Feeling and Perception of Impermanence in the Canonical Literature
1. In the Abhidhammattha Vibhavini, the subcommentator says, 'vedayati, arammananubhavanarasam anubhavati'ti vedana'. It is the feeling of an object that is called vedana.
The feeling that is able to determine whether an object is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant; neither good nor bad, neither pleasant nor unpleasant is called vedana.
According to arammananubhavana, there are three kinds of vedana, sukhavedana (pleasant feeling), dukkhavedana (unpleasant feeling), adukkhamasukhavedana (neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling). This is stated in the Dhammasangani of Abhidhammapitaka taught by the Buddha.
There are also six kinds of vedana such as the following-
1. cakkhusamphassaja vedana (arises when the eye comes in contact with a visible object)
2. sotasamphassaja vedana (arises when the ear comes in contact with an audible object)
3. ghanasamphassaja vedana (arises when the nose comes in contact with an odour)
4. jivhasamphassaja vedana (arises when the tongue comes in contact with a flavour)
5. kayasamphassaja vedana (arises when the physical body comes in contact with a tangible object)
6. manosamphassaja vedana (arises when the mind comes in contact with a mental object)
These six kinds of vedana are referred to in the Majjhima Nikaya text, Chachakkasutta etc., by the Buddha.
These vedana of three, five, six etc., as stated above are nothing but cetasika (mental concomitants) accompanying each and every citta (mind or consciousness) that arises from moment to moment. Like vedana, there are six other cetasikas that arise, accompanying the mind or consciousness. These seven cetasikas, also known as sabbacittasadharana cetasikas, accompany all kinds of mind or consciousness.
Of the seven sabbacittasadharana cetasikas, vedana is the second cetasika. There are five khandhas-rupakkhandha, vedanakkhandha, sannakkhandha, sankharakkhandha and vinnanakkhandha.
Of these five, vedana is the second khandha.
2. Vedana is the fifth object according to vipassana-bhavana (Insight meditation).
According to Mahasalhayatanika Sutta, Samadhi Sutta, Pathamaja Sutta and many other suttas, there are five objects of vipassana-bhavana (Insight meditation).
There are five pasadarupa (sensitive corporeality) such as cakkhupasada etc., one of these five being the first object of Vipassana meditation. There are five objects such as visible objects etc., one of these five being the second object. There are five consciousnesses such as cakkhuvinnana (eye consciousness) etc., one of these five consciousnesses being the third object. Phassa (contact) cetasika is the fourth object. Vedana cetasika is the fifth object.
It will be seen from the above that vedana is the fifth object of the five. It will also be seen that the role of vedana is important. This will be justified by the various teachings of the Buddha to be discussed below.
Vedana not as a cause of Tanha but as a cause of Panna
3. First let us see the Paticcasamuppada desana (discourse on the Law of Dependent Origination). Here we find vedana paccaya tanha (because of vedana there arises tanha).
When tanha arises, upadana, bhava and jati are bound to arise. This cannot be stopped by any power on earth.
This statement may be explained for others to understand as follows-If this tanha which belongs to samudayasacca (second Noble Truth) is not eradicated, all the consequences will become dukkhasacca (first Noble Truth), such as old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair.
In other words, dukkha is a real result of samudaya. It is because of craving that dukkha or suffering arises. This is quite clear. If dukkha arises because of craving, no dukkha arises when there is no craving. If dukkha is not wanted, there must be no craving. Give up craving.
Therefore, if you do not want dukkha, do not crave. If you do not want craving, you will have no dukkha. Reject dukkha; to reject dukkha, vedana must be contemplated with vipassana-bhavana-seeing things as they truly are.
The question of how to practise has been answered the Buddha. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, Vedananupassana.
According to that answer, (desana), if a good sensation arises, we must know that it is a good sensation that arises. If a bad sensation arises, we must know that it is a bad sensation. If a neither good sensation nor bad sensation arises, we must know that it is a neither good sensation nor bad sensation.
If good sensual sensation arises, we must know that it is good sensual sensation. If good spiritual sensation arises, we must know that is good spiritual sensation. If bad sensual sensation arises, we must know that it is bad sensual sensation. If bad spiritual sensation arises, we must know that it is bad spiritual sensation. If neither good nor bad sensual sensation arises, we must know that it is neither good nor bad sensual sensation. If neither good nor bad spiritual sensation arises, we must know that it is neither good nor bad spiritual sensation.
If we try our best and practise in this way, tanha does not arise because of vedana; vedana cannot become a cause of tanha; dukkha does arise because of samudaya; dukkha does not arise because of tanha; if there is no dukkha, there is only sukha. Vedana will be the cause of panna and not tanha. What is this panna? It is Vipassana (insight).
Briefly speaking, if we want sukha and not dukkha, we should not have craving. If we do not want to have craving, vedana which is the outcome of tanha, must be contemplated very carefully to see things as they truly are. In other words, if we do not contemplate vedana seriously, our samsara will not cease, and dukkha will not stop. If we contemplate vedana seriously and try our best to understand it as it really is, there will soon be freedom from samsara and sukha will arise. Sammatasukha which is the best of all kinds of sukha will follow.
No latent disposition, no Andhaputhujjana
4. We are now going to deal with the importance of vedana. There are many desana on this one single subject of vedana such as the Sakkapanha Sutta and the Chachakka Sutta. Out of all these, the various comments on vedana contained in Chachaka Sutta Uparipannasa Pāli Text are most interesting, a brief essence of which will be discussed here.
When sukha vedana arises and craving for it arises, latent disposition of raga arises, and one becomes an andhaputhujjana (ignorant worldling). If no craving for it arises, latent disposition of raga does not arise and one becomes a kalyanaputhujjana and an ariyapuggala instead of an andhaputhujjana.
