Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
This is a quote from the book "Everything Is Teaching Us", a collection of teachings of Ajahn Chah. I'm very curious what you guys think of his definition of vitakka and vicāra:

We practice like this until we become skilled in it and it goes moothly. The next stage is to focus awareness only on the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose or the upper lip. At this point we aren’t concerned with whether the breath is long or short, but only focus on the sensation of entering and exiting. Different phenomena may contact the senses, or thoughts may arise. This is called initial thought (vitakka). The mind brings up some idea, be it about the nature of compounded phenomena (sa∫khårå), about the world, or whatever. Once the mind has brought it up, the mind will want to get involved and merge with it. If it’s an object that is wholesome then let the mind take it up. If it is something unwholesome, stop it immediately. If it is something wholesome then let the mind contemplate it, and gladness, satisfaction and happiness will come about. The mind will be bright and clear; as the breath goes in and out and as the mind takes up these initial thoughts. Then it becomes discursive thought (vicåra). The mind develops familiarity with the object, exerting itself and merging with it. At this point, there is no sleepiness.

After an appropriate period of this, take your attention back to the breath. Then as you continue on there will be the initial thought and discursive thought, initial thought and discursive thought. If you are contemplating skillfully on an object such as the nature of sa∫khåra, then the mind will experience deeper tranquility and rapture is born. There is the vitakka and vicåra, and that leads to happiness of mind. At this time there won’t be any dullness or drowsiness. The mind won’t be dark if we practice like this. It will be gladdened and enraptured.

And he goes on:

Question: Are vitakka and vicåra the same?
Ajahn  Chah: You’re  sitting  and  suddenly  the  thought  of someone pops into your head — that’s vitakka, the initial thought. Then you take that idea of the person and start thinking about them in detail. Vitakka is picking it up, vicåra is investigating it. For example, we pick up the idea of death and then we start considering it: “I will die, others will die, every living being will die; when they die where will they go...?”  Then stop! Stop and bring it back again. When it gets running like that, stop it again; and then go back to mindfulness of the breath. Sometimes the discursive thought will wander off and not come back, so you have to stop it. Keep at it until the mind is bright and clear. If you practice vicåra with an object that you are suited to, you may  experience  the  hairs  of  your  body  standing  on  end,  tears pouring from your eyes, a state of extreme delight, many different things as rapture comes.

Question: Can this happen with any kind of thinking, or is it only in a state of tranquility that it happens?
Ajahn Chah:  It’s when the mind is tranquil. It’s not ordinary mental proliferation. You sit with a calm mind and then the initial thought comes. For example, I think of my brother who just passed away. Or I might think of some other relatives. This is when the mind is tranquil—the tranquility isn’t something certain, but for the moment the mind is tranquil. After this initial thought comes then I go into discursive thought. If it’s a line of thinking that’s skillful and wholesome, it leads to ease of mind and happiness, and there is rapture with its attendant experiences. This rapture came from the initial and discursive thinking that took place in a state  of  calmness.  We  don’t  have  to  give  it  names  such  as  first jhåna, second jhåna and so forth. We just call it tranquility. The next factor is bliss (sukha). Eventually we drop the initial and discursive thinking as tranquility deepens. Why? The state of mind is becoming more refined and subtle. Vitakka and vicåra are relatively coarse, and they will vanish. There will remain just the rapture accompanied by bliss and one-pointedness of mind. When it reaches full measure there won’t be anything, the mind is empty. That’s absorption concentration. We don’t need to fixate or dwell on any of these experiences. They will naturally progress from one to the next. At first there is  initial  and  discursive  thought,  rapture,  bliss  and  one- pointedness. Then initial and discursive thinking are thrown off, leaving rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness. Rapture is thrown off, then bliss, and finally only one-pointedness and equanimity remain. It means the mind becomes more and more tranquil, and its objects are steadily decreasing until there is nothing but
one-pointedness and equanimity.


To me this sounds like he does not necessarily relate initial and sustained thinking to the usual notion of initial and sustained application of awareness to the meditation object (here the breath) but primarily to every thought. It seems like he merges awareness of the breath with the investigation and moment to moment awareness of (wholesome) thoughts and everything that comes up.

