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


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. (accessed on August 28, 2019)

Kontemplacija osećaja

U Satipaṭṭhana sutti Buda nam je ostavio instrukcije za četiri glavna tipa vežbanja i to kroz četiri oblasti na koje možemo da usmerimo pažnju i, posmatrajući svet u kojem živimo, učimo o tom svetu. Te četiri oblasti su telo, osećaji, um i sadržaji uma. Danas je najpopularniji metod vežbanja fokusiranje na telo, to jest na dah, kao jedan od objekata meditacije, mada ih ima još. Ali dah je nekako najpraktičniji. Uvek je sa nama. Mnogo ređe meditanti se odlučuju za drugu oblast po redu, a to su osećaji, vedanānupassana. I to je šteta. Jer su osećaji takođe dragocen učitelj.

Kada radimo vedanānupassanu, kontemplaciju osećaja, tada koristimo telesne senzacije i emocije kao objekat pažnje. Ali ono što takođe pokušavamo da uočimo je za nivo dublje od toga, a to su tri vrste bazičnih osećaja (na engleskom to prevode kao feeling tone) koji su zajednički imenitelj za sva ta iskustva. A to su prijatni osećaj, neprijatni osećaj i ni neprijatni ni prijatni, to jest neutralni osećaj. Pokušavamo da uočimo i razumemo mehanizam koji ih stvara, a on je vrlo dobro opisan u formuli uslovljenog nastanka (patiććasamuppāda): phassa paććaya vedana, kontakt rađa osećaj. Takođe pokušavamo da uočimo i razumemo šta je rezultat pojave tog osećava, što nam takođe otkriva formula uslovljenog nastanka: vedana paććaya tanhā, osećaj rađa žudnju.

Zašto je to važno? Zato što se na prelazu iz osećaja u žudnju nalazi najslabija karika celog lanca rađanja i umiranja, i na tom mestu lanac možemo prekinuti. To jest zaustaviti neprkidno kruženje u krugu samsare. Kako? Naravno, razumevanjem, znanjem. Jer kada razumemo pravu prirodu prijatnih, neprijatnih i neutralnih osećaja, a to je nestalnost, ne vezujemo se za njih, žudnja nema uporište, zato što su uviđamo toliko nepouzdani. Postaje nam jasno da to vezivanje može roditi jedino patnju. Kao kad bismo se jako vezali za divan cvet, koji će već sutra uvenuti. Ili na konjičkim trkama kladili na grlo za koje unapred znamo da nema šanse da pobedi. Dakle, kada razumemo kuda nas osećaji i vezivanje vode, da je sledeći korak žudnja, a onda neminovno i patnja, to razumevanje nas hladi od strasti, hladi od obmanutosti, i donosi sreću stišanosti, ohlađenosti, sreću unutrašnjeg mira.

Breathing Meditation Puzzle

Mindfulness of breathing or ānāpānasati has a prominent place among the meditation methods taught by the Buddha. This doesn’t come as a surprise, if we know this is exactly the method the Teacher used to attain his own enlightenment, but also to “generally dwell during rains residence”.1 Therefore, he qualified this type of mental training as a noble abode (ariya-vihāra), divine abode (brahma-vihāra) and Tathāgatha abode.2

Instructions for this meditation are given in a number of suttas, most elaborately in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118), but also in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), Mahārāhulovada Sutta (MN 62) and the others. The drawback of all these instructions is that they come as an unchanged, fixed formula, which pose a problem in making sure their intended meaning is completely understood. This problem is reflected in a number of different old and modern interpretations of the Pāli text. One among several points of contention is Pāli compound “sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī”, which appears in the Canon 17 times,3 embedded in the following standard passage in Ānāpānasati Sutta:

“kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, ānāpānassati kathaṃ bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā nisīdati pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā. so satova assasati satova passasati. dīghaṃ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, dīghaṃ vā passasanto ‘dīghaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti; rassaṃ vā assasanto ‘rassaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, rassaṃ vā passasanto ‘rassaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti; ‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.”4

“And how, bhikkhus, is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe” in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.5 ‘ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body [of breath]‘; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body [of breath].’6 He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation’;7 he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation’.”‘8

This makes a well known first tetrad of the instructions on how to practice mindfulness of breathing. In this sutta, it is further augmented by additional twelve steps, which makes total of sixteen steps of instructions. But we are here concerned with the third element of the tetrad and the key term: sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī.

