The Buddha was the foremost scientist of mind and matter (nama and rupa). What makes him a peerless scientist is his discovery that tanha, or craving, and by extension, aversion—arises from vedana, or sensation on the body.

 Courtesy of Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dhara
Courtesy of Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dhara

Before the time of the Buddha, little if any importance was given to bodily sensation. In fact, it was the centrality of bodily sensation that was the Buddha’s great discovery in his quest to determine the root cause of suffering and the means to its cessation. Before the Buddha, India’s spiritual masters emphasized teachings that encouraged people to turn away from sensory objects and ignore the sensations that contact with them engenders.

But the Buddha, a real scientist, examined sensation more closely. He discovered that when we come into contact with a sense-object through one of the six sense doors (ears, eyes, nose, tongue, body, mind), we cling to the sensation it creates, giving rise to tanha (wanting it to stay and to increase) and aversion (wanting it to cease). The mind then reacts with thoughts of either “I want” or “I do not want.” Buddha discovered that everything that arises in the mind arises with the sensations on the body and that these sensations are the material we have to work with.

The first step, then, is to train the mind to become so sharp and sensitive that it will learn to detect even the subtlest sensations. That job is done by anapana—the practice of awareness of the breath—on the small area under the nostrils, above the upper lip. If we concentrate on this area, the mind becomes sharper and sharper, subtler and subtler. This is the way we begin to become aware of every sort of sensation on the body.

Next, we feel the sensations but don’t react to them. We can learn to maintain this equanimity towards sensations by understanding their transitory nature.

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