Vitarka and vicāra in the Yoga Sūtra

Often Buddhists practicing meditation have questions about the interpretation of vitarka and vicāra, and how to interpret these two terms.

What some may not know is that these terms are also found in relation to meditation in the (Hindu) Yoga tradition. This may seem unrelated at first, but it is significant because that tradition based a lot of its methods, ideas, and terminology on those from early Buddhism (but we don’t know how or when this happened). And importantly, like Buddhists, meditation was a big part of their tradition.

The Yoga system most similar to that of Buddhism, and which owes the most to Buddhism, is that of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra. There is a translation done by Edwin F. Bryant that goes into the text in much detail along with its classical commentaries.

There are some interesting parallels here with the Buddhist progression through the dhyānas as seen in classical formulations in the EBT’s. I thought I would post the most relevant passage from the Yoga Sūtra regarding vitarka and vicāra and their place in developing samādhi.

I.17 vitarka-vicārānandaāsmitā-rūpānugamāt samprajñātaḥ

Samprajñāta [samādhi] consists of [the consecutive] mental stages of absorption with physical awareness, absorption with subtle awareness, absorption with bliss, and absorption with the sense of I-ness.

As you can see, the text is incredibly compact, and would usually be interpreted with commentary explaining it. Here, vitarka is translated as “physical awareness” and vicāra is translated as “subtle awareness.” However, the translator—who has made a career of studying this text—quickly points out that vitarka and vicāra here cannot be translated adequately English, or understood in terms of their ordinary conventional meanings in Sanskrit.

In instances such as this, English translations such as “absorption with physical awareness” for vitarka and “absorption with subtle awareness” for vicāra do not convey the same meaning or difference between these two levels of samādhi. The technical way that these Sanskrit terms are being used here cannot be captured by a suitable English equivalent, so the reader is advised not to try to understand these terms through the clumsy English words a translator chose to convey them. In fact, even the Sanskrit terms are an artificiality, as Vijñānabhikṣu points out, and not to be correlated with how they are used in other contexts […] They are guides for the yogī, alerting him or her to some of the meditative experiences that will be encountered on the path.

Vijñānabhikṣu is the name of the author of one commentary on the text. The translator highlights the commentary of Vācaspati Miśra, who gives the clearest explanation of these stages:

[Vācaspati Miśra] considers the first state on Patañjali’s list, vitarka-samādhi, to be contemplation on a gross physical object, that is to say, meditating on an object that one experiences as a manifestation or construct of the gross physical or material elements. It is thus the first level of experiencing an object in samādhi. Keeping the metaphysics of Sāṅkhya in mind, we know that the five gross elements that constitute gross physical objects evolve from elements that are more subtle, that is, they are actually evolutes from the tanmātras, the five subtle elements. Vācaspati Miśra states that vicāra samādhi the second level of samādhi concentration mentioned by Patañjali in the sūtra, involves absorption on this more subtle aspect of the object of meditation, perceiving the object as actually consisting of these more subtle ingredients. In fact, I.44 informs us that the subtle substructure of external reality can refer to any of the evolutes from prakṛti, as even the tanmātras evolve from ahaṅkāra which, in turn, evolves from buddhi. Thus, the latter can also be considered sūkṣma, subtle. As a new archer first aims at large objects, Vācaspati Miśra says, and then progressively smaller ones, so the neophyte yogī first experiences the gross nature of the object in meditation and then its progressively more subtle nature. Instead of experiencing the object as composed of compact quantum masses, the bhūtādi gross elements, as in the first state of vitarka, in vicāra, the yogī experiences the object as composed of vibratory, radiant potential, subtle energy (a sublevel of reality normally imperceptible to the senses).

Hope nobody was too offended by this “heretical” content! And since I copied so much, I’ll give a full citation. If anyone is interested in this type of stuff, this translation is very good (done by a scholar who is passionate about the material and treats it seriously).

Bryant, Edwin F. 2009. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary With Insights from the Traditional Commentators. New York, NY: North Point Press.


please don’t insult and don’t underestimate our dedication to the Dhamma by questioning it :smile:

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Awesome to see someone else interested in the Yoga Sūtras!

I think the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are very interesting. I’m fascinated by the early non-vedic traditions of India, around the time of the Buddha and before. There’s so little known about these other early traditions, that the information we do have becomes a rare glimpse into history/knowledge that may have otherwise been forgotten. For some of these schools, there are only secondary sources - afaik the only sources we have on the Cārvāka and Ajīvikas are from Buddhist texts (and perhaps some Jain texts, though I’m not sure about their authenticity).