Am I mistaken here? What's your oppinion and experience?
thumbnail
tom moylan, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 896 Join Date: 3/7/11 Recent Posts
howdy,
i agree with you. it is an unfortunate translation.

vitakka is initial contact with an object and vicara is bearing the signs of that object in mind.

the first contact sorts out the particularizing signs of an object and via perception compares it to already stored 'templates'.  that is vitakka

vicara is bearing those signs in mind and applying energy and sati or mindfulness to hold those signs, or that object, in mind as continuously as possible.  this becomes easier with practice and requires less energy.  by refining attention to the positive signs and associated sensations we facilitate a deepening appreciation of the object and become absorbed.
Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Thanks, Tom, for clearing that up.

Ajahn Chah's definition reminded of something I experience in my own meditation: Trying to fix my mind to much on the meditation object often leads nowhere, whereas letting certain thoughts play themselves out often leads to more tranquility and deeper meditation once I come back to the meditation object. I'm not yet sure what to make out of it but I will certainly investigate further.
thumbnail
Nicky, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 484 Join Date: 8/2/14 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:
Thanks, Tom, for clearing that up.

Ajahn Chah's definition reminded of something I experience in my own meditation: Trying to fix my mind to much on the meditation object often leads nowhere, whereas letting certain thoughts play themselves out often leads to more tranquility and deeper meditation once I come back to the meditation object. I'm not yet sure what to make out of it but I will certainly investigate further.

The words vitakka & vicarra have a generic meaning & a jhanic meaning, which is different. 

In the general meaning, vitakka simply means 'thought', such as in 

Vitakkasanthana Sutta: The Removal of Distracting Thoughts.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.020.soma.html

Regards 

emoticon

thumbnail
Nicky, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 484 Join Date: 8/2/14 Recent Posts
tom moylan:
howdy,
i agree with you. it is an unfortunate translation.



At this link there is a book which explains the different contexts of usage for these words: 

http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/anapanasati.pdf  page 111-112 and page 203 to 204 

Regards emoticon
thumbnail
Chris J Macie, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
Here's yet another perspective, along similar lines -- Ven. Sujato's blog essay "Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana":

https://sujato.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/why-vitakka-doesnt-mean-thinking-in-jhana/


Also interesting the Q/A discussion following the essay, in which several other scholars chip-in.
thumbnail
tom moylan, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 896 Join Date: 3/7/11 Recent Posts
excellent link chris. 
i noticed some references to shankman's book on jhana in the comments.  i am not a fan of his translation of vitakka / vicara.  on the other hand, i rely so heavily on bikku bodhi's translations that calling his scholarship into doubt really goes against my grain.  oh no!

again, great respect for YOUR scholarship
thumbnail
Chris J Macie, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
re: tom moylan (3/20/16 3:42 AM as a reply to Chris J Macie)

"i noticed some references to shankman's book on jhana in the comments.  i am not a fan of his translation of vitakka / vicara.  on the other hand, i rely so heavily on bikku bodhi's translations that calling his scholarship into doubt really goes against my grain.  oh no!"

I'm not entirely sure what scholarship you are referring to here, but had you noticed this bit from Sujato's blog discussion (by "Ven. Nandiya") ?

"I think it’s worth noting that at the end of the introduction to the Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi himself, in the passage “Other Changes” when Bhikkhu Bodhi talks about the changefrom ‘Initial and Sustained Application’ he himself stresses:
“When vitakka is translated as ‘thought,’ however, a word of caution if necessary. In common usage, vitakka corresponds so closely to our ‘thought’ that no other rendering seems feasible; for example in kamavitakka, sensual thought, or it’s opposite, nekkhammavitakka, thought of renunciation. When, however, vitakka and vicara occur as constitutes of the first jhana, they do not exercise the function of discursive thinking characteristic of ordinary consciousness. Here, rather, vitakka is the mental factor with the function of applying the mind to the object, and vicara the factor with the function of examining the object nondiscursively in order to anchor the mind in the object”.
I think this is a particularly useful factette to bop people over the head with if they are basing their belief that jhana contains thought simply on the basis of their confidence in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations."
thumbnail
Chris J Macie, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
re: tom moylan (3/20/16 3:42 AM as a reply to Chris J Macie)

