by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 1 - Contact


A citta cannot arise alone, it has to be accompanied by cetasikas. When there is seeing, citta cognizes visible object and the cetasikas which accompany the citta also experience visible object. The citta is the "leader", while the cetasikas which share the same object perform each their own task.

The cetasikas have each their own:

characteristic (lakkhanam: specific or generic attribute)
function (rasa : function or achievement),
manifestation (paccupat-thana: manifestation, appearance or effect)
and proximate cause (padatthanam)

(Expositor I, Part II, Chapter I, 65).

There are many conditions for the different phenomena which appear, but the "proximate cause" or immediate occasion is mentioned in particular when the cetasikas are defined in the commentaries, the Atthasalini (The Expositor) and the Visuddhimagga. There are seven cetasikas which have to arise with every citta; they are called the "universals" (sabbacitta-sadharana). some cittas are accompanied only by the universals, others are accompanied by several more cetasikas in addition. Thus, every citta is accompanied by at least the seven universals.

The universals arise with every citta and thus they arise with all the cittas of the four jatis: with akusala citta, kusala citta, vipakacitta and kiriyacitta.

They arise with all cittas in all planes of existence where there is nama:

with the cittas of the woeful planes,
in the human being plane,
in the deva planes,
in the rupa-brahma-planes,
except the asanna-satta plane (the plane where there is only rupa not nama) (See my Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 20)
and in the arupa-brahma planes.

They arise with all cittas of all planes of consciousness:

with kamavacara-cittas (sensuous plane of citta),
with rupavacara cittas (Plane of rupa-jhanacittas),
arupavacara cittas (plane of arupa-jhanacittas)
and with lokuttara cittas (cittas which experience nibbana)

(Ibidem, Chapter 19)

Contact, in Pali: phassa, is mentioned first among the Universal. Phassa arises together with every citta; it "contacts" the object so that citta can experience it. When seeing experiences visible object, phassa which accompanies seeing-consciousness also experiences visible object but it performs its own function. At that moment phassa "contacts" visible object and conditions seeing-consciousness to see.

The Atthasalini (Expositor, Part IV, chapter I, 108) states about contact:

Contact means "it touches" It has touching as its salient
characteristic, impact as its function, "coinciding" (of the physical
base, object and consciousness) as its manifestation, and the object
which has entered the avenue (of awareness) as proximate cause .

The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification XIV, 134) gives a similar definition.

Phassa is different from what we mean in conventional language by physical contact or touch. When we use the word contact in conventional language we may think of the impingement of something external on one of the senses, for example the impingement of hardness on the bodysense. We may use words such as touching or impingement in order to describe phassa, but we should not forget that phassa is nama, a cetasika which arises together with the citta and assists the citta so that it can experience the object which presents itself through the appropriate doorway. When hardness presents itself through the bodysense there is phassa, contact, arising together with the citta which experiences the hardness. Phassa is not the mere collision of hardness with the bodysense, it is not touch in the physical sense. Impact is the function of phassa in the sense that it assists the citta so that it can cognize the object.

Phassa is manifested by coinciding or concurrence, namely, by the coinciding of three factors:

  1. physical base (vatthu),
  2. object
  3. and consciousness.

When there is seeing, there is the coinciding of eye (the eyebase), visible object and seeing-consciousness; through this concurrence phassa, which is in this case eye-contact, is manifested.

We read in the 'Discourse of the Honey-ball' (Middle Length sayings I, no. 18) that Maha-kaccana explained to the monks concerning contact:

  1. See Dhammasangani (the first book of the Abhidhamma),
  2. This book has been translated by the Pali Text Society under the title af Buddhist Psychological Ethics.

This situation occurs: that when there is eye, your reverences, when there is visible object, when there is visual consciousness, one will recognise the manifestation of sensory impingement (phassa)... When there is the concurrence of the ear, sound and hearing-consciousness, there is the manifestation of ear-contact. When there is the concurrence of body-sense, a tangible object such as hardness and the experience of hardness, there is the manifestation of body-contact. Eye-contact is different from ear-contact and different from body-contact. At each moment of citta there is a different phassa which conditions the citta to experience an object.

Phassa is not the doorway through which citta experiences an object. In the case of a sense-door process the rupa which is one of the senses is doorway and in the case of a mind-door process nama is doorway, namely the last bhavanga-citta arising before the mind-door adverting-consciousness, the first citta of the mind-door process (See Introduction.).

In the planes of existence where there are nama and rupa, cittas have a physical base or place of origin, the vatthu (Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 17). The vatthu is rupa. In the case of the 'panca-vinnanas' (seeing, hearing, etc.) the vatthus are the 'pasada-rupas' (the rupas which ate capable of receiving visible object, sound, etc.). ln the case of the panca-vinnanas the pasada-rupa functions as both vatthu and doorway, 'dvara'.

