Alternative translation for 'Viveka'?

I’m currently reading a book written by Keren Arbel, named “Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as an Actualization of Insight”. In one of the chapters, the author stated that ‘viveka’, usually and traditionally translated as “seclusion” or “separation”, can have another connotation. Her argument seems to be based on the way the word is used in Sanskrit, as “discrimination”, “discernment” or “judgement”.

Wisdomlib (in its Sanskrit-English dictionary) and other sources seem to confirm this use, but I’m not sure what meaning was older, which could give us some clue for alternative readings for the Pali Suttas.

I wasn’t sure about posting this on Q&A or on Discussion. For now, I’ll ask like this:

Is it possible that the term ‘viveka’ could mean “discrimination” in the Pali Suttas?

Thanks for your time, in advance.
Kind regards!


I think the common sense here is “separation”. In the sense of “seculsion” it means being separated from something. In the sense of “discrimination” it means to separate one thing from the other.

A common brahmanical usage is to “separate” the mundane world from the sacred. I can’t recall any similar examples in Pali, but it’s likely there are some. The PTS dictionary does acknowledge this sense, but without examples.

The overriding usage in Pali, However, is “seclusion”, both in physical and mental sense. Grammatically this is expressed in the ablative case, as for example in the jhana formula, viviccva kāmehi, where Kāma* is the ablative plural, i.e. “from the senses”. To discriminate between this and that would require a different syntax. I’m looking for an example in Sanskrit, so far without luck!

If you could give some more context as to how this argument is made, it would be helpful.


Thanks for your answer, bhante.

Here’s the extract which talks about viveka, in the context of explaining what the first jhana consist of, based on the classic formula.


The Pāli English Dictionary, and consequently most translators, translates viveka as ‘detachment’, ‘separation’ and ‘seclusion’. Buddhaghosa explains that viveka means either the disappearance of the hindrances, or that the jhāna factors are secluded from the hindrances. However, according to the Sanskrit dictionary, the first meaning of viveka is ‘discrimination’. The Sanskrit dictionary further describes viveka as ‘(1) true knowledge, (2) discretion, (3) right judgement, and (4) the faculty of distinguishing and classifying things according to their real properties’. These meanings of the term viveka seem to assist in interpreting this term in the Buddhist context as well, since viveka has no clear definition in the Nikāyas and it seems to be used in different ways. I suggest that the use of vivicca and viveka, in the description of the first jhāna (both from the verb vi+vic), plays with both meanings of the verb; namely, its meaning as discernment and the consequent ‘seclusion’ and letting go. Although there are times that the Buddha changes the meaning of a Sanskrit term completely, sometimes he does not; for example, he retains the meanings of terms such as dukkha, sukha and so on. I believe that the term viveka retained in the Nikāyas also its Sanskrit meaning as ‘discernment’. This interpretation is supported by a description from SN V 301. In this sutta, the quality of viveka is developed by the practice of the four satipatthānas. Anuruddha declares that

[i]ndeed friends, when that bhikkhu is developing and cultivating the four establishings of mindfulness, it is impossible that he will give up the training and return to the lower life. For what reason? Because for a long time his mind has slanted, sloped, and inclined towards viveka.

Here Anuruddha clearly states that by seeing clearly (anupassati) body, feeling, mind and dhammas (the four focuses of mindfulness) the practitioner develops the quality of viveka. In this context, it seems that viveka is a quality connected to clear seeing, to discernment of the nature of experience. We also see here that the jhānas follow the development of the four satipatthānas and not some practice of one-pointed concentration. The preceding also indicates that the development of the four satipathānas inclines the mind towards discerning the true nature of phenomena; discernment that allows the mind to see the disadvantage of sense pleasures and, hence, let go of the desire for them and other unwholesome states (such as clinging and aversion, for example). That is, the cultivation of the four satipatthānas develops the ability to recognize and discern the mechanism of mind and body for seeing clearly into the nature of the various physical and mental phenomena. I would suggest that this discernment of phenomena (dhammas), and the consequent detachment (vivicca) is indicated by the term viveka, the same viveka from which pīti and sukha of the first jhāna are born.“ Discerning the nature of phenomena enables the mind to change its inclinations; that is, it allows us to let go of our basic unwholesome tendencies and desires, which are based on a mistaken perception of reality. This letting go (vossagga) is the proximate cause for entering the first jhāna.