In deciphering its meaning, we should first turn to the Papañcasudāni, the commentary to the Majjhima Nikāya, and see what it has to say. Unfortunately, Buddhaghosa commented only on the introductory part of the sutta and the part that follows after the four tetrads on mindfulness of breathing. For better understanding of this sutta section he merely refers a reader to his later work, well-known Visuddhimagga.

In this compendium of Theravada orthodoxy, mindfulness of breathing explanation is part of the Chapter VIII, “Other Recollections as Meditative Subjects”. There, after quoting the source text from the sutta (interestingly, the one from Ānāpāna Saṃyutta, SN 54, and not from Majjhima Nikāya), Buddhaghosa had to say the following about the section we are interested in:

“171. (iii) He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in … I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body’: he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in making known, making plain, the beginning, middle and end9 of the entire in-breath body. I shall breathe out making known, making plain, the beginning, middle and end of the entire out-breath body’, thus he trains. Making them known, making them plain, in this way he both breathes in and breathes out with consciousness associated with knowledge. That is why it is said, ‘He trains thus: “I shall breathe in … shall breathe out …

174. Herein, in the first part of the system10 he should only breathe in and breathe out and not do anything else at all, and it is only afterwards that he should apply himself to the arousing of knowledge, and so on. Consequently the present tense is used here in the text, ‘He knows: “I breathe in” … he knows: “I breathe out”. But the future tense in the passage beginning ‘ “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body” ‘ should be understood as used in order to show that the aspect of arousing knowledge, etc., has to be undertaken from then on.”11

Obviously the Buddhaghosa understands sabbakāya as a “whole body of breath”, with its three phases of beginning, middle and end. From that point on, this became the standard Theravāda interpretation of this passage, which has been repeated many times by various meditation teachers. But for some other interpreters this way od understanding didn’t seem to fit well with the next step in the practice, where Buddha again uses term kāya, but this time obviously referencing to the actual body. At the same time he doesn’t signal any change in the meaning of the same word, which is rather strange.

In the note to his translation of Ānāpānasati Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu comments on this problem as following:

“The commentaries insist that “body” here means the breath, but this is unlikely in this context, for the next step — without further explanation — refers to the breath as “bodily fabrication.” If the Buddha were using two different terms to refer to the breath in such close proximity, he would have been careful to signal that he was redefining his terms (as he does below, when explaining that the first four steps in breath meditation correspond to the practice of focusing on the body in and of itself as a frame of reference). The step of breathing in and out sensitive to the entire body relates to the many similes in the suttas depicting jhana as a state of whole-body awareness (see MN 119).” 12

There is another book in the Pāli Canon, Patisambhidamagga, with a whole chapter dedicated to ānāpānasati. That “makes this the longest exposition of the subject in Pāli literature”.13 The authorship of this detailed analysis of different kinds of knowledge tradition ascribes to Venerable Sāriputta. Here, we find the following explanation of the third step of the first tetrad:

“42. (§48). “‘Experiencing the whole body,’ I shall breathe in, thus he trains himself; ‘experiencing the whole body,’ I shall breathe out, thus he trains himself.”

Body”: There are two bodies – the mentality-body and the materiality-body.

Feeling, perception, volition, sense-impression, attention-mentality and the mentality-body – and those (things) which are called the mental formations – this is the mentality-body.

The four great primaries and the materiality derived from the four great primaries – in-breath and out-breath and the sign for the binding (of mindfulness) – and those (things) which are called the bodily formations – this is the materiality-body.”14

Here we see that ambiguity of the pāli word kaya brought a new aspect. Namely, kaya, as body in English, can mean “physical body”, but also can mean a “group” of elements. Here, the word kāya is taken in this second meaning and two groups of elements are identified: those which constitute physical, material body and those who constitute mental “body”. Here’s what Pa-Auk Sayadaw says, obviously having in mind this passage from the Patisambhidamagga:

“There are two types of body in vipassana: the materiality-body (rūpa-kāya) and the mentality-body (nāma·kāya). The materiality-body is a group of twenty-eight types of materiality. The mentality-body is a group of consciousnesses and their associated mental factors. In other words, the two bodies are the five aggregates (khandha): materiality, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.”15

Based on this Abhidhammic analysis of kāya, the same author further comments on the passage we are analyzing here:

“Here, the whole body refers to the whole body of breath, not to the whole body from head to foot. Experiencing the whole body means you know the whole in-breath and out-breath from beginning, to middle, to end. And you knows it at the touching point only: at the nostrils-gate or upper lip.

