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Vedana. What is pleasure in Buddhism? Having some doubts with the teachings on vedana after re-reading Plato

ajahnbrahm
vedana
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#1

One of the teachings of Ajahn Brahm is that vedana is to be understood in terms of relative changes in your experience: thus something is pleasurable if what went before it was more painful and vice-versa. I think this also translates the idea that happiness is the cessation of suffering. In fact if anyone has any sutta references discussing this precise point on vedana I would be grateful.
In a way this reflects our experience But at the same time it seems more complicated than that. For example after a good meditation, when you go back to the world, you are happier and lighter for a long time even though strictly speaking you have gone from a more pleasurable experience (the meditation) to a less pleasurable one (the world). So if you understand vedana in relative terms you should be suffering more when you get out of the meditation and go back to ordinary experience, which is less pleasurable. I think this has to do with having let go of attachment, but it seems to indicate that understanding pleasure and pain simply in terms of comparing what came before to what comes after is incomplete.
But I had another doubt after re-reading Plato. In the Republic Socrates talks about happiness and pleasure, and acknowledges that many pleasures can be understood as the cessation of pain. However he says that not all of them are like that. A thorough description would be too long - it’s best to refer directly to the Republic if you are curious, but one very simple example has puzzled me. Socrates says that unlike say the pleasure of eating, which depends on the unconfort of hunger that went before, the pleasure for example in the smell of a flower is not due to the cessation of a disagreeable olfactory vedana that went beforehand. This seems in agreement with experience. The pleasure you have in many smells in nature does not seem to be due to the fact that there was something ‘stinky’ beforehand, which has now ceased. So I now have doubts about the validity of the understing of vedana I described in my first sentence. Would be most interested in the input by anyone who has reflected/read on the subject.


#2

Can you provide a reference or this is your understanding of what he teaches on the topic?

To make this a valid Discussion, are you able to link the opening post with an EBT enquiry?

:anjal:


#3

Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook e.g. on ‘The Rise and Fall of Vedanā’.
EBT inquiry : do EBT define vedana like this: pleasurable vedana is only pleasurable in relative terms, beacause of previous painful vedana that has ceased? And if happiness and pleasure are always understood as the cessation of suffering that went beforehand (e.g. as in the 3rd Noble Truth) how does Buddhism deal with Socrates’ arguments that some forms of happiness and pleasure are indeed relative to what went beforehand, but others aren’t?


#4

Worldly joy compared to the higher pleasure of unworldly:

"…associated with sense-desire and tempting to lust. It is the joy that arises dependent on these five cords of sense desire which is called ‘worldly joy.’

“Now what is unworldly joy? Quite secluded from sense desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, a monk enters upon and abides in the first meditative absorption (jhana), which is accompanied by thought-conception and discursive thinking, and has joy and happiness born of seclusion.”—SN 36.31

"Now whatever pleasure or happiness arises in dependence on these five strands of sensuality, that is called sensual pleasure. Though some might say, ‘That is the highest pleasure that beings experience,’ I would not grant them that. Why is that? Because there is another pleasure, more extreme & refined than that.

“And what, Ananda, is another pleasure more extreme & refined than that? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.”—MN 59


#5

yes thank you I am familiar with these, but why are some experiences pleasurable and others painful? What is the cause, the origin of pleasure? (the thing that makes something pleasurable and something unpleasurable. Are they absolute or can they only be understood in relative terms?) Is pleasure only the cessation of pain that went beforehand (the argument people use to deduce that Everlasting bliss as in the Christian Heaven in an impossibility)? If this is so why are we happy after a deep meditation? After all one has gone from a blissful state (the meditation) to a worst state (the world). Yet in spite of this change from good to worse, one is happy for days after a good meditation.


#6

I think not.

Apologies for not having a sutta reference handy — perhaps we can triangulate this one as a group! I seem to recall, though, that what is seen as pleasure or pain is caused by our past kamma.


For example, seeing the same person, I might have a negative reaction and you might have a positive reaction depending on our respective relationships (past kamma) with that person. I dislike the taste of mustard and durian and I experience both as unpleasant, but some people— apparently — enjoy masticating these yellow plants. Even being whipped might be experienced as “pleasurable” by … certain people.

