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ReThinking Vitakka

References:

See: Glossology: Vitakka
Vicara
Jhana

While typing up the PTS versions of the Emptiness Suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya, I came across this with regard to 'Vitakka':[1]

"If, Ananda, while this monk is abiding in this abiding he turns his mind to thought,[2] he thinks: 'I will not think those kinds of thought which are low, of the village, of the ordinary folk, unariyan, not connected with the goal and which do not conduce to turning away from nor to detachment nor to stopping nor to calm nor to super-knowledge nor to self-awakening nor to Nibbana, that is to say thoughts of sense-pleasures, thoughts of malevolence, thoughts of harming."

So here we have direct sutta evidence that this term is not the exotic form of powerful unattainable mental activity that it is made out to be in the commentaries. I am not saying it cannot also be exotic and powerful, but simply that there is an entry point for vitakka at a very low level.

This, in turn, puts the First and Second Burnings into perspective, since The First Burning is at a level in which Vitakka and Vicara are still present.

The tendency of the commentaries and academics aside, I think it is always better in the Pali to go for the obvious meaning: VI = 2, Re; takka = talk. Re-think (much in the Pali is put in this form of "Re-". I believe this is the case because the fact of rebirth was not nearly so hidden from mind then as it is now and there was, in the minds of the "coiners" of words, the fact that much of what was going on was "re-going on". But also, there is a simpler and more ordinary explanation: anyone who has been paying attention to their mind knows that an original thought is rare, and most thinking is not only not original but is an . . . um . . . re-hash of thinking that has been going on with endless repetition for a long long time).

 


 

In Digha Nikaya 33, The Sangiti Sutta, 3s, #50[3] we learn of three kinds of Samadhi (Three Highs): With vitakka and with vicaro; without vitakka and with only a small amount (a measure of) of vicaro; and without vitakka and without vicaro.

(Samādhī: savitakko savicāro, avitakko vicāra-matto, avitakko avicāro

Walshe: thinking and pondering;
Rhys Davids: mental application sustained thought;
Bodhi: thinking and examining

I am going to suggest a re-apprasial of the meaning of "vicara."

We have been being told that this term is the second part of the two-part view of the thinking process: vitakka and vicara. Working from the commentaries Rhys Davids and most other translators have put a mystical meaning on these terms that implies they are advanced mental states. I have already suggested that for Vitakka this is not warranted in that the term "vitakka" is unambiguously used for common ordinary (even unskillful) thinking plain and simple. In addition I have suggested that vitakka must not be too difficult to attain in that it is present before we attain the First Burning.

Now I believe "vicara" is similary ordinary. Vicara too is present prior to entering the first burning (the first burning is "with vitakka and vicara") in the second burning these are got rid of -- and just in case someone suggests that these are to be got for the first burning and then got rid of for the second, this is no where indicated anywhere in the suttas; the hindrances are to be got rid of to enter the first burning; the method for getting the burnings is always that of letting go of that which obstructs or obscures). In other words vitakka and vicara are part of the make-up of the ordinary mind.

So I ask you to examine what is going on when you first sit down to meditate: There is a kind of talking to yourself going on. This takes the form of stating and re-stating thoughts in words. This I am saying is "vitakka." My previous thinking was that vicara was the conjuring of images and "scenarios" in the memory and imagination that accompanies thinking. But images are not really visible to the mind's eye at this stage. What is there is awareness of perceptions and sensations, and this "thinking." And there is one other thing that is going on at this stage: reacting. One perceives and one reacts.

In the description of the sit-down technique I have suggested here on BuddhaDust I have made a point of saying that one of the most important things for success is "not-doing." Now I am suggesting that this is the meaning of getting rid of vicara in the second burning. That vicara is reacting, or "doing."

This would be no big deal to suggest if it were not for the commentaries and all previous translators...haha.

Cāra: PED: (fr. car carati to move about (MO: caravan, car) motion, walking, going; doing, behavior, action, process.

cāraka: PED: wandering about, living, going, behaving

Carati PED: (Vedic carati, *quel to move, turn, turn round = Lat. colo (incolo), Gr. pe/lomai, po/los (also ai) po/los goat-herd & bouko/los cowherd=gocara)); to move about, to "live and move," to behave, to be . . . meaning: 1a. (lit): to move about, to walk, travel, etc.

So why not vi+cāra: Re-acting? And, in fact, what does PED say? vicāra: vi+cāra...and then it defines it as: investigation, examinatin, consideration, deliberation (no sutta references cited, cites only VissudhiMagga)

Then there is:
vicāraka (from vicāreti): 1. looking after something: watching . . . 2. investigating (n.) a judge

vicāraṇā (from vicāreti): 1. investigation, search, attention; 2. arranging, planning, looking after, scheme

vicārita (pp of vicāreti): thought out considered; thought (only sutta reference: DN.I.37 where it is the usual translation found for the description of the first burning.

vicarati (vi+carati): to go or move about, to walk, to wander

vicāreti (caus of vicarati) 1. to make go round. to pass round, to distribute. 2. to think (over)
The reference here is S.v.156 which, in the Woodward trans (KS.v, pp 156) reads:

"As he so abides contemplating mind-states, either some mental object arises, or bodily discomfort or drowsiness of mind scatters his thoughts abroad to externals. Thereupon, Ananda, his attention should be directed to some pleasurable object of thought. As he so directs it, delight springs up in him. In him thus delighted arises zest. Full of zest as he is, his body is calmed down. With body calmed he experiences ease. In one at ease the mind is concentrated. He thus reflects: That aim on which I set my mind I have attained. Come, let me withdraw my mind therefrom. So he withdraws his mind therefrom, and neither starts nor carries on thought-process. Thus he is fully conscious: I am without thought initial or sustained. (So paṭisaṃharati c'eva na ca vitakketi na ca vicāreti) I am inwardly mindful. I am at ease."

