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!