The breath is nothing but a mass of mind-born kalāpas with nine types of materiality (rūpa): the earth element, water element, fire element, wind element, colour, odour, flavour, nutritive essence and the sound of the breath. Those kalāpas arise always as a body, that is why they are called a ‘body (kāya)’.”16

This indication of not one, but two types of bodies was maybe also what inspired Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu for understanding the word sabba as “all”, rather than “whole”. Following that, he understood the term sabba-kāya to mean “all bodies” and in step three of the tetrad talks about “experiencing all bodies”.

“In step three, the aim is to experience all kaya, all bodies. The essence of this step is to feel all bodies while breathing in and breathing out. While practicing the earlier steps of ānāpānasati, we began to observe that the breath conditions our flesh-and-blood body. This next step, therefore, does not involve anything new; we merely investigate this fact more profoundly, clearly, and carefully than before. We contemplate in a deeper way that there are two kaya (bodies). We should continuously observe this while breathing in and breathing out.”17

All this quotations are quite sufficient to conclude that Theravāda orthodoxy understands the meaning of our passage in a way that the meditator should keep uninterrupted attention on the full extent of every in-breath and out-breath, on all of its three phases: from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. Also, this attention should not follow movements of the breath while it’s entering the body or leaving it, but stay at the point where it touches the body for the first time, which is obviously at the area of nostrils. On the other hand, this approach was not the only one advocated within the Theravada practice.

It might be interesting here to compare this “classic” Theravada interpretation with some other old Buddhist schools in India.Thus we have a passage from Mahāvibhāṣā of the Sarvastivadins, which gives quite different explanation of the third step in the body mindfulness tetrad:

“Question: As one observes the wind of breath as entering by the nose and getting out by the nose, why is it said that ‘I breathe in and out perceiving the whole body’?
Answer: When mindfulness of breathing is not yet accomplished, one observes in-and-out-breath as entering and getting out by the nose. When mindfulness of breathing is accomplished, one observes breath as entering and going out through all the pores of the body, which is like a lotus root.” (T 27, 136a–b)”18

Thus Sarvastivadins take the word “body” quite literally and interpret “the whole body” as the entire physical body, with pores, involved in breathing. Knowing how Sarvastivādin ideas migrated into China through innumerable translations, it may not be a surprise that this interpretation is in accord with another one we find in the relevant parallels of the Chinese Agamas. For example, in Ekottarika-agama‘s parallel to Mahārāhulovada sutta (EA 17.1 at T II 582b2), the third step in the instructions also relates to focusing attention to the whole (physical) body. But after that comes interesting deviation. Namely, the next instruction directs meditator to be aware if the breath is present or not: “at the time when there is breathing, he knows it is there; at a time when there is no breathing, he knows it is not there”.

This could be related to noticing gaps between breaths. The other option is that this instruction points out to the fact that in the states of deep concentration, breath becomes very subtle and difficult to notice. On this phenomenon Visuddhimagga19 gives elaborate analysis and somewhat oddly warns meditator that once the breath becomes imperceptible he should not discontinue practice and leave, thinking that the meditation is over. On the other hand, instead discussing existence or disappearance of the breath, Pāli version of the first tetrad as a fourth and last instruction instructs towards tranquillising “bodily formation”.

On the same track with other sources from the Chinese Buddhist Canon, which sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī understand as “the whole body” stands Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, a compilation of various texts related to meditation, whose translator was famous Kumārajīva (344-413):

“Mindfulness [during] ††† all breaths pervades the body, [while] being as well mindful of the out- and in-breaths. Completely contemplating the inside of the body [during] all out-breaths and in-breaths, awareness pervades and reaches inside the body up to the toes and the fingers and pervades every pore [on the surface of the body], just like water entering sand, aware from the feet to the hair [while] breathing out [and in], pervading every pore as well, just like water entering sand.”

