March 7, 2019; revised December 3, 2019
1. It is critically important to understand the meanings of vitakka/vicāra, savitakka/savicāra, and avitakka/avicāra. I see many discussions on discussion forums without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and most sutta translations are incorrect. In particular, savitakka and savicāra are commonly translated incorrectly as “with vitakka and vicāra”.
- As always, one MUST start with the basics. Trying to extract the meanings of such keywords from deep suttā is counter-productive.
- What we need to do is to start with the basic definitions and THEN verify that the meanings of verses in deeper suttā CAN BE figured out using these basic definitions. I have seen that this method ALWAYS works within the Tipiṭaka.
- In fact, if someone can point out a sutta in the Tipiṭaka that is not consistent with this post, please comment at the discussion forum.
- Possible inconsistencies MAY arise if one tries to make them compatible with late commentaries like the Visuddhimagga.
What Are Vitakka and Vicāra?
2. For the words takka, vitakka, vicāra (තර්ක, විතර්ක, විචාර in Sinhala), the closest English words could be “think one way”, further/counter analysis, investigate in depth. They are the same as vaci saṅkhāra.
- All those words describe conscious thinking about a thought object (ārammana). One either silently “talks to oneself” or speaks out while analyzing the situation in the mind.
A clear explanation is given in Abhidhamma, in the discussion on kāma dhātu, byāpāda dhātu, vihiṃsā dhātu, nekkhamma dhātu, abyāpāda dhātu, avihiṃsā dhātu, in the following section: “Dhātuvibhaṅga“.
- For example, “Tattha katamā kāmadhātu? Kāmapaṭisaṃyutto takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā micchāsaṅkappo—ayaṃ vuccati kāmadhātu”.
Translated: “What is the element of kāma (indulgence)? takka, vitakka, saṅkappa, appanā, byappanā (remaining there, which is related to vicāra), which lead to establishing wrong views. That is the element of desire/indulgence”. In other words, when one is constantly generating such thoughts, kāma rāga builds up.
3. The opposite, element of nekkhamma is defined as: “Tattha katamā nekkhammadhātu? Nekkhammapaṭisaṃyutto takko vitakko,saṅkappa, … pe … sammā saṅkappo—ayaṃ vuccati “nekkhamma dhātu”.
- Translated: “what is the element of renunciation? takka, vitakka, saṅkappa, appanā, byappanā (remaining there, which is related to vicāra), which lead to establishing correct views (leading to the removal of defilements). This is called the element of renunciation”. In other words, when one is constantly generating such thoughts, kāma rāga is diminished.
- Similarly for byāpāda dhātu, vihiṃsā dhātu, and the opposites abyāpāda dhātu, avihiṃsā dhātu.
Vaci Sankhāra Are Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts)
It is important to see the connection between vaci saṅkhāra and saṅkappa (as in Sammā Saṅkappa.)
4. We can now see that kāma (abhijjā) saṅkappa, byāpāda (or vyāpāda) saṅkappa, vihiṃsā saṅkappa are all “bad” vaci saṅkhāra. They associate with greed, hate, and ignorance.
- Their opposites are associated with Sammā Saṅkappa: nekkhamma, abyāpāda, and avihiṃsā saṅkappa.
- Note that Sammā Saṅkappa comes next to Sammā Diṭṭhi in the Noble Eightfold Path. Therefore, we can see the importance of vaci saṅkhāra.
5. Now we can also see the connection to vaci saṅkhāra as defined clearly in the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44)“: “.. vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāro” OR “vacī saṅkhāra are vitakka vicārā”.
- Vaci saṅkhāra are “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and also those thoughts that lead to the speech by moving the lips, tongue etc. Hate speech is due to apunnābhi vaci saṅkhāra. Thinking about a Dhamma concept is a punnābhi vaci saṅkhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
Vaci Sankhāra (Vitakka Vicārā) Are Saṅkappa
6. Another important sutta where this is discussed is, “Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117)“:
“Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittāsa anāsavacittāsa ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro—ayaṃ, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo..”
- Translated: “And what, bhikkhus, is Sammā Saṅkappa that is Noble, without āsava, supramundane, a factor of the Noble Path? Those are Noble thoughts (ariyacittāsa) that are devoid of cravings (anāsavacittāsa), belong to the Noble Path (ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato) with takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacī saṅkhāro: that is Sammā Saṅkappa that is Noble, a factor of the Noble Path”.
Vitakka Usually Reserved for “Bad Saṅkappa”
7. “Akusala Vitakka Sutta (SN 9.11)” provides one example: “Tena kho pana samayena so bhikkhu divāvihārāgato pāpake akusale vitakke vitakketi, seyyathidaṃ—kāma vitakkaṃ, byāpāda vitakkaṃ, vihiṃsā vitakkaṃ“.
