Experiential understanding of vitakka and vicāra and its connection to jhana

Hello friends in Dhamma!

I have noticed there is a lot of talk and interest around the themes of vitkka and vicāra so I want to share unique perspective on the matter. Instead of providing some specific English translation I want to try to demonstrate what it means experientially. This is something Bhante Punnaji had found out and something I have then ascertained myself.

Vitakka and vicāra refer to a special kind of mental happening, activity that is normally going on in the mind unless the corresponding activity is calmed. It relates to automatic process how the organism is trying to make sense and react to what is going on in the environment.

To demonstrate imagine that you are sitting in a quiet room then suddenly you hear a sound. It might happen that your attention is (undeliberately, automatically) directed to that happening like (nonverbally) inquiring the nature of the sound, as if asking a question - ‘what is that?’. After that questioning a kind of answer, apprehension comes like ‘wall cracked’. So the rather mechanical, automatic kind of questioning going on there is vicāra and the answer to that is the vitakka.

Important thing to note is that these ‘questions’ and ‘answers’ don’t refer to deliberate act but to an activity that is going on automatically. Its unlike how people normally understand questioning and answering. This kind of questioning and answering activity is not something done verbally (verbalization just might follow) or deliberately like people usually understand asking questions and getting answers or thinking.

Vitakka and vicāra together form a kind of baseline activity of interest and narrative of what is in the environment or some memory image.

Progression of jhanas can be seen as a gradual calming of the mind or gradual reduction of experience. In the second jhana this activity of vitakka and vicāra has calmed down. Vitakka and vicāra is not some thing you do or cultivate to get in the first jhana, but simply a special kind of activity that is normally going on. They are mentioned as jhana consitituents in the first jhana because its the differentiating factor to discriminate between first and second jhana, not because you must do them it to get to first jhana. So in the first jhana that activity is going on and in the second and further jhanas it has calmed down.

That activity can also be seen as a kind of noise and the absence of it can be seen as a kind of silence. Its not a kind of silence of nonverbalization or absence of deliberate thinking, but just the absence of that extra activity coming in connection to the environment or memory images. In the second jhana that inquiry and answer about the nature of noise or something is calmed down so even while you might hear the sound itself your mind would not jump to question the nature of it and would not get an answer to that so the result of it is a kind of reduction of experience.

The important thing to do to understand and see it is to notice it happening to be able to discriminate what exactly we are talking about. Good thing its normally happening constantly, its just something that is not made out and appropriately discriminated. English language does not have exact words for the mental phenomena of vitakka and vicāra as its not being discriminated as a specific thing for ordinary people. It might be possible that it has been discriminated as a thing in psychology or cognitive science and a word has been created for it, but I’m not aware of any such word or it being specifically talked about. Even while some ordinary English speaking men or women might sometimes be somewhat aware of it, they would usually throw the thing in the same pile as ‘thinking’ or something like that without becoming aware of it as distinct dhamma.

If you have not yet made out what I’m referring to as vitakka and vicāra by the example I have given what is necessary here and elsewhere to get to the bottom of these dhammas is introspective awareness of what is going on in your mind (sati) and from that a kind of un-piling / discrimination of experience (dhamma vicaya) so that the specific dhamma is made out as distinct thing instead of being thrown in one pile together with other things like ‘thinking’ in this case for example or remaining unconscious to it altogether (avijja). These two things sati and dhamma vicaya are also the first two of seven steps leading to nirvana.

Next thing would be to try and experience the absence of vitakka and vicāra by getting in the second jhana. Normally people never experience a state of mind like that so its a very unique experience its like a part of mind that was present for the whole time before that is cut off and silenced and it might help you to understand the nature of it better. Again its unlike non-verbalization or non-thinking i.e. absence of vaca sankhara or absence of manasikara or something like that, those are different things.

In other cases where vitakka is used it means also the same thing. It always refers to the exact dhamma. So for example in Vitakkasaṇṭhānasutta:

Take a mendicant who is focusing on some foundation of meditation that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That mendicant should focus on some other foundation of meditation connected with the skillful.

Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno yaṃ nimittaṃ āgamma yaṃ nimittaṃ manasikaroto uppajjanti pāpakā akusalā vitakkā chandūpasaṃhitāpi dosūpasaṃhitāpi mohūpasaṃhitāpi, tena, bhikkhave, bhikkhunā tamhā nimittā aññaṃ nimittaṃ manasi kātabbaṃ kusalūpasaṃhitaṃ.

What the Buddha is saying is that after attending a certain theme and mental reflection connected to that theme the mind can be be conditioned to give rise to bad kinds of vitakkā and gives instruction to change the theme and correct the bad vitakkā by deliberate thinking in some wholesome way.

To give example of this imagine a child playing violent video games. So the theme there (nimitta) and reflections around that could condition the child to the bad vitakkā. So when after engaging in the violent videogame and thinking in that way then having gone to a supermarket and seeing a toy gun the vitakkā the child would experience could be then conditioned in unwholesome way like ‘killing!’ for example. Or the kid then just hearing the same sound as you in the room would get the impression or ‘answer’ which is in the themes of gunshots and somebody being killed while your ‘answer’ about the same noise could be ‘crack in walls’ (or no question or answer at all if you are in at least the second jhana). The child by much attending to themes of violence starts to get ‘answers’ related to that theme of violence and gunshots which then further along the line could make him vocalize it by exclamation or start deliberately thinking about that theme.

So I hope this helps to make out the mental activity of vitakka and vicāra and how it differs from things like thinking or deliberate questioning and answering or verbalization of thought and further on why the two most often appear together and why its not actually said in the suttas to do it or cultivate to get in the first jhana but simply that the first jhana is with it and then later calmed down when going from first to second jhana.

To get in the first jhana you don’t need to do some sort of specific application and sustenance of some thought or attention or any sort of concentration, the vitakka and vicāra is already present. But what you must do instead is to calm the five hinderances. When the five hinderances are calmed you are in the first jhana, and you don’t have to worry about the vitakka and vicāra!


Whether it’s habitual or conscious it’s still verbal:

“Having first directed one’s thoughts and made an evaluation, one then breaks out into speech. That’s why directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications.”—MN 44

Speech ceases with the first jhana but the mental cycle of it remains.

If I showed you a picture of something you don’t have to spell out ‘What is this?’ for the vicāra to kick in. And when you get an answer of what it is the vitakka is already done before you string together ‘This is a face’. So in that way you are not doing vitakka and vicāra verbally. The verbalization of the ‘questioning’ if there is breaking out in speech is one thing (vācaṃ) and the actual activity of the questioning (vitakka and vicāra) is different thing.

You are saying vitakka and vicāra are ‘verbal’ and at the same time saying speech ceases with the first jhana while the constituents of first jhana contain vitakka and vicāra which you just called verbal.

By ‘verbal’ is meant the verbal level as opposed to awareness of immediate sense contact:

"The Sutta highlights the power of ‘name.’ Everything comes under its sway. The Comm. observes: ‘There is no being or formation without a name, whether this be attached primordially or by convention. Even when people do not know a particular tree or stone by this or that name, it will still be called a ‘no-namer’ (anaamako ).’ This over-riding power of name has been recognized by Lao-tse too, when he calls it the ‘mother of all things.’ In magic, one’s knowledge of the secret names of spirits is deemed a weapon effective in itself against their evil influence. In panegyric, the ability to muster a wide range of epithets is considered a rewarding skill.