"again, great respect for YOUR scholarship"

Thanks, but it probably has more to do with being an inveterate pack-rat (upadana big time). I run across things and stash them away – more than 50 GB of stored, partially organized, dhamma texts, talks, discussion, etc.
Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
What I find interesting about this is that all these people look like credible teachers and experienced meditators to me. So either

a) my notion is wrong to begin with
b) all of them are right
c) only one or a few of them are right and the others are "succesful" meditators in spite of their wrong translation and application

So what it really boils down to: Which of the translations and applications make meditation work?
thumbnail
Noah, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 1532 Join Date: 7/6/13 Recent Posts
Andreas:

What I find interesting about this is that all these people look like credible teachers and experienced meditators to me.


Haha!  I like it.

So what it really boils down to: Which of the translations and applications make meditation work?


Good question, especially if you added the phrase "for me" at the end.  What is your direct experience, Andreas?



Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Noah:


So what it really boils down to: Which of the translations and applications make meditation work?


Good question, especially if you added the phrase "for me" at the end.  What is your direct experience, Andreas?



Well, my experience is that vitakka and vicara in the sense of initial and sustained thought of the meditation object isn't reliable in producing consistent outcomes (sorry for a lack of a better expression). For me focussing on that usually leads to frustration. My general feeling is that if and when my meditation gets deeper it is in spite of this. So a few months ago I started to question the common interpretation that it is sticking with the meditation object as good as possible that leads to the absorptions. Then a few weeks ago I stumbled upon an abstract in a journal on buddhist studies (forgot the name) and the author claimed that the common notion of applied/sustained thought leading to the jhanas is false and what's actually leading there is the overcoming/stilling of the hindrances. This, at least from my perspective, seems to be more in line with what many teachers say (e.g. Shinzen Young, Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Chah and others). Putting my understanding of their teachings into my own words I would describe applied and sustained thought as something that automatically happens when everything else falls away. As far as I know even the Buddha himself never mentioned that it is vitakka and vicara that lead to the jhanas but rather the seclusion from the senses and the craving that builds around that. Since I became aware of that my progress in meditation has become much more consistent and reliable. However, I think the Buddha also speaks about the possibility to suppress the hindrances with applied thought to the meditation object as only one option. So I wonder if the notion that vitakka and vicara are the way to jhana is really that accurate. Maybe it's just one method that addresses the real issue: overcoming of the hindrances. And as it is with all methods, they don't work ever time and not for everyone. Just a thought...

BTW, just today I listened to a talk by Rob Burbea and he's essentially saying the same thing here: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/210/talk/21822/
thumbnail
Noah, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 1532 Join Date: 7/6/13 Recent Posts
@Andreas:

Wow you've aggregated a lot of good info on this subject, cool.  

I had some more thoughts.  There are different aspects of concentration one can train for.  'Absorption' (marshmellow body effect, adrenline/thrill entering jhana, weird chi/mental screen warping, etc.) is one of them.  Concentrating on pleasure is good for this.  'Continuity of attention' is another.  Shallow focus with vigilant peripheral awareness is good for this.  'Intensity of focus' is another.  Tight focus with less background awareness is good for this, but risks more forgetting/mind-wandering.  These different emphases will tend to lead to different types of jhanas as well, and perhaps will suggest different things about initial and sustained attention factors.
Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
Noah:
@Andreas:

Wow you've aggregated a lot of good info on this subject, cool.  

I had some more thoughts.  There are different aspects of concentration one can train for.  'Absorption' (marshmellow body effect, adrenline/thrill entering jhana, weird chi/mental screen warping, etc.) is one of them.  Concentrating on pleasure is good for this.  'Continuity of attention' is another.  Shallow focus with vigilant peripheral awareness is good for this.  'Intensity of focus' is another.  Tight focus with less background awareness is good for this, but risks more forgetting/mind-wandering.  These different emphasese will tend to lead to different types of jhanas as well, and perhaps will suggest different things about initial and sustained attention factors.

