Losing the direction re vitakka/vitarka

(there’s a pun in there somewhere)

Frank quotes crizna’s citation of a passage in the Sphuṭārthā Abhidharmakośavyākhyā that offers the following –

From that, the assertion is made :

I will assume that nobody here doubts the problem that polysemy poses for Pali philology, and that meaning is furnished by context. If that is in doubt, we can examine polysemy in the amazing range of meanings furnished by the word saññā.

What exactly do the texts actually say about vitakka?

There’s no doubting that in the texts, vitakka spans quite a range of phenomena, eg –

Dhammic thoughts such as –

Vitakkentā ca kho tumhe, bhikkhave, ‘idaṃ dukkhan’ti vitakkeyyātha
SN 56.7

Ruminative thoughts or perhaps self-reflection –

Pavivekārāmo, bhikkhave, tathāgato pavivekarato. Tamenaṃ, bhikkhave, tathāgataṃpavivekārāmaṃ pavivekarataṃ eseva vitakko bahulaṃ samudācarati: ‘yaṃ akusalaṃ taṃpahīnan’ti.
Iti 38

Other than these types of mental activity, what else do vitakka and its verb vitakketi connote? If one searches for both words on SC, one will get many hits explicitly identifying vitakka with 6 very specific kinds of vitakka, ie the unwholesome vitakkas of kāmavitakka, vyāpādavitakka and vihiṃsāvitakka versus their wholesome counterparts nekkhammavitakka, avyāpādavitakka and avihiṃsāvitakka.

Someone working with the SC Pali look-up and the cursor will simply get eg “thought concerned with pleasures of the senses; a lustful thought (see kāma )” for kāmavitakka. What exactly is the “thought” here? And this is where these dictionaries occasionally fail us. “Thought” is so vague as to border on the meaningless in this case.

One way to clarify the meaning of these types of vitakka is to look at what the context could have intended. One can find this in the several mentions of vitakka being predicated as akusala (unwholesome). A lengthier predication occurs with pāpakā akusalā vitakkā (evil and unwholesome vitakkas). The Chinese parallels have this as 惡不善覺(eg SA 235). It should not surprise anyone that the sense carried almost exclusively by pāpaka and akusala is that of bad kamma. And what is kamma if not intention : AN 6.63?

I’m fortified in my identification of vitakka with intention, by how the term is synonymous with saṅkappa.

We have the term vitakkapathe (pathways of vitakka) in AN 4.35. This pathway allows one to have complete mastery over one’s vitakka and one’s saṅkappa -

So yaṃ vitakkaṃ ākaṅkhati vitakketuṃ taṃ vitakkaṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakkaṃ nākaṅkhativitakketuṃ na taṃ vitakkaṃ vitakketi. yaṃ saṅkappaṃ ākaṅkhati saṅkappetuṃ taṃ saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti, yaṃ saṅkappaṃnākaṅkhati saṅkappetuṃ na taṃ saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti. Iti cetovasippatto hoti vitakkapathe.

It’s a very regular feature in Pali that texts duplicate passages using synonyms.

The term is expanded as vitakkapariyāyapathesu in MN 20 (courses and pathways of vitakka) in the context of the 5 masteries over pāpakā akusalā vitakkā, leading ultimately to samādhi.

Another device used to insure the texts against loss is to populate a sentence with synonyms, eg –

Paṇītaṃ, kaccāna, dhātuṃ paṭicca uppajjati paṇītā saññā, paṇītā diṭṭhi, paṇīto vitakko, paṇītācetanā, paṇītā patthanā, paṇīto paṇidhi , paṇīto puggalo, paṇītā vācā
A superior element gives rise to superior perceptions, superior views, superior thoughts, superior intentions, superior aims, superior wishes , a superior person, and superior speech.
SN 14.13

Across the textual traditions, we see a very liberal and free equivalence of vitakka and saṅkappa eg –

惡不善覺 : SA 235

= pāpakā akusalā dhammāsarasaṅkappā : SN 35.151

覺 being the SA’s term for vitarka.

pāpake akusale vitakke vitakketi,seyyathidaṃ kāmavitakkaṃ, byāpādavitakkaṃ, vihiṃsāvitakkaṃ.: SN 9.11

= 起不正思惟: SA 1334

思 being the SA’s term for saṃkalpa.

