V&V in Sphuṭārthā Abhidharmakośavyākhyā


continuing the discussion from here, on vitakka & vicara being straightforward thought & evaluation, with no controversy in northern EBT schools

@crizna wrote:

Let me illustrate the point by means of the much disputed terms ‘vitakka’ and ‘vicāra’. Unlike with the interpretations in the Theravāda tradition, there seems to have been no major disagreement among the Northern Schools as to the meaning of those terms.

vitarkaḥ katamaḥ. paryeṣako manojalpaḥ cetanāprajñāviśeṣaḥ yā cittasyaudārikatā.
vicāraḥ katamaḥ. pratyavekṣako manojalpas tathaiva yā cittasya sūkṣmatā. anabhyūhāvasthāyāṃ cetanā abhyūhāvasthāyāṃ prajñeti vyavasthāpyate.

Sphuṭārthā Abhidharmakośavyākhyā 64-65

'What is ‘vitarka’? A mental murmur of enquiry (paryeṣako manojalpaḥ), which rests on the support of volition (cetanā) or speculative knowledge (prajñā), according as it does not or does include deduction (abhyūha), It is a gross state of mind.

What is ‘vicāra’ ? A mental murmur of judgment (pratyavekṣako manojalpas) which rests on the volition, etc. (as above). That is the subtleness of mind.’

(Translation by P.S. Jaini in the Introduction to his edition of the Abhidharmadīpa, p. 87).

P.S. Jaini remarks: ‘Here ‘vitarka’ refers to the state of enquiry of mind and ‘vicāra’ to the state of judgment.’

In the Sphuṭārthā passage cited above Yaśomitra quoted the view of the old masters (pūrvācārya). Almost identical explanations are found in various treatises of Asaṅga (e.g. Abhidharmasamuccayabhāṣyam 8-9) and Vasubandhu (e.g. Pañca-Skandhaka 64). A similar explanation is also found in Harivarman’s Satyasiddhiśāstra 215 -216.

I wonder if Bhantes @sujato and @brahmali can comment on this?
specifically, from the sanskrit and english translation of that above, it seems to confirm @criznaassertion that in northern EBT schools, there is no controversy for V&V (vitakka & vicara).
vitarka = thinking ( state of enquiry of mind)
vicāra = evaluation (A mental murmur of judgment (pratyavekṣako manojalpas) )

  1. do you agree with that? (in northern EBT schools there would be no way to translate V&V as "placing the mind & keeping it connected)
  2. as leaders of the EBT movement, how do you weigh the northern EBT schools vs. Theravada EBT and consider that in your English translations?

Ajahn @brahmali, could you please explain exactly what you mean by pre-verbal movements of the mind, and cite Theravada EBT passages where that occurs? I know you believe it occurs in standard first jhana formula, but surely if the Buddha is going to redefine V&V to have a completely different meaning than V&V outside of first jhana, then somewhere in the thousands of EBT pali suttas the Buddha would explain that? And if there is no Theravada EBT passage where the Buddha makes the V&V redefinition, then shouldn’t Bhante @sujato follow his cardinal rules of translation of “principle of least meaning” and “ockham’s razor is usually correct”?

Yes, the sanskrit passage quoted is not EBT, but that Abhidharma definition is the most commonly accepted one, representative of how the Northern EBT texts understand V&V. Just as Theravada’s KN Pe, is also not EBT, and neither are Vimt., Te Ab Vb (theravada abhidhamma commentary on first jhana), but they are all consistent with a straightforward ockham’s razor interpretation of V&V as “directed-thought & evaluation” inside and outside of first jhana. (see YARVII chronicles link below for detailed pali+english audits supporting the claim)

When EBT passages contradicts non-EBT, that should be taken into consideration. But when non-EBT commentary is agreeing with a straightforward EBT reading, that should also be taken into consideration and cast doubt on Bhante Sujato’s translation of V&V as “placing the mind & keeping it connected.”