Arbel, K… (2017). Early buddhist meditation: The four Jhānas as the actualization of insight.

Edit: I was re-reading you answer, bhante, and I noticed that the author is suggesting this complementary connotation when rendering the last viveka of the formula, i.e. in “pleasure born from viveka”, with the word referring to the term vivekajam in Pāli.


The dictionary entries are misleading in that they mostly refer to post-Buddha literature. There are not many pre-Buddha examples. I could basically only find one example, namely in Chand.Up. 6.9.2:

"Now, take the bees, son. They prepare the honey by gathering nectar from a variety of trees and by reducing that nectar to a homogeneous whole. In that state the nectar from each different tree is not able to differentiate (na vivekaṃ labhante): ‘I am the nectar of that tree,’ and ‘I am the nectar of this tree.’

So this hardly represents a consistent pre-Buddhist usage of the term and we better find sutta examples in which viveka is used in a non-spiritual and more every-day context to understand the range of the term.


Few sutta questions can be solved by examining translations, that’s like trying to fathom what’s going on under the sea by analysing the surface. Dynamics underlie the verbal description of the path, in this case the interactions between sila-samadhi-panna.

From the functional standpoint, discernment is associated with the insight (panna) section of the path, while mental seclusion as part of samadhi develops from the practice of sila. To say that mental seclusion develops from insight is to negate sila, and the path runs sila-samadhi- panna. The suggestion that mental seclusion in the first jhana is the result of insight is wrong because there is no process of insight preceding the first jhana, but the gradual path shows there is a process of abandoning the hindrances prior to attaining jhana.

"In the same way, when these five hindrances are not abandoned in himself, the monk regards it as a debt, a sickness, a prison, slavery, a road through desolate country. But when these five hindrances are abandoned in himself, he regards it as unindebtedness, good health, release from prison, freedom, a place of security. Seeing that they have been abandoned within him, he becomes glad. Glad, he becomes enraptured. Enraptured, his body grows tranquil. His body tranquil, he is sensitive to pleasure. Feeling pleasure, his mind becomes concentrated.

(The Four Jhanas)

"Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters and remains in the first jhana:—-DN 2

Then the section on insight follows the jhana section.

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This is a point that keeps bringing me confusion.
I had four premises in mind:

  1. Right View is the forerunner for all the other factors.
  2. Without Right View, Samadhi is not Samma Samadhi.
  3. There were some followers of the Buddha that attained stream-entry without having practiced jhana in beforehand.
  4. To attain Right View (which is considered a factor of the Pañña-group), one had to develop some degree of insight in beforehand.

If those four premises are true, I don’t see any contradiction by assuming that some amount of insight had to be built to attain Right Samadhi, which in some suttas is defined as the four jhanas.


Thanks for the context!

Arbel wants to revise the meaning of this central doctrinal term against the traditional commentators, the linguistic specialists who compiled the dictionaries, and those who have worked for decades of their lives to understand and translate this material. Now, maybe this will happen! Experts get things wrong! But we need strong and direct supporting evidence, and such is lacking.

It’s not wrong; it’s also not unknown to all the scholars who preceded her. This is really entry-level scholarship. Compare Gabriel’s post:

He gives historical context, good reason to be sceptical of the Dictionary entries, and an actual historically relevant example. I’m not saying you’ll get better scholarship here than in peer-reviewed Phd-level work, but I’m not saying you’ll not get better scholarship here!

Note that in the cited passage, the sense of “separation” is still strong. The point is that once honey from different origins has been mixed, it can’t be separated out again. I’d say this is a signpost on the way towards the meaning of “discriminative intelligence”, but not there yet.

