Buddhist philosophy and psychology · indica lingua

♦ How to recognize a feeling? Reflections on “being in touch”

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According to the well-known Buddhist doctrine of conditional co-production (paṭicca-samuppāda), vedanā depends on contact (phassa) between senses and sense-objects, which stimulates the sensorial faculties. Now, we find that the Pāli Canon points out that also saññā, and not only vedanā, is conditioned, in its manifestation, by phassa. In Saṃyutta-Nikāya III, 59-60, indeed, we can read: phassasamudayā saññāsamudayo phassanirodhā saññānirodho («From the origin of contact there is the origin of saññā, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of saññā»). This text prompts us to wonder what the fundamental difference between sensation and saññā is, on account of their relation with phassa. For a clear understanding of this point, we have of course to take into consideration the whole passage Saṃyutta-Nikāya III, 59-60. It runs as follows:

katamā ca bhikkhave vedanā. chayime bhikkhave vedanākāyā: cakkhusamphassajā vedanā, sotasamphassajā vedanā, ghānasamphassajā vedanā, jivhāsamphassajā vedanā, kāyasamphassajā vedanā, manosamphassajā vedanā. ayam vuccati bhikkhave vedanā. phassasamudayā vedanāsamudayo phassanirodhā vedanānirodho.[…]

katamā ca bhikkhave saññā. chayime bhikkhave saññākāyā: rūpasaññā saddasaññā gandhasaññā rasasaññā phoṭṭhabbasaññā dhammasaññā ayam vuccati saññā. phassasamudayā saññāsamudayo phassanirodhā saññānirodho.

«What, o bhikkhus, is sensation? These six, o bhikkhus, are the groups of sensations: sensation born from eye-contact, sensation born from ear-contact, sensation born from nose-contact, sensation born from tongue-contact, sensation born from body-contact, sensation born from mind-contact. This, o bhikkhus, is called sensation. From the origin of contact there is the origin of sensation, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of sensation. […]

And in which way, o bhikkhus, saññā is? These six, o bhikkhus, are the groups of saññā: saññā of form/colour, saññā of sound, saññā of smell, saññā of taste, saññā of touch, saññā of dhammā; this is called saññā. From the origin of contact there is the origin of saññā, from the cessation of contact there is the cessation of sañña».1

