SN 21.1 V&V incoherence: comparing B. Thanissaro and B. Sujato translations


Piya Tan also translates V&V incorrectly in this sutta, following VRJ.

SN21.1 Kolita: Moggallana and the noble silence, by Piya Tan

This is a very short sutta that gives the definition of noble silence as second jhana.
This is a great case study because it shows most of the fatal logical flaws when V&V in first and second jhana is translated in a way that follows VRJ (vism. redefinition of jhana), rather than vitakka & vicara as “thinking & pondering”, which is what it means everywhere in the EBT. Early Theravada paracanonical works, even early Abhidhamma agrees with this.

  • B. Sujato translates V&V (vitakka & vicara) as “placing the mind & keeping it connected”.
  • B. Thanissaro translates V&V as “directed-thought & evaluation”

1. this thought (pari-vitakka) occurred to me: “what is second jhana?”

Right after this statement, Moggallana gives the standard second jhana formula, where the removal of V&V happens. If you read B. Thanissaro’s version, the logic is simple, the reading coherent. If you read B. Sujato’s translation, you’ll notice vitakka suddenly changes meaning two sentences later with no explanation. Where he translates the vitakka of asking “what is second jhana” as “thought”, in the second jhana formula, V&V suddenly means something completely different, “placing the mind”. What is the newly ordained Bhikkhu (during the Buddha’s lifetime) supposed to think when he hears vitakka have two completely different meanings in sentences adjacent to each other? He must feel like he’s in an insane asylum. Either:

  • a. You have to translate V&V consistently here.
  • b. show where in the EBT it defines V&V differently for jhana (hint: it doesn’t exist, which is why Vism. has to invent a type of samadhi called access concentration).

2. If B. Sujato is correct that V&V means “placing the mind & keeping it connected” in the 4 jhanas, then why isn’t first jhana noble silence?

(sound of crickets chirping)

3. imperfect second jhana with intrusion of V&V

(b.thanissaro: coherent)
tassa mayhaṃ, āvuso, iminā vihārena viharato
While I remained in that [mental] dwelling,
vitakkasahagatā saññā manasikārā samudācaranti”.
I was assailed by perceptions & [acts of] attention connected with directed thought.

(b.sujato: incoherent)
While I was in that meditation, perceptions and attentions accompanied by placing the mind beset me.

As pointed out in other essays in the YARVVI chronicles, there is a logical problem here. B. Sujato’s vitakka of “placing the mind” operates on the same hierarchical level as sañña (perceptions), manasi karoti (paying attention), low level operations that survive past first jhana and thrive in all four jhanas. So in this sentence, where the second jhana is being intruded by vitakka, B. Sujato’s translation is illogical. Like a snake trying to swallow itself by eating its own tail. Like an infinite recursion that blows up the computer. Doesn’t work. The justification that B. Sujato provided is that the Buddha had an impoverished vocabulary for the four jhanas, and he had no choice but to make a completely confusing redefinition of V&V just for the four jhanas. As critics have pointed out, this is not so. There are terms such as samadhi nimitta, there is manasi karoti (paying attention to perceptions/sañña or nimittas), there is directed and undirected samadhi, perfectly adequate vocabulary for expressing the type of VRJ (vism. redefinition of jhana) that B. Sujato is trying to accomplish by hijacking V&V. Provided that the Buddha had wanted to define the 4 jhanas as VRJ does. We have to assume the Buddha did not have that intention, given the lack of explanation in the EBT, early Theravada commentarial scriptures, and even early Abhidhamma.

4. Vācā = vocalization, i.e. words spoken out loud, ceases in first jhana

from SN 36.11

(9 gradual nirodho/cessations)

atha kho pana, bhikkhu, mayā
“And I have also {taught}
anu-pubba-saṅkhārānaṃ nirodho akkhāto.
step-by-step-fabrications' cessation.
1. paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannassa
1. (with) first jhāna attained,
vācā niruddhā hoti.
vocalization-of-speech has ceased.
2. dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannassa
2. (with) second jhāna attained,
vitakka-vicārā niruddhā honti.
directed-thought-&-evaluation has ceased.
3. tatiyaṃ jhānaṃ samāpannassa
3. (with) third jhāna attained,
pīti niruddhā hoti.
rapture has ceased.
  • second jhana, V&V , vocalization fabrications cease (MN 44, thoughts you think before you say them)
  • first jhana, vocalization ceases.
  • second jhana = noble silence
  • first jhana = vocal silence

In a thread earlier this year debating this point, another user supporting B. Sujato’s translation of vitakka as “placing the mind” had to redefine what vāca (vocalization) means in SN 36.11! He had to recast vāca as un-vocalized speech, i.e. “thinking & evaluation”. So there was a domino effect where a basic simple word made the rest of the thought world incoherent.

This is further evidence of how much damage and confusion can be caused when we don’t translate important basic terms consistently.