Is vitakka really just synonymous with sanna?

Is vitakka really just synonymous with sanna? Initial thought as perception culminating in recognition and naming does seem to fit the bill. See the quote below. It is a necessary prerequisite for thought even nonverbal thought if it ends with recognition rather than naming. I am wondering if it is a throwback to a time before standardization of terminology.

If not, how does it differ?

From the Online Pali English Dictionary

No, it’s not synonymous with sanna/samjna. Vitakka is usually described as the initial consciousness of something in the context of meditation. It could be a concrete meditation object or it could be some mental event like a thought or a memory, etc. So, it’s rather difficult to translate with a single word. It’s too broad in scope for English. An example of a traditional explanation is that vitakka is like hearing a bell when its first struck, which is a loud and crude experience. Then as the sound dies down and becomes subtle is like vicara. Vicara follows vitakka and becomes fine and subtle. Both are part of the conscious mind. Samjna is often considered a pre-conscious step in the sensory process in Buddhist philosophy, at least in the Sarvastivada/Yogacara tradition.


How much of your exegesis here is based on commentary and Abhidharma?

Given your understanding of the terms, does the cessation of vitakka and vicara result in the cessation of all sensory inputs?

Added later:Or does it result in simply awareness of raw sensory inputs or something else entirely?

Consider the expression ‘taking thought’, as in ‘he took thought of this matter’ etc. At least with this expression I get the sense that this has something to do with mind. And has a more general scope. And you also get a sense of ‘degree’. As in ’ I urge you to take thought of this matter, it’s important’.

Can it be said for example, instead of saying focus on the breath or concentrate on the breath, ’ take thought of the breath’ . I would, but I am not a native English speaker.

That, plus the connotation of the Chinese translations. Sutras don’t discuss these terms in this specific context, so we’re left with later sources of commentary, which agree that they don’t mean their usual meanings. There’s also the issue of how to fit the cessation of vitakka and vicara into the series of eight or nine attainments. Sanna continues until the end of it, so it must have been considered a more basic mental function that vitakka or vicara.

The thing I’ve not been able to resolve for myself is whether vitakka is intentional or if it means any automatic noticing of things. It makes quite a difference. If it’s intentional, then vitakka-vicara could refer to a meditation subject or a visual object. If it’s taking notice of anything in the mind, then it could refer to distractions before samadhi is stabilized fully.

I’m not sure that the inputs cease, but a person stops paying them any attention. There are many sutras that depict someone in dhyana being unaware of what’s happening around them, so it makes sense that they are not paying any attention to the senses. I just released one from the Ekottarika Agama last month in which Pancasikha sings on ode to Subhuti while he was meditating, wishing he would wake up soon because Sakra was waiting to visit him. So, it was a common Buddhist position that deep dhyana is like being asleep. In fact, the expression “rousing from samadhi” in Chinese translations often uses a term for waking up.


@cdpatton ,

By not paying attention, are you saying that

  1. Raw inputs are not processed by sanna whether or not aware of raw inputs
  2. Raw inputs are processed by sanna and so objects are recognized, but nothing further happens?

At what level is stimulus ignored?

In Mil 8 (

‘What is the distinguishing characteristic, Nāgasena, of reflection (Vitakka).
‘The effecting of an aim.’
‘Give me an illustration.’
‘It is like the case of a carpenter, great king, who fixes in a joint a well-fashioned piece of wood. Thus is it that the effecting of an aim is the mark of reflection.’
‘Very good, Nāgasena!’

‘What is the distinguishing characteristic, Nāgasena, of investigation (Vicāra)?’
‘Threshing out again and again.’
‘Give me an illustration.’
‘It is like the case of the copper vessel, which, when it is being beaten into shape , makes a sound again and again as it gradually gathers shape. The beating into shape is to be regarded as reflection, and the sounding again and again as investigation. Thus is it, great king, that threshing out again and again is the mark of investigation.’
‘Very good, Nāgasena!’

Let’s apply these definitions.

I propose that

  1. (The setting of the goal)/vitakka of identification of objects in the environment ceasing implies the cessation of sanna
  2. the cessation of sanna is the cessation of kind of vicara, that is sanna.
  3. Cessation of all vitakka implies the cessation of all vicara including the vicara of sanna.
  4. Vitakka is the prerequisite for sanna and sanna is a kind of vicara
  5. Sanna ceases in the second jhana

I do not know much about Pali, so I understand these terms from their context. To my understanding, vitakka-vicara means the five senses bases (with their consciousness.) Words when they come together may have different meanings than each of its words. For each word, as its simplest meaning, vitakka could mean “knowing”, and vicara means “investigation”. However, when they come together, they imply the one that is used to “investigate and know” that is the five senses which are for us to experience the world. We experience the external world through our five senses, we explore, investigate, and then we can know, feel the external world. That is the function of the five senses.

