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Jan 14, 2012

Significance of Vedana (bodily sensations) in Vipassana, for True Happiness

(from 'The Importance of Vedana and Sampajanna', a milestone seminar held in Dhamma Giri in 1990)

Vedana (sensations) are of diverse types (vividha) [1], and are experienced every moment within the body. Broadly speaking, however, there are three kinds: pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha), and neutral (adukkhamasukha). The sensations arise within the body as a result of contact (phassa) and sooner or later pass away.[2]

The experience of painful contact within the body results in an unpleasant sensation that is unpalatable, distressful, painful, sorrowful, and an affliction. Faced with such an experience, an ordinary person becomes distressed, disturbed and unbalanced. When the pain is intense, he weeps, laments, cries, falls into despair and becomes deluded.[3]

Experiencing an unpleasant sensation, he desperately makes every possible effort to get rid of it, to pull himself out of it. He musters his will to free himself as quickly as possible. Because of this bodily pain and affliction, he becomes unhappy, restless, worried, disturbed and mentally distressed. He is thus miserable and troubled, both bodily and mentally, as if pierced by two arrows at the same time.[4]

This suffering is due to his attachment to the sensations.[5] He is ignorant, not knowing their true nature and hence is unable to have a dispassionate attitude towards them. He makes every effort to repel the cause of his pain. He does so because of the latent tendency of repugnance (patighanusaya) so deeply rooted in him. He fails to understand that this tendency (anusaya) of aversion is a defilement. Instead, he multiplies and perpetuates it. He is carried away by this anusaya and continues to flow with it.[6]

Even while striving to get over the unpleasant sensation, he indulges himself in craving for imaginary situations where there is no unpleasant sensation whatsoever. He starts enjoying this imaginary state and thereby develops lust for it.

This is suffering. A person ignorant of the reality within though distressed by his unpleasant sensation also delights in and craves for the sensual desire (kamasukha) that he has created in his mind.[7]

Why cannot one maintain a balanced, dispassionate state of mind when experiencing an unpleasant or pleasant sensation? One is unable to do so because of attachment to the sensation, and being overpowered by it.

Out of ignorance of the truth within, one does not comprehend the true impermanent nature (anicca) of the sensation. One does not realize its arising (samudaya), its passing away (atthangama), the habit pattern of relishing of it (assada), the danger in it (adinava) or the liberation from this misery (nissarana).

More dangerously, unaware of this anusaya (tendency of repugnance), the attachment to unwholesome thought patterns keeps multiplying. Such ignorance of inner reality causes not only attachment to pleasant sensations, but addiction to reacting to all types of sensations - and with it rolling endlessly in misery, such as the cycle of birth, decay and death, and so on.[8]


The Global Vipassana Pagoda, Mumbai, India is a Dhamma monument to share benefits of Vipassana - the timeless, universal practice to purify the mind, and thereby liberate oneself from all misery and attain true happiness.

When a pleasant contact arises in the body, one experiences it as pleasant, as it apparently is. But not comprehending its true nature of impermanence, one becomes involved and attached and starts taking pleasure in it.[9]

The pleasant sensation that has arisen due to bodily contact (with worldly objects) is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent, and sooner or later is bound to pass away. Being ignorant or forgetting this truth, one tends to develop craving for its continuance.

One also becomes unaware of the dormant tendency of lust (raganusaya), the deep-rooted defilement within. Because of this attachment,[10] one keeps increasing craving, continues to flow with it.[11] Not understanding the true nature of a pleasant sensation as it really is - the arising of it (samudaya), the passing away of it (atthangama), the relishing of it (assada), the danger in it (adinava) or escape from it (nissarana)- one becomes attached to it, and thus, cannot escape the attendant lamentation and sorrow.

There arise situations where one experiences neither pleasant nor unpleasant sensations (adukkhamasukha vedana) and becomes delighted and satisfied with this. Such relishing indicates avijja (ignorance), as one does not know, or forgets, that this experience is also transitory, ephemeral and still within the sphere of nama-rupa (mind and matter).

Being unaware or forgetful of the dormant tendency of ignorance (avijjanusaya) within, one acts in such a way as to multiply this avijja, and continues to flow with it. This is delusion [12], and it results in only despair and unhappiness.

Both an ordinary person and a well-trained Vipassana meditator, who has reached the stage of saintliness, can experience the same sensations in the body. But there is a vast difference in their comprehension and outlook. As stated above, since a puthujjana (person ignorant of truth within) is the victim of the anusayas (dormant tendencies), he immediately starts reacting blindly when he experiences any sensation arising in the body. Being unaware of the true nature of these sensations, he remains attached (samyutta) to them.

