Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra

March 7, 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 key words from deep suttas 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 suttas CAN BE figured out using these basic definitions. I have seen that this method ALWAYS works within the Tipitaka.
  • In fact, if someone can point out a sutta in the Tipitaka 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.

2. 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) are associated with vaci sankhāra; all these are associated with 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. This is called the element of desire/indulgence”. In other words, when one is constantly generating such thoughts, kāma rāga build 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 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, byāpāda dhātu, vihiṃsā dhātu, and the opposites abyāpāda dhātu, avihiṃsā dhātu are defined.

4. We can now see what is meant by kāma (abhijjā) sankappa, byāpāda (or vyāpāda) sankappa, vihiṃsā sankappa, which are all “bad” vaci sankhāra. They are closely associated with greed, hate, and ignorance.

  • Their opposites are associated with Sammā Sankappa: nekkhamma, abyāpāda, and avihiṃsā sankappa.

5. Now we can also see the connection to vaci sankhāra as defined clearly in the “Cūḷa­ve­dalla Sutta (MN 44)“: “.. vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāro” OR “vacī saṅkhāra are vitakka vicārā”.

  • Vaci sankhāra are “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and also those thoughts that lead to speech by moving the lips, tongue etc. Hate speech is due to apunnābhi vaci sankhāra. Thinking about a Dhamma concept is a punnābhi vaci sankhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.

6. Another important sutta where this is discussed is, “Mahā­cat­tārīsa­ka Sutta (MN 117)“:

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittassa anāsa­va­cittassa 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 (ariyacittassa) that are devoid of cravings (anāsa­va­cittassa), 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”.

7. Succinct explanations can also be found in the “Vitakka Sutta (SN 56.7)“.

Here 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“.

8. In many instances, the words vitakka and vicāra are used specifically to indicate “bad thoughts” or defiled thoughts.

  • However, in some cases, they are used to indicate “all kinds of thoughts good or bad”.
  • Therefore, one must be able to identify which meaning to use. It will be clear in the context that the words are used, as explained in the above examples.

9. 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.

10. This is clearly seen 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.

11. The absence of any “bad thoughts” is indicated by avitakka, avicāra. In this case, one would only have savitakka, savicāra (good thoughts).

  • That happens in the second jhāna, where only savitakka/savicāra remain.
  • Therefore, it is important to realize that avitakka/avicāra DOES NOT mean “without thoughts”; is just means the absence of bad thoughts.

12. 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 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 jhana with savitakka savicāra, and then to the second jhana with absence of vitakka and vicāra (with piti and sukha), third jhana with just sukha (joy removed), and the fourth jhana with sukha also removed and with just upekkha).
  • For a description of Ariya jhana with jhānānga removed at each successive stage, see, “Rahogata Sutta (SN 36.11)“, for example.

13. “Akusala Vitakka Sutta (SN 9.11)” provides another example: “Tena kho pana samayena so bhikkhu divāvihāragato pāpake akusale vitakke vitakketi, seyyathidaṃ—kāma vitakkaṃ, ­byāpā­da­ vitak­kaṃ, vihiṃ­sā­ vitak­kaṃ“.

  • Meaning: “That bhikkhu was engaged in generating highly immoral (pāpa) and akusala vitakka during his resting time – they were: sensual,with ill-will, and cruel.
  • Another verse in the same sutta: “Ayoniso manasikārā, so vitakkehi khajjasi..” or “with wrong mindset (ayoniso manasikara), he is burdened with such defiled thoughts”.


p style=”text-align: justify;”>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 sankhāra: punnābhisankhāra, apunnābhisankhāra, anenjābhisankhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra” and “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email