YARVVI Chronicles: V&V, Vitakka = directed-thoughts, Vicāra=Evaluation (of said Vitakka)

Listening to the suttas as my meditation focus during walking meditation, I definitely find Bhante Sujato’s instruction clear, direct and helpful. Thanks to his instruction, I do indeed place my wandering mind back on listening and understanding each spoken phrase as it is spoken in DN33. This is actually very hard work, especially since I’m inclined to think thoughts related to what I’m hearing. If I just focused on thoughts and evaluation, I would allow myself to wander off into thinking about the ramifications of the Ones when the the earphones are speaking Twos. This has happened a lot. I am a very bad meditator. With Bhante Sujato’s instructions firmly in mind, I now know how to struggle back to mindfulness by placing my mind squarely back in the here and now listening to DN33. This is a daily struggle for me and I am always placing the wandering mind back in its fenced pasture. My wandering thoughts are worth pursuing, but not in the context of being mindful of DN33 as it is being recited.

This is why I totally agree with you that V&V mean thought and evaluation and I also totally agree with Bhante Sujato about placing the mind.


There are an infinite number of ways a gradual training in samādhi can be legitimately taught, that lead to an equivalent quality level of 4th jhana in EBT. Bhante @sujato’s instruction for V&V, “placing the mind & keeping it connected” in first jhana, is one such way, but it’s his interpretation AFAIK, not the Buddha’s instruction (based on EBT). I’m still waiting for Bhante @sujato and @brahmali to comment on or at least cite the EBT passage(s) that he based his translation on, as an EBT translator, to arrive at V&V being “placing the mind & keeping it connected.”

I can cite non EBT passages (which contradict EBT passages) on V&V, which match Bhante Sujato’s V&V translation for the EBT. But it’s better if I first give Bhante Sujato an opportunity to comment and justify his translation himself. I’m under the impression that, especially as a leading figure in the EBT movement, his translations of the standard jhāna formulas in the EBT should be based on EBT passages, and those passages should exist in the EBT given how frequently those passages occurred.

@karl_lew’s interpretation reacting to B. sujato’s translation is vividly illustrating why translation must be done carefully.


I really do not want to get into a long discussion on this. We have been there before and I didn’t find it very fruitful. I have given reasons in other threads for why I think vitakka and vicāra refer to a pre-verbal movement of the mind, for instance, here.

To do full justice to this subject would require a lengthy essay that discusses the context of jhāna in the suttas. I have considered writing such an essay, but at the moment I have just got too much on. If I ever get around to it, you will of course be most welcome to comment on what I write.


In first Jhana there is no verbal speech.
Then Vitakka and Vicara have to be pre-berbal.
Isn’t it? I may be wrong.


Fair enough. I hope you do write the essay at some point, because you do not adequately explain some important points in detail, and for most of the controversial points, you only cite some sutta references without substantiating the claim behind that with compelling reasons.

For example, some of the points you summarized in the link to your post quoted:

Here are a few examples: (1) The evidence from the suttas that the first jhāna is ekaggatā (one-pointed) is actually quite strong; (2) kāma in the formula for the first jhāna quite likely refers to the five senses and not desire; (3) point 2 is reinforced by a sutta (AN 10.72) that says hearing has to disappear before one can enter first jhāna ; (4) kāyena , as used in the third jhāna , does not mean “with the body”, but “directly”/“personally” (see Bucknell’s note 34); (5) the overcoming of perceptions of form mentioned in the first immaterial attainment does not relate to the five senses but to the echo of these senses as experienced by the mind; (6) the division of jhāna into five stages is sufficiently attested in the suttas ; (7) the sutta formula for the second jhāna makes it clear that vitakka-vicāra ceases completely in that state; that vitakka-vicāra in the first jhāna should therefore refer to a very refined aspect of thought - a mere movement of the mind - seems quite natural.