My suggestion is that "vicara" is re-action, that this reaction encompasses action, arranging, behaving, behavior, consideration, deliberation, distributing, doing, examinatin, going, investigating, investigation, living, looking after, making go around, motion, planning, process, scheming, thinking (over), passing round, walking, wandering about and watching, whether strictly mental or in external behavior.

PED notes under Vitakka: Looking at the combination vitakka + vicara in earlier and later works one comes to the conclusion that they were once used to denote one and the same thing: just thought, thinking, only in an emphatic way (as they are also semantically synonymous), and that one has to take them as one expression . . . without being able to state their difference. With the advance in the Sangha of intensive study of terminology they became distinguished mutually. Vitakka became the inception of mind, or attending, and was no longer applied, as in the Suttas, to thinking in general. The explanation of Commentators are mostly of an edifying nature and based more on popular etymology than on natural psychological grounds.

Of course I agree with this as it relates to vitakka but would suggest that it is our job, in attempting to arrive at a true picture of the message of the suttas to evaluate the evidence without the influence of the "edifyers," (in other words, if we must come to the conclusion in examining the earlier works that they were once used to denote "just thought," then our question should be why we should interpret it for our practice, in any other way just because some ancient commentator says so.) I do not have any references to any place where vicara as such is used to denote taking action other than as a mental process, but I think there is room enough in the word "reaction" to allow those who would restrict it to an aspect of thought to do so, without restricting those who would hear a broader implication. I do think it is a mistake to throw the two words together without any distinction at all especially given suttas such as the one under discussion where a distinction between the two is made explicit.

So for the above my translation is that three kinds of High are:
With thinking and reaction
without thinking and only a small amount of reacting
without thinking or reacting.

 


 

This is an excerpt from Digha Nikaya III.33, The Compilation:

Just including this here to further the suggestion that vicara is "reaction", not some form of thought (although a reaction may be in the form of some form of thought) (How do you react to that? = What do you think about that?).

6.11[4] Six pleasing reaction-stimulants:[5]
When seeing a material form with the eye, that material form, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.
When hearing a sound with the ear, that sound, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.
When smelling a scent with the nose, that scent, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.
When tasting a flavor with the tongue, that flavor, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.
When feeling a touch with the body, that touch, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.
When conscious of a mental object with the mind, that mental object, occasioning pleasure, stimulates reaction.

6.12 Six displeasing reaction-stimulants:
When seeing a material form with the eye, that material form, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.
When hearing a sound with the ear, that sound, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.
When smelling a scent with the nose, that scent, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.
When tasting a flavor with the tongue, that flavor, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.
When feeling a touch with the body, that touch, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.
When conscious of a mental object with the mind, that mental object, occasioning displeasure, stimulates reaction.

6.13 Six objectively detached reaction-stimulants:
When seeing a material form with the eye, that material form, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.
When hearing a sound with the ear, that sound, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.
When smelling a scent with the nose, that scent, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.
When tasting a flavor with the tongue, that flavor, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.
When feeling a touch with the body, that touch, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.
When conscious of a mental object with the mind, that mental object, occasioning objective detachment, stimulates reaction.

 


[1] PTS: The Middle Length Sayings III, Horner, pp157

[2] Vitakka

[3] BD: The Compilation; PTS: Rhys Davids, The Recital, pp213; WP Walshe, pp486

[4] Numbers link to the Pali, the Pali links to the full translation, the translation links to the Rhys Davids version.

[5] Cha somanassūpavicārā:
Cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ rūpaṃ upavicarati. Sotena saddaṃ sutvā somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ saddaṃ upavicarati. Ghānena gadhaṃ ghāyitvā somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ gandhaṃ upavicarati. Jivhāya rasaṃ sāyitvā somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ rasaṃ upavicarati. Kāyena phoṭṭhabbaṃ phūsitvā somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ phoṭṭhabbaṃ upavicarati. Manasā dhammaṃ viññāya somanassa-ṭṭhāniyaṃ dhammaṃ upavicarati.

"Stimulate" here is Upa. The meaning of upa is clear enough, but whether you use investigation or reaction for vicara, we dont have a word I know of that does for up-making-vicara (we need something like over-reacting, but that would be abhi). Somanassa and domanassa are the strictly mental equivalants of dukkha and sukha.

Walshe has "pleasurable investigations", but follows the text in the details: "...on seeing a sight-object with the eye...one investigates a corresponding object productive of pleasure." In other words the experience of the object produces the sensation, it is not the investigation that produces the sensation. Rhys Davids has a similar construction.


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