For many of us the Coronavirus pandemic has provided a strong confirmation of the importance of having a well-established insight meditation practice. In particular, the ability to face painful vedanās with inner composure and equanimity is such an important asset in many respects, enabling us to face the repercussions of the pandemic on others and on ourselves with equanimity, able to do the needful without becoming overwhelmed.
The Abyss of Pain
The experience of pain can at times be overwhelming, comparable to an abyss. Yet, with meditative training it becomes possible to avoid falling into this abyss. The two basic responses when facing this abyss of pain find expression in the following passage, which is taken from a Chinese Āgama discourse parallel to a Pāli discourse found in the Vedanā-saṃyutta (SN 36.4). The purpose of providing a translation of the Chinese Āgama discourse is to enable the reader to compare this with existing translations of the Pāli discourse. This helps the reader come to a personal understanding of the often-minor differences between these parallel versions, both of which are the product of centuries of oral transmission:
The abysmal great ocean is what foolish people in the world call an abyss, which is not what is called an abyss in the noble teaching and discipline. What is called such in the world is just a great accumulation of water. If one is oppressed by vedanās of manifold pains that arise from the body, which torment or kill, this is called being in the place of an extreme abyss.
Being oppressed by painful vedanās arisen in this body, which torment or kill, foolish unlearned worldings sorrow, lament, cry, and wail; their minds [give rise] to confusion and derangement. They sink for a long time, without a place of rest.
Being oppressed by painful vedanās arisen in this body, which torment or kill, learned noble disciples do not give rise to sorrow, [lamentation], crying, and wailing; their minds do [not] give rise to confusion and derangement. They do not sink in birth and death, having gained a place of rest.
The Pāli version (SN 36.4) makes the same basic contrast in terms of either not rising up from the abyss or rising up from it, having gained a foothold. The two parallels repeat the basic message in verse, which highlights the need to endure pain with patience. Patient endurance would indeed offer a place of rest or a foothold that helps to avoid sinking in the abyss of pain.
This can be related to the implication of the image discussed below, which compares pain to the tip of a sword or a dart. This relates to the need of developing the appropriate mental response to bodily pain, so that the underlying tendency to aversion does not get triggered. Such would indeed be possible through cultivating patient endurance. How to go about this receives further elaboration with the image of a dart in the next discourse.
An illustration of how to face the abyss of pain by way of illustrating its nature with the example of being shot by a dart or arrow is found in a Chinese discourse which has a Pāli parallel in the Vedanā-saṃyutta (SN 36.6):
To foolish unlearned worldlings through bodily contact vedanās arise that are increasingly painful, even leading to the ending of life. They are worried and complain by crying and wailing; their minds give rise to confusion and derangement. At that time two vedanās increase, bodily vedanā and mental vedanā.
It is just like a person whose body has been afflicted by two poisonous arrows and extremely painful vedanās arise. Foolish unlearned worldlings are also just like this, increasing two vedanās, bodily vedanā and mental vedanā, [when] extremely painful vedanās arise. Why is that? It is because those foolish unlearned worldlings lack understanding.
Being contacted by pleasant vedanā arisen from the five [strands of] sensuality, they cling to the pleasure of the five [strands of] sensuality. Because of clinging to the pleasure of the five [strands of] sensuality, they are affected by the underlying tendency to passion.
Because of being contacted by painful vedanā, they then give rise to aversion. Because of giving rise to aversion, they are affected by the underlying tendency to aversion.
In relation to these two vedanās, they do not understand as it really is their arising, their cessation, their gratification, their disadvantage, and the release from them. Because of not understanding them as they really are, when neutral vedanā arises, they are affected by the underlying tendency to ignorance.
They are bound by pleasant vedanā, not freed from it, bound by unpleasant vedanā, not freed from it, and bound by neutral vedanā, not freed from it. By what are they bound? That is, they are bound by passion, aversion, and ignorance, and bound by birth, old age, disease, death, worry, sorrow, vexation, and pain.
