What is Vitakka and Vicara?

Paraphrasing from Bhante Sujato’s article above,

When you think, the most obvious aspect, the coarsest aspect, is the verbalizations. But they don’t happen alone. There is a kind of lifting of the mind onto an object. This is normally quite subtle, and we don’t notice it because we are interested in the words. ( though i prefer ‘application of the mind’ over 'lifting of the mind)

Vicara is the ‘exploring’ of something, and in ordinary language refers to wandering about a place on foot. Psychologically, it normally means a more sustained reflection or examination

Vitakka and Vicara are two necessary factors of what we normally call thought. Depending on context when Vitakka and Vicara are referred (or just Vitakka) thought can be referred.

We see something similar happening in the following Sutta. Where each Jhana is referred just by a few salient factors.

“Well then, mendicant, you should train like this:

‘My mind will be steady and well settled internally. And bad, unskillful qualities that have arisen will not occupy my mind.’

That’s how you should train.

When your mind is steady and well settled internally, and bad, unskillful qualities that have arisen don’t occupy your mind, then you should train like this:

‘I will develop the heart’s release by love. I’ll cultivate it, make it my vehicle and my basis, keep it up, consolidate it, and properly implement it.’

That’s how you should train.

When this immersion is well developed and cultivated in this way, you should develop it while placing the mind and keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind, but just keeping it connected. You should develop it without placing the mind or keeping it connected. You should develop it with rapture. You should develop it without rapture. You should develop it with pleasure. You should develop it with equanimity.


The following is a comment i saved from another forum. Although it is not Jhana, nevertheless an interesting experience facilitated by Vitakka and Vicara according to my understanding.

Oh, that’s the colour green.

I meditated in front of my plants for about 25 minutes. I was able to mostly focus on my breath, which was nice.

Anyways, when I finally opened my eyes, I felt a great sense gratitude for the colour green. It’s weird, it felt as though I was seeing the colour for the first time

If i may make a commentary, when this person opened her eyes, her mind applied really well(Vitakka) to the colour green and undertook a thorough examination(Vicara) of the same.

1 Like

This was the case 2 days ago. I accidentally posted it in the wrong thread

I overhead a couple of hours ago the expressions active thought and passive thought.
vitakka = active thought
vicāra = passive thought

  1. vitakka-vicāra is not about thoughts or no thoughts and long articles are not required to understand the meaning. confusion arises when people try to intellectualize what is a direct experience.

  2. the first contact of the mind with the meditation object or any object is vitakka. when mind rolls in it (moves along with it) it is vicāra.

  3. when this rolling (moving along) is about ‘dhamma’ (cetasika) that arises on/alongwith manoviññāna - it is dhamma-vitakka leading to dhamma-vicāra and this dhamma-vicāra is what we call ‘thoughts’.

  4. if mind is steadfastly fixed on any meditation object and flows with it - it will be vicāra state even with thoughtless mind. thus, vicāra can mean rolling in thoughts or moving along with the meditation object thoughtlessly.

  5. as per the suttanta fourfold jhāna division] - from 3rd rūpa jhāna onwards, the mind is with the meditation object (paññatti) but, the object itself loses prominence and instead pīti / sukha / upekkha / ekaggata jhāna factors associated with the meditation object takes the upper hand.

  6. sammā-samādhi is about non-sensual kusala mind state and so first jhāna begins with ‘vivekajam’ (with right understanding) and has vitakka-vicāra both i.e. the mind is still struggling with the meditation object.

  7. 2nd jhāna onwards it is development of samādhi by virtue of meditation practice and not just psychological understanding and therefore - it is ‘samādhijam’

i pray to learned meditators to kindly correct me if i am wrong & guide me accordingly.


