March 7, 2019; revised December 3, 2019; August 29, 2022; March 25, 2023
1. It is 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 incorrectly translated 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.
- We need to start with the basic definitions. Then the meanings of verses in deeper suttā CAN BE figured out using those basic definitions. I have seen that this method ALWAYS works within the Tipiṭaka.
- Please comment on the discussion forum if someone can point out a sutta in the Tipiṭaka that is inconsistent with this post.
- 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 further/counter analysis, investigate in depth (based on one’s views.) They are the same as vaci saṅkhāra (“talking to oneself”) or saṅkappa.
- All those words describe conscious thinking about a thought object (ārammana). One either silently “talks to oneself” or speaks out while analyzing the situation.
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 kāma dhātu? Kāmapaṭisaṃyutto takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā micchā saṅkappo—ayaṃ vuccati kāma dhātu”.
Translated: “What is the element of kāma (indulgence in sensual thoughts)? Analysis/investigations of sensual objects lead to establishing wrong thinking. That is the element of desire/indulgence”. In other words, when one constantly generates such sensual (kāmapaṭisaṃyutto) thoughts, the kāma element (related to kāma rāga) builds up.
- Similar explanations can be found elsewhere. The “Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)” states, “Saṅkappa rāgō purisassa kāmō, Nete kāmā yāni citrāni lōkē..”.
Translated: “A person’s kāma is getting attached and thinking about (saṅkappa rāga) those pleasing things in this world (citrāni lōkē). Those beautiful things in the world are not kāma.”
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 of sensual thoughts? Analysis/investigations of renunciation of sensual objects lead to establishing correct thinking (leading to the removal of defilements). This is called the element of renunciation”. In other words, when one constantly generates such thoughts, kāma rāga is diminished.
- Similarly, for byāpāda dhātu (angry/hateful), vihiṃsā dhātu (cruel), and the opposites abyāpāda (kind) dhātu, avihiṃsā (compassionate) dhātu.
- It is essential to see the connection between vaci saṅkhāra (“talking to oneself”) and saṅkappa (as in Sammā Saṅkappa.) A second version of vaci saṅkhāra involves “speaking out.” See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.“
Vaci Sankhāra Are Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts)
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 (renunciation of sensuality,) abyāpāda (renunciation of anger,) and avihiṃsā (renunciation of cruelty.)
- 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 means “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and those thoughts that lead to the speech by moving the lips, tongue, etc. Hateful or greedy 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, sammā saṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittāsa anāsavacittāsa ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacī saṅkhāro—ayaṃ, bhikkhave, sammā saṅkappo 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 (anāsava cittāsa) and belong to the Noble Path (ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato) with Analysis/investigations (takko vitakko saṅkappo): that is Sammā Saṅkappa that is Noble, a factor of the Noble Path”.
Vitakka is 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, 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, thoughts 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 the 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 indicate “bad thoughts” or defiled thoughts.
- However, in some cases, they indicate “all kinds of thoughts, good or bad.”
- Therefore, one must identify which meaning to use in the words’ context. 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: Eliminating (or suppressing) vitakka/vicāra and cultivating savitakka/savicāra.
11. You can see that in any sutta that describes 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 occasionally come to mind in the case of anariya jhāna.
- Also see “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cētōvimutti.”
Avitakka and Avicāra
12. The absence of any “bad thoughts” is indicated by avitakka, avicāra. In this case, one would only have savitakka and savicāra (good thoughts). That is possible with Ariya jhāna.
- This happens in the second jhāna, where only savitakka/savicāra remains.
- Therefore, it is essential to realize that avitakka/avicāra DOES NOT mean “without thoughts”; it just means the absence of sensual or immoral 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), the 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 is of 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.“