Just recently, I read David Gordon White’s “The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A Biography”, it’s a scholarly work that mostly gives the history of the text itself, but also has some thought-provoking asides. Although he covers many theories for the originating school of thought for these sūtras, I got the impression it’s most likely that the philosophy/epistemology/ontology is Saṃkhya. Then there’s the practical portion on the Ashtanga Yoga (8 fold? hmm), some have suggested that this practical Yoga section is actually a separate work that was later combined with the prior philosophical work. The Saṃskṛt in the Yoga Sūtras is apparently some sort of “Buddhist Hybrid” variant seen elsewhere in the māhāyana sūtras, and not the classical/formal form used in the Vedas/Upaniṣads. Of course, this raises the question of whether Patañjali’s work was influenced by Buddhism, or vice versa. I’m not sure if who influenced who is discernable, but I think it does stand to reason that there was an intellectual milieu amongst śramaṇas influencing a culture of ideas with some ideas being agreed upon and shared. The samaṇa Gotama learned meditations from teachers, the four Brahma Vihāras appear in Buddhism and Yoga Sūtra and Jain texts, the five restraints (yamas) are found in Buddhism and Yoga Sūtra and Jainism. There’s probably even more shared ideas I’m not considering.

One of the most outstanding points in White’s study of the Yoga Sūtras is his overview of many translations of the first line “Yogaś citta vritti nirodha”, the range of meaning in the translations is absurd. I think this shows the difficulty of translation (especially without context), and why commentary for these 195 aphorisms would be necessary. White seemed to be particularly fond of Rājendralāla Mitra’s translation,

his translation for I.17 goes:
I.17 “Conscious, because it is attended with argumentation, deliberation, joy and egoism”

and picked from his commentary:
savitarka samādhi = argumentative meditation
savichāra samādhi = deliberative meditation

In my own notes on Buddhism I have very simply vitakka as thinking and vicāra as more thinking. Alternatively, I have vitakka as thought/subverbal-speech, and vicāra as the thoughts roaming about the thoughts/thinking of vitakka, or the ripples created by pressing vitakka. There are a lot of opinions on these words in Buddhist circles.

PS - I’m pretty sure the Buddha talks about a vicāra samādhi and possibly a vitakka samādhi somewhere in the suttas.


Interesting, thanks. I’ve done some work on this text long ago, and took a little time yesterday to refresh myself, without any great conclusions unfortunately!

A few comments, though, especially for anyone interested in reading from a Buddhist perspective.

The first thing is that the text is, as you noted, extremely difficult to read without a commentary, and was never meant to be read that way. Like many Buddhist texts, however, it comes with its own auto-commentary, which may or may not be from the same author(s), but in any case is far older than any of the other commentaries cited here. The auto-commentary is, however, also very hard to understand!

The second point is that we have a similar historical problem as we do with the Buddhist texts; in fact, it is pretty much the inverse. The Buddha is constantly quoting or referring to Brahmanical terms and ideas, and often passages can only be understood with some knowledge of that context. However the later Buddhists lost that knowledge, and systematically interpreted in later “Buddhist” ways, which often miss the point of the passage or idea. With the Yoga sutra, we very frequently find ideas drawn from Buddhism, yet the later Yogic tradition, unaware of this, tries to explain them in terms of the later developed philosophy, and ends up making things much more complicated.

As a result of problems one and two, the sad fact is that, while there are plenty of modern translations and commentaries on this text, most of them are full of such fanciful nonsense that they are utterly worthless in trying to understand the meditation states described in the text itself. Hindu commentators typically use the text as a loose springboard to propound their own understanding, based on a mix of medieval commentaries and modernist “science”. Western scholars typically have zero practical understanding of meditation and their work in such areas is full of elementary mistakes.

As just one example of this, take the use of “argument” or “reasoning” in relation to vitarka. These are meanings the term has elsewhere. In Pali it is usually takka that means “reasoning”, and by extension “debate”. But these meanings have no place in meditation contexts. No meditator could ever imagine that an actual meditation attainment could be characterized as “argumentative”. Yet we find it repeatedly used.

Let’s have a brief look at some of the things in the Yoga sutra, focussing on how the basic meditation states are described as compare with the Pali texts. I’m not trying to figure out what it all means, just raise some points of interest and clarification.

This is the basic definition of samprajñāta samādhi. Note that although the word samādhi does not appear here, it is found throughout the text, and is clearly implied here. The word samprajñāta is related to the Pali sampajaññā, but is used in a different sense. The converse of this is asamprajñāta samādhi. I believe the difference between the two is similar, if not identical, to the difference between the rūpa and arūpa attainments in Buddhism.

There are four stages here. (While it is not clear that these represent four stages just from this aphorism, again it is made clear elsewhere.) These seem to correspond somewhat loosely to the four jhānas. The first and second are described thus:

vitarkaś cittasyālambane sthūla ābhogaḥ. sūkṣmo vicāraḥ
vitakka is where the mind enjoys a coarse object. In vicara it is subtle.

The translator interprets as “physical awareness”. I believe this is a mistake. “Object”, in Sanskrit as in Pali, often refers to the sense objects, but it need not. In several places in the text this is connected with purely conceptual forms of meditation (mettā and the like), so I doubt if it has any special relation to physical awareness. In fact I don’t see any reason why vitakka and vicāra shouldn’t just have the same meanings as in Buddhism.