A sutra that’s roughly equivalent to the MN 117 model even does us the favour of defining samma saṅkappa with the word vitakka -

何等為正有世、俗,有漏、有取,向於善趣?謂正志出要、無恚、不害,是名正志世、俗,有漏、有取,向於善 趣 : SA 785

Within the Pali tradition, MN 19 and MN 20 stand out in contextualizing vitakka as mental kamma. MN 20 especially proposes -

itipime vitakkā dukkhavipākā

which is very standard language for kamma and its results.

Yet, one could still argue and insist that vitakka in jhana must have a special meaning not associated with saṅkappa. MN 77 should lay to rest such scruples – akusalā saṅkappā cease without remainder in the 1st Jhana, while kusalā saṅkappā cease without remainder in the 2nd Jhana. And what ceases in the 2nd Jhana in the standard pericope but vitakkavicāra?

So, where does the pun in the title come in?

It seems that in the meditation context of vitakka, there is a very specific mental activity tucked away in SN 47.10 that has been completely forgotten by the exegetical text cited.

A meditator sitting down to the 4 establishments of mindfulness may suddenly be overwhelmed by hindrances. The suggested remedy –

Tenānanda, bhikkhunā kismiñcideva pasādanīye nimitte cittaṃ paṇidahitabbaṃ.
That bhikkhu should then direct his mind towards some inspiring sign

The verb in question is paṇidahati (directs), in the future passive participle paṇidahitabbaṃ. Let’s first get a non-meditation context for the operation of this verb and its non-finite forms.
In a tempora-spatial context, we have –

ekāyanenamaggena tameva aṅgārakāsuṃ paṇidhāya
came by a path going in one way only and directed to that same charcoal pit
MN 12

This absolutive of paṇidahati has a very clear sense of spatial direction.

The absolutive pops up again in Iti 70 under “micchā manaṃ paṇidhāya” (wrongly directed mind).

In the same context of kamma, directing the mind is mentioned in SN 1.75 under –

Vācaṃ manañca paṇidhāyasammā,
Kāyena pāpāni akubbamāno;
Having directed speech and mind rightly,
Doing no evil deeds with the body,


Yamariyagarahī nirayaṃ upeti,
Vācaṃ manañca paṇidhāya pāpakan”ti.
a slanderer of noble ones goes to hell
having aimed bad words and thoughts at them
SN 6.9

The absolutive also appears in a cosmological context –

aññataraṃ devanikāyaṃ paṇidhāya brahmacariyaṃ carati
he lives the holy life directed towards some heavenly company
AN 9.72

Another cosmological context with Mr Citta -

paṇidhehi, gahapati, anāgatamaddhānaṃ rājā assaṃ cakkavattī”ti.
Householder, make a wish to become a wheel-turning monarch in the future!
SN 41.10

The absolutive acquires fuller meaning when we see what it is contrasted against in this passage –

aññataraṃ devanikāyaṃ paṇidhāya brahmacariyaṃ carati: ‘imināhaṃ sīlena vā vatena vā tapenavā brahmacariyena vā devo vā bhavissāmi devaññataro vā’ti.
Yo so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu aññataraṃ devanikāyaṃ paṇidhāya brahmacariyaṃ carati: ‘imināhaṃsīlena vā vatena vā tapena vā brahmacariyena vā devo vā bhavissāmi devaññataro vā’ti, tassacittaṃ na namati ātappāya anuyogāya sātaccāya padhānāya.
AN 9.72

Directing the mind towards rebirth makes the mind unable to incline/bend (namati) towards striving etc. This suggests to me that both verbs are pulling against each other in opposite directions, thereby making them functionally equivalent, and depending on context, they can operate as synonyms.