For #1, how is the evidence quite strong? AFAIK the only sutta passages where first jhana is explicitly called ‘ekaggata’, are from MN 43, and MN 111, both spoken by Sariputta, not the Buddha. Those are late suttas and probably not EBT, and we know how non EBT treatises, commentary, and schools of Buddhist thought are often attributed to Ven. Sariputta. Other times in the suttas when ekagga and ekodhibhava are used as a verb or as a noun, it can be referring to four jhanas, not to specifically just first jhana. For example, MN 122 has a passage that explains making the mind ekodibhava and samadhi is done by doing the standard four jhana formula. The words ekodibhava and samadhi do not appear until the second jhana formula, so it’s pretty clear what the Buddha is saying that until one is in a-vitakka a-vicara samadhi (2nd jhana or higher), he doesn’t consider it properly called “ekodi-bhava and in samadhi”. Ockham’s razor is usually correct, and it appears to be the case here.

All 7 of your points above are seriously flawed, and I have ample sutta references with pali+english word for word audit to support that, but I restrict my critique for the moment to just V&V.

On #7, I don’t follow your reasoning that since V&V cease completely in 2nd jhana, then in 1st jhana, V&V

“should therefore refer to a very refined aspect of thought - a mere movement of the mind - seems quite natural.”

Doesn’t seem at all natural to me. MN 19, with explicit description and similes, describes the V&V prior to first jhana, being of such a nature that causes the body and mind to become fatigued. So even though the akusala V&V has been replaced by kusala, that level of tension in the kusala is preventing it from qualifying as first jhana. What’s the difference in first jhana then? You’ll note in the cowherd simile and description of the mind before and after, the difference is passadhi takes place. The body and mind have been pacified to a degree, to allow piti&sukha to emerge. So it’s clear V&V has been attenuated in frequency and intensity, but the fundamental nature of the kusala V&V itself has not been altered. Otherwise, of all suttas, you would expect this to be the place where the Buddha explains how V&V has undergone a radical paradigm shift.

There are far more problems than that, and they are discussed here, with pali+english audit so you can see if the pali supports other interpretations.

The only way the EBT could support your interpretation of V&V currently, is if we assume the Buddha was negligent and incompetent in leaving out this important change in V&V in all the passages where V&V in one sentence to the next (where first jhana formula starts) undergoes a radical transformation without comment.

Now given a choice between the Buddha being negligent, or an overzealous, dubious interpretation of V&V that violates Bhante Sujato’s cardinal rules of “principle of least meaning” and “ockham’s razor is usually correct”, which scenario is more likely to be true?


I think this is correct


To all interested, especially Bhantes @sujato and @brahmali
You might want to read

Dmytro pulled up some excellent passages from Vism. this year, showing that even in Vism. first jhana, vitakka still retains the meaning of verbal, mental recitation. For example, when one mentally recites “earth kasina, earth kasina” as the vitakka, takka & vitakka are “striking” that that quoted thought “earth kasina”, which is a verbal label.

And the commentary explains that’s why first jhana in VRJ (vism. redefine version of jhana) is coarse compared to 2nd VRJ.

VRJ definition and understaning of ‘vicara’ is still corrupted (compared to EBT jhana), but at least ‘vitakka’ in VRJ needs to be translated with something that includes ‘thought’ in there.

edit: addition.
So Bhante Sujato’s translation for vitakka in first jhana as “placing the mind” would not even be the correct translation for Visuddhimagga’s ‘vitakka’ in their first jhana!
Here’s a simile. Let’s say vitakka is a horse-drawn-vehicle. You can not just give me a horse, or a vehicle, and tell me that’s a ‘vitakka’. A horse and carriage in isolation are PART of a horse-drawn-vehicle, but if you try to give just one of them to a customer who paid for the whole package, it won’t work as advertised and they’ll be very angry with you. Similarly, vitakka in first jhana of VRJ (vism.) is not just “striking” or “placing the mind”, it’s the “placing the mind on a THOUGHT”.


