2017 Vedana Conference

BCBS held a symposium July 13-16, 2017 on the topic of vedana. Conceived and organized by Martine Batchelor, this symposium was one of the Buddhist “think-tanks” the Study Center periodically organizes and hosts.

This article is part one in a two-part series on vedana. Here, BCBS resident scholar Mu Soeng overviews the concept of vedana and offers a brief summary of each speaker’s presentation at the symposium. Part two will be a new article from Bhikkhu Analayo on the issue of the third kind of vedana (the neutral or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant).


The Pali word vedana is one of the earliest and most crucial doctrinal terms in the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha; and, therefore, a window into the development of later Buddhist thought and practice. The understanding of this term in contemporary Buddhist practice in the West has not always been quite clear. It seems to be both a problem of translation as well as interpretation. When translated as “feeling” or “feeling tone” its understanding in, and application to, meditative process takes on a certain hermeneutic trajectory. When translated as “sensation” an alternate or a parallel understanding and application emerges that could be considered phenomenological.

A further complication arises when we consider that the three kinds of feeling tone or sensation—pleasant, unpleasant, and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant—are identified in one translation of the original Pali phrase while the same phrase is also translated as “pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.” Does it make any difference to our practice and its orientation if the third kind of vedana is translated as “neutral” or “neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant”?

Moreover, since in recent years, neuroscientists have also become interested in mapping Buddhist understanding of the mind in neurological terms, the issue of vedana becomes even more central to try to understand what’s being talked about in the original phraseology of the Pali suttas.

In these new discourses the line between feelings and emotions often gets blurred, forcing us to create a new interpretive range for vedana in our contemporary technological environment. A few introductory remarks from a new book “The Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence” by Richard Yonck provides a glimpse into how the contexts of vedana, when translated as emotion, are expanding in ever-new territory:

“Emotion. It’s as central to who you are as your body and your intellect. While most of us know emotion when we see or experience it, many questions remain about what it is, how it functions, and even why it exists in the first place. What’s known for certain is that without it, you would not be the person you are today.

“Now we find ourselves entering an astounding new era, an era in which we are beginning to imbue our technologies with the ability to read, interpret, replicate, and potentially even experience emotions themselves. This is being made possible by a relatively new branch of artificial intelligence known as affective computing . . . Affective computing integrates computer science, artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science, psychology, biometrics, and much more in order to allow us to communicate and interact with computers, robots, and other technologies via our feelings.” (pp. ix, xi)

Against this background, Martine Batchelor took the leadership role in organizing a conference on vedana at BCBS. Her vision was to have two interlocking groups of presenters—dharma teachers and neuroscientists—come together in a spirit of mutual reflection and investigation and look at the various facets of vedana; how it has been understood in traditional Buddhist hermeneutics and how it is being understood in contemporary Western neuroscience.

The group representing Buddhist teachers included John Peacock, Akincano Weber, Anne Klein, Robert Buswell, and Martine Batchelor. The other group representing neuroscientists who are also Buddhist practitioners consisted of Sara Lazar, Judson Brewer, Paul Grossman, and Anurag Gupta. Paul Fleischman brought a unique background as a well-known psychiatrist who has also written extensively on the mental health benefits of vipassana meditation.

John Peacock’s talk was titled “Vedanā, Ethics and Character: A Prolegommena” and he placed his discussion within the virtue ethics offered by Aristotle. He offered that “We cannot isolate vedanā from its consequences; its effects on character, social and individual mores. In fact, frequently the vedanā is only detectable by the consequences that it has in terms of behavior – what we could refer to metaphorically as its ‘footprints’ in the sand. In many instances it appears uncertain whether we have access to unmediated vedanā in ordinary experience. We often know that hedonic-tones have been present by the kinds of behavior we see enacted, both in our own behavior and that of others – if someone clutches their stomach and groans we can be fairly certain that there is unpleasant hedonic tone present (dukkha vedanā) . . . These all have both social and individual ethical outcomes. On the individual level this can result in deeply embedded reactive patterns that are responsible for, and implicated in, character formation.”

Marc Akincano Weber titled his talk as “Vedanā: tracing the allegedly obvious” and offered that “the verb vedeti, derived from the root vid, is a causative form and means “to make known” “to make felt” “to sense”, or, more broadly, “to experience.” The noun vedanā is based on the past-participle vedana ‘made known, brought to understanding’ thus, literally means, ‘a known.’ And what is being known is the pleasure and displeasure aspect of one’s experience. He suggested that “vedanā furnishes the hedonic aspect of knowing a particular experience – thus providing this experience with the flavor or taste. Vedanā exert their influence at a stage before we form intentions: “While we may seek or avoid pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones, distract ourselves from or dismiss indifferent ones we cannot intentionally ‘have’ vedanā.”

Judson Brewer’s talk was titled “Feeling is believing: convergence of Buddhist theory and modern scientific evidence supporting how self is formed and perpetuated through feeling tone (vedanā).” He suggested that “cultivation and introduction of chemical substances and social technologies that literally hijack neural pathways, leading to addictive behaviors such as substance use disorders, gambling, internet pornography and even smartphone-based texting . . . feeling the pleasant effects of intoxicants (chemical and behavioral) builds and supports a ‘self’ that requires their continued use to survive” and understanding these addictive feelings “may shed light on current conundrums surrounding an increasingly addicted society.”

