Vitakka and vicara in the agamas and the Chinese parallel to Snp 4.2

This for our Chinese agamas translators: what Chinese words are vitakka and vicara translated to in the agamas and how do they translate to English?

In the Agamas, the Chinese translation was the early consensus of 覺 for vitakka and 觀 for vicara. Translated literally and given the context, they mean “to notice/perceive” and “to examine.”

覺 is the more problematic word to translate because it’s really a verb, but the Agama passages force it to become a noun, which is why my translations have “perception” (noun form of perceive). What it really refers to is the initial notice or perception of something before it’s recognized fully in detail.

An example I like to use to explain the meaning of 覺 and 觀 is walking along a path in the woods at dusk. There’s enough light to notice a small animal run by in front of you. When you first notice it, that’s 覺. You might notice that it’s an animal and that it’s smaller than a dog in the initial moment, but not much else about it. If the animal stops in the path and lets you look at it closer, you can recognize that it’s a squirrel or a raccoon, the color of its fur, whether it’s injured or not, etc. That’s 觀.

So, there is the connotation of initial and sustained examination, but the meaning is more sensory than when vitakka and vicara is translated to English from Pali. I personally think the reason for this is that the actual practice the Chinese translators were familiar with was similar to the one Buddhaghosa describes in the Visuddhimagga, in which one enters the first jhana by visualizing an object. It would make the choice of 覺 and 觀 for vitakka and vicara make more sense. On the other hand, modern translators like Bodhi rely on abstract Abhidhamma readings to translate the two terms, yielding something that sounds like contemplation of an intellectual topic.


Are these two Chinese words also used in the Chinese equivalent to Snp 4.2 phassam(touch or contact) and sannam(sense or perception)?

If so, that would seem to strongly suggest that Snp 4.2 is referencing the four jhanas and that the fourth jhana is formless.

Added later: actually the second, third, and fourth would be formless.

No, not that I have seen anywhere in the Agamas. While I translate 覺 as “to perceive,” it’s a different word that sanna, which is a general word for perception or conception. Other Indic words that 覺 translates sometimes are vedana and bodhi. When it translates bodhi, it’s read to mean “to wake up” rather than to “to notice.” When it translates vedana, it’s read in the same way as I described above as to notice or initially perceive something with the senses, referring to bare awareness before conceptualization happens.

Sanna is almost always translated to Chinese as 想, which means a mental image or concept. Phassa is usually translated to Chinese as 觸, which means to contact, arouse, run into.


According to the Sutta Central parallels, the equivalent to Snp 4.2 is this.

I just did a search within page and the two words you said were the equivalents for vitakka and vicara are found. Since I am not a Chinese expert can you confirm this?

Right, but it doesn’t actually point to the direct parallel. That text is the parallel to the entire Atthaka-vagga, and it’s likely in a different order than the Pali. Also, T198 is one of the earliest translations to Chinese, so it doesn’t use the same terminology as the Agamas do, which were translate a couple centuries later in history.

So, it looks like the parallel to the last verse in Snp 4.2 is this in sutra 2 of T198:

覺想觀度海, 有我尊不計,
力行拔未出, 致使乃無疑。」

I would read it:

“Feeling (vedana) and conception (sanna) being examined and crossing the ocean
The sage doesn’t conjecture about there being self.
Practicing with strength, he plucks what’s not yet out,
And comes to have no doubt.”


Putting aside the fact that the parallel to Snp 4.2 is not in the agamas but was translated earlier, the equivalent to Snp 4.2 does use the same words you identified as equivalents to vitakka and vicara, correct?

Why would you interpret the words differently here?

Because, as I explained, they are used in different contexts to translate different Indic words. 想 is 99% of the time a translation of sanna or nirmitta. That being the case, 覺 is most likely translating vedana, which is the more common way it’s used. It’s only used to translate vitakka in the jhana formulas. So, I would assume that 覺想 are vedana sanna.

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I hope you will bare with me for one more question.

The quote below is from Bapat’s translation from the Chinese of Snp 4.2 page 49 of the PDF and page 20 of the book.

(7) Having removed“ the longing for both the extremes,
With no attachment,full comprehension doth he possess;
Never doth he practise what he himself doth condemn.
In what he sees and hears, he never gets soiled. (Sn. 778)
(8) Understanding perceptions, of crossing the flood
doth he think,
In personal belongings, the Honoured One doth
never get mixed up;
With vigour, he takes out [the dart] that lies within."
Thus doth he shape himself, until no doubt is left
in him." (Sn. 779, d-diff.)

Verse 7 refers to “what he sees and hears” and “full comprehension”. This seems to imply contact.

Verse 8 refers to “perceptions” plural.

Does the Chinese words for vitakka and vicara appear in verse 7 or 8 in the phrases I have in quotes?

Added later: in verse 7, full compression of what?

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[@moderators may want to rename this thread and put it in discussion rather than Q&A, since we’re discussing the Chinese parallel to Snp 4.2, not the Agama translation of vitakka and vicara.]

