Article published by Mahabodhi in Western Buddhist Order journal Shabda, November 2006

Feelings, acceptance and all that jazz

I have been exploring the four satipatthanas as the main theme for my book (which may be called "On Safe Ground", if and when it eventually comes out) but in the meantime I thought I would be good to share some of 'discoveries' I have made in the course of my research, in this case discoveries about feeling.

Feeling is the second of the satipatthanas.  What the buddha says about it in the Satipatthana Sutta is the practitioner should be aware, when they are experiencing a feeling, the type of feeling it is (namely its tone - pleasureable, painful or neutral).  He also adds, whatever the tone is, to also know a worldly feeling (samisam vedana)as a worldly feeling and a spiritual feeling (niramisam vedana)as a spiritual feeling.  That is all he says about it.

The vedana entry in the PTS Pali-English dictionary classes three modes of feeling: pleasureable, painful or neutral.  It also mentions it as kusala, akusala, avyakata (skilful, unskilful, neither skilful or unskilful).  It mentions the five vedanas - sukham, dukkham, somanassam, domanassam and upekkha.  The 108 modes of vedana.  It mentions that it is one of the five skandhas. It also mentions bodily (kayika) feeling and mental (cetasika) feeling.  Surprisingly the dictionary entry doesn't mention anything about spiritual (niramisa) or worldly (samisa) feeling, despite those being clerarly mentioned in one of the most important suttas, the Satipatthana Sutta.  So what are we to make of all these lists?  One tendency we might have is to think its all too complicated, and go back to what is most obvious in our experience, that feeling is simply just pleasureable, painful or neutral!

One thing I learned in physics though was that if something is there in an equation it is there for a reason, it needs to be included in ones calculations, and I think that the buddha pointed to these categories of vedana for a reason, and in considering what vedana really is, we need to include them in our calculations.  So let's look at these lists, put them in the context of what we know of the dharma, and what we know in our experience, and see what we come up with.

Feeling as a resultant
The first thing about feeling is that it is vipaka - a resultant.  Bhante (Mind in Buddhist Psychology seminar p193) compares it with Schoppenhauer's Vorstellung - the classification of things in life that just happen to us, rather than Wille, things we do. As the Mind in Buddhist Psychology text says "The absolute specific characteristic of feeling is to experience".  I think this point is absolutely axiomatic to everything else we might consider.  Feeling cannot for instance be 'good' in itself, because it would have to be something we were doing.  Karma rather than vipaka.  It can though be the result of goodness.  Spiritual feeling (niramisam vedana) is not 'feeling spiritual' - as in, "I feel so spiritual today, that's good isn't it?".  That kind of 'spiritual feeling' may just be the ego having a view of itself (as spiritual), and then that view conditioning a pleasant feeling.  Real spiritual feeling is feeling resulting from (actual) ethical behaviour or an ethical state of mind, for example, as in when we have a good conscience, or when an experience of pleasure arises in the dhyanas. 

If we take this point about feeling as always being a vipaka and apply that to our list, every reference then has to apply either to a) the tone of the experience (pleasant, painful or neutral) or b) the source.  Sukha is tone (pleasant); somanassam is both tone (pleasant) and source (manas - mind sense).  Kayika is source (kaya - body);  cetasika is source (mental);  kusala is source (ethical behaviour).  Samisam and niramisam are sources (worldly source and spiritual or ethically positive source - the sources including both  behaviours and mental activities [actions of body speech and mind]).

Vedana is one of the four satipatthanas: traditionally the others are body, citta (heart/mind), dhammas (mental objects).  Lets first look more closely at what these are before moving ion to the feeling generated by them.. 

Body is something like the tangible aspect to rupa, rupa being the objective constituent of the perceptual situation.  It is our experience of the tangible (perhaps, to be more specific, like rupa when objectively experienced). 

