Interpreting the first Jhana

Here is a question for the grammarians among us:
Part of the classic passage for the first Jhana is
vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ

1.Is it at all possible grammatically that vitakka vicara are not jhana factors but are meant as qualities of akusalehi dhammehi? Or would it necessarily be in that case savitakkehi?
The meaning would then be “He seperates from unwholesome teachings that have as their quality thought and movement”…

2.Is it possible that it means “He seperates from unwholesome teachings by using thought and movement”? So does the sa- replace the instrumental case? Or would that meaning necessarily be expressed by vitakkena vicarena?

Of course I know the classic reading - I hope that people good in grammar can say if these alternative readings are possible or simply impossible.
Thanks a lot!

  1. Yes, it would have to be savitakkehi. Agreement is everything in a grammatical language such as Pali.

  2. I don’t think this is possible. Sa means “with” and cannot mean “by means of”. This would indeed require the instrumental case.

The accusative endings on savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ makes it clear that they qualify paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ.

Thanks Bhante!
I can see that the first alternative is not possible.

If I may dig into the second alternative further as there are inconsistencies I’d like to understand. Strong arguments for vitakka vicara as jhana factors are that we have four accusatives in a row:
savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ
But only two of them are qualified by the prefix sa-. We don’t have a sapitisukham

In the standard formula continuing the first jhana (he floods his body etc.) the other factors are mentioned twice, vitakka vicara not at all:
So imam-eva kāyaṁ vivekajena pītisukhena abhisandeti -and again
sabbāvato kāyassa vivekajena pītisukhena apphuṭaṁ hoti

So there is something different about vitakka vicára, they are not equal jhana qualities. And probably the sa- that they have gives us a hint about it.

Again another possibility would be that the sa- comes not from saha (with) but from santa (good), as described in Duroiselle §555. The text would then be “good thought, good movement, seperation-born, joy-gladness”. But I don’t see much use in that reading.

My current understanding so far is this: The Jhana proper is vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ jhānaṃ
vivekaja - how it came about
pitisukha - its quality
vitakka vicara - factual aspect (sa-), but not a “quality”. Where piti sustains the second, I don’t think we can say that vitakka “sustains” the first in a similar way.

Does it make sense or do I misunderstand the text still?

It’s good to explore the Pali and see what’s possible. But please keep in mind that traditional interpretations are usually sound. It is all to easy to overestimate one’s abilities in challenging tradition. Nevertheless, you can learn a lot and have a bit of fun by exploring this sort of thing.

One has to be careful not to make too much out of these minor points, since there are a number of possible reasons for their existence. For instance, it could have to do with the flow of the spoken word. This passage is a very common pericope, and as such it should roll off the tongue in a natural fashion. But I think the most likely reason for the sa- prefix is to turn savitakka and savicāra into adjectives. So the sa- prefix actually makes it more likely that these words qualify paṭhama jhāna, as far as I can see.

I think the point here is that the feeling tone of the experience is what really matters to the meditator. The vitakka and vicāra may be present, and they are useful for descriptive purposes. But they are not what makes the first jhāna such a powerful experience. To me the point of this description is that you are fully blissed out, and there is no part of your experience which is not bliss.

In this case the “v” at the beginning would have to double: savvitakkaṃ savvicāraṃ > sabbitakkaṃ sabbicāraṃ. This is because the stem form of santa is sat, and the “t” is reflected and assimilated into the compounds.

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Dear Bhante Brahmali,

thanks so much for your answers! To me the word of the Buddha is essential, so to get it right as much as possible even in small details, and to see the legitimate degrees of freedom in understanding it, helps me a lot in my practice. Also seeing how abhidhammic concepts and other traditions have shifted the understanding for more than 1500 years in Theravada I think justifies a critical re-reading. Ven. Analayo’s and Ven. Sujato’s clarifications are great examples for that.

Thanks for clarifying how it can’t be santa-vitakkam etc. It didn’t make a good sense, but again, it’s good to know what doesn’t work - the dead ends in interpretation are equally important to me.

About the being blissed out etc: wouldn’t you say that what makes the jhana the powerful experience is what constitutes a jhana factor proper? I mean, later on the unification of the mind is also a strong experience, and later I guess the upekkha must be the same.
So to include vitakka-vicara in that list unnecessarily implies that they are of the same logical register - which they are not. It overemphasizes the similarity and underemphasizes the differences of vitakka-vicara and piti-sukha.

:smile: , I circle around the same point all the time: to bring vitakka-vicara to a proper place, which is for me as a tool for the seperation of the mind from unwholesome states to establish the first Jhana. And against a wide-spread understanding that with a little bit of peace of mind, and many thoughts “I probably had the first Jhana”.