Say if I want to keep my attention on a mango. That is Vitakka
Then I keep my attention on a banana. That also Vitkka
Then I keep my attention only on mango for a longer period.
That is Vicara.
There is no speach (verbal or mental involed). Only observation.
That is how I understand it. I may be wrong.


See here.

What seems obvious to me, is not clear to you. This is one of the reasons I doubt we will be able to discuss this fruitfully.

This is also the case if you see them as a mere movement of the mind. Even the most subtle movement of the mind is on the same spectrum as gross thinking, albeit on the opposite end.

Please stick to real arguments. This is just an appeal to emotions.


Just to avoid any misunderstanding I would like to set the record straight. In my post I was referring to ‘vitakka’ (Skt. vitarka) and ‘vicāra’ in the context of ‘jhāna’ as defined in the Buddhist Sanskrit sources. There was of course a lot of controversy on ‘vitakka’ and ‘vicāra’ among the Northern schools, such as on the question if the two can arise simultaneously or not, if they are really two distinct qualities or just two aspects of the same principle and other questions of this type. But as regards the definition of meaning in the context of ‘jhāna’ there seems to have been no major disagreement among those schools.

Although the Abhidharmikas are well-known for their hairsplitting abilities, and at fine-tuning the smallest subtleties, such a definition as B. Brahmali presented here was evidently unknown to them. There exists no source material which is even faintly alluding to such a state of affairs. The whole idea of ‘vitakka’ and ‘vicāra’ as ‘pre-verbal movements of the mind’ clearly contradicts the Suttas. What could possibly be imagined as corresponding to this idea is referred to in the Sanskrit Abhidharma definition as volition (cetanā).

As I understand it, the definition given in the Sanskrit Abhidharma literature is not in any way broad, but rather quite specific and clear, leaving no room for fantastical interpretations. Contrary to what B. Brahmali is assuming, the most characteristic feature appearing in virtually all the Sanskrit text books dealing with the question is the distinction of ‘vitarka’ as gross state of mind (cittasyaudārikatā) and ‘vicāra’ as subtle mental state (cittasya sūkṣmatā).

In recent years there has been a worrying increase of fictional interpretations even of key terms without any foundation in language or scripture. I especially find the carelessness of how this is done alarming. If everybody now starts to ignore all conventions and just reads the meaning into a word that fits his personal view or legitimates a meditative practice which otherwise has no textual foundation, what will be the most likely outcome of this?

The mysterious unexplained disappearance of Kāya and Vitakka in the Jhānas by B. Sujato

The first jhana requires one to ‘abide in it’. Understanding the suttas require experience of the dhammas mentioned in them: only limited number of factors can exist in the first jhana and if others exist in it, it’s referring to other samadhi states.


I’ve reviewed those sutta passages cited in your link and they do nothing to disprove or add to what I already concisely summarized. Ekagga and Ekodibhava in the general sense can refer to the four jhanas, but the only sutta passages that explicitly say ekaggata is a “jhana factor” of first jhana are non-ebt passages spoken by Sariputta. “Jhana-factor”, as one of the 5 jhana factors late Theravada loves to talk about and emphasize (while trying to supress 7sb-bojjhanga). 5 jhana factors are not EBT, in the way late Theravada teaches.

The point of my nitpicking ekaggata here, for now, is not to debate which interpretation is more likely to be correct, but to show how you have a tendency to authoritatively cite sutta passages phrased in a way that assumes a much greater degree of certainty than is justified. (“the evidence…first jhana is ekaggata is actually quite strong”)

What seems obvious to me, is not clear to you. This is one of the reasons I doubt we will be able to discuss this fruitfully.

Let me restate the question again in explicit detail so you have no excuse to reply with a deflection tactic.