Citta is translated by Guenther as attitude, which points to activity and ethics.  I think I prefer to see it as attitude and awareness (level of ethical awareness plus expansiveness/concentratedness of mind)  The PTS Pali-English dictionary entry for citta gives its meaning as the heart (psychologically) and states -

"The meaning of citta is best understood when explaining it with expressions familiar to us, as: with all my heart; heart and soul; I have no heart to do it..   all of which emphasize the emotional and conative side of "thought" more than its mental and rational side (for which see manas and vinnana). It may therefore be rendered by intention, impulse, mood, disposition, state of mind, reaction to impressions"

I think the use of the word citta in the plural (the 89 cittas, the 52 cittas - the 52 mental events) by the Abhidharma confuses the issue of the meaning of the word citta.  A mental state is not like a separate element within ones heart and mind.  One's citta (heart) as a whole is coloured by a mental state like distraction.  Mrs Rhys Davids in this regard remarks (Buddhist Psychology p18) that the two alternative terms for mind or consciousness, mano and vinnana, are sometimes classified under the category dhatu (element), but citta never is, implying its singular nature.  She compares citta as heart as a 'psychically innervating force' (Buddhist Psychology p17) which I take to be that which motivates the whole person rather than being associated with individual conscious elements within that person. 

This ethical dimension is apparent from the Buddha's words in the Satipatthana Sutta in the section on Citta .  He advises the practitioner to know when their mind contains lust, hate or ignorance.  Further, to know when their consciousness is in a shrunken, or expanded state, a distracted state, a state 'become great', unsurpassed, a concentrated state, a liberated state, etc. That is to know the degree, and in what way their heart/mind is perfumed by awareness, expansiveness, calm, love and insight.

Manas and Dhammas
The fourth satipatthana, dhammas (mental objects) is connected with mind in the sense of Manas (or Mano).  Manas is the mind-sense and as such it is what grasps mental objects, just as the eye grasps visual objects.  The PTS dictionary entry for Mano /Mana(s) states -

"Meaning: mind, thought...    1. Mano represents the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while vinnana represents the field of sense and sense reaction ("perception") and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness....   As "mind" it embodies the rational faculty of man, which, as the subjective side in our relation to the objective world, may be regarded as a special sense, acting on the world, a sense adapted to the rationality (reasonableness, dhamma) of the phenomena, as our eye is adapted to the visibility of the latter.  Thus it ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres....     the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words mano is the counterpart of dhamma...   Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i.e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality;  manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak...   As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated , that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation "heart"), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such"

Mrs Rhys Davids remarks (Buddhist Psychology p19) -

'The Commentators connect mano with minati (ma), to measure. 

It seems then that Manas measures, assesses.  It takes whatever phenomena appear to it as mental objects. and makes an abstract assessment of them.  It basically forms a view about them.  The more accurate the view, the wiser the assessment.  (Manas has the potential for wisdom as citta has the potential for compassion(bodhicitta)).

In the final section of the Satipatthana Sutta the monk contemplates mental objects (in the mental objects). 

'bhikkhu dhammesu dhammanupassin viharati'

Dhammas in the dhammas.  I think Manas is essentially about views.  Just as the eye grasps the visual object, the mind as mano grasps the mental object.  That is any object in the mind.  And what kind of objects appear in the mind.  Thoughts, ideas, mental images, opinions, views and so on.  Mental objects that are mundane 'Shall I have cornflakes or museli this morning?' and ones that are of deeper importance.  It is interesting to think what constitutes a view.  A view doesn't necessarily have to be active.  Never thinking about something is a view about that thing (It means you think it has no importance).  And a view doesn't have to be conceptual, it can be  to be thinking either.  It can be any type of  mental object - images can be views (symbolic of a view).  Ordinary thinking can be just a 'low-level assessment'  We label mental objects 'Chair', 'Table',  'Self', and then have thoughts about them.  'I am a (particular type of person)', 'The world is a (particular type of place)'.

If we are reading dhamma in this way (as view) the Satipatthana phrase becomes closer to Bhante's interpretation of the fourth satipatthana (Mindfulness of Reality as the fourth dimension of awareness) , namely -

the monk dwells contemplating the truth [the dhamma] in his view about mental objects [dhammas]

The fourth satipatthana becomes a reflection on the nature of reality (as the mind is experiencing it through its mental objects)

Dependently arisen
Feeling is Praticca Samutpada, dependently arisen ("This being that becomes").  If the source of kayika vedana is kaya, applying the Praticca Samutpada formula to that we get "Kaya being, kayika vedana becomes" - with the arising of a particular state of kaya (like injury), kayika vedana becomes (pain arises).   The Praticca Samutpada formula works in a similar way with the other sources.  Citta (heart) being, ethical/unethical feeling becomes.  Dhammas (mental objects) being, mental feeling (cetasika vedana) becomes.

