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May 30th
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Home Teachings Non-Self The Teaching of Non-Self - Feelings

The Teaching of Non-Self - Feelings

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Article Index
The Teaching of Non-Self
Material Body
Belief in Creation
Attachment to Self
Vipassana Meditation
Volitional Activities
True Dhamma
What Five Aggregates Are Like
Summary of Processes
All Pages


"Bhikkhus, vedana, feeling is not self."

There are three categories of feeling.

1. Sukkha vedana .... .... pleasurable feeling.

2. Dukkha vedana .... .... unpleasurable feeling.

3. Upekkha vedana .... .... equanimous or neutral feeling, neither pleasurable nor painful.

The equanimous or neutral feeling is generally not prominent. The pleasurable feeling and unpleasurable feelings only are commonly known and talked about. It is such a pleasure to feel the touch of a cool breeze or cold water when the weather is scorching hot, it is very comforting to be wrapped up to warm, woolen blankets during a cold spell, and one feels so easeful after one has stretched the limbs or changed positions to relieve the tired stiff limbs. All these comfortable feelings felt through contact with pleasant objects are Sukha vedana, pleasurable feelings, which the sentient beings assume to be self: "I feel pleasant, I feel comfortable."

Therefore they go in pursuit of such pleasurable sensations. Sufferings that arise when coming into contact with unpleasant objects, feeling hot, tired in the limbs, discomforts due to intense cold, itchiness, etc., are classified as Dukkha vedana, unpleasurable sensations, which are also assumed by sentient beings to be self: "I feel painful, I feel hot, I feel itchy, I feel unpleasant."

Therefore, they try to avoid contact with these unpleasant objects as much as possible, but when overtaken by disease that afflicts the body, they have to suffer the pain unavoidably. What we have just described relate to the pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings are with respect to the physical body. In addition we have to consider the feelings that arise in relation to states of mind. Thoughts on pleasant objects give rise to happiness and gladness; while thinking about things and affairs which develop dejection, despondency, defeatism, sadness, grief, timidity and so on, give rise to unhappiness. Dwelling on ordinary everyday affairs gives rise to neutral or equanimous feeling. These are the three kinds of feelings that are related to thoughts or imaginations. Whilst in such various states of mind, the sentient being assumes these feelings also to be self: "I am feeling glad, happy; I am despondent, unhappy; I am not feeling happy, not unhappy, I am just equanimous." When pleasant objects are seen, heard, smelt, or tasted pleasurable feelings arise in them. These are also regarded as self: "I feel good I feel happy." Therefore they go after the good things of life, visiting places of entertainments, etc., in order to enjoy good sights and good sounds, they use fragrant flowers and perfumes to enjoy pleasant aroma, and they go to any length and trouble to satisfy their gustatory demands. When unpleasant objects are seen, heard, smelt, or tasted, unpleasant feelings arise in them. These are also assumed to be self. They try, therefore, to have nothing to do with unpleasant objects.

The ordinary every day scene which one sees and hears. Indifferent sense objects excite neither a feeling of pleasure nor feeling of unpleasantness. This is neutral equanimous feeling which is also assumed to be self. People are never content with this medial condition of neither pleasantness nor unpleasantness. They strive hard, therefore, to attain the state of pleasantness to enjoy pleasurable feelings.


Therefore, enjoyment of various sense-objects, pleasant or unpleasant, every time they are seen, heard, touched or become known, constitutes feeling. When an agreeable sensation is felt, there arises the clinging of self: "I feel pleasant." When the sensation is disagreeable, there arises the clinging of self: "I don't feel pleasant;" or "previously I have felt pleasant, but now I feel unpleasant." "When the feeling is one of indifference, self is quite pronounced too as "I feel neither pleasant nor unpleasant. I feel indifferent." This is self-clinging with respect to feeling, known as vedaka atta, believing that it is self or soul who enjoys the pleasant or unpleasant feelings. Vedaka atta is belief that it is self who enjoys the pleasant or unpleasant feelings.