In contrast, an ariyasavaka (noble one) practices by minutely observing the impermanence of the sensations (aniccanupassi viharati), their passing away (vayanupassi viharati). He does not cling to these sensations (viraganupassi viharati), he observes the ceasing of them (nirodhanupassi viharati), and thus, emerges from the habit pattern of blindly reacting to them (patinissagganupassi viharati).[13]

In this way, he eradicates all the latent tendencies (anusaya) which can no longer defile him. When he experiences an unpleasant sensation, he is not disturbed by it. He observes it as a wound on his body, (sallato), with equanimity keeps a dispassionate attitude towards it and remains unattached to it.[14] He maintains a balanced state of mind and is not disturbed mentally.[15]

Further, if he experiences a pleasant sensation, he does not take any pleasure in it. He fully understands its true nature of anicca, and so develops no lust for it, which would eventually lead to misery. Thus he keeps himself detached from the sensations.[16] He knows correctly that sooner or later they will pass away. He has no tendency towards lust (raganusaya) in him.

When he experiences a neutral sensation of peace and tranquility of mind, he does not get deluded by it. Rather, he keeps himself detached. A developed Vipassana student fully understands that this tranquil and peaceful state of mind is not the final stage. It too is impermanent (anicca) and, like the other sensations, is in the field of nama-rupa. The meditator does not take any delight in it and keeps a balanced, dispassionate state of mind.

The Vipassana practitioner is always mindful and attentive (sato) and keeps a constant understanding of anicca (sampajano) towards bodily sensations. Since the avijjanusaya (tendency of ignorance) is destroyed, the meditator truly knows the arising (samudaya) and passing away of it (atthangama), the relishing of it (assada), danger in it (adinava) and the escape (nissarana) from the sensations, it is said-

Samahito sampajano, sato Buddhassa savako;
Vedana ca pajanati, vedanananca sambhavam.
Yattha ceta nirujjhanti, magganca khayagaminam;
Vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchatonicchato parinibbuto'ti.[17]

A follower of the Buddha, with concentration, awareness and constant thorough understanding of impermanence, knows with wisdom the sensations, their arising, their cessation and the path leading to their end. A meditator who has reached the end (has experienced the entire field) of sensations (and has gone beyond) is freed from craving, fully liberated.

This is the main aim of Vipassana and the ultimate purpose of this practice. This is the consummation of brahmacariya (The Path of Purity and Truth). The Buddha praises a well-trained practitioner who has perfectly understood the true nature of sensations and is not attached to them. He says-

Na vedanam vedayati sapanno, sukham pi dukkham pi bahussuto pi;
ayam ca dhirassa puthujjanena, maha viseso kusalassa hoti.
Sankhatadhammassa bahussutassa, vipassato lokamimam param ca;
itthassa dhamma na mathenti cittam, anitthato no patighatameti.[18]

A wise, well-trained practitioner is not afflicted (mentally) when either experiencing a pleasant or unpleasant sensation (or otherwise).

This is the vast difference between an ordinary person and a skillful, wise person (pandita). For he who has mastered the Truth, is well-trained and has correctly viewed this world and beyond, neither desirable things churn in his mind, nor do undesirable ones harm him.

The practice of Vipassana is fulfilled only when a practitioner comes to realize perfectly the true transitory nature of sensations at this moment, now, and remains ever mindful (sato) with continuous thorough understanding (sampajano) of them, every moment. Then the mind is progressively purified of all defilements.

With Vipassana practice, the mind reaches the state of ultra-purity, a state of mind infinitely beneficial to oneself and beneficial to all beings. This is the ultimate aim of Vipassana and this is the essence of the practice.

May all beings be liberated from all suffering, be happy.

Notes: (All references VRI edition of Tipitaka)
1. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.260
2. Ibid. 2.4.252, Saririkaya vedanaya. Also Ibid. 2.4.258, Vedana phassaja phassamulaka, phassanidana, phassapaccaya.
3. Ibid. 2.4.254, Sammoham apajjati.
4. Ibid.2.4.254, So dvisallena vedanam vedayati... So dve vedana vedayati kayikam ca cetasikam ca.
5. Loc. cit., Sannutto hoti.
6. Loc. cit., Dukkhaya vedanaya patighavantam, yo dukkhaya vedanaya patighanusayo so anuseti.
7. Loc. cit., So dukkhaya vedanaya phuttho samano kamasukham abhinandati.
8. Loc. cit., Dukkham ce vedanam vedayati sannutto nam vedayati. Assutava puthujjano sannutto jatiya jaraya maranena sokehi...
9. Loc. cit., Sannutta hoti... abhinandati.
10. Loc. cit., Sukham ce vedanam, vedayati, sannutto nam vedayati.
11. Loc. cit., Yo sukhaya vedanaya raganusayo, so anuseti.
12. Ibid 2.4.252, Sammoham apajjati.
13. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.255-256, Pathamagelanna-Sutta and Dutiyagelanna-Sutta.
14. Ibid. 2.4.254, visannutto nam vedayati.
15. Ibid. 2.4.254, vedayati, kayikam, na cetasikam.
16. Ibid. 2.4.254, visannutto nam vedayati.
17. Ibid. 2.4.249
18. Ibid. 2.4.254
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