Vēdanā – What It Really Means

February 18, 2017

1. vēdanā is conventionally translated as “feelings”, but it is much more than just feelings. The Buddha said that vēdanā can be analyzed in many ways, with simple or deeper meanings. Here we will analyze vēdanā in a way that will be most helpful at this stage (for those who have been following the “Living Dhamma” section from the beginning.

  • In this analysis we will discuss 9 types of vēdanā.
  • By understanding these 9 types of vēdanā, we can understand how to correctly do vēdanānupassanā in the Satipatthāna bhāvanā.

2. At the very fundamental level vēdanā means “veema danaveema” in Sinhala, which means “one becomes aware (of a sense input)” and experience the corresponding good, bad, or neutral kamma vipāka.

  • That is the vēdanā experienced by an Arahant.  He/she simply is aware of a sense input, and does not ADD anymore vēdanā in his/her mind to that sense input.
  • A vēdanā can be a dukha vēdanā (due to a past bad kamma), a sukha vēdanā (due to a past good kamma), or a neutral sensation — like feeling the wind on the body — called an upekkha vēdanā.
  • An Arahant will bear them all with a neutral mind even though the dukha or sukha sensation cannot be avoided.
  • However, normal humans go far beyond that and generate three additional types of their own mind-made “samphassa ja vēdanā“, as we will discuss below.

3. It is important to realize that sukha and dukha  vēdanā due to kamma vipāka are felt by the physical body. They result due to past good or bad kamma vipāka. This can be verified by referring to Abhidhamma:

  • Akusala kamma vipāka coming though the body are listed as, “dukkha sahagatham kaya vinnanam“, and kusala kamma vipāka coming though the body are listed as, “sukha sahagatham kaya vinnanam“.
  • Neutral (upekkha) vēdanā can arise via all five physical senses; see #7 below.

4. A normal human being will mentally generate three more type of vēdanā due to those sukha, dukha, and neutral vēdanā that initially arise due to kamma vipāka via all five physical senses.

  • If it is dukha vēdanā (due to a headache, getting injured, etc. ), one is likely to start worrying about it and add more suffering. Those are dōmanassa vēdanā or āmisa dukha vēdanā.
  • If it is sukha vēdanā (getting a massage, lying in a luxurious bed, etc. ), one is likely to start generating thoughts about how good it is and how one can enjoy similar sukha vēdanā in the future. Those are sōmanassa vēdanā or āmisa sukha vēdanā ; one could also be generating them by remembering past such sukha vēdanā. These are also added in by the mind.
  • Sōmanassa means “mind-made joyful”. Dōmanassa means “mind-made misery”, which is basically a depressed mindset.
  • If a vēdanā due to a kamma vipāka is not that strong one may just generate neutral feelings about it; that is āmisa upekkha vēdanā.

5. Let us take some examples to illustrate how those additional types of vēdanā can arise due to initial dukha vēdanā and sukha vēdanā.

  • Suppose someone comes down with an illness. Any pain (dukha vēdanā) due to that illness CANNOT be avoided by anyone once the illness takes hold: It is the RESULT (vipāka) of a previous CAUSE (kamma).
  • Of course, it is possible that one could have avoided the kamma vipāka to materialize by trying to minimize CONDITIONS (paccaya); see, “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paticca Samuppada?“. That is why kamma vipāka can be avoided by being mindful and taking precautions.
  • Once an illness starts, all one can do is to take medicines and also take any possible actions to reduce the pain.
  • However, people tend to make the situation worse by starting to generate negative feelings about the situation. This gives rise to dōmanassa vēdanā.

6. In the same way, one can start generating sōmanassa vēdanā based on a sukha vēdanā that was brought by a good kamma vipāka.

  • For example, when one is eating a delicious meal, one could be generating joyful thoughts about how delicious it is and how one can eat it again in the future. Such joyful thoughts (sōmanassa vēdanā) may be generated even long after the meal.

7. Kamma vipāka also lead to sense inputs at the other four physical senses. They are all neutral. Thus neutral vēdanā can arise via all five physical senses.

  •  Kusala and akusala vipāka coming through those four sense doors are listed as, “upekkha sahagatham cakkhu vinnanam“, “upekkha sahagatham sōta vinnanam“, “upekkha sahagatham ghāna vinnanam“, and “upekkha sahagatham jivhā vinnanam“.
  • For example, when we see an “eye-pleasing picture”, the initial vēdanā felt by the mind is neutral.

8. But if one has cravings or repulsion to such pictures, one will start generating “samphassa jā vēdanā“, or feelings that arise due to “samphassa” (“san” + “phassa” or contacts with “san” that is in one’s mind); see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

  • It is easy to understand this when one contemplates on some examples. Upon seeing person X, an enemy of X will generate what are called “dōmanassa vēdanā” or bad feelings, whereas a friend of X will generate “sōmanassa vēdanā” or good feelings.
  • The same is true for sounds, tastes, and smells. Even though there appear to be “universally good” tastes, that is not true for an Arahant. We just cannot comprehend it at this stage. But we know that some foods enjoyed by some could be repulsive to others, for example.

