08 January 2021

Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Vedanā

In the first installment of this exploration of the khandas I introduced the subject and outlined the project I'm working on. I have two books published in 2000 that purport to provide an overview of the khandhas based on a comprehensive survey of the Theravāda Nikāyas and in one also the Theravāda Vinaya preserved in Pāli (though such mentions are few). Since the khandhas play an important role in Prajñāpāramitā literature and the Heart Sutra I wanted a working definition, but I have long been dissatisfied with the received explanations and drawn to Sue Hamilton's recasting of the khandhas as the "apparatus of experience". The opportunity to contrast this view with another comprehensive survey published in the same year seemed fortuitous. So I began to read them side by side and make notes. 

Since writing the first installment I found Rupert Gethin's excellent article “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma” (1986). This provides a third summary of the Pāli treatment of the five khandhas. Gethin's article is extremely useful because he resists turning the descriptive task into an exercise in exegesis. That is, he tells us what the literature says without adding an interpretative veneer aimed at making sense of the ideas found there. Anyone looking for a straightforward description of what the khandhas are according to the Pāli texts will find what they are looking for in this article. Importantly, Gethin makes explicit in 1986 something that Hamilton concludes in 2000 without acknowledging Gethin (though she has clearly read and cites his article), i.e. that dukkha, khandha, and loka are synonyms for "experience" in this context (along with some other words). 

Having covered rūpa in the first installment we now move onto vedanā. 


The word vedanā is problematic for reasons already hinted at. We can see the problem in microcosm in the opening statements of our two authors on vedanā:

Hamilton: "...the khandha of sensation. It is also sometimes called the khandha of feeling (I have so called it myself in the past), but this is or can be misleading because it is not feeling in the affective sense of emotion that is meant here. (76)
Vetter: "Thus vedanā is pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral 'feeling'. The translation 'sensation', though possible is not chosen because it is needed, with another shade of meaning, for translating [viññāṇa]." (22)

So is it "sensation" or is it "feeling"? My treatment of vedanā will be influenced by an article I published in 2018. I was invited to contribute to a special issue of Contemporary Buddhism on the subject of vedanā, which contained a dozen articles all focussed on this elusive concept and various attempts to explain how to translate and understand it. Since someone had already done an extensive review of the etymology, I was forced to consider other approaches. It dawned on me that the reason we have trouble translating this and other jargon terms is that they are not used according to their etymologies. Rather, the words are used quite arbitrarily to convey a jargon concept that was particular to Buddhism. And this opened the door to reconsidering the definitions of many words in the Buddhist lexicon. There is a summary of the article on my blog: Through the Looking Glass: How we define and translate Buddhist technical terms.

Vedanā comes from a root √vid "to know" and is a concrete noun (a name for a thing) formed from an action noun. The action noun is derived from the causative, so it names the action of "making known" or "bringing about knowledge". In a word, vedanā means something like "an announcement" or refers to the thing that informs you. But this is not how it is used. Vedanā is used to mean the positive or negative hedonic qualities of experience: sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā asukhamadukkhaṃ vā paṭisamvedeti. No one disputes this definition which is found throughout the suttas, but they do tie themselves in knots making a translation mean that. Gethin adds:

"The significance of the three kinds of vedanā seems to lie in their being seen as three basic reactions to experience which possess a certain potential to influence and govern an individual's subsequent responses in either skilful or unskilful ways" (1986: 36).

Vetter treats vedanā as "derived from" vedayati based (again) on the Khajjanīya Sutta (SN 22.79) which I discussed at some length in the first installment. I noted that the Khajjanīya Sutta had a wrong definition of rūpa relating to ruppati "to harm" (Skt rupyati) rather than the denominative ruppeti "to appear" (Skt rūpayati). The Khajjanīya Sutta is not a reliable source for a definition or rūpa but Vetter ploughs on. With respect to vedanā the text says:

‘vedayatī’ti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘vedanā’ti vuccati.
[It does the action of] vedayati, monks, therefore, it is called vedanā.

Note that a final short vowel is long when followed by iti. But how to translate the verb vedayati, given that we already acknowledge that the noun is not used as we might expect from the etymology? Note also that the verb is being used intransitively, but this may be a quirk of this particular syntax - when referring to the action itself in the abstract the object might be left off and still make sense as in "they experience [sense stimulation] therefore we call it experience". In this case we don't need to specify what is experienced, even though in normal speech we would have to.

Worse, we discover that Vetter uses the PTS edition which has vediyati and notes "v.l. vedayati": where v.l. = vario lectio "a variant word" . My text comes from the Sixth Council Edition which is fairly reliable and much more accessible. The trouble is that they are not simple variants. See PTSD s.v. vindati (625) and vedeti (648).

Vediyati could be derived in two ways. It most resembles a passive (affix -iya-) built on the causative form of the root (ved-) "it is made known", but could also be a present indicative form "he experiences" from ved-ya, with a euphonic infix -i- because dy is not allowed in Pāli phonology giving the stem vediya- .

Vedayati could be a denominative from veda "knowledge, experience" (as rūpayati is from rūpa); or it could be an archaic (or borrowed) causative. The expected Pāli causative third person singular is vedeti but the -e affix is a condensation of the Sanskrit affix -aya-, and the Sanskrit causative is vedayati. We will meet vedeti below. 

