Looking for Precision around the word "Discursive"

I’m often confused about the term “discursive” when discussing thought. I cannot recall people clearly defining it when they use it in a Dharma talk.

I wary of dwelling too much on the English word, but part of the issue is that it’s almost a contronym (a word with two opposite meanings). At least in American English: it can mean either moving from topic to topic without order (synonymous to rambling) OR proceeding coherently from topic to topic. Frustratingly, it can also simply mean of relating to discourse.
Dwelling briefly on the meaning of its roots, “dis-cursive” gives a sense of “not flowing” which seems most related to the first of three meanings mentioned above.

What word (or words) get translated into discursive? Do we have a more precise understanding of those words?


I feel a little sorry for you. :smile:

What you heard was probably “discursive thought”, which is what some people translate from vicāra. And others use it differently. I fully agree that it’s highly unhelpful to use a contronym.

Update: For discursive thinking as in “moving from topic to topic without order”, that’s closer to papañca.

Yes, as said above, the Pali word is vicāra, but I believe only Horner translates this as “discursive thought”. It is used in conjunction with vitakka as it seems to suggest freedom to wander amidst thinking of a particular quality. In the first jhana, for instance, there is a purity as a result of seclusion, which is sufficiently established, so there is no immediate danger of unwholesome qualities.

Visuddhimagga, IV 88:

" Herein, applied thinking (vitakkana) is applied
thought (vitakka); hitting upon, is what is meant.25 It has the characteristic of
directing the mind on to an object (mounting the mind on its object). Its function
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. It is manifested
as the leading of the mind onto an object. Sustained thinking (vicaraóa) is sustained
thought (vicára); continued sustainment (anusañcaraóa), is what is meant. It has
the characteristic of continued pressure on (occupation with) the object. Its
function is to keep conascent [mental] states [occupied] with that. It is manifested
as keeping consciousness anchored [on that object]."

This is appropriate to the first stage of concentration. Applied and sustained thought are naturally abandoned after the initial stage, but there is an element of continued objective assessment at all levels:

" "And furthermore, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-considered, well-tuned[1] by means of discernment.

“Just as if one person were to reflect on another, or a standing person were to reflect on a sitting person, or a sitting person were to reflect on a person lying down; even so, monks, the monk has his theme of reflection well in hand, well attended to, well-pondered, well-tuned by means of discernment. This is the fifth development of the five-factored noble right concentration.”

—Anguttara Nikaya 5.28

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Thanks for everyone’s input.

Trying to answer my own question as best I can, the English-Pali Dictionary I have translates discursive into: athira; anavaṭṭhita; anumānita; takkita. Throwing them back into another Pali-English Dictionary, I am getting …

  • athira: Which seems to be the ablative of Theta? Theta meaning, “firm, reliable, trustworthy, true.” So is that to mean “far from trustworthy”? Or “from [something] trustworthy?”
  • anavaṭṭhita: (adj.) unsettled; unsteady
  • anumānita: I’m not finding any exact Pali definition. It seems both Pakrit and Veddic languages have it mean both derived from reason/concluded from evidence OR guessed/speculated
  • takkita: which seems to share roots with vitakka, as in “thought, or reasoned”

That seems to provided us with much the same wide range of meanings, from something like unreliable to reasoned. However, this fortunately also resolves the question in the sense that it seems that the clear next step, at least when reading Suttas, is to see which Pali word is being translated into discursive (as well as using context of course). The four words are sufficiently different.

@livewire516 In what suttas are you seeing “discursive”? Like I said, Horner seems to be the only one using it, though I may be wrong.

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You’re quite right, discursive really only seems to be used in Horner’s translation.

My confusion starts, and ends, with English-language publications and talks related to Buddhism. The use in the suttas seems clear enough.

Thanks for your input

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