Vitakka vicāra (Jhana-factors)

Hi Frank

It’s this point I had raised earlier -

Bearing in mind that the wanderers were enquiring on the Buddha’s dispensation regarding various subjects, viz kāmā (plural), forms, and feelings, it is clear to me that the kāmānaṃ (ablative plural of kāma) and kāmesu above (locative plural of kāma) would be on the same subject of the plural kāmā.

To reiterate, in the EBT universe, chanda­rāga is directed towards the external sense bases. It is only in Ven T’s translation that we find this bizarre chanda­rāga for sensual desires. You really need to ask - why is he translating a plural noun (sensual objects) into the singular (sensuality)? Pls forgive me if I am too lazy to trawl through his essays on ATI to locate his statement that kāmā/sensuality = sensual desires.

Thanks for this, but I was really asking about their beliefs, insofar as such beliefs inform this discussion on what kāmā means.

Most definitely! In this case, the first member of the compound kāmāsava would be kāma (sensual desire) and not kāmā (sensual stuff). It would not be very different from the parsing of kāmasaṅkappa, where the first member is also the singular kāma and not the plural kāmā. This is the difficulty with the parsing of such tappurisa and kammadhāraya compounds, since the first member is in a stem form, showing no inflection for case or number.

Post script - I think Ven T painted himself into a corner with his reading of kāmā as sensuality = sensual desires, which he had to correct in his translation of a section in AN 6.63. The passage in question is -

Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo (nominative singular of kāma) ,
Nete kāmā (nominative plural of kāma) yāni citrāni loke;
Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo,
Tiṭṭhanti citrāni tatheva loke;
Athettha dhīrā vinayanti chandanti.

He’s forced to acknowledge that kāmā actually means “sensual pleasures”, when he translates -

The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality,
not the beautiful sensual pleasures
found in the world.
The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality.

The beauties remain as they are in the world,
while the wise, in this regard,
subdue their desire.

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thanks for the grammar breakdown on that passage Sylvester, on my own i’d have no idea how to break them up when they’re in compounds.

what’s the bigger point you’re trying to get at regarding Ven. Thanissaro, first jhana and body and sound disappearing? it seems like you’re implying he had an agenda to promote his understanding of first jhana over ajahn brahm by deliberating translating kāma a certain way.

i like your translation, and i don’t have a problem with using it myself, but it doesn’t change my understanding of first jhana. the key word that pops out is still “sensual”. it doesn’t make me think of going into an imperturbable samadhi where sounds and all perceptions of body disappear.

what do you think of chansik’s post earlier where oxford dictionary allows for “sensuality” to be plural?

Re Ven Thanissaro’s translation of kāmā , I am forgiving enough to overlook it as an honest mistake, albeit repeated in every one of the First Jhana pericopes.

But, when it’s repeated elsewhere (eg MN 13), my forensic suspicions are aroused.

Not just kāmā, but the discussion on AN 9.36 should make it clear that something is going on with his translations that expunge the prima facie absorption model that is in that text.

Then, we have his translation of AN 9.35 which I trust you have audited against the Pali. Why would he have translated it in a fashion that denies the absorption character of that sutta’s description of the 8 attainments?

Why, in some of his translations of the nexus between the Fourth Jhana and supernormal powers, does he render the locative absolute as if it were made up of present participles, when the Pali has past participles (ie the psychic powers are performed after the concentration episode)?

Not to mention his translation of DN 9, which he limits the effects of thinking to the attainment of Nothingness, when the Pali clearly has “these perceptions” in the plural? Why did he translate that as "this perception " in the singular?

I think it is not for me to justify my suspicions but for the translator to explain why such things happened.

As for the mass noun thing, any example from Pali or other MIA languages? Bearing in mind that mass nouns in English are in the singular, how is that relevant to the Pali plural noun kāmā?


Hi Sylvester, (and @frankk)

Maybe I can clarify my comment:

What I mean to say is that the Ajahn’s rendering of kāmā as sensuality (ie in English) can reflect the plurality of the original term if we take the English word sensuality to be a mass noun for which a plural form isn’t valid. Whether there are instances of mass nouns in Pali or in MIA languages wouldn’t be pertinent here (though certainly of some interest in terms of how that would work). Perhaps this bit from Wikipedia says it better:

Given that different languages have different grammatical features, the actual test for which nouns are mass nouns may vary between languages.

So in English, in referring to Alice’s sensuality and Bob’s sensuality together, would have us say “their sensuality” instead of “their sensualities”. (Actually, this probably isn’t the best example—“Wikipedia: Some mass nouns can be used in English in the plural to mean ‘more than one instance (or example) of a certain sort of entity’” and other dictionaries allow for this—but I hope the point is a bit more clear).

