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MN 19 V&V vitakka&vicāra translation inconsistency (B. Sujato)


(above is a direct link to B. sujato’s MN 19. you should adjust settings to show both pali+english so you can see vitakka and vicara clearly)

This is probably the most detailed sutta in the sutta pitaka that describes how V&V decreases in frequency as one gets closer and then enters first jhāna.

It looks like except for the first jhana formula, where B. Sujato maintains consistency with how he translates V&V everywhere else as “placing the mind and keeping it connected”, all the other instances of V&V (vitakka & vicara) in MN 19 are translated as “thoughts and consideration”.

for example:

Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination. Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, bhikkhu bahulam-anu-vitakketi anu-vicāreti, tathā tathā nati hoti cetaso. 11.2If they often think about and consider thoughts of renunciation, they’ve given up sensual thought to cultivate the thought of renunciation. Their mind inclines to thoughts of renunciation. Nekkhamma-vitakkañce, bhikkhave, bhikkhu bahulam-anu-vitakketi anu-vicāreti, pahāsi kāma-vitakkaṃ, nekkhamma-vitakkaṃ bahulamakāsi, tassaṃ taṃ nekkhamma-vitakkāya cittaṃ namati.

Needless to say this translation inconsistency of V&V is very mysterious and jarring. This is the one sutta I’m aware of whose sole purpose is to explain what happens to V&V as it transitions from ordinary speech fabrications, the type of thoughts and considering one would think before they say it out loud in ordinary everyday activity, compared to the type of V&V that occurs in first jhana.

Surely if V&V were to change meaning, as Bhante Sujato asserts, this is the sutta where the Buddha should explain exactly why and how V&V changes.

If we follow the straightforward interpretation and translate consistently V&V in the entire sutta MN 19, as “thoughts and consideration”, including first jhana, then it makes perfect sense. It’s the frequency of thoughts that decrease, enough to allow an energetic shift in the body to consolidate, pacify, give rise to piti sukha, yet there still remains a low frequency of thoughts and consideration, so that one does not feel the exponentially stronger energetic piti sukha of second jhana devoid of V&V.

Ajahn Lee, Ajahn Chah (who is Ajahn Brahm’s teacher) follow the consistent straightforward interpretation of V&V = thoughts & consideration in first jhana, as a speech fabrication, as the 3 types of thoughts one thinks in right intention (sankappo). Even early Theravada and Abhidhamma follows this interpretation.

It’s only in Vism. VRJ (vism. redefinition of jhana), Ajahn Brahm, and Bhante Sujato that I’m aware of that interpret V&V in first jhana differently.

In this sutta MN 19, the inconsistency in translation of V&V is problematic. Imagine you’re listening to the Buddha giving the discourse in pali. As you listen, you’re going to interpret V&V the same way consistently throughout the whole discourse. If the meaning of V&V changed when it got to First jhana, the Buddha would have to explain it. Otherwise, there’s a discontinuity. V&V needs to maintain the same meaning everywhere in this sutta to be coherent. Or else, there has to be an established precedent elsewhere in the suttas where V&V in first jhana has a specialized definition. AFAIK that doesn’t exist. If it did, surely Vism. would have pointed it out already, or Bhante Sujato.

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I recommend you tag bhante @sujato in topics like this, so he can share his rationale for using the words he did.
:anjal:

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Ajahn Lee, characterizing the “first level of jhana”, terms vitakka as “directed thought”, as in holding to the mental object “until you can keep it in mind without being distracted”. This does not imply “thoughts”, especially of the “discursive” type, but rather direction of attention to the phenomenon of breath.

Vicara he terms “evaluation”, described as “gaining a sense of…”, “let[ting] these breath sensations spread” throughout the body – rather like guiding to increase and sustain the awareness.

And, curiously, he includes the factor ekaggatarammana, “singleness of preoccupation”, suggesting that this directing and enhancing of awareness forms at least a proto-unification of mind, in contradistinction to most proponents of “sutta jhana” whose literalistic interpretations exclude any hint of single-pointedness.

On the contrary, it’s a more limited but vocal group of (Western) modernist interpreters who insist active “thinking” is what’s intended – e.g. Leigh Brasington (taking off from the “research” of Bucknell, Stuart-Fox and Griffiths), B. Vimalaramsi, Bodhipaksa, etc., and those who take-off from such sources. Plus those, in this and other forums, like frankk and one “BuddhaVacana” (who goes by yet another pseudonym on SuttaCentral).

Ajahns Brahm and Sujato, rather represent an overwhelming bulk of Theravada (and derived) traditions, and notably the Burmese branches.