There’s a reason this sense is missing or secondary in Pali dictionaries: the texts don’t support it.

This is not exactly untrue, but it’s misleading. The meaning of words is generally not derived from “clear definitions”, but from usage and context. Indeed, contextual meanings are superior to formal definitions, which can only ever act as a shorthand.

It’s a rhetorical strategy, destabilizing traditional interpretations by asking for unreasonable standards of evidence; the work of Gregory Schopen is full of this kind of thing. Best ignore it.

There are plenty of cases showing that viveka means “seclusion”:

  • SN 5.1: yena andhavanaṁ tenupasaṅkami vivekatthinī
    (the nun) went to the Dark Forest seeking seclusion.
  • In the Vinaya, a monastic who lives in too-close company with others is urged to be “secluded”. (Bhikkhuni pacittiya 36)
  • Snp 4.7: A mendicant is urged to “train in seclusion” (Vivekaññeva sikkhetha), alone.
  • In the “Viveka Sutta” (SN 9.1) a mendicant stuck on thoughts of the household life is urged to desire seclusion, having entered the forest.

This is the reason why everyone says viveka means seclusion: because there is abundant textual support for it. Of course words have different meanings in different contexts, but if a researcher wants to establish this different meaning, they need to do the work. Arble attempts to do so in the following passage.

The passage cited is from one of a stock series of suttas, talking about how a meditator who practices a long time “flows” to Nibbana like the Ganges flows to the sea.

The text cited is by Anuruddha at SN 52.8, and is virtually identical to the discourse spoken by the Buddha at SN 45.160. The difference, which is a critical to the argument at hand, is that SN 45.160 speaks of the eightfold path, whereas SN 52.8 speaks of satipatthana. This shows that this passage has no special relevance to satipatthana at all, it is merely that it is one of Anuruddha’s favorite topics, so he brings it in here.

SN 45.160 ends with a description of how the mendicant practices the eightfold path:

a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go.

(For the commentarial explanation of this passage, see Ven Bodhi’s note 7 to the Maggasamyutta, Connected Discourses.)

Here SN 45.160 introduces a set of four terms: seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and letting go. The first three are said to be “relied on”, and hence must be supporting factors of the path.

Sticking with seclusion, this refers to seclusion with the body, both as physical aloneness and as being separated from bad deeds, and mental seclusion from hindrances, aka jhana. These things support the practice, leading to the ultimate seclusion of Nibbana.

Arbel makes a couple of interpretative errors.

  • The formula is applied to all aspects of the path, and has no special relationship with satipatthana.
  • The formula does not say that “by seeing clearly” the practitioner develops viveka.

On the contrary, SN 45.160 shows that the causal arrow points the other way around: one develops (the path, including satipatthana) relying on seclusion. Of course causality is always both-ways, but the point is, the argument doesn’t prove what she wants it to prove.

Arble has painted a misleading picture by leaving out crucial elements and quoting out of context. Viveka is a central doctrinal term. If your argument to re-evaluate the entire doctrinal significance is based on a dubious reading of a slight variation of a stock passage in a marginal sutta by a disciple, then you have a weak argument.

Do we? The jhanas haven’t even been mentioned.

Terms like “one-pointed” and “concentration” do not adequately express the relevant ideas in the Pali, and here Arble seems to be merely repeating the stock ideas of the 20th century Vipassanavada. But the Vipassanavada is not supported at all in the suttas, and that jhana is developed by the 4 satipatthanas is exactly what we would expect.

The satipatthanas, as the seventh factor of the eightfold path, lead to the 8th factor jhana, exactly as it is stated in the very first sutta of the Maggasamyutta: “Right mindfulness gives rise to right immersion”.

Again, as MN 44 says, satipatthana is the samādhinimitta (cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā), i.e. the basis and foundation for samādhi.

Even leaving all that aside, on what basis can anyone claim that satipatthana is not “some practice of one-pointed concentration”? After all, the primary practice of satipatthana is mindfulness of breathing, which is exactly the kind of “one-pointed” practice that such critics are thinking of.

