As I edit my draft of MĀ 72, I’ve found myself dealing with an issue that I haven’t fully resolved yet: My translation of the Chinese for vitarka and vicāra. Currently my provisional translation has been “thought and investigation,” which I chose simply because I knew most readers would readily understand what the underlying terms were.
I’ve been researching the issue today as I wrestle with how to deal with the Chinese for vitarka in particular. My translation of it as “thought” is bad for a couple reasons:
- 覺 doesn’t mean “thought” in ordinary usage
- “Thought” is problematic in the context of Buddhist meditation discourse
Given that, I’ve decided it’s time to resolve the issue.
Chinese Buddhist translations went through several periods of refinement, and the four Āgama collections all sit at the beginning of a middle period commonly associated with the works of Kumārajīva, Guṇabhadra, Bodhiruci, and Paramârtha, among others. Translation choices became standardized and the audience in China gained a better understanding of Buddhist teachings and practice. During this period, the Chinese translation of these terms in the context of meditation settled on 覺 for vitarka and 觀 for vicāra. The four Āgamas, including the Madhyama, all follow that convention.
The Basic Meaning of 覺
覺 is a psychological verb that’s often turned into a noun. It’s range of meaning includes wakefulness, awareness, feeling, perception, and cognition. It usually doesn’t involve verbalization (spoken or thought) and stands for fundamental mental capacities that come before concepts, words, logic, intentions, and the like.
It translates a range of Indic words besides vitarka: bodhi, buddhi, vedanā, sparśana, saṃjñā, cetana, and the like. As we can see, then, it has a broad general meaning that’s narrowed by context.
The Basic Meaning of 觀
觀 is a visual verb that crosses over into a psychological verb. It means looking, surveying, examining, observing, contemplating, and analyzing. The psychological usage is derived from the metaphor of looking at something mentally rather than visually. Buddhist translators employed this usage to render terms that refer to visualization or detailed analytical thinking (using the “mind’s eye” to examine a subject).
The main distinction that 觀 carries when compared to other visual verbs like 見 (“to see”) is that it implies a sustained effort to discern. A person could be straining to see something far away, up close, or some fine detail easily missed.
The Context of Placing 覺 and 觀 Side-By-Side
Often we get meaning by contrasting terms that are in some way antonyms or synonyms. For example, we know that “great” is a size when paired with “small.” Is there something we can glean from these two words being set beside each other?
It’s not obvious, but I think the translators may be attempting to find terms that contrast making no effort vs. exerting a concerted effort, and that’s the main meaning they want to get across to the reader. As such, they may have been attempting to communicate the bare awareness of noticing something vs. the applied effort of analyzing it in detail. That reading jives with the Abhidharmic reading of initial and sustained “thought” or mental attention.
The English Translation
Still, the problem remains: What’s a better English translation? The literal translation would probably be something like “awareness” and “contemplation,” which could perhaps be contextualized to “recognition” and “analysis.”
I’m open to ideas, though.