Everything comes under the sway of name as a result of man’s urge to familiarize himself with the world. Sorting out, naming and defining things, are practical necessities in ordinary life, since they help us avoid ‘tripping-over,’ just as in the case of one groping in the dark. There is a constant need to re-cognize things and the easiest way of doing it, is by putting a sign on them. While the five senses have their own separate modes of indentation, mind largely relies on the labeling-mode of attaching a name, in the course of its own groping. Since mind partakes of the ‘range’ (visaya) and pasture (gocara) of the other five senses as well (M. I. 295.), its own mode of indentation has a preponderating influence over the rest. Thus, perceptual data of the five external senses, in all their permutations and combinations, finally come to be assigned names and pigeon-holed as ‘things.’ This convenient but superficial indentation beclouds the mind and prevents the immediate understanding of sense-contact (phassa). Its mode of apperception, therefore, is largely a process of ‘imagining’ and ‘figuring-out’ of objects located in the darkness of ignorance, and in its blind groping, the phenomenon of sense-contact as such, hardly receives any serious attention."—Nananda, note to SN 1.61

I don’t see how exactly is that Nananda quote supposed to be relevant to the discussion we were having. :woman_shrugging:

Thank you for the case for vitakka and vicara being instinctual. That’s not correct according to Buddhist psychology where they are secondary formations in consciousness, so are subject to choice .

Directed thought means it has to be focussed on the path goal. Unguided thought is motivated by ignorance.
The two serve a purpose through all the jhanas as insight working with tranquillity:

“So directed thought and evaluation really do mean thinking about things. They’re not just an unfortunate wobbling of the mind, as one teacher once described them. They serve a real purpose in getting the mind into concentration and keeping it there. They also help take the mind to higher levels of concentration, when you use them to analyze a particular level of concentration to see what’s still causing unnecessary stress in that level, so that you can drop the cause.”—Thanissaro

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The Petakopadesa has some interesting points which I’d like to share here :

‘’ Thinking ‘’ : there are three kinds of thinking, namely
renunciation-thinking, non-ill-will-thinking, and non-cruelty-thinking
Herein, ‘’ thinking ‘’ is the first instance 1 while ‘’ exploring ‘’
is the exploration of what is got thus. Just as, when a man sees a man coming in the distance he does
not yet know whether it is a woman or a man; but when he has
got [the perception] that ‘‘it is a woman’’ or that ‘‘it is a man’’
or that’’ it is one of such colour (caste)’’ or that’’ it is one of such
shape ‘’, then when he is thinking [this] he further
scrutinizes [as follows] ''How then, is he virtuous or unvirtuous,
rich or poor ‘’,such is exploring. In thinking he fixes, in exploring
he wanders about [his fixed object] and turns [it] over.
And just as a winged bird first accumulates [speed] and
afterwards no more accumulates [speed, when gliding], so too,
thinking is like the accumulation[of speed], and like the outstretchedness
of the [gliding bird’s] wings is exploring, [which]
keeps preserving the thinkings and keeps preserving the explorings.
[Such] thinking is the opposite of perception of sensual desires ;
[such] exploring is the opposite of perception of ill will and of
perception of cruelty. The action of [such] kinds of thinking is non-attention to the unprofitable. The action of [such] kinds of exploring is the restraining of the ‘’ forerunners.
Thinking is like a text-reciter who does his recital silently:
exploring is like his simply contemplating it. Thinking is like
non-diagnosis ; exploring is like diagnosis. Thinking is the Discrimination
of Language and the Discrimination of Perspicuity
exploring is the Discrimination of Ideas and the
Discrimination of Meanings . Thinking is cognizance’s skill
in health exploring is cognizance’s skill in directive-guidance.
Thinking is about this being profitable, this unprofitable, about
this to be kept in being, this to be abandoned, this to be verified.
exploring is like the abandoning, the keeping in being, the verifying.

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Thinking and exploring has to be directed:

“This function of applying the mind to the object is common to the wide variety of modes in which the mental factor of applied thought occurs, ranging from sense discrimination to imagination, reasoning and deliberation and to the practice of concentration culminating in the first jhana. Applied thought can be unwholesome as in thoughts of sensual pleasure, ill will and cruelty, or wholesome as in thoughts of renunciation, benevolence and compassion (MN 19).

