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Paticca Samuppada - Ayatana + Phassa

The two links of Ayatana and Phassa have been combined here because they share the same, if not even stronger, interdependant relationship that nama-rupa does. Also ayatana is implicit in nama-rupa and in the Mahanidana sutta (Digha ii,2) we find the links of dependant arising go from namarupa directly to phassa with no mention of ayatana.
The term 'ayatana' has a broad range of meanings...
extent, region; sphere, locus, place; position, occasion
exertion, doing, working, practice
sphere of perception or sense in general, object of thought, sense-organ
It is this last definition that mainly interests us in relation to paticca samuppada [P.S.] and the nav bar heading should be sal-ayatana where 'sal' is Pali for six.
"There are these six bases: the eye-base, the ear-base, the nose-base, the tongue-base, the body-base, the mind-base. With the arising of nama-rupa there is the arising of the sixfold base. With the cessation of nama-rupa there is the cessation of the sixfold base." Majjhima 9
There are actually 12 'spheres' or 'bases' on which the mental process depends: the five physical sense-organs plus the mind-base (the six personal bases) and the six objects (the so-called external bases; sight-object etc.). It is important to note that the external bases are not the physical, bodily things but what impinges on or is 'offered to' the personal bases; eg. in the case of the eye: colors, differences of light, etc. The last personal base, mind-base = manayatana and is a collective term for all consciousness. Mano + ayatana. This gets a bit tricky and you could explore the difference between viññana (consciousness) and mano (mentality) and citta (heart-mind) [  ]. Mano primarily deals with the intellectual functioning of consciousness so manayatana is in effect 'the boss' of the other five more simple senses although its "intellectual capacity" is limited with there being 'higher,' more evolved forms of mano.
Our previous, broad definition of viññana had:
"When there is the sense-object, the sense-organ (in working order) and contact between the two, this three-fold union (object, organ, contact) is the arising of consciousness."
The critical distinction here is that our earlier discussion of viññana focussed on the bhavanga-citta, a kind of sub-consciousness that, at that point in the chain, has no (formed) subject, has no (formed) identity, no (formed) "I" within it. It is the seed of nama-rupa which in turn primes the senses, sets them up ready for contact.
So, building on our example in nama-rupa. Someone insults you, aspects of body-mind are stimulated (awakened, 'born') and this activates ayatana of which manayatana is general overseer. The information so far offered to you (the insults; tone of voice, body language, etc) we can think of as the collective external bases - in effect this is nama-rupa which manayatana receives and evolves. Bear in mind that both nama and rupa are limited and contextual; we are dealing with specific characteristics of phenomenon - their behaviour and appearance - essentially offered to us through the distorting lens of avijja. So, we believe (think, imagine, perceive, feel, etc) the person insulting us said: "Blah boop pinch the macked gringle badly you did." Even if they did literally say those words what manayatana "intellectualises" is too often something like: "Your nose is a strawberry and your mother is defective." The word 'your' is key here because this whole P.S. chain is activated by avijja which has at its core the belief in an essential self - a me. We take it all personally. So, ayatana arises in subjection, the senses are appropriated, they are (held to be) mine. They are in effect the substantiation, the proof of my me-ness; it is through my eyes (here) that I see (hear, smell, etc.) you (out there). This relative relationship - through the senses - of me and things is phassa.



coming together
Phassa is from phusati to touch but it doesn't refer literally to physical contact. When the eye 'contacts' a visual object it obviously doesn't touch it. A better way of thinking is sense-impression, or coming-together - although we can generally use the word 'contact' for convenience.
"There are 6 classes of sense-impression: visual impression (cakkhu-samphassa), impressions of hearing, smelling, tasting, bodily (tactile) impression and mental impression" Majjhima 9
We can see from this that phassa is invariably bound with salayatana. It is also integral to sankhara and nama and is one of the four nutriments (of life) so it is clear that in the P.S. chain we have previously made contact but that the impression has been 'formative' until now. This phase of the unfolding 'experience' is more conscious and directly observable but still has a relative nature. Experience is multi-sense based - multi-media if you like - and, following our example of being insulted, the eye-ear media are dominant and you may not notice the taste of the mint you are sucking (not a sucker? good for you :) So the previous (dominant) factors are finally formed, they come-together, - via manayatana - and give rise to feeling.

The issue of self or ego is relevant at each stage of P.S. but we can give it particular consideration here in relation to phassa and the nature of experience. For the enlightened person experience is not based on avijja but clearly there is still a conscious, 'six-based' body and... other phenomena - basically whatever is not one's body. Both are essentially objective in experience. However, for the unenlightened person, there is a strong 'aroma' of subjectivity that arises and the experience will naturally tend to be attributed to the body - my body. Phassa then becomes an experience between subject and object (me contacting it), and not an open relationship between eye, forms, and eye-consciousness. P.S. is often encountered in reverse - pointing to cessation; "cessation of death = cessation of birth... with the cessation of contact there is cessation of sense-impression... etc.. The question often arises: "how do we not contact? not feel?" and an interpretation of nihilism can take shape from here. It is important to see that it is not the cessation (or death) of the eye itself, or the body, or feelings and it is critical to remember that P.S. is all about "paccaya" - supporting conditions. The essential supporting condition is avijja - not-knowing - or wrongly believing that "I am" - the five khanda. Once we remove this condition, the subjective-objective view, the whole P.S. structure dissolves - it is the end of dukkha, and contact with the world is no longer a 'sticky' affair but a free flowing, natural process. Joy can arise, happiness can arise, rapture, etc., but they are still always dependant (on their various supporting conditions) and they can not be owned or controlled. More on this in vedana-tanha.

On a more direct level you can easily observe that when the eye (sense-base) contacts the sweet pastry (phassa) there is a feeling. The contact is still only an 'impression' - your fingers are not yet sticky. The eyes can be averted - the contact redirected. Different contact - perhaps even a different sense base - gives rise to a different feeling. Put on some music and your diet may be saved. This is not transcending avijja but is nevertheless undermining the habitual tendencies that feed avijja. It is a (small) step toward freedom. Journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.