The commentary has an interesting discussion further down on vitarka. YS 1.42:

tatra śabdārthajñānavikalpaiḥ saṃkīrṇā savitarkā samāpattiḥ
tadyathā gaur iti śabdo gaur ity artho gaur iti jñānam ity avibhāgena vibhaktānām api grahaṇaṃ dṛṣṭam. vibhajyamānāś cānye śabdadharmā anye 'rthadharmā anye vijñānadharmā ity eteṣāṃ vibhaktaḥ panthāḥ. tatra samāpannasya yogino yo gavādyarthaḥ samādhiprajñāyāṃ samārūḍhaḥ sa cec chabdārthajñānavikalpānuviddha upāvartate sā saṃkīrṇā samāpattiḥ savitarkety ucyate.
Therein, the concepts of word, meaning, and knowledge are mixed in attainments with vitarka. For example, consider the word “cow”, the meaning “cow”, and the knowledge “cow”. Without distinguishing their differences they are experienced all taken together when seen. Analytically, the properties of the word, the meaning, and the awareness are distinguished in different ways. But a meditator in such an attainment has surmounted the meaning “cow”, etc., with samadhi and wisdom. If the penetrated concept of word, meaning, and knowledge recurs, that is called an attainment mixed with vitarka.

I am not at all confident of this translation! But the basic idea is clear enough. See below for the continuation of this passage.

We also find:

nirvicāravaiśāradye 'dhyātmaprasādaḥ || YS_1.47 ||
self-assurance (= Pali vesarajja) without vicara is internal confidence.

This is of course closely related to the Pali formula for the second jhana:

vitak­ka­vicārā­naṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ
With the stilling of vitakka and vicara there is internal confidence.

The next quality, ānanda, clearly equals the sukha and/or pīti of the second and/or third jhānas.

ānando hlādaḥ
joy is pleasure.

(Good to know that the Sanskrit commentaries can be as unhelpful as the Pali ones!)

Asmita is a curious choice for the final attainment. It means “I am ness”, i.e. ego.

ekātmikā saṃvid asmitā
realization of the one self is asmitā.

Probably it refers to the fourth jhāna where, according to the yogic philosophy, the self is revealed in its pure form.

We find the phrase:

smṛtipariśuddhau svarūpaśūnyevārthamātranirbhāsā nirvitarkā
[samadhi] without vitarka has pure mindfulness, and the object shines forth in the sheer emptiness of its own form.

This follows on from the previously translated passage on the simile of the cows. Here, with the ending of vitarka, also end all conceptual knowledge (śabdasaṃketaśrutānumānajñānavikalpa). The “emptiness” referred to here, which of course sounds very Buddhist, is the emptiness of awareness from such derived forms of knowledge. True knowledge comes from the perception of the object unsullied by such conceptual baggage.

Again, the “pure mindfulness” here is clearly related to the upekkhā­sati­pāri­suddhi of the fourth jhāna, and, like the fourth jhana, this state is described as being radiant. (All jhanas can be described as radiant, but it is especially emphasized in the fourth jhana.)

Also note that, while the influence of Buddhist meditation terminology is undeniable, this is not restricted to the EBTs. In fact many of the terms and idioms (for example, svarūpaśūnya above) are more reminiscent of the Abhidharma, which was of course prevalent in the time of composition of the Yoga Sutra. Whether a closer relation can be found between the Yoga Sutra and any particular Abhidharma school or text, I do not know.

All of these are samadhi with object:

sarva ete sālambanāḥ samādhayaḥ


Very interesting, and great responses so far! The wide variety of interpretations of the YS commentators is not something I had considered so much before. Maybe the translator was putting too much faith in the other commentaries, and assuming the tradition was more uniform than it ever was.

Most earlier translators into Chinese rendered vitarka as 覺 which means to awaken or become aware of something. The term vicāra was translated as 觀 which means to observe something, usually as in meditation. Xuanzang changed the translations for these terms. For vitarka he used 尋 meaning seeking. For vicāra he used 伺 meaning examination.

Apparently L. S. Cousins wrote a paper about some of these issues almost 25 years ago.


Bhante Sujato, do you have any knowledge or personal opinion on whether there was ever a separate “Yoga Philosophy”, that wasn’t Saṃkhya? Or whether Yoga is “Saṃkhya with Īśvara”? (As an aside, White also makes a pretty convincing argument that Īśvara could have simply meant master as in “meditation master” and not a deity. He also mentions, with some disdain, the popular Hindu and Hindu Nationalist neo-vedānta interpretations mixed with popular science of the 19th century - that have been popular since Vivekanada.)

On the topic of tarka, some points I’d like to bring up for discussion:
The Maitri Upaniśad (I think older than the Yoga Sūtras) lists a six-fold/limbed/fingered Yoga as:

  1. Prānāyama 2. Pratyahara 3. Dhyāna 4. Dharana 5. Tarka 6. Samādhi

That’s a really interesting placement of tarka within a progressive meditation system.

