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Nov 29, 2011

Vipassana and Solving the Mystery of Life

( Original Dhamma article The Comprehension of Vedanā, the Sambodhi of the Buddha - by Vipassana Research Institute )

For ages, the seers and sages of India have sought to unveil the central mystery of the world: the question of suffering, so very apparent in life, and how suffering may be ended.

Many seekers, in their quest, developed theories and philosophies, some based on their own experiences of penance or meditation practice, others based merely on speculative thinking. These seekers were intent on knowing what life is. Why do we live? How can the end of suffering be reached? How can decay and death be overcome?

During the Buddha's lifetime, some thinkers believed that if at the end of the present life a man's behaviour was sufficiently excellent, he would be reborn in a higher world than the present. Some samaṇas and brāhmaṇas, not depending on imagination or poetic fancy, were familiar with more refined states of mind, and higher stages of consciousness which they had experienced in various types of meditation practices. They presented their own theories and new concepts.

The states of concentration that these Indian saints attained were not peculiar to one set of religious beliefs, and there were common features to many systems of thought. They could not, however, regard them as 'perfect' in all respects. In the Brahmajāla-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya we come across some sixty-two such views or diṭṭhi which for the most part deal with the following questions:

(i) The nature of 'self' (attā): is it consciousness, is it eternal?
(ii) Is the world eternal or finite?
(iii) Is life (jīva) or being (sattā) the same as body?
(iv) Does the Tathāgata, the person who has realized the Truth in this life, continue to live after death?

Interest in such matters was so intense in those days that many schools of thought came into existence, some with large following. In another sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, the Tevijja-sutta, a reference to brahmasahabyatā or 'union with Brahma' occurs. This is the theory which took a wider dimension in the Vedānta of later times.

The ascetic Gotama, on his way to becoming the Sammsambuddha, had himself made a thorough practical investigation of these schools of thought - either undergoing their practices and penances, or meeting with adherents and discussing their views with them. He concluded that these views were unacceptable and could not lead to liberation from all suffering. i.e, leading to total purification of the mind. Hence he called these delusional views ' micchā' (false) and rejected them as not leading to full enlightenment.


A painting depicting an event in the life of Sammasambuddha Gotama, displayed in the Information Gallery of the Global Vipassana Pagoda. Created by distinguished artists in Asia, these intricate artworks comprise the single largest thematic collection of paintings in the world.

The Buddha said that whatever one had experienced or whatever conclusions these schools of though had arrived at by analytical insight were ultimately based on phassa or contact derived from the six sense organs. He said that as long as one does not truly comprehend the origin (samudaya) and passing away (atthaṇgama), the relishing (assāda) and the danger thereof (ādinava) and the escape (nissaraṇa) from the six spheres of sense contact (phassāyatana), then one cannot transcend this world of birth, decay and death.

Yato kho bhikkhu channaṃ phassāyatanānaṃ samudayaṃ ca atthaṇgamaṃ ca assādaṃ ca ādinavaṃ ca nissaraṇaṃ ca yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ayaṃ imehi sabbāni uttaritaro pajānāti.

The Buddha's contemporaries never realized nissaraṇa, transcendence of the realm of saḷāyatana (the six sense organs) and so remained in the sphere of phassa (contact). As long as they did not truly comprehend phassa or the simultaneous arising of vedanā (sensation), they remained prone to either craving or aversion to these sensations (vedanā).

Not realizing the true nature of vedanā as anicca (impermanent, changing) they could not emerge from the realm of vedanā and comprehend the ultimate truth.

In contrast, the Buddha in his meditation practice of Vipassana passed through the entire sphere of saḷāyatana, and understood that the ultimate truth rests in going beyond it, the ceasing of saḷāyatana, the ceasing of phassa and therefore also the ceasing of vedanā (nirodha).

To reach the stage of nibbāna, he made a strenuous effort to realize the true nature of sensations arising, based on phassa, or contact, essentially rooted in contact, conditioned by contact. In the Pubba-sutta of the Saṃyutta-nikāya, the Buddha emphatically says that before his Enlightenment, this thought occurred to him:

What are the vedanā (sensations)? What is the arising (samudaya) of them? What is the ceasing of them (nirodha)? And what is the way leading to the ceasing of them?

He made a thorough investigation of these questions through the development of insight (Vipassanā) and by his deep meditation he could rightly understand the relishing of sensations (assāda), the danger in them (ādinava) and ultimately how to go beyond them (nissaraṇa).

He thus realized the true nature of vedanā; only then did he proclaim himself to be a Fully Enlightened One (Sammāsambuddha). In the ñāṇa-sutta of the Saṃyutta-nikāya the Buddha says that the knowledge (ñāṇa), the vision (cakkhu), the insight (paññā), the wisdom (vijjā) and the light (āloko) that he attained at the end of his deep practice of Vipassana were none other than the true comprehension of vedanā-their arising, their ceasing and the way leading to their cessation. He had explored the entire sphere of vedanā, and their complete cessation (nirodha). This is the Sambodhi (full enlightenment) that he attained under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.

It is true that the Buddha discovered the Law of Dependent Origination, Paṭiccasamuppāda, contributing a new dimension to Indian spiritual thought. However, when we approach this fundamental law of nature analytically, we find it is exactly the same as the true comprehension of vedanā, which can arise every moment within ourselves.

It is well known that phassa and vedanā are included in the twelve-fold link of the Paṭiccasamuppāda truth about life. The Buddha realized the basic characteristics of vedanā as anicca (transitory), dukkha (suffering) and anattā (having no substance). He also went beyond the realm of vedanā and experienced the truth - the sublime happiness of nibbāna (nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ).

By transcending the sphere of saḷāyatana, one experiences this stage of nibbāna where all the six sense doors cease functioning. This is the saḷāyatana nirodha. When the sense doors have stopped functioning, there is no possibility of phassa, and there is phassa-nirodha. This stage leads to vedanā-nirodha and thus taṇhā-nirodha. This is the nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā, and has been very well illustrated in several discourses of the Buddha.

The dukkha-nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā (path leading to the cessation of suffering) or the majjhima-paṭipadā (Middle Path) that he taught is also described as vedanā-nirodha-gāminī-paṭipadā, or the path leading to the cessation of vedanā (sensations).

The Buddha admonishes the monks that a samaṇa or brāhmaṇa achieves the consummation of his Vipassana practice only when he perfectly realizes the vedanā (impermanent bodily sensations) as they really are, and goes beyond them. Then one reaches the final Dhamma goal.

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