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Understanding the Pali terms, 'vitakka' and 'viccra'

A critique of the translation of the Pali terms 'vitakka' and 'viccra'

October 10, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

I have been studying the Pali canon in English translation as a means of providing canonical support for my subjective contemplative experiences.  Through this study I have come across a few key areas that seem like errors in translation.  The Pali terms 'vitakka' and 'viccra' are two of those words that seem to be incorrectly translated.  You can see from Nyanatiloka's, MANUAL OF BUDDHIST TERMS AND DOCTRINES, his definition for the Pali words 'vitakka' and 'viccra' as "thought-conception and discursive thinking." Other translators have offered "applied and sustained thought," which I do not think is any better.

'thought-conception and discursive thinking', (or 'applied and sustained thought') are verbal functions (vac’-sankhcra: s. sankhcra) of the mind, the so-called 'inner speech ('parole interieure'). They are constituents of the 1st absorption (s. jhcna), but absent in the higher absorptions.
(1) "Thought-conception (vitakka) is the laying hold of a thought, giving it attention. Its characteristic consists in fixing the consciousness to the object.
(2) "Discursive thinking (viccra) is the roaming about and moving to and fro of the mind.... It manifests itself as continued activity of mind" (Vis.M. IV).
(1)   is compared with the striking against a bell, (2) with its resounding; (1) with the seizing of a pot, (2) with wiping it. (Cf. Vis . IV.).
From the Buddhist Dictionary Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, by NYANATILOKA

Every language has terms that often mean much the same thing, however terms also often have a range of meaning depending upon their usage.  Translators of Pali into English have suffered from a na•ve assumption that there can be a single word translation for every term. This is not true in any language that I know of.  Typically these different terms with similar meanings reveal different shades of meaning that are pertinent under differing conditions.  I believe it is reasonable to consider that Pali, like many language, had terms with similar meanings (synonyms) just as English and many living languages have today, and that their terms meant different things under differing conditions.

Vitakka and viccra, for example, may indeed mean "applied and sustained thought" under common conditions.  But, considering that 'vitakka' and 'viccra' were used in the Discourse of the Buddha as a means of arriving at absorption (jhana), I do not believe the historic Buddha was intending that one arrived at meditative absorption through an intellectual activity, such as 'applied and sustained thought,' but instead through the cultivation of tranquility, and not therefore as a process of thinking and reasoning.

I believe it must be, therefore be an erroneous translation of the Pali words "vitakka-viccra" to say that through an intellectual process, such as "applied and sustained thought" the Buddha said one can arrive at absorption (jhana).  On the Jhana Support Group, we have found no evidence to support a belief that "intellectual investigation," or "applied and sustained thought," or "thought-conception and discursive thinking" will ever lead anywhere other than ignorance, delusion and doubt (dukkha).

I believe vitakka and viccra, if they lead to absorption (jhana), must have been used in the sense of directing and redirecting the attention toward one's meditation object.  I believe this process of directing and redirecting the attention toward a meditation object would be better translated as 'concentration' in the way that it this term is used in common English.  The term "concentration" is most often used by native speakers of the English language in the sense of one "turning and returning" one's mind or attention to an object or task. Or, we could say one "applies and reapplies" one's attention to an object or task.  Therefore perhaps vitakka and viccra should be translated as "applied and sustained concentration."  It is however possible that the Pali language might be inadequate to make the distinction between the cognitive processes of concentration and discursive thinking.

I am not debating however that the first jhana may be accompanied by a small amount of discursive thinking and other cognitive processing, however, certainly the discursive thinking would not be either applied, nor sustained thought, or otherwise jhana would not arise.  I know this because jhana is a regular feature of my contemplative practice, and I have numerous students who have given rise to jhana, and they do not experience either, applied, nor, sustained, thought during absorption (jhana). In fact I have found jhana typically does not rise until after the mind has become calm or still.  Therefore if a calm mind is a necessary precondition to even enter the first stage of absorption, then where is there an opportunity of either applied or sustained thought?

Since in the canon there is a definite indication that vitakka and viccra is spoken of as an access factor or condition of absorption (jhana), and not as a hindrance to the first absorption, but a property of it.  And, since I have found that applied and sustained concentration leads to the first jhana, and I also recognize that very few Theravadans, teachers, Bhikkhus or layman experience jhana, because most of them are 'dry' practitioners, then I assume the reason for the difficulty in their dry practice is in not realizing that vitakka and viccra are access factors, and that the access factor for the first jhana is not applied and sustained thought, but applied and sustained concentration.

In the Visuddhimagga the idea of touching upon or striking the meditation objects is often used by the translator.  I think the use of the verb to strike is too aggressive a word for a contemplative practice, so I have been using the verb, to touch upon.  I think that is what the sense of concentration is.  It is not to strike, or to grip an object, but simply to bring the mind back over and over again, time and again, to its object of meditation, thus the idea of vitakka and viccra, to return over and over again to the meditation subject.

It is certainly widely accepted that thought and cognition are obstacles to absorption therefore I believe translators should really reevaluate the translation of vitakka and viccra, as access factors to jhana, as not as applied or sustained "thought," but "applied and sustained" concentration, which is to touch upon or to simply bring the mind back over and over again, time and again, to its object of meditation,

It is also crucial to understand that concentration, or the practice of directing the mind to its object must be relinquished to arrive at deeper jhana, which is not widely understood.  And, if one looks at the factors for the second jhana, then one sees that vitakka and viccra are relinquished at this time.  Therefore in conclusion vitakka and viccra must mean "applied and sustained concentration" not thought.

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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