Cessation of vitakka-vicara is the cessation of the five senses. However, the mind-base is still there just that we no longer receive any input from the external world through the five senses. Since the mind-base is still there, we still can think, perceive, feel. Moreover, the mind-base can also function as the five senses, so it can also see, hear, smell… the inner world. Just like when we are in a dream mode, we no longer see the external world, but we start seeing the inner world. In this world, we see monsters, we hear voices…However, they are not from the external world.

Jhana is the practice to explore the inner world for direct knowledge. To do this, we must end the external one by shutting down the five senses. The five senses no longer function in the second jhana. However, they are still active in the first jhana since ending the five hindrances does not mean ending the five senses.

Of course, this is my own and unique way of understanding, and I have not seen anyone understanding this way, so you are free to ignore it.

The impression I get from the suttas/sutras is that they mean wholesome intentions such as renunciation, loving-kindness and compassion and so are part of what helps to dispel the hindrances, thus facilitating entry into the 1st Jhana.

Which sutras are those? In the one you just referenced it’s talking about the emptiness samadhi rather than Jhana, no?

Well, I would say that jhana results in samadhi. There are other examples in the sutras. One that I recall well is the exchange in the Parinirvana Sutra with Pukkusa when the Buddha relates a time when he sat through a lightning storm and didn’t hear or see any of it because he was in meditation. When he’s asked if he was conscious (saññī) at the time, he replied that he was. He told that story after Pukkusa tells the story of Alara Kalama sitting through a five hundred cart convoy rumbling by next to him without noticing it.

At the conscious level of vijnana. There is no conscious awareness of something if vijnana isn’t giving it attention. Sanna is not this function of awareness; it’s a tool that vijnana uses to recognize things. It processes raw input from the senses into concepts and imagery. The word is often used for those concepts and images, not just the function of mind that creates them.

But conscious awareness is vijnana, and it’s attention directed at a small portion of the sensory field at any given moment. We become aware of where we direct our attention, but it floats around freely from one sense to another when we aren’t focused on something, which gives the impression of being aware of everything at once. When attention first lands on something, the initial experience is vitakka. If it stays there and examines it, that’s vicara. Most exegesis characterize vitakka as initial and crude, and vicara as subsequent and increasingly refined, like the sound of a bell.

The concrete example of this I like to use is seeing an animal run across a footpath. In the initial moment of recognizing it, it’s mostly a blur. It has a vague size and color, maybe we notice that it’s furry or scaly. But it takes a moment or two of attention to recognize that it’s a squirrel or a lizard. Longer than that to recognize what particular species of squirrel or lizard that it is (which also requires knowing how to identify the species). The animal will need to stop in front of us long enough to do that. But it’s quite possible to not even notice the animal at all. We have to actually give it that initial attention or recognition to be aware of it.

I’ll give another example that’s clearer: Sometimes while I’m concentrating on translating Chinese, my wife appears in my doorway and starts talking to me. Now, I do notice that she’s standing there and talking, but if I don’t stop working and give her my full attention, I won’t “hear” anything that she’s saying to me. Which, embarrassingly, happens sometimes. When I realize, “Oh, I didn’t hear any of that,” I stop and ask her to repeat herself. She’s standing two feet away from me, and I have excellent hearing. But I’m stuck in visual and mental vijnana in front of a computer and not paying much attention to what I’m hearing. I.e., I’m not aware of the actual words being said. There’s only a vague awareness of someone talking. The Buddhist way of thinking about it is that my attention doesn’t stay on what I’m hearing long enough to recognize words. It’s skipping back and forth, staying mostly on what I was doing before she arrived, so there is only a vague awareness of the situation.

In these examples, sanna is not the awareness of something, but the image that’s formed immediately upon sensing it. That image is matched to what we already have experienced or learned. Recognition takes place when the closest match is made, and the concept that it matches usually has a verbal name. In the footpath example, it might be “red squirrel,” though maybe at first it’s just “animal.” There would probably be multiple matches happening in quick succession: It’s an “animal,” then a “mammal,” then a “squirrel,” then a “red squirrel,” maybe it even reaches the level of “an adult female red squirrel that’s well-fed and healthy-looking.” It takes time for that to process of refined recognition to happen. This is what vicara describes. Like the sound of the bell, it becomes more and more fine.

