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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Vedana and the Four Noble Truths

-By Vipassana Research Institute

The Four Noble Truths are the essence of the Buddha's teaching. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha said:

Vediyamanassa kho panaham bhikkhave, idam dukkham ti pannapemi, ayam dukkha-samudayo ti pannapemi ayam dukkha-nirodho ti pannapemi, ayam dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada ti pannapemi.1

-To one who experiences sensations, meditators, I teach the truth of suffering, I teach the truth of the arising of suffering, I teach the truth of the cessation of suffering and I teach the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

In this passage the Buddha clearly states that the Four Noble Truths can be understood, realized and practised only through the experience of vedana (sensations).

He further analysed the Noble Truths in the light of vedana by saying:

Yam kinci vedayitam, tam pi dukkhasmim.2

-Whatever sensations one experiences, all are suffering.

Not only are dukkha vedana (unpleasant sensations) suffering, but sukha vedana (pleasant sensations) and adukkhamasukha vedana (neutral sensation) are also suffering, because of their impermanent nature. Arising and passing away, anicca (impermanence) is the characteristic of vedana. Every pleasant sensation has a seed of dukkha in it because it passes away sooner or later. We are so bound by ignorance that when a pleasant sensation arises, we react to it by developing craving and clinging towards it, without realising its real nature of impermanence. This leads to suffering: tanha dukkhassa sambhavamtanha dukkhassa sambhavam-craving is the origin of suffering.3

Craving is not only the origin of suffering but suffering itself. As craving arises, suffering arises. The Buddha elucidated the second of the Four Noble Truths not as tanha-paccaya dukkha but instead as dukkha-samudayadukkha-samudaya. In other words, craving is not merely the precondition of suffering; it is itself inseparable from suffering. The same emphasis is apparent in the statement tanha dukkhassa sambhavam. Indeed, tanha and dukkha are sahajata (conascent). As soon as tanha arises, one loses the balance of the mind, becomes agitated and experiences dukkha.

Similarly, when vedana arises and results in tanha, it is dukkha. Thus whenever the term vedana is used in relation to the practice of Dhamma, it conveys the sense of dukkha. Even a neutral sensation is dukkha if its impermanent nature is ignored. Therefore, not only for dukkha vedana but for sukha vedana and adukkhamasukha vedana as well, the Buddha correctly used the word vedana as a synonym for dukkha.

Emphasising this fact again in relation to the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha said in the Dvayatana Sutta of the Suttanipata:

Yam kinci dukkham sambhoti sabbam vedanapaccaya ti, ayamekanupassana. Vedananam tveva asesaviraganirodha natthi dukkhasssa sambhavo ti, ayam dutiyanupassana.4

-Whatever suffering arises, it is because of sensations-this is the first anupassana (constant observation). With the complete cessation of sensations, there is no further arising of suffering-this is the second anupassana.

The first anupassana is the constant observation of vedana as dukkha. The second anupassana consists of the reality which is beyond the field of vedana as well as beyond the field of phassa (contact) and salayatana (the six sense doors). This is the stage of nirodha-samapattinirodha-samapatti of an arahant (fully liberated one), the experience of nibbana. By this second anupassana, the meditator realizes the truth that in the field of nirodha-samapatti, there is no dukkha, because there is no vedana. It is the field beyond the sphere of vedana.

The Buddha continues in the same sutta:

Sukham va yadi va dukkham, adukkhamasukham saha;
ajjhattam ca bahiddha ca, yam kinci atthi veditam.
Etam dukkham ti natvana mosadhammam palokinam;
phussa phussa vayam passam, evam tattha virajjati;
Vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchato parinibbuto'ti.5

-Whatever sensations one experiences in the body, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, inside or outside, all are suffering, all are illusory, all are ephemeral. A meditator observes that wherever there is a contact in the body, sensations pass away (as soon as they arise). Realizing this truth with the extinction of sensations, the meditator is freed from craving, fully liberated.

A person fully established in this truth becomes liberated from the habit of craving and clinging towards sensations and reaches the state where there is no more vedana (vedana-khayavedana-khaya). (This is the stage of nibbana reached in the second anupassana.) A meditator who has experienced this state of arahatta-phalaarahata-phala becomes nicchato (freed from all desires). Such a person becomes parinibbutaparinibbuta (totally liberated).

Therefore, to experience and understand dukkha-saccadukkha-sacca (suffering), samudaya-saccasamudaya-sacca (its arising), nirodha-saccanirodha-sacca (its cessationcessation) and dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada-saccadukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada-sacca (the path leading to the cessation of suffering), one has to work with sensations and realize the truth of vedana (vedana-saccavedana-sacca), the arising of vedana (vedana-samudaya-sacca), the cessation of vedana (vedana-nirodha-sacca) and the path leading to the cessation of vedana (vedana-nirodha-gamini-patipada-sacca).

This process is clearly described in the Samadhi Sutta of the Vedana-samyutta:

Samahito sampajano, sato Buddhassa savako;
vedana ca pajanati, vedanananca sambhavam.
Yattha ceta nirujjhanti, magganca khayagaminam;
vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchatonicchato parinibbuto'ti.6

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

The Buddha further says that the purpose of the practice of the ariyo atthangiko maggoariyo atthangiko maggo (the Noble Eightfold Pathnoble eightfold path), is to understand vedana and reach the state of vedana-nirodhavedana-nirodha (cessation of sensationscessation of sensations):

Tisso ima, bhikkhave, vedana. Katama tisso? Sukha vedana, dukkha vedana, adukkamasukha vedana. Ima kho, bhikkhave, tisso vedana. Imasam kho, bhikkhave, tissannam vedananam abhinnaya parinnaya parikkhayaya pahanaya... ayam ariyo atthangiko maggo bhavetabbo'ti.7

-There are these three types of bodily sensations. What are the three? Pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, and neutral sensations. Meditators, the Noble Eightfold Path should be practised for the complete knowledge, the full realisation, the gradual eradication and the abandonment of these three bodily sensations.

Sensations (vedana) are the tools by which we can practise the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path; and by realising the characteristic of anicca-bodhaanicca-bodha (impermanence), we free ourselves from the bonds of avijja and tanha and penetrate to the ultimate truth: nibbananibbana, freedom from suffering, a state which is beyond the field of vedana, beyond the field of nama-rupa (mind and matter).

Notes: (All references VRI edition)

1. Anguttara Nikaya 1.3.62
2. Majjhima Nikaya 3.299
3. Suttanipata 746
4. Ibid. 383
5. Loc. Cit 743 - 744
6. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.249
7. Ibid. 2.4.250