- Meaning: “That bhikkhu engaged in generating highly immoral (pāpa) and akusala vitakka during his resting time – they were sensual, with ill-will, and cruel thoughts.
- Another verse in the same sutta: “Ayoniso manasikārā, so vitakkehi khajjasi..” or “with the wrong mindset (ayoniso manasikara), he is burdened with such defiled thoughts”.
8. Succinct explanations can also be found in the “Vitakka Sutta (SN 56.7)“.
Following is the basic idea of the whole sutta:
- “Bhikkhus, do not engage in evil unwholesome thoughts which are: sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, thought of harming others (pāpake akusale vitakke vitakkeyyātha, seyyathidaṃ— kāma vitakkaṃ, byāpāda vitakkaṃ, vihiṃsā vitakkaṃ).
- For what reason? These thoughts, bhikkhus, are without real substance (Nete, bhikkhave, vitakkā atthasaṃhitā) , irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to escape from the sense world, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. When your mind starts such thoughts, bhikkhus, you should think: ‘This will lead to suffering’.
- Instead, you should think: ‘These are the causes of suffering’; you should think: ‘The way to cessation of suffering by cultivating thoughts of renunciation and compassion” Such thoughts will lead to escape from the sense world, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna“.
Vitakka/Vicāra and Savitakka and Savicāra
9. In many instances, the words vitakka and vicāra specifically indicate “bad thoughts” or defiled thoughts.
- However, in some cases, they indicate “all kinds of thoughts good or bad”.
- Therefore, one must be able to identify which meaning to use in the context that the words are used. The above examples illustrate that point.
10. When one generates thoughts that specifically do not involve kāma rāga or other akusala — but the opposites (nekkhamma/kusala) — those are called savitakka and savicāra.
- That is how one gets into jhāna: By eliminating (or suppressing) vitakka/vicāra and cultivating savitakka/savicāra.
11. You can clearly see that in any sutta that describe jhāna. For example, in “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)“: “..So kho ahaṃ, ānanda, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharāmi.”
- Translated: “Ananda, when one stays away from vitakka/vicāra with kāma rāga and akusala and cultivates savitakka/savicāra, one will get into the first jhāna”.
- However, vitakka/vicāra with kāma rāga and/or akusala may come to the mind once in a while.
Avitakka and Avicāra
12. The absence of any “bad thoughts” is indicated by avitakka, avicāra. In this case, one would only have savitakka, savicāra (good thoughts).
- This happens in the second jhāna, where only savitakka/savicāra remains.
- Therefore, it is important to realize that avitakka/avicāra DOES NOT mean “without thoughts”; it just means the absence of bad thoughts.
13. This is very clear at the end of the “Upakkilesa Suatta (MN 128)“: “ ..So kho ahaṃ, anuruddhā, savitakkampi savicāraṃ samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, avitakkampi vicāramattaṃ samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, avitakkampi avicāraṃ samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, sappītikampi samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, nippītikampi samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, sātasahagatampi samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ, upekkhāsahagatampi samādhiṃ bhāvesiṃ..”
- Translated: “Anuruddha, I systematically cultivated the following samādhi in this order. Savitakka savicāra samādhi, avitakka vicāramattaṃ samādhi (absence of vitakka with a trace of vicāra left), avitakka avicāra samādhi (absence of vitakka and vicāra), sappītikampi samādhi (with piti or joy), nippītikampi samādhi (absence of piti or joy), sātasahagatampi samādhi (with only sukha left), and upekkhāsahagata samādhi (sukha also removed to be in the upekkha state)”.
- What the Buddha described above is getting to the first jhāna with savitakka savicāra, and then to the second jhāna with the absence of vitakka and vicāra (with piti and sukha), third jhāna with just sukha (joy removed), and the fourth jhāna with sukha also removed and with just upekkha).
- For a description of Ariya jhāna with jhānānga removed at each successive stage, see, “Rahogata Sutta (SN 36.11)“, for example.
14. Sankhāra are different types, so it is necessary to get an idea of how to use these basic definitions of vitakka/vicāra, savitakka/savicāra and avitakka/avicāra, in terms of different types of saṅkhāra: punnābhisaṅkhāra, apunnābhisaṅkhāra, anenjābhisaṅkhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra” and “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“.
- Further details in the post, “Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech).”
15. Finally, the “Savitakkasavicara Sutta (SN 43.3)” clearly states that Nibbāna is reached (asaṅkhatagāmi maggo) via the following sequence. Savitakka savicāra samādhi, avitakka vicāramatta samādhi, avitakka avicāra samādhi.
“Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo? Savitakkasavicāro samādhi, avitakkavicāramatto samādhi, avitakkaavicāro samādhi—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo.“