-By Vipassana Research Institute
The Pāli term vedana, rendered in English as feeling or sensation, is derived from the root 'vidvid', which means 'to experienceto experience'. When an object comes in the range of a sense-organ, a simple contact is thereby established with the mind, which experiences that object as sensation or vedana. Therefore, the key to direct experience (paccanubhotipaccanubhoti), is vedana, since through it we actually encounter and experience the world. As stated in the Pāli texts-
Ya vedayati ti vedana, sa vedayita lakkhana, anubhavanarasa...1
-That which feels the object is vedana, its characteristic is to experience, its function is to realize the object... It follows that in order to realize anything at the experiential level; one has to work with vedana.
The Buddha described vedana in various ways. In the Bahu-Vedaniya Suttabahu-vedaniya sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya2, he mentioned and analyzed several types of sensations by groups-two types, three types, five, six... eighteen, up to one hundred and eight varieties.3 However, when defining it more precisely, he spoke of vedana as having both mental and physical aspects. Without mind, matter alone cannot feel anything. It is the mind that feels, but what it feels has an inextricable physical element-the sukha-vedana (pleasant sensations), dukkha-vedana (unpleasant sensations) and adukkhamasukhavedana (neutral sensations).
For the actual practice taught by the Buddha, it is this physical aspect of vedana which is of particular importance, since it is the most direct and tangible way to experience the anicca (impermanence) of ourselves, and so to develop wisdom. Anicca is a fact to be realized not by merely relating it intellectually to the outside world. Rather, it must be experienced internally. We must experience ourselvesexperience ourselves as we really are-each a transitory phenomenon, changing every moment. This experience of aniccaexperience of anicca at the level of sensations results in the gradual dissolution of attachment and egotism. Describing the importance of the physical aspect of vedana for the realisation of nibbana (liberation), the Buddha said-
Yathapi vata akaseyathapi vata akase, vayanti vividha puthu; puratthima pacchima ca pi, uttara atha dakkhina. Saraja araja ca pi, 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 sankham nopeti vedagu' ti. 4
-Just as in the sky different windsas different winds in the sky blow from east and west, from north and south, dust-laden or dustless, cold or hot, fierce gales or gentle breezes- many winds blow. So also within the body arise sensations, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When a meditator, striving ardently, does not lose his constant thorough understanding of impermanence even for a moment, such a wise person fully comprehends all sensations. Having thus comprehended sensations, within this life he becomes freed of all defilements (and becomes an arahant or vedagu). Such a person, who is vedagu (one who completely understands the sphere of sensations), being established in Dhamma, after death attains the indescribable state beyond the conditioned world because he knows sensations thoroughly (their arising and passing away and also the state beyond sensation).
Again emphasizing the fact that the sensation manifests in the body, he said-
Seyyathapi, bhikkhave, agantukagaramagantukagaram, tattha puratthimaya pi disaya agantva vasam kappenti, pacchimaya pi disaya agantva vasam kappenti, uttaraya pi disaya... dakkhinaya pi disaya... khattiya pi... brahmana pi... vessa pi... sudda pi... Evameva kho, bhikkhave, imasmim kayasmim vividha vedana uppajjanti. Sukha pi vedana uppajjati, dukkha pi vedana uppajjati adukkhamasukha pi...Samisa pi sukha.., samisa pi dukkha.., samisa pi adukkhamasukha... Niramisa pi sukha... niramisa pi dukkha... niramisa pi adukkhamasukha vedana uppajjati. 5
-Suppose, meditators, there is a public guest housepublic guest house. People come there from the east, west, north and south. People who are Ksatriyas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. Similarly, meditators, various sensations arise in this body-pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations and neutral sensations arise; pleasant sensations with attachment, unpleasant... neutral... arise; pleasant... unpleasant... neutral sensations without attachment arise.
The above passage clearly describes the process of Vipassana, whereby through observation of sensations in the body (kayasmim), a person can be fully liberated from suffering. First, it describes different types of sensations (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral) which a meditator easily understands and experiences by practising Vipassana. By constantly observing the sensations in the body, one experiences the characteristic of arising and passing away. This objective unremitting observation is sampajanna (constant thorough understanding of impermanence). According to the Buddha, one who practises sampajanna is a wise personwise person, knowing experientially how sensations arise and pass away within the body as a result of the repeated contact of sense objects. This person knows that when one begins to relish the pleasant sensations and abhorr the unpleasant sensations, misery is generated and multiplies. Without sampajanna, one remains unaware of the deeper unconscious level of the mind. It is in the darkness of ignorancedarkness of ignorance that an unconscious reaction begins towards the sensations. This momentary liking or disliking soon develops into craving or aversion, the reaction repeating and intensifying innumerable times before it bursts forth into the conscious mind. If importance is given only to what happens in the conscious mind, then because of one's ignorance of the underlying reality, one becomes aware of it only after the reaction has occurred repeatedly. One allows the spark of sensationspark of sensation to ignite into a raging fire before trying to extinguish it, resulting in unskilful physical and vocal actions. By practising sampajanna, one learns to observe the sensations within the body objectively, permitting each spark to burn itself out without starting a conflagration. By observing the physical aspect of vedana, one becomes aware of the reality that the vedana that has arisen is impermanent. With this understanding, one remains equanimous and prevents any reaction from occurring. Constant observation of vedana in this manner by anicca-bodha gives rise to detachment. With this attitude, one can prevent not only fresh reactions of craving and aversion, but also eliminate the very habit of reactinghabit of reacting, and thereby gradually come out of suffering by transcending all the sensations and becoming what the Buddha calls a vedagu-
Sabbavedanasu vitaragovitarago, sabbam vedamaticca vedagu so.6
-One who is completely detached from vedana, and has gone beyond the entire (field of) vedana (to reach vedana-nirodha) is called vedagu.
Emphasising the arising of sensation in the body which results in the attainment of nibbana, the Buddha said in the Patthana-
Kayikam sukham... phala-samapattiyaphala-samapattiya upanissaya paccayena paccayo. Kayikam dukkham.. phala-samapattiya upanissaya paccayena paccayo. 7
-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.
This shows that the Buddha gave foremost importance to sensation for the realisation of the ultimate truth. As he himself said-
Ajjhattam ca bahiddha ca, vedanam nabhinandato; evam satassa carato, vinnanam uparujjhati.8
-By moving with full awareness, remaining detached from the sensations within and without and observing them objectively, one reaches the cessation of consciousness.
Feeling the same pleasant or unpleasant sensations in the body, an ignorant personignorant person reacts to them and multiplies his or her sankhara. In contrast, a Vipassana meditator with the wisdom of sampajanna emerges from the old habit pattern and becomes fully liberated. Thus our bodies bear witness to the truthwitness to the truth. By observing sensations, we can advance from merely hearing about that truth to experiencing it directly for ourselves. When we meet it face to facemeet it face to face, we become transformed by the truth and faith arises in us, based not on blind belief but on experience.
Notes: (All references VRI edition)
1. Dhammasangami Atthakatha, 1, Kamavacarakusalapadabhajaniyam
2. Majjhima Nikaya 2.88
3. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.270
4. Ibid. 194, 2.4.260
5. Ibid. 195, 2.4.262
6. Suttanipata, 534
7. Patthana 1.1.423
8. Suttanipata 1.117