Feeling conditioned by Body - Bodily Feeling
Bodily feeling happens to everybody with a body.  As Nagasena replies to King Milinda when asked if the arahant feels any painful feeling (Questions of King Milinda 44) - "He feels bodily (kayika) feelings, sire, he does not feel mental (cetasika) feelings".  We all know that the Buddha suffered physically when poisoned with his last meal.

In a later question (253) called "Is an arahant lacking in the exercise of mastery", the king asks "Is it that an arahant's mind proceeds in dependence on the body, but that the arahant is without authority, powerless and not able to exercise mastery as to that body?" to which Nagasena replies "Yes".  (As an analogy he points to how being dependent on the earth have no command over it).  What is this saying?  I think it is saying Body, like feeling is a resultant (it is experience).  We cannot will a change in our experience, we can only will a change in our response to our experience.  Ultimately our (physical) experience is out of our control. 

Feeling conditioned by Heart - Ethical Feeling
In the Satipatthana Sutta the buddha makes the distinction between two kinds of feeling - worldly (carnal) feeling (samisam vedana) and spiritual (non-carnal) feeling (niramisam vedana).  In a different sutta, the Niramisa Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya XXXVI 31), he adds a third kind, which Bhikkhu Bodhi translates as 'more spiritual than the spiritual' (niramisa niramisatara).  Another translation of this (and refering to niramisa as non-carnal) is 'still less carnal than the other'.

Samisam is thoroughly (sam-) of the flesh (amisa).  It comes from the word ama, originally meaning raw meat, hence the connotation raw, carnal, uncultivated.  Carnal rapture (in the Niramisa Sutta) is rapture arising in dependence on the five 'cords' of sensual pleasure - it is linked to sense desire.  Niramisam is spiritual because it is without (ni-) amisa.  It is 'not of the flesh', not carnal, feeling  resulting from freedom from sensual desires.  Non-carnal rapture (in the Niramisa Sutta) is the experience of rapture in the second dhyana.  Buddhaghosa, in his commentary on the Satipatthana Sutta (Way of Mindfulness), comments -

'Pleasant worldly feeling refers to the six joyful feelings connected with the six sense-doors, and dependent on that which is tainted by defilements.  Pleasant spiritual feeling refers to the six joyful feelings connected with the six sense-doors, and not dependent on sense-desire.'

Niramisa niramisatara crosses (tara) over, transcends, the ordinarily spiritual (niramisa), in the same way that insight transcends our 'ordinary' practice of ethics and meditation.  Rapture 'more spiritual than the spiritual' (in the Niramisa Sutta) is the rapture felt by 'a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed when he reviews how his mind is liberated from greed hatred and delusion'.

These three types of feeling are conditioned by heart (citta).  They represent levels of ethics (but including insight), carnal feeling being the lowest and niramisa niramisatara the highest.  As I said Guenther translates citta as attitude.  An attitude of friendliness towards living beings will condition certain feelings  We will experience pain when we see them suffering.  Consciousness of the effects our actions are having on the world will cause us pain (regret) when we cause harm, and delight (pramodya) when we cause benefit, examples of niramisam vedana.

Subhuti in his series of talks on the 51 Mental Events at the Convention in 2001 mentioned two other dimensions to vedana- contaminated / uncontaminated and subjectivistic/transpersonal. That is, vedana contaminated by clinging or hatred, or uncontaminated by them.  Uncontaminated being related to dhyanic (or aesthetic) experience.  Contaminated / uncontaminated look similar to samisam and niramisam vedana, in any case they are ethical feeling.  The other pairing - subjectivistic (self cherishing / atman influenced) and transpersonal (non-self cherishing / uninfluenced by self view, as in the arising of the bodhicitta in the bodhisattva)  The difference here seems to be whether insight is present or not.  Subjectivistic at best would be niramisam because even if we develop the dhyanas they take us beyond clinging (in the sense of the hindrances) but not beyond fixed self view.  Transpersonal is similar to niramisa niramisatara in that it arises when insight is present.  (Geshe Rabten has contaminated feeling linked with consciousness affected by the afflictions, and uncontaminated linked with that in the minds of Aryas no longer affected by the afflictions.)

