Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

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.

1 Like

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.


Hi Gabriel

My take on this based on my practice is that this terms could be translated as Directed thought and Evaluation, in my practice directed thought is the mental pronunciation of an honest wish for happiness for all beings and evaluation is the increase or decrease of the energy used in the observation of the meditation object, I increase and decrease the energy using thinking.


here’s one of the things that makes visuddhimagga “jhana” so incoherent. if you can resolve to enter the frozen samadhi where you can’t investigate, can’t think, can’t do anything until you emerge from that frozen samadhi at a predetermined time, then how are the 5 hindrances threatening to knock you out of first jhana? how is vitakka and vicara close to throwing you out of 2nd jhana? how does piti disturb 3rd jhana? etc. Why even talk about speech (vāca) ceasing in first jhana, or wrong intentions ceasing in first jhana, if a prerequisite to jhana is you can’t hear sounds, can’t think, body has disappeared,etc? and if that is the case, couldn’t the buddha have stated that plainly? such as:

what monks, is right concentration?
here monks, a monk
attends to the perception of light
does not attend to perceptions of the body
does not hear sounds
thinking and evaluation ceases.

that’s about the same number of words as the average of any of the 4 standard jhana formulas. and it would be perfectly clear what the entry prerequisites are for jhana .

why would the buddha go out of his way to point out “sato and sampajano” are still active in 3rd jhana, and sukha is experienced with kaya/body, if the perceptions of body and sound have disappeared already, and the type of investigation with “sampajano” as described in AN 4.41 were not possible?

two words for you. occams razor .

check out Bhante Gunaratana’s description of jhanas in his book “Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English”, he takes the occams razor approach to interpreting jhanas from the suttas in a straightforward manner.

see ajahn lee’s "keeping the breath in mind"
in ajahn’s autobiography, he stated that ajahn mun told him of all his disciples, ajahn lee had the best understanding of anapanassati.
witnesses say he once levitated a bus full of people.
are you going to tell me ajahn lee’s samadhi was “not deep enough”?
his interpretation of kaya is the anatomical body.
his interpretation of vitakka and vicara in first jhana and anapanasati is the straightforward plain meaning you would expect.

and are you going to tell Arahant Upatissa his samadhi is not deep enough? take a close read of his description of anapanasati 16 steps in vimuttimagga. it’s a lot more similar to Ajahn Lee’s and Ven. Thanissaro’s method than Visuddhimagga.

1 Like

Hi Frank, ,

I don’t know how to answer that, but I would point out that various teachers with an interest in EBT also define Jhana as a very deep samadhi. I gave a quote from Ajahn Brahm in the post below. I don’t have quotes from Ven Analayo to hand, but he discussed this in his lectures on the Madhyama-āgama and Pali Parallels:

Here’s the quote from Ajahn Brham’s book:

Another feature of jhana is that it occurs only after the nimitta is discerned,
as described above. Furthermore, one should know that during
any jhana it is impossible to experience the body (e.g., physical pain),
hear a sound from outside,or produce any thought—not even a “good”
thought. There is just a clear singleness of perception, an experience of
nondual bliss that continues unchanging for a very long time. This is
not a trance but a state of heightened awareness. I say this so that you
may know for yourself whether what you take to be a jhana is real or

Thanks for these quotes!

May I ask, how do you come to that conclusion? MN 18 delivers a variant of the dependent origination. The ‘yam-tam’ clearly is a succession of logical steps. So what it shows is that vitakka has to do with sanna - where else should the thoughts come from apart from the seen and heard? What I can see here though is an aspect of vitakketi as ‘conceptualizes’ rather than simply ‘thinks’ - which is a very helpful additional aspect (in contrast to ‘just-thought’).

SN 36.22 is a pretty intransparent list of different sets of vedana. The context of vedana-vicara is obscure, it’s just ‘a set of 18 vedana’ - as interesting as it is. It is a pericope appearing somewhere else in more detail and context?

But that is not connected to vitakka-vicara. It’s one description of feeling-experience and perception. How does it clarify the above?

