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7. Feeling / Vedanā
"Feeling" or "sensation", vedanā
, is the second of the five aggregates of clinging and the seventh link in the standard depiction of dependent arising, paṭicca samuppāda
(the link that leads to the arising of craving). The role of feelings in these two contexts reflects the importance of vedanā
in the early Buddhist analysis of reality. In fact, according to a dictum found in several discourses, all phenomena converge on feeling, vedanāsamosaraṇā sabbe dhammā
(AN IV 339; AN V 107). Hence an appraisal of feeling and its implications is of considerable importance for an understanding of early Buddhism in general and of the path to liberation in particular.
In the present essay, I will first of all examine the nature of feelings in general (7.1). Next I will turn in some detail to the distinction between bodily and mental types of feelings (7.2), followed by exploring the relation of feelings to karmic retribution (7.3) and to the formation of views (7.4).
7.1 The Nature of Feelings
The term vedanā
is derived from the root √vid
, whose range of meaning covers both "to feel" and "to know". Vedanā
can thus be understood to represent the affective aspect of the process of knowing, the `how' of experiencing, so to say. While vedanā has a strong conditioning impact on emotions, vedanā does not include emotion in its range of meanings. In the thought world of the early discourses, the concept of `emotion' would perhaps find its closest Pāli counterpart in citta
. In contrast, vedanā
simply refers to feelings as one of the building blocks of such complex phenomena as emotions.
As such, vedanā
stands in an intimate relationship with the cognitive input provided through "perception", saññā
, since what one feels, one perceives, yaṁ vedeti taṁ sañjānāti
(MN I 293). According to the standard definition given in the discourses, feeling 'feels', in the sense that it feels such affective tones as pleasure, displeasure and hedonic neutrality, sukha, dukkha, adukkhamasukha (SN III 86).
The basic distinction between pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings can be expanded further by combining this triad with each of the six senses, by distinguishing between feelings that are related to the household life and those that are related to renunciation, and by taking into account if feelings manifest in the past, present or future. In this way, we arrive at a total count of one-hundred-and-eight types of feelings (SN IV 232). Such different modes of analysis are, however, merely complementary perspectives on the phenomenon feeling, and none of them should be grasped dogmatically as the only right way of considering feelings (MN I 398).
In addition to analysing feelings into different types, the discourses illustrate the nature of feeling with a range of similes. One of these similes indicates that the different types of feelings are like winds in the sky, which come from different directions and can at times be dusty, hot or cold, mild or strong (SN IV 218). This imagery illustrates the somewhat accidental character of feelings, whose nature is to manifest in ways that are often out of one's control. The simile of the winds in the sky thus highlights that just as it is meaningless to contend with the vicissitudes of the weather, similarly, the arising of unwanted feelings is best borne with patience.
Another simile compares feelings to various types of visitors that come to a guesthouse from any of the four directions (SN IV 219). Feelings are similar to such visitors, they come and go, hence no need to become agitated and obsessed with the particular feeling that might have manifested at present, as soon enough this internal `visitor' will go as well.
The ephemeral nature of feelings, already alluded to in the image of visitors that come and go, becomes more prominent in another simile that compares feelings to bubbles on the surface of water during rain (SN III 141). On investigating this matter, an onlooker would soon come to the conclusion that these bubbles are insubstantial and without any essence. Feelings, in whatever way they appear, are similarly in substantial and without any essence. Just like a bubble, they will manifest only to disappear right away, thereby revealing their utterly ephemeral and insubstantial nature.
The insubstantial nature of feelings comes up again in another simile, which compares grasping feeling as a self or as belonging to a self to a man who is carried along by a mountain river and tries to grasp the grass that grows on the river bank. The grass will tear off and break due to his grasping, and the man will be unable to extricate himself from the current of the river in this way (SN III 137).
Insubstantial and void as they are, feelings are simply the product of conditions (SN II 38). Several similes highlight how feeling depends on contact. The affective tone of feeling is the product of the type of contact on which it is based, comparable to heat that is produced when two fire-sticks are rubbed against each other (SN IV 215). Once the two fire-sticks are separated the heat ceases, just as when contact ceases, the respective feeling will also cease.
Again, the radiance of a lamp is the product of oil, wick and flame. Due to the impermanent nature of these three, the radiance has to be impermanent as well. In the same way, feelings are the product of contact through any of the six sense-doors, therefore they must be as impermanent as the sense- doors themselves (MN III 273). Or else, the shadow of a tree is the product of the root, the trunk, the branches and the foliage of the tree. Given that these are impermanent, the shadow necessarily must be impermanent. The same applies to fee lings, which are the product of contacting the objects of the senses and thus share their impermanent nature (MN III 274).
Painful feelings in particular are comparable to a bottomless abyss, an abyss deeper than the unfathomable depth of the ocean. The reason for this is that worldlings react to painful feelings with sorrow and lamentation, thereby perpetual ting their experience of suffering (SN IV 206).
explains that by reacting with aversion to painful feelings, a worldling is as if shot by two arrows: in addition to the bodily experience of pain, the arising of aversion causes the affliction of mental agony and distress (SN IV 208). Being thus immersed in bodily and mental pain, the worldling knows no other way out but to search for some form of sensual pleasure as an escape from the painful experience.
The experience of pain leads to ever greater bondage if one gives fuel to the underlying tendency to aversion when reacting to pain, to the underlying tendency to passion through yearning for sensual pleasure, and to the underlying tendency to ignorance due to not attending to the true nature of feelings.
In contrast to this predicament, the noble disciple does not react to pain but simply bears it with composure. For this reason, only a single arrow afflicts him or her, and a version to the pain will not arise, nor yearning for sensual pleasures as a way to escape from pain. In this way, the experience of painful feelings leads to insight and the bondage to feelings d diminishes.