In either case, I’ve been enjoying the eloquence with which you talk about these grammatical nuances and have been eagerly following along on most of the references you’ve included above.

If I might take the opportunity to question one thing that I find to be unresolved here—and it seems to be a rather important point with regards to the line of argument that hinges on the lexical analysis of kāmā for establishing ‘sensory deprivation’ in first jhāna (that is to say, your point about na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata and others notwithstanding). Namely, may I ask you to clarify your position on the distinction between kāmā and kāmaguṇā?

More pointedly, are we to understand that your position is that kāmā is a proper superset of kāmaguṇā?

Because judging from the CPD entries for the two, it would appear that the editors take them to be synonymous (under kāmaguṇa they have: “i.e. the five objects of sensual pleasure viz. rūpa, sadda, gandha, rasa, poṭṭhabba”), but you say here:

Can I presume that you’re referring to this bit here?:

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, māgaṇḍiya, api nu so devaputto nandane vane accha­rā­saṅgha­pari­vuto dibbehi pañcahi kāmaguṇehi samappito samaṅgībhūto paricārayamāno amussa gahapatissa vā gaha­pati­puttassa vā piheyya, mānusakānaṃ vā pañcannaṃ kāmaguṇānaṃ mānusakehi vā kāmehi āvaṭṭeyyā”ti?

What do you think, Māgandiya? Would that young god surrounded by the group of nymphs in the Nandana Grove, enjoying himself, provided and endowed with the five cords of divine sensual pleasure, envy the householder or the householder’s son for the five cords of human sensual pleasure or would he be enticed by human sensual pleasures?”

Also, you say that the prose and verse in AN 6.63 are somehow in conflict:

Would you mind spelling out how the verse delineates kāmā from kāmaguṇā in the way you parenthesize or otherwise belabouring your point here?

Strictly speaking, in the first place, I’m not even sure what you mean when you say that the prose in AN 6.63 uses kāmā to mean sensual desires, unless you’re referring to the bit about “kāmānaṃ vemattatā”.

Thanks in advance,



I’d also like to offer that if we take the Ajahn’s rendering, sensuality, to be synonymous with (sensual-)enjoyment (again, as offered in the Oxford entry), kāmesu chandarāgavinayo becomes a bit more tractable: eg “subduing of desire-passion in sensual enjoyment”. That is to say that whatever ravenous quality is present when one, say, binges or otherwise feasts on one’s favourite food, that is what should be subdued in order to escape from the endangering enjoyment of sensual things like that.

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Hi Chan

I hope my attempt at addressing your queries will be to your satisfaction.

Yes, that is the view I hold. One formula that exemplifies this is found in MN 13 and MN 14. The formula discusses the gratification, drawback, and escape with reference to kāmā. Taking Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, we have -

“And what, bhikkhus, is the gratification in the case of sensual pleasures? Bhikkhus, there are these five cords of sensual pleasure. What are the five? Forms cognizable by the eye that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire, and provocative of lust. Sounds cognizable by the ear…Odours cognizable by the nose…Flavours cognizable by the tongue…Tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire, and provocative of lust. These are the five cords of sensual pleasure. Now the pleasure and joy that arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure are the gratification in the case of sensual pleasures.

ii “And what, bhikkhus, is the danger in the case of sensual pleasures? Here, bhikkhus, on account of the craft by which a clansman makes a living—whether checking or accounting or calculating or farming or trading or husbandry or archery or the royal service, or whatever craft it may be—he has to face cold, he has to face heat, he is injured by contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping things; he risks death by hunger and thirst. Now this is a danger in the case of sensual pleasures, a mass of suffering visible here and now, having sensual pleasures as its cause, sensual pleasures as its source, sensual pleasures as its basis, the cause being simply sensual pleasures. etc etc

The gratification lies in the pleasure and joy derived from the 5 cords of sensual pleasure, while its opposite would be the pain and distress derived from the painful counterparts to the kāmaguṇā. These, to me, implies that the kāmaguṇā are a subset of the kāmā, given that the gratification in the kāmā lies in the kāmaguṇa’s pleasure and joy.

Yes, this is precisely the passage I have in mind. I don’t know the name of this literary device (where one absurd hypothetical is being discussed and then followed by an even more absurd hypothetical), but it appears to be saying - would that god envy the human for the five cords of human sensual pleasure, let alone be enticed by human sensual pleasures?