When dukkha vedana arises and causes aversion, the latent disposition of patigha arises, and one becomes andhaputhujjana. If there is no aversion, the latent disposition of patigha does not arise, and one becomes a kalyanaputhujjana and an ariyapuggala instead of an andhaputhujjana. When upekkha vedana (indifferent sensation) arises, and we do not know how it arises and vanishes, how it is pleasant or unpleasant, how it can be overcome, the latent disposition of avijja arises and one becomes an andhaputhujjana. If we know how it arises and vanishes etc., the latent disposition of avijja does not arise and one becomes a kalyanaputhujjana and an ariyapuggala.
In other words, when an andhaputhujjana gets vedana as a raw material, he does not know how to use it, handle it or exploit it to good advantage. The vedana exploits, overrules and dominates him; he is always subservient to vedana as a result of which raganusaya, patighanusaya and avijjanusaya arise in him accompanied by various kinds of dukkha.
When a kalyana or a ariyapuggala gets the same vedana as a raw material, he knows how to use it, handle it and exploit it to good advantage. He controls vedana raw material, exploits it, overules it, and dominates it. He is not subservient to vedana. He is already mature; anusaya does not arise; the stock of dukkha diminishes.
The best way for all stocks of dukkha to diminish is nothing but vedananupassana (insight meditation on feeling) of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta.
Vedananupassana is done in another way that does not let anusaya arise
5. It is known as the Gelanna Sutta (page 142 of the second volume of Samyuttanikaya Sixth Synod). The following is the translation of the central theme of the sutta for easy contemplation-
When sukha vedana arises, we must know that sukha vedana has arisen without a cause it cannot arise. What is its cause? This physical body is its cause. This body is not permanent; It is the composition of causal laws of sankhata, merely an effect of its own cause. How could this sukha vedana, which is impermanent, which is a direct outcome of the physical body, become permanent? This is the way to contemplate it. Contemplate also that the physical body and sukha vedana are not permanent. They are always in a state of flux, arising and vanishing. When we contemplate like this, raganusaya cannot arise.
When dukkha vedana arises, we must know that dukkha vedana has arisen... 'How can dukkha vedana be permanent?' It must be contemplated again and again to see and know things as they truly are. Make a practice of contemplating that the physical body and dukkha vedana are not permanent. They are always in a state of flux arising and vanishing all the time. When we do this, patighanusaya cannot arise.
When upekkha vedana arises, we must know that upekkha vedana has arisen... 'How can upekkha vedana be permanent?' It must be contemplated again and again to see and know things as they truly are. Make a practice of contemplating that the physical body and upekkha vedana are not permanent. They are always in a state of flux, arising and vanishing all the time. When we do this avijjanusaya cannot arise.
When sukha vedana, or dukkha vedana or upekkha vedana arises, contemplate on vedana which is impermanent; do not stop it; contemplate that vedana is not to be welcomed nor relished.
When sukha vedana arises, we must not enjoy it with craving, which is lobha. When dukkha vedana arises,we must have no aversion, which is dosa. When upekkha vedana arises, we must contemplate it so that moha does not arise.
When vedana of the physical body entails loss or damage to any limbs of the body or to the body itself, contemplate that 'I am suffering from vedana that may entail loss or damage to my limbs of body.'
When any vedana arises that may entail loss of life, contemplate that 'I am suffering from vedana that may entail loss of my life.'
We must contemplate that after death all undesirable vedana in our physical body will disappear once and for all. For example, a burning flame is extinguished when the wick and oil are exhausted. In the same way, all kinds of vedana disappear.
According to the above desana, it will be seen that there are ways to happiness when feelings arise so that anusaya does not lie latent (no latent disposition arises) and that there is no more dukkha but sukha only. It may be noted that this is a new method of dispelling anusaya in contemplation. It can also be said that this is a new method of investigation of the law of the element of enlightenment (dhammavicaya sambojjhanga).
In this sutta, it is most interesting to find that special stress is laid on the importance of the impermanent nature of vedana.
One thorn only instead of two
6. There are many suttas on the subject of vedana of which Salla Sutta is one (page 409 of the second volume of Samyutta Nikaya, Sixth Synod). The following is a relevant extract from the sutta-
If an andhaputhujjana, with no knowledge of Vipassana is suffering in body and mind, he is like a person stuck by two thorns. Patighanusaya lies latent in him as he is not free from dukkha vedana. When he suffers from dukkha vedana, he wants kamasukha because he does not know that jhanasukha and phalasukha are freedom from dukkha vedana. As he wants kamasukha, raganusaya arises because of sukha vedana. Because the true nature of vedana is not known as it truly is, avijjanusaya arises when upekkha vedana is experienced.
As he has no knowledge of vipassana-bhavana (insight meditation), he will have lobha with sukha vedana, dosa with dukkha vedana, and moha with upekkha vedana. The Buddha therefore teaches that this kind of person is subject to jati, jara, marana, soka, parideva, dukkha, domanassa, upayasa etc.
A kalyanaputhujjana or an ariyapuggala with good knowledge of vipassana-bhavana, who has dukkha vedana, will have only physical dukkha, not mental dukkha. He is like a person stuck by only one thorn. Patighanusaya also will not arise because he has no (cetasika dukkha) mental suffering. When he has dukkha vedana, he does not want kamasukha because he knows that jhanasukha and phalasukha are freedom from dukkha vedana and therefore raganusaya does not arise. Avijjanusaya also does not arise because he has already known the true nature of vedana such as arising and vanishing, pleasant and unpleasant etc.
As he has a good knowledge of vipassana-bhavana, sukha vedana arises in him without lobha, dukkha vedana without dosa, and upekkha vedana without moha.
The Buddha teaches therefore that this man is not subject to the law of jati, jara, marana, soka, parideva, dukkha, domanassa, upayasa etc.
This is the difference between an andhaputhujjana and an ariyapuggala.
From the above teaching of the Buddha, it will be seen that all of us who are always in contact with one or more of these vedana will do our utmost to understand these vedana with yatha-bhuta-nana-dassana (to see things as they truly are).