Feeling conditioned by Manas - Mental Feeling
Manas grasps phenomena (dhammas) in a particular way (which is to form a view about them).  That view then conditions a feeling that Guenther in Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma calls abstract feeling or mood (cetasika vedana), as opposed to kayika vedana 'concrete feeling'.  He says -

'(Feeling) imparts to every conscious content a definite value in the sense of acceptance ("like") or rejection ("dislike") or indifference.  Mood, too, signifies a valuation, though not of a definite content but of the whole conscious situation at the moment.  The fact that feeling in the form of 'mood' may appear quite independently of the momentary sensations, although by some exiguous [slender] reasoning it may be causally related to some previous conscious content, is brought about in the buddhist texts by terming this kind of feeling cetasika vedana, which may be translated as 'abstract feeling', inasmuch as it is raised above the different individual feeling values of concrete feeling.  It is clearly distinguished from kayika vedana or 'concrete feeling' which denotes that kind of feeling which is mixed up with and joins in with sensation.'

Cetasika vedana then comes on the back of a valuation (an assessment) of the whole conscious situation at the moment. rather than kayika vedana which 'joins in with sensation (the concrete).   Perhaps we arrive in a mood having 'taken stock of' (measured) our whole conscious situation. Our evaluation is not necessarily true, but a mood is what arises on the back of it, and this is what we have to deal with in terms of abstract feeling.  It is interesting that we talk of being in a mood, as if it is a place/ state we have arrived in - again a resultant rather than an action.  Cetasika vedana is conditioned by thoughts, opinions and views.  Thinking 'I am the greatest' or 'I am useless' are cognitions upon which arise pleasant and unpleasant vedana.  When the eye sees a visual form, pleasant or painful vedana arises; when the mind 'sees' a mental object, an idea or an opinion, pleasant or painful cetasika vedana arises.

That moods are conditioned by thoughts is recognised in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which uses the fact to help people cope with difficult moods.  What can happen is a person feels something, say they feel depressed.  Feeling depressed doesn't arise directly as a result of sensations in the body, or as a result of ethics, it arises on the basis of a judgement such as  'I am a failure' or 'Nobody loves me'.  If we were a total failure in everything and nobody in the whole world did love us, we would probably be justified in feeling depressed, but thoughts like those are mostly just not true, or they aren't very balanced.  By working at the thinking end of things (by looking for the evidence for and against that thought, that 'Nobody loves me') we can come up with a better thought (a more accurate assessment of the whole situation, a more accurate view).  On contemplating our new balanced thought, we then assess our mood which mostly will have improved with the change of thinking. 

I am not an expert on this, but if we are prone to depression it may be that we have picked up a habit through our lives of having certain thoughts (in CBT called core beliefs - things we absolutely believe about ourselves, like 'I am unlovable') which then appear as 'Nobody loves me' when things don't go our way and then trigger our depression. 

The good news though is because mood is a vipaka we don't have to act on it.  CBT is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and not just Cognitive Therapy (our mood is not only affected by our thinking but also by our behaviour).  Our heart conditions feeling as does our physical activity (kaya).  Not totally going along with our mood may feel counterintuitive (after all, it's true that thought isn't it!..  and it is important to honour the truth!) but if we treat our intuition as sole arbiter consider the consequences - we become depressed.  We act out our mood, and so our mood turns into our (moody) karma.  It is good to be sensitive to how life is going, or to what people think about us, and sometimes we might find ourselves a bit depressed (that is arriving in an unpleasant heavy state of mind), but at the same time (as Sona often says) it is good to be robust.   We need also to get on with life and what needs doing (i.e. helping beings).  That is the aspect of citta, of ethics. 

In terms of the different types of feeling - we can counterbalance unpleasant cetasika vedana (bad mood) with pleasant niramisa vedana (good conscience)or pleasant kayika vedana (developing a pleasant glow of the 'wholesome' type - through massage / going for run).  We can't in the long term counterbalance it with pleasant samisam vedana (sensory overload), that is just distraction and doesn't last long. Pride too is connected to cetasika vedana, or more specifically arrogance (mana) is.  Seeing ourself as better than, equal to, or worse than others undermines the reality that we are not fixed and can change at any time.  Pride comes before a fall (or a rise!)  When we have done an action we are pleased with and appropriate that to our ego, we may experience the pleasant cetasika vedana (of inflation) but we can counterbalance this with unpleasant niramisa vedana (conditioned by self respect/fear of blame from the wise).