That's a very interesting thought and I recently askey myself the same question: Are there different types of jhanas/absorptions? As far as I can tell from my limited experience the tranquility and absorption that result from the concentration on a single spot (exclusive) seem to be different than those produced by the inclusion of peripheral awareness and a certain emphasis on vipassana techniques (inclusive).

From your post I conclude that you have also read Culadasa's great book 'The Mind Illuminated'. Am I right?
thumbnail
Noah, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 1532 Join Date: 7/6/13 Recent Posts
@Andreas:

Yeah.  His discussion of 3 different types of jhana (light [whole-body], medium-pleasure  and deep-luminous ) helped sort out some of my confusions.  As far as I can tell, his map ties it all together.  There are basically different times in the development of concentration, to focus on different aspects of concentration, which will lead to different types of jhanas.  He obviously focuses on 'continuity' aspect first, and when that becomes hard-wired, moves on to the 'intensity of focus' later.  He also ties in the vipassana vs samatha balance really well, in the same progression.  Cool stuff.  The degree of detail kind of bothers me because I feel like its micro-managing my practice, but I assume it will pay off when I understand the whole book.
Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
@Noah: That sounds cool. I just started and finished the 2nd chapter. Looking forward to this. Any more insights from your side are very welcome!
Chuck Kasmire, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:

To me this sounds like he does not necessarily relate initial and sustained thinking to the usual notion of initial and sustained application of awareness to the meditation object (here the breath) but primarily to every thought. It seems like he merges awareness of the breath with the investigation and moment to moment awareness of (wholesome) thoughts and everything that comes up.

Am I mistaken here? What's your oppinion and experience?
Some thoughts:

He seems to be quite selective in which thoughts he works with.

These talks of his reflect his own experience as well as what he has found helpful in his teaching experience. It's a very pragmatic instruction.

Ajahn Brahm - Sujato's main teacher - has one of the deepest definitions of jhana out there. His first jhana is several stages beyond any thinking at all. So you have to keep this in mind - that there are different definitions of what constitutes jhana and therefore the factors present will likely be different as well. But their teaching I think is also very pragmatic - based on their experience.

Who's correct? With regard to what the Buddha experienced - only he knows for sure and he isn't talking. For those teachers who have reached at least stream entry - I think they are simply teaching jhana from the perspective of what kind of tranquility they had to develop in order for that event to take place. Everyone is different and we also have different ways of using language and expressing ourselves. In the suttas you find that release can take place in any of the jhanas - just depends on conditions.

If you were following Ajahn Chah's method then you could just continue on to the point where thinking and evaluation passes away and there you are in Sujato's territory. You just keep on that trajectory.

In my experience, as the mind settles down discursive thinking and hindrances in general subside as the mind is able to stay with some kind of theme - usually the breath energies for me. At this point the mind is not interupted but there is a kind of separation between the object and awareness of it. I define this as first jhana. At some point there is a kind of unification sometimes like dropping down onto a set of rails and the sense of separation disappears - and so the need or even ability to keep directing the mind to the object is gone. I think of this as the second one.

Sujato's argument that there can be no thinking in the first jhana depends on his definition of first jhana and also his definition of thinking. He points to MN19 to support his argument but that sutta just seems to be saying that everyday discursive thinking on even skillful topics will not lead to jhana. And Chah is saying that he is not referring to everyday discursive thinking.

I have in the past used a metta practice where thinking and evaluating was used to kind of fan the flames of metta until the sensation was strong enough that it could sustain itself just by directing attention to it and then dropping the thinking part of it. It's not just ordinary thinking and pondering as MN 19 describes as it carries with it an intention of tranquility - so it is quite directed in that sense. And the sense I get from Chah is that there is that intention or inclination toward tranquility as part of the practice he is describing.

