Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

If you don’t mind sharing your view on this, what would you say to those whose experiences fall in line with Ajahn Brahm’s position? What are they experiencing?

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@frank, this is a seperate topic that touches fundamental doctrine in general. Could you please create a new discussion for it? there is actually a lot to say about this, and I would love to see others joining that discussion, who are otherwise not interested in vitakka-vicara.

And if you allow me a general note, in the scriptures we can find faith, but not truth. If we had the Buddha speaking through the suttas things would be easier, but in fact we don’t know through which suttas he speaks, which are inspired by him, which are in full accordance with but not personally by him, which are brahmin intrusions etc. We can work out what is plausible, probable, coherent, but not what is true. This is trivial and affects every collection (kāya ;)) of texts, but I think needs to be repeated here.

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They are experiencing what Grzegorz Polak describes as “yogic meditation” where the practitioner tries to be “sitting like a log of wood, trying to stop his senses and his mind” (Mahabharata).
Another way of describing this is what Ajaan Fuang in Thanissaro Bhikkha - Jhana Not by the Numbers reports him calling them “the state of non-perception (asaññi-bhava)”. I believe this non-perception state which appears in some suttas is not coming from the Buddha but a “late” addition coming from the Bhramanic tradition (again see Polak).

Instead the four jhanas as described in the suttas are not a yogic practice at all. When one experiences piti and sukha (a mixture of bodily and mental pleasures, depending in what jhana one is in) then full awareness of one’s body and mind is there.
In jhana one for example, my experience of vitakka-vicara is : “woa, that’s so nice …”

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Erik, I have the same experience as Alaber for first jhana and would consider that to fall within a straightforward reading of EBT-OR first jhana. In the EBT relevant passages in reference to the first jhana “pocket”, between 5 sensual pleasure cords, 5 hindrances, and second jhana, it might not always explicitly call out vitakka, vicara, first jhana by that name, but because it’s sandwiched in the pocket we can make some reasonable inferences what’s going on with those terms, such as in the cook sutta. One sutta on its own, who knows for sure, but when you see 5 or 6 suttas like that, then you start feeling pretty confident.

I’ve known some meditators who never experienced first, second, third jhana (at least in a form recognizable to them), they dropped directly into a samadhi where their body disappeared, sounds disappeared, breath slowed down and/or stopped. IMO the 4 jhanas are not meant to be an exact science of a perfect roadmap of how samadhi progresses for everyone, but an approximate guide that fits the experiences of most people.

Note that any responses to this msg, not relevant to vitakka and vicara, should be directed to other threads.

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What matters to me is if the practice I do free me from suffering i.e. desires, aversions and delusions. I don’t believe insights can do that.

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I wonder how this ruminative experience can be consistent with the DN 9 injunction against thinking in a jhana -

Cetayamānassa me pāpiyo, acetayamānassa me seyyo. Ahañceva kho pana ceteyyaṃ, abhi­saṅ­kha­reyyaṃ, imā ca me saññā nirujjheyyuṃ, aññā ca oḷārikā saññā uppajjeyyuṃ.

Thinking is bad for me. Not thinking is better for me. If I were to think and will, these perceptions of mine would cease, and grosser perceptions would appear.
(correcting Ven Thanissaro’s mistranslations of the pronoun and verb into singulars, when they are plurals)

Echoed in its parallel DA 28 on the exact same terms. This surely is an EBT position, no?

The reason why I asked @chansik_park to put up the poll in post 305/342 was to demonstrate the dreadful inconsistency the ruminative interpretation of vitakkavicāra faces with these suttas which do not allow any form of thinking or verbalisation to occur within a jhana. Well, to be more precise, if one does think or verbalise, bye bye Jhana! Why else would speech have ceased in the First Jhana?