A common weakness across the modernist V&V interpretations is the failure to explicitly considered the range of meanings of “thought” and “thinking” in the English language, and consider a similar range of uses in the Pali texts. (The only source I’m aware of that looks into this in any depth is is the essay and discussion at:
https://sujato.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/why-vitakka-doesnt-mean-thinking-in-jhana/

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When you say bulk of Theravada, you’re talking about late Theravada and modern Theravada. If you look at Abhidhamma Vb, I even did a detailed pali audit lined up right next to the english so you can easily confirm for yourself, in another thread I posted a day or two earlier, and in previous threads. Spelled out clearly. V&V, Vitakka & vicara in early Abhidhamma and early theravada can have the range of samma sankappo, thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non ill will, etc.

@cjmacie, you’ve got a serious blind spot on these issues. Even posting detailed pali+english audits, spelled out, you still insist on unsupportable (with scriptural evidence) positions.

I consider early Abhidhamma, Arahant Upatissa in Vimt., a more accurate representation of Theravada than the “bulk of modern Theravada” you refer to and imply as the correct Theravada interpretation on V&V.

If you have a genuine and sincere wish for me to explain points you don’t agree with, I’ll try my best to do so. But mostly I would just be repeating myself, where I’ve painfully and in detail supported my arguments with scriptural evidence in previous threads. That you’ve participated in those threads already and didn’t grok what I was saying, I think it may be best we agree to disagree.

Ajahn Lee, Ajahn Fuang, Thanissaro (those are his teachers) as far as I can tell have the same exact understanding of V&V (which Thanissaro translates as directed thought and evaluation)

Bhante Gunaratana, ordained as orthodox modern theravada Bhikkhu in Theravada Sri Lanka, 30 years held the modern Theravada position, but 30 years later reversed his position and sided with the EBT interpretation on V&V, body as physical, in Jhana. I basically went through with a highlighter so you can’t miss the evidence.

What’s worth reading in Bhante G’s book, whereas Ajahn Lee, B. Thanissaro mostly only talk about V&V in the context of 16 APS, Bhante G shows how you can use metta and 4bv with V&V to enter jhana.

Ajahn Chah is Ajahn Brahm’s teacher, so it’s fair to ask why they have such a different understanding of first jhana.

There’s a new collection of 4 Ajahn Lee treatises on dhammatalks.org that I just read recently. If you really want to know how he understands the Abhidhamma samadhi terms that he uses sometimes, you’ll see he redefines those terms to be compatible with EBT and early Abhidhamma understanding of jhana & samadhi.

And don’t forget the survivorship bias westerners are all subjected to. Survivors write the history books. Just because you happen to move in Burmese Theravada circles, and think that’s an accurate representation of Early Buddhist teachings, you really have to do your homework and compare the difference between Vism., Vimt., early Abhidhamma such as the Vibhanga, etc. to see the important differences.

Another EBT school, the sarvastivada school, seen in the Agamas in SA and MA, if you look at their position on jhana, it’s very consistent with Ajahn Lee, Thanissaro, Bhante G, early Theravada, Arahant upatissa in Vimt, etc.

the Abhidhamma school for Sarvastivada, and Sarvastivada commentaries also agrees, does not contradict the Sutta school of Sarvastivada.

So basically if you look at the evidence of all the EBT schools, and not just look at Vism., it gives a very different impression of what the standard intrepretation of jhana, V&V, physical body in jhana.

Thanks for finding it. I have read it before years ago, but read part of it again just to refresh my memory.

I disagree with this part:

A similar situation is described in AN 3.101. There, the Buddha speaks of a meditator who abandons successively more refined forms of thought, until all that is left are ‘thoughts on the Dhamma’ (dhammavitakka). Even these most subtle of thoughts prevent one from realizing the true peace of samadhi, so they must be abandoned.

in AN 3.101

Tasmiṃ pahīne tasmiṃ byantīkate athāparaṃ dhammavitakkāvasissanti.
“When he is rid of them, there remain only thoughts of the Dhamma.
So hoti samādhi na ceva santo na ca paṇīto nappaṭippassaddhaladdho na ekodibhāvādhigato sasaṅkhāraniggayhavāritagato.
His concentration is neither peaceful nor refined, has not yet attained calm or unification, and is kept in place by the fabrication of forceful restraint.

This statement is short, and can be interpreted in more than one way reasonably. But here are two ways, among others that are simpler, and don’t require V&V being redefined.

  1. ekodibhava is the key mark of 2nd jhana. So this statement could be saying that attainment of first jhana, is unrefined compared to the explicit “ekodibhava and samadhi” that appears first in 2nd jhana, not in first.

