Picture: Wil Stewart

The Meaning of Vedanā in Buddhism

Vedanā is an essential concept in Buddhist meditation. It made quite a number of prominent lists, such as the five aggregates (khandhas) or the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānas). Vedanā has been translated as “feeling” or “sensation” and it would be difficult to overstate its importance for meditation practice. This article serves to explain in some detail the notion of feelings in Buddhism.

On the nature of vedanā

I once asked a Buddhist monk in Thailand what exactly is meant by vedanā. He responded “it’s just feeling in the body”. Now that was short, eh? You have likely already read the Wikipedia article on vedanā, perhaps some more articles and passages in books and now this monk reduces all of that to “just feeling in the body”? In short, yes. But you would not be reading this if short answers had proven satisfactory, so I am going to elaborate.

Vedanā, according to the scriptures [1, 2], can be classified as either pleasurable, painful or neither pleasurable nor painful. So basically anything classifiable using these categories is vedanā. But does this not cover pretty much all experiences? Most experiences come as pleasurable or painful and when they do not, then surely “neither pleasurable nor painful” covers the rest. Does that mean that any and all experiences are vedanā? In a way, yes. It means that all experiences have a feeling component that is called vedanā.

Classification issues

One might wonder how to classify the bittersweet feeling of wallowing in nostalgia, full of longing for something that is never to come again, the guilty pleasure of eating too much ice-cream, or the pleasure of pain in a sexual context. I do not know whether such matters are discussed in Buddhist scriptures (let me know if you do). Attempts of further differentiation are visible, however, in the addition of mental versions of pain and pleasure (domanassa and somanassa). Given that the brain is a vast complex dynamic system, it seems highly unlikely that there could be a classification scheme that comes without a “not sure” bin. It can be useful to speak of pleasurable and painful feelings as lying on a spectrum because that enables an understanding of how our minds are conditioned to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. Such understanding enables awareness and awareness brings meditative progress. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that such a simplistic classification could possibly be exhaustive. Let us not forget that to an early Buddhist, after all, the brain was an oversized, mushy, gray walnut.

Vedanā and the body

Another source of confusion with respect to Buddhist scriptures is that the first satipaṭṭhāna is the body (kāya) and the second is vedanā. The question being, for example, if there were a pain in my knee, would that belong to the first or the second satipaṭṭhāna? The body is known by means of feeling, but then why are there two satipaṭṭhānas? There definitely is overlap here, but it is not that big considering the number of meditations on the body that are of a contemplative nature (as opposed to experiential). For instance, as part of their satipaṭṭhāna practice, Buddhist monks meditate on corpses in different stages of decay. By this practice a deeper understanding of the three marks of existence (tilakkhaṇa) is brought about (that all things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of a self). While the experience of contemplating such matters may involve feelings they are not at the center of the contemplation, therefore there is not a lot of overlap to be found here. When it comes to experiential meditations one has to differentiate further. For example, when meditating on the body as an object of experience, you can direct your attention to the knowledge that there is a body or to its location and movement in space and time. These are cognitions about the body, not feelings. One could object to this separation on the grounds that the body is only known by way of feeling. After all, if you did not feel the body, then you could not have knowledge about its existence or location. While it may be true that vedanā is prior to saññā with respect to the body, you can still choose your meditation object freely. When you are focusing on the feelings in the body, you are meditating on the second satipaṭṭhāna and when you are focusing on the knowledge about the body, you are meditating within the bounds of the first satipaṭṭhāna. Of course in practice, having sati and sampajañña of the feeling body is the same, whether you call it meditation on the first or second satipaṭṭhāna.

Vedanā and emotions

There is yet another source of confusion, the difference between feelings (vedanā) and emotions, but that is quite easily dealt with. To put it simply, an emotion is a complex phenomenon that involves a range of thoughts and feelings occurring together. Why and how this is will become very clear in the next paragraph.

As the earliest life forms on earth evolved means to move about and not instantly die when being hurt, having a warning signal that something was not okay began to make sense, that signal was pain. Those animals that had a warning signal would move away from danger and those which did not would perish. By means of such natural selection, the genes that encode for a warning signal were passed on and quickly came to dominate the gene pool. The same goes for pleasure. Using their tiny brains, our early life forms could begin to learn about their environment. “This is painful, don’t do that”, “This is pleasurable, let’s do more of that” etc. Using newly evolved senses (such as sight and hearing) and larger brain memory, more nuanced versions of warning signals and other alerts were selected for by evolution. Existing brains were adapted and improved upon to process basic emotions such as fear and disgust, then again for social emotions like trust and jealousy and finally to compute moral social emotions, e.g. the feelings of righteousness and virtue. Because evolution always adapts what is already present, all of these different kinds of emotions have a basic feeling component, a feeling in the body, vedanā.