However, this interpretation of the term sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī was not completely forgotten in the Theravāda Buddhism. In the 19th century it emerged in Myanmar with the U Ba Khin’s lineage of meditation teachers, going against the traditional explanation given by Buddhagosa. Thus S. N. Goenka advised that after the initial two steps, during the third one we expand our field of awareness: “the whole body must be felt”, in the sense that “with the help of the breath the whole body is felt inside … then it is also felt outside … on the surface of the body”.20 This means that after focusing on breath only, the meditator tries to feel whatever may be felt in the field of physical body. Similar to Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, the meditator in the U Ba Khin/Goenka tradition is requested to systematically scan the whole body, from head to toes, moving methodically from one part to the next, “pervading every pore”.

With Goenka’s meditation method gaining popularity in the East and West, this approach to mindfulness of breathing also got a faithful advocates. Therefore, today we have a number of contemporary meditation teachers who follow the same interpretation of the sutta text. But not all decided to take side and some modern teachers find themselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Let’s mention just one of them, Joseph Goldstein. In his book Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Awakening, an elaboration on the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, he shows himself being aware of both interpretations. Therefore, in a very skillful way, he tries to make room for both interpretations we are discussing in this essay:

“One trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,” one trains thus, “I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.” One trains thus: “I shall breathe in calming the bodily formations,” one trains thus: “I shall breathe out calming the bodily formation.’

…there are two interpretations of what it means in this context to experience the whole body. It can be taken in its literal meaning—that is, feeling the breath throughout the body or feeling the whole body as we breathe. The second interpretation of “experiencing the whole body” is found in the Buddhist commentaries, which say that this phrase refers to the whole “breath body.” This means that we train experiencing the beginning, middle, and end of each breath. We go from simply knowing whether the breath is long or short to feeling the breath more intimately, experiencing the entire flow of changing sensations with each in- and out-breath.

As mentioned earlier, both interpretations can be seen as different skillful means to apply at the appropriate time. If we’re too controlling of the breath, zeroing in on it may not be helpful. It might be better to be aware of the breath in the larger context of the whole body. On the other hand, if we’re somewhat spaced out, lost in the wandering mind, narrowing our focus to just the stream of sensations of the breath could strengthen our mindfulness and concentration.”21

Based on what has been discussed so far, to the best of my understanding, it seems that the term sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī in the Ānāpānasati Sutta instructions on body contemplation refers to the whole body and not to the “breath body”. If it would refer to the breath only and its three main points, that would be in a way repeating of the previous exercise in this tetrad. Since to know if the breath is short or long, we already need to clearly distinguish its beginning and end. On the other hand, when focusing on the whole body, we make the transition from focusing exclusively on the breath to observing a wider context in which this natural process occurs. Mindful connecting our breathing and body brings them in harmony. Now we are aware or “mindfully experiencing” the whole body rhythmically breathing. This starts to beneficially effect our body, so we are prepared for the next, and the last step of the tetrad. Since the breath has already become calm and steady by that time, we use it to calm the body as a whole. Thus harmonized, these two further affect the mind, dampening the constant resurfacing of the mental impurities and making the mind also steady and focused. Now we have a strong union of breath, body and mind, who supporting each other make up an excellent tool for observing and penetrating all physical and mental phenomena appearing in the field of our experience, from moment to moment. This is a safe way to liberating insight.

Ānāpānasati is one among several contemplations of the body, which use one of its functions, the breath. Therefore, its goal should be experiencing and calming the body, not experiencing and calming the breath. As I see it, breath is here just a tool. The same way as in cemetery contemplation a corpse is just a tool and not the goal. Or, in the contemplation of the postures, walking, siting, standing and laying down are just a tool, not a goal.


1 Padīpopama sutta (AN 54:8).

2 Icchānaṇgala sutta (SN 54:11)

3 Together with its variant “sabbakāyappaṭisaṃvedī”, it could be found in the following suttas: Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna sutta (DN 22), Satipaṭṭhāna sutta (MN 10), Mahārāhulovāda sutta (MN 62), Ānāpānassati sutta (MN 118), Kāyagatāsati sutta (MN 119), Ekadhamma sutta (SN 54:1), Kimila sutta (SN 54.10), Icchānaṅgala sutta (SN 54.11), Dutiyabhikkhu sutta (SN 54.16), Girimānanda sutta (AN 10:60), and in the Paṭisambhidāmagga (1.3 Chapter on Mindfulness of Breathing).

