Translating Vitarka and Vicāra to and from Chinese

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:

  1. 覺 doesn’t mean “thought” in ordinary usage
  2. “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.


覺 (vitarka) seems to be versatile in the Chinese. Does it look to you that the translators knew what they were doing, applying a versatile concept to different contexts? Or could the flexibility be equally an expression of ‘fishing around’, trying to grasp something they were not quite sure of themselves?

A problem I see is that vitarka is no pre-Buddhist term at all, making its earliest non-Buddhist appearance in the Mahabharata afaics. So neither Kautilya nor Panini mention it. Maybe with the exception of vitarkya in Arthasastra 7.7.31, which Olivelle renders as ‘pondering’.

But generally the Sanskrit is of no help here, so I wonder if the Chinese translators seem to have been at a loss themselves.

At least we have in the reasonably old Jain Tattvārthasūtra 9.45, in a meditation context “vitarkaḥ śrutam” (‘vitarka is the heard/teachings/scriptures’).


Thank you, cdpatton, for this and all that you contribute here. So gracious, balanced and inspirational.


覺 is a versatile term that’s used in a number of different ways in MA. Even in the dhyana formula, it’s vitarka and also the verb “to feel” in the third dhyana’s expression that I translate as “personally experiences pleasure.”

Vitarka is itself translated in a couple ways. When it occurs in these meditation formulas, the Chinese translators used 覺, but in more ordinary usages, they did choose terms like 念 that mean “thought” (speaking in one’s mind instead of out loud).

Later on during the Tang dynasty (a few centuries after the Agamas were translated), skilled native translators like Xuanzang discarded 覺 and 觀. They collectively decided to translate vitarka-vicara as 尋 and 伺 as a better, more technical translation.

尋 has a basic meaning of investigating or grasping something but also the idea of quickness or urgency. So, it’s similar to the English expression “quick take” as a translation of vitarka.

伺 is also a term for investigating, but it has the connotation of waiting or taking one’s time. So, it ends up being a “leisurely take” (so to speak) as a translation of vicara.

I should probably add these later translations to the essay, but they aren’t directly relevant to translating the Agama texts that used the older terms. They do show that verbal thinking really wasn’t considered the meaning of either term, though.


I’m a fan of “awareness” for whatever my opinion is worth. It seems to carry the right connotations in the variety of places… It’s especially revealing to me that it was the first option in your list of choices and it was the first term you reached for to explain 觀 (“bare awareness”). It also resonates well with the uses of 覺 in the context of bodhi (aware vs asleep), vedanā (aware of feelings), etc.

So, I say don’t over “think” it! :wink: But… I am not a Chinese Agama scholar… so… :joy:


What about something like applied and sustained awareness? It seems like the “applied” part of “applied and sustained thought/awareness/thinking” is related to attention.

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My mind has become accustomed to “placing the mind and keeping it connected”. It’s not that “placing the mind and keeping it connected” is right or wrong. Instead, it is that meaning itself emerged from reading the EBTs. The EBT subtleties are missing in English and only coarsely approximated for any translation.

Bhante Sujato’s application of the “principle of least meaning” is critical here in that it is a principle that fosters growth of emergent meaning that arises through continued study. Interestingly, that very application permits the use of many phrases (e.g., “awareness”) that serve the same purpose of being seeds for that growth of emergent meaning.

The one advantage that does accrue from adopting a convention for V&V translations is that such a convention fosters sharing and discussion.

For this reason, I’d be quite happy with “placing the mind and keeping it connected” for V&V. It would be just a convention such as driving on the right side of the road. Conventions reduce head-on collisions.


Thanks Charles, this is really interesting. It gives a new view into the Chinese texts to understand it as they did, rather than reading “through” to the Indic text. Knowing how the Chinese translators understood things and how their terminology evolved guards against thinking these things are easy! It took them hundreds of years.


Just an observation (food for thought)

When reading your description it made me think of (the process of?) Nama


Hi cd, incase you didn’t noticed, if read as 覺 jiào it refer to sleeping.
Another point is 覺 jué, has the meaning of discerning, differentiating or being conscious of when (human or animal) sense organ trigger off by some objects.

My understanding , 尋 is seeking or exploring and think over as in 寻思 .

伺 actually can means keep watching .



Today I spent some time looking at later discussions of vitarka and vicāra in Chinese sources. There are a diverse set of sources besides the classic Abhidharma texts that attempt to gloss these two terms.

In Harivarman’s Satyasiddhi-śāstra, there’s a brief discussion of the topic (T1646.288b28).

He defines vitarka as “the innumerable things that arise when the mind is distracted.” There are coarse and fine things that occur to the distracted mind, and vitarka is the coarse activity, while vicāra is the fine and minute activity. He goes on to say that when cognition and memory is set aside so that only the present is known, then one stops taking notice and thinking about vitarka. When that happens, vicāra arises as a result. He specifically states that these two states of mind can’t happen simultaneously, so vicāra is essentially a step in cessation of vitarka on the way to complete mental stillness.

Vitarka and vicāra are also discerned in terms of magnitude with two metaphors: Hitting a bell and waves. When you hit a bell, the initial sound is vitarka and the sound that gradually becomes quieter is vicāra. In the same way, large waves are vitarka and small waves are vicāra.

There’s also a brief discussion in another of Kumārajīva major works, the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra (T1509.186a14), which briefly defines vitarka as simply the “initial thought of a coarse mind.” Vicāra is the “discernment of a fine mind.” Here, mind probably means a state of mind. Then the metaphor of the bell is cited. “When the sound is loud, that’s vitarka. When it’s small and subtle, that’s vicāra.”