An important point to note from MN 19 is how the mind “inclines” (namati) towards wholesomeness if the wholesome vitakkas are frequently “thought”. You can do a quick check on where namati pops up – do those contexts necessitate a conscious/deliberate intention to “incline” the mind one way or another? The texts describe the mind inclining, not a person inclining the mind.

The participle paṇihita (directed) also shows up in the context of kamma

Micchāpaṇihitaṃ kho, mahāli, cittaṃ hetu, micchāpaṇihitaṃ cittaṃ paccayo pāpassa kammassakiriyāya pāpassa kammassa pavattiyāti.
A wrongly directed mind is a cause and condition for the doing of bad kamma, for the occurrence of bad kamma.
AN 10.47

Coming back to paṇidahati, we see this in the context of future goals, eg MN 133 -

appaṭiladdhassa paṭilābhāya cittaṃ paṇidahati, cetaso paṇidhānapaccayātadabhinandati, tadabhinandanto anāgataṃ paṭikaṅkhati
Because the mind is set on obtaining what has not yet been obtained, one delights in that that and one hopes for the future.

The Chinese MA 165 has 願 = praṇidhi (Skt) = paṇidhi (Pali) = resolution.

I would mention here that Monier-Williams offers “directed towards, fixed upon (loc.) Hariv. Bhartṛ. BhP.” as one of the meanings of the participle praṇihita = paṇihita (Pali).

One could count cetopaṇidhi (eg AN 8.35) as belonging to the same functional characteristics of this “directing”. What functional characteristics can we see from the usage of paṇidahati in the arena of the mind? It has obviously acquired the “directional” aspect from the spatial context of MN 12, but more importantly, practically the majority, if not all, of its occurrences in the context of mind and rebirth is about the direction of kamma, good or bad.

Why have I spent so much time on the verb paṇidahati and its various forms? Because, understanding this flavor of paṇidahati enables us to understand the meditation instruction given in SN 47.10. To recap, when hindrances overwhelms someone developing satipaṭṭhāna, the Buddha recommends –

That bhikkhu should then direct (paṇidahati) his mind towards some inspiring sign.

The sutta itself does not explicitly how one directs the mind towards an inspiring nimitta. However, if you read a little further, the text describes what happens when –

yassa khvāhaṃ atthāya cittaṃ paṇidahiṃ, so me attho abhinipphanno
The purpose for the sake of which I directed my mind has been achieved

Notice how the sutta describes the ending of the directed meditation –

So paṭisaṃharati ceva na ca vitakketi na ca vicāreti.
‘Avitakkomhi avicāro, ajjhattaṃ satimā sukhamasmī’ti pajānāti.
So he withdraws the mind and does not vitakketi or vicāreti. He understands: ‘Without vitakka and vicāra, internally mindful, I am happy.’

The directed meditation ends with the ending of vitakka and vicāra. To me, this clearly points to vitakka-vicāra as being what directs the mind, given that the negation of vacīsaṅkhāra coincides with the ending of the directional meditation. The vacīsaṅkhāra is directing the mind, and what better way to describe it than initial and sustained application? (well, maybe not application per se, but something better aligned to “directing” such as steering and holding the course?)

Up to this point, I have not cited MN 117, but with the evidence laid out above, is it any surprise that MN 117 defines world-transcending Right Intention as –

takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro
thinking, thought, intention, mental absorption, mental fixity, directing of mind, verbal formation

So, we have a much later exegesis that describes vitakka-vicāra as “manojalpa” versus what the sutta itself describes these to be the dhamma(s) that enables one to direct the mind to an inspiring sign. The former is an insight reading, the latter is a samatha reading. How far apart can these 2 propositions be? How did the Northern tradition lose the direction re vitakka?

Take a look at SA 615 and try to look for the “directing” verb…


The above works well for me and resonates personally with Bhante Sujato’s shorter translation. I do not feel lost in direction.

(…slow drumroll somewhat later…)

And now I finally get the pun that one loses the directing in second jhana. :rofl:


Nice essay! [was in two minds about diving into a jhana thread at all, a horse that has been flogged to within an inch of its life around here].