This text makes explicit that, whereas the sensation is the direct result of the contact between an object and a sense-organ (we have, indeed, a sensation born from the eye, from the ear, etc.), saññā is rather the result of what, carried by contact, is then collected as perceptive information (indeed, we do not have sañña born from the eye or from the ear, but saññā of form, of sound, etc.). This consideration is supported by textual evidences: as far as vedanā is concerned, the passage makes use of the adjective dependent tappurisa compound samphassajā, constituted by samphassa and –ja – in this case in its feminine ending – –, derived from the verbal root √jan. It is well-known that samphassa is itself a compound of phassa (literally «touch») preceded by the prefix sam– («with»), and has clearly the sense of «con-tact», i.e., of «being in touch with…», that takes place at least between two elements, and conveys the idea of “touching directly”, without intermediaries; moreover, althought samphassa is usually employed in Pāli as euphonical form for phasso at the end of compounds, nonetheless the prefix sam– suggests implicitly the idea of «union» (saṅgati) of object, sense organ and primary sense-awareness, needed for the actual occurrence of a contact, as Majjhima-Nikāya I, 111-112 points out: cakkhuñ c’āvuso paṭicca rūpe ca upajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso («And conditioned by eye and forms, o friend, originates the visual awareness, the union of the three is the contact»). The ending – means «born in/from/out of» and, referred to vedanā, clearly underlines – once again – the immediacy of its “coming to be” in direct dependence on phassa (or samphassa), representing an immediate and direct relation between senses and the characteristics of objects collectable by senses: eye/form, ear/sound, etc. As far as saññā is concerned, the passage lists a succession of “fields” in and on which this faculty applies: the term rūpasaññā (another tappurisa compound), for example, can be properly translated as «saññā concerning form(s)/colour(s)», but in no cases as «saññā born from form(s)/colour(s)». The same with saddasaññā: correct is «saññā concerning sound(s)», and not «saññā born from sound(s)», and so on.2 Thus, we may infer that, although both saññā and sensation arise from contact (phassa), nonetheless the latter depends directly on sense organs and on the characteristics of objects, but it has nothing to do with the effect(s) of this very contact, whereas saññā becomes active only in a second time, applying itself to the bare contact (and thus, also to vedanā), by transforming it in an actual sensorial “information”, i.e., in a consciously collectable datum – where this datum is the effect of the contact-experience. Indeed, at least according to the Pāli Canon, we cannot have actual sensation (vedanā) of, for instance, forms or tastes because forms and tastes could be known as such (that is to say, as this form, this taste, etc.) only once the contact has already happened: they are subjective modalities by which one manages the data coming from outside. It is possible, at the most, to experience gustative sensations (i.e. born from the contact of the tongue and that particular characteristic of a food) or visual sensations (born from the contact of the eye and that particular characteristic of an object) in general, but the classification of these sensations as, for example, good, bad, hard, soft, red triangle, yellow square, black pisāca, and so on (see What object, what name… a brief note on saññā), is peculiar to saññā. So we conclude that vedanā develops, so to say, in a more or less mechanical activity, whereas saññā involves different classifications and selections (Aṅguttara-Nikāya III, 413): aññā bhikkhave saññā rūpesu aññā saññā saddesu aññā saññā gandhesu aññā saññā rasesu aññā saññā phoṭṭhabbesu aññā saññā dhammesuOne, o bhikkhus, is the recognition concerning forms, another one is the recognition concerning sounds, another the recognition concerning smells, another the recognition concerning tastes, another the recognition concerning touch, another the recognition concerning dhammas»).


(1) See also Saṃyutta-Nikāya II, 3; Aṅguttara-Nikāya III, 413; IV, 147; Dīgha-Nikāya II, 58; III, 244. In quoting from the Pāli Canon, Roman number refers to the volume of the Pāli Text Society edition, Arabic number to the page.

(2) Compare with Dīgha-Nikāya II, 308-309, III, 244-245, etc., in which the same compounds are used: cakkhusamphassajā, etc., for vedanā, and rūpasaññā, etc., for saññā.

References 1 (texts):

– Aṅguttara Nikāya (5 vols.), Morris, R., Hardy, E., Warder, A.K. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1979-1995.

– Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭāka 4.0, Vipassana Research Institute, Dhammagiri. On-line downloadable edition: http://www.tipitaka.org/cst/cst4-2008-04-20-beta15.exe

– Dīgha Nikāya (3 vols.), Rhys Davids, T.W., Carpenter, J.E. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1992-1995.

– Majjhima Nikāya (3 vols.), Treckner, V., Chalmers, R. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1993-1994.

– Milindapañha with Milindaṭīkā, Treckner, V., Jaini, P.S. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford rep. 1986.

References 2 (studies):

– Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (1986), Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy rep.

– Boisvert, M. (1995), The Five Aggregates. Understanding Theravāda Psychology and Soteriology, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo (Ontario).

– de Silva, P. (1979), An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, Macmillan, London.

– Vetter, T. (2000), The Khandha Passages’ in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikayas, Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien.

– Wayman, A. (1976), “Regarding the Translation of the Buddhist Terms Saññā/Saṃjñā, Viññāṇa/Vijñāna”; in: Malalasekera Commemoration Volume, de Wijesekera, C. H. O. (ed. by), Malalasekera Commemoration Volume Editorial Committee, Colombo, pp. 325-335.

