Vedanānupassanā: The notion and its practical value

As it is described by the Buddha in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, there are four areas of our experience to direct our attention and recognize for ourselves the true nature of the world we live in. These areas or foundations are: kāya, vedanā, citta and dhammā. The first and the last ones are very well explained in the Sutta, while the instructions for practicing the two middle ones are considerably shorter. That’s probably the reason why they attract much less attention among researchers as well as practitioners. For example, in a work on satipaṭṭhana by Sayadaw U Sīlānanda, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, there are only six pages dedicated to the contemplation of vedanā and only two pages for contemplation of citta. On the the other hand, contemplation of kāya is extensively discussed 54 pages and contemplation of dhammas is 44 pages long. This obvious disproportion was intriguing enough for me to chose this topic of this essay, with an intention, first, to explore the exact meaning of the term vedanā and second, to analyze its application in the framework of the specific type of the Buddhist meditation called vedanānupassanā.

In the West, the term vedanā has been, for last 150 years or so, mostly translated as “feeling” or “sensation”. This fact is interesting for three reasons: (1) the meaning of these two terms is not identical; (2) the second one is so vague that, depending on context, it can mean too many things; and (3) neither of them translates properly the real meaning of the term vedanā. While the problem with “feeling” is its vagueness, in the case of “sensation” it seems we are considerably off the mark:

“If a sensation is ‘an impression produced by impulses conveyed by an afferent nerve to the sensorium’ – so a standard medical definition – then such an impulse is rather the precursor of vedanā, rather than vedanā proper, and would, in Buddhist terms, be part of the process called ‘contact’ (phassa) or, more precisely, ‘a tangible’ (phoṭṭhabba). While the contemplation of bodily tangibles and somatic experiences is central to the practice of establishing mindfulness, such practices have their own place in the Satipaṭṭhāna schema under the heading of contemplation of body (kāyanānupassanā), from which the contemplation of feeling-tones (vedanā) are explicitly differentiated.”1

So in the first case vedanā is included into the affective tone of an experience (e.g. ‘feeling’, ‘emotion’) and in the other it is identified it with a felt somatic quality (‘sensation’). It seems that the proper place of vedanā is exactly in between these two events: sense impingement and emotional reaction. Therefore, both translations miss vedanā’s crucial quality – the mind’s evaluative response to experience on an axis of pleasure, indifference and displeasure.

Recently, several authors, including N.R. Reat, P. De Silva and Bhikkhu Analayo, have suggested translating vedanā as “hedonic tone”. However, some other opted for an “affective tone”. All this itself is a good indicator that English vocabulary doesn’t have appropriate word to pinpoint the exact meaning of the Pāli term. Therefore, I choose to stay with vedanā in the rest of this essay, except in citations, of course.

Let us now try to unpack the actual meaning of the term, at least according to the Buddha’s teachings. We can start with the Buddha’s intriguing claim in the Mūlaka Sutta (AN 8:83): “Friends, all things… converge upon feeling.”2 Having in mind such a central position of vedanā in the life of every human being makes it much easier to understand why exactly it got its place among four foundations of mindfulness.

The term vedanā itself is derived from the root √vid and the verb vedeti, which means both “to feel” and “to know”. This indicates that vedanā may have a role in the cognition process. It makes for its affective part, what we sometimes call “intuition”. Therefore, we usually refer to feelings as this type a vague level of knowledge, by saying: “I have a feeling I shouldn’t do that” or “I have an unsettling feeling about that person”. On the other hand, although vedanā strongly influences the arising of emotions, these are not included in its range of meaning. We can say that vedanās are rather rudimentary elements which contribute to the appearance of such a complex phenomenon as an emotion. Thus, emotions are rather the domain of the next satipaṭṭhana, contempation of the dhammas.

