The dispute centers around the first jhana. As you will see, the suttas seem to indicate that “thinking and investigation” (Pali, vitakka-vicārā) occur during the first jhana, and that it is when “thinking and investigation” cease that one enters into the second jhana. Bhikkhu Analayo and others think that vitakka-vicārā means something different in the jhana passages.
But I think the issue is even deeper. I think that the meaning of jhana is the foundation of all the problems about the first jhana. If we misunderstand what a jhana is we will misinterpret the first jhana. It is because the definition of jhana is at issue, I feel it is unfair to translate it. Bhikkhu Analayo believes it should be translated as “absorption” while I think it should be translated as “[stage of] meditation.”
In this article, I will specifically address Bhikkhu Analayo’s arguments for jhana being a deep state of absorption that has no place for “thinking and investigation” (Pali, vitakka-vicārā). I will be referring to two of his books, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization and Early Buddhist Meditation Studies.
Analayo Biased Presentation
I think Bhikkhu Analayo’s presentation of his opponent’s view is unfair. First of all, the definition of jhana is at issue, therefore he should use the Pali word rather than the interpreted translation “absorption.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary states, absorption means the “entire occupation of the mind.” It is hard to understand how you can have four levels of jhana if the first one is already an “entire occupation of the mind.”
And how he frames his opponent’s view is also unfair. “The issue at stake,” writes Bhikkhu Analayo, “simply stated, is whether the first absorption is a deep state of concentration, achieved only after a prolonged period of practice and seclusion, or a state of relaxed happy reflection within easy reach of anybody and without much need for meditative proficiency” (Satipatthana 76).
I don’t know anyone that thinks that the first jhana is “a state of relaxed happy reflection within easy reach of anybody and without much need for meditative proficiency.” That is not my position. I believe that the first jhana is a state of collectedness that requires a deep practice of mindfulness. Right mindfulness leads to right concentrations, and right concentration consists of four progressive stages of meditation, that is the four jhanas (SN 45.8).
Definition of Jhana
Bhikkhu Analayo says that the word jhana “is derived from the verb jhayati ‘to meditate’” (Satipatthana 75). Although he insists on translating it as “absorption,” he admits that it had the “original meaning of meditation” (Satipatthana 75). I submit to you that the original meaning is the correct one.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana warns, “Translating jhana as ‘absorption’ can be misleading.” He says that “When you are totally absorbed in the subject of your meditation, when you merge with or become one with the subject, you are completely unaware. This too is not jhana, at least not what Buddhism considers ‘right jhana.’” (13).
The problem is that the fourth jhana does appear to be a state of absorption, “without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness” (SN 45.8 PMT). And so, the logic goes, since one is a state of absorption all of them must be. This I believe is an error. Sure, jhana, if it is deep enough, is a state of meditative absorption, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not its essential nature.
As Bhikkhu Analayo writes, “The Gopakamoggallana Sutta, for example, mentions a form of jhana in which the hindrances still obsess the mind” (Satipatthana 75). This is not possible if jhana means “absorption.” He makes this an exception to the rule. But if jhana means meditation, then the issue goes away. If you have to disregard passages to fit your theory, maybe something is wrong with your theory.
That jhana can mean meditation is beyond dispute. The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines jhana as “a meditative state.” The Pali Text Society’s Pali English Dictionary defines jhana as “literally meditation.” John J. Holder defines jhana as “An advanced state of mediation” (206).
Jhana is dhyana in Sanskrit. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines dhyana as “meditation, thought, reflection, (esp.) profound and abstract religious meditation.” Dhyana is chan in Chinese. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism says that chan “is often translated in English simply as ‘meditation.’” And chan is Zen in Japanese. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism says that “In Japenese” zen means “Meditation.”
This is why Gabriel J. Gomes writes, “The Japanese word zen is a translation of the Chinese word chan (shortened from chan-na), which is itself derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, by way of the Pali word jhana, meaning ‘meditation.’” It seems clear that jhana originally meant meditation and only later did confusion about it arise, confusing the fourth jhana with jhana in general.
Jhana Does Not Mean Absorption
But I would argue further, that the word itself never means absorption. Bhante Vimalaramsi says that jhana means “meditation stages” and “not fixed absorption of mind” (17). “In the earliest recordings of the Buddha’s talks,” writes Doug Kraft, “jhanas definitely are not the absorption states” (331). The only caveat is that I believe that the fourth jhana is a state of absorption so deep you would not even hear a “thunder’s cracking” (DN 16).
Ajahn Brahmavamso writes:
In the original Buddhist scriptures, there is only one word for any level of meditation. Jhana designates meditation proper, where meditator’s mind is stilled from all thought, secluded from all five sense activity and is radiant with other-worldly bliss. Put bluntly, if it isn’t Jhana then it isn’t true Buddhist meditation! Perhaps this is why the culminating factor of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, the one that deals with right meditation [samadhi], is nothing less than Jhanas. (5).