So, if vitakkavicāra are not thinking and pondering, what else could it be in the First Jhana, without violating the injunction against thinking in DN 9 and DA 28? I would have thought that this little gem would have pointed in the direction of another sutta usage of vitakka and vicāra -

Those suttas on the person who dwells “as a dhamma-contemplator with reference to rūpavitakka/ rūpavicāra” follow the sequence starting with the sense bases, then consciousness, then contact, then feeling, then perception, then volition, then craving, then vitakka, and then vicāra . Are these thoughts, or something somewhat different?

Take a look at these threads -


(post 7 onwards)

The clue given in MN 78 is quite unmistakable. This vitakkavicāra in the First and Second Jhana pericopes maps neatly onto MN 78’s kusalā saṅkappā (wholesome aims), insofar as both end in the Second Jhana.

Does one need to saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti (he resolves on the resolve) continuously in the First Jhana to qualify as having vitakkavicāra ? Apparently not, since the mind has a certain momentum based on what one “think and ponder” frequently : MN 19 -

Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.

Although the verbs used are anu­vitak­keti and anuvicāreti, I don’t think they detract from the point of the sutta in addressing kāmavitakka, vyāpādavitakka and vihiṃsāvitakka as being unhelpful.

I believe that vitakkavicāra of the First Jhana is that residual desire/wish/aim that are the opposites of the 3 types of wrong saṅkappa. What’s left for this phenomena to do may be connected to the bathman and soap simile.

This is rather odd statement, @Sylvester. As I see it this text describes what happens at the threshold of cessation, i.e. if cessation ought to happen mind has to stop to function. I can’t see how you want to apply this passage to the jhānas.

Hi Piotr

I am not quite sure what you mean. Could you please explain?

How would your reading resolve the statement that thinking and willing would cause “these perceptions” to cease and grosser perceptions would arise? It does not appear that Cessation alone is dependent on there being no thinking and willing.

Might you be using Ven Thanissaro’s translation linked from SC?

Hey Sylvester,

yes I think that this sutta and MN 111 imply that - of these states - only cessation depends on being no thinking (cetayati/citta) and will (abhisaṅkhāroti/cetanā).

Could you explain what is the significance of this plural vs singular form of “perception” that you’re referring to? I don’t seem to get how this could change the meaning of this passage. Maybe because I’m not native English speaker (obviously :slight_smile: ).

On the first point, I am of the view that DN 9 quite clearly states that-

  1. Cessation is attained by not thinking or willing.
  2. Thinking and willing causes the jhana to end and be replaced by coarse perceptions.

Are you disputing no.2? If so, how would you understand the passage I gave?

I don’t see any contradiction between no 1 and no 2, as the former suggests thinking prevents entry into Cessation, while no 2 suggests that thinking prevents abiding in the attainments once achieved.

As for the plural/singular business, pls take a look at Ven Thanissaro’s translation. Can you see how he’s mistranslated the plural pronoun and the noun “perceptions” into the singular? This creates the false impression that thinking and willing become problems only in the attainment of Nothingness, but not in the earlier 6 attainments.

Yes I do. I would take “coarse perceptions” to mean any of perceptions that were mentioned before “the peak of perception”. I don’t get why you take it to mean exclusively kāmasaññā.

BTW: the passage we’re discussing is preceeded by:

Tassa saññagge ṭhitassa evaṃ hoti…

As he stands at the peak of perception, it occurs to him…

Which implies that this “Thinking is bad…” sentence applies only to this highest state of mind.


Would you mind to comment on MN 111 which explicitly states that will and thought are present in the jhānas?

For your 1st point, I can agree that a brief interlude of thinking would cause one to drop down one attainment. But what happens if the thinking is non-stop? The moment one tries to stop thinking, that feeds the thinking and the downward spiral continues.