When Buddha pondered that thinking and exploring would tire his body, stress his mind, and be far from concentration, he used the words vitakka and vicara:

However, vitakka and vicara are also used in the first jhana, so he did not stop them as you stated. To get there, he stilled, settled, unified, and immersed his mind internally, then proceeded with the wholesome thoughts. Petakopadesa 7 states that the first jhana involves thinking:

  1. Herein, for the fulfilling of non-greed he is (secluded from sensual desires). Herein, for the fulfilling of non-hate and for the fulfilling of non-delusion he is (secluded from unprofitable ideas). And so (he enters upon and abides in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion).
  2. “Thinking”: there are three kinds of thinking, namely renunciation-thinking, non-ill-will-thinking, and non-cruelty-thinking.
  3. Herein, “thinking” is the first instance while “exploring” is the exploration of what is got thus.
  4. Just as, when a man sees a man coming in the distance he does not yet know whether it is a woman or a man; but when he has got [the perception] that “it is a woman” or that “it is a man” or that “it is one of such colour (caste)” or that “it is one of such shape (figure)”, then when he is thinking [this] he further scrutinizes [as follows] “How then, is he virtuous or unvirtuous, rich or poor”?, such is exploring. In thinking he fixes, in exploring he wanders about [his fixed object] and turns [it] over.

MN44 Culavedallasutta confirms that vitakka vicara are verbal processes:

First you place the mind and keep it connected, then you break into speech. That’s why placing the mind and keeping it connected are verbal processes.
Pubbe kho, āvuso visākha, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṁ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro.

@sujato Would you agree?


‘ānāpānassati bhāvetabbā vitakkupacchedāya’ (AN9.1)

Here, I think ‘vitakka’ is used in sense of vitakka running wild, taking off on the mind-chariot etc. Does not necessarily have to be verbal.

Restrain the mind interms of Sati-samvara , Samadhi-samvara etc regarding the breath. That sort of meaning.

The point of the sutta is to show that even wholesome thinking is an obstruction to jhana.

I know you’re just trying to understand the suttas, but ask yourself. Do you imagine that the sages of course renounced everything, leaving behind kingdoms and families to live in a cave in the mountains just so they could … sit and think? That this would be a state the Buddha would compare to Nibbana, and call it the “higher mind”?

To stop thinking is trivial. It’s not a sign of a deep meditation. I just hung out my washing and stopped thinking. A bit of mindfulness, stay sharp, and thoughts don’t come up. Deep meditation is waaaaaay beyond this.

Thanks for the reference, it’s a fascinating passage, and clearly a precursor for the Visuddhimagga definition of the same thing. I haven’t read this before, or I guess I have, but so long ago I forgot!

Anyway, it doesn’t really same anything about this issue. In terms of definition it just repeats the word vitakka so doesn’t clarify what vitakka is. Then there are a bunch of examples, which are of course illustrative metaphors not definitions.

The actual definition is brief, and it is not so much interested in saying what vitakka is as in differentiating it from vicāra. It’s important, when reading scripture, to not force it to answer the question that you want answered. You have to learn to listen to what it wants to say.

Tattha paṭhamābhinipāto vitakko, paṭiladdhassa vicaraṇaṁ vicāro
Therein vitakka is the first engagement, while vicāra is the exploration of what has been gained.

This is then illustrated with the similes, all of which show the difference between the first engagement or awareness of something and the continual engagement with it.


Let’s say you are reciting some gatha or other in your mind. Sometimes this may be just mumbling in your mind just doing mental lip service, but sometime it may happen that mind plunges in and soars in the meaning. Takes to the meaning like a duck to water. This is not Jhana, but a good illustration of the two qualities of vitakka and vicara.

Hence, vitakka is like attention(manasikara) but more than just attention. In the first Jhana, vitakka and vicara, aids Samadhi. It’s not a statement of residual disturbance.

Anyway, this is just my personal opinion. Take with salt.


You’re welcome. I hear that you disagree that vitakka means thinking. However, Petakopadesa 7.580 shows that vitakka vicara are associated with thoughts (and perceptions related to thoughts), “it is a woman” or that “it is a man” or that “it is one of such colour (caste)” or that “it is one of such shape (figure)”; “How then, is he virtuous or unvirtuous, rich or poor”.

