Teaching Buddha Teaching Buddha

Vedana Does Not Mean Emotions!


There is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Pali word vedana - occasionally it get mistranslated as "emotions." This is not only quite incorrect, but doing so also does a disservice to a very important aspect of the Buddha's teachings. To understand what the Buddha is getting at, let's take a look at how we process sense contact.

There is contact - light striking the eye, sounds waves striking the ear, etc. The sense organ begins converting these stimuli into neurological activity.

The first processing of this neurological activity is in the "old brain", the so call reptilian structure. Within 1/10th second we have cateorgrazied the stimulus as pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha), or neither pleasant or unpleasant. This is vedana. And it is not under our conscious control.

Next we conceptualize the stimulus - this is sa˝˝a (usually translated as "perception", but I think "conceptualization" more closely captures what the Buddha was talking about).

Now that we have a concept we begin relating that concept to other concepts - this is sankhara, literally "making together". It also goes by the name "mental activity" and consists of thoughts, emotions, memories, intentions, etc.

This not the end of the story - these sankharas are input to the 6th sense = the mind. And these sensory inputs also generate vedana. Mostly we miss the initial external sense vedana (unless it is more pleasant or unpleasant than average) and only really notice these downstream (6th sense/mental) vedana.

This is why the vedana-experience differs when I say "trump" in the context of playing cards from when I say "Trump" in the context of politics. The sound-vedana can be exactly the same (neutral probably), but the downstream-vedana can be wildly different because of the sankharas generated in the different contexts.

But of course this doesn't stop there either - more sa˝˝a, more sankharas follow - and more vedana from these as well. All this serves (possibly) to generate an emotional reaction as part of this mental proliferation (papa˝ca).

Then given the unhelpful translation of "vedana" as "feeling", people misconstrue vedana as pointing to their downstream generated emotions. They have completely missed the point of the Buddha's teaching on vedana! Because it's vedana that run our lives as we run towards the pleasant vedana, run away from the unpleasant vedana, and ignore the neutral vedana. And then we get lost in our papa˝ca.

BTW when the Buddha says he teaches the end of dukkha, he's teaching the way to the end of our 6th sense dukkha vedana. He had a bad back and sometimes he would give the introduction to a sutta and ask one of his disciples to elaborate. He would then lie down to rest his back and listen to what was said. And afterward, he would say something like "If I'd given the talk, I'd have said exactly the same thing." Clearly he was still experiencing dukkha vedana from bodily contact; and we can assume he was not experiencing any downstream mental dukkha vedana. For more on this, see The Dart Sutta at Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.6.

And for more on the whole contact->vedana->sa˝˝a->sankhara->papa˝ca sequence, see the Honey Ball Sutta at Majjhima Nikāya 18.

Dukkha is A Bummer
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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 19 Dec 19