Already a while ago I set out with the hypothesis that vitakka is a narrow concept, special for the meditation context and thus not a ‘normal’ thought. I can clearly say that this hypothesis is refuted. vitakka is a broad concept that is applied both to every day situations and the meditation process.
However I have not found a passage that said “And then I had the thought (vitakka) ‘Let me go to…’” So in my eyes we still can not be sure that vitakka means the explicit verbal monologue that is happening in our minds, it could still mean the one level higher on a conceptual level. It would then be closer to the Sanskrit tarka, that seems more to have the connotation of ‘logic, speculation, reasoning’ rather than a concrete word-thought.

Here are some interesting contexts:

SN 1.65 has an interesting pairing of vitakka vicāra
kiṃsu tassa vicāraṇaṃ? - vitakkassa vicāraṇaṃ
implying that the bondage of the world by delight (nandi) is brought about by the movement of thought. Note that we cannot translate “By which sustained application? By the applied-application’s sustained application.” vicāra clearly has here the original meaning of ‘movement’ or ‘continuous movement’. Why should it be different in other contexts with vitakka?

UD 6.7 mentions samādhi without vitakka - without mentioning vicāra at all, which I think is unique in the suttas. The sutta finishes remarkably with
Yassa vitakkā vidhūpitā,
Ajjhattaṃ suvikappitā asesā;
Taṃ saṅgamaticca arūpasaññī,
Catuyogātigato na jātu metī”ti

which is not literally translated on sutta central. please correct my attempt:
whose thoughts are smoked (scattered/destroyed?),
inwardly nicely done (trimmed) without remainder,
that is perceiving the formless without a going-together
Having overcome the four yokes— comes not to birth again. [as in suttacentral]

Dear Bhante

I was wondering if we can infer that the vitakka and vicāra if the First Jhana are actually some residual form of intention. My reasons are -

  1. MN 117’s definition of sammāsaṅkappa (Right Intention) does include vitakka and vacīsaṅkhāra, among other things.

  2. MN 78 suggests that kusalā saṅkappā (skillful intentions) cease without remainder in the Second Jhana, while unskillful ones cease without remainder in the First Jhana.

Taking these 2 together, it does sound that vitakka and vicāra in the First Jhana are vestiges of Right Intention. I would say vestigial, on account of DN 9’s non-allowance for thinking and intending in any of the Attainments.

Plus, AN 3.101 seems to suggest that Right Intention is practically on auto-pilot as one approaches the First Jhana, when it references a state that is na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata .

Am I too far off the mark?

Yes, all of these are quite closely related. I have wondered about the appropriate translation of saṅkappa, especially as the second factor of the noble eightfold path. The word intention looks to the future, which I think is appropriate for saṅkappa, related as it is to cetanā or volition, e.g. in SN12.38-12.40. However, the compound avyapāda-saṅkappa is often translated as “intention of non-ill-will”, which means the focus is no the motivation that drives the intention, not on its future direction. Do you follow me?

But that intention here should relate to motivation seems to go against the logic of the eightfold path. This logic is essentially that from right view you get right saṅkappa, and then you practice morality as a consequence. If sammāsaṅkappa refers to right motivation, however, it means that one has established mettā and renunciation before one undertakes virtue. In other words, the three factors that constitute virtue become pretty much redundant if sammāsaṅkappa refers to motivation.

I therefore think it might be better to use another translation for saṅkappa, at least in this context. The idea that it refers to the future is no doubt correct, and I would therefore suggest something like “right aim” or “right purpose”. The meaning of this is very close to “right intention”, but when you translate compounds such as avyapāda-saṅkappa the meaning is very different: “the aim of non-ill-will” or “the purpose of non-ill-will”. This seems to fit much better with how the eightfold path works. You have right view, and as a consequence you start aiming in the right direction. The first result of this aiming is moral behaviour (right speech, right action, and right livelihood), and a further consequence is the purification of the mind (right action and right mindfulness).

And I think this fits very well with what you are suggesting here. Right aim obviously includes thinking – vitakka and vacīsaṅkhāra – and it also fits as the last vestige of mental movement found in the first jhāna. Volition must be an important aspect in all these mental phenomena, because they all involve the movement of the mind (but they are also more than mere volition). They cannot exist without volition. I think this is probably why the Abhidhamma classifies so many of these terms under saṅkhāra, which in the suttas is synonymous with cetanā.

Yes, I like this phrase from AN3.101. The meaning is that the mind is no longer controlled by saṅkhāra (volition), but, as you say, on auto-pilot. Despite the residual movement of the mind, there is no sense of being in charge any more.

Sylvester off the mark? Come off it!