Thanks, I think it’s necessary with somewhat unclear terms to come from practice. So in your example your vitakka would be ‘the honest wish for happiness for all beings’ which maybe I can call a ‘metta-vitakka’. I guess you would agree that for other practitioners another dhamma-concept could be at that same place? Could we say tentatively the ‘meditation object’ (I don’t like the term, it’s rather lifeless) is raised there, be it metta-vitakka, asubha-vitakka, nirodha-vitakka?

I wonder about that. I can see how adjusting the energy is necessary in the meditation process. But isn’t there a process going on where you figure out how to become more ‘full’ of the metta that you’re upholding in the mind? I can’t imagine that the only two elements are thought + energy. Isn’t there some sort of ‘expansion’, ‘immersion’ ‘realization’ of the meditation-concept going on? At least in my experience there is, and that is easier to qualify as vicara I think whereas the right energy of course is there but doesn’t seem to be mentioned separately and explicitly in the jhana formulas.

I still wonder if the Jain text offers a new understanding of vitakka-vicara as it was used in the Buddha’s time
vitakka = a dhamma concept / meditation object
vicara = the movement of increasing its understanding

1 Like

Yes, vitakka would be that, I think it finds support on MN 117 as the intention of non-ill will:

"“And what, bhikkhus, is right intention that is affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions? The intention of renunciation, the intention of non-ill will, and the intention of non-cruelty: this is right intention that is affected by taints…ripening in the acquisitions.

“And what, bhikkhus, is right intention that is noble, taintless, supramundane, a factor of the path? The thinking, thought, intention, mental absorption, mental fixity, directing of mind, verbal formation in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is taintless, who possesses the noble path and is developing the noble path: this is right intention that is noble…a factor of the path."

For other practitioners eg if you do breathing meditation, vitakka would be “I will breath sensitive to rapture”, or if you do satipatthana it would be “Mind is affect by lust” or if you do “Two kinds of thoughts” (MN 19) it would be “This thought is leading to my suffering to their suffering… taking me away from Nibbana” it is the initial thinking that helps either to bring up (or enhance) a wholesome object or to dispel an unwholesome object. In the case of the continuous repetition of a mantra I guess you could say that is the meditation object, but otherwise is the beginning of the meditation the first push to get the mind in the desired direction. I think a number of meditations have many meditations objects, like the breath and rapture "

In the case of Metta the honest wish for universal unlimited happiness is only the trigger to bring up the feeling which corresponds to the awakening factor of Joy, this is based on SN 46.54, then the feeling of joy is what we try to become “full” of. But in this process of fullness if we focus too intensely on the feeling we become restless and if we focus to lightly we become sleepy. Something like what is taught in AN 6.5 (or MN 128):

“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”

This process of continuously applied examination and evaluation which is vicara provides with an understanding of how to take the feelings to the level of fulfillment. But as a dynamic process does not have a strict set of rules, sometimes we need to increase something and sometimes we need to decrease it, like when in SN 46.53 Joy, Energy, Investigation are recommended for a sluggish mind or Equanimity, Tranquility, Concentration for a restless mind.

The 4 noble truths are a good example of the application of both, as is mentioned in SN 56.7 the 4 noble truths can be usefully thought (vitakka) , they refer to the evaluation and response to a situation.


1 Like

###[quote=“Gabriel, post:30, topic:2589”]
May I ask, how do you come to that conclusion?

Admittedly, some opinion is mixed in here, but how I currently make sense of vitakka is as “(re-)configuration of perception”. To use @dhammarelax1’s example, in mettā meditation, vitakka might be going through apprehending the different beings for which mettā is aroused. While vicāra/upavicāra would be “dwelling/roaming upon” the affective/feeling-tone aspect of each apprehension, eg energizing it as @dhammarelax1 gives there.

What I think is interesting in particular here is that a search through the texts for regular expressions like “vitakk” and “vic[aā]r” yields some interesting variety in the usage of the words and I suspect it should be possible to form a much more precise definition by following the threads.

