Why Vedana and What is Vedana?
By S. N. Goenka
Dhamma eradicates suffering and gives happiness. Who gives this happiness? It is not the Buddha but the Dhamma, the knowledge of anicca (impermanence) within the body, which gives this happiness. That is why you must meditate and be aware of anicca continually.
-Sayagyi U Ba Khin
I remember the first time I met Sayagyi U Ba Khin. I had gone with great attachment to my beliefs and misgivings about the teaching of the Buddha. Sayagyi knew that I was a leader of the local Indian Hindu community. He asked me, "Do you Hindus have any objection to sila-a life of morality, to samadhi-mastery over the mind and to panna-wisdom to purify the mind?" How could I object! How could anybody object! He continued, "Well, this is what the Buddha taught. This is all I am interested in and this is all that I am going to teach you." Sayagyi's interpretation of Dhamma was universal and non-sectarian. He had no problem in my being a Hindu.
My first Vipassana course introduced me to the teachings of the Buddha and transformed my life forever. I was pulled like a magnet to his logical, practical, pragmatic, universal and non-sectarian teaching. There was nothing objectionable in it. I had been hearing about and talking about the eradication of defilements and the purification of mind. When I started observing sensations, initially there were moments of doubt, "How is this going to help me?" But soon I realized that by observing sensations, I am going to the root of the defilements. I was actually walking towards the goal of full liberation. Whatever Sayagyi taught me was not merely to develop faith or to satisfy the intellect, though both are important. He taught me the way to know the truth at the experiential level. If anybody had tried to convince me about the teaching of the Buddha by intellectual discussion, logic or argument, I would not have been convinced as I was fully satisfied with my own beliefs. What convinced me and gave me here-and-now results was the experience of the truth through bodily sensations. This tangible tool gave me the confidence that I could indeed become sthitaprajna (thitapanno) which is the cherished goal of every Hindu.
The more I practised, the more I was convinced that the Buddha was the foremost scientist of mind and matter, the foremost analyst of the truth about suffering and its eradication. And what makes him a peerless scientist is the discovery that tanhatanha (trsnatrsna, craving) arises in response to vedana. I had studied the teachings of the Indian spiritual teachers before and after the Buddha who also accept tanha as the cause of misery, but for them tanha arises because of the sense objects only. They miss the most important link: not one of them discusses vedana and its relation to tanha. They always pronounce sense objects to be the cause of tanhatanha. Tanha is craving. Craving for continuing or acquiring that which is pleasant and craving to get rid of or repelling that which is unpleasant. Therefore tanha actually means both craving and aversion.
The discovery of the Buddha, that the real cause of tanha lies in vedana, is the unparalleled gift of the Buddha to humanity. With this one discovery he gave us the key to open the door of liberation within ourselves. Others proclaimed salayatana paccaya tanha; the Buddha discovered and disclosed that vedana paccaya tanha, which means that defilements arise at the level of vedana and in response to vedana. It is logical that if tanha arises in response to vedana, any endeavour to reach the root of tanha and to eradicate tanha must include the understanding of vedana, the experience of it and the knowledge of how it causes craving and aversion, and the wisdom to know how it can be used for the eradication of tanha.
Samahito sampajano, sato Buddhassa savako;
vedana ca pajanati, vedanananca sambhavam.
Yattha ceta nirujjhanti, magganca khayagaminam;
vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchatonicchato parinibbuto'ti.1
A follower of the Buddha, with concentration, awareness and constant thorough understanding of impermanence, knows with wisdom the sensations, their arising, their cessation and the path leading to their end.
A meditator who has reached the end (has experienced the entire range) of sensations (and has gone beyond) is freed from craving, is fully liberated.
This is why the Buddha practised and taught the meditation of awareness of mind and matter (nama and rupa). RupaRupa includes kaya (body) and vedana is felt on kaya. NamaNama includes cittacitta (consciousness) and the dhammasdhammas (mental concomitants) arising on it.
Vedana is also a cetasikacetasika (mental concomitant). When the Buddha says, sabbe dhamma vedana samosaranasabbe dhamma vedana samosarana, it means that the experience of all mental concomitants includes and is inseparable from vedana. Hence according to my understanding of the teaching of the Buddha, not only do kayanupassanakayanupassana and vedananupassanavedananupassana involve the awareness of vedana but vedana also forms an integral part of dhammanupassanadhammanupassana and cittanupassanacittanupassana. A meditator whether practising kayanupassana or vedananupassana or cittanupassana or dhammanupassana, continues to be aware of vedana. He realizes the phenomenon of arising (samudayadhammanupassisamudayadhammanupassi) and the phenomenon of passing away (vayadhammanupassivayadhammanupassi) by maintaining awareness of vedana with the understanding of its impermanent nature. Thus he does not allow tanha to arise in response to vedana: He responds neither with tanha of craving towards a pleasant sensation nor with tanha of aversion towards an unpleasant sensation. A meditator maintains upekkha (equanimity) based on understanding of anicca (impermanence).