I find your discussion very interesting as lately resolve and intention have played a fundamental role in my meditation…

MN 117 so nicely connects sammādiṭṭhi, sammāvāyāmo, and sammāsati with sammāsaṅkappa. And indeed the list of takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā is revealing. But byappanā got me curious and when you look it up you can only find it in the abhidhamma, and also with the same list of takko vitakko…. And then looking at the nature of the sutta it really provides a abhidhamma style mātikā. So as sensible as it is, it looks very much like an abhidhammic collection.

The passage in MN 78 makes a lot of sense for the understanding of the second jhana. kusalā saṅkappā seems to be an original expression, neither appearing anywhere else in the canon, nor can I find a reference for the Sanskrit kuśala saṃkalpa. That’s peculiar, but why not, we’re left with the inner coherence of the sutta.

I’ve neglected saṅkappa as a path limb and I’m grateful you point at it. As for the translation of it I’m curious in which direction you’ll go, Bhante. In Sanskrit at least here are some aspects of saṃkalpa (not clear if any of it is old vedic):

  • a solemn vow or determination to perform any ritual observance, declaration of purpose
  • the Will personified
  • in the beginning of a compound often =“intentionally”,“purposely”,“on purpose”,“according to will”, etc (from the 4th Veda, thus probably not prior to the Buddha)
  • at the end of a compound: conception or idea or notion formed in the mind or heart, (especially) will, volition, desire, purpose, definite intention or determination or decision or wish for

Yes, Ven. Analayo has argued (here) that this is a proto-Abhidhamma sutta. It is quite clear to me that either this is true or the Abhidhamma has influenced this sutta at some stage during transmission.

Yes, one needs to be careful with the Sanskrit, because the sources are so varied in regard to their age. Whether any of the usages you are referring to here are relevant for translating the Pali really depends on the origin of the source text. Aside from that, it seems to me that the list you are presenting is quite supportive of translating saṅkappa as “purpose” or “aim”. For now I am using “aim” in my translations.

Hi Bhante!

While I generally find Ven Analayo’s analyses very sound, I am not too satisfied with how he has dealt with MN 117.

Firstly, he notes the divisions into wrong factor, mundane factor and supramundane factor. I would just point out that the text actually does not say “mundane” factor, but it merely predicates a factor as “sāsava puññabhāgiya upadhivepakka” (with effluents, partaking of merit, resulting in acquisitions). How he adduces the “mundane” is by contrast to the presence of lokuttara in the factors that are ariya anāsava lokuttara maggaṅga (noble, without effluents, lokuttara, a path factor).

But, does lokuttara in the suttas necessarily mean supramundane in the Abhidhammic sense? In the 2 occurrences I could locate in the AN (2.47 and 5.79), lokuttara could be easily read as “world-transcending”. In MN 48 and MN 122, lokuttara likewise carries the sense of “world transcending”. Ditto for SN 20.7.

This bifurcation of factors into sāsava and anāsava is quite a typical feature of the suttas. Although it does not explicitly use the sāsava and anāsava distinction, AN 4.123 makes the same point by contrasting 2 types of jhana-attainers. Ditto for AN 4.125.

I think MN 117 is probably a plain vanilla sutta about the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the ending of kamma per AN 4.235. There’s something quite unusual about that sutta. It posits 4 possibilities, the first 3 dealing with volition which a person generates (abhisaṅkharoti ). However, in the 4th option dealing with kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, that passage does not contain the abhisaṅkharoti verb.

To my simple mind, MN 117 does not look in the least bit Abhidhammic, once we get past reading its lokuttara as “supramundane”.


Don’t get me wrong, I like the sutta, and the content doesn’t feel ‘too abdhidhammic’. My reasoning is purely textual: looking at byappanā (but probably some other words as well), it is nowhere else to be found in the canon. On the other hand the exact same passage as in MN117 (takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā…) appears 7x in the Abhidhamma (3x in different chapters of the Vibhanga, and 4x in the same chapter 2.1 in the Dhammasangani).
It can mean two things

  • The editors of the sutta pitaka were not impressed by this original passage and didn’t put it anywhere else. But the abhidhamma editors were impressed by it and put it in two different books
  • Or it’s not an original sutta passage, was conceived in the commentarial abhidhamma and then inserted into a original matika-style sutta, or even created a whole sutta out of commentary material.

