Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

the normal translations of vitakka-vicara never made sense to me from a practical meditation point of view. I would like to read it as
vi-takka = away-from reasoning, or ending reasoning
vi-cara = away-from movement, ending movement
So my interpretation would be that in the 1st Jhana the mind is in the process of ending its movement.
The 2nd Jhana would then be finished with the ending and would thus be self-sustaining.
Is this a grammatically & legitimate reading?


This is a personal opinion.

Vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā

“About the thought and investigation” mastery and …

Hi Gabriel,

I think your ideas here are a good example of the limitations of etymology. The word vitakka, especially, is clearly related to thinking in the suttas. This is quite obvious from its contextual use, apart from certain special contexts such as the jhāna formulas . And in matters of textual interpretation meaning derived from context must always take precedent over meaning derived from etymology.

You are right that the word “thought” does not really describe vitakka as a jhāna factor. I believe the clue to make sense of this is to recognise that vitakka ends completely in the second jhāna. This means that the vitakka of the first jhāna is the very last remainder of thought before it ceases altogether. That this should refer to just a very basic movement of the mind seems quite natural to me.

One may query why the Buddha used a word that does not seem particularly well-suited to the task. The answer is probably that we are dealing with phenomena for which there are no well-suited words. The jhānas are qualities so different from our ordinary human experience (uttarimanussadhammā) that we have not really developed a specialist vocabulary for them. The Buddha had to make do with the language that was available to him. For some reason - probably a very good one - he settled on vitakka and vicāra.


If I may, @alalfhr, to quote a traditional translation is not a substantial refutation.

Is it ok to play devil’s advocate?
@Bhante Brahmali, thanks for bringing the context in.
Would you please have examples for vitakka that are irreconcilable / incompatible with my purely etymological reading?

  • In SN 56.7 (Vitakkasutta) for example I could argue that the background is still the meditation process and that there are kusala and akusala ways to end the thought process.

  • Milindapanha 3.3 13 & 14 give examples that imply the ending of something (the ‘beating into shape of the vessel’ is at some point done - ‘reflection’ and ‘thought’ isn’t…

  • ‘Vitarka’ in Sanskrit seems to be post-vedic, so there would be no help from that side…

So I’d be very grateful for clearly contradicting examples. Just want to avoid that an agreed interpretation discourages other fresh reading possibilities.

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I’m sorry I’m not familiar with the English language.

I did not understand what you are looking for exactly.

I am convinced that there is a connection with the jhānas “SN 46.3”.

I see, but in this sutta we have “anuvitakketi”, and the “anu-” changes the meaning again to a parallel movement, doesn’t it? I was hoping for sutta or vinaya passages where the pure ‘vitakka’ has a context that makes it incompatible with an understanding of ‘ending the thought process’


I’m sorry I’m not familiar with the English language.

I hope you can understand my writing.

“Ending the thought process” will think that you can do in saññāvedayitanirodhaṃ.

My English is too insufficient to explain this part.

Yaṃ hāvuso [yañcāvuso (syā. kaṃ. ka.)], vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vijānāti.

It’s a reason to imagine that feeling,
vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ

I know it, imagining in my head.
sañjānāti taṃ vijānāti.


I appreciate your idea as I also like to look at the etymology to try and understand nuances in meaning. But I agree with Ajahn Brahmali that the way in which a word is used in ‘everyday’ Pali as evidenced by sutta passages trumps, so to speak, etymology.

Seems to me that in the suttas, vitakka is often used simply to mean ‘thought’ or ‘reflection’. For example, what do you think about it’s use in SN 56.7?

Also, although I am only still learning Pali, I’ve found that prefixes can be somewhat confusing. Sometimes they only add a slight degree of emphasis without actually changing the meaning of a word, and sometimes a word with or without the prefix means pretty much exactly the same thing. But sometimes they do change the meaning quite a bit, so again, it’s good to see how any given word is used in various ways thoughout the suttas.

PS I thought of another good example, a passage from AN 4.35 when the Buddha is talking about one of the qualitis of a wise man:

He thinks whatever he wants to think and does not think what he does not want to think; he intends whatever he wants to intend and does not intend what he does not want to intend; thus he has attained to mental mastery over the ways of thought.

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Oh sorry, I didn’t see that you had already referenced 56.7 when I wrote my last comment.

Thank you Linda for your suggestions!
AN 4:35 is a very interesting case. So the Buddha describes ‘cetovasippatto’ via 'vitakkapathe’
mastery over ceto - here ‘ceto’ is for me much more the neutral ‘thought’ that vitakka is usually translated to. And vitakka-pathe = in the way of vitakka.
Still defending my case :slight_smile: why can’t the passage mean: He attains mastery over thoughts in the way of ending reasoning? Especially when in the next paragraph he mentions the four Jhanas?