Yes and no… A search for “aṭṭhāras.{1,5}vedan” does yield MN 59 which provides more context for SN 36.22, but the individual groupings are explained in different suttas (ie no single place that enumerates and belabours each element of each grouping) , MN 137 being one of the handful that provide detail for “The Eighteen Feelings” in particular.

Yes, absolutely correct, what I meant was that in case there were any misgivings on how vedana and sanna are defined and distinguished in the suttas, I thought I’d proactively offer SN 22.79. I consider it the go-to sutta for the most direct definition of the five khandhas. I could’ve been more clear about that.

I still wonder if the Jain text offers a new understanding of vitakka-vicara as it was used in the Buddha’s time

You might find SN 46.3 to be of interest. The verbs anuvitakketi and pavicarati are employed very similarly to how it’s laid out in the Jain text you have above.

Perception as defined in SN 22.79 cannot be really changed:

“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."

But in MN 152 or SN 54.08 vittaka does re-configure perception which is repulsive / un repulsive:

“And how is one a noble one with developed faculties? There is the case where, when seeing a form with the eye, there arises in a monk what is agreeable, what is disagreeable, what is agreeable & disagreeable. If he wants, he remains percipient of loathsomeness in the presence of what is not loathsome. If he wants, he remains percipient of unloathsomeness in the presence of what is loathsome. If he wants, he remains percipient of loathsomeness in the presence of what is not loathsome & what is. If he wants, he remains percipient of unloathsomeness in the presence of what is loathsome & what is not. If he wants — in the presence of what is loathsome & what is not — cutting himself off from both, he remains equanimous, alert, & mindful.”

Is there a definition of perception than covers both?

1 Like

hi mikenz,
i’ve read ajahn brahm’s book which you quoted from, and especially the relevant sections on jhana and anapanasati many times. a.brahm’s teaching is very similar to vism. It’s much closer to vism. than a straightforward reading of the EBT. he does a much better job of training beginning meditators to relax and enjoy the process than most burmese teachers who use the vism. model, and where the vism. takes parimukham (near mouth) literally, a.brahm says to not use any part of the body to fix the breath to. but both vism. and a.brahm use anapanasati as just the preliminary part, the actual meditation object to get into jhana is the visual light that appears. in the vism., after the light appears and becomes stable, it literally says, now turn to the page from access concentration under earth kasina and proceed from there to get into jhana.

so if you were to characterize vism. and a.brahm’s teaching of anapanasati to get into jhana in terms of EBT, it’s really a hybrid of anapanasati and the samadhi bhavana for aloka sanna (visual light perception). or you could say it’s a type of pure citta-anupassana. but the star of the show is the visual light nimitta. the kinaesthetic experience of anapanasati is just the understudy with a small supporting role.

compare that to ajahn lee’s method 2, or arahant upatissa’s description of the 16 steps of anapanasati, where the kinaesthetic experience of anapansatisamadhi is there the whole time even in jhana.

the best way for people to resolve their doubts is to try doing jhana using those various ways and see what matches the EBT.

i was reading the vimuttimagga description of jhana under earth kasina yesterday, and in comparison to what i remember from visuddhimagga’s description, here’s where it differs.

in vimuttimagga, it explains that you stop hearing sound in the formless attainments. take a look at the standard formula for space-infinitude-dimension:

sabbaso rupa-sannanam samatikkama / all form perceptions (is) surmounted.
patigha-sannanam atthangama / resistance perceptions are overcome (vimt. explains these are the 5 sense gates of seeing, hearing, etc.)
nanatta-sannanam a-manasikara / diversity of perceptions (he) doesn’t pay attention to.

vimt. also explains this is why 4th jhana and formless attainments are described as imperturbable. it agrees with straightforward reading of EBT’s where this is the proper place that you don’t hear sound, don’t feel any pain that might develop in the body, etc.

in contrast, if i remember correctly from vism., they agree with ajahn brahm about not hearing sound and not feeling the body in first jhana. and then when it gets to the section on formless attainments, it just says, “nothing new to say here, we’ve already covered that in the first 4 jhanas.”

vism. claims to be compatible with EBT, and the way try to accomplish that is by redefining kaya/body as “collection of mental aggregates”.
ajahn brahm also has to make some questionable redefinitions to get things to work. it feels a lot like cinderella’s stepsisters jamming the glass slipper on.

