Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

Let’s try :slight_smile:@frankk, I think it makes sense to move large parts of the discussion to a new thread with a different title, and since it would involve moving a lot of your input, could you please take it on yourself to contact a moderator with a new title? thanks!



This Discourse platform impresses me every day:

I’d be happy to help out in any way as well. One caveat to bear in mind is that comment numbers as shown on the slider on the right hand side don’t always match up with the “internal” comment numbers.

Also, I’d wonder if moving comments to a new thread will automagically change any post number references to that comment so that the link to the comment isn’t dangling…

I think @FrankK’s 27 can be placed in a new Discussion topic eg “Occam’s Jhāna: On hearing sounds and the plurality of kāma” along with the following comments moved over:

  • 28, 29
  • 34, 35
  • 37-65,
  • 67-135 (internal:139)

I think @dhammarelax1’s 33 might be fodder for a new Discussion topic: “How is perception (saññā) defined in the suttas?”

I think @Sylvester’s 66 might be another good one: “Aggregates simpliciter vs. clinging-aggregates”

And from Frank’s 136 (internal: 140), the discussion turns more fully into “Occam’s Jhāna II: On feeling body”.

I’ll check later whether the remaining 153 comments have other branches.

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Perhaps we could also start a wiki post to try and summarize the contents of the discussions about vitakka-vicara. Maybe @Gabriel could do this on the first post of this thread


dear moderators,
i have no problem with any of my posts from this thread being moved to threads of different titles that are more descriptive of the subject.

i will try to incorporate the issues from this current thread relevant to the “can you hear sound and feel body in jhana” wiki and migrate some of it into the wiki.

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that’s why sound is a thorn in the jhanas. i’ve seen great meditators not able to attain what they’re normally able to when they’re under severe illness. The buddha himself realized the 6 years of austerities didn’t work, and the plate of milk rice gruel gave him the fuel to attain full awakening that fateful night. now perhaps the great disciples could always enter animitta samadhi or any of the 9 attainments whenever they wanted to , even under deathlike illness, but it’s doubtful it applies to meditators just learning and getting settled in first and second jhana for example, hence the buddha praising those disciples for going into seclusion to escape noise from laypeople, since “sounds are a thorn to jhaanas”.

having limitations of the anatatomical body doesn’t mean buddhist bhaavana fails. your example with saccaka is setting up a straw man.

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I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t think I misapprehend you or misrepresent you, in light of these -

I could go on and on, but the reason why I said -

was simply your very own reliance on MN 36 for parsing kāya passadhi as if this referred to the tranquilisation of the corporeal/anatomical body. The Buddha rejects that, and makes clear that kāyabhāvanā is sense restraint.

Thanks! Could you actually start a new topic and continue there with the non-vitakka-vicara-discussion? I’m sure it would be easier for a mod since you know best the topic you discussed on - relocating then would be easier…

May I try and close a loop here with going back to the original question and summarizing my current understanding?

I started with trying to find a new understanding for vitakka and vicāra by going back to their etymological roots, interpreting the prefix vi- as ‘away from’. I had to give up this interpretation after educated feedback and the following own research, going through the suttas again.

My personal current sutta-based understanding is that

  • vitakka is a specific ‘thought’, the recollection and conceptual understanding of a dhamma aspect investigated or immersed in during the sitting session. It’s in the context of cittabhāvana almost synonymous with the ‘established sati’ of the jhāna-introduction. Just that sati focuses on bringing up a dhamma-concept-memory, while vitakka focuses on processing that concept-memory in the mind.

  • vicāra is the repeated mind-movement of striking the vitakka, a pursuit/longing to understand, investigate and fill up the mind with the adhered dhamma-concept.

This is only my personal understanding and other dhamma friends will have different understandings. May I invite the other contributors to share their current understanding on vitakka & vicāra? I realized that I can’t summarize the discussion and hopefully you contributors have enriched your understanding in the meantime as well.

@Sylvester @frankk @silence @chansik_park @Erik_ODonnell @Mkoll @Brahmali @Linda

Please also, I would like to suggest to as of now outsource every discussion that doesn’t directly touch vitakka and vicāra (i.e. general discussions about jhāna, kāya, hearing sounds in jhāna etc. - everything is connected, but these topics deserve their own seperate discussions)
Thanks everyone!


continued on new thread

There’s a noteworthy section of the Milindapañha where the Venerable Nāgasena answers the question “kiṃlakkhaṇo?” (“what is the characteristic/mark?”) with respect to some fundamental terms (Mil 3.3.8 - Mil 3.3.14). The last two suttas in the section are with regards to vitakka and vicāra:

[Mil 3.3.13 Vitak­ka­-lak­kha­ṇa­-pañha]
It is like the case of a carpenter, great king, who fixes in a joint a well-fashioned piece of wood.
Thus is it that the effecting of an aim (appanā) is the mark of reflection (vitakka).

