by Ven. Ariyavaṃsa
cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. phassapaccayā vedanā.
In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling.
SN 35: 60
In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. But one might also say: “In dependence on eye-consciousness, the eye and forms arise”, because what is being referred to here is the simultaneous presence of, the juxtaposition of rūpa and viññāṇa out there. When there is matter, there must also be consciousness, since without consciousness there can be no experience whatsoever. Thus, matter requires, or is dependent upon, consciousness. But consciousness also requires matter. Since there can be no presence without that which is present, if there is consciousness there must also be that which there is consciousness of. To use Husserl’s terminology, consciousness is characterised by the quality of intentionality—it is a kind of ‘stretching forth’ or ‘being directed at’. When there is consciousness, something is there, something appears in one way or another (as actually present, as past, as possible, etc). This thereness or appearing is such a primitive and general notion that one cannot provide any more detail or explain it in terms of anything else. And since consciousness is nothing but the taking place of appearing—the presence of that which there is consciousness of—any attempt to find it will only lead one to that which there is consciousness of. The idea that one might encounter the presence of something without ipso facto finding that something whose presence it is is utterly inconceivable1. Thus, we can say: “In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness is there and in dependence upon eye-consciousness, the eye and forms are there.” With this, that is. With that, this is.
The opening quotation is quite clearly a teaching of profound importance and we find it in many places throughout the suttapiṭaka. In order to make sense of it, what must be understood is that the ‘forms’ which I see in this visual experience, and the ‘eye’ which manifests, are not ‘the eye and forms’ which the Buddha is talking about here. What he is actually referring to are the elements (dhātuyo) dependent upon which this experience of ‘I am seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking’ arises. The eye and forms (together with the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects and the mind and mental images) are the rūpa ‘below’ this experience which is that because of which there is this experience. Since the eye and forms are that because of which ‘I see things’, I cannot possibly see them. The same applies to the other sense bases, which collectively make up the all.
sabbaṃ vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi. taṃ suṇātha… kiñca, bhikkhave, sabbaṃ? cakkhuñceva rūpā ca, sotañceva saddā ca, ghānañceva gandhā ca, jivhā ceva rasā ca, kāyo ceva phoṭṭhabbā ca, mano ceva dhammā ca—idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, sabbaṃ. yo, bhikkhave, evaṃ vadeyya—‘ahametaṃ sabbaṃ paccakkhāya aññaṃ sabbaṃ paññapessāmī’ti, tassa vācāvatthukamevassa. puṭṭho ca na sampāyeyya. uttariñca vighātaṃ āpajjeyya. taṃ kissa hetu? yathā taṃ, bhikkhave, avisayasmin”ti.
Bhikkkus, I will teach you the all. Listen to that…. And what is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all. If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus: ‘Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all’—that would be a mere empty boast on his part. If he was questioned he would not be able to reply and, further, he would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, that would not be within his domain.
SN 35: 23
1. The eye…
The eye cannot be seen. Likewise for all the other sense bases: they can only appear in reflexion or externally by means of the other senses. Take, for example, this experience of standing here in front of this mirror. There is the eye which I see there in front of me—just one particular thing in this entire visual field—, there is the fleshly eye (maṃsacakkhu) which I touch with my finger, there is the imagined eye which I think I see with, and there is the internal eye, the eye by which there is seeing. One might assume that these four things are merely different manifestations of one and the same thing that exists out there in the objective general material world common to all. One might explain the fact that I know the eye in these different ways by pointing to my incomplete and biased view of the situation. However, this general objective world can only exist if there is a general objective consciousness shared by everyone, and this is quite clearly a countersense since consciousness and individuality are one (cf. Ñāṇavīra 2010: 84). Any attempt to move outside this individuality, this consciousness, in order to posit a general objective consciousness common to all is to attempt to find a God’s-eye view—what Spinoza referred to as sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). In the process of doing this, one takes up the attitude of the natural scientist and abandons the phenomenological perspective, ignoring or eliminating the individual point of view. This is what the Buddha means by “yathā taṃ, bhikkhave, avisayasmiṃ”—that is not in one’s domain. If one remains within one’s proper domain, with what actually appears—and everything must appear with a point of view2—, then one can only conclude that there is the simultaneous presence of the perception of a fleshly eye through touch, a perception of the reflected eye which I see in the mirror, a perception of that eye which I assume is there in my head, and the internal eye, which is the eye because of which there is seeing. No matter how hard one tries, that internal eye (along with the other five internal sense bases) cannot possibly be perceived as it actually is—i.e. internal.