Also, a total lack of morality, in the lists at least. Whereas, morality/ethics is foundational in the lists of eight for the Yoga Sūtras and Buddhist Suttas:

  1. Yama 2. Niyama 3. Āsana 4. Prānāyama 5. Pratyahara 6. Dharana 7. Dhyāna 8. Samādhi
    Sammā: 1. Diṭṭhi 2. Sankappa 3. Vācā 4. Kammanta 5. Ājīva 6. Vāyāma 7. Sati 8. Samādhi

The Nyāya school apparently really emphasized tarka-vidyā, the knowledge/science of debate/logic/reasoning/argumentation, but I think that’s more of the gross use of the term than the subtle usage in a meditation school context.

Regarding Buddhist influence on Yoga Sūtra:
Didn’t the samaṇa Gotama study under Ālāra Kālāma who was said to be of the Saṃkhya school (not sure if that is referenced in the early suttas or later works)? If that is so, then we could say that not only was Classical Yoga influenced by Buddhism, but that Buddhism was influenced by Saṃkhya/Yoga (the meditations learned earlier in Gotama’s life continued to be taught by the Buddha along with, or modified/enhanced by, his unique way of jhāna.)

@llt - I really enjoyed reading that study you linked to.
Some of my take-aways:

When reading the part about vitakka compared to sankappa and whether they had the same/similar meaning I remembered an experience I had in meditation some months ago. I had the experience that as my mind became more still and quiet there seemed to be a level of thought below/deeper than thought or internal speech, the thoughts at this “deeper level” seemed more amorphous like wishes/intentions. So to my mind, sankappa is a deep wish/intention and vitakka is more ordinary thought, I’m always open to rightful correction though.

I also really enjoyed the metaphors in this study and tooks some notes:

Metaphors for Vitakka and Vicāra:
milindapanha - vitakka is striking the bell, vicaara is the reverberations
vinaya commentary - vitakka is the bee following a scent dropping onto a flower, vicaara is buzzing around the flower
dhammasangani commentary - vitakka is holding a lamp, vicaara is rubbing the cleaning oil on the lamp

Especially this last metaphor, reminds me of the metaphor in the early suttas of the bathman or bathman’s apprentice working the ball of soap in the First Jhāna.

From the conclusion of the paper:
vitakka -
when weak - a tendency to speculate and fix upon ideas
when strong - ability to apply the mind to some object and fix upon it
vicāra -
when weak - a tendency of the mind to wander
when strong - ability to explore and examine an object
(these have more of an abhidhamma flavor?)

vitakka - thinking of (deliberately)
vicāra - thinking about (or free association)

I would be curious if any of the Bhantes could lend their own translations and/or commentary on what vitakka and vicāra mean in the meditative context?

Also, I’d like to hear about the avitak­ka­vicāra­matto samādhi mentioned in SN 43.3:
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅ­kha­ta­gāmi­maggo? Savitak­ka­savi­cāro samādhi, avitak­ka­vicāra­matto samādhi, avitak­ka­avi­cāro samādhi

Sorry, I don’t know too much about the historical context so i haven’t that much more to add.

Interesting point; but Issara already means “creator god” in the suttas. Could you summarize his argument for me?

Alarama Kalama is mentioned in the early texts, but the identification with Sankhya is late (in Buddhacarita, I believe), and certainly wrong. Very likely the Buddha’s teachers were yogis in the Upanishadic tradition. So it’s true to say that both Buddhism and Sankhya drew on the Upanishadic heritage in their own way.

Ok, just had a look over that chapter again, so his “Biography” goes over several theories. One of them is Arion Rosu and Oliver Lacombe’s arguments that Patanjali and contemporaries would have understood Ishvara-pranidhana as “the serenity one acquires through the help of a Master of Yoga.” Also, that the centuries before Patanjali’s time, ishvara would have meant a human lord or king, and not a god. Patanjali (the grammarian) was apparently using this human meaning in his “Great Commentary.” Vyasa (the contemporary commentator/auto-commentator) clearly uses this earlier/human sense of the word in identifying Kapila, the legendary founder of Sangkhya, as an exemplary Ishvara. The Bhagavad Gita is believed to be roughly contemporary and uses the deistic meaning of Ishvara, but there is no cross-reference between these works. The later Mahaabharata uses the plural Ishvaras to indicate masters of yoga who have attained siddhis like transferring consciousness into the bodies of others.

I stand corrected.

I’d like to explore the Upanishads some more, especially the Maitri with it’s mention of the sixfold yoga since the placement of tarka there is between dharana and samaadhi.

I might be waaay off-base, and what follows may be wild speculation: but I think of dhāraṇā as being close in meaning to sati, as a kind of bearing-in-mind/minding. Then maybe tarka in the sixfold yoga could be compared to vitakka(/vicaara) in the first jhaana. I think I heard somewhere that there isn’t really samaadhi until second jhaana with the stilling of vitakka/vicaara. If these loose connections hold any weight then maybe there is some relation between:
dhaaranaa→tarka→samaadhi (sixfold yoga)
dhaaranaa→dhyaana→samaadhi (patanjali eightfold yoga)
sati→jhaana→samaadhi (eightfold path, treating 1st jhaana as separate subset of samaadhi)

On a less speculative note, could you talk about translation and meaning of sankappa vs vitakka, vitakka vs vicaara, and avitak­ka­vicāra­matto samādhi?