4 Ānāpānassati sutta (MN 118), Chattha Sangayana edition, electronic version published by the Vipassana Research Institute, lgatpuri, India 1997.

5 “The practice of mindfulness of breathing {ānāpānasati) involves no deliberate attempt to regulate the breath, as in hatha yoga, but a sustained effort to fix awareness on the breath as it moves in and out in its natural rhythm. Mindfulness is set up at the nostrils or the upper lip, wherever the impact of the breath is felt most distinctly; the length of the breath is noted but not consciously controlled. The complete development of this meditation method is expounded in MN 118. For an organised collection of texts on this subject, see Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Mindfulness of Breathing. See too Vsm VIII, 145-244.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

6 “MA: The phrase “experiencing the whole body” (sabbakayapatisamvedī) means that the meditator becomes aware of each in-and-out breath through the three phases of its beginning, middle, and end.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

7 “The “bodily formation” (kayasankhara) is defined at MN 44.13 as in-and-out breathing itself. Thus, as MA explains, with the successful development of the practice, the meditator’s breathing becomes increasingly quiet, tranquil, and peaceful.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

8 Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publication, 1995, p. 943-944.

9 “What is meant is that the meditator should know what they are and be aware of them without his mindfulness leaving the tip of the nose to follow after the breaths inside the body or outside it, speculating on what becomes of them.” (Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli)

10 Step one and two of the tetrad.

11 Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society (1991), p. 266-67.

12 (accessed on June 19, 2019)

13 Paravahera Vajiraññāṇa, Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice. Colombo: Godage International Publishers, 2008, p. 229.

14 Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, The Path of Discrimination. London: Pali Text Society, 1992, p. 183.

15 Pa-Auk Sayadaw, Knowing and Seeing (4th Rev. Ed.). Singapore, Pa-Auk Meditation Centre, 2010, p. 248

16 Pa-Auk Sayadaw, The Only Way for the Realization of Nibbāna. 2012, p. 34.

17 Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Mindfulness with Breathing: Unveiling the Secrets of Life: a Manual for Serious Beginners, Trans. Santikaro Bhikkhu, Boston: Wisdom Publication, 1997, p. 57.

18 Quoted in: Tse-fu Kuan, Mindfulness in Early Buddhism. London: Routlege, 2008, p. 71-72.

19 VIII, 208; p. 286.

20 S. N. Goenka, Discourses on Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Igatpuri, 1999, p. 30 and 31.

21 Josepg Goldstein, Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Awakening. Boulder:Sounds True, 2013, p. 52.

Dodir ljubavi

Vežba: Koristi dodir ispunjen ljubavlju, čak i kad dodiruješ predmete.

Na jedan prst ruke koju obično koristiš stavi nešto neuobičajeno. Možda prsten, flaster, jednu tačku laka za nokte na jedan od noktiju ili krstić flomasterom u boji. Svaki put kada uočiš taj znak, podseti se da dodiruješ s ljubavlju.

Kada radimo ovu vežbu, vrlo brzo postanemo svesni kada mi ili neko drugi ne koristi dodir ljubavi. Uočavamo kako se u samoposluzi stvari bace u korpu, kako se prtljag na aerodromu tresne na pokretnu traku ili plastični pribor za jelo baca u kantu za otpatke. Čujemo kako lonci lupaju u kuhinji kad se nabacaju jedan na drugi ili kako vrata lupaju kada žurimo.

Posebna dilema nastaje u našem manastiru za ljude kada pleve vrt. Kako da koristimo dodir ljubavi kada živu biljku čupamo iz zemlje i to iz korena? Možemo li svoje srce i dalje držati otvorenim, dok je stavljamo u kompost uz molitvu zahvalnosti što će njen (i naš) život biti na korist drugim bićima?

Kao student medicine, radila sam sa više hirurga poznatih zbog svog “hirurškog temperamenta”. Ako se neki problem javi tokom operacije, reagovali bi poput dvogodišnjaka, bacali skupe instrumente i istresali se na medicinsko osoblje. Pri svemu tome, uočila sam da je jedan hirurg drugačiji od ostalih. I pod stresom ostajao je miran, ali što je još važnije, baratao je tkivom svakog od pacijenata pod narkozom kao sa najvećom dragocenošću. Odlučila sam da ako bi meni trebala operacija, insistirala bih da je on obavi.