One does not need right view in order to see this. One simply needs to be able to investigate one’s experience subjectively, in its first-person givenness. That is to say, one needs to be able to attend to experience in a phenomenological way. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the major phenomenologists of the twentieth century had similar insights. Consider the following passage by Sartre:
It is in this sense that we must take the famous statement of Auguste Comte: “The eye cannot see itself.” It would be inadmissible, indeed, that another organic structure, a contingent arrangement of our visual apparatus would enable a third eye to see our two eyes while they were seeing. Can I not see and touch my hand while it is touching? But then I shall be assuming the point of view of the Other with regards to my senses. I should be seeing eyes-as-objects; I cannot see the eye seeing; I cannot touch my hand as it is touching. Thus any sense in so far as it is-for-me is an inapprehensible; it is not the infinite collection of my sensations since I never encounter anything but objects in the world. On the other hand, if I assume a reflective point of view on my consciousness, I shall encounter my consciousness of this or that thing-in-the-world, not my visual or tactile sense; finally, if I can see or touch my sense organs, I have the revelation of pure objects in the world, not of a revealing or constructive activity. Nevertheless, the senses are there. There is sight, touch, hearing.
Sartre 2003: 340
We find a similar observation in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological study of perception:
My visual body is certainly an object as far as its parts far removed from my head are concerned, but as we come nearer to the eyes, it becomes divorced from objects, and reserves among them a quasi-space to which they have no access, and when I try to fill this void by recourse to the image in the mirror, it refers me back to an original of the body which is not out there among things, but in my own province, on this side of all things seen. It is no different, in spite of what may appear to be the case, with my tactile body, for if I can, with my left hand, feel my right hand as it touches an object, the right hand as an object is not the right hand as it touches: the first is a system of bones, muscle and flesh brought down at a point of space, the second shoots through space like a rocket to reveal the external object in its place. In so far as it sees or touches the world, my body can therefore be neither seen nor touched. What prevents its ever being an object, ever being ‘completely constituted’ is that it is that by which there are objects. It is neither tangible nor visible in so far as it is that which sees and touches. The body therefore is not one more among external objects, with the peculiarity of always being there.
Merleau-Ponty 2002: 105
2. The eye and forms …
But to say that the eye is “an inapprehensible given” (Sartre: 2003: 351) does not mean that we should think of this experience of seeing as involving the manifestation of all forms minus the eye (and mutatis mutandis for the other senses). Despite what we might think, it is not the actual forms themselves which are seen. Rather, what actually appears is something other than the internal and external senses. What appears is nāma. To illustrate: one might assume that the presence of the squawk means that I can hear the pheasant outside my kuṭi. But it is not the pheasant which appears. It is the perception, the sound of the pheasant. So how do I get to the actual pheasant? If I open the door and look out, although I will see it there, I still don’t ‘have’ the pheasant. Now the sight of the pheasant, this visual perception is manifest. But which is the pheasant: the sound or the sight? Even if I were to pick him up, roast him over a fire and then eat him—all that would appear are the perceptions of touch, smell and taste. It is as if that which is the pheasant will always remain out of reach. Well, then,—one might think—if it isn’t given through these perceptions, then perhaps the thing which is the pheasant is some kind of entity over and above all of these perceptual manifestations, or some kind of synthesis of them. But all that one will find by entertaining such thoughts are simply thoughts—i.e. mental perceptions which have arisen dependent upon the mental faculty mano. Rūpa cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or even thought about. Rūpa is not perceived. Perceptions are perceived, feelings are felt and intentions are intended. All that we can say about matter is that it matters (Ñāṇamoli 2014: 46). Rūpa is the material basis because of which those perceptions, feelings and intentions are there. When one thinks: “That which I see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think about is the actual matter that exists out there in the world”, one conceives rūpa as being something (rūpe… sadde… gandhe… phoṭṭhabbe… dhamme maññati; c.f. SN 35: 31)—thereby misunderstanding it. Any image whatsoever that one has about what rūpa is—that is not rūpa.
sabbamaññitasamugghātasāruppaṃ vo, bhikkhave, paṭipadaṃ desessāmi. taṃ suṇātha, sādhukaṃ manasi karotha; bhāsissāmīti. katamā ca sā, bhikkhave, sabbamaññitasamugghātasāruppā paṭipadā? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu … sabbaṃ na maññati, sabbasmiṃ na maññati, sabbato na maññati, sabbaṃ meti na maññati.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the way appropriate for the uprooting of conceivings. Listen to this, attend carefully, I will speak. And what, bhikkhus, is the way appropriate for the uprooting of conceivings? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu … does not conceive the all, does not conceive in the all, does not conceive from the all, does not conceive: ‘the all is mine’.