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Thanks for the explanation. I wasn’t aware that Issara was used in any sense other than creator God. I wonder if they used the Pali sources, which are earlier than any of these, and where this is the only sense attested.

Indeed, they are synonyms.

Sounds plausible, but I’m not sure.

Ha ha, just briefly, right? I did a related essay some time ago.

But generally, vitakka and sankappa are more or less synonyms, although there are nuamces of usage. Vicara is more “extended” than vitakka, in ordinary contexts I use “considering”. As for avitakkavicaramatta samadhi, I’m not sure if I have anything interesting to say. It appears a couple of times in the suttas.


In the Maitrī Upaniṣad (1922 translation), I see:

The precept for effecting this [unity] is this: restraint of the breath (prāṇāyāma), withdrawal of the senses (pratyāhāra), meditation (dhyāna), concentration (dhāraṇā), contemplation (tarka), absorption (samādhi). Such is said to be the sixfold Yoga.

The later Yoga Upaniṣads also include mention of a sixfold yoga, almost certainly derived from the Maitrī Upaniṣad, but mixed up a bit.

This later sixfold yoga is given in the Amṛtanādopaniṣad. Here, the six limbs of yoga are given as: pratyāhāra, dhyāna, prāṇāyāma, dhāraṇā, tarka, and samādhi. It defines the last three as follows (1938 translation):

Regarding his mind as full of Saṃkalpa (desires), when a wise man merges (it) into his Ātman (own Self) and is absorbed in the contemplation of the Supreme Self, that is known as Dhāraṇā.

Inference in conformity with the Scripture is called Tarka.

After having attained it (the Supreme Self), when he looks upon himself as the same (as that), that state is known as Samādhi.

(The definition given of tarka here makes no sense to me. It is probably a bad translation. Basically no useful information is given on the concept.)

Dhāraṇā, in practical usage in yoga, is often describing the fixation of the mind on some meditation object, or at a physical point such as the navel region, the toes, the tip of the nose, etc.

This also reminds me that the related term dhāraṇī is very commonly found in Mahāyāna texts and used in a number of different ways.

And, if I recall correctly, the Maitri is regarded as the first Upanishad with clear Buddhist influence.

Actually, I think it’s fine. It refers to the classic distinction, found in all Indian philosophical systems, between paccakkha (direct experience) and anumāna (inference). One of the great problems of Indian philosophy is that inference is supposed to be less certain than direct experience. However, the scriptures (of one’s own school, of course) are meant to be a reliable guide to the truth. Yet the knowledge of scripture is clearly inferential. So this opens up the terrible problem: what if reality doesn’t agree with the texts?

So what this definition is clarifying is that the use of tarka, i.e. logic, is a valid part of the path and means to deeper truths, but only if it conforms to the scriptures.

The definition of dharana, however, has me stumped. Can you find the Sanskrit text? I couldn’t locate it on the normal sites, probably it’s known by different names.

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Ah, very interesting about tarka and knowledge from the scriptures. I was not aware of that before.

I found the Sanskrit for those lines:

manaḥ saṅkalpakaṃ dhyātvā saṃkṣipyātmani buddhimān । dhārayitvā tathā''tmānaṃ dhāraṇā parikīrtitā ॥ 16॥ āgamasyāvirodhena ūhanaṃ tarka ucyate । samaṃ manyeta yaṃ labdhvā sa samādhiḥ prakīrtitaḥ ॥ 17॥

Thanks for that, I was not aware of this site. It’s very useful, with a lot of Sanskrit texts, all of them translated, too.

I’ve checked the translation there for this passage, and, like the one you quoted, it seems to me that it tends rather to the “elevationist” style of translation; that is, interpreting everything in the highest possible sense, regardless of context. As I’ve discussed previously, I prefer to translate the “least possible meaning”.

Here’s a very rough translation, please forgive my poor Sanskrit!

manaḥ saṅkalpakaṃ dhyātvā saṃkṣipyātmani buddhimān ।
Contemplating that their mind tends to wander, a wise person collects it internally.
dhārayitvā tathā’'tmānaṃ dhāraṇā parikīrtitā ॥ 16॥
Bearing in mind in oneself like this is said to be “bearing in mind”.

Here I think sankalpa means simply “thoughts, wandering mind”. This is a straightforward meditation instruction. Note that here dhyāna in verb form is used in the sense “contemplate, consider, reflect”.

I don’t think the ātman here should be interpreted as “higher self”, since we are still at a preliminary stage of meditation. Similar terminology is found throughout the Buddhist texts, where it just means “internally”.

āgamasyāvirodhena ūhanaṃ tarka ucyate ।
Inference that doesn’t deviate from scripture is called “logic”.

Note that āgama is used for scripture. I’m not familiar with the word ūhana meaning inference in Buddhist texts.

samaṃ manyeta yaṃ labdhvā sa samādhiḥ prakīrtitaḥ ॥ 17॥
That state having gained which one would think [oneself] equivalent [to brahman] is said to be “convergence”.