My bad, I was actually referring to the prose preceding it -

Pañcime, bhikkhave, kāmaguṇā—cakkhuviññeyyā rūpā iṭṭhā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāmūpasaṃhitā rajanīyā, sotaviññeyyā saddā … ghānaviññeyyā gandhā … jivhāviññeyyā rasā … kāyaviññeyyā phoṭṭhabbā iṭṭhā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāmūpasaṃhitā rajanīyā. Api ca kho, bhikkhave, nete kāmā kāmaguṇā nāmete ariyassa vinaye vuccanti

There are, bhikkhus, these 5 objects of sensual pleasure : forms cognisable by the eye that are wished for, desired, agreeable, pleasing, connected with sensual pleasure, tantalizing etc etc for the remaining 4 sensory fields. However, these are not sensual pleasures; in the Noble One’s discipline, these are called objects of sensual pleasure.

per Bhikkhu Bodhi

If we discount BB’s rendering of kāmā = sensual pleasures (whatever that means), then it would seem clear to me that this passage makes a clear distinction between kāmā and the kāmaguṇā.

Now, that being said, the Abhidhamma definition of kāmā as -

Chando kāmo, rāgo kāmo, chandarāgo kāmo, saṅkappo kāmo, rāgo kāmo, saṅkapparāgo kāmo— ime vuccanti “kāmā”.

is not wildly off the mark from a MIA perspective. In Olivelle’s translation of the Upanisads, it appears that the Upanisads use kāmā in about the same way as the Vibhanga, including as well the sense very close to meaning the things desired (= kāmaguṇā?). I think this Upanisadic usage may have persisted in the suttas, but in my opinion, context should dictate if the Upanisadic senses prevail or the MN 13/AN 6.63 sense prevails.

Not specifically in this, but in this passage -

Kāmā, bhikkhave, veditabbā, kāmānaṃ nidānasambhavo veditabbo, kāmānaṃ vemattatā veditabbā, kāmānaṃ vipāko veditabbo, kāmanirodho veditabbo, kāma­nirodha­gāminī paṭipadā veditabbā.

Now, if the concern of the verse was with the singular kāmo = saṅkapparāgo purisassa , why has the prose suddenly turned its attention to the plural kāmā? It loses the plot, and my suspicion is that because of its proximity to the plural subjects feelings, perceptions, and taints, the reciter may have accidentally levelised the kāma into the plural kāmā.

If that were Ven Thanissaro’s take, that might be acceptable. But, he is quite clear in his essays that sensuality = sensual desire, not sensual enjoyment. I seriously doubt if he would interpret sensuality so broadly, as even the Buddha was capable of feeling the pleasure (detached no doubt) engendered by the 5 cords of sensual pleasure. Has Ven T ever suggested that sensuality = sensual enjoyment?


Ahhhh, that bit of induction is quite novel to me and it certainly does render all of the other listed drawbacks/dangers as much more directly caused by the thing in question.

Got it. Very clear, thank you.

Now, if the concern of the verse was with the singular kāmo = saṅkapparāgo purisassa , why has the prose suddenly turned its attention to the plural kāmā? It loses the plot, and my suspicion is that because of its proximity to the plural subjects feelings, perceptions, and taints, the reciter may have accidentally levelised the kāma into the plural kāmā.

Got it, thank you.

So the subject in MN 13/14 is rightly kāmā, whereas in AN 6.63, it “should/could be” kāma.

RE: Ven Thanissaro

You’re not wrong: I can quickly see that there’s a transcribed 2007 dhamma talk with the sentence:

Craving for sensuality is easy enough to explain: the desire to have sensual desires.

In other instances he does talk about “taking pleasure” or “indulging in pleasure” (140101 Evening) but doesn’t explicitly equate it with sensuality, which we can see him defining a bit more explicitly elsewhere (120126 Evening):

Two big enemies of concentration are sensual desire and ill will. It’s all too easy as you’re sitting here, putting aside your duties of the day, your various responsibilities. And you create an empty space here in the present moment. And these are the thoughts that start coming in. The sensual pleasures that you would like to think about. When the Buddha talks about sensuality it’s not so much the pretty things out there; there are the nice sounds, good tastes…whatever.
It’s our obsession with thinking about these things. Mulling them over and over in our mind.

Generally, it might be interesting to investigate the evolution over the years of the Ajahn’s diction in this regard. Which is to say that any evolutions are certainly bound to be later to enter into the Ajahn’s more official corpus of translations.

All in all though, having been “in the kāmā=kāma, sound-can-exist-in-jhāna camp”, I think I finally have a coherent picture of the hermeneutics of the other side. I’ll have to do some further homework to see where I come out at the end of this, but I thank you and your interlocutors very much for taking the time to hash this out so thoroughly.

