I am learning the 8 jhanas. And in the book im reading it states the five factors of possession are opposed of the 5 hindrance. What are initial thought and discursive thought? I can't find a definiton.

3 Answers 3


Ordinarily, when unrelated to jhana, the words 'vitakka' & 'vicara' simply mean 'thought', 'thinking' & 'thinking about'. For example, MN 19 is about 'two kinds of thinking'; MN 20 is about distracting thoughts &, in MN 44, 'vitakka' & 'vicara' are called the 'verbal conditioner' because they cause speech to occur, as follows:

Having first directed one's thoughts and made an evaluation, one then breaks out into speech. That's why directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabricators. MN 44

In the context of jhana, the words 'vitakka' & 'vicara' have a different & special meaning. Here, they do not refer to ordinary verbal thinking but to non-verbal movements of mind that finalise the attainment of & maintain the 1st jhana.

In respect to the attainment of the 1st jhana, 'vitakka & vicara' refer to 'applied & sustained thought', where the mind itself (rather than volitional intention) applies itself to bring to fruition the 1st first jhana. As said, these movements of mind are beyond the scope of ordinary volition.

Once the 1st jhana comes to be, 'vitakka & vicara' refer to 'directed thought & pondering / exploring / moving about ', where part of the mind itself remains active in examining & responding to its own response to the jhana factors (such as rapture), to ensure the jhana is maintained.

As stated in SN 48.10, jhana is born from 'letting go' ('vossagga'). Thus, 'vitakka & vicara' ('directed thought & pondering') operate in the 1st jhana to ensure the letting go & thus the jhana factors are maintained. Refer to Ajahn Brahm's explanation, here, about the "wobble".

There are many subtle different explanations of vitakka & vicara in respect to the 1st jhana. For example, the monk Thanissaro has translated with the words 'directed thought & evaluation'; and Buddhadasa had translated (from Thai) with the words 'noting' & 'experiencing' (here) and 'looking at' & 'knowing thoroughly' (here).

I personally prefer Ajahn Brahm's explanation because the existence of vitakka & vicara in the 1st jhana simply indicate the mind is not completely still, despite its attainment of 'one-pointedness'.

I also like Jeffrey Brooks summation as "sustained application of a meditation technique" (namely, the now automatic technique of 'letting go' ) but I do not agree with Jeffrey's translation of 'sustained attention' because the mind has 'attention' in every jhana:

The correct translation of the Pali terms 'vitakka' and 'vicára,' with respect to the absorptions (jhanas), must be "applied and sustained attention" or "sustained application" of a meditation technique."

Jeffrey Brooks

'One-pointedness' refers to the mind becoming unmovingly glued to a mental image ('nimitta'), which has arisen to replace the totally tranquilised breath as the object of meditation. This 'one-pointedness' can be compared to an axle upon which a wheel becomes fixed to. Although the wheel is fixed to the axle and cannot move off the axle, the wheel can still spin around the axle.

Similarly, although the mind is fixed or unmoving due to one-pointedness (which also results in ordinary volition ending), the mind itself can still actively move towards & away from the other factors of jhana. These movements of mind that sustain the meditation are 'vitakka & vicara'.

In conclusion, understanding what 'vitakka & vicara' are as factors of jhana will not assist in the attainment of jhana because these factors of jhana occur beyond the sphere of ordinary volition, as Ajahn Brahm has explained.

For example, in the preliminary development leading to jhana, a more primitive 'vitakka & vicara' refers to the volitional activity that keeps 'letting go'; that keeps wilfully non-attaching. But once jhana is reached, ordinary volition falls away and a new 'automatic volition' arises.

  • The standard for up- and down- voting on this site is very low: usefulness. I found this useful. Someone else didn't, but why? I would find something "not useful" if I didn't understand it, but that doesn't mean it is not useful in itself. Is voting a popularity contest? Perhaps not understanding something makes it the most useful thing of all: what on earth does it mean? becomes the question. If you already know something, then to yourself, that makes it useless. Paradox. Nothing is useful in itself.
    – user2341
    Mar 7, 2017 at 17:41
  • Probably because I used the translation "'verbal conditioner"/"verbal fabricator". Many Buddhists, without reflection on reality, believe the term "vaci sankhara" means "verbal condition" or "verbal fabrication" because the Sri Lankan based translators like Bhikkhu Bodhi use this illogical translation. As stated in MN 44, vitakka & vicara (thinking) are the cause of speech; therefore, logically, thinking is not the verbal fabrication (namely, speech itself) but the verbal fabricator (the creator of speech). Mar 7, 2017 at 21:14
  • Thank you, not sure I completely grasp the explanation, but this is the kind of argument over words and concepts that I would like to help people get beyond. When one can see how the mind works, things get very interesting. Until then, there is lots of misunderstanding. I love your phrase "movements of mind". They can help or hinder.
    – user2341
    Mar 7, 2017 at 21:38
  • But they are not movements of 'verbal' thought. They are just movements of the sub-verbal mind substance; such as, for example, when the mind moves towards a painful sensation in the foot. Mar 7, 2017 at 22:40
  • I will try to improve my answer. Mar 7, 2017 at 22:57

