Although vedana (sensations) have played an important role in many meditation practices, there were no practitioners in the past, save the Buddha, who investigated their real nature. These vedana are sometimes gross and sometimes subtle, the latter becoming more distinct when the mind is concentrated. However, the mind becomes agitated when it encounters more intense vedana, and the meditator finds it difficult to observe them objectively and thereby investigate their true nature.
Many of the samanas and brahmanas of the past who engaged in meditation, held that these vedana arise only due to the ripening of kamma (deeds committed in past lives). They therefore attempted to deliberately create vedana through various austere practices and bodily torture. They believed that in this way they could destroy all the effects of their past actions manifesting as these vedana, and achieve the summum bonum, the stage of ultimate peace and calm.
The Buddha, however, instead of stressing the causes of vedana, instructed his followers to try to comprehend their true nature of impermanence (anicca) and thereby purify the mind. He advised them to maintain equanimity of mind, neither craving for pleasant vedana, nor having aversion to unpleasant vedana, understanding that all vedana are intrinsically impermanent in nature, and are bound to pass away. The meditator must learn to observe them as they really are- arising (samudaya) and passing away (atthangama). He must learn to recognize the danger (adinava) of relishing them (assada), and must observe their cessation (nirodha) and the way leading to their cessation (nirodha-gamini-patipada). The Buddha taught that one can purify the mind only by observing and understanding the real nature of vedana as anicca. In this way, the meditator can be freed from the cycle of birth and death, and thereby attain the stage beyond mind and matter, which is free from all sorrow and misery.
The Buddha says-
Samahito sampajano, sato Buddhassa savako; vedana ca pajanati, vedananam ca sambhavam.
Yattha ceta nirujjhanti, maggam ca khayagaminam; vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchato parinibbuto.1
-A follower of Buddha, with concentration, awareness and constant thorough understanding of impermanence, knows with wisdom sensations, their arising, their cessation and the path leading to their end. A meditator who has reached the end of sensations is freed from craving, fully liberated.
An interesting story is narrated in the Sivaka Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya. Moliya sivaka, a sectarian mendicant, came to the Buddha, and told him there were samanas and brahmanas who held the view that vedana arise only due to the ripening of previous kamma (deeds). The Buddha replied that samanas and brahmanas who held this view indeed 'run to extremes' (atidhavanti) as they do not take other causes of vedana into account. Others held the view that the only cause of vedana was bile (pitta), and they were also going to extremes. Both of these opinions are miccha2 (incorrect). Believing that previous actions are the sole cause of vedana, one indulges in different futile austere penances, hoping to eradicate the evil deeds committed in the past and reach a stage of purity and peace. It is equally useless and incorrect to regard bile as the sole cause of vedana.
Ye te samanabrahmana evamvadino evamditthino- Kincayam purisapuggalo patisamvedeti sukham va dukkham va adukkhamasukham va sabbam tam pubbekatahetu'ti. Yam ca samam natam tam ca atidhavanti, yam ca loke saccasammatam tam ca atidhavanti. Tasma tesam samanabrahmananam micchati vadami.3
-The Buddha, having comprehensive understanding of reality, pointed out other factors which may cause vedana. For instance, bile may be a cause, the increase of phlegm (semha) may also be a cause. Additionally, wind (vata) in the body may be aggravated and cause different vedana. At times, all three of these may become unbalanced and due to the diffusion of chemical reactions in the body (sannipata), one may feel various vedana. Vedana may also be caused by seasonal variations (utuni). For example, one feels certain vedana when cold, but different vedana when the weather is hot. It also happens that in adverse circumstances, or when one is frightened, the equilibrium of the mind and body is disturbed (visamam). Different vedana will then be experienced. In addition, a person may have to undergo physical punishment, or he may deliberately adopt austere penances and torture himself as mentioned above, falsely believing that he can thereby erase his sins and attain a pure and steadfast life (opakkamikam). In this instance as well, different vedana may be experienced. Finally, the ripening of previous kamma may cause vedana to arise in the body. Thus, by abandoning both extreme viewpoints, that of previous kamma as the sole cause or that of bile as the sole cause, the Buddha delineated eight causes of vedana-
Pittam semham ca vato ca, sannipata utuni ca; Visamam opakkamikam, kammavipakena atthamiti.4
-The Buddha admonished his followers to meditate on vedana arising every moment within the body, whatever their cause may be, and to learn to maintain a dispassionate state of mind towards them, knowing that they are bound to pass away. By this training, a disciple of the Buddha can go beyond the sphere of all vedana and experience the cessation of misery. This is the experience of nibbana.
Notes: (All references VRI edition)
1. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.249
2. Ibid 2.4.269
3. Ibid 2.4.269
4. Ibid 2.4.269