SN 35: 30
yañhi, bhikkhave, maññati, yasmiṃ maññati, yato maññati, yaṃ meti maññati, tato taṃ hoti aññathā. aññathābhāvī bhavasatto loko bhavamevābhinandati.
Whatever one conceives, whatever one conceives in, whatever one conceives from, whatever one conceives as ‘mine’, that is otherwise from that. Being otherwise, the world of existing beings merely delights in existence.
SN 35: 31
3. The eye, forms and eye-consciousness…
The Buddha refers to the internal sense bases and the external sense bases as “elements” (dhātu), but he did not use the term dhātu for only the eye and forms. He also refers to eye-consciousness as an element. This is because the experience of ‘I am seeing, etc.’ requires not only an eye and forms, but also eye-consciousness. The technical term ‘contact’ (phassa) does not refer to the direct contact between the eye and forms (as the common translation “sense impressions” might imply). It is not the meeting of the two elements: the eye and forms. Rather, it is the meeting of the three elements: eye, forms and eye-consciousness (and likewise for the other senses).
aṭṭhārasa kho imā, ānanda, dhātuyo—cakkhudhātu, rūpadhātu, cakkhuviññāṇadhātu; sotadhātu, saddadhātu, sotaviññāṇadhātu; ghānadhātu, gandhadhātu, ghānaviññāṇadhātu; jivhādhātu, rasadhātu, jivhāviññāṇadhātu; kāyadhātu, phoṭṭhabbadhātu, kāyaviññāṇadhātu; manodhātu, dhammadhātu, manoviññāṇadhātu. imā kho, ānanda, aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo yato jānāti passati—ettāvatāpi kho, ānanda, ‘dhātukusalo bhikkhū’ti
There are, Ānanda, these eighteen elements: the eye element, the form element, the eye-consciousness element; the ear element, the sound element, the ear-consciousness element; the nose element, the smell element, the nose-consciousness element; the tongue element, the taste element, the tongue-consciousness element; the body element, the tangible element, the body-consciousness element; the mind element, the mind-object element, the mind-consciousness element. When he knows and sees these eighteen elements, a bhikkhu can be called skilled in the elements.
So, what does this mean? Why are the eye, forms and eye-consciousness, etc. collectively referred to as aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo—the eighteen elements? The answer is there in the name: they are elemental, or pre-phenomenal. They cannot be found within the experience but are all required for that experience to be there. Eye-consciousness should not be regarded as ‘seeing’ or ‘the presence of visible phenomena’. Rather, eye-consciousness is the very presence of that eye and those forms there—which there must be because I can see. It is called eye-consciousness because both the eye and forms are part of that domain—the domain that extends across positive forms to the negative eye and which has nothing whatsoever to do with, for example, sounds and the ear (except for the fact that they are both simultaneously present). The rūpa is there, that I can be sure of—even if I cannot possibly perceive it—since it is that because of which this perception is there. Thus, I can say that the matter is conscious: rūpa is present. Matter is there. But since I know this, I also know that consciousness is there too, together with that matter. But of course both of these are utterly inaccessible in the normal sense. Neither of them can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or even imagined, since they are that because of which I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch and imagine things. Any attempt to find rūpa and viññāṇa must be abandoned since they lie completely outside the feelings and perceptions and intentions which have appeared. Paradoxically, this is the only way in which they will be known, because even though I cannot perceive, feel or intend either rūpa or viññāṇa, as the Buddha tells us, there is a way in which they can both be recognized as being there. There can be what he calls a direct knowing.
cakkhuṃ… rūpā… cakkhuviññāṇaṃ… cakkhusamphasso… yampidaṃ cakkhusamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi abhiññeyyaṃ.
The eye… forms… eye-consciousness… eye-contact… whatever arises with eye-contact as condition, felt as pleasant, painful or neither-pleasant-nor-painful, that should be directly known.