For example, the rupa which is eye-sense (cakkhuppasada-rupa) is both doorway and vatthu for seeing-consciousness. Although it is one and the same rupa, the function of dvara and vatthu are different. The dvara is the means through which citta experiences an object, and the vatthu is the physical base for the citta. Only for the panca-vinnanas are the dvara and the vatthu one and the same rupa. For the other cittas of the sense-door process the dvara and the vatthu are different rupas; they have as their vatthu another kind of rupa which is in the commentaries called the 'heart-base' (hadaya-vatthu) (Ibidem. it is the material support for all cittas other than the panca-vinnanas.)

There is no need to specify its exact location.. The cittas which arise in the mind-door process also have as their vatthu the 'heart-base'. The vatthu is the physical base not only of citta, but also of the cetasikas which accompany the citta. When seeing-consciousness arises at the eye-base (cakkhu-vatthu), phassa and the other cetasikas which accompany seeing-consciousness arise also at the eye-base. Thus, citta and the accompanying cetasikas arise together at the same vatthu; they share the same object and they fall away together.

The different cittas with their accompanying cetasikas arise when there are the appropriate conditions for their arising. Even when our eyes are open, there is not seeing all the time. There are many different types of cittas which arise one at a time. When there is, for example, hearing or thinking there cannot be seeing at the same time. when there are the appropriate conditions for seeing-consciousness, it arises. Then there is the concurrence of the eye, visible object and seeing. Eye-contact performs its function so that seeing can experience visible object. Contact 'supports' the citta and the other cetasikas which accompany the citta. There must be contact arising with the citta in order that it can cognize its object, Contact also supports the other cetasikas it arises together with: without contact there could not be feeling, perception (sanna) or volition (cetana). The Atthasalini (108) compares phassa with a pillar in a palace which is a strong support to the rest of the structure. In the same way contact is a strong support to the citta and the accompanying cetasikas.

Is there contact now? There is the experience of an object right now and thus there has to be contact as well. There are seeing, hearing or thinking occurring time and again. We think that it is 'I' Who sees, hears or thinks, but in reality there are different cittas conditioned by different factors. Knowing more about the different factors through which realities are conditioned will help us to understand that there is no self who experiences an object. Seeing is a nama which arises because of the concurrence of different factors and it cannot stay, it has to fall away again. We cannot force it to arise nor can we force it to stay,

When we are busy with our work, there are different realities presenting themselves through the senses, but we are usually forgetful of them, when hardness presents itself, phassa performs its function so that citta can experience the object. There is no self who experiences hardness. Considering realities can condition the arising of mindfulness, no matter whether we walk stand, sit or lie down.

When we study cetasikas we should not forget that cetasikas never arise alone; they have to arise together with citta. They arise with the cittas of our daily Iife, they are not abstract categories. Since citta and cetasikas which arise together condition one another, the cetasikas and thus also phassa have different qualities when they arise with different types of citta.

Phassa which arises with akusala citta is also akusala;
phassa which arises with kusala citta is also kusala.
When phassa arises with lokuttara citta, then phassa is also lokuttara: at that moment it 'contacts' nibbana, the object of the lokuttara citta.

Phassa accompanies each of the cittas which arise in different processes:

in the sense-door processes
and in the mind-door processes

(Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 13).

Phassa also accompanies the cittas which do not arise in a process of cittas (Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 17), it accompanies the patisandhi-citta (rebirth-consciousness) the bhavanga-citta (life-continuum) (Bhavanga-cittas arise all through life, in between the processes of cittas and the cuti-citta (dying-consciousness)).Although these cittas do not arise in a process, they experience an object: the same object as experienced by the last javana cittas arising before the cuti-citta of the previous life (Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 15). Phassa which accompanies these cittas contacts that object.

When there is seeing, visible object is experienced through the eyesense and at that moment there is eye-contact (cakkhu-samphassa). Phassa is eye-contact only at the moment of seeing-consciousness. The phassa accompanying hearing-consciousness (sota-vinnana) is ear-contact (sota-samphassa), The phassas arising with the five sense-cognitions (pancavinnana) are named after the relevant sense-base (The phassas accompanying all the cittas other than the five sense-cognitions are called mano-samphassa.).

When the cittas of the sense-door process have fallen away, the object is experienced through the mind-door, When the mind-door-adverting-consciousness (mano-dvaravajjana-citta) adverts to the object through the mind-door the phassa accompanying the mano-dvaravajjana-citta contacts that object, The mano-dvaravajjana-citta is succeeded by the javana-cittas which experience the same object and the phassas accompanying the javana-cittas contact that object. .

The javana-cittas are, in the case of the non-arahats, either akusala cittas or kusala cittas. Most of the time the javana-cittas are akusala cittas; since we have accumulated many kinds of defilements akusala cittas are bound to arise. When we, for example, see a pleasant object, we are likely to be attached to it and to have pleasant feeling on account of the object. However, attachment does not arise at the moment of seeing-consciousness. Seeing-consciousness is vipakacitta (citta which is result) and it is invariably accompanied by indifferent feeling. The phassa which accompanies the seeing-consciousness is also vipaka.