In addition, Pe 7.582 states, “[Such] thinking is the opposite of perception of sensual desires; [such] exploring is the opposite of perception of ill will and of perception of cruelty.” Pe 7.583: “Thinking is like a text-reciter who does his recital silently: exploring is like his simply contemplating it … Thinking is the Discrimination of Language and the Discrimination of Perspicuity; exploring is the Discrimination of Ideas and the Discrimination of Meanings.”

Consider how one progresses from one jhana to another – there is a moment when one contemplates the current jhana to move forward (e.g. when in second jhana, think, “I don’t want to get attached to rapture,” which leads to 3rd jhana. When in 6th jhana, think, “I don’t want to get attached to feeling,” which leads to 7th jhana). This is a moment that touches back to first jhana in order to progress further.

Yes, we think and perceive to move through the jhanas, as described above.

I look forward to hearing your reply.

By ‘stopping thinking’ here, do you mean stopping thoughts from arising, or stopping engaging with arising thoughts, or stopping internal verbal monologue on account of arising thoughts, or something else?

This might help. It’s post #14 in this thread.

Because pictures sometimes say more than words (although I have posted this link before).

That was a small animation film of mine about vitakka and vicāra.

And because sometimes there is something more needed than pictures and a few words,…

But because this is extracted from my larger work:

Hello! I’m new here, and hope to be a benefit in sharing my thoughts and experiences.

I think that while doing anapanasati, it’s possible to get the mind to be steady and open, not constricted into any particular object such as the abdomen or the tip of the nose, but there are still murmurs—relatively nonsensical words and phrases heard in the head out of context, like sitting in a restaurant and hearing snippets of other people’s conversations. So this matches the concept of vitakka as being inner verbalization, but, as I understand it, without initial and applied attention, because they are heard despite a (relatively) steady and open mind that isn’t placed or applied to a particular object. That is, these murmurs (thought???) are perceived but one doesn’t run after them, and they don’t blossom into inner dialogue.

(Actually I came back to meditation and it’s true that this was probably just because it was access concentration and not fixed.)

Of course maybe I’m wrong with my interpretation of the experience. I’ll have to meditate more and figure it out.

Nevertheless, I lean towards the interpretation of first jhana as involving verbalized thought, and for a more straightforward interpretation of the first jhana simply because of its implications about the fetters. Anyone who can “dwell” in a state of rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, and not come out of it except to engage with tasks necessary for life, along with having right view and realizing the dangers of anger and sensuality, is not going to fall to anger sensuality, whether they have verbalization or not. It’s like someone who regularly takes luxurious baths; they aren’t going to say to themself, “Why don’t I see how the bog looks for bathing today?”
This makes any first-jhana master who has right view necessarily a non-returner, that is, one who has destroyed the first five fetters. So as long as a person can dwell in vitakka-as-thought jhana most of the time and not regress to a state touched by the hindrances, that seems to fit.
In MN 19, the major problem with thought (vitakka) is that it the body and makes it unfit for samadhi. But I remember that in the formula for the jhanas, the first jhana is characterized by piti and sukha born of seclusion, whereas the second is born of samadhi, and characterized by “internal confidence and unification of mind”. I don’t see any reason not to see this as simply being piti and sukha born of seclusion from unskillful and disturbing thoughts and states. Furthermore, the Buddha entered the first jhana incidentally, as a child, under the rose-apple tree.

The fact that the four jhanas were mentioned after the dispelling of thought in MN 19 is not extremely meaningful. Reciters were used to rote repetition of certain passages, and would likely find it irritating if there were a lengthy and unfamiliar interlude in between the jhana formulae.

Also, wouldn’t the standard jhana formula (rather than one specific case) mention the cessation of verbalization in some way before describing the first jhana? I don’t suppose the Buddha would omit such information if it were indeed necessary. In addition, viveka seems to mean both the everyday and technical interpretations: the Buddha describes a monk going to a secluded spot—a wilderness, an empty building, the root of a tree, et cetera—to meditate. There they seclude themselves from sensuality and from unwholesome qualities.

