Phassa, 'contact', is defined (Salāyatana Samy. iv,10 <S.iv,67-9>) as the coming together of the eye, forms, and eye-consciousness (and so with the ear and the rest). But it is probably wrong to suppose that we must therefore understand the word phassa, primarily at least, as contact between these three things.[a] So long as there is avijjā, all things (dhammā) are fundamentally as described in the earlier part of the Mūlapariyāyasutta (Majjhima i,1 <M.i,1>); that is to say, they are inherently in subjection, they are appropriated, they are mine (See ANICCA, MAMA, & A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [f]). This is the foundation of the notion that I am and that things are in contact with me. This contact between me and things is phassa. The ditthisampanna sees the deception, but the puthujjana accepts it at its face value and elaborates it into a relationship between himself and the world (attā ca loko ca—which relationship is then capable of further elaboration into a variety of views [Majjhima xi,2 <M.ii,233>]).[b] But though the ditthisampanna is not deceived, yet until he becomes arahat the aroma of subjectivity (asmī ti, '[I] am') hangs about all his experience. All normal experience is dual (dvayam—see NĀMA, final paragraph): there are present (i)  one's conscious six-based body (saviññānaka salāyatanika kāya), and (ii) other phenomena (namely, whatever is not one's body); and reflexion will show that, though both are objective in the experience, the aroma of subjectivity that attaches to the experience will naturally tend to be attributed to the body.[c] In this way, phassa comes to be seen as contact between the conscious eye and forms—but mark that this is because contact is primarily between subject and object, and not between eye, forms, and eye-consciousness. This approach makes it possible to see in what sense, with the entire cessation of all illusion of 'I' and 'mine', there is phassanirodha in the arahat (where, though there are still, so long as he continues to live, both the conscious body and the other phenomena, there is no longer any appropriation). But when (as commonly) phassa is interpreted as 'contact between sense-organ and sense-object, resulting in consciousness'—and its translation as '(sense-)impression' implies this interpretation—then we are at once cut off from all possibility of understanding phassanirodha in the arahat;[d] for the question whether or not the eye is the subject is not even raised—we are concerned only with the eye as a sense-organ, and it is a sense-organ in puthujjana and arahat alike. Understanding of phassa now consists in accounting for consciousness starting from physiological (or neurological) descriptions of the sense-organs and their functioning. Consciousness, however, is not physiologically observable, and the entire project rests upon unjustifiable assumptions from the start.[e] This epistemological interpretation of phassa misconceives the Dhamma as a kind of natural-science-cum-psychology that provides an explanation of things in terms of cause-and- effect.


[a] This interpretation of phassa is not invited by the Mahānidānasuttanta (Dīgha ii,2 <D.ii,62>[9]), where nāmarūpapaccayā phasso is discussed without reference to salāyatana, and in terms of adhivacanasamphassa and patighasamphassa. These terms are more easily comprehensible when phassa is understood as 'contact between subject and object'. (It is an elementary mistake to equate patighasamphassa ['resistance-contact'] with five-base-contact [cakkhusamphassa &c.] and adhivacanasamphassa ['designation-contact'] with mind-contact [manosamphassa]. Adhivacana and patigha correspond to nāma and rūpa respectively, and it is clear from Majjhima iii,8 <M.i,190-1>[10] that both nāma and rūpa are conditions for each of the six kinds of contact. See NĀMA.) [Back to text

[b] The puthujjana takes for granted that 'I am' is the fundamental fact, and supposes that 'things are mine (or concern me) because I am'. The ditthisampanna sees that this is the wrong way round. He sees that there is the conceit (concept) '(I)  am' because 'things are mine'. With perception of impermanence, the inherent appropriation subsides; 'things are mine' gives place to just 'things are' (which things are still significant—they point to or indicate other things—, but no longer point to a 'subject'); and 'I am' vanishes. With the coming to an end of the arahat's life there is the ending of 'things are'. While the arahat still lives, then, there continue to be 'objects' in the sense of 'things'; but if 'objects' are understood as necessarily correlative to a 'subject', then 'things' can no longer be called 'objects'. See ATTĀ. Similarly with the 'world' as the correlative of 'self': so long as the arahat lives, there is still an organized perspective of significant things; but they are no longer significant 'to him', nor do they 'signify him'. See Preface (f). [Back to text]  