(Namely, I’d like to further investigate the differences in meaning between plugging in “objects vs enjoyments/indulgences” in the discursive list of dangers in MN13/14. I’d also like to investigate whether there are any relevant similes with the right syntax for us to compare meanings. And failing any salient findings there, I’ll probably end up trawling through all the EBT references in the CPD entry and wherever else as I find the time.)

FWIW, I found a simile in verse at SN 5.1 where the plural kāmā is clearly better read with the definition of the singular:

Sattisūlūpamā kāmā,
khandhāsaṃ adhikuṭṭanā;

Sensual pleasures are like swords and stakes;
The aggregates like their chopping block. (tr. Bodhi)

To be clear, sattisūla and adhikuṭṭunā likely function as in SN 56.35 and elsewhere, where the former is the business end of the spear and the latter is some kind of board onto which the would-be centenarian is bound.

If we take kāmā as ‘-rāga’ (as kāma is in AN 6.63), the verse fits nicely with the doctrinal assertions of SN 22.121.

Though this is all unless kāmā is vocative there for some reason…verse being what it is…


Hi Chan

You may like to refer to @Brahmali 's very exhaustive discussion at Roderick S. Bucknell - Reinterpreting the Jhānas (1993), post #19 re the distinction between the singular and plural forms of kāma.



Here’s an angle for y’all, from MN 26:

"Suppose that a wild deer is living in a wilderness glen. Carefree it walks, carefree it stands, carefree it sits, carefree it lies down. Why is that? Because it has gone beyond the hunter’s range. [5] In the same way, a monk — quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. This monk is said to have blinded Mara. Trackless, he has destroyed Mara’s vision and has become invisible to the Evil One.

The arahant is free of craving for sensual pleasures and has made an end of greed, hatred and delusion. So in the sense of a “jhana-with-the-senses” (for lack of better words), the arahant must be said to fulfill the factors of a “jhana-with-the-senses”.

But there’s plenty of examples in the EBTs where Mara can see arahants. For example, in MN 49, there is an encounter between the Buddha and Mara in the brahma realm where Mara very clearly is aware of the Buddha’s presence.

But, maybe if you take the five sense out of the mind, then Mara literally won’t be able to see you?


“Sensuality” is an abstract quality; singular/plural doesn’t apply (“sensualities”?). As an abstraction it could be said to refer to plurality, i.e. all things which have that quality.

So, using the abstraction may in fact “obscure” the meaning, IMO, but not by virtue of syntactic “number”.

Is this a phenomenon in Pali?

Shades of meaning from concrete to abstract in most all highly developed languages. As per the “How language evolves” section in V. Sujato’s original essay (“Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana”). I’ve run good documentation of this also, for instance, in ancient Chinese medical language.

V. Thanissaro apparently interprets interchanging abstraction for the more specific here, as it might be argued to fit more easily in English.

It’s apparently quite fashionable to criticize V. Thanissaro’s translations, but that’s in itself just another interpretation, as much as it might pretend to some sort of higher, philological ground. A thicket of views, no matter how you cut it.

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Well, if you have to resort to that tired non-sequitur “thicket of views” to argue against a well-founded body of philology…

It’s not a matter of interpretation but translation.

All translation involves interpretation – except yours? (How do you “translate” Māna?)

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And how, prythee tell, is this relevant to the critique of one man’s liberties with one particular word kāmā?

(How do you “translate” Māna?)

And how, prythee tell, is this singular word relevant to the matter of rendering another plural substantive?

Any other non-sequitur?

My understanding of this:
kama = sensuality (as in a broad, nebulous concept of ‘pleasures’)
kamaguna = the specific modalities in which these pleasures are experienced
kamaraga= desire for kama.

sukha vedana (pleasant sensations) gives rise to kama, in the presence of ignorance. In an arahanth where ignorance is abandoned it doesn’t give rise to kama, but is experienced as sukha vedana.

In the first jhana, kama cannot arise due to the suppression of the hindrances, therefore only sukha vedana can arise (this is why piti and sukha are felt).

Sound distracts from the object of concentration in the first jhana and is not helpful in stabilising concentration in it. Therefore it is ‘a thorn’. This is rupa jhana and sound is rupa as well. It is also in the rupa plane and not in the kama plane; therefore any sound, sight, sensation etc experienced wont give rise to sensual pleasure (kama).

with metta



Bhante, I have not had the time to read all of the 115 posts in this thread, but I have seen the following point mentioned in one of them, although not addressed directly to the discussion about “thorns”, so I thought I would chip in my 2 cents.