To learned noble disciples through bodily contact painful vedanā arises that is greatly painful and oppressive, even leading to the ending of life. They do not give rise to worry or complain by crying and wailing, and their mind does not [give rise] to confusion or derangement. At that time only one vedanā arises, namely bodily vedanā; mental vedanā does not arise.
It is just like a person who is afflicted by one poisonous arrow and not afflicted by a second poisonous arrow. [For learned noble disciples] at that time only one vedanā arises, namely bodily vedanā; mental vedanā does not arise.
Being contacted by pleasant vedanā, they are not defiled by the pleasure of sensuality. Because of not being defiled by the pleasure of sensuality, in relation to pleasant vedanā they are not affected by the underlying tendency to passion.
Being contacted by unpleasant vedanā, they do not give rise to aversion. Because of not giving rise to aversion, they are not affected by the underlying tendency to aversion.
In relation to these two vedanās, they understand as it really is their arising, their cessation, their gratification, their disadvantage, and the release from them. Because of understanding them as they really are, with neutral vedanā they are not affected by the underlying tendency to ignorance.
They are liberated from pleasant vedanā, not bound by it, liberated from unpleasant vedanā and from neutral vedanā, not bound by them. By what are they not bound? That is, they are not bound by passion, aversion, and ignorance, and not bound by birth, old age, disease, death, worry, sorrow, vexation, and pain.”
In the Pāli version (SN 36.6), the arrows or darts are not poisoned. This offers a more meaningful presentation. With a poisonous arrow the main problem of being poisoned arises already on being hit by a single arrow. A real difference only manifests when the question at stake is just the pain of being hurt by one or two arrows. This is what the simile is meant to illustrate, namely that the first arrow of physical pain need not lead on to the second arrow caused by mental reaction to the pain.
Another difference is that the Saṃyutta-nikāya discourse offers an additional explanation of the predicament of worldlings who seek sensual pleasure when being afflicted by pain. They do so because they do not know another alternative to the experience of pain. This helps to link the exposition of pain to the ensuing discussion of pleasant vedanā, an interrelation that is not as evident in the version translated above.
Being confronted by pain, the response of the untrained mind is to want to get away from it as soon as possible. Sensual indulgence offers the vein promise of providing an escape from the pain; hence the untrained mind reacts to pain by chasing after sensual pleasure (perhaps even more than anyway done ordinarily). As the discourse clarifies, the net result is to increase the bondage to vedanā ever more.
The situation differs substantially when the mind has been trained. The crucial difference is that the arrow of physical pain need not lead on to the additional arrow of mental sorrow. Once mental training makes it possible to experience only the bodily vedanā of pain but not the mental one, aversion no longer manifests and the automatic response of searching for sensual indulgence also does not get triggered. The reason is the clear understanding that there is an alternative to handling painful vedanā other than sensual indulgence. This alternative is to face the challenge of pain with a balanced mind, rather than react to it with an unbalanced mind. This requires training oneself in the right mental attitude, inculcating the type of inner balance that is able to react to the impact of pain with mindfulness and insight.
The Pain of Disease
How to face the pain of disease with mindfulness and insight is the theme of the next Chinese Āgama passage to be taken up, whose Pāli parallel (SN 36.7) is also part of the Vedanā-saṃyutta. The setting is a visit by the Buddha to the monastic sick ward, occasioning the following instruction:
To one who is in this way with right mindfulness and right knowledge, unpleasant vedanās arise dependent on conditions, not independent of conditions. What are the conditions on which they depend? They depend in this way on the body. One reflects: “This body of mine is impermanent, produced by [former] volitions, arisen in dependence on conditions. Unpleasant vedanās are also impermanent, produced by [former] volitions, arisen in dependence on conditions.”
One contemplates the body and unpleasant vedanās as impermanent … up to … [contemplates] relinquishing. The underlying tendency to aversion in relation to these unpleasant vedanās will no longer affect one.