To prevent a small spark from making a big fire
7. The following is a relevant extract from a desana on the same subject of vedana (paragraph 103 on page 50 of vol. 2 of Digha Nikaya Sixth Synod) which is most interesting-
Ananda! Because of feeling, craving arises; because of craving, effort is made to get what he wants; because of effort made, he gets what he wants; because of what he gets, he thinks to himself, 'This is a visible object; this is an audible object etc., this is for myself, this is for others; I will eat so much; I will save so much'. Because of thinking to himself, he begins to crave, more or less. Because of craving, he believes 'This is I, this is myself'. Because of wrong belief, he accumulates property. As he accumulates property, he has to keep guard over it. Because of having to keep guard, several kinds of undesirable disputes, quarrels, fighting, disturbances, etc. take place.
From the above teaching of the Buddha, it will be seen that a small spark makes a big fire. The dangerous disputes, quarrels leading to armed struggles or other kinds of disturbances begin with vedana.
In these circumstances, we must not forget that even a small offence as small as an atom can become a big danger.
The Buddha warns-anumattesu vajjesu bhaya-dassavi (we must not ignore even a small spark, as it can cause a big fire).
Therefore, we must not pay less attention to vedana. We must realize that all of these will send us directly to prisons as well as to the four woeful states.
Samsara is cut off when vedana becomes panna
8. After understanding what has been stated above, we must see to it that vedana does not become tanha. For this purpose, we must do our best for vedana to become panna. The Buddha has also taught how vedana is to become panna.
Panna means understanding of things as they truly are. For understanding of things as they truly are, analytical knowledge is necessary. The Buddha has also fully taught the subject of analytical knowledge.
According to the above instruction, when vedana arises, we must know through vipassana-nana, that vedana arises. If the vedana that arises is sukha vedana, we must know that sukha vedana arises according to the instruction of Vedananupassana as already stated above.
If we do this, understanding of things as they truly are becomes perfect; vedana becomes panna; vedana does not become tanha.
If vedana does not become tanha, a small spark does not become a big fire; samsara is cut off. The Buddha has already taught how samsara is to be cut off. It is nothing but the paticcasamuppada desana only.
When vedana ceases, tanha (craving) ceases; when tanha ceases, upadana (clinging) ceases; when upadana ceases, kammabhava or upapattibhava (process of volitional action and rebirth process) ceases; when kammabhava or upapattibhava ceases, jati (rebirth or birth) ceases; when jati ceases, jara (old age), marana (death), soka (sorrow), parideva (lamentation), dukkha (pain), domanassa (grief), and upayasa (despair) cease. In this way, dukkha ceases all.
From the above desana (Buddha's teaching) we will be able to realize the following-
If either sukha vedana or dukkha or upekkha vedana arises and we do not know how to handle it with vipassana-nana, contemplate it or see things as they truly are, then a small spark will make a big fire and we go round the whirlpool of ceaseless samsara.
If we observe vedana with vipassana-nana, a small spark will not make a big fire and we stop going round the whirlpool of ceaseless samsara.
Importance of Aniccasanna
9. We are now going to discuss aniccasanna (perception of impermanence) which is also called amoha sampajanna (analytical wisdom).
In the matter of vipassana-bhavana, vedana is as important as aniccassanna (perception of impermanence). This is recognised by the Buddha himself. In this matter, we would like to deal with a teaching of the Buddha which is already known to almost every Buddhist. This is a stanza contained in the Dhammapada Pāli text.
Sabbe sankhara aniccati, yada pannaya passati;
atha nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiya.
The above passage means that when we come to realize through vipassana-nana that sankhara dhamma (every conditioned phenomenon) is subject to anicca, we begin to get disgusted with all kinds of dukkha dhamma. This frustration is the right way to freedom from kilesa (defilement) which is nibbana.
This stanza contains three instructions-the first is that we come to realize through vipassana-nana that every sankhara dhamma (conditioned phenomenon) is subject to anicca (impermanence).
'What is sankhara dhamma?' Sankhara dhamma means that everything in the world is sankhara. Ordinary puthujjana or worldlings do not know nor understand what is asankhata (unconditioned phenomenon); they know and understand only sankhata dhamma. That is the reason why we can say that all they know and understand are sankhata dhamma. This conclusion cannot be wrong. First, we must always remember that not a single dhamma or sankhara is permanent; all are the same.
Secondly, we must study, investigate and analyse very carefully, with our own wisdom, so that sanna (perception) becomes panna. If we do this frequently, it is certain that we are going to realize in due course that there is nothing which is permanent; there is no such thing as permanence.When we come to this stage of self-realisation with our own wisdom, we can be sure that our progress is quite satisfactory.
It can also be said that the stage of suta-maya-nana (knowledge of learning from teachers etc.), becomes that of bhavana-maya-nana (knowledge of development through meditation) and the sanna (perception) that comes from outside, becomes vipassana-nana (insight meditation) or sayambhunana (intuitive knowledge) that comes from inside.
Here we must remember that verbal or mental recitation such as anicca, anicca is not sufficient to penetrate to the essence of Buddha's teaching. Why? Because we must remember distinctly that all these are the stages of sanna (perception), vacikamma (verbal action), and pariyatti (learning of scripture), and that the stages of panna, manokamma (development of mental action) and patipatti (development of insight knowledge) have not yet been reached.
Passati, as every student of Pāli knows, is nothing but contemplation for realisation of vipassana-nana. It is a matter of practical contemplation for realisation etc., and therefore mere recitation, reading, or noting etc., are not enough.
Well! If we are asked, 'What is the benefit of our self-realisation of what is impermanence or what is anicca dhamma?', the answer to this question is given by the Buddha as follows-
The meditator will become frustrated with all kinds of dukkha dhamma and his attachment to sankhara dhamma or samudaya tanha will soon diminish.
This is quite natural and it is in full accord with the law of cause and effect. For we are in love because we do not know the dukkha which is the outcome of this love. Is it not so? It is quite right. Anicca, dukkha, anatta etc., are the adinava (weaknesses) of sankhara dhamma.
10. Then we have one more to remember. Atha nibbindati dukkhe which means that. 'all sankhara dhamma become more frustrating.' This is the second instruction given by the Buddha.