Pretty nice argument for a tight association between vitakka and saṅkappā (not surprising, I guess, given right resolve/thought/intention comes just before right speech in the eight-fold path in a kind of sequential relationship, so makes a lot of sense to me).

The compound vitakka-vicārā does also seem basically synonymous with the speech formation vacīsaṅkhāra. So is saṅkappā, therefore, synonymous with vacīsaṅkhāra? I’m not so sure. There’s that extra vicārā bit in the compound after all. In MN44 in:

First you place the mind and keep it connected, then you break into speech. That’s why placing the mind and keeping it connected are verbal processes.
Pubbe kho, āvuso visākha, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṃ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro.

it almost sounds to me that vicārā (exploration) lies somewhere in the middle of the process of going from intention to actual speech in everyday life. There’s the initial intention/direction (borrowing your terms) of mind, then further vicārā (exploration), then in ordinary life, speech (one theory anyway).

Sure, your MN117 list points in that direction of saṅkappā and the speech formation being synonymous. However, I’d tend to view that as more indicating a lot of intersection of meaning between the words in that list (the same meaning as one of the words in the vitakka-vicārā compound). Also, isn’t that sutta one that has been posited as displaying some later Abhidhammic influences? So that argument probably needs further sutta corroboration to be stronger.

If @frankk or @crizna were still here, they’d probably directly argue against you. I’m playing devil’s advocate because my basic viewpoint so far is the jhana descriptions in the suttas are a bit of a verbal morass (kind of like quick sand), and the fact the Northern Schools take a different view is not because they are necessarily right or wrong, but because the words just aren’t clear in the first place.

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Hi! So as not to bog down this thread with another fulsome discussion of MN 117, could I trouble you to look at an earlier thread where arguments were canvassed against the suspicion of its Abhidhammic provenance -

and here -

Against the Abhidhamma usage of lokuttara to mean “supramundane”, in terms of its four-fold classification of types of consciousness/citta (ie the 3 bhavas and the supramundane), the MN 117 lokuttara schema does not have anything to do with cittas, but with path-factors. The Abhidhamma lokuttara schema, on the other hand, is an eight-fold articulation of the different types of citta that pertain to path (magga) and fruition (phala) of the levels of Stream-entry up to Arahantship. Clearly, in Abhidhamma, lokuttara needs to be understood as “supramundane” as it describes “states” of citta, but in MN 117 it is applied to undertakings of wisdom, virtue and concentration.

So, in the suttas we have this formulaic set of adjectives that describe the Dhamma -

gambhīrā gambhīratthā lokuttarā suññatapaṭisaṃyuttā
deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness

Cf another formula -

Ariyaṃ … lokuttaraṃ dhammaṃ
Noble transcendent teaching

Another occurence of lokuttara, in relation to the contemplations that lead to non-clinging in MN 122 -

ekantakusalā kusalāyātikā ariyā lokuttarā anavakkantā pāpimatā
entirely skillful, with skillful outcomes; they are noble, transcendent, and inaccessible to the Wicked One

Most tellingly, MN 48 contextualises what is lokuttara in its most literal sense, ie world-transcending. It begins by speaking of the view that is noble (ariya) and emancipating (niyyānika), leading one who practises it to the ending of suffering (dukkhakkhaya). Well, the one who practises realises 7 things that are predicated as ariya and lokuttara. And it is here that I suggest that lokuttara is nothing more than a synonym for niyyānika.

So, I think the qualms about the MN 117 schema ought to be laid aside, insofar as the qualms rest on the suspicion that it is affected by the Abhidhamma conception of lokuttara.

Let’s have a thought experiment. When was the last time you stubbed your toe and shouted? How long did you vicāreti before the shout left your lips? Were you conscious of your mind exploring the pain?

What I am suggesting is that if verbal kamma can proceed unconsciously under the influence of the the latent tendency to aversion (in the above hypothetical), can mental kamma not proceed unconsciously under the influence of the wholesome counterparts to the anusayas? Notice my citation of the suttas above that say that paṇidahati also works with the mind, besides speech.

