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The Process Of Mental Suffering

Bhikkhuni Lieu-Phap
Ph.D. Researcher,
Department of Buddhist Studies,
University of Delhi

The four noble truths are not something far away from this mundane life, but the things that we can see, observe and experiment in our daily activities. Those activities are manifested through the interrelationship between the internal senses and the external objects. When the six senses come into contact with the six external objects, there arise the six kinds of consciousness. The meeting of these three factors, i.e., senses, objects, and consciousness, is contact (phassa), and because of this contact arises feeling [S. II.273.].

In the suttas, the Buddha differentiated feelings as mental (cetasika) and bodily (kāyika); he also spoke of three kinds of feelings as pleasant (sukha), unpleasant (dukkha), and neutral (adukkhamasukha). Sometimes he spoke of five kinds of feelings: pleasure (sukha), pain (dukkha), joy (somanassa), displeasure (domanassa) and equanimity (upekkhā) [S.IV. 231.].

Even as there are pleasant and neutral feelings, the Buddha added, "Whatever is felt is concluded in suffering" (yam kińci vedayitam tam dukkhasmin) [S.IV.216]. The question arising here is how dukkha (suffering) is caused from feelings.

Firstly, how does an unpleasant feeling lead to dukkha? It should be noted here that even the Buddha and the noble persons (ariyapuggalā) experience unpleasant feeling, or more exactly, physical painful feelings. As long as they have a physical body they still have to suffer from different kinds of sickness and experience painful feelings, but to them the unpleasant feeling does not lead to dukkha. This is the difference between an uninstructed worldling (assutavā puthujjano) and an instructed noble disciple (sutavā ariyasāvako) when feeling an unpleasant feeling. An ordinary person, when experiencing an unpleasant feeling, under the impact of the latent tendency of aversion (patighānusaya), he makes an effort to get rid of it as soon as possible. "Being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breasts and becomes distraught" [S.IV.207]. Thus over the physical painful feeling (dukkhavedanā) he puts another layer of mental feeling (domanassavedanā), and consequently he feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one. In this case he is experiencing dukkha-dukkha (suffering as suffering).

In the Sammohavinodanī, the commentator explained that bodily and mental painful feelings are called dukkha-dukkha because of their individual essence, because of their names and because of painfulness (tattha kāyikacetasikā dukkhavedanā sabhāvato ca nāmato ca dukkhattā 'dukkhadukkham'nāma) [Vibh.A.93.]. But in a simple way we may say that it is called dukkha-dukkha because there are two layers of dukkha here, one is physical and the other is mental. Between these two layers, physical painful feelings are due to bile disorder, phlegm disorder, wind disorder, the imbalance of the bodily humors, change of climate, careless behaviours, attacks from without or due to kamma done in the past [S.IV.231], while the mental painful feeling is caused by aversion. This aversion is also sort of craving (tanhā), that is, vibhava-tanhā. Here, it means the craving for the non-existence of painful feeling. When an ordinary person has a painful feeling, he doesn't want to have it, but he wants to have a pleasant feeling instead. The reason for this is, according to the Buddha, that "he does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure" [S.IV.208]. So what is the escape from this kind of dukkha? In the Vedanāsamyutta, the Buddha showed the bhikkhus a way out. If there arises in him a painful feeling, he should understand that "there has arisen in me a painful feeling". He should understand that this painful feeling is dependent on contact, and therefore it is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen. He knows that it arises and passes away; it is not permanent. By contemplating impermanence and cessation of feeling, he abandons the latent tendency to aversion in regard to painful feeling [S.IV.213]. So, if he feels a painful feeling, he feels it detached, and he feels only one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.

Secondly, how does a pleasant feeling lead to dukkha? When an ordinary person experiences a pleasant feeling, he does not stop at the level of just observing it. He tends to attach to it, due to his latent tendency of lust (kāmarāgānusaya). He does not know that this pleasant feeling is transitory, and it is bound to pass away. He takes pleasure in it and wants to prolong it. This is caused by bhava-tanhā, craving for the existence of the pleasant feeling. But things always change; no pleasant feeling can last endlessly, which leads to disappointment and suffering. This kind of suffering is called viparināmadukkha, "suffering in change". The Sammohavinodanī said, "bodily and mental pleasant feelings are called "suffering in change" because of being the cause of the arising of pain through their change (sukhavedanā viparināmena dukkhuppattihetuto 'viparināmadukkham' nāma.) [Vibh.A. 93.] The escape from this kind of dukkha is "understanding as it really is the origin and passing away, the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of these feelings." [S.IV.209] Seeing its nature of arising and passing away, and all other aspects, when one feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it detached, and therefore, he is detached from suffering, too.

Finally, how does a neutral feeling lead to dukkha? When an ordinary person experiences a neutral feeling, as this feeling is too light, too subtle, he feels it so boring, and he wants to do something to get a stronger feeling. This desire of getting a stronger sensual pleasure is also sort of craving; in this case, it is kāmatanhā, craving for sensual pleasures. This kind of craving is influenced by the latent tendency of ignorance (avijjānusaya), not understanding the origin and the passing away, the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of these feelings. [Ibid.] In his effort of looking for some strong feelings, he creates sankhāradukkha, "suffering in formations". The Sammohavinodanī explains that indifferent feeling and the remaining formations of the three planes are called "suffering in formations" because of being oppressed by arising and passing away (upekkhāvedanā ceva avasesā ca tebhūmakā sankhārā udayabbayapīlitattā 'sankhāradukkham' nāma.) [Vibh.A.93]

Thus mental suffering is caused by craving towards feelings. Therefore, the way to escape from mental suffering is to see feelings as they really are, without grasping or rejecting them. This may be done by contemplation on feeling (vedanānupassnanā) as described very clearly in the Mahāsatipatthānasutta of the Dīgha Nikāya [D.II.290], which is a very important sutta for practice. In this sutta, the Buddha showed us the only way for the purification of beings, for overcoming sorrow, for extinguishing suffering, for walking on the path of truth and for realizing Nibbāna.

May all beings be well, happy and peaceful.


Sincere thanks to Venerable Lieu-Phap for making this digital version available
(Binh Anson, 07-2004)

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last updated: 11-07-2004