If we turn to the context, it provides us with a strong predictor of what to expect. If we look again at the pattern from the passage in question, i.e. SN III.86-7, we see five verbs:

  • ruppati = denominative; present indicative third person singular (active voice)
  • vedayati/vediyati = ?
  • sañjānāti = present indicative, third person singular (active voice)
  • abhisaṅkharonti = present indicative, third person plural (active voice)
  • vijānāti = present indicative, third person singular (active voice)
So we are expecting to see a verb in the active voice, indicative mood, present tense, third person, and probably in the singular (though possibly plural). The particular syntax of quoting the bare word followed by iti and then a definition also makes us expect to see the third person singular (in Latin and English we expect the infinite when defining verbs, e.g. "to know").

So if vediyati is correct then is must be the present indicative "they experience" and if vedayati is correct then it is a denominative "they are informed". And either possibility is equally likely as far as I can see. The two words are virtually interchangeable in Pāli (especially when we consider the commentaries).

What the text says is that vedanā—the positive or negative hedonic quality of experience—is supposedly the result of an action denoted by vedayati or vediyati. But given the very specific, ad hoc, definition of the word (Humpty Dumpty style) all this etymological work (a couple of hours!) is ultimately futile. We cannot simply rely on the assumed meaning as derived from etymology because etymology plays little or no part in the definition of vedanā as a Buddhist technical term. And here is the most crucial criticism of relying on the Khajjanīya Sutta as an authoritative source. The author of the Khajjanīya Sutta has fallen for the etymological fallacy and taken Vetter down with him.

We can say that vedanā means "feeling" but we still have to consciously redefine "feeling" to mean "the positive and negative hedonic quality of experience". And this is not obvious to any outsider until we tell them. They may well complain that we can't just redefine words willy-nilly, in which case we can give Humpty Dumpty's retort, “The question is, which is to be master–that’s all”. And we are the masters of our own jargon.

There is another statement in Vetter (2000: 23) that needs some attention, viz "In a formula thirteen times employed in the Brahmajāla-sutta, vedanā obviously refers to a sublime state of bliss" (e.g. as DN I.17). But Vetter himself goes on to show that this is incorrect. There is no doubt that the Buddha is said to attain nibbuti which Bodhi and Maurice Walsh both translate as "perfect peace" but which can be understood as "bliss".

In arguing that nibbuti can mean "a state of bliss" Vetter references a discussion of nibbuti in "Norman 1993, 59" but he does not include a work by Norman with this date in his bibliography. Is the date wrong or was the reference omitted? In any case, the argument is not hard to find elsewhere. The PED derives the word from Sanskrit nirvṛti "bliss, pleasure, delight" but points out that it is used synonymously with nibbāṇa. Maurice Walsh and Bodhi both follow this usage when they translate nibbuti in this context as "perfect peace". Edgerton points out that nirvṛti probably derives from nir-var ([i.e. nir√vṛ] 203 s.v. nirvṛta, nirvṛti), "but even in Sanskrit used in ways that suggest a secondary association with nir-vā- 'extinguished'." Here again, use trumps etymology and Vetter's insistence on translating nibbuti as "a state of bliss" is another example of the etymological fallacy. Buddhists simply don't use the word that way.

Worse, here vedanā is not related to nibbuti at all. Rather, as part of the process of liberation, the Tathāgata in this description first attains peace, then "having understood as they are, the arising and passing away of feelings, the enjoyment of, disadvantage of, and release from them... (vedanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṃ viditvā). It is not true that "vedanā obviously refers to a sublime state of bliss" rather it is obvious that knowledge of the arising and passing away of vedanā is referred to in the context of achieving liberation.

Conclusions on Vedanā

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that scholars explicating vedanā are often struggling with the etymological fallacy. We in fact have a precise definition of what vedanā means in Pāli. It means the positive (sukha), negative (dukkha), or neutral (asukham-adukkha) feelings that we have in response to sense experience. Another place we come unstuck is a variety of anachronistic fallacy, i.e. trying to present this Iron Age religious concept in terms of some form of modern understanding of the mind and/or perception. For example, insisting that it means "feelings" and then using a psychoanalytic explanation of "feeling" as though it is universally applicable across times and cultures. One might also say that this is Anglo- or Euro-centric. 

Hamilton and Gethin both treat the khandhas as a "sequence". Vetter appears not to take this approach. For Hamilton, it means that vedanā occurs prior to, e.g. recognition (which is a function of saññā). The idea of the khandhas as a diachronic sequence rather than a synchronic list is not defended. I've only ever come across one text in which some of the khandhas appear to form a sequence, and even then it's not a complete list of khandhas, i.e. in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)

Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M I.111)
With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one is made to feel, one comes to know. What one knows, one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...

Note here that the verb associated with vedanā is vedeti, the causative,  "it makes known" or "it causes [one] to experience" (c.f. above). Note also that this passage appears to combine elements from at least three doctrinal lists, but does so in a way that is quite intuitive (which should make us suspicious). Thus I am not convinced by the idea of the sequence. (cf. Hamilton's comments on the order of the list; 72-73).

In my view, then, Tilmann Vetter is off to a very inauspicious start with his characterisation of the khandhas. I don't believe him. Sue Hamilton is doing better but her approach has a Procrustean element to it that was not apparent to me previously. Rupert Gethin's summary had a very different purpose and provides a good contrast to both. 



Attwood, J. 2018. “Defining Vedanā: Through the Looking Glass.” Contemporary Buddhism, 18 no. 3, 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2018.1450959

Gethin, Rupert. 1986. “The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment In The Nikāyas And Early Abhidhamma.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 14(1): 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue. 1996. Identity and experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism. London: Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Vetter, Tilmann. 2000. The Khandha Passages in the Vinayapiṭaka and the Four Main Nikāyas. Wien Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
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