The role of vitakka and vicara in the 1st jhana

I’m reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu essay The Paradox of Becoming.
Page 96 and 97 he says: “… the practice of jhana also provides the mind with direct, hands-on experience in manipulating the five aggregates …” "… most clearly in the description of the 1st jhana which - among the four jhanas - is the only one whose standard simile includes a consciously active agent."
Then an extract from DN2 "He permeates & pervades, suffuses & fills this very body with rapture & pleasure born of seclusion. Just as a skilled bathman …"
then and this is the point of this topic “Kneading the sense of rapture and pleasure throughout the body is the work of directed thought and evaluation. This work requires skill in dealing, not only with the aggregate of feeling, but also with the remaining four aggregates as well. etc.”

This is the first time I found someone telling when the jhana one kneading is supposed to be done: i.e. while in jhana one, not before entering jhana one as I was thinking.

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This is probably due largely to the influence of Vism. in the west. They redefined V&V (from directed thinking and evaluation to mind glued to a visual image), redefined kāya (from anatomical body to body of only mental aggregates), redefined sukha vedana in the jhānas (from primarily bodily pleasant feeling to pure mental pleasant feeling), crippled S&S (sati & sampajano) from its natural range of activity, and removed any meaningful distinction between rupa and arupa in Jhāna. When you redefine jhāna and all of it’s major components in this way, it is a completely different animal.

Had Vism. not been so influential, I highly doubt Ajahn Brahm’s redefinition of jhāna would have caught on. But such is state of things right now, that when people come across Ven. Thanissaro’s or Bhante Gunaratana’s explanation of Jhana that conforms to the EBT, people are surprised and confused by how it doesn’t match the jhāna (redefinition) that they learned.

V&V means directed thinking and evaluation/pondering in the EBT. What makes it jhāna and not just plain S&S (mindfulness and alertness) is that one has learned to relax the body and mind to the point that the juice of pīti and sukha can surge through the body causing euphoric sensations and feelings. V&V is restricted to kusala thoughts, and the thoughts not so frequent and intense as to prevent body and mind from completely relaxing and allowing the juice to surge. First jhana is like you’re at the beach, edge of the water where you stay connected to the water, but your entire body is not fully immersed in the water continuously. It’s like you continually go down and come right back up for air.

2nd jhana is like you stay under water but, near the surface so the piti sukha comes in waves of varying intensity in force, but the body feels continuously fully immersed in the pitisukha

3rd jhana you dive deep enough under the ocean to where the water is very still and calm.

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Dear frankk
This is so inspiring to read your writings every time you share your practical experience with Jhana.
Looking forward to my next self-retreat to experience further.
With mega Metta

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Same here Frankk. You have a gift for describing this. I wish I had kept track of your various posts about your experiences. I hope someday I can get a copy of frankk’s Guide to Jhana.

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In fact the culprit about the hard-jhānas is the Abhidhamma Vibhanga!
The Visudhimagga instead talk, for the 1st Jhāna of the 5 types of happiness from minor to pervading and all 5 are physical.

Allow me to join you in this. Thanks a lot Frankk for all your posts, I hope you will continue sharing your experience here on SC.

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I will collect all my notes and share one of these days, but mostly my note collection is just EBT sutta passages with some comments that connect the dots between 7sb, 16APS, 4sp, 8aam, 4ip, 37bp. I’m a strong believer that the Buddha knew what he was doing, and if he was as skilled a teacher as we think, we ought to be able to memorize, recite, frequently reflect on those memorized passages as our main guide. A modern buddhist teacher should only need to clarify a few points in those EBT passages, and let the Buddha’s words do the heavy lifting.

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Vism. quotes from EBT, commentary, subcommentary, Abhihdhamma, and it’s not easy to sort out which is which, and definitely confounding when different sections contradict each other.

Abhdhamma Vibhanga Jhana chapter actually gets vitakka and vicara correct for first jhana. It’s later Abhdhamma that overturns that and redefines the V&V of first jhana into samatha kung fu of mind gluing to visual perception of light or kasina. In Vimt., which is based on the earlier Abhidhamma, the first jhana V&V, 4 jhanas and 16 APS are very close on the important points to EBT definitions.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree.