Besides, vedanā is used widely in various contexts across the Pāli Canon, in all three Piṭakas. The analysis of that use shows that vedanā coprises both bodily and mental phenomena. It is also one of the key factors of the mind, since it gives flavor, taste or tone to any experienced event. Thus it covers the whole spectrum from pain (dukkha) to pleasure (sukha) and all in between. But at the same time, it is obviously not the objective property of an event or experience, but entirely the subjective quality of our consciousness.

Among the various contexts vedanā figures in the Canon, for our discussion two of these are the most prominent. One is the Buddha’s analysis of the five components (sankharā) constituting an individual being. Following kāya (body), as the only member of the rūpa group, vedanā is the first among arūpa khandhas, accompanied by sañña (perception), sankhāra (mental formation) and viññāna (consciousness). In the Pāli Canon many different types of vedanā are listed. For example, in the Vedanā Saṃyutta (SN 36) it is said that they are of two kinds: bodily and mental. Also of three kinds: pleasant, painful and neither-painful-nor-pleasant. The list continues with five kinds of vedanā: pleasure, pain, joy, displeasure and equanimity. Than come six kinds: the vedanā born from eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact and the vedanā born from mind-contact. As this analysis becomes more and more complex, there follow lists of eighteen, thirty six and finally hundred and eight vedanās.

As for the paṭicca-samuppāda schema, vedanā‘s predecessor in the chain of events is contact (phassa), described as a purely sensory event occurring at the moment when a sense organ, its object and the corresponding consciousness meet together: e.g. eye, visible object and eye-consciousness. Contact of these three coming together gives rise to a vedanā. Thus it is obvious that vedanā is not a mere sensory event, but one step further on in the process, which usually continues with the arising of desire (tanhā) and than grasping and identification (upādāna). And exactly at this link between vedanā and tanhā the chain of dependent origination of suffering is the weakest and should be broken.

The fact that vedanā figures in two of the key teachings very well illustrates its great importance in the Buddha’s analysis of the reality. Therefore, as already stated, it doesn’t come as a surprise that vedanā is listed as one of the satipaṭṭhanas, to which we are now directing our attention.

At the outset, let‘s get to the Buddha’s instructions in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, on how to practice vedanānupassanā, how to be fully aware of the various types of pleasant, painful and also neutral vedanās we experience throughout the day:

“And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu abide contemplating feelings as feelings? Here, when feeling a pleasant feeling, a bhikkhu understands: ‘I feel a pleasant feeling’; when feeling a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a painful feeling’; when feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’ When feeling a worldly pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly pleasant feeling’; when feeling an unworldly pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly pleasant feeling’; when feeling a worldly painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly painful feeling’; when feeling an unworldly painful feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly painful feeling’; when feeling a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling’; when feeling an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he understands: ‘I feel an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.’

In this way he abides contemplating feelings as feelings internally, or he abides contemplating feelings as feelings externally, or he abides contemplating feelings as feelings both internally and externally. Or else he abides contemplating in feelings their arising factors, or he abides contemplating in feelings their vanishing factors, or he abides contemplating in feelings both their arising and vanishing factors. Or else mindfulness that ‘there is feeling’ is simply established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That is how a bhikkhu abides contemplating feelings as feelings.”3

According to these instructions, the second foundation of mindfulness is actually an act of direct evaluation of every sensory and mental input as they happen. The meditator should be constantly aware of the affective tone of any experience, in terms of it being pleasant (sukha), painful (dukkha) or neutral (adukkhamasukhaṃ). Starting from this basic division, Buddha further segregates vedanā into two groups of three: worldly (sāmisa) and unworldly (nirāmisa) forms. Following explanation given in the Nirāmisa Sutta (SN 36:31), the first type of vedanā (maybe better translated as “sensation”) applies to experiences based on the five physical senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching and the pleasure or unpleasant obtained from these. The other (“non-sensory”) type represents experiences connected to meditative absorptions.

