Sparśa (P. phassa; T. reg pa རེག་པ་; C. chu; J. soku; K. ch'ok 觸) is translated as "contact", "touching", "sense impression", etc. It is defined as the coming together of three factors:
For example, sparsa ("contact") is said to occur at the coming together of
- the eye organ,
- a visual object, and
- the visual sense consciousness.
Sparsa is identified within the Abhidharma teachings as:
- The sixth link in the twelve links of dependent origination
- One of the seven universal mental factors in the Pali Abhidamma
- One of the five universal mental factors within the Abhidharma-samuccaya of the Sanskrit tradition
- One of the ten omnipresent mental factors within the Abhidharma-kosa of the Sanskrit tradition
Sparsa as a mental factor
- The word phassa is derived from the verb phusati, meaning “to touch,” but contact should not be understood as the mere physical impact of the object on the bodily faculty. It is, rather, the mental factor by which consciousness mentally “touches” the object that has appeared, thereby initiating the entire cognitive event. In terms of the fourfold defining device used in the Pali Commentaries, contact has the characteristic of touching. Its function is impingement, as it causes consciousness and the object to impinge. Its manifestation is the concurrence of consciousness, sense faculty, and object. Its proximate cause is an objective field that has come into focus.
The Atthasālinī (Expositor, Part IV, Chapter I, 108) states:
- 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.
Nina van Gorkom states:
- Phassa is manifested by coinciding or concurrence, namely, by the coinciding of three factors: physical base (vatthu), object 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.
Nina van Gorkom also states:
- 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 nāma, 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.
Geshe Tashi Tsering states:
- Contact is the first occurrence in a mental process. It is the simple act of mind meeting object. When you consider this, it is logical. How can a mind know an object without contact? To phone a friend you need to pick up the phone and dial a number. This mental factor is like the phone--its only function is to contact the object. Once contact is made, the next mental factor can note the characteristics of that object.
- Contact means something coming together. While the term contact is used in Gateway to Knowledge, rapport is the translation found in Mind in Buddhist Psychology. Rapport means that something is working together in a good way. Whether you say contact or rapport, both mean that there is the coming together, the meeting, or the working together of three aspects...
- It’s the coming together of...the sensory capacity or faculty (indriya), together with...the sensory field (alambana), and also...the perception, consciousness, or integrative capacity (vijnana). When there is rapport or contact, it supports the arising of a full experience. If there is any damage or defect in the rapport, there will not be an experience.
The Khenjuk states:
- Contact is the meeting of the three [object, sense faculty and consciousness] and the cognition of the faculty's [particular] event. It supports sensation (vedanā).
The Abhidharma-samuccaya states:
- What is sparsha (contact)? It is it determination, a transformation in the controlling power, which is in accordance with the three factors coming together. Its function is to provide it basis for vedanā.
The Necklace of Clear Understanding states:
- It is an awareness in which a pleasant [or unpleasant or neutral] feeling is felt when the object, sensory capacity, and cognitive process have come together and which is restricted to the appropriate object. Transformation in the controlling power means that when the visual sense meets a pleasant object [for example] and the feeling becomes the cause of adhering to this pleasure, [sparsha] restricts the pleasant color-form and the feeling becomes the cause of pleasure.
For example, when the ear sense and a sound object and the auditory consciousness come together – there is "contact".
Sparsa is the sixth of the twelve links of dependent origination. In this context:
- Sparsa arises in dependence on the six ayatanas (six internal sense bases)
- Sparsa is a condition for the arising of vedana (sensations)
Jeffrey Hopkins explains:
- Roughly speaking, [sparsha refers to] the coming together of an object, a sense organ, and a moment of consciousness. Hence contact, in the twelve links, refers to contact with a sense-object and the subsequent discrimination of the object as attractive, unattractive, or neutral. Sense objects are always present, and thus when a sense organ—the subtle matter that allows you to see, hear, and so forth—develops, an eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, or body consciousness will be produced.
Alexander Berzin provides an explanation of the sixth link in the context of the development of the fetus; he states:
- The sixth of the twelve links of dependent arising. The subsidiary awareness (mental factor) of contacting awareness [sparsha] during the period of time in the development of a fetus when the distinguishing aggregate and such other affecting variables as contacting awareness are functioning, but the feeling aggregate is not yet functioning. During this period, one experiences contacting awareness of objects as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, but does not feel happy, unhappy, or neutral in response to this.
Dan Lusthaus states:
- sparśa (P. phassa) - Literally 'touch' or 'sensory contact'. This term accured varied usages in later Indian thought, but here it simply means that the sense organs are 'in contact with' sensory objects. The circuit of intentionality, or to borrow Merleau-Ponty's term intentional arc, is operational. This term could be translated as 'sensation' as long as this is qualified as a constitutional, active process that is invariably contextualized within its psycho-cognitive dimensions. For Buddhists, sensation can neither be passive nor purely a pysical or neurological matter. When the proper sensorial conditions aggregate, i.e., come into contact with each other, sensation occurs. These proper conditions include a properly functioning sense organ and a cognitive-sensory object, which already presuppose a linguistically-complex conscious body (nāma-rūpa).
- Contact (Erik Pema Kusang, Jeffrey Hopkins, Nina van Gorkom)
- Contacting awareness (Alexander Berzin)
- Rapport (Herbert Guenther)
- Sensation (Dan Lusthaus)
- Sense impression
- Touch (Jeffrey Hopkins)
- Touching (Jeffrey Hopkins)
- Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. Contact.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Contact (phassa).
- van Gorkom 1999, Cetasikas, Cetasikas: Contact
- Geshe Tashi Tsering 2006, s.v. Contact.
- Goodman 2020, s.v. Contact/Rapport.
- Yeshe Gyeltsen 1975, s.v. Rapport [reg-pa].
- Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising, SN 12.2
- The sense organs develop in the fifth link of the Twelve Links.
- Dalai Lama (1992), p. 18 (from the Introduction by Jeffrey Hopkins)
- Definitions of Sparsha (Tibetan: reg-pa), Alexander Berzin
- Lusthaus 2003, p. 59.
- Berzin, Alexander (ed.), Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors, StudyBuddhism
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (2000), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
- Chim Jampaiyang (2019), Jinpa, Thupten, ed., Ornament of Abhidharma: A Commentary on Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa, translated by Coghlan, Ian James (Apple Books ed.), Library of Tibetan Classics
- Dalai Lama (1992). The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, 3 (Kindle ed.), Wisdom Publications
- Goodman, Steven D. (2020), The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening: An In-Depth Guide to the Abhidharma (Apple Books ed.), Shambhala Publications
- Lusthaus, Dan (2003), Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun, Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism
- Mipham Rinpoche (2004), Gateway to Knowledge, vol. I, translated by Kunsang, Erik Pema, Rangjung Yeshe Publications
- van Gorkom, Nina (1999), Cetasikas, Zolog
- Yeshe Gyeltsen (1975), Mind in Buddhist Psychology: A Translation of Ye-shes rgyal-mtshan's "The Necklace of Clear Understanding", translated by Guenther, Herbert V.; Kawamura, Leslie S., Dharma Publishing
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