As for the 2nd, I believe the translation is flawed. You would be familiar with the idiom “tassa evaṃ hoti” typically translated as “it occurs to him”. What happened to the "tassa "? Warder helpfully notes that this idiom is actually comprised of a subordinate clause and main clause. “Tassa” as the subordinate clause would be “Regarding that,” and “evaṃ hoti” would be the main clsuse “it occurs to him”. “Tassa evaṃ hoti” = “Regarding that, there was thus” followed by whatever comes in the quotation.

Now, Ven Thanissaro treats the ṭhitassa as making up a genitive absolute. Strange that he would treat the past participle as having no consequence of having occurred in the past. Never mind this minor travesty. But absolutus constructs are themselves subordinate clauses. In Ven Thanissaro’s translation, he’s treated one subordinate clause (the putative genitive absolute) being inserted enclitically into another subordinate clause “tassa”. Are you aware of such an unusual phenomenon being attested in the Pali elsewhere?

The far easier reading would be to note that the pronoun ta and ṭhita are both in the genitive. Now, I take Warder’s allowance for past participles to double up as substantive nouns. That binds the pronoun and noun together by their joint genitive relationship. The simple reading of “Tassa saññagge ṭhitassa” would be “Regarding that stationing in the peak of perception,”.

The passage in DA 28 in fact does not have a genitive absolute. Where the subordinate clause stands, it has 彼得此想 已. Notice the 已, indicating that the thought occurs after the attainment.

As for MN 111, let me see if I can locate my old posts on DW. Very Abhidhamma feel, don’t you feel?

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(regarding first jhana vitakka and vicara)

This is why there’s second jhana and beyond, where vitakka and vicara cease. The vitakka and vicara can have a range of freedom in first jhana, it doesn’t have to be only the most restrictive case possible. That’s why the Buddha used those terms (vitakka and vicara). If he had wanted to use the most restrictive sense, he could have used pali equivalents for residual thought momentum, or mind connecting to a nimitta, or something like that.

From an experiential standpoint, from second jhana as a frame of reference, you can then explore the other side of first jhana and know for yourself how much lattitude thought and evaluation can have in first jhana. The Buddha in the EBT doesn’t seem to try to pin down vitakka and vicara for first jhana in too much detail, preferring instead to show the general quality and context. Enough to let us know if we may be doing it. Even in English, or whatever one’s native familiar language dialect is, you can’t accurately pin down “thought and evaluation” of first jhana and communicate that to another person. You can only give a general idea.

What I was agreeing with Alaber is that having the thought “Am I in first jhana” while i’m in first jhana, is not enough to destroy my first jhana. I don’t think it’s necesary to add complexity of saying, you exited first jhana while you were having the thought and were able to instantly go back into it afterwards. There’s no need to be that nitpicky for first jhana. There’s second jhana and it’s better. The thing that should be emphasized for first jhana is that one has learned how to sustain a stream of thoughts for a good period of time that are connected with Dhamma, rather than 5 sensuality cords or 5 hindrances, while at the same time having enough kaya and citta passadhi to get frequent bursts of piti-sukha. That’s a really big deal. Getting the mental process and technique correct, and the physical part of relaxing coordinated, this is the skillset to get you through all four jhanas.

If one were to for example stare at a candle flame, or a color disk, or a mind created visual image of a breath nimitta, as the primary way to get into jhana, it’s really missing out on the important part of EBT first jhana. Yes it can produce a fabulously deep samatha, but first jhana is not emphasizing that. There are nine successive samadhi attainments to gradually appease and phase out the body, the distinctive part of the Buddha’s jhana that separates it from other religous traditions is the mental part that simultaneously develops wisdom.

This is interesting. Is this based on an experiential testament, or a textual testament?