My point is twofold I think:

  • When we forget everything we heard about vitakka being thought, where are we forced to translate it as thought?
  • I cannot believe that prefixes are sometimes meaningless. Why use vi-takka, when the text could use simply takka? My native language is German, and English is similarly prefix-sensitive - do you know many examples where the prefixes are simply meaningless? As I see it the Buddha, caring so much about the legacy of the Dhamma for the centuries to come, he would be very language-sensitive. Why would he (or even the compilers) be sloppy with prefixes and use vague terms?
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Being the devil’s advocate, does that make you Māra’s advocate? I am not sure I want to mess with Māra’s:wink:

Anyway. Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. In MN20 we find the expression vitakkasanthāna , the calming of vitakka. With your interpretation this would mean “the calming of the ending of movement,” which might just be possible but seems much more unlikely than simply the “calming of thought.” At AN5.73 and AN5.74 we find the expression bhikkhu vitakkabahulo, no dhammavihārī, which means “a monk who has much vitakka but does not live according to Dhamma.” With your interpretation, having much vitakka would indeed be to live according to the Dhamma.

It’s great that people are interested in Pali. Have fun!


@Gabriel @Brahmali

I would agree that this could well apply in the context of meditation. But what about the whole of the path, say outside of formal mediation, for example, in terms of cultivating wholesome thoughts instead of unwholesomes ones? I guess my point is that vitakka seems to cover a broader range of ‘thought’.

I cannot believe that prefixes are sometimes meaningless.

Oh gosh, I’m not knowledgeable enough with Pali to think of some example off the top of my head. It seems I’ve come across this in reading sutta passages in Pali and have heard example in Pali classes (audio recordings). Perhaps, in the cases in which the words seem to have virtually the same meaning (and as I said, they certainly don’t always), there was originally more of a difference and over time the distinction got blurred (I mean even over the time of oral transmission of the texts). That certainly can happen with languages. Or perhaps you’re correct and there’s always at least some fine distinction/nuance, even if the words are somewhat interchangeably or used in very similar ways. Ajahn Brahmali , can you help with this and/or some examples either way?

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@Linda @Brahmali
Thanks Linda and Bhante for your contributions, I am grateful for the dhamma discussion!
MN20 is a challenge, and it starts with the title that should properly be “The appearance of thought” if I’m not mistaken. Here indeed I would have problems with translating “The appearance of the ending of thought” - unless the sutta would introduce ways to the ending of thought…

Actually the ‘calming of the ending of movement’ was my starting point: In the standard Jhana description, I could not believe (which is incredulous for practitioners) that the first jhana includes normal thinking. The common meditation experience rather shows I think a strong effort to end thoughts, which in the process can be rewarded by strong joy. This effort, this process is not subtle though and would need to end, which would be in the second Jhana (vitak­ka­vicārā­naṃ vūpasamā…)

MN20 starts with a bhikkhu pursuing adhicitta, i.e. the jhanas, so he’s sitting in meditation already. ‘With the abandoning of akusalā vitakkā his mind is… brought to singleness’. But samadhi as a jhana factor only comes in in the second jhana. So am I right then that the whole sutta is dealing with the meditation process between the first and second jhana? If so, I think it’s legitimate to maintain the position that in the first jhana, striving to end thoughts, there are kusala and akusala ways to do it - the kusala way would end this process and lead to the second jhana with samadhi as a factor.

I hope this is not mere sophistry: when we practice the standard translations tell us that we can have jhana with ‘normal’ thinking and reasoning. This to me seems ridiculous, and I hope to find support in the pali for a more realistic description of the progress in meditation

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It’s indeed very unfortunate that the use of the words vitakka and vicāra in the fist jhāna seems to have led at least a few teachers and scholars to the conclusion that there can be 'normal’ thinking or say, even a type of pleasant musing or something of that sort, present. It seems more than obvious both experientially and in terms of the many suttas discussing jhāna that a meditative state with this present would not be jhāna of any kind!

Interestingly, Ven Anālayo has pointed out that in the Chinese Āgama discourses, the Chinese character used for the absorption factor corresponding to vitakka in the Pali is one meaning ‘awareness’ which differs from the character they use elsewhere to render ‘thought’. He mentions that in doing so the Āgama translators seemed to express that they understood the practical implications.

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I’m following Ven. Analayo’s Nikaya-Agama comparisons with great interest. I should have most of his publications. Could you please tell me where you found the reference to vitakka?


I believe I first heard this from him in one of his MA course lectures (in his 2013 course entitled ‘Tranquility and Insight’). I assume you know about those? If not, there are links to the lectures in the AV section of this site. He did three on-line MA coures, 2011–2013. Well worth listening to if you haven’t already.