On the other hand, the family of initial and applied attention, finding an object and rolling with it, etc. does, when it starts to “roll with” one of these subconscious mind-murmurs, begin examining it and often this leads to impressions, verbalized perceptions, and eventually an entire artifice of internal dialogue. In this way I think vitakkavicara-as-attention could be a form of inattention and ignorance that leads to these murmurs breaking out into mental speech, vitakka-as-thought, which leads into actual speech. So vitakka maybe has a spectrum of meanings, but these tend to coexist and feed into one another, similarly to physical and mental seclusion. If you were to try meditating in the middle of a busy house, it would be difficult to seclude yourself from sensuality and unwholesome qualities. The implications are multiple, but still exist in association.

I remember suttas that describe monks, and the Buddha, having thoughts occur to them while meditating. Assuming I’m not mistaken in my recollection, I don’t think these people would be described as having “wrong concentration”.

My conclusion: While the Abhidhammic definitions seem to be true, the everyday definitions are only somewhat separable because of their tendency to occur in tandem.

So there’s my long winded explanation. I don’t think there is enough quality evidence to say that verbalization in jhana is impossible, especially the first jhana, and “thought” is indeed the simplest interpretation of vitakka.

This is supported by MN 125 btw, when one is ready to live in 2nd and higher jhana in their daily life 24/7. Then, they unified the mind and still the vitakka vicara for real. Once it is still, it will never arise anymore.

…, but don’t think thoughts connected with sensual pleasures.’
dhammesu dhammānupassī viharāhi, mā ca kāmūpasaṁhitaṁ vitakkaṁ vitakkesī’ti.

As the vitakka vicara are stilled, they stay and live in the second jhana…
So vitakkavicārānaṁ vūpasamā ajjhattaṁ sampasādanaṁ cetaso ekodibhāvaṁ avitakkaṁ avicāraṁ samādhijaṁ pītisukhaṁ dutiyaṁ jhānaṁ …

That’s a lovely sutta I hadn’t read before, very detailed, and because of the Chinese parallel it would seem to have a claim to relative antiquity.

I don’t see how this would imply vitakka to be totally abandoned upon remaining in the second jhana, only that it is stilled so that it does not arise unless willed to do so. If someone dwells somewhere, it doesn’t mean they never come out, just that it is their habitual location where they go when they aren’t required for something else.

If so then that would be a very interesting implication.

What is also interesting is that the jhana formula starts with the second, implying that between developing seclusion and dispelling vitakkavicara, that would be a more detailed description of the first jhana. And in fact, the description is satipatthana. After the meditator begins to contemplate things in themselves, without thoughts connected with sensual pleasures, then suddenly they’re in the second jhana. Implying I don’t know exactly, but if jhana starts with sati, it does support vitakka as attention.

Actually, I don’t know much Pali, but could vicara be an adjective? Like subtle thought? Distinguishing it from coarse undistinguished vitakka? I have no idea about grammar but would be interested to hear from those who are.

Well probably a non returner or above can answer it for certain.

Just think, if someone is going from Los Angeles to New York. They already past Las Vegas and on the way to New York. Are they going back to Las Vegas again?

Probably not. Because they have known the Vegas path. They just keep going to New York.

Similarly for a non returner or above. Once they have unified the mind, there is not possible for for vitakka vicara to arise. If it arise again, they can still it again and again.

Unless they purposely go back to check. But why would they? 1st jhana is coarse anyway, the mind should just stay in higher jhana again such as 3rd jhana. Where the Noble said

Equanimous (upekkha) and mindful (sati), one lives in bliss (sukha).

Hence a non returner know for certain, they are not going back to sensual realm ever due to 5 lower fetters has been broken forever.

Hi Rukkhamula,

Welcome to the D&D forum! We hope you enjoy the various resources, FAQs, and previous threads. You can use the search function for topics and keywords you are interested in. Forum guidelines are here: Forum Guidelines. May some of these resources be of assistance along the path.

If you have any questions or need further clarification regarding anything, feel free to contact the moderators by including @moderators in your post or a PM.

suaimhneas (on behalf of the moderators)