I think this is where context must triumph dictionaries. There is no denying the utility of dictionaries in a spatial context, but in a mental context that borrows flavour from the spatial, how much of the speech formation is left (or even what it looks like) in the 1st Jhana, when even speech has ceased? : SN 36.15?


Thanks for the links. Yes, let’s not go down that rabbit hole! :slight_smile: Arguments about the Abhidhammic status of MN117 are a bit above my pay grade! Other people will have to make their own call on this.

But a more general point is that jhana interpretations do tend to be based on a handful of key suttas, e.g. insight in jhana interpretations based on MN111 (and there are arguments about the lateness or otherwise of that sutta). With very few data points the solidness of any conclusion is less certain. The earliness of MN117 is in general arguable it seems.

However, assuming for purposes of this post that your view on MN117’s pre-Abhidhammic status (particularly for the portions you are using) is correct, I’m still not so sure about the logic you are using.

MN117 runs through noble eight-fold path factors and divides them into three versions: the wrong version, the right version “accompanied by defilements” and the noble transcendent (lokuttarā) version.

I think you are using the following list to help equate saṅkappo and vacīsaṅkhāro.

And what is right thought that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path? It’s the thinking—the placing of the mind, thought, applying, application, implanting of the mind, verbal processes

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittassa anāsavacittassa ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro

That’s quite a strong equivalence. My view of the bodily, verbal and mental processes is that they are rather neutral faculties of being human; there are there irrespective of whether a person is a noble one.

Your logic equates vacīsaṅkhāro not just to ordinary right intention/thought: "Thoughts of renunciation, love, and kindness. ", which is no longer really neutral either, but to noble transcendent right resolve. That seems a rather strong equivalence?

Also presumably the sequential relationship between the path factors still holds for a noble one. Noble transcendent right thought leads onto noble transcendent right speech (and that is also defined in MN117). It still can lead to speech in noble ones. But surely it can’t be the case that vacīsaṅkhāro only exists for noble ones?

The description of ordinary right saṅkappo "Thoughts of renunciation, love, and kindness. " does actually gel well with what some interpretations understand as happening in first jhana. I think an equivalence between saṅkappo in a broader sense and vacīsaṅkhāro is more tenable.

I’m not sure a strict equivalence is implied by that MN117 list. Otherwise, we get to places that seem untenable to me.

Nice example, but it all hinges on what is meant by speech. It’s IMO not really clear from the sutta words. What happens if I stand with a heavy boot on the toe of someone in first jhana. Perhaps it means they can yelp but may then struggle to put things into words until they are fully out of first jhana? It’s unclear. Perhaps it’s a bit like automatic reflexive actions the body makes to certain stimuli (drawing back the hand from a burning sensation etc.). I’d be wary of drawing too many inferences from that about right action in general. Speech is a very human thing. Even animals have more limited communication systems. A cry of pain is very low level though (even primitive creatures are capable of this).

Perhaps “thoughts of renunciation, love, and kindness” (though non-verbal)?


I guess it’s not really encouraging that I haven’t found a single use of vitarka nor vicara in pre-Buddhist literature. It could well be that like other terms as jhana, sukkha and dukkha these don’t come from traditional vedic language.

They could stem either from eastern sramana vocabulary or their sanskritisation happened so late that the transmitters themselves were unaware of the proper vedic terms. I assume the first to be more probable. Anyhow, what it leaves us with is contextual work, which is not nothing, but not great either.



In case I was obscure, my reason for raising MN 117 was to link the paṇidahati = vacīsaṅkhāra in SN 47.10 to saṅkappa being directed, which seems to be the point about the Commentarial parsing of vitakka and vicāra, and suggested by parts of the MN 117 definition.

I share Bhante @Brahmali 's reading of saṅkappa as lying in the aim or purpose of intention, ie the direction.

How about something even subtler, ie the mind’s inclination (nati as per MN 19) towards the same? I’m mindful of DN 9’s description of not intending in the jhanas. Something as a residue of intending, leaving the mind on auto-pilot.


Have you tried the verbs?