  2. The same simple ockhams razor interpretation I describe for MN 19 in this thread. The frequency of vitakka and vicara drops to a low enough point that doesn’t energetically disrupt pacification of body and mind (AN 3.101 and MN 19 laddha passadho) to enable pitisukha to emerge.

So reading the other relevant parts of his blog post, I can sum up quickly as B. Sujato’s rationale for redefining V&V is because he understands the 4 jhanas to be experienced as something that’s a lot closer to Ajahn Brahm & VRJ (vism. redefinition of jhana), than the Ockham’s razor simple reading of EBT in early Theravada, Sarvastivada EBT school, Ajahn Lee, Bhante gunaratana, Thanissaro, B. Bodhi, etc.

So basically, B. Sujato can be proven correct (or at least reasonable) if he can prove his interpretation of jhana is correct. If he can’t, and as I show in the first message of this thread for MN 19, then it is a really glaring incoherence when he changes up “thinking and pondering” to “placing and keeping the mind connected”. The sutta title, the whole point of sutta MN 19 is to explain what happens to V&V as it moves from 3 types of samma sankappo into first jhana. If the Buddha doesn’t explain that it changes into something different in MN 19 for first jhana, then we have to assume its the same V&V as prior to first jhana, “thinking and considering/pondering/evaluating”.

There is also Lance Cousins’ Vitakka/Vitarka and Vicāra: Stages of Samādhi in Buddhism and Yoga

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I really like the way Cousin finally proposes to translate vitakka as “thinking of something”, and vicara as “thinking about (that) something” .

Note that I have added the (that).

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I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that a more subtle form of “thinking of” and “thinking about that” is “placing” and “keeping connected to”, at the precipice between thinking and non-thinking.

It’s not that Bhante Sujato’s translation doesn’t work at all. It obviously works for VRJ (vism. redefinition of jhana) situations. For example, using one of the 10 kasinas, or visual breath nimitta to enter an arupa samadhi. But this is not the purpose of first jhana in the EBT. The purpose of first jhana is to have “directed samadhi” as a bridge, a systematic gradual, organic holistic use of 7sb (awakening factor) to train samadhi.

These 3 suttas show very clearly how the pieces fit together (7sb, samadhi)
SN 47.10 directed (with V&V) and undirected bhavana (2nd jhana and up)
AN 5.26 involves hearing sound of dhamma talk, V&V, reciting dhamma
SN 46.3 even uses the word vicara within the description of dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga.

in first jhana, from the point of view of 7sb

  1. vitakka is sati-sambojjhanga, which remembers a particular Dhamma teaching
  2. vicara “thinks and considers” that Dhamma recollected by sati
  3. vigor: one is energetic physically , mentally, continuously with no let up.
  4. piti arises when one realizes mind is becoming more purified, peaceful, free, happy.
    … leading into jhana (samadhi-sambojjhanga)

It’s not just “placing and connected the mind” to any old phenomena, it’s “thinking and considering Dhamma-teaching that leads to liberation”.

By not translating with “thinking and considering” as he does elsewhere, B. Sujato is breaking the intimate link between first jhana and 7sb.

The point of V&V in first jhana is to act as a “directed samadhi” (SN 47.10), by means of training to use different pieces of Dhamma-teaching. If you already can get into 4 jhanas, SN 47.10 talks about “undirected samadhi” of avitakka-avicara (2nd jhana and up). You don’t need to prime the mind with a dhamma teaching recalled with sati-sambojjhanga & vitakka at this point, you just directly flip your samadhi switch and go in.

So basically, by going with “placing and keeping mind connected”, B. Sujato is describing first jhana from the point of view of someone who already can do second jhana and higher. That’s not the intended audience the Buddha was targeting! First jhana is for people who can’t do first jhana and second jhana yet.

Also look carefully at AN 8.63, where V&V, first and second jhana is divided into 3 groups. And the subject of V&V is any of the 4sp (satipathana), and any of the 4bv (brahma vihara) in this sutta. Which would require V&V to do more than just “place and keep connected”.

Have you seen this article?

http://blog.buddha-vacana.org/why-vitakka-might-mean-thinking-in-jhana/

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I think Ven. Thanissaro, B. Bodhi, B. Gunaratana, V. Anandajoti, all went through a similar reasoning process as you describe in your excellent blog post regarding MN 19 and similar passages that transition into first jhana V&V.

B. Bodhi especially, conspicuously changed between MN first jhana V&V (something like Vism.'s “applied and sustained thought”) , to his current “thinking and pondering” in both first jhana and ordinary V&V.

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