[c] If experience were confined to the use of a single eye, the eye and forms would not be distinguishable, they would not appear as separate things; there would be just the experience describable in terms of pañc'upādānakkhandhā. But normal experience is always multiple, and other faculties (touch and so on) are engaged at the same time, and the eye and forms as separate things are manifest to them (in the duality of experience already referred to). The original experience is thus found to be a relationship: but the fleshly eye is observed (by the other faculties, notably touch, and by the eyes themselves seeing their own reflexion) to be invariable (it is always 'here', idha), whereas forms are observed to be variable (they are plural and 'yonder', huram). Visual experience, however, also is variable, and its entire content is thus naturally attributed to forms and none of it to the eye. In visual experience, then, forms are seen, the eye is unseen, yet (as our other faculties or a looking-glass informs us) there is the eye. Also in visual experience, but in quite a different way (indicated earlier), objects are seen, the subject is unseen (explicitly, at least; otherwise it [or he] would be an object), yet there is the subject ('I am'). On account of their structural similarity these two independent patterns appear one superimposed on the other; and when there is failure to distinguish between these patterns, the subject comes to be identified with the eye (and mutatis mutandis for the other āyatanāni). See VIÑÑĀNA for an account of how, in a similar way, consciousness comes to be superimposed on the eye (and the six-based body generally). [Back to text]  


Phusanti phassā upadhim paticca
Nirūpadhim kena phuseyyum phassā
Contacts contact dependent on ground—
How should contacts contact a groundless one? Udāna ii,4 <Ud.12>

It must, of course, be remembered that phassanirodha in the arahat does not mean that experience as such (pañcakkhandhā) is at an end. But, also, there is no experience without phassa. In other words, to the extent that we can still speak of an eye, of forms, and of eye-consciousness (seeing)—e.g. Samvijjati kho āvuso Bhagavato cakkhu, passati Bhagavā cakkhunā rūpam, chandarāgo Bhagavato n'atthi, suvimuttacitto Bhagavā ('The Auspicious One, friend, possesses an eye; the Auspicious One sees visible forms with the eye; desire-&-lust for the Auspicious One there is not; the Auspicious One is wholly freed in heart (citta)' (Cf. ATTĀ [c].)) (Salāyatana Samy. xviii,5 <S.iv,164>)—to that extent we can still speak of phassa. But it must no longer be regarded as contact with me (or with him, or with somebody). There is, and there is not, contact in the case of the arahat, just as there is, and there is not, consciousness. See CETANĀ [f]. [Back to text

[e] The reader may note that the word 'sensation' is claimed by physiology: a sensation is what is carried by, or travels over, the nervous system. One respectable authority speaks 'in physiological terms alone' of 'the classical pathways by which sensation reaches the thalamus and finally the cerebral cortex'. Presumably, therefore, a sensation is an electro-chemical impulse in a nerve. But the word properly belongs to psychology: Sensation, according to the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, is 'Consciousness of perceiving or seeming to perceive some state or affection of one's body or its parts or senses or of one's mind or its emotions'. What, then, is sensation—is it nervous impulse? or is it consciousness? Or is it not, rather, a convenient verbal device for persuading ourselves that consciousness is nervous impulse, and therefore physiologically observable? 'Consciousness' affirms our authority 'is the sum of the activities of the whole nervous system', and this appears to be the current official doctrine.

   The notion of sensation, however, as we see from the dictionary's definition, is an abomination from the start—how can one 'perceive the state of one's senses' when it is precisely by means of one's senses that one perceives? (See MANO.) Another individual's perception (with his eye) of the state of my eye may well have, in certain respects, a one-one correspondence with my perception (with my eye) of, say, a tree (or, for that matter, a ghost, or, since the eye as visual organ extends into the brain, a migraine); but it is mere lazy thinking to presume from this that when I perceive a tree I am really perceiving the state of my eye—and then, to account for my sensation, inferring the existence of a tree in a supposed 'external' world beyond my experience. The reader is referred to Sartre's excellent discussion of this equivocal concept (op. cit., pp. 372-8), of which we can give here only the peroration. 'La sensation, notion hybride entre le subjectif et l'objectif, conçue à partir de l'objet, et appliquée ensuite au sujet, existence bâtarde dont on ne saurait dire si elle est de fait ou de droit, la sensation est une pure rêverie de psychologue, il faut la rejeter délibérément de toute théorie sérieuse sur les rapports de la conscience et du monde.' ('Sensation, hybrid notion between the subjective and the objective, conceived starting from the object, and then applied to the subject, bastard entity of which one cannot say whether it is de facto or de jure,—sensation is a pure psychologist's day-dream: it must be deliberately rejected from every serious theory on the relations of consciousness [which, for Sartre, is subjectivity] and the world.') Descartes, it seems, with his 'representative ideas', is the modern philosopher primarily responsible for the present tangle—see Heidegger, op. cit., p. 200 et seq. (Heidegger quotes Kant as saying that it is 'a scandal of philosophy and of human reason in general' that there is still no cogent proof for the 'being-there of things outside us' that will do away with all scepticism. Then he remarks 'The "scandal of philosophy" is not that this proof is yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again'.) Removal of the pseudo-problem of the 'external' world removes materialism, but does not remove matter (for which see NĀMA & RŪPA). [Back to text]