It is a very good question that you asked @DeusIIXII, regarding initial thought and discursive thought. In Pali it is Vitakka-Vicāra: It is good to know about 'thought-conception and discursive thinking', both within Jhana and outside of it. Within the context Jhana, only in the first Jhana it comes as one of the five factors. The five factors are… Initial application (vitakka), sustained application/ discursive thought (vicara), joy (piti), happiness (sukha), and one-pointedness (ekaggata). The second Jhana has the three factors of piti, sukha, and ekaggata. The third Jhana has the two factors of sukha and ekaggata. If you want to refer to a Sutta:

SD 24.11 _ Pathama Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Savitakka) Pathama Jhana Sutta. Progressing in the 1st dhyana.
SD24.12a _ Dutiya Jhana Pañha Sutta or (Avitakka) Dutiya Jhana Sutta. Progressing in 2nd dhyana.

The key-note of Buddhism is this right understanding. Clear vision of the four noble truths or right understanding leads to clear thinking, samma samkappa. Thoughts or samkappa always comes in the form of a seed conception, or first idea, or initial thought -is meant the vitakka mental state. A mind intent only on issues related to the breath, not pulling any other objects in to interfere, until the breath is refined, giving rise to fixed absorption and then liberating insight: This is Right Concentration. Also this act of thinking through of the initial idea of breath is Vicāra. So Here the breath is the vitakka, the initial thought. To adjust the breath and let it spread, is really thinking called vicara, evaluation.

Outside of meditation try to understand it this way.
Sankharas are the kammically active volitions responsible for generating rebirth and thus for sustaining the onward movement of samsara, the round of birth and death. In this context sankhara is virtually synonymous with kamma. Sankharas in dependent origination is put into three types: bodily (inhalation and exhalation), verbal ( Vitakka-vicāra: 'thought-conception and discursive thinking'), and mental [feeling (vedanā) · perception (sañña) ]. Sankharas are divided into the meritorious and demeritorious. Sankharas, propped up by ignorance and fueled by craving drive the stream of consciousness onward to a new mode of rebirth, where consciousness becomes established determined by the kammic character of the sankharas. With good deeds the sankharas or volitional formations will propel consciousness toward a happy sphere of rebirth, and with demeritorious deeds, the sankharas will propel consciousness toward a miserable rebirth.

If you are to take this second of the three Sankharas …. verbal ( Vitakka-vicāra: 'thought-conception and discursive thinking'), Before one speaks aloud, there is a ‘speaking’ or contemplation that takes place internally. The first or initial contemplation of a thought is ‘vitakka’, then we ‘think through’ or further the internal ‘speaking’. We call it consideration, or ‘vicāra’. Thus the contemplation is considered to be the vitakka/vicara. Another name for it is vaci‐sankhara or verbal fabrication. So the two basic verbal sankharas are directed thought and evaluation - vitakka & vicara.

  • Interesting. I recently read where someone stated that "rebirth" actually refers to coming out of realization and returning to ego-based thinking, not a reincarnation. If so, this would be a revolution in how we understand the teachings. It makes it far more useful and relevant to me. Then there is the Christian quote: "Lest ye be born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God." Different sense of rebirth, and God for that matter. Both true...
    – user2341
    Mar 7, 2017 at 21:41
  • @no comprende... Do good, be good… whether you are Buddhist or Christian. then your bodily actions, words, your mind, intentions, aims – in short - Kamma (Sanskāra) will result in fulfilled, as desired, and pleasurable things. The reason for this? it is like this: let’s think that a seed of sugar cane or grape was planted in a wet ground. If these seeds grow well by drawing nutrition and water from the earth, all these will result in sweet and tasty products (a heavenly re-birth). What’s the reason for that? it’s because it was a pleasant seed. - (extracted from A. N. 3rd Nipatha) Mar 8, 2017 at 0:39

Initial thought and Sustained thought is NOT a THOUGHT. The translation in my opinion is very misleading.I personally use the Pali Word Vitakka and Vicara.

When Jhana States arise there is no thinking.This is too gross of an activity.

The only way i can explain Vitakka-Vicara is Try lifting your arm.

Now you know that intention/will/urge...before you lifted your arm.Before you thought of lifting your arm.

Underneath thoughts.

There is a subtle movement.

Layered below thoughts.Thats Vitakka-Vicara.its like a pulling and pushing movement when your playing with a rope,without thoughts.Before thoughts.Just instinct.That's it Basic Instinct.This is present in first Jhana.

In the second Jhana the will is removed so now its Really immovable.

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