I've been reading/studying E F Shumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical book about the nature of knowledge and our capacity for understanding the world, especially in relation to "higher" and "lower" processes of humanity, (IE, prayer or meditation vs hunger or fear) and I'm hoping a Buddhist perspective can help me to understand one aspect of it better. In it, he refers to self-awareness as the level of human existence that is activated or discovered by mindfulness-meditation, by dismissing the thoughts that come from the level of consciousness. He says that self-awareness produces insights rather than thoughts. Shumacher was a Catholic at the time of writing this, but I understand that he studied and was influenced heavily by Buddhism, and I believe that is where his ideas about thought come from. I am not a Buddhist, though I have tried meditation. An idea that I have struggled with in all of this is the definition of thought. I have always considered the processes by which one would analyze or dismiss a thought to also be thinking. I would consider an insight to be a type of thought, not something higher than a thought. I am now struggling to understand whether I simply have too broad of a definition for thought, or am simply so philosophically-challenged that I have never experienced this process-above-thought discussed by Shumacher and Buddhism. Can you help me understand what the Buddhist definition of a "thought" is? Do you have a different word for the process by which one would dismiss a thought or analyze a thought while meditating? Everything beyond this point is my own speculation on the subject, for clarity or analysis. If you already understand my problem or misunderstanding, feel free to skip it.

I have wondered if Freud's ego and super-ego may shed light on this. I would say that "thought" is the word used to describe the processes of both the ego and super-ego, but I wonder if Shumacher and Buddhism would consider "thought" to be what the ego does, and perhaps have a different word for the processes of the super-ego.

I have also imagined, as Shumacher does in his book, the human being as a programmer and computer. (The programmer being the self and the computer being the human brain) The human computer carries out all the day-to-day activities we do without higher thought, while the human programmer directs the computer and programs it so that it behaves as desired. In this analogy, I would consider all communication between the "computer" and "programmer" to be thought, but I wonder if Shumacher and Buddhism considers thought to be information passed from the computer to the programmer, while directions passed from the programmer to the computer is something else.

I have included the translation tag, as I suspect my answer may largely pivot on the translation of the word "thought" from Buddhist texts into English, and whether there is a more thorough translation of it that could explain this.


You probably need to differentiate thinking and thought.

Intent is kamma. One executes intent through thinking, speaking and doing (physical action).

Thought is vinnana, which is defined as "to especially know".

A thought will not arise without matter & state's of matter (rupa), sensations (vedana), recognitions (sanna), intents (sankara, kamma).

Another thing to note is manasikara, which means "to direct attention".

Thoughts are generally considered external similar to visions, sounds, odours, tastes, physical sensations.

Thinking is considered internal, generally.

Generally - I use the word generally here because in dhamma, having a view of a self that is permanent (soul) is a delusion, hence both thinking and thought does not belong to a permanent self (soul), thus not well defined as internal or external. In fact, a person without proper view is known to delude one self in 20 ways: that rupa, vedana, sanna, sankara, vinna x is me, I'm made of them, they are inside me, I'm inside them. By all 20 such combinations, one arrives at a false view of a self. This, you can now match with Freuds ego and super ego. I can provide references from pali canon if you need.

Don't take my word for it though, research on the italicised words above, which are pali.

  • Thanks a lot - this is a very clear answer and you did a great job of explaining the terminology. No need for references to canon. I have always considered "thinking" to be the act of having "thoughts." Seeing the two as distinct is useful. Is there a Buddhist term for "thinking" as you've defined it above? (as a means of executing intent/kamma) If you could help me with how this relates to "citta" and "cetasikas" as discussed in SarathW's answer and comments, that would be great!
    – Josh
    Nov 14 '18 at 15:53
  • Maybe you could refer to my answer here. buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/20153/362 . As for the common language term for thinking, I don't have a ready answer, I'm sorry. Nov 14 '18 at 16:54
  • Thanks - that's perfect. I believe SarathW sees the thoughts that are to be dismissed during meditation as vitakka and vicara. Would you disagree and say that they are Citta, and vitakka and vicara, as cetasikas, are part of the process by which we observe and dismiss those Citta?
    – Josh
    Nov 14 '18 at 17:03
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    It is difficult to understand Abhidhamma by using English terminology as it has a limited application.
    – SarathW
    Nov 15 '18 at 20:31
  • Regarding Vitakka Vicara, I'm not experienced enough to answer. Interestingly, I happen to read this Sinhalese book by a priest who talks about various forms of ego just after your question. It contains answered based on Sutta etc but doesn't quote them. Nov 20 '18 at 15:31

According to Buddhism thought to arise from the consciousness. Which are called Vitakka and Vicara. There are many types of wholesome and unwholesome thoughts. A person should have a good grasp of Abhidhamma to understand the differences completely.

Abhidhamma in practice:

  • Thank you for your answer - I will study those concepts and get back to you when I have a grasp on them.
    – Josh
    Nov 13 '18 at 20:51
  • I think I have a rough grasp on this. It's difficult for me because there are so many unfamiliar terms, but here's my best shot: I believe that my definition of thought has always included every mental factor, (cetasikas) while Shumacher's includes only vitakka and vicara, which I believe are also the mental factors that mindfulness meditation is concerned with dismissing. I believe the recognition and dismissal of a thought would be a "higher" state of mind (citta) involving a different set of mental factors. (cetasikas) Do you think I have understood this correctly?
    – Josh
    Nov 14 '18 at 15:41
  • I am still trying to understand the Abhidhamma. The way I understand Citta (Bhava) is the dormant or original consciousness. Cetasica is arising with Citta to form different type of thoughts. Generally, I agree with you.
    – SarathW
    Nov 14 '18 at 20:23
  • Your answer and link were very helpful - I wish I could mark 2 answers. I ultimately selected Ravindranath's as the answer only because it was easier for me to understand with my background, and I think it is more likely to help those who search for this question. Without more study, I am unsure which of you I agree with, but both answers make it clear that Buddhism does in fact divide what I have considered "thought" into multiple categories, and Shumacher may very well be referring to only one or some of those categories.
    – Josh
    Nov 15 '18 at 20:13

I would like to second SaranthW's suggestion with a link to an extensive Āryavasubandho Abhidharmakośakārikā commentary:


  • Thanks - I'll check into that, too. I've been reading through SarathW's link, and I think I'm starting to get the general idea, but I want to read more before I try to confirm my understanding.
    – Josh
    Nov 14 '18 at 15:02
  • Sorry, but this link relies too much on a pre-understanding of the terminology for me. I can't make sense of it without a stronger background in Buddhism.
    – Josh
    Nov 14 '18 at 15:43

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