A pragmatic conclusion

A pain in the foot and the pain of being betrayed are on some level the same, they are both vedanā. The monk was right, vedanā is “just feeling in the body”.

What does that mean for meditation practice? Just be aware of how any given experience seems to affect you. There is no need to label it as pleasurable or painful per se. As so often with Buddhist teachings, the classification scheme of vedanā seems more like an example, a suggestion, something to get you to work with your feelings, to become aware of them. If you clearly know the arising and passing away of a feeling and you are able to relate that feeling experience to the big picture in the context of your practice, then that is much more important than having theoretical knowledge about vedanā. I hope that this article helps to satisfy your curiosity, overcome your doubt and get you back to your practice.

4 thoughts on “The Meaning of Vedanā in Buddhism”

  1. “The question being that if there was a pain in my knee, would that belong to the first or the second satipaṭṭhāna? ”

    It does not belong to either. Vedanā is neither the body (knee) nor the pain. Vedanā is the (in this instance) unpleasantness of the experience.

    1. Thank you for this comment and the opportunity to clarify.

      The point you are making is one of the reasons I wrote this article. In your comment you state “Vedanā is the (in this instance) unpleasantness of the experience.”, the experience being pain in the knee. Having an experience and the experience itself are the same thing. Hence, your statement may be rephrased as “vedanā is the unpleasantness of pain (in the knee)”, that would be equivalent to saying “vedanā is the painfulness of pain”, but painfulness is the very definition of pain. Therefore, understanding vedanā as the painfulness/unpleasantness of an experience of bodily pain creates redundancy and should be avoided. (See follow-up reply for a correction)

      1. I have a habit of revisiting my older articles and comments to see if I still agree with them. In this case, I would like to make a few amendments.

        In my previous reply to your comment I wrote that “painfulness is the very definition of pain” and I no longer believe that to be universally true. The English language does not seem to differentiate very well between pain and the suffering caused by pain, the word “painful” can refer to either. There seems to be a similar problem speaking about these matters in Pali. In the Dukkhatā Sutta (SN45.165, Pali, English), the suffering due to pain is called “dukkha-dukkha”, which is about as (seemingly) redundant as “the painfulness of pain”, but I believe it denotes the difference between pain and suffering. The reason we have these linguistic issues, I would argue, is because most people cannot differentiate between pain and the suffering caused by pain. If, for the vast majority of people, pain and the suffering it causes are the same experience, it makes sense that there exists such linguistic ambiguity.

        That being said, I still maintain that vedanā refers to bodily feelings, rather than their (un-)pleasantness. I would like to present a passage from the early Buddhist discourses in support of my argument. The Pahāna Sutta (SN36.3, Pali, English) lists the three kinds of vedanā: “Bhikkhus, there are these three feelings. What three? Pleasant feeling, painful feeling, neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.” (Pali: “Tisso imā, bhikkhave, vedanā. Katamā tisso? Sukhā vedanā, dukkhā vedanā, adukkhamasukhā vedanā.”). If the unpleasantness itself were vedanā, the concept of neither-painful-nor-pleasant (or neutral for short) feeling would be void; it would not refer to anything, for one cannot sense neutrality itself, only that a feeling (vedanā) is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Therefore, vedanā must have an existence independent of (un)pleasantness.

  2. Very nice article, thank you. If I may add, as you said, vedana refers only to bodily sensations (feelings), and what determines whether it is unpleasant, pleasant or neutral is the sanna, or perception- the judgment it gives them, based on which, a sankara, or reaction/conditioning, arises. This reaction is what could be called the suffering caused by “pain.” Vedana can be very gross, such as pain in the knee, or so subtle we are not yet trained to feel it (in the body). This is how I have come to understand it from my personal experience throughout my life and especially after starting Vipassana meditation. There might be more to it that I don’t know. I have not read the scriptures enough to quote what I have said. I hope you find this useful.

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