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I didn’t go crazy with the search yet :slight_smile:
I searched vitark* and vicār*, so I guess it would get some of the verbs, maybe not all of them

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When we hear a loud noise in a quiet place, many of us startle and cringe or jump in everyday life.
When we hear a loud noise while meditating, most of us experience less of a startle and cringe or jump.

Is there vitakka/vicara/saṅkappa/saṅkhāra going on here given that identity view is clearly in play?
I.e., what is being attenuated in meditation?


I’m not entirely sure but, on DN9, are you basing the “residue of intending” V&V viewpoint on this particular passage?

“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.

Intention here seems to be a translation of cetayamāna, which also has associations with will/thought etc.

I suppose this would be consistent with the idea of V&V being saṅkappā given that the above passage doesn’t say when it is left behind (so maybe at the second jhana if it’s really V&V?), so the saṅkappā might still be relatively coarse and not that subtle in first jhana.

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Perhaps try vicara without the long a?

hmm, that’s a mixed bag. Zero in the early Upanisads and the Satapatha-Br. The Atharvaveda has at least vicarṣaṇa = very busy, even though I don’t know how close they are.

But the Rgveda has vicarati around five times, taken as vi-carati, translated as ‘pass by’ (RV 6.51.1), ‘wandering apart’ (RV 6.49.3), ‘passing’ (RV 8.55.4), ‘wandering’ (RV 9.68.4), ‘spread’ (RV 10.30.9), ‘wandering’ (RV 10.92.12, RV 10.140.2).

So it’s consistently interpreted with ‘vi-’ not as an intensifier but rather as an ‘away-from’. Go figure… can you apply it meaningfully to the EBT?


Just checked the later Dharmasutras. Even there we get almost zero hits. Only in the latest Vasista-Dharmasutra from around 50 BCE we have vicarati as ‘wander’, ‘roam’ in VaDS 1.13: “as far as the black antelope roams”. And in VaDS 10.16 “and never walking (=walking around, roaming) within sight of village animals”.

Zero for vitarka btw in all Dharmasutras.

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What’s your reasoning behind this search?

Probably to see if the specific terminology has substantial pre-Buddhistic, contemporaneous, or later attestation.

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Most people probably don’t have an issue with the terms. But for those who like to have more context it would be helpful if the contemporary literature (srauta sutras, early upanisads, …) used them in a somewhat natural text environment.

As I wrote above it could be special sramana vocabulary, or a wrong sanskritization. Both terms could be sramana ‘meditation slang’. I doubt that the Rgvedic vicarati is the same as the jhana-vicara. At least to help determine the meaning I would look outside the meditation suttas and see if the terms appear in other contexts - for example animals ‘roaming around’ or so. Has anyone done that kind of search?


Just did a quick search for vicāra, and it doesn’t seem to appear outside of the context of meditation or doctrine.

vicarati appears a few time as a verb and means ‘to go about’, ‘to wander’ as in the vedic texts.

So, if we neither have non-Buddhist help with the word, nor do we have diverse sutta conexts that would define it, then how do we know what it means - commentaries?


Out of curiosity, I had a quick look at psychological theories for speech production, i.e. what’s the chain of events that goes from intent all the way to spoken speech? After the initial intention, most seem to have three broad steps: conceptualization (pre-verbal production of the underlying content/meaning in accord with the initial intent), formulation (selecting words and constructing the appropriate syntax structure) and articulation (where the speech is physically expressed).

So what’s the cut off point in this chain from intent to spoken speech for V&V or the boundary for the speech formation? I think everyone agrees that spoken speech is not in there. That leaves three natural boundary lines, plus the fourth possibility of mostly ruling out intent (leaving just “a residue of intent” as is @Sylvester’s view I think). This does all seem to correspond to the various usual common interpretations on this point.

vacīsaṅkhāra = (“residue of intent”, i.e. intent lite :slight_smile: )
vacīsaṅkhāra = intent
vacīsaṅkhāra = intent + conceptualization
vacīsaṅkhāra = intent + conceptualization + formulation


Thanks so much for the effort!

I wonder if the “vi-” might be taken as an intensifier for carati, which is walking simpliciter, versus walking over longer periods and larger areas, ie wandering?