Using thinking and pondering to gladden the mind in order to deepen tranquility is very effective for me. Perhaps that could be used through the first jhana. Practice develops skill and it's hard to know what is possible without giving it a try.
Andreas Thef, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 152 Join Date: 2/11/13 Recent Posts
@Chuck: That's an interesting and helpful perspective. Furthermore, would you mind elaborating on your mentioned metta practice and the "thinking and pondering to gladden the mind". I feel like I can relate to that in my practice but still don't know how exactly. Thanks!
Chuck Kasmire, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 559 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Andreas Thef:
@Chuck: That's an interesting and helpful perspective. Furthermore, would you mind elaborating on your mentioned metta practice and the "thinking and pondering to gladden the mind". I feel like I can relate to that in my practice but still don't know how exactly. Thanks!
Sure. Gladdening the mind:
I have some stock phrases or memories that bring a smile and feeling of happiness to me when I remember and think about them. These are really simple things. A recent example - a couple of weeks ago I came out of a clinic - rain was pouring down and there was this older guy standing in the rain with a pair of jumper cables - obviously needing some help getting his car started. So I brought my car over and gave him a jump. He was really happy, gave me a hug and thanked me. I felt really good that I could help him out. So that kind of thing. Nothing big.

The thing about gladdening the mind is it is just built-up little by little by reflecting on these kinds of things. Anyone wanting to do this just needs to spend some time recalling events or working with different thoughts and see what triggers a feeling of happiness, friendliness, joy, etc. Any of these kinds of positive emotions work. It's good to have a stock of different phrases or memories because using the same one over and over - it looses its juice after a while.

So you get the thing going by recalling one of these things and just kind of sinking into the experience - really allowing the sense of happiness or whatever to sink in - this is where I am using the word pondering - you spend some time with it almost like day dreaming in a way. It starts off really small so you have to keep on it.

After doing this for a while I can really feel the feeling of happiness - in my face mostly. A smile arises just on its own, the face relaxes, and there is kind of an expansive feel to it. If the feeling gets strong enough, then I can drop the thinking part and just breathing in feeling the happiness grow, breathing out feeling it radiate out (similar to the metta practice below). I find that if I start losing my interest - like a phrase losing its juice - random thoughts start popping up. Here, if it is suitable (supportive of happiness, etc) I can just work with that but if it is negative - fearful or angry or something like that - I chop it off quick and return to one of the stock phrases.

For the metta practice, I am looking to create a feeling of radiating light from the heart area. That's the goal. I work with my breath. As I breathe in, I imagine the breath as coming into the heart area and igniting a fire there (like a glowing ball of light) and as I breathe out I imagine the light from that fire radiating out in all directions.

Initially, this is pure thinking/imagining. I just keep doing that and eventually there is kind of a spark - some kind of feeling in the heart area that I can work with. I imagine the in-breath as like a bellows that builds the fire stronger and the out-breath radiates the light out in all directions. I just continue on with this building it up stronger and stronger. At some point, that sensation becomes strong enough where the fanning and radiating can be dropped as something intentionally being directed - and I can just stay with the feeling itself.

I think a key for both of these is to play with them - have fun with them.
thumbnail
Chris J Macie, modified 4 Years ago.

RE: Ajahn Chah's definition of 'vitakka' and 'vicāra'

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
Haven't seen mention here yet, but there are (at least) two video dhamma-talks by Sujato specifically about jhana:

1) Jhana - Heart of Buddhism (Dhammnet) -- ca. 51 min
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kaGD2h5J-Y

Goes on and on about various things for a while, then, ca. 40-45 min in more specifically about the jhanic factors, how they appear, feel...

2) Life of Pleasure (Jhana) -- (Dhammanet) -- ca. 46 min
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik0B4Kip_Sc

More focused from the start; at ca 15 min some on the factors; later, after humorous stories, fascinating miscellaneous information, at ca. 30 min a lot of detail on the factors; at ca 40 min going through the 4 jhanas in detail.

Check it out -- whether you've experienced jhana this way or that, or not at all; agree with him or not; this is a worthwhile experience. I find it wonderfully inspiring, vivid, and hilarious.

Breadcrumb