This is all due to our past kamma (experiences, etc). If happy memories of toys and playgrounds get associated with the smell and taste of my fried food, then even as an adult you’ll continue to buy it — McDonald’s success is proof enough of this.

In terms of kamma, when you experienced that pleasant time, typically that good feeling leads to craving. Once we crave something, getting what we want is “pleasure.” Not getting what we want is dukkha.

Is this rambling helpful?


#7

Yes thank you. :slight_smile: It makes me see things from a different perspective I hadn’t thought of (as a previous answer of yours on the subject of rites and rituals also did). It would be interesting if other participants have sutta references on pleasure and kamma (as well as on the teaching by Ajahn Brahm on the rising and falling of vedana, to see how all this fits together).


#8

How, then, is the third type of vedanā, viz. ‘neither-painful-for-pleasant’ to be accounted for?


#9

I don’t know. But in the example of hunger for example I guess one can say that you have unpleasant vedana when you are hungry, then pleasant when you eat, and once you’re full it’s neither-painful-nor-pleasant


#10

I first understood the neutral feeling as leading to indifference or knowledge. That understanding has transformed with additional reading.

From MN44 a warning:

The underlying tendency for ignorance underlies neutral feeling.

From MN102, a deeper experience of neutral feelings and another warning:

Now, some ascetics and brahmins, letting go of theories about the past and the future, shedding the fetters of sensuality, going beyond the rapture of seclusion and spiritual bliss, enter and remain in neutral feeling.

‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, entering and remaining in neutral feeling.’

Then that neutral feeling ceases. When neutral feeling ceases, spiritual bliss arises; and when spiritual bliss ceases, neutral feelings arises.

Nevertheless, they still grasp at theories about the past or the future, or the fetters of sensuality, or the rapture of seclusion, or spiritual bliss, or neutral feeling.


#11

Indeed, Karl. Thank you for the sutta references.

As we progress along the path of insight, there are times when all sensory experiences, and even awareness itself, is felt to be painful. Or, pleasant and painful sensual vedanā may disappear for a time, and everything experienced has the ‘neither-unpleasant-nor-pleasant’ flavour.

That vedanā is 3-fold is hugely significant. Problems arise though, when we try to align the Buddhist model with simple, binary (pleasant/unpleasant) models.


#12

Btw in Plato also there is a 3-fold description; I did not mention at the beginning because as I wrote a detailed account of Socrates description in the Republic would have been far too long; but people can refer to the original Platonic dialogues if they want to dig further.


#13

Here’s the EBT concerned.

Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as pleasant & gratifying is pleasant feeling. Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as painful & hurting is painful feeling. Whatever is experienced physically or mentally as neither gratifying nor hurting is neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling."

“In what way is pleasant feeling pleasant, lady, and in what way painful?”

“Pleasant feeling is pleasant in remaining, & painful in changing, friend Visakha. Painful feeling is painful in remaining & pleasant in changing. Neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling is pleasant in occurring together with knowledge, and painful in occurring without knowledge.”

“What obsession gets obsessed with pleasant feeling? What obsession gets obsessed with painful feeling? What obsession gets obsessed with neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling?”

“Passion-obsession gets obsessed with pleasant feeling. Resistance-obsession gets obsessed with painful feeling. Ignorance-obsession gets obsessed with neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.” Culavedalla Sutta: The Shorter Set of Questions-and-Answers

Here I believe it simply means ‘it’s good for painful feelings to end, and bad for pleasant feelings to end’.

Ajhan Brahmavanso teachings on ‘Multiple feelings sutta’:

https://bswa.org/teaching/mn59-bahuvedaniya-sutta-many-kinds-feelings/

I think it’s possible to understand this with application of common sense, apart from the deeper cessation of feeling, and perception.


#14

thank you for the sutta reference and the link to the class by Ajahn Brahm, to which I have listened. Indeed in the second part Ajahn Brahm characterises pleasure (mental pleasure) as being the cessation of an affliction (in discussing jhanas and immaterial attainements). However as I mentioned in the OP it seems that not all pleasures can be described this way. If we take an infinitely more down to earth pleasure, the one in the smell of a flower (to take Socrates example) that does not seem to be characterised by an affliction that has ceased.