Hi @frankk,

I’m aware of these different interpretations. I am no expert on this but as far as I can understand what I’ve read/listened to, not only Ajahn Brahm, but also Vens Analayo, @sujato , @Brahmali and others, such as @Sylvester, have argued that the EBTs indicate that sound and other physical sensations do cease in all jhanas.

I raised this in the thread I referred to above, because there seems to be an assumption in many places that sutta jhanas are light and Visuddhimagga jhanas are deep. I don’t see such a clear consensus in the EBT space.

I have no particular axe to grind here. I’m simply an interested spectator trying to make sense out of the interpretations of the various ancient and modern teachers.

Excellent, thanks! SN 46.3 is a nice version indeed. To put up a very simple equation of dhamma-aspects

jhana ------------ bojjhangas--------- '5 steps to samadhi
1.vitakka ----------sati --------------- [meditation object]
1.vicara ----------- dhamma vicaya
[1.vivicca?]-------- viriya
— x ----------------- x ----------------- pamujja

1+2.piti ------------ piti ---------------- piti
— x --------------- passaddhi --------- passaddhi
2.(+1+3) sukha ------- x --------------- sukha
2.samadhi -------- samadhi ----------- samadhi

4.(+3) upekkha — upekkha

here’s an excerpt from one of ven. thanissaro’s articles. he gives a pretty convincing argument that sound being a “thorn” in first jhana does NOT mean that there can’t be hearing in first jhana.

B.3: “For the first jhana, noise is a thorn. “For the second jhana, directed thoughts and evaluations are thorns. “For the third jhana, rapture is a thorn. “For the fourth jhana, in-and-out breaths are thorns.” — AN 10:72 This is the one sutta citation that Buddhaghosa provides in the Visuddhimagga (X.17) to prove that the external senses must fall silent in the first jhana. As noted above, though, he doesn’t substantiate his case. To fill in this blank, modern arguments in support of Buddhaghosa’s interpretation of these passages center on the meaning of the word “thorn” here, saying that it means something whose presence destroys what it pierces. Thus, to say that noise is a thorn for the first jhana means that if one hears a noise while in that jhana, the jhana has been brought to an end. This interpretation is supported, the argument continues, by the pattern followed with regard to the remaining jhanas: The presence of directed thought and evaluation automatically ends the second jhana; the presence of rapture ends the third; in-and-out breathing, the fourth. However, there are altogether ten items in this sutta’s list of “thorns,” and in some of them the “thorn” obviously does not destroy what it pierces. For example: “For one guarding the sense doors, shows are a thorn. “For one practicing celibacy, nearness to women is a thorn.” If “thorn” were to mean something that cannot be present without destroying what it pierces, then nearness to women would automatically destroy a man’s celibacy, or a show would destroy one’s guarding of the senses, which isn’t true in either case. An interpretation of “thorn” that consistently fits all ten items in the list, however, would be that “thorn” means something that creates difficulties for what it touches. Thus to say that directed thought and evaluation is a thorn for the second jhana means that these mental activities make it difficult to enter or remain in the second jhana; to say that noise is a thorn for the first jhana simply means that noise makes it difficult to enter or remain there.