This instruction contains the following meanings-'Ordinary puthujjana (worldlings) are not frustrated with dukkha; they are attached to it; they are in love with it, clinging to it, which develops samudaya dhamma. These are not sukha; they are like dogs of hunger and greediness devouring the most repulsive and disgusting heaps of excrement.'
Well! We get frustrated when we realize that it is anicca. It may be asked, 'What is to become of this frustration?' The answer to this question is given by the Buddha in the third instruction referred to above-'When there is frustration, there is purification, and we shall be able to realize nibbana, which is purification.'
This third instruction is most meaningful. Instead of disappointment or frustration, there is love or attachment to develop more of samudaya tanha. The more samudaya tanha is developed, the more kilesa (defilement) is on the increase. As kilesa is on the increase, nibbana, which is purification of defilement, cannot be realized.
If we want to realize nibbana there must be disappointment without love or attachment. These are the meanings.
Lord Buddha therefore says, 'For development of disappointment without love or attachment or samudaya tanha, the three characteristics (anicca, dukkha, anatta) of sankhara dhamma must be realized.'
Therefore, if we want to understand anicca sanna quite well so that the real nature of sankhara dhamma is realized in full, the resultant disappointment of dukkha dhamma will soon arise. Then, the more disappointment is on the increase, the more defiling impurity will decrease and diminish in the course of time. Finally, the real freedom from defiling impurity, which we call nibbana will be realized.
Therefore, we must always remember, that it is most important for us to have a right view of the real nature of anicca.
From Anicca to Anatta and Anatta to Nibbana
11. Therefore, we would like to conclude here with the teaching of the Buddha himself. That is about the great importance of the nature of aniccasanna, which is impermanence. The following is the desana in question (vide page 120, first vol. of Khuddaka Nikaya of the sixth synod).
'Meghiya! Aniccasanna (perception of impermanence), which is the perfect understanding of the law of impermanence, must be developed within your own inner-self of concentrated contemplation or vipassana-nana.
Meghiya! That is quite right. For one who has developed aniccasanna, anatta dhamma (which means that there is no eternity nor atta) will arise.
One who has developed anatta will be able to dispel the wrong view of atta (or self) and the blissful state of nibbana will be realized even in this very lifetime.'
May all of us come to realize the blissful state of nibbana in our present lifetime.
The Many By-Paths of Vedana
Department of Pāli and Buddhist Studies,
University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
Thus have I heard
Standing prominently like a sentinel by the highway named the Samsaric Circus was the towering Tree of Sensations. Since it covered a considerable area on the right side of the road where it stood, no one passing by could avoid walking under its spreading branches and thus coming under its influence. Yet as it changed its garb from season to season, the influence it exerted on the passers-by, or on those who rested under it also changed with each season.
In the summer, the weary travellers were exhilarated by the mere sight of its thick dark green foliage and the touch of its cooling shade on their bodies. The soft breezes rustling through its leaves, and the chirping of the birds resting among its leaves were music in their ears. The sweet smell and the taste of the ripe luscious fruits brought satisfaction to their noses and tongues. The overall balmy effect these had on their bodies and minds rekindled their desire to go in search of even greater resorts of pleasure. Moreover, the pleasant sensations effected by them sunk deep into their hearts to leave a tendency for attachment for sense pleasures in its recesses.
As the time passed and the summer gradually faded into the autumn to end up in winter, the tree also changed its garb. The traveller who comes there, exhausted by the fierce wintry weather, finds no comforting shelter under its branches. Its branches and twigs, now bereft of all leaves and grey with frost, are painful to look at. The tree provides no warm shelter from the biting cold winds howling through its bare branches. There is no sweet smell of flowers. The luscious fruits are all gone. The tired traveller now has only the foul smell of his own winter clothes and the taste of the drops of the dew forming under his nose to wet his parched lips. The painful effect of all these on his mind was one of repugnance which gripped his heart. He started to hate the Tree and wanted to run away from it, yearning for the pleasurable sensations that were missing.
The winter garb, however, like the summer one, was not everlasting. It also gradually changed and the Tree now put on its spring clothes. Clad in its light green robes, with tiny buds of flowers popping up from here and there, the tree stands almost still in the quiet surroundings. The whole atmosphere is peaceful and soothing to the body and mind, which is overcome with a lazy complacency. Neither too hot nor too cold, the traveller on the road knows no fatigue and walks by the tree completely ignoring its spotty shade. He pays no attention to the Tree and therefore is not able to appreciate its calming effect. The resulting ignorance sinks deep into his mind to leave there a proclivity to ignorance. Common to all the three seasons was the same attitude of the travellers, whether the Tree attracted them, repulsed them or was ignored by them, namely their failure to objectively assess the changing nature of the Tree in each season.
Branching off to the left near the Tree of Sensations were numerous by-paths. Certain intelligent persons amongst the travellers had from time to time shown some of these to their fellow travellers as avenues of escape from the highway and the paths to permanent peace. These people were either inquisitive by nature and, therefore, wanted to find the purpose of their travelling on the highway, or they were tired from their travelling and wanted to rest or else they were led by compassion for the other road-weary travellers. Yet unfortunately none of the paths they discovered could lead anyone out of the Samsaric Circus. They were almost 'parallel' roads to the highway, which led the users back to the main highway. For all these by-paths branching off to the left merely zigzagged within the Samsaric Circus and rejoined the highway and never led anyone out of it.
But once, there was a remarkable person in whom were combined all the above three reasons, and who put all his energy to discover the path out of the Circus. He found through experience that all the by-paths shown by others, strangely branching to the left at the Tree of Sensations, did not lead him out of it. He could not see whether there were any by-paths to the right of the Tree because that side was completely hidden by it. So he decided to go around the Tree instead of going at a tangent to it. He had to clear a path around the Tree to reach the other side and, as he worked his way around it, he studied the Tree in all its aspects. His study was scientific and objective. Hence the pleasant sensations of the summer or the painful sensations of the winter were not allowed to overwhelm him. By the time he reached the spring weather, he had gained a considerable knowledge of the transitory nature of the Tree. Thus he was able to withstand the lazy complacency that overcame the travellers in spring. He kept himself awake to the calming effects of the season and understood its nature as well. Now he comprehended the Tree of Sensations and to his joy he found open before him the path he was looking for. There was only one path, straight and clear, which led him out of the Circus of Samsara to the sunlit summit of the Mount of Deliverance. He turned back and had a clear view of the whole Samsaric Circus and the beings travelling on it and also the numerous false by-paths zigzagging within the Circus. Out of compassion for those ignorant road-weary beings he declared-
Open for them are the doors of the Deathless
Let those with ears (to listen) let go their (blind) faith!
