just step out of the discussion at this point :slight_smile:


Hi, I just thought of an example to demonstrate, hope it helps :slight_smile::
The presence of a woman in her season, the act of intercourse and a gandhabba (being about to be born), the meeting of these three is called conception !
Just like this, the successful meeting of eye consciousness with eye and forms is contact.
I hope I have been able to clarify things instead of making it more difficult! :sweat_smile: any suggestions for improvement are always welcomed :pray:

An interesting approach, but according to the Loka Sutta, eye-consciousness doesn’t “meet” with eye and form, it arises in dependence upon them.

The difficulty is combining:

  1. A meeting of the two, ie eye-consciousness arising in dependence on eye and form.
    And then:
  2. A meeting of the three, ie contact arising when all three are present.

Here’s what these two look like expressed as simple formulae:

Eye + Form = Eye-consciousness.
Eye + Form + Eye-consciousness = Contact.

Do you see the problem? Either one would work in isolation, but the combination of the two doesn’t make sense.