[Mil 3.3.14 Vicāra­-lak­kha­ṇa­-pañha]
It is like the case of the copper vessel, which, when it is being beaten into shape, makes a sound again and again as it gradually gathers shape. The beating into shape is to be regarded as reflection (vitakka), and the sounding again and again as investigation (vicāra).
Thus is it, great king, that threshing out again and again (anu­majja­na­) is the mark of investigation.

Here it’s worth noting that the PTS PED has it that appanā comes from the verb appeti which, given the context, is listed primarily as having the sense of “fitting in” or “putting together”. Anumajjana on the other hand is listed as coming from majjati which is said to have the sense of “wiping” or “polishing” or “cleaning”.

While certainly a grain of salt is in order due to the lateness of these texts, taken together I come away with the sense that vitakka in the context of the term anuvitakketi of SN 46.3 is to piece together disparate statements of the teaching while vicāra in the context of pavicarati is to apply the meaning of those statements to the present situation.

In the context of APS practice, I’d be tempted to designate vitakka as being that with which one fulfils the third step of say the first tetrad and vicāra being that with which one fulfils the fourth. But this is just a bit of musing…

Edited: Added links to the two texts — I could’ve sworn that I saw the auto-linking thing kicking in)

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here’s a straight forward EBT-OR (ockham’s razor) reading of the relevant portion of SN 46.3, and how first jhana’s vitakka and vicara map into the 7 bojjhanga.

“Dwelling thus withdrawn, > one recollects that Dhamma and thinks it over. Whenever, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwelling thus withdrawn recollects that Dhamma and thinks it over, [68] on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness is aroused by the bhikkhu; on that occasion the bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of mindfulness; on that occasion the enlightenment factor of mindfulness comes to fulfilment by development in the bhikkhu.63 "

so sati-bojjhanga, equivalent to samma sati, and the “sato and sampajano” that is explicitly stated in third jhana and thus we infer active in first jhana, along with vitakka of first jhana, (anu-vitakketi in 7sb), had the function of selecting a suitable meditation object from among the 4sp.

3“Dwelling thus mindfully, he discriminates that Dhamma with wisdom, examines it, makes an investigation of it. Whenever, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu dwelling thus mindfully discriminates that Dhamma with wisdom, examines it, makes an investigation of it, on that occasion the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states is aroused by the bhikkhu; on that occasion the bhikkhu develops the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states; on that occasion the enlightenment factor of discrimination of states comes to fulfilment by development in the bhikkhu.

in dhamma-vicaya-bojjhanga, (vicaya and pa-vicarati are having the same function here), work just as the vicara of first jhana in “evaluating” the meditation subject we selected from sati-bojjhanga above.

and if one pursues this relentlessly, viriya-sambojjhanga (same as samma vayamo), and becomes glad and enraptured (pa-mojja and piiti) as a result of purifying the mind, then piti-bojjhanga happens, and then the 5th happens, body and mind deeply relaxed (passadhi), and then BOOM! the 6th one samadhi-bojjhanga happens, we’ve happily landed in samma samadhi’s first jhana.

it’s just that simple and straightforward, once you sort out the various moving parts and synonymous pali terms pointing to the same activity.

if you look at the first 10 suttas in satipatthana samyutta, SN 47, especially the one about the cook, and SN 47.10 and 47.8 I think, you’ll see again where vitakka and vicara act in the same way as i described above for SN 46.3. That is, vitakka and vicara mean thinking and evaluation as we normally understand it in first jhana, restricted to skillful and wholesome thoughts related to the dhamma and our meditation object.

later this year i’ll to a detailed break down of those suttas i mentioned in the previous paragraph, along with other suttas, in pali and english. but it’s better if you study those suttas yourself and see what conclusion you come to. I’d like to confirm other interested parties read those same suttas and draw the same straightforward conclusions I did, without reading my take on it.

