Mindfulness of Sensations (Vedanā)

by | Jan 21, 2024 | Buddhism for All

(Context: How to Establish Right Mindfulness)

The Pali word vedanā can be translated either as “sensations” or “feelings”.  In fact, I had a long debate with myself which translation to use (and like all debates with myself, I ultimately won).  Vedanā here includes the sensations generated by the contact of any sense object with any sense faculty.  It does not necessarily include emotions, however.  Emotions are complicated processes with both feeling and thinking components, and vedanā includes only the feeling component of the experience of emotion.

Mindfulness of sensations is surprisingly short, simple, and powerful.  The instruction really has only two parts. 

  1. Be mindful of whether a sensation experienced is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant. 
  2. Be mindful of whether that sensation is worldly or unworldly. 

That’s it.

You may wonder what it means for a sensation to be worldly or unworldly.  The Pali word for worldly, sāmisa, is closely related to the word for flesh, āmisa.  Hence, a worldly sensation is one related to flesh, and an unworldly sensation is one related to renunciation.  Unworldly pleasant and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sensations refer to experiences within the jhānas, but what is an unworldly unpleasant sensation?  I’m not aware of any example given by the Buddha, but from a separate but closely related discourse, you can get an idea.  Here, a disciple gains understanding of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of all sensory phenomena, he then experiences a longing for the supreme liberations, and that longing causes grief.  The Buddha calls it “grief based on renunciation”.[1]  Unworldly unpleasant sensation is the sensation associated with the grief based on renunciation.  Soryu clarifies that this grief comes not from desiring to be enlightened, but from not having attained the goal yet, and being insecure about whether one will ever attain it.

How powerful is mindfulness of sensations?  According to the Buddha, when one develops deep, piercing wisdom into the nature of sensation, and one is able to abandon (1) the underlying tendency to lust in regard to pleasant feeling, (2) the underlying tendency to aversion in regard to painful feeling, and (3) the underlying tendency to ignorance in regard to neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. One then one cuts off craving, and by completely breaking through conceit, one has “made an end to suffering”. [2]  In other words, one reaches nirvana.  Yes, there is a direct path from mindfulness of sensation to nirvana.  The Buddha says in verse, “Completely understanding sensations, one is without defilements in this very life.”[3] 

Yeah, wow.


Activities

References

[1] Majjhima Nikāya 137.

[2] Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.3.  Also see Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.5.

[3] Saṃyutta Nikāya 35.12.

Featured image by Natalie Tsang.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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