So in conclusion, the text Arble is citing doesn’t say what she says it does, and even if it did, it would be merely repeating the mainstream position of the suttas.

Right. It seems her argument is that jhana means to “discriminate” the senses, rather than “be secluded from them” in absorption. The problem is, there is no grammatical way this could work.

To explain a little further, the opening phrase of the jhana formula is this:

vivicc’eva kāmehi
quite secluded from the senses


  • vivicca is a verb form of viveka in the absolutive sense, denoting a completed past action: “having become secluded”.
  • eva is a common particle, denoting either simple emphasis or exclusivity.
  • kāma has a variety of meanings, but here it is an ablative plural, meaning “from the senses”. Technically one might construe it as an instrumental, “through the senses”, but this wouldn’t make much sense. The obvious meaning is that in deep meditation one withdraws from the five external senses. It could also be extended to mean seclusion from sensual desire, however, this is unlikely, as sensual desire is always expressed in the singular; in any case, this is covered by the next phrase, “secluded from unskillful qualities”.

Let us assume Arble’s argument is correct. In that case, viveka here would play the same role as terms such as vicaya or vīmaṁsā elsewhere. These clearly mean to “discriminate” or “analyze”. In such cases, where the verb acts on the noun, the accusative is used, not the ablative. Here is an example from MN 118:

taṁ dhammaṁ paññāya pavicinati pavicayati parivīmaṁsaṁ āpajjati
they investigate, explore, and inquire into that principle with wisdom

The argument is not just unsupported by the text; it’s grammatically impossible.

But they’re not. See my A Swift Pair of Messengers for a refutation of the idea that people were getting enlightened without jhanas. In short, the basic problem is that people rely on narrative portions, and draw unwarranted inferences from them, when it is clear that they are quite unreliable and inconsistent between versions. The doctrinal passages, where the Buddha explicitly defines the path, always include jhana as a central factor required for seeing the four noble truths.


(I really wish scholars would stop coming up with new and improved theories of jhana. So much work is wasted on these throwaway theories of meditation. They mislead practitioners and, rightfully, cause people to mistrust the methods of academia. There are so many things, so much fundamental work, that lies neglected. Academic work in early Buddhism is really helpful when it looks at areas neglected by traditional scholarship: historical context, comparative linguistics, economic, political, or technological developments, mythology, comparative religions. The bricks are not baked, but the builders use them for their skyscrapers.)


I’m really thankful for this enlightening post.

I agree on almost all points. Just like you, I felt Arbel’s suggestion seems weak, relying on something from outside the suttas to validate her point.

However, I think she is not stating that the rendering ‘seclusion’ is wrong, but it seems she is adding another perspective to the usual translation: it is a seclusion that arises from discriminating (i.e. putting each thing in its corresponding site) what is the place of sensual desires in the grand scheme of things (of the Dhamma).

On the topic of the relation between satipatthana and jhana, she seems to be saying that the fulfillment of a sufficient degree of mindfulness of the four frames of reference allows the practitioner to abandon the hindrances, which is prerequisite for abiding in the first jhana. Instead of one-pointed concentration, she suggest that we should see jhana as a state of calm recollectedness.

At last, on the topic of the four premises I proposed, I completely agree with you: neither I nor Arbel were stating that enlightenment (or Nibbāna) could be attained without the practice of jhana. What I was trying to say was that, if hypothetically we assume the possibility of viveka having that second rendering, that should not show any contradiction with the order of the gradual training. I was saying that some degree of insight can be developed before attaining jhana, and that jhana is not a necessary condition for stream-entry (but it is one for higher stages of enlightenment).

Of course, I may be wrong about my interpretation of Arbel’s work. I think there are a lot of interesting and thought-provoking (although maybe not completely novel) ideas in her book, and I recommend reading it in its entirety to grasp the gist of her arguments in their global context. And also, I may be wrong about my premises. If that’s the case, I’d really appreciate any correction.