This interpretation is supported by the background story in AN 10:72, the sutta where these thorns are listed. It begins by telling how a group of elder monks in a monastery frequented by noisy laypeople leave for a quieter monastery with the thought, “The jhanas are said by the Blessed One to be thorned by noise. What if we were to go to the Sala forest park? There we would live comfortably, with next-to-no noise, next-to-no crowding.” When the Buddha learns of what they have done, he praises them. Had he wanted to make the point that noise cannot be heard in the first jhana, he would have


criticized them for going to the trouble of leaving the first monastery, and recommended that if they wanted to escape the disturbance of noise, they should have entered the first jhana and dwelled comfortably there instead. But he didn’t. So this sutta proves nothing more than that noise makes it difficult to enter or maintain the first jhana. It doesn’t prove that noises cannot be heard while in the jhana. From the discussion of these three citations—DN 2, AN 9:38, and AN 10:72—we can conclude that none of them provide convincing proof that the physical senses have to fall silent in the first jhana—or any of the four jhanas. This means that the conclusions drawn from AN 9:37, MN 43, and the standard formula for the dimension of the infinitude of space still stand: The physical senses may fall silent in the formless attainments, but there is no need for them to fall silent in the four jhanas. And because awakening can be based on any of the four jhanas, this means further that a meditator can attain awakening without entering into a concentration attainment where the senses are blocked from his/her awareness.


in SN 40 moggallana, the first 8 suttas talk about impure versions of the 8 meditative attainments (four jhanas, and then four formless attainments)

they all follow the same template:

  1. ven. moggallana reflects on the standard formula for that meditative attainment
  2. then he enters that attainment
  3. but he notices that it’s defiled by impurities
  4. buddha steps in, advises him not to be heedless (pamaado), to improve his samadhi.
  5. moggallana purifies and then enters a pure version of standard jhana/attainment formula.

so if we look at first jhana and second jhana in particular, you get a good sense of what kind of mental activity is possible while dwelling in that attainment.

SN 40.1 first jhana

…paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharāmi. (moggallana entered standard formula first jhana)
tassa mayhaṃ, āvuso, / friends, then I,
iminā vihārena viharato /(while in) that dwelling (I) dwelled,
kāma-sahagatā saññā-manasikārā samudācaranti. / sensuality perceptions-(and)-attention occurred

then the blessed one said … don’t be heedless (pamādo) about your first jhana.
:diamonds: “atha kho maṃ, āvuso, bhagavā iddhiyā upasaṅkamitvā etadavoca — ‘moggallāna, moggallāna! mā, brāhmaṇa, paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ pamādo

second jhana

tassa mayhaṃ, āvuso,
iminā vihārena viharato
vitakka-sahagatā saññā-manasikārā samudācaranti.

so in 2nd jhana, you have perception and attention to vitakka (thought), basically the beginnings of, but not a fully formed thought.

in first jhana referenced in SN 40.1, sensuality is equivalent to desire for 5 cords of sense pleasure.

if you do visuddhimagga style jhana, resolve to enter first jhana for 20 minutes, and during that time the only thing you’re aware of is visual light, no body sensations, no sounds, and you can not do anything until you emerge 20 minutes later, what is the sense of talking about speech (vaca) ceasing in first jhana, kamehi (sensuality) and 5 hindrances being able to perturb and throw you out of first jhana?

clearly what vism. and ajahn brahm define for their first jhana has a much greater difficulty than what the buddha is asking for. it’s like you’re in line for a roller coaster and it has a sign that says you need to be at least 3 feet tall to get on the first jhana roller coaster. then ajahn brahm comes along and crosses out the 3 foot and writes in 6 feet 5 inches tall (198 cm). he just disenfranchised 99 percent of the population.

so here’s why this is important. if you can do a lousy impure first jhana, then it’s possible you can do a mediocre first jhana. if you can do a mediocre first jhana, it’s possible to do a high quality first jhana…
…its possible for you to do a lousy second jhana… etc.

but when people think, “man there’s no way i can ever get into a samadhi where there’s absolutely no thinking, body disappears, i can’t hear sounds” … guess what happens? they give up. i’ve seen so many meditators in the vism. system give up when it’s obvious to me they can do at least a decent first jhana and very likely at least a lousy second jhana according to a simple EBT reading. they gave up because they were meditating under the influence of vism. jhana (MUI). too much emphasis on “one pointedness”, not nearly enough emphasis on passadhi-sambojjhanga, kaya-passadhi and citt-passadhi. if they had instead followed arahant’s upatissa’s instructions on 16 steps anapanasati in vimuttimagga, or ajahn lee’s method 2 anapanasati, then they would have n excellent chance to break through. i believe this is how the mahasi movement got started. people just gave up because they imagined first jhana to be too difficult, so they pioneered a vipassana only path without samatha, and then created vipassana jhanas and other weird workarounds, when an occams razor reading of the EBT would have preempted the need for those fabricated complications.