Photo: Mladen Ivanović

Introducing the ethical aspect into this contemplation makes a very important step in practice, having in mind a tight relationship between vedanā and the array of mental reactions that follow it, according to the dependent origination schema. Pointing to this relationship, Pahāna sutta (SN 36:3) for example approaches it from the point of latent tendencies (anusaya):

“Bhikkhus, there are these three feelings. What three? Pleasant feeling, painful feeling, neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. The underlying tendency to lust should be abandoned in regard to pleasant feeling. The underlying tendency to aversion should be abandoned in regard to painful feeling. The underlying tendency to ignorance should be abandoned in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.”4

Thus, unwholesome thoughts and emotions are detected at their point of origination in vedanā. Using such developed mindfulness, one can work towards detachment from the conditioning mechanisms that nature has bestowed upon us. And this is beneficial, since as we all know, in many cases our conditioning brings us a lot of suffering. While the opposite also applies, making these mechanisms looser brings freedom.

The antidote to each of these tendencies recommended by the Satipaṭṭhana Sutta is mindful observation of each of the feeling arisen, accompanied with the clear knowing what is happening: “vedanaṃ vedayāmī’ti pajānāti”. The way different kind of feelings should be considered is given in the Dutiyavedanā Sutta (Itivuttaka, 53):

“The sensation that is pleasant, monks, is to be regarded as dukkha; the sensation that is dukkha is to be regarded as a dart; the sensation that is neither dukkha nor pleasant is to be regarded as impermanent. When the sensation that is pleasant, monks, comes to be seen, on the part of some monk, as dukkha, the sensation that is dukkha comes to be seen as a dart, the sensation that is neither dukkha nor pleasant comes to be seen as impermanent, that monk, monks, is spoken of as an ariyan, as one of right sight, as one who has severed craving, as one who has flung off the fetter, as one who, through the proper penetration of conceit, has made an end of dukkha.”5

In line with the model applied to all other objects of satipaṭṭhana, contemplation of vedanā is further done in reference to both internal (ajjhatta) and external (bahiddhā) ones. The focus of contemplation is on the clear discernment of each feeling’s arising and passing away, while retaining a position of an independent observer and not clinging to any of them. By following these quite concise instructions, the meditator should clearly stay at the level of bare awareness of the experience and the hedonic quality of the vedanā it initiated. This will ensure that he was not carried away by that experience, through volitional reactions or mental proliferation.

Finally, following instructions of the Satipaṭṭhana Sutta, once mindfulness is used to clearly distinguish between three kinds of feelings, be they worldly or unwordly, internal of external, a meditator should contemplate “in feelings both their arising and vanishing factors”. This perspective allows for the most important insight into the changing nature of each feeling and this is clear awareness of their impermanence. Only this insight can assure the meditator that no feeling is worth of grabbing and following, which initiates a process of letting go and relinquishing all attachment to feelings. Only in this way he is able to “abide independent, not clinging to anything in the world”.

Among the contemporary contemplative methods, as far as I know, vedanaupassana plays prominent role only in the framework of S. N. Goenka’s meditation method. Although here the meaning of the term vedanā is narrowed down to the notion of ‘bodily sensations’ (kāya vedanā). Just one vivid example of that importance is contained in the following quotation:

“Whatever arises in the mind, the Buddha discovered, will be accompanied by a physical sensation. Hence, whether the meditator is exploring the mental or the physical aspect of the phenomenon of “I”, awareness of sensation is essential.

This discovery is the unique contribution of the Buddha, of central importance in his teaching. Before him in India among his contemporaries, there were many who taught and practised sīla (morality) and samādhi (concentration). Paññā (wisdom) also existed, at least devotional or intellectual wisdom: it was commonly accepted that mental defilements are the source of suffering, that craving and aversion must be eliminated in order to purify the mind and to attain liberation. The Buddha simply found the way to do it.