Significance of Vedana
The above short story allegorises certain aspects of the working of the important phenomenon of vedana, 'sensation' or 'feelings', which is a key word in the rich repertoire of Buddhist doctrines. The importance of this term in the Buddha Dhamma is well illustrated by the fact that it occurs in a number of well known expositions of the Dhamma. In the Madhupindika Sutta1 the Arahant Mahakaccayana has placed it in a vital position in the process of sense perception. We know that vedana is the second of the five aggregates (pancakkhandha) comprising the psycho-physical personality of a living being. Vedana is also the sixth link in the chain of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada) which seems to illustrate the process of samsara at work. Some discourses also show how the three basic vedana, not properly understood, strengthen the latent tendencies (anusaya) which are important factors in the generation of the forces of kamma resulting in rebirth. It is through the sensations we experience, that we receive the retributive effects of our kamma.2 Last but not least is the fact that vedana forms the second base of the Satipatthana meditation called the Unique Path for the Purification of Beings.3 To cap all these we also note the not so well known statement 'all mental states have their confluence in vedana.'4
There are several classifications of vedana in the Buddhist texts going up numerically from two to one hundred and eight.5 Yet the most discussed among these is the classification of vedana into three as pleasant (sukha), painful (dukkha) and neutral (adukkhamasukha) which can be called the most basic manifestation of the phenomenon. Hence, we shall be taking only this classification in the discussion below. The Arahant Sariputta, answering a question put to him by the Arahant Mahakotthita in the Mahavedalla Sutta,6 explains the word vedana in terms of the verb vedeti 'he feels'. 'The feeling he feels, friend, therefore, it is called feeling' (vedeti vedeti kho avuso, tasma vedanati vuccati). And what does he feel, 'he feels happy, he feels pain, he feels what is neither happy nor painful' (sukhampi vedeti, dukkhampi vedeti adukkhamasukhampi vedeti).
Vedana at work
A close examination of vedana at work in the human life can show us the cause of the importance given to it in Buddhism. When a conscious person comes in contact with the external world of material forms, sounds, smells etc. through the five sense faculties, and such mental elements as memory with the mind, there is an automatic bodily or mental reaction which is expressed through sensations (vedana). It is through these vedana that one perceives the relevant sense object as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable, attractive or repulsive, beautiful or ugly, and so forth. If there were no sensations produced by sense contact, one would most probably have a uniform view of all one's sense objects. The role played by sensations in our perceptions is so vital that the Buddha has declared that even the sense of 'I am' (aham asmi) results from them. Thus he says that in a situation where sensations are completely absent, one cannot say 'I am.'7
Therefore, in a manner, it is the operation of this phenomenon of vedana that creates for each person his or her variegated world of likes and dislikes, pleasures and pains. Naturally our perceptions depend on our sensations.8 If one's sensations resulting from seeing a visual object are pleasant, one's perception of that object would be recognised as desirable. On the other hand a sound resulting in a painful sensation would be recognised as undesirable. All our reasoning of that perceived object (yam sanjanati tam vitakketi) and the resulting conceptualising pivoted on it (yam vitakketi tam papanceti) will also, therefore, be influenced by the sensations experienced when coming in contact with the sense object. These conceptualisings would naturally go a long way, as shown by the above statement from the Mahanidana Sutta9 regarding the concept of 'I', in determining one's thinking, speaking and acting. Hence, one's life in this world, as also one's future lives after death, will largely be influenced by them.
The Madhupindika Sutta shows the importance of vedana in the generation of the tangle of concepts in the human mind. The process of sense perception, as explained in this discourse by the Arahant Mahakaccayana, can be divided into three sections. In the first, one can observe an impersonal note showing that the process of sense perception, from the point of the sense faculty coming into contact with the object of the arising of sensations, is natural and automatic (for example, phassa-paccaya vedana). From then on, in the second section, we can see the active and deliberate participation of the individual in the process. So the formula is couched in active speech as, 'what one feels, one cognizes; what one cognizes, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually' (yam vedeti tam sanjanati, yam sanjanati tam vitakketi yam vitakketi tam papanceti). From here, in the third section, we observe a flood of conceptualising overwhelming the individual who was all this time actively engaged in conceptualising. He becomes caught up in the tangle of concepts created by himself.
It is clear that vedana occupies a prominent position in this process of sense perception ending up with the creation of the tangle of conceptualising. If one could comprehend vedana in its true form and not allow one's perception to be influenced by it, then perhaps one could control one's process of thinking and save oneself from getting entrapped in the net of concepts.
The Mahahatthipadopama Sutta10 shows how sense perception leads to the heaping up of the five aggregates of grasping (panca upadanakkhandha), which includes vedana, forming our personality. Referring to visual perception, the discourse says, 'But, friend, when the eye that is internal is intact and external material shapes come within its range and there is the appropriate impact, then there is the arising of the appropriate section of consciousness. Whatever is material shape (rupa) in what has thus come to be, is included in the group of grasping after the material shape (rupupadanakkhandhe). Whatever is feeling in what has thus come to be, is included in the group of grasping after the feeling (vedanupadanakkhande). He comprehends-"Thus there is, so it is said, the including (sangaho), the collecting together (sannipato), the coming together (samavayo) of these five groups of grasping." The discourse repeats the same description of the heaping up of the five aggregates regarding the other sense faculties as well.