#15

My understanding is that mostly we experience neutral feeling, eventually this tips over into either pleasant or unpleasant feeling.
The difficulty is establishing what’s neutral.


#16

Mindfulness will show most of our ‘moments’ are devoid of pleasure and pain!

It seems more than vitakka vicara ceases in the second jhana and the disturbance to the pleasure, piti sukha, is diminished because of their presence.

You could say it is like if your phone was ringing while smelling the above flower.

All feelings aren’t relative. While it’s true that the perception of heat and the perception of what’s too sweet etc in my experience is relative, there’s an inner ‘basic’ feeling which is relatively ‘fixed’ and remain pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. I believe this extends it all feelings.

with metta


#17

Thank you for your feedback; I understood owever from Ajahn Brahm that feelings are not fixed (indeed that’s the reason for the impossibility for him of an eternal Christian Heaven). I will give a pretty long quote from his book MBAB to make it clearer

Citazione
When the mind is still and free from both desire and
aversion, it sees that sukha vedanā (pleasant feeling) is no
more than a pause between two moments of dukkha
vedanā (unpleasant feeling). Indeed, you can also discern
that the intensity of the pleasure in sukha vedanā is directly
proportional to the degree of unpleasantness that went just
before, and the intensity of the pain in dukkha vedanā is
measured by the amount of happiness that you have just
lost.
In a chilling book describing imprisonment and torture as
a political prisoner in Argentina during the 1970s, an author
relates that his most painful experience was not the
beatings or the sessions on “Susan” (the name the guards
gave to the electric shock torture machine).5 The worst
moment, after endless months of imprisonment, was when
his persecutors handed him a letter from his wife. He had
blotted out from his mind all memory of the happy years
before prison in order to cope with the terror and
hopelessness of the present. That letter brought up many
warm memories of his wife and family, and made the
darkness and agony of his situation even more unbearable.
He cursed his wife for sending that letter and screamed
deep inside, louder than he ever had under electric shock.
As this story graphically illustrates, the intensity of your pain
or discontent is proportional to the degree of the happiness
that you recall has now vanished.

also he writes

Citazione
It is to be remembered that the qualities that we perceive
as beautiful, ugly, sonorous, pleasurable, and so on do not
reside in the object. Otherwise we would all agree on what
was beautiful or pleasurable. The agreeable, disagreeable,
and neutral qualities are values that we add to reality
through our conditioned mind. Again, vedanā means that
quality accompanying every conscious experience that you
feel as pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in between.

So this explains the pleasure in jhanas as the cessation of what went before (which you thus realise was all dukkha); but does not seem to explain the smell of the flower or why you are happy after jhanas, since you have gone from a better experience to a worse one when you exit meditation.


#18

I can understand the reasoning against an eternal heaven — there is a certain instability in all feeling, even blissful feelings, resulting from boredom after aeons of existence in heaven. Eventually you are going to wonder, “Meh, surely there’s more?”

Yeah, I’m curious how Ajahn Brahm would respond to that question.


#19

I know in our current contemporary world where East meet West, syncretism is the majority trend to unite all kinds of weird and different doctrines and beliefs, so there is great tendency use a coloured lens (Daoist’s Yin-Yang polarity, and Nāgārjuna’s or Einstein’s Relativity) when interpreting the Buddha’s teaching (on this case, vedana or feeling). I guess we have to extra careful so that Buddha Dhamma can be applied universally regardless of time and civilisation, but at the same time ensure the content and message can be as accurate as how the Buddha might have spoken himself.

I wouldn’t say feeling is fixed or independent because it might lead to the same mistake as Sāti, the Fisherman’s Son (MN 38 Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta). But I also wouldn’t say describing in terms of relativity of feelings is accurate either (multiple factors can be related, or even have some subtle or distant side-influence, but not necessarily dependent on each other. Correlation isn’t causation?). I don’t remember the Buddha ever said that in order to experience pleasant feeling, painful feeling is required, or vice versa (or even put neutral feeling into the mix). However, what I could remember the Buddha did say was in order to experience any of the three types of feeling (whether pleasant, painful, and neutral), contact (of the six sense media) was a requisite condition (you may refer to 12 links of dependent origination, from six sense media, to contact, and to feeling).

