Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana

Sujato’s Blog

I shall give you a simile; for it is by means of a simile that some wise people here understand the meaning of what is said.


Here’s one of the most often contested issues in Buddhist meditation: can you be thinking while in jhana? We normally think of jhana as a profound state of higher consciousness; yet the standard formula for first jhana says it is a state with ‘vitakka and vicara’. Normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’, and that is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in jhana, too. This has lead many meditators to believe that in the first jhana one can still be thinking. This is a mistake, and here’s why.

Actually, right now I’m interested in a somewhat subtle linguistic approach to this question. But I’ve found that if you use a complex analysis of a problem, some people, understandably enough, don’t…

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Vitakka & Vicara – What do they mean?


Or: How do i find my way to the first jhana?Vitakka

Let’s say your meditation topic is Anapanasati (remembering the breath). So you would concentrate on breathing. If that is all you do, very soon, you would find yourself lost in millions of thoughts. Hopelessly washed away.

Now you make the following change to your practice:

With each breathing in you mentally note “in” with each breathing out you note “out”. Thatliterally is vitakka, or “thought“. Simple, as the Buddha mentioned. This thought will therefore help you to remember (lit. for sati, maintaining in your mental presence) the breathing (anapana).

Now, what the heck is “vicara“? It is gliding (literally ‘moving about’)! You don’t just think one thought and watch the breath. No, you have to repeat the thought and try to “glide”, “abide”, “skid”, “slide”, “dwell”, “ride” (all words denote a prolonged abiding, which…

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