Vedanā covers 3 hedonic tones, two of them (pleasant and painful) seem straightforward, but the 3rd intrigues me. I’ve seen it translated by several scholars as ‘neutral’, and several others as ‘neither-pleasant-nor-painful’. For just two examples (the first on hand, obviously there are many others):
Bhante Sujato has it as “neutral”
Bhikkhu Bodhi has it as “neither-pleasant-nor-painful”
Let me be explicit: I don't in any way intend to say, or imply, that anyone got it wrong. Translation is part art, part science.
My last partner spoke 4 languages fluently, and 2 passably. We discussed the difficulties involved in translation including that it’s not a 1-to-1 vocabulary lookup, and even if it were translation is not solely about words, but of concepts as understood by each culture. Tricky enough even with living cultures, let alone one 2500 years old. I’ve seen solid write-ups on other terms by both Bhikkhus Sujato and Bodhi; they’re transparent on their reasoning. (As an aside, I recognize consistency in their respective approaches when reading on a “root of the skillful”: non-ill will (Bodhi) / love (Sujato)).
What I would like to do though is hear other peoples thoughts on the matter, in particular there’s a couple of more traditional (non-western) Buddhists whose comments I’m hoping to see.
My own thoughts are that the term ‘neither-pleasant-nor-painful’ hits the ear funny, but that they would surely have considered the more natural sounding ‘neutral’, yet still opted for long-form. To me, the difference in the English translations is more than merely cosmetic. Software developers understand that there’s a world of difference between zero and null. An artist with a blank canvas is not the same as one without a canvas. A chemist knows that having a pH neutral solution differs from having no solution.
I present my ‘interpretation of the interpretations’ by means of a Vedanometer:
Inspired by this sutta SN 36.6
May I suggest the term for “neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling” as “ignorable feeling” with the reminder to both “ignorance” and “ignored”?
The Pali is:
Sukhā vedanā, dukkhā vedanā, adukkhamasukhā vedanā
So - if we treat it as a code, not a translation - we get something like “pleasurable feeling, painful feeling (or suffering feeling, unsatisfactory feeling - however one translates dukkhā), and not-painful-or-pleasurable feeling.”
Of course, language translation isn’t an act of code solving. In the mind of the original speakers do they hear a negation or do they hear a different category when they hear “adukkhamasukhā.” For instance, in English, when I hear the word “uncaring” it does carry for me the sense of a negation of “caring.” But when I hear “apathy,” I don’t hear a negation of the idea of “pathos,” I hear a separate category - a state called apathy, not a state that lacks pathos. So how do the original hearers understand “adukkhamasukhā?”
Secondly, what’s the best choice of English word(s) to as closely as possible convey this meaning? And how far can a translator stray from standard English to convey the understanding of the original audience before it is no longer good English?
Interesting question. As has probably been clear from early in my post I don’t have an answer. But it is fun to think about what goes into the decision.
I’ve always thought of vedana as more of a continuum, with ecstasy at one end and excruciating misery at the other. The more towards the poles is where it is experienced most deeply and the middle is so unremarkable that it’s perhaps not even noticed. So neither-pleasant-nor-painful is a bit more descriptive than neutral.
Apart from translation issues, i think neutral feeling is the kind of feeling which does not get ones attention and are totally ignored in the sense of taking for granted. Like neutral feeling is no feeling. One is totally disinterested and does not even notice neutral feelings also arise and cease.
This is totally different from painful feeling. Those are immeditately noticed and investigated "how do they arise, how can i prevent?"etc. And pleasant feeling has also much attention.
In some sense i think neutral feeling one does not even notice. It is the same as when one has almost no notice of the body. But when the body is painful you are very aware of the body.
Neutral feelings are almost not seen as feelings.