In the final line, sama, meaning “equivalence”, is punned with samādhi, although they are from completely different roots; sama is, rather, related to samatha. Here the sama could mean “peace, serenity” as it does in Buddhism, or the equivalence of ātman and brahman; in fact, probably both are intended.

I’m not sure of the sense of manyeta in the last line; in Pali texts it means “imagine, conceive”, but here it seems to have a higher meaning.

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For discussion, I’d like to bring up another line in the Yoga Sūtra I find interesting:

I.33: Maitrīkaruṇāmuditopekṣāṇāṁ sukhaduḥkhapuṇyāpuṇyaviṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaścittaprasādanam

I like this passage because it relates the 4 Brahma vihāra’s to feelings/emotions and virtue. Some have translated this line to show the relationship between:
maitrī ⟶ sukha (love for the happy)
karuṇā ⟶ duḥkha (compassion for the suffering)
muditā ⟶ puṇya (cheerfulness for the virtuous)
upekṣā ⟶ apuṇya (impartiality for the unvirtuous)
If this is the correct way to translate this, I find it somewhat insightful. AFAIK, I don’t think any such relationship is mentioned in the suttas. However, I do remember a dhamma talk where the teacher said something along the lines of — when metta is well-developed it turns to mudita when encountering happiness in others and karuna when encountering suffering. Anyone have thoughts or ideas on this topic?

Oh, as a side note more on topic with this thread, I’d like to remark that in the paper @llt linked to there was some mention of the relationship between vicāra and vihāra that helped me understand those words a little better. Vihāra means something like dwelling/abiding in a place, and vicāra means wandering/exploring (not dwelling, not abiding). These two words are similar in spelling so it’s easy to form that association.

SA 802 and SA 803 give some valuable information about the interpretation of vitarka and vicāra.


At that time, the Bhagavān said to the bhikṣus, “You should cultivate ānāpānasmṛti. A bhikṣu who cultivates ānāpānasmṛti, cultivating it assiduously, obtains rest in body and rest in mind, with vitarka and vicāra, with tranquility and purity, connected with knowledge cultivated to completion.”[/quote]

If this passage is taken seriously, then we would have to dismiss interpretations of vitarka and vicāra that present them as ordinary thought, or as some wobble or movement of the mind that only serves as a hindrance.

Instead vitarka and vicāra would have to be positive traits at least at some point during meditation, as in the mind observing and exploring the object of meditation. This seems consistent with the interpretations below, which tend to also be along the same lines.


I’m still uncertain about what vitakka and vicāra mean in the suttas for the jhāna context.

These are the data points I’m looking at from the suttas:

  1. The beginning of the jhāna formula:

vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi

Where vivicca/vivicceva is something like withrawn/separated/detached/secluded from kāmehi; I don’t have any textual references but I think there is evidence somewhere that this is referring to the sensual pleasures of all 5 lower senses. Vivicca akusalehi dhammehi: seclusion from unwholesome mental states. Since this is a jhāna context, I’d have to assume the vivicceva kāmehi refers to the first hindrance, and vivicca akusalehi dhammehi refers to the remaining 4.

Assuming the suppositions above are correct, then any vitakka-ing/vicāra-ing in jhāna, by definition wouldn’t be connected to the sensuality of the lower senses, nor any of the other 4 hindrances. So this, to me, is support for vitakka & vicāra to be a special kind of thought - disconnected from thoughts relating to the 5 hindrances (at least).

  1. The description of the 1st jhāna metaphor seems to suggest some sort of active process of working pīti-sukkha into the “body”. What action of mind could this be referring to?

“as a skilled [bathman] or his apprentice, having sprinkled bath-powder into a bronze vessel, might knead it while repeatedly sprinkling it with water until the ball of lather had taken up moisture, was drenched with moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out, but without any oozing. Even so, monks, does a monk drench, saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of [seclusion]”

  1. The three kinds of samādhi mentioned in a few places:

savitakko savicāro samādhi, avitakko vicāramatto samādhi, avitakko avicāro samādhi

This is more relevant to the thread as Pataññjali gives these distinctions more attention. As far as I know these aren’t specifically connected to jhāna, but if they were maybe it could be said that “avitakko vicāramatto” with the other jhāna factors present is something like jhāna 1.5? How would avitakko vicāramatto be translated meaningfully? I would think the meaning of vitakka and vicāra in this samādhi context would be relevant to the jhāna context.

  1. Second jhāna defined as “noble silence”:

avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ… Ayaṃ vuccati ariyo tuṇhībhāvo’ti

Vitakka and vicāra in the second jhāna are here described as vūpasamā “calmed/relieved/ceased”, thus it is called noble silence. This is where I’m thrown off by rendering vitakka & vicāra as something other than thought (albeit a special kind of thought disconnected from hindrances). Is initial and sustained application of the mind something to calm? Could we then say 2nd jhāna is silent because there is no thought/mental-verbalization or because there is non-application of the mind? I’m not sure.