This is how every ordinary worldling clings onto the notion of self. In Indian literature, feeling is described as self or having the attributes of a self. In Myanmar, this notion does not seem to be so firmly held to be inscribed in writing. But all the same, there is the clinging to the belief that, on happy occassions, "It is I who enjoys pleasant things; when faced with difficult circumstances. It is I who suffers." The reason for such beliefs lies in the fact that inanimate objects such as stones or sticks do not feel the heat when coming into contact, and they do not feel cold when touched with a cold body. They feel neither happy nor sad under pleasant or unpleasant circumstances. The animate objects, the sentient beings, on the other hand, suffer or rejoice according to pleasant or unpleasant circumstances. It is assumed, therefore, that sentient beings must be endowed with an animating spirit or a living entity. It is this living entity which enjoys on moments of pleasure or suffers on occasions of distress. In reality, feeling is not self, a living entity but only a phenomenon that arises and vanishes as conditioned by circumstances. Therefore, the Buddha declared first and foremost the truth which must be firmly held: "Bhikkhus, feeling is not self," and he continued to explain the reason why feeling is not self.


"Bhikkhus, if feeling were self, the inner substance of the body, then feeling would not tend to afflict or distress. And one should be able to say of feeling, 'Let feeling be thus (always pleasant); let feeling not be thus (always unpleasant).'"

It should be possible to influence feeling in this manner as one wishes. True, if feeling were self, it should not cause distress to oneself, because it is not in the nature of things to afflict oneself, and it should be possible to mange feeling as one wishes. These should all obtain and follow from the supposition "if feeling were self." Furthermore, if feeling did not tend to afflict, and if our feelings were always pleasant as we desire and never unpleasant, we should regard feeling to be truly self. This hypothetical statement 'if feeling were self' is a form of instruction to pause and consider whether it afflicts one or not, whether feeling can be managed to be always pleasant as one desires. On careful examination, it will become very evident that feeling is almost always afflicting us and that it arises, not following one's wish but in accordance with its own conditioning circumstances.

Audience here will find it within their personal experiences that feeling afflicts them now and then. They can never have their wish fulfilled to be always enjoying good sights, good sounds, good smells, good foods, soft touch, etc. They will have discovered that unpleasant feelings outweigh pleasant ones. That one cannot have feeling as one wishes is because feeling is not self or one's inner substance. The Blessed One continued to explain why feeling is not self,

"Bhikkhus, as a matter of fact, feeling is not self. Since feeling is not self, it tends to affliction. And it is not possible to say of feeling, 'Let feeling be thus (always pleasant); let feeling not be thus (always unpleasant).'"

In reality, feeling is not self. Hence it oppresses by painful feelings and mental distresses, and it is not amenable to one's control. Being unable to keep it always pleasant and never unpleasant, the Blessed One had explained that feeling is not self or inner substance, because it ends to afflict; feeling is not self since it cannot be managed as one wishes. Although it is evident that feeling is oppressive and ungovernable, there are some people with strong attachment to wrong belief in self and intense craving believe in pleasurable sensations, cling to feeling as self and take delight in it. Careful consideration, however, will reveal that moments of joy and happiness are few compared to occasions of suffering and distress.


There has to be constant accommodations and adjusting to conditions to maintain ourselves comfortably. One suffers discomforts of feeling stiff, cramped, hot, and aching when confined to one position for long unless one makes necessary adjustments in body postures to relieve the pains. The oppressive nature of feeling is quite evident even if we consider only the case of the eye which needs constant accommodation by frequent winking and occassional blinking. Without these adjustments, tiredness in the eye will become unbearable. Other organs of the body also need similar accommodations.

Even with constant adjustments, feeling under certain circumstances, is likely to inflict severe pains and suffering which may lead to serious ailment and illness resulting even in death. Many have been incidents where the afflicted person, unable to bear the oppressions of feeling any longer, have sought the termination of their own lives by committing suicide. The physical pains and suffering just described are not inflicted entirely by feeling, the body also contributes its share of oppressions, being the original source of troubles. In the previous pages on sufferings caused by the body we have described different types of feelings which may be regarded as afflictions brought about by the body also.

Mental distresses and suffering on the other hand are afflictions caused solely by feeling without the aid of the body. At death of one's dear ones such as parents, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters, feeling inflicts sorrow, grief, and lamentations on the bereaved ones. Likewise, there is intense mental suffering, which may even result in death, on loss of wealth and property too. Frustration and discontent owing to one's failure to solve life's problems, separation form one's associates and friends, and unfulfilled hopes and desires are other forms of oppressions inflicted by feeling.