9. Three more types of mentally generated vēdanā can arise in those who are on the Noble Eightfold Path. These arise by suppressing or eliminating those āmisa vēdanā or “samphassa jā vēdanā” discussed above.

10. When one constantly is attached or repulsed by all those sense inputs that one experiences in a given day, one’s mind can get really stressed out. A normal human being may even not be aware of this heat (tāpa) in the mind; see those two posts mentioned above, and other posts in the beginning of the “Living Dhamma” section.

  • Even if one is generating sōmanassa vēdanā, those inevitably lead to the stress in the mind. However, the effect is easily seen with dōmanassa vēdanā.
  • This is very important to grasp. You may want to go back and read those posts.

11. When one stays away from generating too many “samphassa jā vēdanā” of both kinds, one will start feeling three more types of vēdanā. These are called nirāmisa vēdanā, because they arise due to staying away from cravings (and repulsion) to worldly objects.

  • When one prevents the mind from heating up by comprehending the adverse effects of “san” and staying away from them, one’s mind starts “cooling down”. This is the nirāmisa sukha vēdanā that we have discussed in many posts.
  • This is what is emphasized by “ätäpi sampajäno” in the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta; it means “remove the fire or heat from one’s mind by being aware of the ‘san‘ or “immoral tendencies”; see, “Satipatthana Sutta – Structure“.
  • The pleasant feelings one feels during jhanas are also nirāmisa sukha vēdanā. They are devoid of tāpa or heat.
  • Such feelings can also be experienced when one is doing a meritorious deed, such as giving or helping out someone in need. Those are also devoid of tāpa or heat, and are  nirāmisa sukha vēdanā.
  • Nirāmisa sukha can of course be experienced while engaging in meditation, especially metta bhāvanā. This is optimized when one does those bhāvanā with comprehension of anicca, dukkha, anatta, i.e., when one does it with full comprehension of “ātāpi sampajāno”.

12. There are two more types of vēdanā that one experiences when proceeding on the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Sometimes, one gets a bit discouraged by not advancing “fast enough” on the Path. One thinks about “why am I not getting to the sōtapanna stage?” or “Is there anything that I am missing in order to make progress?”, etc.
  • Those are not dōmanassa vēdanā (because they are devoid of patigha anusaya)they are nirāmisa dukha vēdanā. It is common for one to experience such vēdanā.

13. The key to vēdanānupassanā in the Satipatthāna bhāvanā is to be able to recognize which type of vēdanā one feels.

  • If it is a dukha (vipāka) vēdanā, one understands that one needs to bear it (after reducing it as much as possible with medicines, etc). One needs to understand why such a vipāka vēdanā arise, and remedy it as much as possible. After all, our goal is to stop any type of suffering.
  • A good example is the pain one feels when sitting cross-legged at meditation retreats. Just by saying “I feel this vēdanā” will not of any use. That vēdanā can be removed by shifting one’s posture. I have seen some instructors advice people to just bear the pain saying that it will go away. It may go away because the nerves may become numb. That is not good in the long term.
  • Also, one needs to understand why one should stop generating dōmanassa and sōmanassa vēdanā, per above discussion.
  • And one should of course cultivate nirāmisa sukha vēdanā that arise when one starts on the Path (especially upon comprehending Tilakkhana to some extent) and reduces the tendency to generate  dōmanassa and sōmanassa vēdanā.

14. vēdanānupassanā is all about first identifying the types of vēdanā one is experiencing, and then deciding what to do about them. Getting rid of all vēdanā — as some believe — is the wrong thing to try to do.

vipāka vēdanā do not have lōbha, dōsa, mōha, but vipāka vēdanā can lead to samphassa ja vēdanā which will have lōbha, dōsa, mōha.

  • vipāka vēdanā needs to be experienced with upekkha.
  • Samphassa jā vēdanā are the ones to be stopped.
  • Nirāmisa vēdanā are the ones to be cultivated.

15. In summary, try to avoid vipāka dukha vēdanā by trying not to make conditions for them to appear; see, “Annantara and Samanantara Paccaya“. Do not indulge in vipāka sukha vēdanā when those arise. Suppress and gradually eliminate samphassa ja vēdanā and cultivate nirāmisa vēdanā, which is what the “Living Dhamma” section is all about.

  • That is — in brief — what vēdanānupassanā is all about.

More details on vēdanā can be found at:  vēdanā (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways” and “Feelings: Sukha, Dukha, Sōmanassa, and Dōmanassa“.

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