I don’t know if he mentiones it anywhere in his MN comparative study book, but I wouldn’t be surprised it it’s referenced somewhere in one of the suttas on jhana! It’s also in a paper he wrote on the ‘First Absorption’ (I think that’s the title). But I don’t know if the paper has been published yet.

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Too often writers mull over the problem of shades of usage and meaning of vitakka in the Pali, without similarly looking at the shades of usage and meaning of “thought” in English.

(Ven. Sujato’s blog piece and discussion “Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana” is the only place I’ve found that does to any extent examines the English term more closely.)

Some take the s/w uncritical view at one extreme that vitakka, even as jhanic factor, is virtually “discursive thinking”, e.g. Leigh Brasington (and his sources Rod Bucknell, Martin Stuart-Fox, and Paul Griffiths). But then, this camp tends to consider 1st jhana as a sort of piti-trance.

Disclosure: My jhana training was with Shaila Catherine and Ven. U Jagara, both students of Pa Auk Sayadaw, using the Visudhimagga formula and terminology. That said, from extensive study of the arguments on many sides of the discussion, I believe the fundamental experience of jhana is not all that different, i.e. between so-called “sutta-jhana” and “Visudhimagga-jhana”, where either form is practiced well into mastery.

I take vitakka as similar to “thought” in the sense of “I thought of that” or “That thought came to mind”, meaning that something came into focus in the mind’s eye, rather than became a train or process of analysis – like Ven. Brahmali’s “very basic movement of the mind”. That plus vicara as “holding to it”, or even, in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s sense of “evaluating it” (which emphasizes the presence of sati) makes up what I think of (sic) as an initial, working form of ekaggata; i.e. developing singular focus where it still takes a bit of effort and persistance, as in the simile of kneading soap powder with moisture. By the 2nd jhana, as Ven. Brahmali mentions, this becomes unnecessary, as the mind has practiced it into a firm automatic habit; like practicing a musical technique until it becomes 2nd-nature.

The example given by Linda (AN 4.35) could also be taken in the sense of ‘thought’ as focus rather than as process. It seems related to ‘guarding the sense-doors’, where the direction of attention is the crucial factor; given the right focus (and/or avoidance), any ensuing process of ‘thought’ is secondary, as it’s on the right track, so to speak.

This might work with Gabriel’s use of “ending reasoning”, which brings up the discursive, process aspect that’s not inherent in all uses of “thought”. And I agree with his sentiment, and Linda’s, that having “jhana with ‘normal’ thinking and reasoning” is unintelligible from the viewpoint of jhana as absorption (which, though, doesn’t seem to be universally held.)

Btw: The point about the Agama-s using different terms for vitakka in and out of jhana also was brought up by Ven. Sujato in the vitakka blog; he states he’d seen Analayo’s study where that was documented. He might be able to provide the exact location.)

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Thanks for adding yet another aspect to the discussion. And thanks for mentioning Bh. Sujato’s great blog entry, I will study it later, but it’s elaborating so well what I had in mind, namely that (hopefully) we should be able to find the meaning of abstract terms in more concrete origins, and that an understanding of the language itself should ideally provide us with the nuances, not conflicting interpretations of them based on ‘feelings’. For everyone who wants to read up on it:

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My main question remains unsolved (unsolvable?): Does the prefix ‘vi’ significantly change the meaning of ‘takka’, and if so how?
I take it for granted that the Buddha was extremely careful in his use of language. After all his legacy was embodied mainly in the Dhamma - the representation of truth and the path on a verbal level. When we look at descriptions of the gradual path, it usually starts with a householder hearing the Dhamma - ideally from an ariya-puggala. So much depends on a conscious use of words!
The pali canon is probably the closest we have, but canonisation came already with a price - the various magadha dialects the Buddha probably was teaching in were adjusted in the recording, getting formalized for better memorization etc. Among other distortions we don’t know how that affected the wording/message. Still we should take the language of the canon very seriously.
Pali, as Vedic, is a fusional synthetic language - a change in meaning is expressed by prefixes and suffixes. It makes a huge difference if an object is in the nominative or instrumental case. We can not ignore that and somehow translate it according to our ideas.
So why then should a language that in its abilities to express differences depends on pre- and suffixes have so many words where the prefixes apparently don’t matter as the pali dictionaries suggest? In Germanprefixes are absolutely essential for the meaning, and I think in English it’s the same. How can it be different in Vedic (where some prefixes even used to be individual words) or Pali?
I hope that future reassessments of the Pali language will pay less attention to the later commentaries and traditional understandings and justify understandings more from the pali texts themselves and from the Vedic Sanskrit that predates Pali.

the meanings of the Sanskrit tarka and vitarka upon examination appear more or less synonymous

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