Mahā’Moggalāna continues, “While I dwelt therein [2nd jhāna], perception and attention accompanied by [/connected to?] thought assailed me.” This part also, is kind of difficult for me to understand vitakka here as application of the mind to the meditation object. It just doesn’t make sense to me for meditation to be a non-application of the mind.

I also find it curious that a “meditation object” is never mentioned in any of the jhāna formulas.

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Is there much evidence that vitarka and vicāra mean simply “thought”? I haven’t seen that in the āgamas, or in later Buddhist literature.

Instead, these terms are usually interpreted more along the lines of mental volition, mental discrimination, mental discernment, or application of the mind to some mental object.

It seems to me that translating these simply as “thought” is likely a mistake.

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For some later interpretations for comparison, we can look to the Mahāvibhāṣā, and to Vasubandhu, and Xuanzang.

Mahāvibhāṣā (T 1545, fascicle 42)

Question: What difference is there between vitarka and vicāra?
Reply: The coarse nature of the mind is called vitarka. The subtle nature of the mind is called vicāra.

Abhidharmakośa (2.33)

33a-b. Vitarka and vicāra are grossness and subtlety of the mind.

Abhidharmakośa Bhāṣya (2.33)

The grossness, that is, the gross state of the mind is termed vitarka; the subtlety, that is, the subtle state of the mind is termed vicāra.

Xuanzang’s Cheng Weishi Lun (5.44)

[Vitarka] means “seeking.” Its nature is that of causing the mind to evolve hastily in a gross manner with reference to objects of mental discourse (manojalpa). [Vicāra] means “investigation.” Its nature is that of causing the mind to evolve in a subtle manner with reference to objects of mental discourse. Both of these have as their activities that of acting as supports for peaceful or non-peaceful dwelling of physical and mental states. Both use a part of volition and discernment as their substance, because of the difference in species of not profoundly investigating or profoundly investigating the objects of mental discourse. Apart from volition and discernment, no separate substance or species of [vitarka and vicāra] can be found.

Xuanzang is probably the most helpful here. According to his view, both vitarka and vicāra are related to mental volition and discernment, and should be interpreted as “seeking” and “investigating,” respectively. Remember the older translations were “awareness” and “observation.” Both sets of translations make sense in light of SA 802 and SA 803, which advocate ānāpānasmṛti, a practice modeled on the Four Bases of Mindfulness.

When viewed in terms of developing mindfulness to enter samādhi (Seven Factors = mindfulness leads to samādhi), then considering vitarka and vicāra as the gross and subtle natures of the mind also makes sense in some regard (although the wording could be clearer). Awareness at the beginning will inevitably be relatively gross or subtle, but eventually both grossness and subtlety subside as the awareness and its object begin to converge.

So why would vitarka and vicāra be beneficial for ānāpāna they are both relatively coarse compared to the lack of vitarka and vicāra in higher states? As I understand it, someone inevitably has vitarka and vicāra when correctly practicing mindfulness, but eventually they disappear as one advances.

Suppressing vitarka and vicāra, then, will only hinder proper mindfulness, because it is tying up the mind’s natural method of observing and investigating the object of meditation. In this sense, vitarka and vicāra may both be positive traits for mindfulness, but are also naturally abandoned as concentration develops.

  • Cook, Francis H. 1999. Three Texts on Consciousness Only. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

  • Vasubandhu. 1991. Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam of Vasubandhu. Vol. 1. Translated by Louis de La Valée Poussin and Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.


Here are some suttas where the jhanas are talked about from a slightly different angle than the standard definition:

MN 31:

“Good, good, Anuruddha. But while you abide thus diligent, ardent, and resolute, have you attained any superhuman state, a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a comfortable abiding?”

“Why not, venerable sir? Here, venerable sir, whenever we want, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, we enter upon and abide in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Venerable sir, this is a superhuman state, a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a comfortable abiding, which we have attained while abiding diligent, ardent, and resolute.”

[Likewise with the rest of the jhanas (all 8) and the cessation of perception and feeling]

AN 5.176:

[The Blessed One said:] “Excellent, Sariputta. Excellent. When a disciple of the noble ones enters & remains in seclusion & rapture [first jhana?], there are five possibilities that do not exist at that time: The pain & distress dependent on sensuality do not exist at that time. The pleasure & joy dependent on sensuality do not exist at that time. The pain & distress dependent on what is unskillful do not exist at that time. The pleasure & joy dependent on what is unskillful do not exist at that time. The pain & distress dependent on what is skillful do not exist at that time. When a disciple of the noble ones enters & remains in seclusion & rapture, these five possibilities do not exist at that time.”

(“first jhana?” comment mine.)

MN 14:

"Even though a disciple of the noble ones has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, still — if he has not attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that[4] — he can be tempted by sensuality. But when he has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, and he has attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities [first jhana], or something more peaceful than that [higher jhanas], he cannot be tempted by sensuality.

(Comments in brackets mine.)