First, your questions:

“Full comprehension” translates P. pariññā in verse 7 and 8. In Chinese, it’s translated as 覺. The term P. phassa doesn’t occur in the Chinese verse.

Bapat is translating P. sañña as perception like most Pali translators do. The Chinese translates it as 想. He is also inferring plurality. There’s no indicator of that in the Chinese verse. It could be plural or singular. It’s up to the reader to decide.

Words that translate vitakka and vicara in the jhana formulas are being used to translate other Indic words in these verses.

I was looking into this a little more this morning because it doesn’t seem right to read 覺 as vedana, and it’s an interesting exercise in reading these early translations.

Verse 8 in your quote is the verse that I had quoted from the text and translated off-the-cuff. Giving it more attention and searching for how these terms are used in T198, I think that Bapat is correct in reading 覺 as “understanding” in English in the first line of verse 8. It probably translates the equivalent of Skt. parijñāna (pariññā in Pali). Parijñāna can mean “discovery, perception, ascertainment, experience” in Sanskrit, in addition to meanings like “full knowledge.” These all fall into the usual meanings of 覺 like to notice, perceive, or realize. So, that reading seems best, especially give how close the Chinese and Pali are for that line.

But let’s look at it closer by putting the Chinese and Pali side by side and matching them with each other.

Verse 7

Snp 4.2 T198, No. 2 Correspondence
Ubhosu antesu vineyya chandaṁ, 力(離?)欲於兩面, 力(離?) = vineyya, 欲 = chandaṁ, 於兩面 = ubhosu antesu
Phassaṁ pariññāya anānugiddho; 彼可覺莫著, 可覺 = pariññāya, 莫著 ~ anānugiddho
Yadattagarahī tadakubbamāno, 莫行所自怨, 莫行 = yadattagarahī, 所自怨 = tadakubbamāno
Na lippatī diṭṭhasutesu dhīro. 見聞莫自污。 見聞 = diṭṭhasutesu, 莫自污 ~ na lippatī

Line 1: An immediate problem is 力, which means “power, strength, ability.” Bapat chooses to substitute a homophone (離, “to part, separate, leave”) that allows him to translate P. vineyya in the Chinese. He may be right, but it’s strange that there are no attempts to correct it in the various Chinese editions. If we don’t accept Bapat’s change, the Chinese reads: “With strong desires (力欲) on both sides (於兩面).” If we accept it, we have “Parting with desires (離欲) on both sides.”

Line 2: Phassa is missing from the Chinese. Instead, we have a pronoun 彼 “He/them” or “that/those.” It probably refers to the person who can realize (可覺) not being attached (莫著). Notice that the Chinese has attachment (著) instead of greedy (anugiddha), but they are close in meaning.

Line 3: The Chinese is nearly identical to the Pali. “Don’t do (莫行) what for which (所 ) [one would] blame themself (自怨).”

Line 4: Being wise or resolute (dhīra) isn’t mentioned in the Chinese, and it says not to defile oneself rather than not to cling. Both are close, negative meanings. “Don’t (莫) defile yourself (自污) [with what’s] seen and heard (見聞).” Seen and heard might be too literal: the functional meaning could be “views and learning” in Pali and Chinese.

Verse 8

Snp 4.2 T198, No. 2 Correspondence
Saññaṁ pariññā vitareyya oghaṁ, 覺想觀度海, 想 = saññaṁ, 覺 = pariññā, 度 = vitareyya, 海 ~ oghaṁ
Pariggahesu muni nopalitto; 有我尊不計, 有我 ~ pariggahesu, 尊 = muni, 不計 ~ nopalitto
Abbūḷhasallo caramappamatto, 力行拔未出, 拔 = abbūḷha, 未出 ~ sallo, 力行 = caramappamatto
Nāsīsatī lokamimaṁ parañcāti. 致使乃無疑。」

Line 1: The odd thing here is the insertion of 觀, which means “to look, examine, observe, contemplate.” The rest of the Chinese corresponds well with the Pali. “Realizing (understanding?) perceptions (覺想), contemplating (觀) crossing the ocean (度海).” Bapat handles 觀 by adding “doth he think” to his translation: “Understanding perceptions, of crossing the flood doth he think.” He also forces ocean to mean flood, etc. It makes the line read more like the Pali than it really does, but the Chinese is close to it.

Line 2: The correspondence is pretty close here, too, but the Chinese differs a little. 有我 literally means “there’s a self” or “possessing a self.” It’s a stretch to me to read it as “belongings.” There are words for that in classical Chinese, so it’s pretty awkward if that’s what was intended. Also, 不計 means “not conjecturing or imagining.” Still, it can express mental attachment to an idea, so it’s not that far off as a functional meaning. “The sage (尊) doesn’t conjecture (不計) about having a self (有我).”

