Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

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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Well, you have Suttacentral with its search function. With a bit of effort you could probably find out!

There are some fairly obvious examples such as cetanā and sañcetanā, which I believe are synonymous. The only difference between them is that the latter word is used in compounds, whereas the former is a freestanding noun. Another example might be saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkaroti, which express the same idea, one being a noun the other a verb.

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Hi Gabriel,

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?

Sometimes the prefixes are meaningless :slightly_smiling: I’m not sure if it will be helpful, but in Latvian (Indo-European language, Baltic subgroup) we have the same. And also there are examples in Latvian when the prefix changes the meaning of the word completely. To make it even more confusing, sometimes one word with two different prefixes means exactly the same thing. There are a lot of similarities between my mother tongue and Pali, but I guess Latvian is not the only living language with examples like these.

With metta,


Thanks Bhante Brahmali, I will continue the suttacentral searches which I am very grateful for!!
I can speak for many amateurs though when I say that no matter how much we investigate an isolated question, we still have the feeling that we completely miss the bigger picture - which Linda expresses so nicely :slight_smile:
Since I came up with the topic I will do a further research and will keep you guys informed

Thanks @rudite, when I came up with the comparisons to contemporary languages I knew of course that it doesn’t prove anything. I think we can agree though that in the formative years of a synthetic language the prefixes must have made a difference. The question is for the pali of the nikayas if it is a language in that stage, or if it had went through too many adjustments already - up to a point that formerly different words became synonymous. On a big scale the question of prefixes in Pali can only be done by a linguist I guess. But as usual, if there is anything I learned from the language philosophers, it’s that ambiguities and degrees of freedom in the interpretation are valuable and should not be buried under a consensus that doesn’t come from the text itself.

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Adding to the possible aspects of vitakka and vicara, I was looking through the oldest extant Jain scripture, i.e. the Tattvarthsutra from around the 1st century BC. There we find in Ch.9

Vitarkah shrutam - Vitarka is ‘the heard’ (scriptural knowledge)

The first should mean ‘vitarka is the heard/learned scriptural knowledge’ which in the meditation context would simply mean the meditation object.

The second I suspect is hindi? and would read in sanskrit - ‘vicara arthavijñāna yoga saṃkrānti’, meaning:
vicara is the movement/transference (samkranti) in the practice (yoga) of the understanding of meaning (arthavijñāna)

This would be a perfectly viable meaning for vitakka-vicara. With sati I would bring back repeatedly the object of meditation (vitakka) and deepen my ‘understanding’ of it (vicara) by striking it again and again until it results in complete immersion of the mind in it.

Does it make sense to you guys as well?


Thought I might chime in here with a few salient passages I found a while back that I think need to be considered for understanding the two words:

MN 18:

Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti

ie “What they perceive, that they vitakketi

SN 36.22:

Cha soma­nassa-upavi­cārā, cha domanas­sa-upa­vicārā, cha upekkha-upavi­cārā—imā vuccanti, bhikkhave, aṭṭhārasa vedanā.

ie ‘The Eighteen Feelings’ are defined as “vicārā upon a happiness/sadness/equanimity at the six senses”, and the following passage appears to get a little more specific on what that means:

MN 137:

‘Aṭṭhārasa manopavicārā veditabbā’ti—iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? ‘Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanas­saṭ­ṭhānī­yaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, domanas­saṭ­ṭhānī­yaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati, upekkhāṭ­ṭhānī­yaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati.

“Having seen/heard/… a sight/sound… with the eye/ear…, they vicarati-upon the happiness/sadness/equanimity-causing form”

And so these passages indicate that vitakka is much to do with perception (and papañca) while vicāra is much to do with feeling. And to be clear, we have from the Khandha Samyutta:

SN 22.79:

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it feeling? ‘It feels,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called feeling. And what does it feel? It feels pleasure, it feels pain, it feels neither-pain-nor-pleasure. ‘It feels,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called feeling.

“And why, bhikkhus, do you call it perception? ‘It perceives,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called perception. And what does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. ‘It perceives,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called perception.