7.2 Bodily and Mental Feelings
In addition to providing this instructive imagery on how to handle pain, the Salla-sutta
's distinction between being afflicted merely by the single arrow of bodily feelings and being the victim of the additional arrow of mental feelings is of relevance to an understanding of the distinction between bodily and mental feelings in general.
The notion of `bodily feelings' may at first seem puzzling, since feelings are by definition mental and related to the mind, cetasikā dhammā, cittapaṭibaddhā
(MN I 301). For this reason, feelings are part of "name", nāma
, in the context of an exposition of name-and-form, nāma-rūpa
(MN I 53).
Therefore, to speak of a `bodily feeling' must refer to the source from which such feeling has arisen, namely the body, not to the nature of the feeling itself, which by definition has to be a mental phenomenon. This much would follow from the exposition in the Salla-sutta , whose purpose is to clarify that, in addition to the painful feelings that may arise due to bodily affliction, the second dart of affliction manifests due to feelings that originate because of the mental reaction to bodily pain.
The distinction between bodily and mental feelings is thus a mode of analysis that aims at the sense-door based on which feeling arises. The same mode of analysis may alter natively take into account all sense-doors and distinguish feelings into six types, covering those that arise based on contact by way of the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body an d the mind (SN III 60).
Yet, does this mean that the experience of feelings is entirely mental and bears no relation to the body? This does not seem to be the case. In fact, common experience indicates that the actual experience of pleasant or painful feeling involves the body as well as the mind. Joy may manifest as raising of the hair and goose pimples, just as displeasure may show its effects through bodily tension and facial expression. Again, obtaining or losing desirable objects can affect the heart beat and blood circulation, or else intense feelings can cause faster breathing, etc.
In the listing of the five aggregates, feelings are placed right after the body and before the other mental aggregates. This positioning may well reflect the intermediate role that feelings have within the context of subjective experience. Due to whatever sense-door a pleasant or painful feeling may have arisen, its actual experience will affect the body as well as the mind.
Several discourses in fact reveal aspects of the bodily repercussions of feelings. Thus the Kāyagatāsati-sutta
depicts how the pleasant feelings of deeper concentration experience stuff use the whole "body", kāya
(MN III 92), a description that conveys the sense of one's entire being, body and mind, being immersed in pleasure and bliss.
The effect of painful feeling on the body is reflected in passages that describe the Buddha rebuking a monk. As a result of such a rebuke, the monk sits in dismay with shoulders drooping and his head hanging down (e.g. MN I 132). Clearly here the mental evaluation of the words just heard has caused the arising of feelings that, in addition to being experienced in the mind as dismay and perhaps shame, manifest bodily to such an extent that the whole posture is affected.
Feelings can thus be seen as an intermediary between body and mind, having a conditioning effect in both directions. One aspect of this intermediary role is that whatever happens in the body is mentally felt through the medium of feelings, while the other aspect is that the affective tone of mental processes influences the body through the medium of feelings. The actual experience of feeling thus usually involves body and mind. An exception is the attainment of the immaterial spheres, where the bodily component of feeling disappears. With such types of experience the affective variety of feeling similarly disappears, as during these attainments − or else when reborn in the corresponding realms − only neutral feelings are experienced. In the normal living situation of the average human being, however, the experience of feeling involves the body as well as the mind.
In the language of the early discourses, the bodily and mental aspect of feelings are often considered together, such as when sukha
or dukkha vedanā
are defined as comprising bodily as well as mentally felt experience, yaṁ kāyikaṁ vā cetasikaṁ vā ... vedayitaṁ
(MN I 302). In the context of an exposition of experience from the perspective of the five affective faculties, indriya
, the terms sukha
are, however, only used for feelings arisen from the body, kāyasamphassaja
. Feelings that originate from the mind, manosamphassaja
, are treated under the headings somanassa
(SN V 209). This mode of presentation dominates the analysis of feelings in the Abhidhamma and the commentaries.
According to an examination of feelings undertaken in the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha
are only experienced in relation to the body sense-door, whereas the other sense-doors of eyes, ears, nose and tongue are invariably associated with neutral feelings, while the mind is associated with somanassa
type of feelings (Abhidh-s 2). Occurrences of sukha and dukkha in the early discourses, however, often function as umbrella terms for any feeling of the corresponding affective tone and need not stand for feelings arisen from the bodily sense-door alone.
In addition to analysing feelings into bodily and mental types, the discourses also distinguish between worldly and unworldly feelings, sāmisa
(MN I 59). The rationale behind this distinction is to draw attention to the relation of feelings to underlying tendencies, anusaya
. Worldly types of feelings tend to activate the underlying tendencies to passion, aversion and ignorance. Unworldly types of feelings, such as the joy or the equanimity of deep concentration, or the sadness of not yet having reached liberation, do not activate these underlying tendencies (MN I 303). A similar perspective underlies the distinction into feelings related to the household life and those that are related to renunciation, gehasita
(MN III 217).
Another two-fold analysis of feelings distinguishes between feelings with and without affliction, savyābajjha
(MN I 389). This perspective is in particular related to the issue of karma and rebirth, since due to the afflictive nature of one's volitions and deeds, one eventually has to face afflictive feelings as retribution. While rebirth in hell is felt as an entirely painful and unpleasant experience, rebirth in heaven will be felt as entirely pleasant and agreeable (MN I 74). Rebirth as an animal involves mainly painful experiences, whereas with rebirth as a human being pleasantly felt experiences prevail. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/from-craving.pdf#page=79