Vitakka and Vicara

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

Vitakka and Vicara

Vitakka and vicara are two Pali words that mean thinking. They’re classified as verbal fabrication. In other words, you engage in these two activities—thinking of something first and then thinking about it, or directing your thoughts to a topic and then commenting on it—and then you break into speech. Without having had those verbal thoughts in the mind, there would be no external verbal action. They’re the mental activities that precede speech.

They’re also two of the elements or factors in the first jhana.

Some people say there shouldn’t be any thinking in jhana—that when the Buddha was talking about vitakka and vicara in the context of jhana, he meant something else. But if that were true, he would have been a pretty careless teacher. Usually, when he used his words in a special way, he would take pains to explain the special meaning. But in his descriptions of the first jhana, there’s none of that.

In the similes he gives for the four jhanas, the image he gives for vitakka and vicara in the first jhana is the activity of a bathman. In those days, they didn’t have bars of soap. If you were going to take a bath, you needed a bathman to mix soap powder with water to make a kind of dough that you would then rub over your body. The bathman would have to knead the water into the dough so that the entire ball of dough would be moist, and yet it wouldn’t drip.

This corresponds, when you’re in the first jhana, to taking the sense of rapture and pleasure that builds up around the breath and learning to work it all the way through the body, so that the entire body is saturated with rapture and pleasure. You have to direct your thoughts to questions like: Where is the pleasure to begin with? How do you maintain it? How do you work it through the body? Where is it blocked? And how can you work it through those blockages? Those questions count as evaluation.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Dhamma Talks Section, Meditation Series book, Meditations 9, “Vitakka & Vicara.”