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here’s an exercise you can do for yourself. take any meditation subject that can produce first jhāna, and try to map it into the 7sb (satta bojjhanga).
for example, doing brahma-vihara, 16 APS (anapansati), 31asubha (31 body parts), are 3 common meditation topics.

so here’s an example.

i start with metta meditation. this is vitakka of first jhana, equivalent to samma sati and sati-sambojjhanga selecting metta as the topic.

then i start radiating metta in different spatial directions. this is vicara of first jhana, and the dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga in action.

i’m starting to get real high and happy, mentally and physically, i decide to switch to 16 APS. So vitakka of first jhana did the task of switching channels from metta to 16 APS. Now vicara of first jhana can evaluate qualities of the breath as it feels in my anatomical body. qualities such as piti, sukha, comfort, leg discomfort, heavinesss, percpetions of earth-element, etc.

if i know how to deeply relax and enjoy body and mind, i can ride this into jhana, or samadhi-sambojjhanga quickly in sequence of the 7sb. If i havne’t figured how to deeply relax, fulfilling passadhi-sambojjhanga, then i’m stuck doing satipatthana and dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga without getting into jhana.

if i’m already very experienced at getting into first jhana, 2nd jhana, the buddha talks about doing an undirected type of samadhi development (somewhere in SN 46 bojjhanga samyutta), as opposed to the directed type, which is what SN 46.3, SN 46.2, the cook sutta in SN 47, etc.

so in the undirected samadhi development, you can basically jump right into samadhi-bojjhanga, which has attention to samatha-nimittam (sign of stillness) and abyagga-nimittam (sign of non-distraction) as the main fuel source.

what vism. and ajahn brahm’s explanation for vitakka and vicara of first jhana is more applicable to this undirected samadhi development for one already skilled in samadhi. The Buddha, on the other hand, is trying to lay out a detailed gradual training in samadhi.

First jhana in this regard is particularly important, because it’s training you how to use your mind in the right way, in a skillful way, to see hindrances, the causes, and with skill and practice learn how to overcome them. With a sufficient amount of physical and mental passadhi, that skill can take you all the way into the fourth jhana.

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Hey Frank,

Good of you to offer an explanation in practical terms and I’d certainly look forward to what you have to say about those two suttas from the Satipatthana Samyutta in the same terms. I just want to point out a few things:

To clarify here I would propose that the sense of “piecing different things together” that comes from the Milindapañha subsumes the sense of “selecting an object”.

You’ve bolded this in the second excerpt you quoted, and I just want to point out that this is actually a rendering of the verb pari­-vīmaṃ­sa’m-ā­pajjati rather than pavicarati.

And I’m not sure if you’re saying here that vicaya and pavicarati come from the same roots, but just in case you are, according to the PTS PED, vicaya comes from vicinati which is translated as “discrimination”, but might be literally understood as “dis-assembly”.

But yes, otherwise, being part of the “waxing syllable” series of verbs for dhammavicaya, pavicinati and pavicarati would be serving the same function.

Here’s that particular clause for clarity:

[SN 46.3]

taṃ dhammaṃ paññāya pa-vicinati pa-vicarati pari­-vīmaṃ­sa’m-ā­pajjati
he discriminates that Dhamma with wisdom, examines it, makes an investigation of it.

i’m not familiar with the full minlinda passage contents, but just based on your brief quotes in the previous msg, it sounds more like he’s talking about the vitakka and vicara of vism. and ajahn brahm. That is, no ordinary discursive thinking and evaluation, but a “fixed penetration” type of absorption for example on a breath nimitta visually perceived white light, or a color disk kasina.

vism. uses an analogy for vitakka and vicara like a bell being struck, with vitakka being the initial strike of the bell, and vicara being the ringing sound that perists for some time. much like the vism. jhana and ajahn brahm jhana where one can not think in the ordinary sense of vitakka and vicara, vitakka and vicara is sticking to the white visual light of breath nimitta or a color kasina.

thanks for pointing out that detail. you’re right i bolded the wrong english word originally. i wasn’t sure if dhamma-vicaya’s vicaya was from the same root as vicara (you’re saying it’s not, i believe you), but vicara must be related to pa-vicarati right? pari-vīmamsa sure reminds me of vīmamsa-samādhi-padhāna-sammannagatam, of 4ip (iddhi-pada).

here’s a tangent to another important point. the 4ip are also describing a process of getting into samadhi strong enough to exercise 6 abhiñña, similar to 7sb (satta bojjhanga). but it does so without mentioning piti-sukha, and any of the 4 jhanas by name, but because of the presence of visual light all day and all night, and access to 6 abhinna, one can deduce must be 4th jhana quality samadhi minimum.

so whether one uses the causal sequence of 8aam (8 fold noble path), the causal sequence of 7sb, or the 4ip to get into jhana or a strong samadhi, all of those standard formulas are mapping the same territory but highlighting different aspects of the process, while ignoring others.

so returning to the dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga, for first jhana i see vicara playing an active role with discursive type of thinking/evaluation, just as in the cook sutta SN 47.(some number 10 or less), the cook is evaluating how do i adjust my cooking of dishes to please the king, or in reference to the first jhana analogy, what is going on in my anatomical body and mind, what do i need to adjust in my cooking to produce a deeper samadhi, piti-sasmbojjhanga, and the bliss of first jhana and samadhi-sambojjhanga?