Even pleasant feeling, the pleasurable sensations which are very comforting by giving happiness while they last, prove to be a source of distress later on. When they disappear after their momentary manifestation, one is left with a wistful memory and yearning for them. One has, therefore, to be constantly endeavouring in order to maintain the pleasant happy state. Thus people go in pursuit of pleasant states even risking their lives. If they happen to use illegal and immoral means in such pursuits, retribution is bound to overtake them either in this life time or in the states of woe. Thus apparently pleasant sensations also inflict pain and distress.

Equanimous feeling, like pleasant feeling, affords comfort and happiness. And like pleasant feeling, it requires constant effort to maintain its state, which of course entails cumbersome trouble and burden. Both pleasant feeling and equanimous feeling are not enduring being of fleeting nature, they require constant labour for their continuous arising. Such activities which invlove continuous striving, constitute suffering due to formations. This is just a brief indication of the oppressive nature of all the three kinds of feelings. If there were no feeling, feeling there would be no experiencing of pain or pleasure either physically or mentally. There would be freedom from suffering.

Take for instance a log, a post, a stone, or a lump of earth. Having no feeling they do not suffer in any way. Even when subjected to hacking, beating, crushing, and burning, they remain unaffected. The continuum of mind-and body which are associated with feeling is, however, afflicted with suffering in many ways. Thus it is plain that feeling is not self, the inner substance.


Feeling is unmanageable and not amenable to one's will. Just consider the fact that we cannot manage things as we wish so we may see and hear only what is pleasant only. Even when with great effort and labour, we select and pick out only what is most desirable to see, hear, taste, or smell, these objects are not enduring. We can enjoy them only for a short while before they vanish. Thus we cannot manage as we wish and maintain a state in which pleasant and desirable things will not disappear but remain permanently. When pleasant objects of sights, etc., vanish, they are replaced by undesirable objects of sight, etc., which of course, causes suffering. Uunpleasant sounds are more oppressive than unpleasant sight, undesirable smell is worse than undesirable sound, and undesirable taste is far worse still.

Further, toxic substances when taken internally may cause even death. The worst of all is the unpleasant sense of touch. When pricked by thorns, injured by a fall, wounded by weapons, scorched by fire, and afflicted by disease, the suffering which ensues is always very painful. It may be so intense as to cause clamorous outbursts of wailing and results even in death. These are instances of unpleasant feelings which cannot be commended not to happen. That which is unmanageable is surely not self. Feeling is thus not self, and it is not proper to cling to it believing it to be self either. What we have so far described relate only to feelings experienced in the human world.

The feelings of the four netherworlds are far more excruciating. Animals such as cattles, buffaloes, poultry, pigs, etc., have to face tormenting troubles almost all the time with no one to assist them or guard them against these afflictions. The ghosts have to suffer more than the animals , but the denizens of hell such as the Niraya states suffer the most. We cannot afford to remain smug with the thought these four netherworlds have nothing to do with us. Uunless we have attained the stage of the Noble Ones, there is always the possibility that we may have to face the sufferings in the lower worlds.

Thus as feeling tends to affliction in every existence, it cannot be regarded as self or inner core of an individual. And it is not possible to manage as one wishes so that unpleasant feelings should not arise, undesirable feelings arise inevitably in their own accord. Mental distresses which we do not wish to arise, make their appearance all the same which all go to prove the uncontrollable nature of feeling. Each being has to contend with feelings which cannot be managed as one wishes, and hence cannot be self or one's own inner substance. To reiterate:

"Bhikkhus, feeling is not Self (not one's inner substance); If feeling were self, then feeling would not tend to afflict or distress. And it should be possible to say of feeling, 'Let feeling be thus (always pleasant); let feeling not be Thus (always unpleasant)."

In reality, feeling is not self or one's inner substance. Therefore it tends to afflict or distress, and it is not possible to say of feeling: "Let feeling be thus (always pleasant); Let feeling not be thus (always unpleasant)." As stated in this canonical text that the feeling which is felt in one's own body tends to afflict and is not amenable to control. Hence it is very clear that feeling is not self or one's own inner substance. Nevertheless, ordinary common worldling clings to the belief: "It is I who suffers after experiencing happiness; it is I who enjoys as circumstances favour, after going through distresses."