Thank you, again, for your kindness and wisdome.

Kind regards!


Sure. But the point is, she doesn’t actually establish this.

Right, well, this is the normal position of the suttas.

Of course.

But that’s exactly what I am saying: jhana is an essential part of the path and as such, it is a prerequisite for seeing the four noble truths, i.e. stream entry.

I hope so!


I get where that feeling is coming from.
However, being a novice and an outsider (from the monastic practice), and having reached the Dhamma mostly from the internet, books (some of those written by you, by the way) and suttas, I had (and keep having, sometimes) the impression that a lot of current theory and practice regarding meditation is based more on teachings from the few last centuries, from commentaries and from exegetical work primarily, and from the suttas, afterwards. For me (and I suspect that for a lot of lay scholars as well) it looks like a big part of the Theravada tradition (in all its heterogeneity) using these “secondary” sources as filters set upon the suttas. Maybe that’s the main reason for that obstinacy that keeps moving academics all over the world doing this, over and over again.
Could this feeling come, also, from a sensation of having monastics being too hermetic, ignoring outsiders’ contribution, and the same thing but in the other way around with scholars?

What are your thoughts on this?
I’d be great to read your thoughts on this issue (and I apologize in advance if this has been discussed previously, and in that case, I’d appreciate any links for catching on the conversation).

Kind regards!


Oh! It seems I have to read your book. I’l be doing that, for sure. Thanks for the material.

On the suggestion of Arbel regarding the double-rendering of viveka:
I interpreted the following as saying what I mentioned above:

I would suggest that this discernment of phenomena ( dhammas ), and the consequent detachment ( vivicca ) is indicated by the term viveka , the same viveka from which pīti and sukha of the first jhāna are born.“

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That’s absolutely correct, and a big part of what I mean when referring to the Vipassanavada. The whole context of how we think and talk about meditation is so strongly influenced by 20th century Burmese Abhidhamma.

I feel that there are important ways in which our understanding of meditation based on the suttas has progressed beyond the Vipassanavada. This is besides the basic question of whether jhana is necessary, a question that has been satisfactorily answered. But when I read most analyses, they seem stuck in fighting the old battles.


It’s true that there is some confusion about how Right View can be both the forerunner and also be at the very top end of the path, too!

I think the reason is that many people’s understanding of Right View is very narrow and limited to specific contexts, but this ignores the other ways Right View is described in the suttas. Often Right View is described in very simple, everyday contexts that we can easily apprehend for ourselves, such as understanding the benefit of giving, being good to your parents, and other ethical conduct, like the ten wholesome actions, where right view is also the last factor in the list, but all the proceeding factors also are shaped by right view. I recently wrote a post about that here, which you may be interested in reading. (it’s a long post, and I discuss right view about halfway through). Thinking about Right View more broadly, helps us understand how it is necessary for the foundations of our meditation practice, which grows and develops and becomes perfected, rather than only thinking of it as the result of meditation, or the very end of the path.


I’ve been looking for more mundane uses of the term viveka in the suttas. And while I wasn’t systematic or complete in my search AN 3.93 stands out. Here, wanderers distinguish between or differentiate among types of clothes, food, and housing. There is no connotation of ‘seclusion’ in this context.


That is correct and preliminary right view is that conventional reality is inherently suffering not as we have been led to believe, pleasure. This experience of suffering fulfills the first duty of the four noble truths:

‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended.’ —-SN 56.11

“Perplexity sometimes arises over an apparent inconsistency in the arrangement of the path factors and the threefold training. Wisdom — which includes right view and right intention — is the last stage in the threefold training, yet its factors are placed at the beginning of the path rather than at its end, as might be expected according to the canon of strict consistency. The sequence of the path factors, however, is not the result of a careless slip, but is determined by an important logistical consideration, namely, that right view and right intention of a preliminary type are called for at the outset as the spur for entering the threefold training. Right view provides the perspective for practice, right intention the sense of direction. But the two do not expire in this preparatory role. For when the mind has been refined by the training in moral discipline and concentration, it arrives at a superior right view and right intention, which now form the proper training in the higher wisdom.”