My journey within clearly showed me that a behaviour pattern is formed in the darkness of ignorance where one keeps reacting with craving and aversion, knowingly or unknowingly, towards bodily sensations. Thus, one becomes a slave of one's behaviour pattern and keeps reacting to sensations at the deepest level. The anusaya kilesaanusaya kilesa are sleeping volcanos, the latent behaviour patterns, of blind reaction to sensations. The Buddha's discovery helps a meditator to come out of this blind behaviour pattern. Among the many meditation techniques of India and other parts of the world that I have come across or have heard about, there is none that goes to the root cause of the defilements of craving and aversion and eradicates them. In no other technique is the way to eradicate even the latent tendencies of craving, aversion and ignorance so clearly spelled out.
"Sukhaya, bhikkhave, vedanaya raganusayo pahatabbo, dukkhaya vedanaya patighanusayo pahatabbo, adukkhamasukhaya vedanaya avijjanusayo pahatabbo."2
Eradicate the latent tendency of craving using pleasant sensations (by equanimous observation of the pleasant sensations understanding their changing nature), eradicate latent tendency of aversion using unpleasant sensations and eradicate the latent tendency of ignorance using neutral sensations.
I realized this to be a unique contribution of the Buddha to humanity. The question that arises now is what do we call vedana? It is clear from the words of the Buddha that vedana is one of the four aggregates of mind (sanna, sankhara and vinnana being the other three) and that it plays a vital role in liberation from misery. The Buddha gave importance to the vedana that one feels on the body. The vedana that one feels on the body is experienced by the vedana khandha (feeling aggregate) of nama, rather, it is the vedana khandhavedana khandha of nama. Rupa (matter) in itself cannot experience sensations arising on it. For the meditation of liberation from misery, bodily sensations are important. This does not mean that mental feeling (somanassa and domanassa) is to be ignored; it continues simultaneously.
The tradition in which I drank the nectar of benevolent Dhamma that liberates one from all misery is called the tradition of Ledi Sayadaw,tradition of Ledi Sayadaw which is actually the tradition of the Buddha. This tradition gives all importance to the sensations that one feels on the body. When I took my first course at the feet of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, I was extremely attracted to this unique aspect of meditation. My first Vipassana course showed me that mere intellectual knowledge of the impermanent nature of mind and matter phenomenon can purify only the intellect to some extent. It does not change us at the depth of the mind where we remain slaves of our behaviour patterns and keep on reacting in utter ignorance.
I benefited so much from this technique of meditation that I started reading the words of the Buddha in accordance with my teacher's advice. I was also curious to find out why India lost this noble teaching. I had been told from childhood that the Buddha incorporated good points from our tradition in his teaching and then added delusion to it, and had not discovered anything new. My experience turned out to be contrary to this belief. I found the Buddha's teaching to be very beneficial. This led to a further exploration to find the truth about these statements. Reading the words of the Buddha (Tipitaka) gave me so much joy! How wrong my earlier information turned out to be! It showed how the Buddha's emphasis was on actual experience of the truth. How could a teaching so firmly grounded in reality lead to delusions? I could detect no trace of falsehood on this path. The words bhavito bahulikatobhavito bahulikato-know with your own experience and thus gain and multiply knowledge occurs many times in Tipitaka. The Buddha said again and again, "jana, passa"-know thyself, with your own experience. The actual experience of the truth, as it is, ensures that there are no illusions or delusions, no imagination or any blind beliefs on this path. The words of the Buddha also confirmed my experience that the physical, bodily sensations are of utmost importance to the art of liberation from all suffering.
While describing dukkha it is said, "Katamanca, bhikkhave, dukkham? Yam kho, bhikkhave, kayikam dukkham kayikam asatam kayasamphassajam dukkham asatam vedayitam, idam vuccati, bhikkhave, dukkham."3
"What now, O monks, is pain? If there is, O monks, any kind of bodily pain, any kind of bodily unpleasantness or any kind of painful or unpleasant feeling as a result of bodily contact-this, O monks, is called pain."
And while describing domanassadomanassa it is said, "Katamanca, bhikkhave, domanassam? Yam kho, bhikkhave, cetasikam dukkham cetasikam asatam manosamphassajam dukkham asatam vedayitam, idam vuccati, bhikkhave, domanassam."4
"What now, O monks, is grief? If there is, O monks, any kind of mental pain, any kind of mental unpleasantness or any kind of painful or unpleasant feeling as a result of mental contact-this, O monks, is called grief."