In jhana applied through is invariably wholesome and its function of directing the mind upon its object stands forth with special clarity. To convey this the Visuddhimagga explains that in jhana the function of applied thought is “to strike at and thresh – for the meditator is said, in virtue of it, to have the object struck at by applied thought, threshed by applied thought” (Vism.142;PP148). The Milindapanha makes the same point by defining applied thought as absorption (appana): “Just as a carpenter drives a well-fashioned piece of wood into a joint, so applied thought has the characteristic of absorption” (Miln.62).

The object of jhana into which vitakka drives the mind and its concomitant states is the counterpart sign, which emerges from the learning sign as the hindrances are suppressed and the mind enters access concentration.”

“…applied thought and sustained thought although functionally associated, perform different tasks. Applied thought brings the mind to the object, sustained thought fixes and anchors it there. Applied thought focuses the mind on the object, sustained thought examines and inspects what is focused on.”—-Gunaratana

Investigation is a factor of awakening:

“And what is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities (investigation) as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen? There are mental qualities that are skillful & unskillful, blameworthy & blameless, gross & refined, siding with darkness & with light. To foster appropriate attention to them: This is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen.”—SN 46.51

The point of this thread is to show alternative understanding of vitakka and vicāra and its connection to jhana which is different from how other people have translated and interpreted it.

If you like Visuddhimagga explanations or other translations so be it, I’m not trying to argue with you.

What we are concerned about is the implications of this OP statement of passivity, because it perpetuates ignorance. Investigation does arise as one of the routine functions of mind consciousness, but it has to be made actively selective to be wholesome.

I’m not making any ‘statement of passivity’ or talking about ‘investigation’.

This is certainly the message we get from sutras like MN 128/MA 72 which focus on the problem of destabilizing disturbances of various kinds. Your interpretation of vitakka and vicara isn’t completely alien to Buddhist traditions outside of Theravada Abhidhamma. The best of the Chinese translators chose to render both terms as basic types of inquiry in the context of dhyāna, which likely is informed by the Sarvâstivāda tradition’s interpretation. They seemed to be thinking about more than just verbal thought, but rather sensory awareness in general and mental reactions to it.

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The dhamma I’m trying to point at is a kind of specific questioning->answer activity that is going on in the mind.

First thing to note its not a deliberate thing (unlike ‘inquiry’ could be understood for example). It arises like a memory would sometimes arise without specifically asking for it or trying to remember something. Its not something you do or ask for, its happening to you.

Second unlike what is normally understood as thought it always comes as a kind of ‘questioning’ followed by the ‘answer’ and neither the ‘question’ nor the ‘answer’ is something you put together. Verbalization and thinking in relation to it might follow as secondary reaction.

The word inquiry here is a general idea, not a specific doctrinal term. The early translations were simply “awareness” and “observation.” The later translations, again, weren’t inquiry in the formal sense. It’s more like watchfulness or searching. It’s not a rational inquiry. It’s more basic.

Overall, my take away from the Chinese translations is that it’s a subtle thing that’s difficult to define with words.

‘Awareness’ and ‘observation’ can work well, but the questioning nature of it gets lost there.

This thread is not really about coming up with translations, but understanding what the thing actually is, still we could try to make up some things. Like ‘awareness-interest’ and ‘observation’. Or ‘inquiry’ and ‘inference’ but again if its left out that its not something to do people might start thinking that you must specifically inquire about this or that which is something the Chinese translators apparently have actually done which is why they talk about it being in some ‘context of dhyana’.

‘Undirected / nondeliberate inquiry and inference’. Is that something like you understand it? @cdpatton Do you have experiential understanding of it?

Speaking of searching and watchfulness this activity can be seen as the organism background scanning the sense data, identifying potentially important pieces and then making a conclusion about them. This way of seeing it also happens to be less ambiguous version of ‘sensory awareness in general and mental reactions to it’ which you mentioned.

Just a quick reminder: the purpose of this forum is to discuss the EBTs, and not our personal experiences.
with metta :pray:


Can you link me to the article or the audio from where the quote by Thanissaro Bhikkhu is from ?

Thank you very much for this