SN 35: 46
This direct knowing, very different from thinking, conceptualising or imagining (i.e. perceiving as a mental image), is a kind of recognition of that which is there as it has actually manifested3—even if the way it actually is is pre-phenomenal, completely exterior and utterly inconceivable. Although the eye, forms and eye-consciousness cannot be reached by conceiving them, they can be known and recognized as being there. In fact, I know that they must be there. Why? Because things have appeared. Because of nāma. Thus we can say that the appearance (nāma) discloses the presence (viññāṇa) of matter (rūpa).
The problem for the puthujjana, then, lies in the fact that he expects to find himself (i.e. the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind), and all of things that make up his world, in that world. His problem is twofold. Not only does he assume that he has direct experience of that because of which there is this experience, he also misunderstands what the world actually is. For him, the world is nothing but the phenomenal experience of perceptions, feelings and intentions. In other words, he assumes that the world is entirely included in whatever arises dependent upon contact: the perceptions of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and ideas, felt as pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant (see Figure 1). The Buddha tells us that this is not the world for one with right view.
What the puthujjana does not understand is that the ground of this phenomenal experience—that because of which this experience is there—will not be found within this experience. To understand this he must widen his view.
yaṃ kho, ānanda, palokadhammaṃ, ayaṃ vuccati ariyassa vinaye loko. kiñca, ānanda, palokadhammaṃ? cakkhu kho, ānanda, palokadhammaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇaṃ palokadhammaṃ, cakkhusamphasso palokadhammo, yampidaṃ cakkhusamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi palokadhammaṃ.
Whatever is subject to disintegration, Ānanda, is called ‘world’ in the Noble One’s Discipline. And what is subject to disintegration? The eye, Ānanda, is subject to disintegration, forms… eye-consciousness… eye-contact… whatever arises dependent on eye-contact felt as pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor pleasant, that too is subject to disintegration.
SN 35: 84
Whereas the puthujjana takes “whatever arises dependent on eye-contact felt as pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor pleasant” to be the world, the sutavā ariyasāvaka understands that the world is more than this and includes the negative aspect—it includes the eighteen elements. For him, the world includes that because of which there is a world. This is what Venerable Ānanda was referring to in SN 35: 116, after being asked by a group of bhikkhus to explain the meaning of a brief synopsis by the Buddha about the world.
yena kho, āvuso, lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī — ayaṃ vuccati ariyassa vinaye loko. kena cāvuso, lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī? cakkhunā kho, āvuso, lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī. sotena kho, āvuso… ghānena kho, āvuso… jivhāya kho, āvuso, lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī. kāyena kho, āvuso… manena kho, āvuso, lokasmiṃ lokasaññī hoti lokamānī.
That in the world, friend, by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world—that is called ‘world’ in the Noble One’s Discipline. And what, friend, is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world? The eye … the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the mind, friend, is that in the world by which one is a perceiver and conceiver of the world.
SN 35: 116
We are now in a position to turn our attention to the issue of phassa: contact. In the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta Sāriputta tells us that contact is included in nāma.
vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro—idaṃ vuccatāvuso, nāmaṃ
Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention—these, friend, are called nāma.
Appearances involve contact. This way in which things have appeared to me, this experience of phenomena which I perceive, feel, intend,—this is what is meant by contact. It is this experience of ‘I am seeing’ (or ‘I am feeling’ or ‘I am intending’, etc). It is this phenomenal experience which is based upon the assumption that those elements which are that because of which this experience is there can be found within that experience. If this assumption is abandoned and I stop looking for, stop expecting to find the ground of the experience within that very experience, then contact cannot have any footing. The three elements of the eye, forms and eye-consciousness are no longer seen as being part of one thing. They are recognised as being three things which are juxtaposed and completely beyond my grasp from within the domain of what I call ‘normal experience’. When I do not distinguish between rūpa, nāma and viññāṇa and fail to see the juxtaposition of rūpa and viññāṇa, revealed through nāma, then it is all taken as one thing, one centre (my self) that experiences this and that. This is contact.
Contact, then, is this experience of ‘I see, etc.’ It is the phenomenal experience which is based on the assumption that my eye (i.e. ‘I’) sees those forms. Contact always takes the form of my contact. The eye, the forms and eye-consciousness are taken as one thing—namely, this phenomenal experience of being-a-self-in-the-world. The puthujjana assumes that that which is experienced includes that because of which that experience is there. He assumes that he experiences things because he exists in the world. And so the experience is misunderstood. His attitude towards the experience is utterly misconceived, grasped the wrong way. What he must do is keep recognising that this experience is there because there is also that which is also there which can never be accessed within that experience.