An easier way to notice the unconscious sanna process is when it goes wrong. Sometimes, the sensory image is matched to the wrong concept in our memory, and it’s confused for something else. The wrong thing replaces it in our experience, becoming like an hallucination. I remember a time when I was driving at night and saw a piece of farm equipment in front of me, lit up with a bunch of lights. It was too dark to see it’s shape. For a few seconds, what I “saw” was a UFO hovering over the road. There’s also the traditional example in ancient texts about mistaking a rope for a snake. Usually, those hallucinations don’t last very long, but they happen. It indicates that there’s an unconscious process of sanna-making, but we’re only aware of it’s end result. Vijnana isn’t directly aware of raw sensory data; it works with the sanna that’s formed from it.

This is how I understand the use of these words, at least. It’s largely a generalization of how they were used by various Buddhist traditions, so it’s likely to not entirely agree with any one in particular.


Agreed. I expressed myself poorly. I meant to ask the question where does the processing of input stop.

Clearly, there is a connection between vitakka and vicara and perception/sanna. Sanna appears to be a portion of the vitakka-vicara process.

If vitakka-vicara cease, sanna surely ceases. I would also venture to say that if sanna ceases, vitakka-vicara ceases given the sanna appears to be the beginning of the process that is required for the rest.

In other words, the two are logically equivalent more or less. Therefore, the second jhana appears to be where sanna ceases.

On saññā & vitakka: EBT reference MN 18 Madhupiṇḍika Sutta

Mind consciousness arises dependent on the mind and thoughts. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. What you feel, you perceive. What you perceive, you think about. What you think about, you proliferate. What you proliferate about is the source from which a person is beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions. This occurs with respect to thoughts known by the mind in the past, future, and present.

manañcāvuso, paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti tatonidānaṃ purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppannesu manoviññeyyesu dhammesu.

B. SUJATO NOTE at SuttaCentral: In this passage, Mahākaccāna deftly unfolds the meaning inside the syntax. For consciousness, contact, and feeling, he repeats the standard analysis of sense experience linked to dependent origination (SN 12.43), where each item, expressed as a noun, leads to the next like falling dominoes. Pivoting on feeling (cp. SN 12.43:4.5, DN 15:18.6), he switches to verbs; feeling exerts a force that motivates desire, even though desire itself is left unstated here. In the Pali, the subject of the verbs is implicit, assuming an agent who is feeling, perceiving, thinking, and proliferating. But with proliferating, the syntax changes again. The agent is fully manifest as the “person” who, tragically, is no longer the subject in control of the process, but the hapless object of the swarm of judgments that beset them.

When there is no mind, no thoughts, and no mind consciousness, it’s not possible to point out what’s known as ‘contact’.
When there isn’t what’s known as contact, it’s not possible to point out what’s known as ‘feeling’.
When there isn’t what’s known as feeling, it’s not possible to point out what’s known as ‘perception’.
When there isn’t what’s known as perception, it’s not possible to point out what’s known as ‘thought’. Saññāpaññattiyā asati vitakkapaññattiṃ paññāpessatīti—netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.
When there isn’t what’s known as thought, it’s not possible to point out what’s known as ‘being beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions’. Vitakkapaññattiyā asati papañcasaññāsaṅkhāsamudācaraṇapaññattiṃ paññāpessatīti—netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.

On gradual cessation of perception attained with awareness: EBT reference DN 9 Poṭṭhapāda Sutta

At that time they have a subtle and true perception of the dimension of nothingness.
That’s how, with training, certain perceptions arise and certain perceptions cease.
And this is that training,” said the Buddha.
“Poṭṭhapāda, from the time a mendicant here takes responsibility for their own perception, they proceed from one stage to the next, gradually reaching the peak of perception.
Standing on the peak of perception they think:
‘Intentionality is bad for me, it’s better to be free of it.
For if I were to intend and choose, these perceptions would cease in me, and other coarser perceptions would arise.
Why don’t I neither make a choice nor form an intention?
They neither make a choice nor form an intention.
Those perceptions cease in them, and other coarser perceptions don’t arise.
They touch cessation.
And that, Poṭṭhapāda, is how the gradual cessation of perception is attained with awareness.
Evaṃ kho, poṭṭhapāda, anupubbābhisaññā nirodha sampajāna samāpatti hoti.


I think most of us are concerned with vitakka and vicara in the context of jhana. @sujato uses thinking for vitakka in your quotes, but in his article “why vitakka doesn’t mean thinking in jhana” he obviously says it is not thinking. I am trying to determine if sanna is a better way to think of it.

Vitakka and vicara cease, but samadhi remains, so vijnana is still actively engaged with an object of some sort. This is why I lean towards interpreting vitakka and vicara are describing the ordinary distraction process of the mind moving from one thing to the next. When vijnana stops moving between things and stays in one place when samadhi is stabilizing, then there’s naturally no more vitakka or the vicara that follows it.