Dok vežbamo na ovakav način, pažnja na dodir s ljubavlju širi se tako da u sebe uključi svesnost ne samo toga kako dodirujemo stvari, već i svesnost kako mi bivamo dodirnuti. To uključuje ne samo kako nas dodiruju ljudske ruke, već i naša odeća, vetar, hrana i piće u ustima, pod kojim stopala gaze i mnoge druge stvari. Učimo kako da koristimo ruke ljubavi i dodir ljubavi. Dodirujemo bebe, verne pse, decu koja plaču i svog partnera s nežnošću i brižnošću. Zašto takav dodir ljubavi ne koristimo sve vreme? To je ključno pitanje u vezi sa svesnošću. Zašto ne možemo tako da živimo sve vreme? Kada jednom otkrijemo koliko je bogatiji naš život kada smo prisutniji, zašto ponovo upadnemo u rutinu starih navika i postanemo neosetljivi?

Bivamo dodirnuti sve vreme, ali smo najčešće nesvesni toga. Dodir uđe u polje naše svesti obično samo kad je neprijatan (kamenčić u cipeli) ili povezan sa intenzivnom željom (kada me on ili ona poljubi po prvi put). Kada počnemo da se otvaramo za svaku senzaciju dodira, spolja i iznutra, možda se uplašimo. Jer sve to može biti previše za nas.

Obično smo svesni korišćenja dodira ljubavi sa ljudima, nego sa predmetima. Međutim, kada smo u žurbi ili nas neko iznervira, pretvorimo ga u objekat. Izjurimo iz kuće bez pozdrava nekome koga volimo, ignorišemo pozdrav kolege na poslu samo zato što smo juče imali sa njim neku prepirku. To su sve načini na koje druge ljude pretvaramo u objekte, smetnju, prepreku i, na kraju, u neprijatelja.

U Japanu predmeti su često personifikovani. Sa mnogima od njih se postupa sa poštovanjem i brižnošću; stvari koje bismo mi smatrali neživima i otuda nečim što ne zaslužuje poštovanje, a pogotovo ne ljubav. Novac je kasirki daje sa dve ruke, mešalica za čaj ima svoje ime, polomljene igle za šivenje se sahranjuju tako što se polože da počivaju u mekom komadu tofua, prefiks poštovanja kao što je “o-” daje se običnim stvarima, kao što je novac (o-kane), voda (o-mizu), čaj (o-cha), čak i štapići za jelo (o-hashi). Ovo možda potiče iz šinto tradicije poštovanja kamija ili duhova koji obitavaju u vodopadima, velikim stablima i planinama. Ako se voda, drvo ili kamen smatraju svetim, tada su i sve stvari koje od njih nastanu takođe svete.

Moj zen učitelj me je naučio, ličnim primerom, kako da svim stvarima rukujem kao da su žive. Zen majstor Maezumi roši bi otvarao koverte, čak i one sa reklamama, koristeći poseban nož, kako bi načinio pravilan rez i vadio sadržaj pisma sa velikom pažnjom. Rastužilo bi ga ako vidi da neko nogama gura po Sali jastučiće za meditaciju ili uz tresak spusti tanjir na sto. “Osetim to u svom telu”, rekao je jednom. Dok većina današnjih sveštenika koristi vešalice za odeću, zen majstor Harada roši posvetio bi vreme da svako uveče uredno savije svoju odeću i “ispegla” je stavljajući je po dušek ili kofer. Tako je njegova odeća uvek bio kao ispeglana. Neki od delova njegove odeće stari su stotinu godina. I prema svakom komadu odeće odnosi se kao da pripada Budi.

Možemo li zamisliti kako je svesno dodira neko probuđeno biće? Koliko senzitivno i široko njihovo polje pažnje mora biti? Isus je postao svestan istog trenutka kada je bolesna žena dodirnula kraj njegovog ogrtača i bila isceljena.

Zaključak: “Kad barataš pirinčem, vodom ili bilo čime drugim, razvijaj u sebi brižnost ispunjenu ljubavlju i pažnjom, slično roditelju koji u naručju drži svoje dete.” – zen učitelj Dogen.