When one thinks: “There is also that because of which this experience is there”, one must recognise that this is a thought and, as such, it is not that because of which that thought is there. When one thinks: “There is that which is inaccessible”, it must be recognised that this is also a thought and, as such, it has been accessed. The rūpa that one thinks when thinking “rūpa must be there” is a perception and must not be taken as standing for that because of which that perception is there. Rūpa and viññāṇa will always remain below one’s feet, no matter how hard one tries to get to it. To try to access that which cannot possibly be accessed will only result in fatigue and vexation. This is dukkha. Knowing this, one makes the effort, again and again, to undo the habit of expecting to find them either here or yonder or between the two. By cultivating this understanding, one turns away from the eye, forms, eye-consciousness, etc. One turns away from the all. This turning away is the beginning of dispassion.
cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. phassapaccayā vedanā. evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako cakkhusmimpi nibbindati, rūpesupi nibbindati, cakkhuviññāṇepi nibbindati, cakkhusamphassepi nibbindati, vedanāyapi nibbindati. nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati; vimokkhā ‘pariyādinnaṃ me upādāna’nti pajānāti.
In dependence on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, feeling. Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple gets wearied of the eye, gets wearied of forms, gets wearied of eye-consciousness, gets wearied of eye-contact, gets wearied of feeling. Being wearied, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion one is liberated. Being liberated, one understands: “My assumptions have been fully exhausted.”
SN 35: 61
It is in this way that that one develops the understanding that this sense of self, this assumption that I exist in this world—an assumption which can only manifest within the domain of the six senses—, can only be there because of the eighteen elements, which are entirely beyond my grasp and outside of my control. That is to say, one develops the understanding that this sense of self which I now find in this experience-as-a-whole is completely dependent upon that which is not-self. Thus, one learns to stop trying to appropriate that which cannot possibly be appropriated. In other words: one learns to put an end to suffering.
All of this should perhaps help to explain why the Buddha places so much importance on knowing-and-seeing (ñāṇadassana) and on understanding. It is by cultivating direct knowledge of the all (the eye, forms, eye-consciousness, etc.) that one can fully understand the nature of this experience and all of our assumptions in regard to it; and it is through direct knowledge and full understanding that one abandons the all.
sabbaṃ abhiññā pariññā pahānāya vo, bhikkhave, dhammaṃ desessāmi. taṃ suṇātha. katamo ca, bhikkhave, sabbaṃ abhiññā pariññā pahānāya dhammo? cakkhuṃ… rūpā… cakkhuviññāṇaṃ… cakkhusamphasso… yampidaṃ cakkhusamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi abhiññā pariññā pahātabbaṃ.
Bhikkhus, I will teach you the thing for abandoning the all through direct knowledge and full understanding. Listen to that. And what, bhikkhus, is the thing for abandoning the all through direct knowledge and full understanding? The eye… forms… eye-consciousness… eye-contact… whatever arises dependent on eye-contact felt as pleasant, painful or neither-painful-nor pleasant, that should be abandoned by direct knowledge and full understanding.
SN 35: 25
Indeed, it is only when this understanding is being developed that one can say that one is practising in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching.
yo hi koci, bhikkhave, bhikkhu channaṃ phassāyatanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. avusitaṃ tena brahmacariyaṃ, ārakā so imasmā dhammavinayā.
Bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu does not understand as they really are the origin, the passing away, the gratification, the danger, and the escape in the case of these six bases for contact, then he has not lived the holy life; he is far away from this Dhamma and Discipline.
SN 35: 71
The Buddha’s teaching, then, should be seen as a tool that we should use to cultivate sammādiṭṭhi (right view). It should be seen as a kind of right-view-guidance, designed to show us how we should regard this experience. If we can learn to regard this experience in the right way, if we can see it in the way that the Buddha encourages his disciples to see it in the suttas (contrary to all of our assumptions about how we think things actually are), then we can learn to know it directly, see it as it really is, and in such a way we can develop a full understanding of it. In doing this, we abandon it. It is only when the twelve sense bases (both internal and external) are abandoned, that one can experience real freedom from suffering. The cessation of the sense bases means the cessation of existence as we know it—the complete destruction of this state of being-in-the-world—and this is nothing other than the cessation of suffering.
yo, bhikkhave, cakkhussa (sotassa… ghānassa… jivhāya… kāyassa… manassa…) uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo, rogānaṃ ṭhiti, jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo… yo ca kho, bhikkhave, cakkhussa (… pe…) nirodho vūpasamo atthaṅgamo, dukkhasseso nirodho, rogānaṃ vūpasamo, jarāmaraṇassa atthaṅgamo.