I tend to the second option, at least re. the passage in question. Some more analysis is needed to see if the whole sutta follows a similar pattern…


Oh, I’m glad I don’t have to do the work:

I don’t agree with some of the bold conclusions of the anonymous author, but s/he did the comparative research, showing that the sutta has many more passages that resemble abhidhamma and are not found in the first 4 nikayas…

Dear Bhante,
I looked at samkalpa again, and it actually appears once in the Rgveda:
10.164.05c jāgratsvapnaḥ saṃkalpaḥ pāpo yaṃ dviṣmas taṃ sa ṛchatu yo no dveṣṭi tam ṛchatu

Griffith, 1896 translates: We have prevailed this day and won: we are made free from sin and guilt.
Jamison/Bereton, 2014 translate: The waking dream, the evil intent—let it land on him whom we hate, let it land on him who hates us.

In the Chandogya Upanishad it appears about 40 times in about 5 different passages.
For example in 7.4.1: saṃkalpo vāva manaso bhúyānyadā.
Radhakrishnan translates: Will, assuredly, is greater than mind…

Personally I don’t think that the Chandogya predates the Buddha, but it’s not far away for sure.
I guess more examples in the upanishads could be found.

Hi again Bhante.

Having considered this further, I think you are right, given how its verb saṅkappeti is used to denote one being resolved on/aiming at a particular outcome. This is especially so when you get this odd construct saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti (aims at an aim) which occur not only in MN 78 but also in AN 4.35.

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Hi @Gabriel

The Chinese parallel to MN 78 does have the phrase, although it probably suffered a dreadful typesetting error, when the editor got “resolve” mixed up with “mindfulness”. Quite understandable, given that both Chinese characters have the ideogram “heart” at the bottom of the character.

Hi again

I would looking around for the possibility that the Indic kuśala saṃkalpa might have survived in one of the other Agama sutras. It pops up as 善志 in T17, one of the Chinese parallels to DN 13. It is found in the section describing the friend who is a mentor (與本業之友/ atthakkhāyī ).

The Pali version does not have a set of verse dedicated to each of the 4 friends, the verse appearing only at the end of the section on the 4 friends. T17, however, has verses dedicated to each of the 4 friends, and it is in the verse for the mentor that we find kusala saṅkappa.

It would be nice if texts were not dismissed as “counterfeits.” These collections developed for quite some time, and some additions, changes, and innovations were bound to happen. It is probably better to think in terms of “early” and “late.”

Eh, I don’t like the tone of the article either, but I appreciate that the author took time to trace the different parts of the sutta back to other references in the tipitaka…

The author of the article, sekha (as he is known on DW), is quite a nice chap and open to discussions. When that article was discussed on DW, it appears that he was in the grip of the enthusiasm that typically possesses writers who’ve discovered something quite ground-breaking. My grouse is not with him, but more with Ven Analayo in his article The Mahācattārīsaka-sutta in the Light of its Parallels (

There he helpfully noted 2 Chinese sutras from the SA (ie 785 and 789) which also employ the lokuttara scheme. Unlike MN 117 which does not use the term lokiya, both of the Chinese texts do (世) in contrast to lokuttara (出世).

I do not know what possessed him to think that lokuttara in sutras must carry the Abhidharmic sense of “supramundane”. Taking the pericope from SA 785, it says -

聖、出世間,無漏、不取,正盡苦,轉向苦邊, 轉向苦邊
noble, supramundane, without influxes, without grasping, that rightly
eradicates dukkha and turns towards the transcendence of dukkha. (per Ven Analayo)

Now, I don’t know what the Indic actually looks like, so I can’t do an analysis to see if the waxing syllables principle was at play here. But, if one puts aside the assumption that lokuttara in a sutra must must mean supramundane, then to my simple mind, the entire set is nothing more than a bundle of synonyms all pointing to something that ends suffering. Lokuttara here would simply mean “world-transcending”, the “world” being of course nothing more than the 5 Aggregates.

I would have thought that the section in SA 785 on Right Concentration that is “worldly” and “world-transcending” fits neatly into the examplars in AN 3.116, 4.123, 4.125. None of these texts call for the need for a “supramundane” concentration to escape the bondage of suffering. It’s just the plain old “noble” path which is “world-transcending”.

There is another set of pericope in SA 785 -

a noble disciple gives attention to dukkha as dukkha, gives attention to
its arising … to its cessation … and to the path as path (per Ven Analayo)

I suspect that the Chinese translator was working with a satipaṭṭhāna pericope and did not render the locative of reference what would have attached to each of the 4 fields of contemplation. I did manage to locate 2 of the 4 contemplations in the Pali, ie dukkhānupassī (a contemplator of suffering), and nirodhānupassī (a contemplator of cessation).

If the sense being carried by the lokuttara sections is that each of the path factors are always framed in the context of “with reference to ABC Truth, dwell contemplating that Truth”, again this looks like a plain vanilla exhortation to consider wisely so as to give rise to the Awakening Factors. It seems unnecessary to canvass the supramundane to read lokuttara.