Here is a quote from AN 9.41:

"So at a later time, having seen the drawback of directed thought, I pursued that theme; having understood the reward of being without directed thought, I familiarized myself with it. My heart leaped up at being without directed thought, grew confident, steadfast, & firm, seeing it as peace. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, I entered & remained in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance.

"As I remained there, I was beset with attention to perceptions dealing with directed thought. That was an affliction for me. Just as pain arises as an affliction for a healthy person, even so the attention to perceptions dealing with directed thought that beset me was an affliction for me.

It seems that the expression “I was beset with attention to perceptions dealing with directed thought”, which describes vitakka as “an affliction” just like “pain arises as an affliction in a healthy person” corresponds quite closely to the concept of “a thorn”.

So if we interpret the “thorn” in AN 10.72 as meaning the “affliction” that represent “attention to perceptions dealing with directed thought” (vitakka-sahagatā saññā-manasikārā), then the thorn simile is consistent throughout AN 10.72 in the understanding that it represents “something that creates difficulties for what it touches” rather than “something that cannot be present without destroying what it pierces”, since in AN 9.41, “attention to perceptions dealing with directed thought” do not “destroy” the first jhana but bring some kind of “pain” into it, arguably like a thorn.

It would be consistent with “seclusion/company”, “developing the sign of loathsomeness/an agreeable sign”, being “protected in the mental faculties/sight seeing”, “leading a celebate life/the behavior of a woman”. For each jhana, an interpretation along the lines of AN 9.41 would continue with a consistent image of “thorn” mirroring “affliction” or “pain”, while not “destroying” the state it afflicts. This understanding is also supported by the last three items:

"Greed is a thorn. Hate is a thorn and delusion is a thorn.

Here thorn is also quite clearly understandable as “affliction” or “pain”.

So AT may have expressed himself in a dubious manner at some points, but there is an understanding that seems to be consistent with the suttas and with the general arguments he makes regarding the interpretation of AN 10.72.

Or am I being wrong?


I think this is what is meant:


with metta



I still think there is a problem. Imagine that you are peacefully reading a book. If there is a loud noise, it is very likely you will be disturbed, at least momentarily. This is analogous to Ajahn Thanissaro’s understanding of how noise disturbs you in the first jhāna.

Now imagine that you are reading the same book, but this time with a pair of noise-proof earmuffs. The external sound will no longer disturb you. But when you are finished reading and remove the earmuffs, you will again here sounds - and what a pain they are! This is how I understand the first jhāna.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of the second jhāna. Vitakka and vicāra are quite different from sounds in that they are phenomena internal to the meditator. When you enter jhāna, you do so with a certain "momentum"of stillness. In the second jhāna, vitakka and vicāra are kept at bay until that momentum is used up. Once the momentum is used up, you naturally emerge from the jhāna. The first thing you will experience is vitakka and vicāra, and they will indeed appear unpleasant, like a thorn even. But they haven’t penetrated the jhāna in the same way that noise penetrates ordinary consciousness.

I say this idea of “momentum” is also applicable to the first jhāna. If noise penetrates the first jhāna, however, the momentum of the attainment is itself interrupted. This would be different from what happens in second jhāna. The meditation does not come to a “natural” conclusion, but is cut of by the sound. In AT’s words: “noise is a thorn for the first jhana simply means that noise makes it difficult to enter or remain there.” “Makes it diffcult to … remain,” must mean the attainment is cut off.

That vitakka and vicāra are incompatible with the second jhāna follows from the definition of this attainment. Using this as an analogy for the first jhāna, noise should be incompatible with the first jhāna, and thus no interruption of the momentum should be possible. But if I understand AT correctly, he is saying that such an interruption of the momentum is possible, and perhaps even that sounds can be heard within the attainment itself.


Though i like “not present” or even prefer “dormant", but Bhante has put it better with “kept at bay”!

if first jhana is that cut off from sensory perception (sounds, mosquito bites), then why is noise said to be a thorn for first jhana? it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning by the buddha, if you had to “remove the headphones”, that is, actually exit such a pristine samadhi for noise to be a thorn.

if the buddha has to make a point of saying sound is a thorn, i would think rather than having sound proof earmuffs, those are actually poor quality ear muffs that reduce sound, but are still “thorny” in the samadhi of a plain reading of standard first formula jhana.

a sutta (SN 36 something?) says vāca/speech ceases in the first jhana, and the numerous suttas say 5 hindrances are close by, like they’re a threat to pull you out of first jhana at any moment. speaking and having five hindrances close by are very coarse activities compared to a samadhi where you’ve already got an imperturbable momentum to stay unaffacted by thorns for a period of time.

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