There is also the problem of the next four samadhi attainments after the fourth dhyana, which were considered to consist of increasingly fine sannas until it’s impossible to tell if there is a sanna or not anymore (the samadhi of “neither with or without sanna”). This wouldn’t be possible if sanna ended in the second jhana.

This conversation reminded me of a set of meditation manuals that were written by monks for their Chinese students. Kumarajiva composed one such text called Understanding the Essentials of the Way of Dhyāna ( T616, 禪法要解經). It was translated as part of a Master’s Thesis by Thich Hang Dat, which is available as a pdf here (at this website, if the link doesn’t work). It’s a very rough translation, but the gist comes through.

(Edit: A couple other of these Chinese meditation manuals was translated by Eric Greene in The Secrets of Buddhist Meditation too!)

Now, Kumarajiva was a Sarvastivada monk who had converted to Mahayana Buddhism. Despite this, he presents Sarvastivada teachings when discussing subjects like meditation.

In general, he considered the fourth dhyana to be the point at which stable samadhi is achieved. The first threes dhyanas are steps toward reaching that point, each one being disrupted by a distraction. In the first dhyana, vitakka and vicara are the problem.

He doesn’t go into any detailed definitions of vitakka and vicara in the text, but he does say that they are detrimental to samadhi, which is why they must cease to move to the second dhyana. Vitakka and vicara have both good and bad subjects in the first dhyana, the good ones being the most difficult to abandon. It sounds like what he’s talking about is the problem of continual distractions. He says that in the first dhyana, they cause confusion and thought isn’t pure. He likens it to wind blowing on a burning lamp. The lamp doesn’t go out, but the flame gutters and doesn’t shine as bright as it would without the wind.

The situation is similar in the second and third dhyanas, but the distractions now are the shock of ecstatic joy and attachment to the sublime happiness that follows it.

Once the fourth dhyana is achieved, all other attainments become easy to reach, whether it’s the formless attainments, the supernormal powers, or the brahmaviharas.

He says some other interesting things:

  • There are four vijnanas in the first dhyana, which mirrors the Brahma world. The two that are missing are taste and smell. This is a position found in Sarvastivada Abhidharma. There is only mental vijnana from the second dhyana forward. So, he considered sensory awareness is cease at that point, but in the first dhyana there is still vision, hearing, and physical touch awareness.
  • Vijnana is the master of all internal dharmas. All the other mental functions are subordinate to it, so whenever we talk about vijnana, we are necessarily talking about the other aggregates.
  • In the desire realm, form is dominant. In the form realm, feeling is dominant. In the abode of limitless space and consciousness, vijnana is dominant. In the realm of nothingness, sanna is dominant. In the realm of neither conception nor no conception , volition is dominant.
  • All four mental aggregates continue to exist all the way up to the abode of neither conception nor no conception, but they are so subtle that dull-witted people don’t recognize them. As a result, some mistake the highest of the formless realms to be nirvana, but the sharp-witted realize the aggregates are still present.

Just as you mention different levels of distraction, there are different levels of sanna. We see that clearly laid out in Snp 4.11. I have modified this to what I think it should be.

The first line is tells us what is sanna in the relevant sense, normal perception and wrong sanna. The second line tells us what is non-perception.

That said, I believe that the fourth jhana is meant to describe the cessation of vinanna from Snp 5.2. It is important to note that neither the Atthakavagga nor the Parayanavagga mention the aggregates or the four jhanas. I believe that they were concepts that developed later when the four nikayas were being written. One cannot speak of the cessation of perception and feelings until one has knowledge of the aggregates. I suspect that fourth jhana was another way to describe that cessation of vinanna prior to the aggregates. After the aggregates, the fourth jhana was described as the cessation of perception and feelings. Future Buddhists were confused and tried to harmonize. That is how we get the eight jhanas.

With regard to the use of sanna in Snp 4.2 and Snp 5.2, I suspect they both meant consciousness just as samjna and vijnana could both mean consciousness, the former being consciousness with subject-object dualism and the latter without. Snp 4.2 appears to be more interested in the cessation of suffering and Snp 5.2 appears to be more interested in disproving the concept of Atman wrong.

To help make sense of my proposed timeline I list it here

  1. Snp 4.2-4.5
  2. Snp 4.1, 4.6-4.10
  3. Snp 5.2 and the rest excluding the 5.1 and the last sutta.
  4. Snp 4.11 was written as a rebuttal to Snp 5. Note that Snp 5 advocates non-perception in Snp 5.2 and Snp 5.7.

For what it’s worth, that appears to explain the data best to me anyway.