The same basic pattern applies to pleasant and neutral vedanās, with the difference that such contemplation leads beyond the underlying tendencies to sensual desire and ignorance, respectively.
From a practical perspective, the key remains awareness of impermanence together with conditionality. It is remarkable how, time and again, the discourses that provide insight perspectives on vedanā build around this central theme of impermanence. In both versions, contemplation of impermanence then leads via dispassion and cessation (abbreviated in the Chinese original translated above) to relinquishing or letting go.
This progression is central for liberating insight and is found similarly in the final part of the instructions on mindfulness of breathing. Briefly stated, insight into impermanence leads on to dispassion., in the sense of letting the implications of the fact that everything keeps changing all the time really sink into the mind and transform its affective disposition through a gradual reduction of passionate attachments. Why become passionate for things that anyway will not last? Cultivating dispassion diminishes the ingrained tendency to want only what is new and beginning, at the cost of ignoring what is old and ending. With the cessation of phenomena, there can be an inner sense of ease. This is in a way the cutting edge of impermanence, namely that it invariably leads to vanishing and disappearing. Contemplating cessation in this way fosters increasing willingness to let go, by way of relinquishing all clinging and grasping at what will pass away anyway. This is how the underlying tendencies can gradually be deactivated until eventually, with a most complete letting go of all and everything, they can be eradicated.
With these three passages, the following key points emerge regarding understanding pain from a Dhamma perspective: Unlike those who lack training in insight, a meditator is able to face the abyss of pain without lamentation. This ability rests on implementing the crucial distinction between the unavoidable arrow of physical pain and the unnecessary additional arrow of mental reactivity to that pain. This crucial distinction comes with a call for practice, particularly in the form of contemplating the impermanent nature of vedanās.
 SĀ 469 at T II 119c8, parallel to SN 36.4 at SN IV 206,7 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 1262), a Sanskrit fragment parallel in Ye 2009: 231, and SHT XII 6740, Wille 2017: 251.
 The translation is based on an emendation by deleting a reference to “the great ocean.” This seems to be out of place here, presumably a copying error influenced by the beginning of the discourse, which is indeed about an abyss in the great ocean.
 SĀ 469 at T II 119c24 and SN 36.4 at SN IV 207,1.
 SĀ 470 at T II 119c29 (translated by Anālayo 2016: 29), parallel to SN 36.6 at SN IV 207,24 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 1263).
 The translation is based on emending a reference to “underlying tendency” to read “vedanā”.
 The translation “gratification” is based on an emendation suggested in the CBETA edition.
 In SN 36.6 at SN IV 210,6 the Buddha sums up that this is the difference between the worldling and the noble disciple.
 SN 36.6 at SN IV 208,11.
 SN 36.6 at SN IV 208,20.
 SĀ 1028 at T II 268c17 (translated by Anālayo 2016: 162), parallel to SN 36.7 at SN IV 212,3 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 1267).
 The rendering adopted here is only tentative, as the formulation in the original is rather cryptic.
 The translation is based on an emendation by deleting a reference to “and,” on the assumption that this would be a copying error influenced by the earlier reference to “the body and” in the description of the contemplation of impermanence, etc.
 See in more detail Anālayo 2019: 100–119 and 2013: 219–226.
CBETA Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association
SĀ Saṃyukta-āgama (T 99)
T Taishō edition (CBETA)
Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2013: Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2016: Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, Compassionate Advice from Early Buddhist Texts, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2019: Mindfulness of Breathing: A Practice Guide and Translations, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu 2000: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, Boston: Wisdom Publication.
Wille, Klaus 2017: Sanskrithandschriften aus den Turfanfunden Teil 11, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.
Ye Shaoyong 2009: “Or. 15009/201–250,” in Buddhist Manuscripts from Central Asia, The British Library Sanskrit Fragments, Volume II, S. Karashima and K. Wille (ed.), 227–257, Tokyo: International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University.