Paul Fleischman focused on the understanding of vedanā as body sensation taught within the Goenka vipassana meditation tradition, and also as the nexus where cosmic energy can be used to generate the wisdom of impermanence and non-attachment. “For awareness of vedanā to arise in the mind and body of a meditator, perception of body sensations is necessary. This perception is based upon neurological sensory apparatus such as sensory nerves, nociceptors, or brain regions specialized for reception, such as the somatosensory cortex in the parietal lobe. All these perceptual steps require energy. Examples of energy requiring processes within perception include the transport of neuro-chemical signals across perceptual nerve synapses, the binding of signal chemicals to perceptual cell receptors, or the active transport of signaling molecules into receptor cells. The energy for all biological cellular processes can be traced to cosmic energy sources….Therefore, the energy that is used in the perception of the arising and passing of vedana in the mind and body of a meditator is the locus where the original cosmic energy powers the awareness of impermanence, with its corollaries of non-self and detachment, which are way stations on the Path. Vedana is the nano site where the Buddha’s realization entered the world of mind and matter utilizing human processes fourteen billion years in the making.”

Paul Grossman presented quantitative and qualitative evidence for benefits in wellbeing of mindfulness-based programs among seriously ill patients. Within the context of a discussion of Vedana, he addressed the question: How is it possible that very sick people can turn toward their frequently, extremely unpleasant and painful lived experience and actually feel better, not worse, in terms of improved sense of well-being and quality of life? Surely to many, it would seem counter-intuitive that intentionally attending in the moment to often painfully uncomfortable and unpleasant sensory, perceptual, cognitive and emotional input, may actually help sick people better to cope with their problems, rather than further distress them. He proposed that mindful awareness, when learned and refined, contributes to the reduction or elimination of mental suffering in the face of bodily pain and discomfort by means of providing a practice aimed at cultivating a relationship characterized by kindness, compassion and emotional balance. Interview data from an MBSR study with fibromyalgia patients were reported to support these ideas.

Anurag Gupta spoke to the issue of “Vedana of Racial Bias: Latent Likes and Dislikes Fueling Barriers to Human Connection.” He writes: “Our eyes are the windows to our world. In the United States, our eyes also become the windows to the quality and depth of connection between two human beings. Deeply imprinted within the American mind is the myth of race. This myth continues to consciously and unconsciously determine how Americans perceive, reason, remember, and make decisions with respect to human relations. For example, sixty-three years after the seminal decision Brown v. Board of Education that ended legalized segregation in American schools, over seventy-five percent of White Americans have zero friends of color, and two-thirds of Black Americans have zero White friends. While much has been written about systems and structures that create such realities, this paper aims to bridge the gap by delving deeper into the role of vedana or feeling tone, specifically the latent likes and dislikes associated with appearance and phenotype, in creating such interpersonal and system-wide realities.  The paper will further comment on how feeling tones associated with the myth of different races continue play a role in the opportunities and experiences of differently hued human beings in American society.”

Anne Klein’s presentation was titled “The Gnostic Sensorium: Wandering and Wonder on Buddhist Pathways” and offered that “Human beings are feeling beings. Whether we speak of emotions, hedonic impulses, lived experience, and whether we are investigating the expression or repression of these, we always engage with them. To be aware of lived experience is to recognize how all pervasive, consuming and determinative of our actions, not to mention quality of life, these feelings and judgments are. Buddhist texts of India and Tibet name feeling (vedanā, tshor ba) as one of the five aggregates. Feeling also accompanies every one of the six main minds—the five sense and the mental consciousnesses (citta, sems).  It’s always with us!  Indian-based Tibetan manuals that categorize consciousness define feeling as “that factor which experiences an object as pleasure, painful or neutral.”

Robert E. Buswell presented a Seon (Korean; Zen) perspective on mindfulness and vedanā in the context of developing a sensation/feeling of doubt. In his remarks, he said, “In Chan treatments, doubt is typically called the yiqing: the emotion, feeling, or perhaps better the “sensation” of doubt. Even though the -qing in yiqing is never, so far as I am aware, glossed in the literature, its connotation is clear: qing is a palpable, conative sensation that ultimately serves to pervade all of one’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and eventually even one’s physical body, with the doubt generated through kanhua practice.”

Sara Lazar presented a new model of sensory processing developed by other scientists concerning how sensory awareness leads to an emotional response. She also discussed some of her neuroimaging work concerning how longterm Vipassana practitioners experience pain differently than controls, and how this is relevant to vedana and brain-body interactions.

In her presentation, Martine Batchelor explored the connection between vedanā and ethical attitudes. She proposed that ethical precepts were propounded in the history of Buddhism to deal with automatic and unreflective reactions to encountering and experiencing specific vedanā tones. Thus, her presentation was “Vedanā or Feeling Tone: A Practical and Contemporary Meditative Exploration.” She said, “My paper will conclude by making a connection between the practice of mindfulness of feeling tone and the cultivation of the ethical precepts as an antidote to unskillful reactions to vedanā.”

The full papers from the conference will be published in the Spring 2018 issue of Contemporary Buddhism (Vol 19:1).

Share on: