In MN 8 for example there's this:

Ṭhānaṃ kho panetaṃ, cunda, vijjati yaṃ idhekacco bhikkhu vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja vihareyya.

Here's Ven Sujato's translation:

It’s possible that some mendicant, as the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, might enter and remain in the second absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of immersion, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without placing the mind and keeping it connected.

Here is Nyanaponika Thera's

It may be that after the stilling of thought conception and discursive thinking, he gains the inner tranquillity and harmony of the second absorption that is free of thought-conception and discursive thinking, born of concentration and filled with rapture and joy

And Piya Tan's

It is possible, too, Cunda, that with the stilling of initial application and sustained application, by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, he attains and dwells in the 2nd dhyana, free from initial application and sustained application, with zest and joy born of stillness [samadhi].108

108The 2nd dhyana is known as “the noble silence” (ariya,tuṇhī,bhāva) because within it initial application and sustained application (thinking and discursion, vitakka,vicāra) cease, and with their cessation, speech cannot occur. (S 2:273); cf Kāma,bhū S 2 (S 41.6) where vitakka and vicāra are called verbal formation (vacī,saṅkhāra), the mental factors responsible for speech (S 41.6/4:293), SD 48.7. In Ariya Pariyesanā S (M 1:161), the Buddha exhorts the monks when assembled to “either speak on the Dharma or observe the noble silence” (ie, either talk Dharma or meditate).

So what is it that is stilled -- and how (by what method) is it stilled -- does the doctrine say only, "first, think of something which causes joy; then secondly, rest in joy without that thinking"?

Is vitakka just "thought"? I get the impression that Buddhism classifies thought as another type of sense-object, perceived by the 6th sense i.e. by the mind -- is that right? And is a way to still thought meant to be to focus on a specific thought (perhaps an object or focus of meditation), and/or on other senses (e.g. bodily sensations)? And isn't that just fighting fire with fire? :-)

Or is the way meant to be, perhaps, to focus on a different khandha (e.g. focus on a sensation or perception or formation of joy, instead of on any of the six sense consciousnesses)?

Piya Tan suggests (n the footnote quoted above) that it's especially the type of thought associated with speech: discursion. What about day-dreaming though, imagining sights and situations -- imagining seeing someone or being somewhere, a memory of the past, usually speechless? Night dreams seem pretty random and mostly especially visual (unrelated to speech), they just bubble up from somewhere. Is that phenomenon simply a fact, i.e. the way things are, or is that indicative of some kind of problem?

It -- i.e. undirected/involuntary imagination -- seems harmless enough, sometimes pleasant or entertaining (or a bit surprising, the endless variety of fleetings imaginings), ending, restarting, morphing, kind of empty.

In primary school, teachers complained I was moony ...

dreamy and unaware of one's surroundings, for example because one is in love.

... or dans la lune in French which means, "to be absent-minded; to be distracted".

I take it that's a bad thing, is it? Like "heedless"? It doesn't seem especially immoral -- it's not like I'm spending my time plotting to murder someone. The worst that might be said about it is perhaps that it (i.e. daydreaming or non-applied thought) is a waste of time (or of "precious human life") -- is that even so, and/or is that only the restless of ego of a type A personality:

The hypothesis describes Type A individuals as outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving "workaholics". They push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence. People with Type A personalities experience more job-related stress and less job satisfaction.

I think I've read -- from non-Buddhist modern popular science -- that dreaming is the mind's attempt or mechanism for integrating recent experience with long-term memory, and/or rehearsing for (simulating) potential future events.

This kind of topic or mental activity seems quite large or time-consuming in life but I don't really know what Buddhism says about it -- whether it's good, bad, or normal, how to avoid it, how to use it properly -- I don't even know which words (of Pali, Tibetan, or other) might be used to describe the phenomena.

How about papanca for example, is that an apt description? My problem with that word is, I recognise it as pejorative (i.e. that "one should avoid that") -- but I don't know how it's prescriptive (i.e. "what one should do to stop that"). And/or is that restlessness, uddhacca?

Dreaming -- a stream of images -- seems to me an automatic process. Like a heart-beat, one might be conscious of it or not but seems to be always happening either way. Like it happens continuously, in a room inside my brain/mind -- and I can shut the door on that room, by paying attention to something else, especially to waking sense-impressions like what I'm currently seeing or hearing, or to some "intentional" or "concentrated" mental task (e.g. reading or writing, or driving, data-processing) -- but the room with its stream of bubbling dreams is always there and becomes apparent again when "sense-impressions" and "directed thought" stop, when the (little) "door" opens.

This question is more or less a continuation of the question about Mahayana doctrine about dreams and illusions

I think I understand those answers, the difference is that this time I'm hoping for answers that are are little more prescriptive and less descriptive.

I think (I hope) that I have no strong emotional reactions to dreams, I'm not aware of fighting (e.g. as described in Andrei's answer) or nightmares (as mentioned in Yeshe Tenley's answer).

It's just that I'm aware of kind of dreaming and even day dreaming, sometimes speech-based (imagining or rehearsing or repeating speech), sometimes only visually imaginative (similar to dreaming). Should I try to stop it and of so how? Replace it with something else, another mode of thought? Continuing to dream seems like getting lost in sensuality (especially the consciousness of the sixth sense) -- thinking I ought to do something else sounds like it might be "desire for becoming" or "for existence" -- so I'm not sure I understand what Buddhist doctrine is on this subject, what practice it recommends.

  • It's amusing how you inquire about the meaning of an expression and go on to use it extensively :) as to '"does the doctrine say only, "first, think of something which causes joy; then secondly, rest in joy without that thinking"?' Is this a question you might want answered? i am a bit confused by the "only" and the formatting.
    – user8527
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 19:52
  • 1
    I realise there are a lot of question marks, I was hoping that answers to any or all of them, or something along those lines, might be helpful? The "only" means, "I think that this, is literally what it's saying in MN 8 -- is there more to it than that, more detail elsewhere, would you explain it any further ... or is that (little) instruction supposed to be enough/sufficient for anyone?"
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:03
  • 1
    The formatting (horizontal rules) was meant to indicate three themes, each broader than before: 1) the definition or explanation of that word (there are three different translations). 2) the definition of explanation of the mental processes which happen and or stop, and how (in practice) some processes cease, and (referring to the first part) exactly which process is meant to stop and what (if anything) it's replaced with or remains. 3) The difference if any between discursive (speech-associated) and imaginative (image-associated) thought, and the difference between directed thought and ...
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:09
  • 1
    ... undirected? Is "undirected" thought associated with "letting go", or not exactly? Is it a bit like dreaming, or is like dreaming the opposite of how one should be thinking?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 20:12
  • It's quite clear, thanks for the questions.
    – user8527
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 22:36

6 Answers 6


Chris, I've done a detailed comprehensive study of vitakka and vicara here: http://lucid24.org/sted/8aam/8samadhi/vitakka/index.html

Including looking at every. single. occurrence. of those words in all the suttas here: http://lucid24.org/sted/8aam/8samadhi/vitakka/all/index.html

In your OP, 2 out of the 3 references you quoted (B. Sujato and P. Tan) have wrong understanding of vitakka and vicara in the 4 jhanas (from the perspective of EBT early buddhist texts - my detailed study is loaded with evidence).

P. Tan's uses fallacious "reasoning" to explain why speech "ceases" in noble silence of second jhana. I explain the fallacy here, in this critique of B. Analayo's understanding of vitakka: http://lucid24.org/sted/8aam/8samadhi/vitakka/analayo/index.html In short, SN 36.11 states that in first jhana , "vaca nirodha" (speech ceases), and in second jhana, "vitakka vicara nirodha" (thinking ceases). This doesn't mean you can't think in second jhana, and you can't vocalize/speak in first jhana. It means if you engage in those activities, then you've ceased those respective jhanas, not that it's "impossible to" start those activities.


As to whether doctrine teaches to use thinking to overcome thinking i think there is this discourse;

Here, Ananda, a monk abides contemplating body as body[ ] — ardent, fully aware, mindful — leading away the unhappiness that comes from wanting the things of the world. And for one who is abiding contemplating body as body,[ ] a bodily object arises, or bodily distress, or mental sluggishness, that scatters his mind outward. Then the monk should direct his mind to some satisfactory image. When the mind is directed to some satisfactory image, happiness is born. From this happiness, joy is then born. With a joyful mind, the body relaxes. A relaxed body feels content, and the mind of one content becomes concentrated. He then reflects: "The purpose for which I directed my my mind has been accomplished. So now I shall withdraw [directed attention from the image]." He withdraws, and no longer thinks upon or thinks about [the image]. He understands: "I am not thinking upon or thinking about [anything]. Inwardly mindful, I am content." This is directed meditation.

I think the satisfactory image, it's probably from the word nimitta, pali is; Tenānanda, bhikkhunā kismiñcideva pasādanīye nimitte cittaṃ paṇidahitabbaṃ https://suttacentral.net/sn47.10/en/sujato

And what is undirected meditation? Not directing his mind outward, a monk understands: "My mind is not directed outward." He understands: "Not focused on before or after; free; undirected." And he understands: "I abide observing body as body — ardent, fully aware, mindful — I am content." This is undirected meditation. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.010.olen.html

Nimitta here is usually translated as a theme/foundation or a sign. Here is another relevant sutta passage describing eventuality analogical (according to me) to the directed development;

Take a mendicant who is focusing on some foundation of meditation that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That mendicant should focus on some other foundation of meditation connected with the skillful. Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno yaṃ nimittaṃ āgamma yaṃ nimittaṃ manasikaroto uppajjanti pāpakā akusalā vitakkā chandūpasaṃhitāpi dosūpasaṃhitāpi mohūpasaṃhitāpi, tena, bhikkhave, bhikkhunā tamhā nimittā aññaṃ nimittaṃ manasi kātabbaṃ kusalūpasaṃhitaṃ. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Tassa tamhā nimittā aññaṃ nimittaṃ manasikaroto kusalūpasaṃhitaṃ ye pāpakā akusalā vitakkā chandūpasaṃhitāpi dosūpasaṃhitāpi mohūpasaṃhitāpi te pahīyanti te abbhatthaṃ gacchanti. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. Tesaṃ pahānā ajjhattameva cittaṃ santiṭṭhati sannisīdati ekodi hoti samādhiyati. https://suttacentral.net/mn20/en/sujato

In regards to externally scattered this expression is explained in the excerpt below;

"And how is consciousness said not to be externally scattered & diffused? There is the case where a form is seen with the eye, and consciousness does not follow the drift of the theme of the form, is not tied to... chained to... fettered, or joined to the attraction of the theme of the form: Consciousness is said not to be externally scattered & diffused. [...] https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.138.than.html

As to the daydreaming part, i just take note of the content and make necessary adjustments. Ie is it tied to past or future; gain, honor or fame; sensuality; delight in another world; cruelty; jealosy; lazyness; listlessness; ill-will; anger etc etc. Then you can know what perception to focus on or what it is that needs giving attention ie; inconstancy, unattractiveness in regard to food; unattractiveness in regard to body (ie graveyard contemplations); metta; compassion; sympathy; non-delight in all worlds; death etc etc

This problem doesn't really occur when training all day because one is then engaged in either prevention or removal of arisen distracting thoughts and is otherwise in some jhana [good state] or is doing some necessary work and is then mindful of their arising due to lack of development.

As to dreams, the sutta say that dreams can among other things be influenced externally and that one who develops metta well does not have evil dreams.

I myself notice that as long as i develop perceptions my dreams are either wholesome, neutral or non-occuring, that as long as i just sleep for rest.

If i wake up and due to laziness go back to sleep i will usually have disturbing dreams or nightmares.

If i train a lot i get a lot of good dreams.

So there is as far as i can tell a more or less direct correlation between dream content and the intensity of development much like there is a correlation between daydreaming and the intensity of developmemt.


When I asked bhante PaAuk Tawya Sayadaw what is VitakkaVicāra, he teach me "You should meditate Jhana". Bhante told me lik that although bhante knew I am abhidhammist for 10 years without concentration meditation (so I know the definition of VitakkaVicāra already, when asking), and bhante is the AbhidhammaPitakka Memorizer.

So, why bhante PaAuk Tawya Sayadaw didn't just answer me the description which I want to know? Why bhante told me "You should meditate Jhana?"

I ignored his answer for 2 years. This 2 years lost, although I very trust bhante PaAuk Tawya Sayadaw, but I didn't go to sit in his monastery. I still think "I going to do it", but I didn't know how start. Then 2 years later, this is the answer after I have worked harder on sitting meditation myself this year. If you do the sitting concentration meditation, you can see 3 stats first...

  1. Thinking of worldly objects

    It's included Dhamma which not associated with the current meditation. This comes with words such as " I will do..., he should do..., I shouldn't do..., this think is...,This is Vitakka because...", etc. This appear automatically and speedy in the meditation starter because he are sitting. He can't act, so the way he do is speak with himself. And this is why the practitioner should practice VitakkaVicāra first. Vitakka is carrying a mind and mental factors to do their duty on the object. Vicāra is keeping a mind and mental factors to do their duty on the object. The practitioner can't meditate anything if VitakkaVicāra still do the past behave automatically and speedy. And this is why Vitakka (SammāSaṅkappa) is the second of the eight noble path because you can't do follow SammāDiṭṭhi, if you still Vitakka of the same, KāmaSaṅkappa ByāpādaSaṅkāpa, VihiṅsāSaṅkappa.

  2. No meditation's object

    It's sleeping either just a millisecond or a nodding. It's sleeping and no object of your current meditation.

  3. Thinking of only one meditation's object

    Vitakka is carrying a mind and mental factors to do their duty on only meditation's object. Vicāra is keeping a mind and mental factors to do their duty on only meditation's object. The practitioner may go to do some virtues, eating, sleeping, peeing, etc. but he keep to go back to his meditation's object as fast as he can. This is why in KN.Paṭisambhidāmagga SaṭipaṭṭhānaKathā described Viharati in DN22 as "doing 4 gestures, keeping, staying, ..." And this is why the Buddha put the Gesture Meditation Part and Sub-Gesture Meditation Part following Ānāpānassati Part in DN22. Another, This is why the Buddha used "Pajānāti" in Ānāpānassati Part and the Gesture Meditation Part, but used "SamPajānaKārī" of DN22. And this is why the commentary commented many things which someone , although some Abhidhammist or Commentaryist who never meditate Jhana and memorized Sutta in pali, doubt "why the commentary commented like this?" (Yes, the commentary is right, but it is too very over deep for them to know).

I often say "I memorized and understood Vitakka for long time, but I never have an experience in understanding of Vitakka very clear like when I start the concentration meditation before." And if I found PaAuk Tawya 17 years ago, I will not lost the time like now.

Some of PaAuk masters answer me like a Tipitaka Memorizer, but some such as PaAuk Tawya Sayadaw and U. Vimala answer me only "You shoud meditate Jhāna to understand the answer" even they memorized many Sutta already because they are co-working on practice me like a real master should do.

Tell me if someone want the link to the reference in the canon.

  • Dreaming is just a low power thinking. It's like when you awake, but it's low power. When you awake fully, you can act everything you want. When you dream, you don't act or act more lite version. The scientist describes dream like that because dream is low power thinking, so you lose control of it.
    – Bonn
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 4:27

Day-dreaming is associative. A sense object appears and we follow the associations wherever they lead. With first jhana, we "place the mind and keep it connected". In doing so, our intent is focused on unifying the mind with the object of meditation, and not with the endless associations. Intention involves effort and stress. It takes work to not day-dream.

The work of first jhana becomes easier the more we do it. Just like lifting a weight makes us stronger, we no longer need so much intent to relinquish day-dreaming. In particular, we are NOT pushing for the second absorption.

AN9.35:4.3: Without charging at the second absorption, as the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, they enter and remain in the second absorption.

Our intent stills itself with skilled practice. Skill reduces effort. And with the stilling of intention, we would have:

SN40.2:1.4: ‘As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, a mendicant enters and remains in the second absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of immersion, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without placing the mind and keeping it connected.

But the focus of meditation remains. Only the "placing" and "connecting" has stilled.

  • Vitakka - is the initial attention one has on an object
  • Vicara - is the continued attention on the initial object, in the context of meditation one tries to retain the same object for a prolonged period of time

Vitakka-vicara arises in the same process behind the speech. When we think we generally think in words and those words we compose in our mind is what becomes speech when talking. If it breaks out as speech this is just thinking. When vitakka-vicara is dropped we cannot think or talk in that state, viz., 2+ Jhana.

There 2 types of meditation, Samatha and Vipassana. In Vipassana, the focus is on ultimate realities (citta, cetasika, rupa, nibbana) like the 4 Satipattana which intern corresponds the 5 aggregates and 6 sense bases and their respective objects. In Samatha meditation the focus in on imaginary objects or mind-made (pannatti) which does not conform to the ultimate realities like imaginary or mind-projected images of disks in Kasina.

E.g. in the context of Earth Kasina one looks in detail as a disk made of clay. One tries to remember its details. The one closes one's eyes and try to recall the details, which is vitakka. But the memory imitatedly fades away. To retain the image one thinks about it again and again until one continuously sees the metal image as one is looking at the physical object itself. This continuous recollection or trying to retain the focus is vicara. In the Earth Kasian on may repeat the word "Earth, earth, ..." as an aid or trigger to recall the mental image of the earth disk, but the focus is the mental image but not the word. Ultimately on should be able to recall the image without the word in very quick succession (faster than one can repeat the words). In Samatha is it OK to use words through nama pannatti as the object of ones focus is also imaginary or mind-made (pannatti). When one is continuously recalling the image one starts seeing it as if one is seeking the real thing continuously. In doing so, i.e. continuously recollecting a single object and trying to retain focus, the result is Piti and Sukha. It is not necessarily thinking about something thing which is blissful or happy. Similarly in other medications also, fist one focuses and tries to retain focus, on ultimate realities in Vipassana and on an imaginary or mind-made object in Samatha.


In the blog entry "Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana", Ven. Sujato first talks about how the term vitakka means thinking in some contexts of the suttas.

The primary source work is the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19). This is where the Buddha talks in most detail about vitakka specifically, and describes how he discovered and developed it as part of the ‘right thought’ (sammasankappa) of the eightfold path. Note that the terms sankappa and vitakka are often, as here, synonyms.

The Buddha describes how he noticed that thinking unwholesome thoughts leads to suffering, while thinking wholesome thoughts leads to happiness. And he further realized that he could think wholesome thoughts nonstop all day and night, which would not lead to anything bad; but by so doing he could not make his mind still in samadhi. So by abandoning even wholesome thoughts he was able to enter on the four jhanas.

A similar situation is described in AN 3.101. There, the Buddha speaks of a meditator who abandons successively more refined forms of thought, until all that is left are ‘thoughts on the Dhamma’ (dhammavitakka). Even these most subtle of thoughts prevent one from realizing the true peace of samadhi, so they must be abandoned.

Clearly, then, the right thought of the eightfold path, even thoughts of the Dhamma itself, must be abandoned before one can enter jhana.

And so some people define vitakka as thinking in the context of jhana, carrying forward this meaning from other contexts.

Why would the Buddha use this term in the jhana context, if in the jhana context, it means something else?

If vitakka does not mean thinking, then why did the Buddha use such a misleading word? The answer is simple: it was the best he had. Why this is so, and how such situations can arise, is a fascinating question that takes us into areas of linguistic philosophy, specifically, how we develop words for speaking of refined topics.

Although the Buddha used everyday words to describe jhana, he redefined those terms to become technical terms in the jhana context, that has close as possible meanings to the original meanings, but are not the same.

The Buddha, in what must have been a striking innovation, used only simple, empirical terms to describe jhana and other states of higher consciousness. In common with his typical empiricist approach, this means that he used words that remained as close as possible to their ordinary meanings. He wanted people to understand these states, to refer to their ordinary consciousness, and to see how that can be developed and transformed to become something wonderful. ....

If we look closely at the terms in the jhana formula, then, we find that they are words that have a more coarse physical or psychological meaning in everyday language. They are common words that everyone can understand, and can relate to their own experience. And in every single case, they clearly have a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning in the context of jhana. We have moved from the ordinary mind to the ‘higher mind’, and everything about the experience is transformed.

It doesn't make sense that vitakka and vicara means the same thing in the jhana context as in their everyday meanings, as claimed by some people. It must have a changed meaning in the jhana context.

Now we can look again at the claim that vitakka must mean thinking in jhana, because that’s what it means in everyday discourse. And I trust that this claim now appears a lot less plausible than it might have earlier.

If this is true, then vitakka (& vicara) are the sole exceptions. Every other term in the jhana formula takes everyday words and transforms them, in what the Buddha emphasizes at every turn is a special, exalted, and refined context. Only vitakka is exempt from this, and means exactly the same thing in higher consciousness as it does in lower consciousness.

This argument is not merely implausible, it is totally impossible. Words just don’t do that. And they specially don’t do that in a context like jhana, where the very point of the state of mind is that it is integrated and whole. How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?

And finally, Ven. Sujato explains what vitakka and vicara means in the jhana context, from his experience.

Sit again for a couple of minutes. This time, don’t be quiet: have a think. Look at what thinking is like. Raise a question: what is the nature of thought? Then stop: be silent: look at the space that reverberates after the words have ended.

When you think, the most obvious aspect, the coarsest aspect, is the verbalizations. But they don’t happen alone. There is a kind of lifting of the mind onto an object. This is normally quite subtle, and we don’t notice it because we are interested in the words. It becomes more obvious sometimes when you try to think about something, but your mind is not really interested. It’s as if you keep moving the mind towards that topic, but nothing much happens. You can also feel it when the words stop. The ‘thought’ in some sense is there, apart from the verbalizations. It’s a subverbal thought, a placing or hovering of the mind in a certain way.

This is what vitakka refers to in jhana. This is the subtle aspect of ‘thought’ that is carried over into jhana, when the coarse aspect, the verbalization, is left behind.

And as with vitakka, so with vicara. Vicara is the ‘exploring’ of something, and in ordinary language refers to wandering about a place on foot. Psychologically, it normally means a more sustained reflection or examination of a thought, a keeping in mind of the topic that vitakka has brought to mind. In jhana, it follows the same process. The coarse verbal reflection is long gone, and in its place is the gentle holding or pressing of the mind with its object.

Later, Ven. Sujato states the traditional definitions of vitakka and vicara from the Abhidhamma and also from alternative interpretations, and comments further about linguistics.

What about day dreaming?

Well, day dreaming follows the everyday meaning of vitakka and vicara i.e. thinking - thoughts and their verbalization. This answer by Suminda explains that very well.

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