The ultimate counterbalance to unpleasant cetasika vedana is when we get rid of it altogether.  The arahant who experiences pleasant niramisa niramisatara vedana has no view upon which cetasika vedana can arise.  They have gone beyond mood altogether.  There is no more agonising over anything.  The question of the arahant not experiencing cetasika vedana is repeated in the sutta of the Dart.  When the ordinary unenlightened person experiences physical suffering (the first dart - kayika vedana) what immediately follows is agonising about that (the second dart - cetasika vedana).  Therefore they experience two darts.  But the enlightened person experiences only the first dart.

Which brings me onto acceptance.  We know from Bhante's 15 points for order members old and new that one of those points is we shouldn't accept ourselves, but what is acceptance from a dharmic point of view?  In Cognitive Therapy we change our mood by working at the thinking end of things.   In a way acceptance is a mirror to this process.  We are still working on the connection between feeling and views/thoughts but at the other end.  We are working at the feeling end, to change our views.

Suppose we have a thought (or even an unconscious assumption about the world) - 'Life should be predominantly pleasant', say.  Then along comes some experience (kaya / vedana) that contradicts that (we really suffer).  We then have a choice, we can choose to accept or not accept our experience.  If we accept our new experience (but not as a strategy to try and get rid of it which isn't really accepting it at all) we are forced to adjust our view of the world to include our recent experience - perhaps our view changes to, 'It is prefereable if life is predominantly pleasant, but sometimes it may also be very painful'.  Our view has become more in line with  our experience.  The other choice, not accepting our new experience, is essentially a defense of our original view that we are attached to and want to shore up.  So we could say acceptance is the process of opening our views up to the reality of our experience.

Accepting ourselves is very different from this. I assume Bhante means accepting ourselves uncritically.  We could be doing two things: not accepting our situation and defending a view we have of ourselves uncritically ('I cannot change') or we could be mixing up acceptance of feelings (as vipaka) and acceptance of emotions (as karma).   In the first case perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable about the situation we are in, which happens to be challenging our idea about what we are capable of.  So instead of accepting our discomfort (which in the process helps us stay with our situation and gives us the possibility changing our view of ourselves within it) we discard our unpleasant experience and instead embrace and enshrine our limiting self view (and in the process reinforce it).

In the second case instead of accepting our experience, which is OK, we are 'receiving with approval' our response to our experience, namely citta (our ethics), no matter what it is.  As Bhante points out in his review of Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs (Western Buddhist Review no.2 p19) this is simply unskilful in that we are ignoring the effect we have on the world.  It is enshrined in the Buddha's encouragement to know a worldly feeling as a worldly feeling and a spiritual feeling as a spiritual feeling (Satipatthana Sutta).  By seeing the difference between carnal (samisam) feeling and spiritual (niramisam) feeling and prefering the latter, we protect the world with our ethics (hrih and ottappa).  And by prefering niramisa niramisatara vedana to niramisa vedana we don't get stuck in the devaloka in our meditation but remain focussed on the goal (of insight).

The final and permanent interaction between feeling and view comes, with insight (on the spiral path - from knowledge and vision of things as they really are on up to knowledge of the destruction of the biases).  Taking the (gradually enlightening) perspective of Manas, the more our assessment, when we look at feeling of any tone (pleasant, painful or neutral) is that it is unsatisfactory, the more we disentangle from it.  Seeing vedana we see the laksana of dukkha.  This comes about as our acceptance of more and more feeling moves our view closer to reality, closer to seeing on phenomena the mark of dukkha.  In the end, when we are able to accept all feeling whatsoever, we enter into the unbiased (apranihita) samadhi.  At that point there is no bias for any particular type of sensation (kamasrava) and ones view attains immovability in    ones conviction of dukkha, the first Noble Truth.  That is, ones view is immovable because being completely in line with reality, reality will never contradict it.

As a footnote, I am fascinated by how the non-buddhist medical/ psychological scientific communities are developed methodologies that seem to be getting closer and closer to buddhism.  Jon Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness-based approach (as used by Breathworks) uses acceptance as a tool in dealing with pain.  Traditional cognitive therapy (developed by Aaron Beck) uses a model that I have found useful and which looks surprisingly like the four satipatthanas (Mind over Mood - Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky p4). I am currently trying to find out how the model was developed (I recently emailed Christine Padesky about it).  In a recent book, Mindfulness and Acceptance by Stephen Hayes is a chapter comparing acceptance therapy and cognitive therapy. 

For more on the cognitive therapy model see  For more on conditioning relations between the four satipatthanas, see (adobe reader required).  For book work-in-progress see