How I personally understood Dhammadina message (MN 44 Culavedalla Sutta) was not so much on the relativity of feeling, but explaining how Dukkha is “packaged-in” and prevalent in three types of feeling, it’s only a matter of whether one prefer to be painful later (pleasant feeling), painful first (painful feeling), or cyclically painful (neutral feeling due to ignorance by not realising the drawback, and not knowing the right escape). So, if optimist, pessimist, or any philosophers and doctrines recommends that pursue any of the three types of feeling is the way to liberation, then it has been falsely advertised, why because they are still trapped in cycle of suffering, as all feelings are inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen, subject to ending, subject to vanishing, fading, ceasing (MN 74 Dighanaka Sutta or SN 36.11 Rahogata Sutta), and what is conditional and impermanent, it is also suffering (SN 22.59 Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta). Moreover, clinging to views (or any of Five Aggregates) is one of the cause that sustain someone to repeatedly reborn in Samsara (from clinging, to becoming, to birth… in Dependent Origination [SN 12.2 Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta]), which is also another factor why they are still not freed from suffering.

Now to address your examples more specifically: the feeling of sensual pleasures on the flower depends on (not because of some precursor painful feeling, but) whether or not your six senses media come into contact with the sight and smell of flower. And of course, if pleasant feeling arises because of the flower, then painful feeling will follow later on due to impermanence. On the contrary, Jhana (Meditative) bliss operates slightly different than sensual pleasures, because unlike sensual pleasures which is highly dependent on presence and maintenance of sensual objects, pleasure from Jhana greatly depends on perception. For example, even if you do manage to obtain the Jhanas but still have a distorted perception then you won’t enjoy it (MN 75 Māgaṇḍiya Sutta), but it is only when you do see the drawbacks of a grosser state (e.g. sensual pleasures) and benefits of a subtler state (e.g. 1st Jhana), then you will truly enjoy to dwell with it (AN 9.41 Tapussa Sutta). However, if you notice, even when attaining and succeeding throughout purely neutral states one-after-another from “Fourth Jhana” all the way until “Cessation of Feeling and Perception” (each of them is without or beyond pleasant or painful feeling), Buddha still describe them as “pleasure”, because he’s not referring “pleasure” solely as pleasant feeling, but also happiness wherever it’s found, and in whatever context (SN 36.19 Pañcakaṅga Sutta). As to why Jhana can last so long even after meditative session ended, maybe because unlike rapture from sensual pleasures, rapture from Jhana is like a fire that doesn’t depend on grass and logs as fuel which is only possible through psychic power (MN 99 Subha Sutta), which may last unalloyed for hundreds to thousands of years (AN 10.46 Sakka Sutta). Of course, even when attained such sublime and stable happiness, as long as one still yet to end their mental effluents, they will still suffer when fallen away from such blissful state or heavenly realm, as these are still considered conditioned and impermanent.

In summary, whether sensual pleasures or meditative pleasures, it is still dependent on causes and conditions (as in doctrine of dependent origination), but I don’t think it is correct to say that three types of feeling are dependent on each other.

Because I’m still learning and my knowledge on this subject is limited, please pardon me if I get anything wrong and help me rectify it.

References:
MN 44 Culavedalla Sutta - Culavedalla Sutta: The Shorter Set of Questions-and-Answers
MN 74 Dighanaka Sutta - Dighanaka Sutta: To LongNails
SN 36.11 Rahogata Sutta - SuttaCentral
SN 22.59 Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta - SuttaCentral
SN 12.2 Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta - Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising
MN 75 Māgaṇḍiya Sutta - SuttaCentral
AN 9.41 Tapussa Sutta - Tapussa Sutta: To Tapussa
SN 36.19 Pañcakaṅga Sutta - SuttaCentral
MN 99 Subha Sutta - SuttaCentral
AN 10.46 Sakka - SuttaCentral


#20

While it’s true that if you repetitively experienced the same feeling, it would loose it’s ‘edge’, which I experience as one of the ways in vedananupassana in satipatthana (‘mindfulness of feelings’) work, in getting the mind to let go of feeling. The extra mindfulness allows for equanimity to arise quicker. Even pleasant sensations loose their attractiveness, if you allow it to continue and possibly forms the basis of the practice of knowing the assada or attraction of the attraction, drawbacks and release formula.