Line 3: There’s no mention of a dart in Chinese. Instead, the expression “yet to be [taken] out” (未出) would seem to refer to the same thing the dart does. “With strong practice (力行), he pulls out (拔) what’s not yet out (未出).”

Line 4: This line doesn’t read like the Pali at all. There’s no mention of longing, the world, or the next. Instead, it says, “It comes to be (致使) then (乃) that he has no doubt (無疑).” 致使 means to bring something about, to cause it, to result in something. 乃 is an adverb like English “then, thereupon, so” that expresses a conclusion or passage of time. 無疑 means simply “no doubt.”


There are a couple of things that strike me as odd.

  1. The verse 7 translation should contain the phrase for fully comprehend contact. Not knowing Chinese, I would expect that to look like this based I what you are saying: 彼可覺 觸莫著
    Instead, it says 彼可覺莫著, (contact is missing)

  2. The verse 8 translation should contain the phrase for fully understand perception 覺想度海,
    Instead, it says: 覺想觀度海 (The 觀 appears to be extraneous)

How can these be explained?

I wonder if the original translations looked like this:

  1. Verse 7: 彼可覺覺莫著 with 覺 being used in two different senses meaning fully understanding contact with contact rendered the same way as vitakka, the two being considered synonymous.
    The double 覺 might have been collapsed down to one by a transcriber thinking the second was an error.

  2. Verse 8: 覺觀度海 Meaning fully understanding perception with perception being rendered the same way as vicara, again being considered synonymous and a later transcriber inserted the 想 when that became the standard for perception

Obviously, this is speculative. I am looking for an explanation for the oddities. Thoughts?

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Perhaps this might help

覺(知) 想 觀 度海
Fully realised perception observed one shall cross over the ocean (of samsara)

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The problem is that the length of Chinese verses is fixed to a certain meter. In this case, the translator decided to use five-character verses. It’s true, though, that sometimes a Chinese translator will add or truncate words to make a line fit the verse’s meter. But any changes have to result in five-character lines in this case, and it’s usually superficial, like shortening a name or adding a preposition, etc.

Chinese translators were also intelligent enough not to confuse their readers by using the same word twice with different readings in a context that wasn’t obvious.

So, for instance, in the Dirgha Agama, 受 translates both vedanā and upādāna, and it occurs in both ways in passages about the five acquired aggregates. It doesn’t confuse anyone who’s well-read because we quickly learn that 受陰 means vedanā skandha and 五受陰 means pañca upādāna skandha, and so 受受陰 means vedana upādāna skandha.

Similar things happen with 覺 in the Madhyama Agama because it translates both vedanā in the five aggregates and vitarka in the dhyāna formula. So, in the Dharmadinna Sutra (MA 210), it occurs in both senses quite close together, but the context is obvious to the reader. It reads like this:


Which translates to something like this:

“What pleasant feeling doesn’t have desire as its tendency? Suppose a monk is secluded from desire and secluded from bad and unskillful things. With perception and examination, that seclusion gives rise to joy and happiness, and he achieves the first dhyāna. This is called pleasant feeling that doesn’t have desire as its tendency. Why is that? Because this feeling stops desire.

A reader can tell that 樂覺 means pleasant feeling and 有覺、有觀 is savitarka savicara because in the second case, it’s embedding in the formula for the first dhyāna.

Chinese translators didn’t to try to be cryptic. Believe me, classical Chinese is already cryptic. The struggle was to make it less cryptic.


Given the text as is, could 覺想觀度海 legitimately be interpreted as “fully understanding perception and vicara …” ? That would seem to be inline with how Bapat read it motivating his use of “fully understanding perceptions…” with the plural. The use of the more generic 想 perception possibly being motivated by the desire to avoid any ambiguity due to a double 覺 .

Possibly, yes. 觀 can mean a range of words though. In terms of meaning, it’s either to examine or look at (something) or to contemplate. Those are the most common readings it has. The Indic equivalent in this line is a mystery since there’s nothing in the Pali parallel that corresponds. It’s possible the translator added it himself to make a five-character line, too.

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MA81 and MA98 are listed as parallels to MN119 (Mindfulness of the Body). What Chinese words are being used to translate vitakkavicārānaṁ in these cases?
Added later: I think they just reversed the order of the symbols from what I expected: 觀覺

Savittaka-savicara doesn’t occur in MA 81 or MA 98 because the Sarvastivadins don’t include the full jhana formulas in their versions of the Mindfulness of Body practices. They claim that the samadhis described in those sutras are different than the jhanas in their Abhidharma. The jhana formulas do occur in many other MA sutras like MA 2 and MA 3, etc.

Interesting, is there a description of the meditation practice that the Sarvastivadins claim brings about the jhanas, if not mindfulness of the body?

That’s a good question. So far, Buddhaghosa is the only source I’ve found that goes to that much detail about it. Most sources have a description like that found in the Theravada Vibhanga’s Jhana chapter. They describe the conditions for suppressing the hindrances, but they don’t explicitly describe a technique for entering the first jhana.