That dot connecting really helps…

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Than-Geoff’s passage doesn’t appear to deal with activity prior to absorption, I don’t see how it would preclude the use of vitakka & vicara (in the sense of directing and holding attention) within some sort of upacāra samādhi – “neighborhood” concentration, where the mind is at peace with hindrances held at bay, but prior to entrance into either appanā-samādhi (fixed, absorption) concentration, or vipassanā khaṇika samādhi (momentary concentration applied in insight practice).

That “kneading” can well be considered to be such “consciously active agent” activity, which can be used on the way to absorption, and continued in 1st jhana as a sort of working “one-pointedness” while the absorption is still relatively fragile, susceptible to disruption by 6-sense (i.e. internal as well as external) stimulating input.

Claims (i.e. in 2nd post, from frankk) that the Visuddhimagga approach “redefines” sutta (EBT) descriptions can just as justifiably be seen as “refinement” – not contradicting but expanding upon. The Visuddhimagga can be just as well seen as integral development of traditional practice and depiction of it, rather than some kind of departure.

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For one who is already skilled in higher jhanas, undirected samadhi without V&V (thinking and evaluation, following EBT definition), if they try to do first jhana, then they would tend to do something that more resembles “applied and sustained thought”.

But the point of first jhana is to bridge that gap with a gradual training in samadhi between one with thinking, and one without thinking, as MN 19 and MN 20 make very clear. The first step to first jhana is cease akusula thinking and replace with kusala thinking. The second step is to reduce the volume of kusala thinking. The Vism. redefinition is not justifiable because of this, among other reasons.

And once again, there is no upacara samadhi in EBT. The fact that you have to keep reaching for it can be seen as further proof that V&V in EBT first jhana needs a full range of thinking and evaluation/pondering.

I think this is the correct definition, considering that V&V are Verbal fabrications, rather applied and sustained attention (ringing and reverberations of bell similie- is that from the Visuddhimagga?). Adverting to each jhana factor it is possible to experience each one separately. In this the discursive thought-like nature of vitakka and vicara manifest clearly. Visuddhimagga I think differs from this, if I am not mistaken, hinting at the scholarly hand behind the manuscript of practice. :astonished:

With metta

Hi Mat, I didn’t know how to respond to your comment because I’m not sure how you understand V&V in first jhana . Ven. Nanamoli’s translation of “applied thought” and “sustained thought” is vague enough it can support a proper interpretation of V&V in first jhana according to a straightforward EBT interpretation. But how it’s used in Vism., it’s clear for VRJ (vism. redefined jhana) V&V gets redefined as applied and sustained attention on a white light nimitta or kasina patibhaga nimitta where no “thinking + evaluation” is possible. “thinking and evaluation” happens in new samadhi created called access concentration.

(Visuddhi-magga definition of of vitakka and vicara), nanamoli trans.

“[As for] applied thought, hitting upon is what is meant. It has the characteristic of directing the mind onto an object. It is manifested as the leading of the mind onto an object. [As for] sustained thought, continued sustainment is what is meant. It has the characteristic of continued pressure on the object. It is manifested as keeping consciousness anchored on that object.”—the Vism, IV

Translating from the agamas STED first jhana formula V&V, Ven. Analayo translated V&V as

with initial and sustained application of the mind,

From sanskrit, Arthaviniścayasūtram 1st jhana STED, Ven. Anandajoti has

having thinking, reflection,

B.bodhi in MN, followed THOX commentary in STED 1st jhana: (MN 119)

which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought,

MN was Bodhi’s first book translated. After that, in SN and AN, he changed over, explaining he didn’t agree with the THOX and felt V&V is:

SN 45.8, AN 5.28 : which is accompanied by thought and examination

Dr. Chu strongly disagrees with Ven. Analayo’s translation of the chinese of V&V. His 1st jhana STED choice of words:

有覺、有觀,Yǒu jué, yǒu guān,
with coarse-thinking (and) with subtle-thinking,
(A note on vitakka and vicāra)
Ven. Anālayo translated jue and guan as “directed awareness and sustained contemplation,” but that’s a translation based on an extrapolation of the literal reading of some archaic characters (in non-Buddhist Chinese contexts, they mean “realize” and “observe,” respectively). The Mahaprajnaparamita-sastra and the Yogacarabhumi (texts that are traditionally used as dictionaries), among others, explain that jue and guan should be understood as “coarse thinking” and “subtle thinking,” respectively.

The point of showing all these different translations is that

  1. even with a poor translation of V&V, if the reader has the correct understanding of V&V in first jhana the word choices can still be vague and abstract enough for the translation to work. And the converse is true as well.
  2. we can only come a reasonable conclusion if we objectively examine all the relevant passages and see which interpretations are coherent.
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It is interesting to look at the use of Vitakka and Vicara in non -jhana contexts in EBTs as well (there was a thread where @sujato comments on this a few weeks ago). Pali terms are broader compared to words in English which are more focused. V&V seems to be used in EBTs to denote thought (rather than attention, as per Visuddhimagga). Ven Nanamoli’s ‘applied thought and sustained thought’ seems an adequate translation IMO. Thinking and Evaluation isn’t bad, except that evaluation seems to be a kind of thinking as well.

How I understood Vitakka is that it is the initial breaking out into a single (verbal) thought. Someone is just starting thinking. More relevant to jhana it is pre-verbal, as speaking has ceased in the first jhana. It could said to be a first urge or impulse to think something. It would be like a mooring post for a boat (if the boat was the initial thought). The boat needs a place to start- a support of sorts. But there is no thinking, hence no boat - just the mooring post, in jhana. Vicara is like the river- it allows the boat to set out and do it’s thing. However, in jhana, it is also only a support for discursive thinking (I think in a less refined first jhana actual thinking/boat is present…).

So in the first jhana the mooring post and the river is present but the ripples they cause are like the disturbance caused by V&V to the jhanic experience, causing a degrading of quality of piti and sukha, as they are all experienced simultaneously.

I rather like this one. It was helpful to read all the renderings side by side.

With metta

Thanissaro here is saying you use vitakka and vicara to do the work described in the simile of the bath attendant. Say for exemple that the main source of piti is in your left thigh you focus your attention on say the right thigh and notice the piti expending from the left thigh to the right thigh. Then you continue this activity throughout the whole body progressively feeling the whole body with piti. Without vitakka and vicara one cannot do this job.

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Well spotted. He also says…

However in EBTs

The Second Jhāna
“Further, great king, with the subsiding of applied and sustained thought, the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which is accompanied by internal confidence and unification of mind, is without applied and sustained thought, and is filled with the rapture and happiness born of concentration. He drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with this rapture and happiness born of concentration, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this rapture and happiness. DN2

While it is not said in the similie, the ability consciously function/ intentionally direct attention is mentioned in the description of the jhana itself in DN2.

Jhana is a state of restriction to a degree but not so much that all function is impossible. Focusing attention as required is possible, but more difficult than than when outside a jhana due to intensity of Unification (samadhi). It is possible to do this in any jhana, except in (purified) immaterial attainments. I don’t agree, therefore, that V&V is about the ability shift attention.

With metta

FYI , Vitakka & Vicara
not only translated as

覺 jue and 观 guan ,

but , also as

  1. 尋 xun
  2. 伺 ci / si

Which is :

尋思 xun si
(looking / searching & thinking)

伺察 ci/ si cha
( 伺 ci = 视也 observing , waiting)
( 察 cha = [inspect] )

Imo ,
In Chinese , meaning of
Vitakka - deliberate thinking
Vicara - established skillful thinking

If not mistaken , those who are very skillful in entering jhāna , were able to enter jhāna while talking simultaneously .

Thank you .

Most likely after they finished talking.

with metta

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