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Well, for one, the dictionary:
(interesting note at the bottom)

There are other words that have close meanings, how would you differentiate between these?
cetanā, saṅkhāra, viññana, sañña, vipassana, manasikāra

Thought/thinking is how vitakka is translated in most of the suttas outside a jhāna context, these selections are just a few:

SN9.11 Akusa­la­vitak­ka­sutta — Unwholesome/Unskillful Thoughts
shows a relationship between unwise attention/unwise mind-work (ayoniso manasikāra) and being chewed/eaten by vitakka (here translated as thoughts)

Seems to me that manasikāra is at a more foundational level. Yoniso manasikāra — wise attention (to the root/“womb”), wise working of the mind — is mentioned time and again as very foundational for the path. MN111 has an abhidhammic flavor and I would guess it is a late text, but the text has manasikāro for each of the jhānas in Buddha’s exposition of Sariputta’s experience but vitakka/vicāra only for the first.

SN56.7 — title simply translated as “Thoughts” (Vitakkasutta)

Seems to be a close connection between wholesome thoughts and sammā sankappa. The three unwholesome thoughts are sensual desires, ill-will, and harmfulness. This sutta oddly doesn’t contrast these with the usual pairing — thoughts of nekhamma (renuncation), mettā (love), and ahiṁsā/avihiṃsā (harmlessness).

MN19 — Dvedhā­vitak­ka­sutta — Two Kinds of Thought

This is the more usual (afaik) contrasting pair of thoughts. These are the three usually constituting micchā and sammā sankappa.

MN20 — The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

Here’s another set of 3 vitakka’s, this is specifically in relation to the development of the higher mind (adhicitta, samādhi training I think). Here the three unwholesome thoughts are a little different: chanda, dosa, and moha. Again though, we have thought coming from giving attention (manasikāra), this time specifically to some sign/theme (nimitta).

The problem is the arising of evil (pāpa), unwholesome (akusala) thoughts (vitakka) arising when trying to develop the higher mind, Buddha gives 5 methods for dealing with these evil, unwholesome thoughts.
Method 1: give attention to wholesome thoughts
Method 2: if evil, unwholesome thoughts persist; examine the danger in them
Method 3: if evil, unwholesome thoughts still persist; try to forget (asati) and not give attention to (amanasikāra) to them
Method 4: if evil, unwholesome thoughts still persist; try to still/calm their thought formation
here is something interesting: saṇ­ṭhāna is translated as stilling, but the thought formation is vitakkasaṇkhāra, here is a specific word for the formation of thought. For the translations that favor “lifting the mind onto the object”, or “application of the mind onto the object”, for vitakka in jhāna context, I think this presents a problem. There is a word for vitakka formation, whereas what seems to lead to vitakka in the passages cited so far is manasikāra, the very formation of thought is what is worked with in this method. Stilling the thought formation before the thought can arise. There is a great metaphor given of levels of mental activity or thought comapred to bodily movement, from grossest level of moving/walking quickly, to slowing the walk, to standing, to sitting, to lying down (stilled). I think there is some relation here with the stilling of unwholesome thought leading to a samādhi, and the description of stilling/silencing all vitakka-vicāra (thinking?) in 2nd jhāna.
Method 5: press the tongue on the roof of the mouth, haha, this is some last ditch effort, kind of sounds like something that may have been inherited from Jaina or other ascetic practices.

AN4.35 Vassakārasutta

Another interesting one.
" He thinks whatever he wants to think and does not think what he does not want to think; he intends whatever he wants to intend and does not intend what he does not want to intend; thus he has attained to mental mastery over the ways of thought."
This one treats vitakka and saṅkappa as slightly different, thinking and intending, respectively. If we look outside the suttas to other sources, they are used very differently there too (tarka/vitarka and sankalpa).


There are a lot of other words for seeking and investigating. As for awareness and observation what about sampajañña and anussati?

Why can’t thinking be the gross nature of mind? Then subtler thought for vicāra? Such that avitakkavicāramatta samādhi is sublter than vitakkavicāra samādhi.

I’m curious with the ānāpānasmṛti studies you’ve done the major benefit often proposed is the cutting off of thought, what is the word for thought in those passages?

BTW, I’ll have to try to find the passage, but I’ve seen suppressing/cutting-off thought as a benefit of ānāpānasati in the suttas as well.


These are very interesting, thanks! :slight_smile:

seems to list the same factors, but interesting for connecting jhāna to knowledge and vision (usually comes after jhāna in gradual training no?) and “diligent, ardent, and resolute” ties it to sati practice, [MN119] as an example.

Pain & Distress: NO
Pleasure & Joy: NO
Pain & Distress: NO
Pleasure & Joy: NO
Pain & Distress: NO
Pleasure & Joy: YES (implied)
This seems to match the distinction of jhāna as a spiritual positive feeling (vs a carnal feeling), here a skillful/wholesome positive feeling. Also, makes the meaning of vivicca kāmehi more clear (all pleasures and pains associated with sensuality).

Nice description of the reason for jhāna. Also, a distinction drawn between the 1st and the other 3.