Bhikkhus, the arising, continuation, birth and manifestation of the eye (ear… nose… tongue… body… mind…) is the arising of suffering, the continuation of diseases, the manifestation of aging-and-death… Bhikkhus, the cessation, the subsiding, the setting down of the eye (etc.) is the cessation of suffering, the subsiding of diseases, the setting down of aging-and-death.
SN 35: 21
yo, bhikkhave, rūpānaṃ (… saddānaṃ… gandhānaṃ… rasānaṃ… phoṭṭhabbānaṃ… dhammānaṃ…) uppādo ṭhiti abhinibbatti pātubhāvo, dukkhasseso uppādo, rogānaṃ ṭhiti, jarāmaraṇassa pātubhāvo. yo ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpānaṃ (… pe…) nirodho vūpasamo atthaṅgamo, dukkhasseso nirodho, rogānaṃ vūpasamo, jarāmaraṇassa atthaṅgamo.
Bhikkhus, the arising, continuation, birth and manifestation of forms (sounds… smells… tastes… tactile objects… mental images…) is the arising of suffering, the continuation of diseases, the manifestation of aging-and-death… Bhikkhus, the cessation, the subsiding, the setting down of forms (etc.) is the cessation of suffering, the subsiding of diseases, the setting down of aging-and-death.
SN 35: 22
It is in this way that we should understand the following teaching by Venerable Udāyī:
cakkhusmiṃ kho, bhagini, sati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ paññapenti, cakkhusmiṃ asati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ na paññapenti … pe … jivhāya sati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ paññapenti, jivhāya asati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ na paññapenti … pe …. manasmiṃ sati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ paññapenti, manasmiṃ asati arahanto sukhadukkhaṃ na paññapentī”ti.
Sister, when the eye exists, the arahats declare pleasure-and-pain; when the eye does not exist, the arahats do not declare pleasure-and-pain. When the ear … nose … tongue … body … mind exists, the arahats declare pleasure-and-pain; when the mind does not exist, the arahats do not declare pleasure-and-pain.
SN 35: 133
5. Bāhiya and the cessation of contact
Before we conclude this study of phassa, let us take a look at the teaching which the Buddha famously gave to Bāhiya in the well-known Bāhiya Sutta (Ud 1: 10).
tasmātiha te, bāhiya, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ — ‘diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṃ bhavissati, sute sutamattaṃ bhavissati, mute mutamattaṃ bhavissati, viññāte viññātamattaṃ bhavissatī’ti. evañhi te, bāhiya, sikkhitabbaṃ. yato kho te, bāhiya, diṭṭhe diṭṭhamattaṃ bhavissati, sute sutamattaṃ bhavissati, mute mutamattaṃ bhavissati, viññāte viññātamattaṃ bhavissati, tato tvaṃ, bāhiya, na tena; yato tvaṃ, bāhiya, na tena tato tvaṃ, bāhiya, na tattha; yato tvaṃ, bāhiya, na tattha, tato tvaṃ, bāhiya, nevidha na huraṃ na ubhayamantarena. esevanto dukkhassā.
Then, Bāhiya, you should train thus: ‘In the seen there shall be just the seen; in the heard there shall be just the heard; in the sensed there shall be just the sensed; in the imagined there shall be just the imagined’—thus, Bāhiya, should you train yourself. When, Bāhiya, for you, in the seen there shall be just the seen… imagined, then, Bāhiya, you (will) not (be) that by which; when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) that by which, then, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) there; when, Bāhiya, you (shall) not (be) there, then, Bāhiya, you (will) neither (be) here nor yonder nor between the two: just this is the end of suffering.
Ud 1: 10
We might find it helpful to represent this schematically thus:
The sutta goes on to tell us that by hearing this teaching, right then and there Bāhiya attained arahattaphala. From this, we must assume that Bāhiya was already a very subtle thinker (Ñāṇavīra 2010: 440). He was apparently authentic enough to recognise in his own subjective experience what the Buddha was pointing at. One might say that he was well-versed in thinking phenomenologically. He already knew that by bracketing off the natural attitude (i.e. suspending any beliefs or assumptions that there is a world of phenomena out there that exists independently of his experience of it) he can attend to the appearance of phenomena. Thanks to Husserl, we are now able to refer to this process of putting the natural attitude ‘out of play’ as the epochē. It is by doing this that one can develop the following insight: something has appeared. Whether it is the most profound or sublime meditative state, or the most mundane occurrence of everyday life, whether it is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—something has appeared.