The formula of Dependent Origination looks like an extended version of the process of sense perception into a future life. The twelve-linked formula, according to the commentators, covers three lives, the past, present and the future. The interest of this is in the creation of future lives and the resulting mass of dukkha rather than sense perception itself. Hence it bypasses perception (sanna) and goes directly to craving (tanha) from the feelings (vedana) resulting from sense contact. Craving leads, in order, to grasping (upadana), becoming (bhava) and birth (jati).
The Buddha, on being asked to explain what bhava means, says that, if there is no kamma ripening in each of the three spheres of becoming (bhava), then these three spheres could not exist. The Buddha goes on to say that kamma is the field in which the seed of consciousness (vinnana) grows taking craving as the moisture. This leads to rebirth through rebecoming (punabbhavabhinibbatti). Bhava as kamma is thus significantly connected with vedana. We will see further evidence of this later.
Vedana and the Latent Tendencies (anusaya)
In a number of discourses,11 the Buddha explains how the three basic sensations, not comprehended, lead to the strengthening of the latent tendencies (anusaya) of lust (raga), repugnance (patigha) and ignorance (avijja). It is this aspect of vedana that is used in the allegory at the beginning of the paper. Thus an ordinary person untrained in the Dhamma, when afflicted with a painful physical experience, allows his mind also to be afflicted by it. As he does not comprehend the experience, the tendency to repugnance resulting from it becomes latent in his mind. Since he sees no escape from pain except through sense pleasures a tendency to lust also becomes latent in him. His failure to comprehend the sensations experienced, causes a tendency to ignorance of neutral feelings to become latent.12 Another source says directly that the failure to comprehend the real nature of a neutral feeling makes a tendency to ignorance become latent.13 The Madhupindika Sutta also asserts that by not entertaining, not welcoming and not indulging in the source of the flood of conceptual thinking that overwhelms a person, one can put an end to all latent tendencies.14
Latent tendencies also play an important role in causing rebirth. 'What one wills, what one designs, what tendencies one makes to be latent, this is an object for the establishment of the consciousness. When there is an object, the consciousness is established. When the consciousness established therein grows, there is rebirth through rebecoming.'15 The discourse goes on to say that even in the absence of willing (cetana) and designing (pakappana), latent tendencies (anusaya) alone are capable of playing this role. Therefore, one can understand how sensations that are not properly understood bring about rebirth.
Vedana and the Experiencing of Kammic Retribution
That one experiences kammic retribution through sensations is quite clearly stated in the Kukkuravatika Sutta.16 Accordingly, one who performs harmful (sabbabajjham) bodily, verbal and mental activities is, as a result, reborn in a harmful world and assailed by harmful sensory impingements. Being assailed by them, one experiences harmful sensations which are definitely painful (sabbavajjham vedananam vedeti ekantadukkham). 'Thus,' says the Buddha, 'beings are inheritors of their kamma.' Yet the Buddha has definitely rejected the view that all sensations result from past kamma, upheld by some of the contemporary religions like Jainism.17 Kamma is only one among many causes for the arising of sensations.18
We also know that it is not the mere act but the accompanying volition (cetana) that determines the results of the act (cetana aham bhikkhave kammam vadami). There can be many factors that condition volition.19 But it is very difficult to think of volition apart from sensations. Already we have seen from the Madhupindika Sutta how sensations lead to conceptualising. It is not difficult to see the connection between conceptualising and volition (cetana) and designing (pakappana), and of course latent tendencies (anusaya).
The suttas themselves do not directly link sensations and the performance of kammic activity. But there is at least one sutta which seems to suggest such a link. According to this discourse,20 a person who is cooled within (paccattam parinibbayati), who has realized nibbana, experiences sensations without involving oneself with them. 'Experiencing sensations which end with the body, one knows them to be so; experiencing sensations ending with life, one knows them as such. At the dissolution of the body, at the end of life, all sensations not entertained (anabhinanditani) will itself be cooled. He knows that only the bodily remains will be left.' This shows that the sensations experienced by an arahant are not carried across to a new life. They end with the body and life. It follows that the sensations of ordinary persons are carried across to a new life.
This exposition on the sensations of one who has realized nibbana is quite significantly preceded by the statement that the consciousness of a person who does meritorious, demeritorious or imperturbable activities (anenjabhisankhara) is united with the activity-punnupago hoti vinnanam-thus leading to rebirth. But when ignorance is removed and knowledge arises, there will no longer be any activity. 'Not constructing, not willing, one does not grasp anything in the world; not grasping, one is not perturbed; not perturbed, one is cooled (within) by oneself.' It is such a cooled person who is said not to entertain any sensations one experiences. Then one can surmise that this person did entertain those sensations while he was yet performing those activities through ignorance. Then the sensations, experienced while engaged in such activities, could be responsible for the kammic force to be carried across the chasm of death to produce retribution in a new birth. Probably it is because of this that the discourse emphasises the fact that the sensations not entertained become cooled. They lose their vitality for the creation of any retributive activity. Thus one could say that vedana plays an important role both in experiencing the results of kammic action as well as in the performance of kammically potent actions.
By-paths of Vedana
What has been discussed so far pertains largely to the main highway of samsara on which the most impelling force was seen to be the Tree of Sensations. All the by-paths that branch off at the Tree, as we have seen above, except one solitary case, ran almost parallel to the main highway and led those back to the Samsaric Circus.
One among these, perhaps the most popular among the travellers, was the path of material pursuit traced by the Buddha in the Mahanidana Sutta. 'Thus it is, Ananda,' says the Buddha, 'that craving comes into being because of sensations (vedana), pursuit (pariyesana) because of craving (tanha), gain (labha) because of pursuit...' and so on in the following order: decision (vinicchaya), desire and passion (chandaraga), tenacity (ajjhosana), possession (pariggaha), avarice (macchariya), watch and ward (arakkha), and, because of this, many unwholesome states of things (akusala dhamma) such as taking to stick and weapon (dandadana, satthadana), strife (kalaha), contradiction (viggaha), retort (vivada), quarrelling (tuvantuva), slander (pesunna) and lies (musavada). These two paths of craving, says the Buddha, confluence in vedana. 'Thus, Ananda, these two aspects (of craving) from being dual become united through sensations (which condition them).'21 The commentator has explained these two aspects (dve dhamma) as 'the primary craving which forms the basis of the round of births and deaths (vattamulabhuta-purima-tanha) and the craving manifested in worldly conduct.22 In this by-path of material pursuit, we could observe the path mostly advocated by materialists who have no place for spiritual values in the life of man. The Buddha, however, calls this the 'ignoble quest' (anariya-pariyesana) which ultimately leads to birth, decay, disease, death, pain and impurity.23 The unwholesome states of things resulting from the pursuit of immaterial gains also lead to the same result, back to the Samsaric Circus.