It’s one thing to reason about what the jhanas meant to the 1st generation editors or in the original teachings, but I’d be careful to draw doctrinal conclusions based on single suttas. For me it’s more about to develop practical guidelines that do not contradict the suttas, rather flexibly and playfully.

Take for example sound being the thorn in the first jhana. We can argue about if sense perceptions are possible or not, but in truth we can’t come to a definite conclusion based on the suttas simply because they don’t make a consistent point out of it - we have to collect crumbs from anywhere.

Just to give an example of another thing we don’t know in that respect. You are aware how in the gradual training there is before meditation the practice of ‘sense restraint’ (indriyasamvara), or more properly ‘covering the senses’. In the yoga sutras it’s pratyāhāra - withdrawal of the senses.

I never practiced it extensively apart from meditation and I don’t know anyone who did and I don’t know a teacher who would teach extensive period of sense covering and sampajanna as in the gradual path prior to sitting. Me and most people I know started meditation right away. But I can imagine that if someone gained mastery over the covering of the senses before even meditating and then sitting down and developing piti, that might be enough for the mind to withdraw the last bit of connection to the senses.

I’m not saying that was the case, but it’s just one of the complications we have with getting a realistic perspective about how this question of perceptions in jhana were treated or seen in the early sangha. Or to make it more complicated - maybe some gifted bhikkhus could do it and many others couldn’t? Who knows, we simply can’t tell from the suttas.

1 Like

Hi Frank,

I have wanted to respond to your comments about jhāna, but only now have I got around to it.

I’ll just get straight into it. You say that, “ven. thanissaro … gives a pretty convincing argument that sound being a ‘thorn’ in first jhana does NOT mean that there can’t be hearing in first jhana.”

I don’t agree with this. Ajahn Thanissaro makes a series of assertions that do not, in fact, lead to the conclusion he draws. He starts off by saying that a thorn is said by Buddhaghosa to be “something whose presence destroys what it pierces.” He then goes on to propose an alternative understanding – “An interpretation of ‘thorn’ that consistently fits all ten items in the list, however, would be that ‘thorn’ means something that creates difficulties for what it touches” – which I largely agree with, but with some important provisos and nuances. AT also uses the narrative context to bolster his argument. His understanding of this context seems right but, as far as I can see, he draws the wrong conclusions from it.

To start with I do not think it is accurate to say that a “thorn” “creates difficulties for what it touches”. This is already a loaded expression that skews the rest of the argument. If something “creates difficulties,” it is implied that it is an obstacle but not an insuperable one. This, however, needs to be shown rather than assumed. It is quite conceivable, for instance, that the degree of ‘thorniness’ is not the same in all ten situations. And a careful analysis – as I intend to show – actually requires such a nuanced reading. Similarly “for what it touches” also has an inbuilt assumption that skews the debate, for it is not at all clear that the thorn actually touches what it hinders, but quite possibly that it just stops it from happening.

That Ajahn Thanissaro gets it wrong becomes clear when he applies his description of a thorn to specific instances. He states, “thus to say that directed thought and evaluation is a thorn for the second jhana means that these mental activities make it difficult to enter or remain in the second jhana”. But this is incorrect. Vitakka and vicāra (his “directed thought and evaluation”) are specifically said not to exist in the second jhāna. This means they have to be abandoned prior to entry, and if they re-arise after the entry, then one has already left the attainment. In other words, these two factors of the first jhāna cannot exist in the second jhāna. (AT’s actual wording is quite ambiguous, but regardless it is misleading.) When he then states, based on this flawed argument, that this means “noise is a thorn for the first jhana simply means that noise makes it difficult to enter or remain there,” he is drawing a conclusion that is unwarranted. In fact, basing himself on the precedent of the second jhāna, the only logical conclusion is that noise is incompatible with the first jhāna, and that this is the meaning of ‘thorn’, at least in this case. As so often, we should be careful with being too quick to dismiss the understanding of the commentaries.