A couple Mahāyāna sutras include Abhidharma-like analyses of the dhyānas and provide a list of items for vitarka. For example, the Teaching of Mahāsatya Nirgrantha Sūtra (T272.350b04) says that vitarka is “many things such as knowing, perceiving, reflecting, observing, and deciding (or concentrating?).” Vicāra is on the other hand, “the perceptual activity that follows the first dhyāna, reflecting and observing, desiring to know and experience concentration.” So, there’s that sort of commentary, too.

All around, I would say that later literature is using vitarka as a very broad term for just about any coarse mental activity that’s distracting, while vicāra is an intermediate stage of settling it down and achieving mental stillness.


Waking up, you mean? Yes, that’s one of the many verbal usages. It’s pretty common outside of Buddhist texts. It doesn’t mean sleeping, though. [Edit: I guess Matthews says it can mean a nap. Okay, then. ]

Yes, it can mean to lay in wait, to delay, to waylay someone. That’s where the connotation of waiting or taking time comes from.

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Actually, it does mean sleep 睡覺 shuì jiào ㄕㄨㄟˋ ㄐㄧㄠˋ
as in 就寝,寝息,睡眠.

to watch, to wait, to examine, to spy

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Maybe in modern Chinese, I’ve never seen that in classical Buddhist texts. Not that it’s impossible, of course, but it must be a rare reading if it goes back that far.


Did you look at the suggestions given in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism for 覺觀 and of course the copious explanations given for each?

Oh, yes. I start there. It’s a great basic lookup tool to check myself and ascertain the range of meanings.

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Thank you for a wonderful description!

This works better for me than my current analogies especially in that it provides a way of understanding non-speech vicāra. It frees one from restricting vicāra to “thinking about X”–the strike and resonance of a bell is much subtler. :bell: :pray:


My understanding is that “覺 for vitarka and 觀 for vicāra” were the early (and mistaken, like translating 道 for 法 Dhamma/Dharma) translations that were corrected to 尋 forvitarka and 伺 for vicāra.
尋 (xun2) is to seek, investigate, fathom, look for, etc. and means the initial look into something that is expansive trying to see everything presented.
伺 is investigation, consideration, search for truth; to spy; wait on, and is the investigation that reduces and comes to a fine focus of single issues and points.
The two together set the stage for first looking at the “gross” picture than looking at the “fine” picture.
The Sanskrit dictionary has:
vitarka m. conjecture , supposition , guess , fancy , imagination , opinion MBh. Ka1v. &c. ; doubt , uncertainty Yogas. Sarvad. ; a dubious or questionable matter Yogas. ; reasoning , deliberation , consideration Ka1v. Sa1h. ; purpose , intention Ja1takam. ; a teacher , instructor in divine knowledge W. ; a partic. class of Yogi1s Ja1takam. ; N. of a son of Dhr2ita-ra1sht2ra MBh. ; pl. N. of the five principal sins Ja1takam. ; %{-padavI} f. the path of conjecture or supposition Prab. ; %{-vat} mfn. (speech) containing a conjecture or supposition Das3ar.
vicAra m. (ifc. f. %{A}) mode of acting or proceeding , procedure (also = a single or particular case) S3rS. ; change of place Gobh. ; pondering , deliberation , consideration , reflection , examination , investigation RPra1t. MBh. &c. ; doubt , hesitation R. Katha1s. BhP. ; a probable conjecture Sa1h. ; dispute , discussion W. ; prudence MW. ; %{-kartR} m. one who makes investigation , a judge , investigator W. ; %{-cintAmaNi} m. N. of wk. ; %{-jJa} mfn. knowing how to discriminate or judge , able to decide on the merits of a case , a judge MW. ; %{-driz} mfn. " employing no spies for eyes "' (see %{cAra}) , and " looking at a matter with consideration “’ Naish. ; %{-nirNaya} m. N. of wk. ; %{-para} m. N. of a king , S3in6ha7s. ; %{-bhU} f. a tribunal L. ; the judgment-seat of Yama (judge of the dead) W. ; %{-maJjarI} f. %{-mAlA} f. N. of wks. ; %{-mUDha} mfn. foolish or mistaken in judgment Ragh. Hit. ; %{-vat} mfn. proceeding with consideration , considerate , prudent S3atr. Ka1v. ; %{-vid} m. (prob.) `” knowing how to discriminate "'N. of S3iva MBh. ; %{-zAstra} n. N. of wk. ; %{-zIla} , disposed to deliberation or reflection , considerate , deliberative MW. ; %{-sudhA7kara} m. %{-dhA7rNava} m. N. of wks. [958,3] ; %{-sthala} n. a place for discussion or investigation , tribunal MW. ; a logical disputation W. ; %{-rA7rka-saMgraha} m. N. of wk. ; %{-rA7rthasamAgama} m. assembly for the sake of trial or judgment , an assembly for investigation or discussion MW. ; %{-ro7kti} f. discriminating speech L.


I wouldn’t say they were mistaken, but 覺 and 觀 were not very clear without explanation since they can mean many things depending on context, and meditation wasn’t the usual way they were used. Since writing that initial essay, I’ve found that, as @anon85245511 had pointed out, 覺 was indeed used to refer to the initial notice of something, perhaps a feeling or a sensation or a thought, in the mind. Paired with 觀, which means to examine or analyze something in the mind, the two capture the Abhidharma readings fairly well.

尋 and 伺 were narrower in meaning and less likely to be misinterpreted, and indeed closer to the Sanskrit reading, which was the language of the later texts Xuanzang and others were translating by the Tang dynasty.

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The earliest definitions of Vitakka/Vicara are found in the Petakopadesa. This is from Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s translation