“The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering. It does not start with lights and ecstasy, but with the hard tacks of pain, disappointment, and confusion. However, for suffering to give birth to a genuine spiritual search, it must amount to more than something passively received from without. It has to trigger an inner realization, a perception which pierces through the facile complacency of our usual encounter with the world to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot. When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can precipitate a profound personal crisis. It overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, leaves old enjoyments stubbornly unsatisfying.”—-Bikkhu Bodhi

Preliminary right view is followed by exercising mindfulness and right effort to uncover further right view, so the path is a dynamic not static structure, and this is achieved by expanding further the insight that conventional reality is suffering.

"One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view & for entering into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.[2] Thus these three qualities — right view , right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around (preliminary) right view .”—-MN 117

This implies the detachment necessary to not only speech but also action in conventional reality:

Thus right effort assisted by right mindfulness are the active components of growth in right view and the path.

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I wouldn’t be so sure. Both Ven Bodhi and myself translate as “seclusion” or “solitude” here, and the commentary has no indication of any meaning other than the usual. The commentary understands cīvaraṃ nissāya uppajjanakakilesehi vivittabhāvaṃ (“the state of being secluded from the defilements that arise dependent on a robe, etc.”).

The metaphor is, true, a little forced, but then, it is an adaptation of what is already a dogmatic metaphor in another (less known) system. It’s not unusual to find that the metaphors get strained in such cases.

To be clear, I have no issues with the idea that viveka might mean “discrimination” in some places in the suttas; I’m just not seeing it here.

I think that the original sense of the Jain (or similar) prescription was that a true ascetic would make use of requisites that did not require them to have any contact with humans: hemp, hide, or bark for robes; forest foods and bush tucker to eat; living in the open air or the forest. It is a staple trope of Indic stories that an ascetic will live in the Himalayas, surviving in this way, until they need salted food and other requirements. They come down to settled lands, close to people, and there fall prey to baser desires. The Buddha is, as usual, redefining it to emphasize psychological and ethical seclusion.

One slightly off thing about this sutta is that the simile at the end doesn’t really closely apply. It’s not wrong or anything, it just doesn’t match the text as neatly as one might expect, as it’s about growth through effort, rather than seclusion.


I too found secluded to feel slightly forced, but not so much that it doesn’t actually fit just fine. In light of the Jain practices, it sounds like the Buddha’s ingenious way of redefining common terms and practices to describe his middle way, which may have raised eyebrows in that time too. I think of how he did this in SN 35.28 with the Fire Sermon. I’m sure that got people talking.


Thank you for this informative thread ! I have always found it interesting on encountering words in the suttas which are still used today in India, although with a different meaning ! Viveka was one such word whose canonical usage to mean ‘seclusion’ very often confused me, since in common everyday usage in Hindi and Marathi languages here, it is used mainly in the sense of conscience, judgement, knowing or differentiating wrong from right moral actions, similar to the Pali hiri.

Thank you Bhante @sujato , this cleared up my doubt and confusion!
I had tried bridging these two meanings back then to come at an almost similar viewpoint as you -

As @Gabriel pointed out, viveka as sense of discrimination seems a post-Buddha development, which was

And may I say, it has finally arrived at the meaning of discriminative intelligence or more vaguely as a conscience as per it’s current usage in India!


Oh, I didn’t know that, that’s interesting.

It’s normal, of course, that languages evolve, and they always present a paradox. Sometimes meanings retain an extraordinary stability through time, whereas in other cases they shift almost as you’re watching them. For native speakers of languages that are related to Pali, this is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes a lived language can reveal a context or a nuance that might be otherwise lost; but frequently, too, the meaning has changed such that reading a late meaning into 2,500 year old texts is actively misleading. It’s best to treat the meaning in one’s own language as simply a related meaning that might shed some light on the Pali.