What had been lacking was an understanding of the importance of sensation. Then as now, it was generally thought that our reactions are to the external objects of sense–vision, sound, odour, taste, touch, thoughts. However, observation of the truth within reveals that between the object and the reaction is a missing link: sensation. The contact of an object with the corresponding sense door gives rise to sensations; the saññā assigns a positive or negative valuation, in accordance with which the sensation becomes pleasant or unpleasant, and one reacts with craving or aversion. The process occurs so rapidly that conscious awareness of it develops only after a reaction has been repeated many times and has gathered dangerous strength sufficient to overpower the mind. To deal with the reactions, one must become aware of them at the point where they start; they start with sensation, and so one must be aware of sensations. The discovery of this fact, unknown before him, enabled Siddhattha Gotama to attain enlightenment, and this is why he always stressed the importance of sensation.”6

The goal here is to not allow vedanā to transform into tanha, a small spark not to become a big fire. There is no a new fuel for saṃsāra, and the whole cycle is stopped.

Finally, it can be said that relatively less prominent role of vedanānupassanā both in the more traditional approaches to meditation practice in the East as well as in its Western offshoots appears to be somewhat strange, given the fact that we are actually talking about “a power by which we do as we do”. Simply stated, we should be fully aware that vedanā has consequences, and that these consequences are observable in many areas of modern life, from personal to social, from local to global. No doubt that this powerful force of vedanā will continue to produce many unwanted and undesirable consequences as long as it, undisclosed and unacknowledged, drives behavior, both individually and collectively.

The Buddha has fully recognized the powerful and ever-present nature of vedanā. He rightly understood vedanā as something inescapable, that has no end. Because vedanā is deeply woven into the fabric of our experience, shaping, coloring and directing it. To be human means to be experiencing vedanā with all its pleasantness and unpleasantness. As the Buddha explained with one of his famous similes in the Agāra Sutta (SN 36:11), we are simply a guest house for the comings and goings of vedanā:

“Bhikkhus, suppose there is a guest house. People come from the east, west, north, and south and lodge there. So too, bhikkhus, various feelings arise in this body: pleasant feeling arises; painful feeling arises, neither-painful-nor pleasant feeling arises; worldly pleasant feeling arises; worldly painful feeling arises; worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling arises; unworldly pleasant feeling arises; unworldly painful feeling arises; unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling arises.”7

Being a guest house is not as much of a problem as those automatic, habitual reactions to various comings and goings of vedanā. These reactions, when left unnoticed and under the radar of mindfulness very frequently manifest as displays of greed and aversion, covetousness and hatred. And that has grave consequences for our well-being, but also for well-being of the people we share our life with. Multiplying this kind of reactions by constant repeating and by majority of members of a society lifts those consequences to an even higher level, creating social tensions and deep lines of division between social, age, gender, and ethnic groups and finally between whole nations. Knowing this, we can even more appreciate Buddha’s timeless message:

Na hi verena verāni, sammantīdha kudācanaṃ.
averena ca sammanti, esa dhammo sanantano.

For not by hatred do hatreds cease at any time in this place,
they only cease with non-hatred, this truth is surely eternal.”8

Notes

1 Akincano M. Weber, “Hedonic Hotspots, Hedonic Potholes: Vedanā Revisited”. Contemporary Buddhism, 2018.
2 Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications, p. 1231-32.
3 Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publication, 1995, p. 149-150.
4 Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012), p. 1261.
5 The Itivuttaka, transl. Peter Masefield. Oxford, PTS 2001, p. 48.
6 S.N. Goenka, The Discourse Summaries, Talks from a Ten-day Course in Vipassana Meditation, Igatpuri, India, Vipassana Research Institute, 2010, p.56.
7 Bhikkhu Bodhi (2012), p. 1273.
8 Dhammapada, Transl. Anandajoti Bhikkhu, 2016, p. 19. https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Buddhist-Texts/K2-Dhammapada-New/index.htm (accessed on August 28, 2019)

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