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4 thoughts on “♦ How to recognize a feeling? Reflections on “being in touch”

  1. The distinction saññā/vedanā as outlined here seems to correspond to the one between savikalpa and nirvikalpa pratyakṣa in later Indian philosophy, *but* for the very pratyakṣa character. Do you agree?


  2. I think that your observation is right. Indeed, if we speak in general terms, the nirvikalpa pratyakṣa, being an indeterminate perception, can be put in parallel with vedanā (which grasps the characteristic of the object without – we can say so – knowing what it is grasping, that is: nirvikalpa pratyakṣa, like vedanā, does not involve judgments), whereas savikalpa pratyakṣa, being a determinate perception, can be put in parallel with saññā (which labels the data coming from vedanā, applying a name to them, that is: savikalpa pratyakṣa, like saññā, involves judgments). Moreover, the nirvikalpa pratyakṣa precedes the savikalpa pratyakṣa, as vedanā precedes saññā, and savikalpa pratyakṣa in some way processes nirvikalpa pratyakṣa, as saññā processes the results of vedanā. Of course, as you rightly point out, this runs only for pratyakṣa taken in itself as a general “category” or “process” of knowledge.
    Notwithstanding that, coming back to Buddhism, there is at least another element involved in a perception that can, in my opinion, be equated – together with vedanā – to nirvikalpa pratyakṣa: phassa, contact. It seems, indeed, that in certain passages of the Pāli Canon, phassa is described as playing the role of a primary awareness taking place before vedanā. It would be a sort of awareness immediately and strictly related to the sense “affected” by the object, while vedanā represents a later development in which the attention shifts to the object that “affects” the sense.


  3. aha. Thanks a lot for that. I never thought of phassa/sparśa in that way. I have always been thinking of phassa as just the physical pre-condition of vedanā (without any epistemological significance). Could you point out a passage on this use of phassa?
    As for nirvikalpa/savikalpa pratyakṣa, what drills me is the idea that there is a whole pre-history of the Dharmakīrti/Kumārila dispute. DhK may have had in mind the fact that a savikalpa level, indeed, exists (sañña), but it is OUTSIDE perception.


  4. Thanks a lot for your observations. Well, as far as phassa as first step in the process of object awareness is concerned, consider for instance Majjhima Nikāya III, 242 (PTS Edition), in which sukhanti pi vijānāti (etc.) is called sukhavedaniya (etc.) phassa. Tilmann Vetter comments this passage as follows: «[here phassa] seems to be a first interpretive act on which feeling [vedanā] depends» (T. Vetter, The “Khandha Passages” in the vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas, Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 2000, p. 64, n. 136). When you say that Dharmakīrti may have had an idea of savikalpa outside preception, I agree with you if with “outside” you mean something like “pragmatic feedback”, as it happens when a particular perception (for instance a tree) allows someone to get something from what it is perceived (for instance, fruits), even if this “something” is not present (for instance a tree perceived in winter, thus without fruits). In such cases I think that Dharmakīrti admitted the possibility of the emergence of the awareness of the tree-fruit relation after the perception of the tree (which has been perceived of course by means of apoha). If I have well understood the philosophy of Dharmakīrti, it is this kind of awareness following a perception that can in some way be put in parallel with savikalpa, and for this very reason it is strictly confined in the field of saṃvṛti in the sense of “practical knowledge” or “practical recognition” which accompanies a nirvikalpa pratyakṣa (to turn to the classical Indian example: I see “cow”, I can get “milk”; cow and milk are savikalpa). Moreover, what I feel interesting here, is that the apoha theory leads its upholder to a sort of non-perceptive perception, that is, to a perception in which exactly what has not been directly ruled out emerges. Now, on account of saññā, this kind of non-perceptive perception makes it to recognize something not as an “itself” but as a “what the other things are not”. And this is an ingenious expedient for admitting that we know by means of sense contact and recognitions, but what we know is not something – that is: is not a self, ātman –, rather a no-thing – that is: the indirect “void” full of meaning emerging after the elimination of all other inappropriate possibilities.


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