Now, to those not accustomed to the phenomenological method, this statement might sound so obvious and self-evident that it is trivial, but it only seems obvious if one assumes that one lives in a world which should not be questioned. The appearance of things is always taken for granted in the natural attitude. However, if one develops the capacity to attend to experience phenomenologically one sees the assumption inherent in the natural attitude as such and begins to see the contingency of experience. Things have appeared but they might as well not have done.4 It is by developing this appreciation of the gratuitous appearance of things that one starts to recognise that because of which (or that by which) they are there. As we have seen, all that has appeared has appeared dependent upon the aṭṭhārasa dhātuyo. Therefore, all that can appear is the seen, the heard, the “sensed” (i.e. the smelled, the tasted and the touched) and the imagined.5 Nothing else. That means that if Bāhiya tries to find the internal senses in his experience, all he will find is that which is dependent upon the internal senses, since that is all that can possibly appear. If this is understood, he will stop looking for the internal sense base, which means that any assumption regarding the existence of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind will be abandoned. They will cease to exist.6 This means that he will no longer be that by which since that by which is no longer to be found in the realm of Being. The seen is seen by that which cannot possibly be regarded as self since it is completely beyond his grasp. And if he understands that it is not he who sees the seen, then he cannot possibly appear anywhere in the whole of this experience. Everything that is there is either not-self or dependent upon that which is not-self—and anything which has arisen dependent upon that which is not-self cannot possibly be regarded as self. Understanding this, he will know that there is nowhere in the experience-as-a-whole for self to remain. He will not find it there. And if it is nowhere there, it cannot be found anywhere within that there—neither here (the internal sense base), nor yonder (the external sense base), nor between-the-two (that which appears).
It was by fully understanding this and abandoning all of the assumptions that he had been holding in regards to his experience that his mind was liberated from the āsavas and Bāhiya was one of the arahats.
References from Pali Canon
MN Majjhima Nikāya
SN Saṃyutta Nikāya
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002) Phenomenology of Perception (trans. C. Smith). Oxon: Routledge Classics.
Ñāṇamoli, N. (2014) Meanings. Path Press Publications.
Ñāṇavīra (2010) Clearing the Path. Path Press Publications.
Nietszche, F. (1967) On the Genealogy of Morals (trans. W. Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale). New York: Vintage Books.
Sartre, J.-P. (1965) Nausea. London: Penguin.
Sartre, J.-P. (2003) Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology (trans. H. Barnes). Oxon: Routledge Classics.
1 We often hear people talk about “pure subjectivity” or “bare awareness”. Such notions are pure fiction since that very idea of a phenomenonless presence is itself a phenomenon which is present.
2 “We demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking;… There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing.’” (Nietzsche 1967: 119)
3 yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya sudiṭṭhaṃ (clearly seen as it really is with correct wisdom)—e.g. SN 12: 68
4 Sartre had much say about this and coined the term “de trop” to refer to this contingency of existence. In Being and Nothingness, he writes: “in so far as this for-itself as such could also not be, it has all the contingency of fact. Just as my nihilating freedom is apprehended in anguish, so the for-itself is conscious of its facticity. It has the feeling of its complete gratuity; it apprehends itself as being there for nothing, as being de trop” (Sartre 2003: 108). And in Nausea: “’I was just thinking,’ I tell him, laughing, ‘that here we are, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence, and that there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing’” (Sartre 1965: 162).
5 viññāte is the locative form of the past participle viññāta, which can be used to mean “the cognized” in relation to viññāṇa (i.e. that which one is conscious of). See for example MN 43 §4. However, we also find it being used to refer to that which manifests by means of mano (i.e. “the thought” or “the imagined”). It is in this latter sense that it is used here, as can be seen from the earlier part of this same sutta (SN 35: 95) where the Buddha says: ye te manoviññeyyā dhammā aviññātā (those mental phenomena cognizable by the mental faculty which you have not imagined).
6 upādānanirodhā bhavanirodho (with the cessation of assuming, the cessation of existence)—e.g. SN 12: 1