This again makes it clear that when the Buddha describes dukkha vedana, he is talking about bodily sensations.
The Buddha says in the Satipatthana Sutta: Atapi sampajano satima.
Atapi and satima are simple to understand but I had to search for the meaning of sampajano. I found that it was clearly defined: SampajannaSampajanna is continuous clear comprehension and thorough understanding of the impermanent nature of the physical and mental structure (particularly vedana). Vedana is felt on the body but it is part of the mind and its observation means the observation of the mind and matter phenomenon.
Kathanca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno vidita vedana uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti. Vidita vitakka uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti. Vidita sanna uppajjanti, vidita upatthahanti, vidita abbhattham gacchanti. Evam kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajano hoti. Sato, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vihareyya sampajano. Ayam vo amhakam anusasani'ti.5
And how, O monks, does a monk understand thoroughly? Here, monks, a monk knows sensations arising in him, knows their persisting, and knows their passing away; he knows each initial application of the mind on an object arising in him, knows its persisting and knows its passing away; he knows perceptions arising in him, knows their persisting, and knows their passing away. This, meditators, is how a meditator understands thoroughly. A monk should abide mindful and composed. This is our instruction to you.
The words of the Buddha also clarify that vedana indicates sensations on the body:
Yathapi vata akase, vayanti vividha puthu;
puratthima pacchima capi, uttara atha dakkhina.
Saraja araja capi, sita unha ca ekada;
adhimatta paritta ca, puthu vayanti maluta.
Tathevimasmim kayasmim, samuppajjanti vedana;
sukhadukkhasamuppatti, adukkhamasukha ca ya.
Yato ca bhikkhu atapi, sampajannam na rincati;
tato so vedana sabba, parijanati pandito.
So vedana parinnaya, ditthe dhamme anasavo;
kayassa bheda dhammattho, sankhyam nopeti vedagu'ti.6
Through the sky blow many different winds, from east and west, from north and south, dust-laden and dustless, cold as well as hot, fierce gales and gentle breezes-many winds blow. In the same way, in this body, sensations arise, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. When a bhikkhu, practising ardently, does not neglect his faculty of thorough understanding, then such a wise person fully comprehends all sensations. And having fully comprehended them, within this very life he becomes freed from all impurities. At his life's end, such a person, being established in Dhamma and understanding sensations perfectly, attains the indescribable stage.
Similarly emphasising the fact that vedana manifests in the body, he said-
Seyyathapi, bhikkhave, agantukagaram, tattha puratthimayapi disaya... pacchimayapi disaya... uttarayapi disaya... dakkhinayapi disaya agantva vasam kappenti. Khattiyapi... brahmanapi... vessapi... suddapi agantva vasam kappenti. Evameva kho, bhikkhave, imasmim kayasmim vividha vedana uppajjanti. Sukhapi... dukkhapi... adukkhamasukhapi vedana uppajjati. Samisapi sukha... samisapi dukkha... samisapi adukkhamasukha vedana uppajjati. Niramisapi sukha... niramisapi dukkha... niramisapi adukkhamasukha vedana uppajjati'ti.7
Suppose, meditators, there is a public guest-house. People from the east, west, north, and south come and dwell there. People who are Kshatriyas, Brahmins, Vaishya and Shudras come and dwell there. In the same way, meditators, various sensations arise in this body, pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations and neutral sensations arise. Pleasant sensations with attachment, unpleasant sensations with attachment, and neutral sensations with attachment arise. Likewise arise pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations without attachment.
I needed no further proof that the Buddha was referring to the physical, bodily sensations when he described vedana! Not only did these exhortations of the Buddha clear all my doubts, they also made me feel as if the Buddha himself was instructing me to give importance to the bodily sensations.
My revered teacher used to chant Tikapatthanatikapatthana regularly. I found it very inspiring. The study of Tikapatthana reveals the clear and explicit guidance from the Buddha that bodily sensations (kayikam sukham and kayikam dukkham) are the nearest strongly dependent relations to the attainment of nibbana.
Pakatupanissayo-kayikam sukham kayikassa sukhassa, kayikassa dukkhassa, phalasamapattiya upanissayapaccayena paccayo. Kayikam dukkham kayikassa sukhassa, kayikassa dukkhassa, phalasamapattiya upanissayapaccayena paccayo.8
Pleasant bodily sensation is the cause for the arising of pleasant sensation of the body, unpleasant sensation of the body, and attainment of fruition (nibbana) in relation to the strong dependent condition. Unpleasant bodily sensation is the cause for the arising of pleasant sensation of the body, unpleasant sensation of the body, and attainment of fruition (nibbana) in relation to the strong dependent condition.