for the 4ip mapping out the same moment by moment process, 4ip’s-vimamsa would take the same role as dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga, as signalled by the pa-vimamsa in SN 46.2.

edit, addition to cook simile comment:
so the ordinary sense of vitakka and vicara doing discursive thinking is very important for the stages prior to, during, and the process of stabilizing first jhana in EBT. If we take vitakka and vicara in the vism. and ajahn brahm sense of sticking the mind exclusively to a color disk or a visual appearance of a white breath nimitta, the cook simile doesn’t make sense because it’s not developing wisdom, discrimination, looking for gradually subtler causes of dukkha that not only prevent entry into first jhana, but the rest of the path to nibbana. You’re just staring at a light or a color disk and trying to blot out every part of your experience of the world. In a straightforward reading of the EBT, jhana and samadhi is something you work on all the time, in every posture, always looking at dukkha and its cause whether you’re in jhana or not, rather than a separate samatha kung fu exercise you do in a formal sitting practice.

AN 5.29 talks about strong samadhi in walking meditation

“Bhikkhus, there are these five benefits of walking meditation. What five? [30] One becomes capable of journeys; one becomes capable of striving; one becomes healthy; what one has eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted is properly digested; the concentration attained through walking meditation is long lasting.998"" These are the five benefits of walking meditation.”
“pañcime, bhikkhave, caṅkame ānisaṃsā. katame pañca? addhānakkhamo hoti, padhānakkhamo hoti, appābādho hoti, asitaṃ pītaṃ khāyitaṃ sāyitaṃ sammā pariṇāmaṃ gacchati, caṅkamādhigato samādhi ciraṭṭhitiko hoti. ime kho, bhikkhave, pañca caṅkame ānisaṃsā”ti. navamaṃ.

edit, addition: vitakka and vicara in walking meditation would be prominent in samma padhana and samma vayamo, in guarding sense faculties, whether in the attainment or outside of first jhana. Whew! saved myself from being accused of hijacking the thread again.

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Yes, I’m aware of the resemblance. I’d even suggest that the analogy derives from the passages above somehow. I think the key piece missing from the Vism. analogy though is mention of the sense of “assembly” from the carpenter analogy for vitakka specifically that lends a dynamism to the whole process.

But even then you can throw out the analogies because the crux of the two suttas are to ask the question “kiṃlakkhaṇo?” (“what is the characteristic/mark?”). To which the answer is “appanā” (“correlation”?) for vitakka and “anu­majja­na­” (“clarification”?) for vicāra.

Yes, I’d say their relatedness is attested to in MN 137, quoted here.

To note is that the string of characters ‘vic’ do not occur in SN 47.8, much less vicāra or vicarati.

Also, “discursive thinking” should be considered quite distinct from (Thanissaro et. al.'s?) “evaluation”. The former would be closest to papañca, in the sense of proliferation, or vacīsaṅkhāra, in the sense of “mental talk”.

And just to be sure, you’re not saying “ordinary sense of vitakka and vicara” means “mental talk”, right?

You mean SN 46.3 (the backlinking into your comment from SC proper might confuse others in the future), and pari-.

Also, Frank, mind if I ask whether there’s some reason why you capitalize some of the first letters of your sentences while not others? Is it just a mobile thing or something you prefer to do? I ask because it makes your longer comments harder to read and refer back to with the separation of sentences harder to discern.

I wonder if we could have a poll as to whether the First Jhana’s “thought & evaluation” requires intention/volition.

Could you oblige @chansik_park?

The next poll could be what this "thought & evaluation " is on.

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Be it resolved, First Jhana’s “thought & evaluation” as investigative activities of the mind require intention/volition.

Anonymous voting:

  • Agree
  • DIsagree
  • Unsure

0 voters

Public voting:

  • Agree
  • Disagree
  • Unsure

0 voters

(Just experimenting with the platform :grin: @Sylvester)


Thanks so much! @chansik_park

I just realised that my original framing of the issue was not precise enough. May I rephrase it as -

The First Jhana’s "thought & evaluation " as investigative activities of the mind require intention/volition.


For my own bearings, could you perhaps comment on how it might be generally thought not be the case? I’m at a bit of a loss in this regard.

activities of the mind

In the more precise framing, a mild uncertainty for me here is the relationship between manosaṅkhārā and kāyasaṅkhārā as they appear in the 12-fold PSU/DO. Are they temporally parallel streams of kamma or do they happen “one-at-a-time” very quickly? And in the latter case, does manosaṅkhārā then dominate kāyasaṅkhārā?

Generally speaking, I’m thinking to myself that a temporally precise synthesis of the various causation chains would be helpful.

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