Contemplation of vedanās as a particularly powerful avenue for gaining liberating insight can benefit from a deepening of our understanding in relation to various dimensions of what this term stands for. The relevant translated passages below from a Chinese Āgama are used to present a series of key questions regarding insight into the nature of vedanā. The purpose of using these translations of the discourse is to enable the reader to compare it with existing translations of the Pāli discourse, and thereby 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 key questions regarding insight into the nature of vedanā, which are part of a pre-awakening reflection of the Buddha, take the following form:i
What are [the types of] vedanā? What is the arising of vedanā? What is the cessation of vedanā? What is the path to the arising of vedanā? What is the path to the cessation of vedanā? What is the gratification in vedanā? What is the disadvantage in vedanā? What is the release from vedanā? He examined in this way:
There are three vedanās: pleasant vedanā, unpleasant vedanā, and neutral vedanā. The arising of contact is the arising of vedanā; the cessation of contact is the cessation of vedanā.
Craving with delight for vedanā, extolling it, being defiled by attachment to it, taking a firm stance on it, this is called the path to the arising of vedanā. Not craving with delight for vedanā, extolling it, being defiled by attachment to it, taking a firm stance on it, this is called the path to the cessation of vedanā.
The joy and delight that arises in dependence on vedanā, this is called the gratification in vedanā. The nature of vedanā to be impermanent and to change, this is called the disadvantage in vedanā. The abandoning of desire and passion for vedanā, the going beyond desire and passion, this is called the release from vedanā.
The Pāli parallel (SN 36.24) equates the path to the cessation of vedanā with the Eightfold Path. This provides a broader context for the basic task of stepping out of craving and attachment. Whichever of these two complementary definitions of the path is adopted, the above passage presents liberating insight into vedanā in a nutshell.
Based on the fundamental distinction of the three affective tones, insight into the conditionality of vedanā as something that arises based on contact builds the foundation for the task of stepping out of craving. This task can benefit from adopting the three perspectives of gratification (literally “taste”), disadvantage (literally “danger”), and release (literally “escape”). There is indeed gratification to be found in vedanā, but this comes inexorably intertwined with the disadvantage that, sooner or later, the gratification is going to end due to the law of impermanence. The extent to which we developed attachment during the gratification stage determines to what extent we will suffer when what was pleasant changes to neutral or even unpleasant. For this reason, the task of stepping out of craving (or desire and passion) is the way out; it provides an escape or release from the predicament of being enslaved by vedanā.
Several other discourses offer the same exposition on the nature of vedanā, with the only difference being that, instead of reporting a pre-awakening reflection of the Buddha, the questions are part of a dialogue between the Buddha and his monastic disciples.ii From a practical viewpoint, these different modalities of the same basic instruction can be taken as an encouragement to consider the above teaching relevant to meditators in general, rather than being something pertinent only to the Buddha’s pre-awakening practice. On this understanding, the series of questions can be employed as a way of providing a framework for insightful reflection that can inform actual meditation practice. Based on mindfully discerning the three types of vedanā, the main lines of inquiry would be:
What is the immediate cause for the arising of this particular vedanā?
What keeps fuelling the arising of this vedanā?
How to find release in relation to this vedanā?
The first query leads to the identification of a particular contact as the key condition for vedanā to arise. The second question drives home the fact that craving keeps fueling such arising. In this way, from the viewpoint of the standard exposition of dependent arising, the preceding condition of contact and the ensuing condition of craving have been covered.
Having situated vedanā in its causal nexus in this way, the possibility opens up for finding release from reactivity to vedanā. This requires contextualizing any gratification experienced through vedanā by turning awareness to the unavoidable disadvantage inherent in the changing nature of vedanā. Such insight in a nutshell can safely be expected to have a remarkable liberating potential.
i SĀ 475 at T II 121b29, parallel to SN 36.24 at SN IV 233,13 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 1281). SĀ 475 actually introduces the text as a pre-awakening reflection of a previous Buddha, known in the Pāli tradition under the name of Vipassin. The discourse ends by indicating that the same reflection should be repeated for other Buddhas who lived subsequent to Vipassin, up to and including the Buddha Gotama himself.
ii SĀ 476 at T II 121c14 and its parallel SN 36.23 at SN IV 232,27 (translated by Bodhi 2000: 1281), feature an unnamed monastic as the questioner, whereas in SĀ 477 at T II 121c29 and SN 36.15 at SN V 219,28 the questions are posed by Ānanda and in SN 36.17 at SN IV 221,23 and SN 36.25 at SN IV 234,15 by a group of monastics. SĀ 478 at T II 122a3 and SN 36.18 at SN IV 223,1 then report the Buddha asking a group of monastics about their opinion on these matters, to which they reply by requesting him to expound it; in SN 36.16 at SN V 221,7 the same takes place with the Buddha asking Ānanda instead.
CBETA Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association
SĀ Saṃyukta-āgama (T 99)
T Taishō edition (CBETA)
Boston: Wisdom Publication.