Pakatupanissayo-kayikam sukham upanissaya... vipassanam uppadeti, maggam uppadeti, abhinnam uppadeti, samapattim uppadeti.9
Dependent on pleasant bodily sensations... Vipassana arises... Path arises... Knowledge arises... attainment of (nibbana) arises.
Some of my friends insisted that vedana is a part of nama and hence it has no relation to the bodily sensations. Differences of opinion may exist. But for me the entire Tipitaka bears testimony to the fact that the bodily sensations are as much a part of vedana as mental feelings; rather, bodily sensations are much more important in the Buddha's teaching. The Patthana gave an added incontrovertible proof that bodily sensations are of utmost importance on the path of liberation. I have immensely benefited from this and I continue to teach
Vipassana as I learnt it from my revered teacher, giving importance to bodily sensations.
Somanassa and domanassaare used for pleasant mental feelings and unpleasant mental feelings respectively. Sukhasukha and dukkhadukkha are used in the broader sense of happiness and misery but he also used them in the specific sense of bodily pleasant and unpleasant feelings.
Tisso ima, bhikkhave, vedana. Katama tisso? Sukha vedana, dukkha vedana, adukkhamasukha vedana. Ima kho, bhikkhave, tisso vedana.10
There are these three types of bodily sensations. What are the three? Pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations and sensations that are neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant).
The Buddha always enumerated three types of vedana in the manner mentioned above. He included somanassindriyam and domanassindriyam only when he enumerated five types of vedana. This indicates the primacy of bodily sensations over mental feelings in the Buddha's teaching.
Katama ca, bhikkhave, tisso vedana? Sukha vedana, dukkha vedana, adukkhamasukha vedana-ima vuccanti, bhikkhave, tisso vedana. Katama ca, bhikkhave, panca vedana? Sukhindriyam, dukkhindriyam, somanassindriyam, domanassindriyam, upekkhindriyam-ima vuccanti, bhikkhave, panca vedana.11
The Buddha has qualified vedana by sukha vedana and dukkha vedana when he talks about the satipatthanas but never somanassa vedana or domanassa vedana in the context of sampajanna or satipatthanas. In the entire Tipitaka there are only about a dozen places where vedana occurs together with somanassa but there are hundreds of places where sukha or dukkha vedana is used, particularly in the context of meditation of satipatthana. Thus, it is clear that vedana as a part of the nama that is firmly rooted in kaya is what the Buddha wanted us to focus on when he talked about meditation to eradicate suffering.
This is also the reason why brahmas from arupabrahmalokaarupabrahmaloka cannot practise Vipassana and why the Buddha could not give Dhamma to his past teachers of arupa jhanas (seventh and eighth jhanas/dhyanas). In the fifth to eighth jhanas,jhanas the mind is set free from the body and thus there is no experience of vedana. Therefore, these brahmas lack rupa and cannot experience body-sensations. Hence, the practice of the awareness of vedana is not possible for them and they cannot walk on the path of liberation.
It is noteworthy that in practising samadhi, somanassa and domanassa disappear in the third jhana but sukha and dukkha vedana disappear only in the fourth jhana. Adukkhamasukha vedanaadukkhamasukha vedana remains even in the fourth jhana. From this, one may reasonably conclude that bodily sensations give us a stronger and more continuous hold on reality, and thus, on the root cause of tanha. One can clearly comprehend sensations and they offer a tangible tool to attain one's own salvation.
I learnt this from my own experience using the technique taught by my teacher. With this background, the words of the Buddha were so convincing and heartening. This path has given so much joy to me. On my teacher's injunction, I started sharing this technique with others, in India and around the world. When I share this technique of liberation with my students, I find that they also benefit by working with sensations and understanding their true nature. The clear, practical and result-oriented teaching of the Buddha inspires so much trust and confidence in me. It leaves no scope for any imagination or blind faith.
Every now and then, someone comes and argues with me as to why I give so much importance to bodily sensations. Very humbly I request him or her to come and give a trial to Vipassana meditation, to experience and examine whether it is in accordance with the Buddha's teaching.
Let there be no doubt about the technique. I invite you: Let us all walk on the path shown to us by the Buddha, the greatest scientist of mind and matter, the greatest physician of mind the world has ever produced. Let our philosophical beliefs not become an obstacle for us. Let us make use of the Buddha's discovery that vedana is the tool that will liberate us from our misery.
May all be happy, peaceful and liberated.
Notes: (All references VRI edition)
1. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.249
2. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.251
3. Digha Nikaya 2.393
4. Digha Nikaya 2.394
5. Samyutta Nikaya 3.5.401
6. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.260
7. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.262
8. Patthana 1.1.423
9. Patthana 1.1.423
10. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.250
11. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.270