It is not only the worldly pursuit of material gains that is prompted by sensations. Even religious and philosophical thinking and practices seem to have the same source of origin. We can understand that one who is weary of worldly existence owing to innumerable social problems could yearn for a way out of that miserable existence. Deprived from enjoying sensory pleasures and a comfortable life here in this world, one wishes to be reborn in a heavenly world to enjoy the pleasures that were missing here. Various religions try to bring discipline to personal and social life by pointing out the painful consequences that man has to face in a future life as a result of evil conduct in this world or the pleasant experiences one could enjoy in the future by conducting oneself according to moral rules in this life. Only one who has experienced pain and pleasure could formulate such views or could be made to act in accordance to such doctrines. Naturally, we have to conclude that sensations play an important role in all these doctrines.
Experiences of deeper levels of consciousness gained through meditation and sometimes, super-sensory (abhinna) experiences resulting from deep meditational practises could form the basis of various philosophical and religious speculations. The Mahakammavibhanga Sutta narrates how some recluses and brahmins come to wrong conclusions regarding the operation of the law of kamma on their limited experiences of recalling past lives.24 The Brahmajala Sutta enumerates and discusses sixty-two such speculative views on the world and its inhabitants based largely on such meditational experiences but includes a few based on pure logical reasoning.
Each one of these views formed the doctrinal basis of a religious sect in the 6th century B.C. India, and was presented to the people as a path of deliverance from the hardship of worldly existence or as an explanation of worldly existence. Referring to each one of them the Buddha says, 'that too is due to sense-contact.'25 But the importance of this statement lies in the fact that sense-contact gives rise to sensations. The Samyutta Nikaya26 says that the three sensations are born of contact (phassa), based on contact, have contact as the source and are dependent on contact. The vital role of sensations in giving rise to various forms of speculative views is emphatically stated in the discourse, with regard to the Eternalist views, as follow. 'Of them, brethren, those recluses and brahmins who are Eternalists, who in four ways maintain that the soul and the world are eternal, that opinion of theirs is based only on the personal sensations (vedayitam), on the worry and the writhing consequent thereof. Those venerable recluses and brahmins, who know not, and see not are subject to all kinds of craving.'27 This view is further strengthened by the ideas expressed in the Mahanidana Sutta28 regarding the manner in which one could look at one's self. According to this discourse, a person regards himself to be either 'feeling' in the words 'Myself is feeling' or the converse of it as 'Myself is not feeling, it is not sentient' or else as 'Myself has feelings, it has the property of sentience'. By not taking to any of these three views, and thereby not grasping at anything in the world, one does not tremble. Not trembling, he is cooled by himself (paccattanneva parinibbayati). This shows how speculations about self are based on sensations and how refraining from such speculations leads to deliverance.
In the Brahmajala Sutta, the Buddha stresses the importance of comprehending the speculative views in all aspects as well as the full comprehension of the sensations for the realisation of nibbana. 'Now of these, brethren, the Tathagata knows that these speculations, thus arrived at, thus insisted on, will have such and such a result, and such and such an effect on the future condition of those who trust in them. That does he know, and also he knows other things far beyond, and having that knowledge, he is not puffed up, and thus untarnished, he has in his own heart realized the way of escape from them, has understood them as they really are, the arising and passing away of sensations, their sweet taste, their danger, and the escape therefrom, and not grasping after anything, the Tathagata is quite free.'29
The Path out of the Samsaric Circus
The Buddha, according to the above passage, knows their result and the effects on the future conditions (evam gatika bhavissanti evam abhisamparayanti) of those who have taken hold of these speculative views. It convincingly proves that all these by-paths lead the travellers on them back to the Samsaric Circus. There is but one path that leads out of the Circus, and as we saw in the allegory, one has to go round the Tree of Sensations to get on to it.
The Mahanidana Sutta and the Brahmajala Sutta, as shown above, make it quite clear that the comprehension of the sensations play a leading role in the realisation of deliverance according to the Buddha's teachings. 'Once the three sensations are comprehended (tisu vedanasu parinnatesu), a noble disciple has nothing further to do.'30 This comprehension of sensations, and the eradication of the tendencies that become latent as a consequence of entertaining them, is an essential factor in the realisation of freedom. 'That he, brethren, not getting rid of the tendency of attachment to a pleasant feeling, not driving out the tendency of repugnance to a painful feeling, not rooting out the tendency of ignorance concerning a feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, not getting rid of ignorance, not making knowledge arise, should here and now be an end-maker of anguish-this situation does not exist.'31 The vital importance of comprehending the three sensations is then very well established.
What is the method and the conduct to be followed in gaining complete knowledge of the three sensations? We have already seen how the contemplation or the observation of arising and passing away of all sensations themselves is used as a catalyst to comprehend the sensations and their telling effect on the mind. In the Satipatthana Sutta,32 the contemplation on the sensations is used as one of the four bases of mindfulness. Here the meditator is instructed to observe the sensations with all their nuances in one's self without being involved in them personally.
Mindfulness and circumspection (sampajanna) in all one's activities is the mode of behaviour that is recommended by the Buddha for those who wish to realize nibbana in this life. 'A monk, brethren, should spend his time (lit. should await his time) with mindfulness and circumspection (sampajanna). That is my admonition to you' says the Buddha in one discourse. To be mindful here means to practise the four contemplations on mindfulness, (The translation of the Samyutta Nikaya has here only the contemplation of the body)33 To be circumspect in this respect is to do all one's activities with circumspection.