Clinging to belief of self is not easy to be eradicated completely. This wrong belief in self with respect to feeling is abandoned only through personal realization of the true nature of feeling. This realization can be brought about by contemplation on feeling in accordance with the Satipatthana Vipassana practice, otherwise the Middle Way, as instructed by the Blessed One.

In Vipassana Practice

We will now deal with how this self-clinging can be discarded by contemplation on feeling. A brief description of Vipassana meditation has been given in the previous part of these articles. The meditator who keeps noting rising, falling, sitting etc., as described therein will come to notice in time uncomfortable sensations of pain, stiffness, hotness, etc., arise in him. He has to concentrate on these various feeling as they arise by noting 'pain, pain, stiffness, stiffness, hot hot,' etc.

During the initial period when concentration is not yet strong, these distressing sensations may get more and more intensified. But the meditator has to put up with the pains and discomforts as long as possible and keeps on noting the various sensations as they arise. As his concentration gets strengthened, the discomforting pains will gradually loss their intensity and begin to perish away. With very deep concentration they will vanish as if removed by hand even while they are being noted. These feelings may never come back again to trouble the meditator.

But prior to advent of strong concentration, the meditator will find the painful sensation in one place disappear only to rise in another form of distressing feeling at another site. When this new sensation is heedfully noted, it vanishes away to be in turn replaced by another form of sensation in yet another place. When the distressing feelings have been observed for a considerable time to be repeatedly appearing and vanishing in this way, personal realization comes to the meditator that "feeling is always oppressive. Unpleasant feelings cannot be managed not to arise; it is uncontrollable. Pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings are not self, not one's inner substance. It is non-self."

This is the true knowledge of contemplation on non-self. The meditator who has observed the vanishing of feelings in the course of contemplation recalls the oppressive nature of feeling while it lasted. He knows that feeling has disappeared not because of his wishing nor in obedience to his command to do so, but as a result of necessary conditions brought about by concentrated mental power. It is truly ungovernable.

Thus the meditator realizes that feeling, whether pleasant or painful is a natural process, arising out of its own accord. It is not self or inner substance, but it is non-self. Furthermore, the incessant arising and vanishing of feeling as it is being noted also establish the fact that feeling has the nature of non-self. When the meditator reaches the stage of knowledge of the rising and falling of compounded things, he notices that his meditational practice of taking note of phenomena is being accomplished with ease and comfort (unaccompanied) by pain or suffering. This is the manifestation of a specially pleasant feeling, which cannot be maintained for long however much he wishes for it.

When his concentration wanes and becomes weakened, the very pleasant feeling vanishes and may not arise again in spite of his yearning for it. Then it dawns upon him that feeling is not subjected to one's will and is ungovernable. Hence it is not self or the inner substance. The meditator then realizes through personal experience the non-self nature of feeling. He also vividly sees the non-self nature of feeling because of its dissolution on each occasion of noting. In the initial stages of meditation the meditator suffers from physical pain of stiffness, itching, or feeling hot. Occassionally, he suffers also mental distresses of disappointment, dejection, fear, or repugnance. He should keep on noting these unpleasant feelings. He will come to know that while these unpleasant feelings are manifesting themselves, pleasant, good sensations do not arise. On some occasions, however, the meditator experiences in the course of meditation very pleasant sensation both physical and mental, arising in him.

For instance, when he think of happy incidents, happening feelings are evolved. He should keep on noting their pleasant feelings as they arise. He will come to know then that while pleasant feelings are manifesting themselves, unpleasant sensations do not arise. On the whole, however, the meditator is mostly engaged in noting the origination and dissolution of ordinary physical and mental processes such as the rising and falling of the abdomen which excite neither painful nor pleasurable sensations. The meditator notes these occasions when neutral feeling only is evident. He knows therefore, that when the equanimous feeling arises, both painful feeling and pleasurable feelings are absent.

With this personal knowledge, comes the realization that feeling is that which makes a momentary appearance, and only to vanish away soon. Hence it is transitory, not self, or not ego, which is to be regarded as permanent.


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The Dhammapada

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