So what about AT’s other argument that, “if ‘thorn’ were to mean something that cannot be present without destroying what it pierces, then nearness to women would automatically destroy a man’s celibacy, or a show would destroy one’s guarding of the senses, which isn’t true in either case”? This seems reasonable enough, and that is why I said the word ‘thorn’ does not seem to have an entirely consistent meaning in this sutta. The Buddha is grouping a number of different situations into one sutta, and it seems to me that strict consistency in the use of ‘thorn’ is not required. The Buddha, I believe, was first and foremost practical; he used language in a pragmatic manner, not with absolute mathematical consistency. If he had tried to be absolutely consistent, I suspect he would have failed. In other words, as so often, it is the context that clarifies the details.

If I am right that the word ‘thorn’ is not used with absolute consistency, then the question remains as to how it is used in the context of the first jhāna. It seems to me that here, as is usually the case, the jhānas belong together as a group, and thorn thus needs to be understood in the same way for all four. This is because the jhānas are all ‘states’ of a certain duration – this is implied by the fact that one enters and emerges from them and remains in them according to predetermined length, etc. (And yes, these qualities of jhāna are mentioned in the EBTs, e.g. in the Jhāna-saṃyutta, SN34, and AN6.24+AN6.63+AN7.40+AN7.41.) Such states lose their meaning if all sorts of things can be experienced within them, since their boundaries are no longer clear. Whether one is in jhāna or not becomes quite arbitrary, which is borne out of the many disagreements in debates on this topic. When you are not in jhāna, however, boundaries are far more blurry (what are the precise limits of ‘shows’ and ‘nearness to women’?), and I suspect this may be one reason why ‘thorn’, too, has a slightly less precise meaning in these contexts.

As for the narrative context, AT says, “had he wanted to make the point that noise cannot be heard in the first jhana, he would have criticized them for going to the trouble of leaving the first monastery, and recommended that if they wanted to escape the disturbance of noise, they should have entered the first jhana and dwelled comfortably there instead.” This argument does not hold if we regard noise as a hindrance to entry to the first jhāna, which it fairly obvious is, regardless of how one interprets it. In this case AT has trapped himself in an untenable position because of his narrow definition of ‘thorn’ as “something that creates difficulties for what it touches,” implying that the thorn is only relevant after one has attained jhāna. I can only conclude that AT’s argument fails.

Ok, Frank, now let me respond to some of the points you make about SN40.1. You state, “so in 2nd jhana, you have perception and attention to vitakka (thought), basically the beginnings of, but not a fully formed thought,” and you seem to base this on the phrase iminā vihārena viharato “(while in) that dwelling.” Again, it seems to me that you are trying to squeeze too much meaning out of the Pali. The meaning of phrases like iminā vihārena viharato are simply not that precise. The phrase recurs in MN122, where the meaning is quite elliptic and means something like “at the general time I was practising such a state”. (E.g.: Ayaṃ kho panānanda, vihāro tathāgatena abhisambuddho yadidaṃ sabbanimittānaṃ amanasikārā ajjhattaṃ suññataṃ upasampajja viharituṃ. Tatra ce, ānanda, tathāgataṃ iminā vihārena viharantaṃ bhavanti upasaṅkamitāro bhikkhū bhikkhuniyo upāsakā … uyyojanikapaṭisaṃyuttaṃyeva kathaṃ kattā hoti, “And, Ānanda, this attainment has been discovered by the Tathāgata, that is, to enter upon and remain in internal emptiness, because of the non-attention to all objects. If in regard to this, the Tathāgata is remaining in this attainment, and people approach him, whether monks, nuns, lay followers … then (the Tathāgata) speaks words connected with dismissal.”) Here it seems clear, at least to me, that the dismissal of people doers not happen while the Tathāgata is in the described state, but during the general period of time he is involved in the practise of it.