When a pleasant feeling arises in a person who is living in this fashion, he or she knows that it is conditioned by the body which is impermanent. The pleasant feeling thus conditioned should also be impermanent. Thus contemplating on the impermanence of the body and the sensations, their waning, detachment, cessation and giving them up, he abandons the tendency to attachment to the body and the pleasant feeling.34 In this manner he could observe the true nature of the painful and neutral sensations as well and thereby abandon the consequential tendency to repugnance and the tendency to be ignorant as well.
The whole purpose of practising circumspection and mindfulness is to prevent the three sensations, even the most subtle (panita) and peaceful (santa) neutral feelings from escaping from one's net of knowledge. For it seems to be the natural order of things for us to be drawn away especially by the pleasant and painful sensations we experience without our being aware of what has happened. Probably nature 'has designed' this mechanism to keep us ever on the Samsaric Circus. Thus the Buddha says35-
Sight of fair shape bewildering lucid thought
If one but heed the image sweet and dear
The heart inflamed in feeling doth o'erflow,
And clinging stayeth;
Thus in him do grow
Divers emotions rooted in sight,
Greed and aversion, and the heart of him
Doth suffer grievously. Of him we say,
Thus heaping store of pain and suffering.
'Far from nibbana'.
Thus, a person has to be ever vigilant to see that no sensation passes without one being aware of it. Thus it is said36-
When a monk, ardent, does not avoid circumspection,
By that, the wise one, comprehends all feelings.
The result would be to free oneself from all intoxicants (asava) in this life itself and pass all reckoning after birth.
He, having comprehended the feelings,
Free from intoxicants here and now,
Established in the Dhamma, the knower
Passes all reckoning when the body breaks.37
So it is very clear that the comprehension of the three sensations is vital for emancipation from the bonds of samsara. Fortunately, as we have already seen from the exposition in the Madhupindika Sutta, it is at this specific point of the arising of the sensations in the process of sense perception, that one becomes personally involved in its manipulation. If the process of sense perception were completely automatic and impersonal, control of its ultimate outcome would not be possible. It is because the automatic process ends with sensations, that a wise person working diligently with complete awareness and circumspection can take control of one's mind and thereby one's destiny.38 One has to train oneself to achieve this through the cultivation of mindfulness and circumspection (sato ca sampajano) so that ultimately one can face the challenge of the sensations one experiences by studying them objectively without allowing them to colour one's perceptions. Once a person is able to master this, he can live without getting involved personally (visannutto) with experiences of pleasant, painful, or neutral sensations. In other words one could, in terms of the Buddha's admonition to Malunkyaputta39 and Bahiya,40 live taking only the seen (ditthamattam) in what is seen, only the heard (sutamattam) in what is heard, only the felt (mutamattam) in what is felt, and only the cognized (vinnatamattam) in what is cognized. It is then that one can view the true reality of the world in its complete nakedness and be free from all bonds of samsara.
Notes: (In translating the Pāli texts, I have mostly followed the English translations of the Pāli Text Society. However, in certain cases I have either changed some of the English renderings of Pāli terms used in these translations or given my own translations of the relevant passages. The references in brackets are from the VRI edition.)
1. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1.108 [VRI 1.199]
2. Ibid. PTS 1.389 [VRI 2.80-81]
3. Ekayano ayam, bhikkhave, maggo sattanam visuddhiya, Ibid. p. 55f [VRI 1.106]
4. Vedanasamosarana sabbe dhamma, Anguttara Nikaya PTS 339 [VRI 3.8.83]
5. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1.397f [VRI 2.88]
6. Ibid. 292f [VRI 1.449]
7. Yattha panavuso sabbaso vedayitam natthi api nu kho, tattha Ayamahamasmi? No hetam Bhante. Digha Nikaya PTS 2.67 [VRI 2.124]
8. Yam vedeti tam sanjanati, Majjhima Nikaya PTS 111f [VRI 1.204]
9. Digha Nikaya PTS 2 [VRI 2.95]
10. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 184f [VRI 1.300]
11. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 3.285; Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4.204 [VRI 2.4.249 Adayo]
12. Suttanipata PTS 208f [VRI 1085 Adayo]
13. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 3.285 [VRI 3.424-425]
14. Ibid. PTS 1.109 [VRI 1.199]
15. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 2.65 [VRI 1.2.38]
16. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1.389f [VRI 2.78]
17. Ibid. PTS 2. 214 [VRI 3.1 Adayo]
18. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4.230 [VRI 2.4.270]
19. Anguttara Nikaya PTS 1.249 [VRI 1.3.101]
20. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 2.82f [VRI 1.2.51]
21. Dialogues of the Buddha PTS 2.58f
22. Samudacara-tanha, Digha Nikaya Atthakatha PTS 2.500 [VRI 2.112]
23. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1. 161f [VRI 1.274]
24. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 3.210 [VRI 3.298]
25. Tadapi phassa-paccaya, Digha Nikaya PTS 1.42 [VRI 1.118 Adayo]
26. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4. 215 [VRI 2.4.258]
27. Dialogues of the Buddha PTS 1.52
28. Digha Nikaya PTS 2.66 [VRI 2.95 Adayo]
29. Dialogues of the Buddha PTS 1. 44
30. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 2.99 [VRI 1.2.63]
31. Middle Length Sayings PTS 3.334
32. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1.59 f [VRI 1.113]; Digha Nikaya PTS 2.290 f [VRI 2.373]
33. Kindred Sayings PTS 5.211
34. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4.211f [VRI 2.4.255]
35. Kindred Sayings 4.43
36. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4.206 [VRI 2.4.252]
38. Bhikkhu cittam vasam vatteti, no ca bhikkhu cittassa vasena vattati. Majjhima Nikaya PTS 1. 214 [VRI 1. 338]
39. Samyutta Nikaya PTS 4. 73 [VRI 2. 4. 95]
40. Udana PTS 1. 10 [VRI 10]