It seems like you’re saying since 2nd jhana has no V&V, as a logical consequence, we can deduce therefore first jhana is most likely to be subverbal mental movement. And my response to that was, this does not seem like any kind of natural logic to me. What the evidence of the actual words of the Buddha in EBT tells us, such as in MN 19, is that first jhana V&V has a spectrum of possible activity in intensity and frequency, but absolutely no text that would suggest the fundamental nature of V&V itself has shifted to become noverbal or preverbal.

This is also the case if you see them as a mere movement of the mind. Even the most subtle movement of the mind is on the same spectrum as gross thinking, albeit on the opposite end.

If Bhante Sujato is willing to translate V&V as preverbal mind movement everywhere, including outside of first jhana, then at least it would show conviction in your own explanation. As it is, it just sounds like sophistry to me.

Please stick to real arguments. This is just an appeal to emotions.

Please don’t use emotional tone as an excuse to dodge the real argument underlying the tone, and expressed clearly immediately prior to that, without the tone.

A mountain of evidence has been collected below, in the link you might not have reviewed yet, already given in the prior response.

(this message has been edited a few times to sort out formatting to more clearly differentiate who is saying what)


(This message should have been edited a few times more to include basic decency.)


Please keep discussion respectful, refraining from personal criticisms of fellow forum members.


I cannot see this going anywhere useful and so I will withdraw from this discussion. We have had different views on this issue for several years now and it is inconceivable to me that we will be able to sort this out on a public forum. It is far more likely things will just get further bogged down. We will probably end up wasting precious time that could be spent far more profitably on other things.

I know you are very sincere, both in your practice and in your Dhamma opinions, and I respect you for that. From the little I know of you, you are a goodhearted person who is doing his very best to live Buddhism with integrity. A big sādhu to that!

Your sincere friend in the Dhamma,
Ajahn Brahmali


@frankk, I hear agonized frustration in your posts at being unheard. Please accept my own personal inquiry and let us just talk as we are, you and I each from our own life experience. I confess to having skimmed your writings on V&V since I, being easily confused, shy away from Nagarjuna subtleties and tend to value the concrete and actionable. :pray:

I will start by confessing that I am of limited mental means and can only encompass thoughts that can be spoken in a single breath. I have known others such as Richard Feynman who could spin entire universes of amazing connected thought. I lack any such gift.

Suppose I came to you and said, Venerable Frank, please teach me V&V so I can utter and know the truth in a single breath. What would you say in a single breath? What I recall you writing is that vittaka is directed thought and viccara is evaluation and contemplation of the implications of that vittakka thought. This I can say in one long breath and is hopefully aligned with what you have written. It also aligns with my own meditative wanderings through DN33 every day.

Just a one breath definition, please! I cannot understand more.

I wish to start afresh. Let us invest clearly in a shared understanding.


Really? How do you know


Venerable Frank, I ask you a second time to teach me your understanding of the suttas starting with Vitakka and Vicara. This is a genuine request. I have meditated, concentrated, focused, absorbed and immersed in this or that for over five decades. Yet I have only started reading the sutta translations this year. I am trying to align my experiences with the suttas. This is very important to me. And you yourself have brought the words Vitakka and Vicāra into my life.

I have memories of directing and focusing and contemplating this and that from a very young age. I was a good student and slow but had many encouraging teachers. Focusing has always been natural to me and I often would focus on this or that for hours to the detriment of my body. Yes I had to pee. Not now, back to the math problem or whatever. My experience of this was world receding into problem, problem alone, problem solving. Just that. From this and your words I understand vitakka to be “framing the problem” and vicāra to be “solving the problem”. Those are not your words, but my words based on my experience and my gleaning of your words. I am a problem solver by profession.

If we can accept the understanding of V&V as “framing/solving X”, I would then like to understand the four jhānas as you do. I have not till a few months ago, really seen the term jhāna. For me this a new thing. How strange right? To have meditated for five decades without considering jhāna? So I have some experience and many questions.

Please teach me. :pray:


Thank you Bhante, for taking the time to explain your position and share your diplomatic and friendly energy. I appreciate it.