At SN40.1 the meaning seems to be more precise than this, but the point is that the expression is more flexible than you seem to allow for. Since we know that the second jhāna is defined, at least in part, by the absence of vitakka and vicāra, it only stands to reason that as soon as these arise in your mind you are out of the attainment. The same argument holds for the first jhāna and sensuality. In this case the argument is perhaps even stronger: in all cases you have to abandon sensuality (the five hindrances) to enter jhāna and it is, as you would know, vivcc’eva kāmehi (which, by the way, means much more than simply abandoning the hindrance).

You then say, “clearly what vism. and ajahn brahm define for their first jhana has a much greater difficulty than what the buddha is asking for. … he just disenfranchised 99 percent of the population.” But this is missing the point. The point is that we need to interpret the suttas correctly, otherwise there is absolutely no way we will reach the goal. Should we also make Awakening easier to achieve, by interpreting it in novel ways, or should we be as realistic as possible about what it entails? If ending saṃsāra is as important as the Buddha says, we would be doing a great disservice to everyone by misinterpreting what he is trying to say. When you get to the jhānas, you are next door to Awakening. The jhānas and the stages of Awakening are frequently grouped together in the suttas. They form a group of phenomena that are otherworldly. Once you start looking at the Buddha’s description of the jhānas in this light, it is no wonder that they demand a lot of perseverance and commitment to attain. But anyone can do it with the right attitude. This is not about disenfranchising, but exactly the opposite. You want to give people the real deal. If people get led up the garden path, that’s disenfranchising.

“They give up”. Well, they shouldn’t. This just means their commitment isn’t there, or they are looking in the wrong place. People often focus too much on meditation and forget about the factors that enable meditation. A holistic approach to the path is required. I have no doubt that anyone can do it. And no, I don’t think the Mahāsi movement is the answer. I know too many people who have been in that system and who were told they had attainments, but later realised it was nothing of the sort. If the student doubts his own attainment, what does that say about the method or the teacher?

I have no idea whether we will ever see eye-to-eye on this, but the argument is still worthwhile, I think. At least for now!


Thanks for that dear Ajahn Bramhali.
Look at the topics of discussions on discourse. It’s mostly about meditation.
I can’t wait to hear how dedicated practitioners eradicate their fears, aversions, desires and delusions.

Look at the Sutta Pitaka. It is as well mostly about meditation - or at least how to get ready for meditation ! :wink:

I think it is worth acknowledging that it is at the factors of sati (mindfulness) and samadhi (stillness/concentration) that people’s experience of the cultivation of the path narrows down enough for meaningful conversations around the practice to take place.

Although clearly put by the Buddha in the suttas the earlier factors of right thought, speech, action and livelihood are not necessarily to be cultivated in the same way by different people.

Pick the case of a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni nowadays, he/she has practical challenges that probably were just unimaginable in the times of the early sangha.

What to say about us lay disciples? How close is my cultivation to the one of a pre-historic Indian villager? Even when I travel to Thailand’s countryside and interact with other lay disciples there I find almost impossible to communicate the practical challenges I find myself with in carrying on with my job, family life, etc.

While it is crucial to keep in mind that one should not ever grow hopeful of progress in terms of “meditation” without having checked all boxes in terms of previous factors of the path, it is not realistic as well to expect people to engage in meaningful conversations around how they take up the challenge of dealing with things like right speech, action and livelihood in their own uniquely conditioned individual existence.

The only space in which there could be hope for such a thing to occur would be in a monastery, amidst the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni sangha!

This is for at least in those places people are (hopefully) genuinely interested in make their existences less about their own personal narrative of self and more about making happen a community of individuals fully engaged in pursuing the highest of the targets: the noble task of realizing by themselves of the end of suffering.

1 Like