When we like what we see there are javana-cittas which are lobha-mula-cittas (cittas rooted in attachment) and these may be accompanied by pleasant feeling or by indifferent feeling. The phassa which accompanies akusala citta is also akusala. The phassas which accompany different kinds of citta are different and the feelings which accompany the cittas are different as well. The following sutta in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Third Fifty, Chapter III, 129, Ghosita) deals with realities as elements and it is explained that different phenomena which arise have different conditions. The sutta does not mention each moment of citta in the process of cittas. It is understood that the pleasant feeling and unpleasant feeling referred to do not arise at the moment of seeing-consciousness, but later on in the process. We read:

Once the venerable Ananda was staying at Kosambi Ghosita Park. Then the housefather Ghosita came to see the venerable Ananda. Seated at one side he said this to the venerable Ananda:

"Diversity in elements! Diversity in elements!"

'is the saying, my lord Ananda. Pray, sir, how far has diversity in elements been spoken of by the Exalted One?'

'When the elements of eye and objects that are pleasing and eye-consciousness occur together, housefather, owing to the pleasurable contact there arises pleasant feeling.

When the elements of eye, objects that are displeasing and eye-consciousness occur together, owing to the unpleasant contact resulting there arises painful feeling.

When the elements of eye, objects that are of indifferent effect and eye-consciousness occur together, owing to neutral contact resulting, there arises feeling that is neutral.

So when the elements of ear... nose... tongue... body... when the elements of mind and objects that are pleasurable and mind-consciousness occur together.

When mind and objects that are displeasing... or mind and objects that are of indifferent effect occur together, owing to the contact resulting, whether it be pleasing, displeasing or neutral, there arises feeling that is pleasing, displeasing or neutral. '

Thus far, housefather, diversity in elements has been spoken of by the Exalted One.

When we read this sutta we can be reminded to see phenomena as elements which arise dependent on conditions. Sometimes the object which phassa contacts is pleasant, sometimes unpleasant; this is beyond control. Because of our defilements, attachment, aversion and ignorance arise time and again. If we learn to see the events of our life as conditioned elements, right understanding wiIl develop.

We have different contacts through the eyes and through the ears. When we are at the opera, we may dislike the sight of someone who is singing but we may like the sound. There are different objects and different contacts; there can be like and dislike at different moments. In reality there is no singer nor is there a person who can look at him and listen to his singing at the same time. There are only different elements, namas and rupas, which each have their appropriate conditions for their arising and can only be experienced one at a time.

The citta and the accompanying cetasikas which experience visible object arise at one moment; the citta and the accompanying cetasikas which experience sound arise at another moment, in another process of cittas. The dislike of visible object cannot arise at the same time as the attachment to the sound; they arise in different processes of cittas. Cittas succeed one another very rapidly and at each moment there is a different contact accompanying the citta. Because of ignorance we do not know the reality which is experienced at the present moment. We do not know whether it is sound, visible object or a concept. We think that all these realities can appear at the same time. We think most of the time of concepts instead of being aware of realities as they appear one at a time.

The study of phassa cetasika can remind us that at each moment a different citta arises, dependant on different conditions. When there is seeing phassa cannot contact any other object but visible object. Seeing can experience only visible object; it cannot experience a person in the visible object. When there is hearing, phassa cannot contact any other object but sound. Hearing cannot experience a person in the sound. When there is thinking of a concept there is a different citta with a different phassa which contacts the object citta is thinking of. There cannot be more than one contact at a time.

A detailed knowledge of different cittas and their accompanying cetasikas will help us to understand the realities of our daily life as they appear one at a time. It is important to have more understanding of realities such as seeing ot hearing. They are cittas arising time and again in daily life. They experience pleasant or unpleasant objects and on account of these objects kusala cittas or akusala cittas arise, but mostly akusala cittas. Through the Abhidhamma we acquire a more precise knowledge of realities, but the knowledge should not stay at the level of theory.

When we study the Abhidhamma we can be reminded to be aware of whatever reality appears at the present moment, and in this way the study will lead us to realize fully, the aim of the Buddha's teachings: right understanding of realities.


  1. How can we prove that there is contact?
  2. Through how many doors is there phassa?
  3. Is phassa nama or rupa?
  4. what is the difference between eye-contact and the eye-door?
  5. Are 'mano-samphassa' (mind-contact) and the mind-door different from each other?
  6. Why is there not eye-contact every moment our eyes are open?
  7. What kind of object does phassa contact when there is bhavanga-citta?
  8. when a loud noise hurts our ears, through which doorway is it felt? What kind of object is experienced at that moment? Can other realities apart from sound be experienced through the ear-sense?
  9. Why is it useful to know that phassa contacts only one object?
  10. Is a concept an object that phassa can contact?
  11. Why must there be phassa with every citta?
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