But did such terms even exist in that layer of the texts? The phenomenon may be there, but what denotation could the Buddha have used to convey this? Your argument is essentially insisting that each Pali word can have only one meaning and that polysemy does not exist in that language. This is plainly wrong, going by this very simple example - in AN 10.60, ten perceptions (saññā) are discussed. If you are correct, every instance of saññā would be easily identifiable by its verb sañjānāti (perceives). Yet, not once does sañjānāti appear in AN 10.60. Instead, “perception” is defined by verbs like paṭi­sañcik­khati (reflects), paccavekkhati (reviews), the set of pajahati, vinodeti, byantīkaroti, anabhāvaṃ gameti (abandons, dispels, terminates, obliterates [leaving aside the issue of how the causatives are to be rendered]) etc etc. I could make the same rhetorical plea - why did the Buddha use saññā when the nouns derived from those verbs exist?

Where can I find this in the suttas? The sort of latitude you are asking that we accord to “experience” might be OK if it did not contradict a sutta. But, here the experience pleaded contradicts DN 9. Should we chuck that sutta out, just to make some accomodation for “experience”?

I would be quite keen to see this either presented or argued.

Again, this is flatly contradicted by DN 9.

Frank, what you are asking for is not simplicity, but the abrogation of both textual testament (AN 9.35) and critical reasoning, all in service of your experience. Bearing in mind that this platform is for the study of the texts of Early Buddhism, and not the promotion of the Thai Forest Tradition, don’t you find your plea quite misplaced?

And again, you’ll have to take that up with the Pali redactors. If they put in so much care in framing every one of the “insight” pericope with the locative absolute formed with past participles, what good reason do you offer to persuade us to abrogate the plain old meaning that insight occurs after the jhanas? Even the Chinese translators of this pericope took great care to render to this locative absolute precisely, to indicate that eg insight occurs after the jhanas by using 已 -

得如是定心清淨,無穢無煩,柔軟善住,得不動心
eg MA 157

定心,清淨 無穢,柔 濡 調伏,住無動地
DA 20

Further, what possible reason could you offer to discount AN 9.35 which completely denies your model of insight whilst in jhana? Or are you going to cite the Thai Forest Tradition as being correct, while the suttas are wrong?

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I don’t read Chinese, so I’d have to be really motivated to look up those terms in the dictionary. Insight in jhana is a different topic, but I’ll be interested to read your notes from MN 111. From the pali EBT world, the fact that “sato and sampajano” is in the third jhana, and AN 4.41 defines the samadhi bhavana for sato and sampajano as something I would call insight. Also in MN 111, AN 9.36, going by B.Bodhi’s translations, it sure looks like vipassana is being done in jhana.

No it’s not insisting that at all. Surely a samma sambuddha would have foresight to realize people of the future would notice how closely satipatthana and samma samadhi are intertwined, and he would probably be careful not to use vitakka and vicara in first jhana if he didn’t want to contribute to that confusion.

He could have had 3 jhanas (omitting first one) to avoid that issue. He could use appana, or some other word. There are a number of ways he could have headed off confusion. Doesn’t have to involve polysemy.

You’re overly sensitive on the personal experience angle. If I say something is my personal experience, feel free to disregard it as irrelevant to the discussion.

Sylvester, I’m not going to respond to all of your points in all of your messages. I don’t think it’s productive of our time. I will study DN 9 carefully, the gradual training section with kaya passadhi, and when I have a better understanding of it I’ll come back to some of your earlier questions on key issues. Please be patient.

Is DN9 the ultimate repository of truth regarding Jhanas?
To me the DNs (and the MNs) are compilations/concatenations/often late developments of the original teachings from in particular the SN Maha Vagga.
I personally focus my study of the Dhamma by reading the SN, AN and Snp where I feel they have been transmitted to us with minimum corruptions.

That’s odd. If DN 9’s Chinese parallel says the same thing, and such parallelism suggests a pre-Asokan provenance, how corrupt can that text be?

Since you mention the AN, I would be curious how you view AN 9.35.

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Following the same logic, should we also conclude that the word kāyaṃ used in the items exposed just after the fourth jhana in DN 2 also refers to the same meaning of the word?

Hi silence

Is an anaphoric pronoun used with body in those passages after the 4th Jhana passage?