Notice that jhana “is the only… word for any level of meditation.” If there are levels of meditation, then an all-or-nothing definition is wrong. You can’t say there are levels of meditation and then define meditation as a mind “stilled from all thought, secluded from all five sense activity.” The very idea of levels is that there are lower, less-perfect states of meditation. Clearly, there must be levels that are “accompanied by thought” (AN 5.14 Bodhi).
To me it is clear that the Buddha explains right concentration by listing four stages of concentration, each stage increasing the depth of collectedness of mind until one reached the fourth stage, which is what might be called absorption. See if this doesn’t make sense to you:
And what is right concentration? It’s when a practitioner, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities, enters and remains in the first [stage of] meditation, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, which is accompanied by thought and investigation. As thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second [stage of] meditation, which has the rapture and bliss born of concentration, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without thought and investigation. And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third [stage of] meditation, where they abide with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one abides in bliss.’ Giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, they enter and remain in the fourth [stage of] meditation, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right concentration.” (SN 45.8 PMT).
What does first, second, third, and fourth mean if it doesn’t mean stages of development or levels of depth? And if there are stages of development, then the first jhana cannot be full absorption. How do you develop something that is already full? After all, absorption means the “entire occupation of the mind” (Merriam-Webster.com). If the entire mind is occupied, where are the levels? You can’t get anymore occupied.”
Keren Arbel writes:
the four jhanas embody a distinct Buddhist view of mental cultivation and express an ethical mind. They are not states of absorption disconnected from sense experience, but four meditative states, that actualize the aim of Buddhist meditation: they purify the mind from that which obstructs clear seeing, and fulfil those wholesome qualities that can awaken the mind (5).
This is the biggest mistake about the jhanas. If you think they are absorptions you have all kinds of interpretation issues. There are just too many passages that indicate that thought and investigation are taking place during the first jhana. These are not normal thoughts, but are thoughts that are skillfully used to promote mindfulness.
Vitakka-Vicārā in the First Jhana
The question is not whether vitakka-vicārā happens in the first jhana, we all agree that they do. The issue is what vitakka-vicārā means. Bhikkhu Analayo admits that vitakka “is etymologically related to takka, which denotes thought and logical reasoning” (Satipatthana 75). But since jhana is absorption vitakka cannot mean thought. Thought and the “entire occupation of the mind” with the meditation object are incompatible. Given the interpretation of jhana as absorption, the logic is irrefutable.
If vitakka-vicārā means “thought and investigation” then jhana doesn’t mean absorption. But if, as Bhikkhu Analayo insists, jhana means absorption, then vitakka-vicārā cannot mean “thought and investigation.” What does it mean instead? It means, Bhikkhu Analayo says, “initial mental application (vitakka) and sustained mental application (vicārā)” (Satipatthana 75).
Now if Bhikkhu Analayo is right and vitakka-vicārā merely stands “for directing the mind toward a theme or object and sustaining it there,” we have a problem (Early Buddhist 126). In order to enter the second jhana, vitakka-vicārā have to be stilled (SN 45.8). This means that for the second, third, and fourth jhanas you don’t need to direct the mind toward a theme or object and you don’t need to sustain it there.
The Buddha said that vitakka-vicārā “are a thorn to the second jhana” (AN 10.72 Bodhi). This would mean, according to this theory, that “directing the mind toward a theme or object and sustaining it there” is what blocks the arising of the second jhana. That makes no sense. In the second jhana you don’t stop directing your mind toward the object of meditation and you certainly don’t stop sustaining it there. Rather, as experienced meditators will tell you, you switch your object of meditation to the rapture (pīti).
The Evidence for Thought and Investigation
Let me begin with a quote from Leigh Brasington:
Perhaps no aspect of the first jhana as described in the suttas is more misunderstood than the words vitakka and vicārā. They are often translated as something like “initial and sustained thinking” or “initial and sustained application” or “initial and sustained attention on the meditation objects.” It is true that this is the meaning of these words in later Buddhism, particularly in the commentaries, but this is definitely not the meaning in the suttas – ever. At the time of the Buddha and probably for more than a century after his death, vitakka meant “thinking,” and vicārā meant “examining” or “pondering” or “evaluating” or “considering” (97).
The New Concise Pali English Dictionary gives the meaning of vitakka as “reflection; thought.” PTS Pali English Dictionary says that vitakka means “reflection, thought, thinking.” And concerning the meaning of vicāra, the New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines it as “investigation; management; planning.” The PTS Pali English Dictionary defines it as “investigation, examination, consideration, deliberation.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi says that in the Middle Length Discourse:
I rendered vitakka and vicārā respectively as ‘applied thought’ and ‘sustained thought.’ In this translation [of the Samyutta Nikaya] they become “thought” and “examination.” The latter is surely closer to the actual meaning of vicārā…. In common usage, vitakka corresponds so close to our “thought” that no other rendering seems feasible (52).
And so we have Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the first two jhanas:
And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration (SN 45.8 Bodhi).
Maurice Walshe translates vitakka-vicārā this way:
Being thus detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, he enters and remains in the first jhana, which is with thinking and pondering, born of detachment, filled with delight and joy…. With the subsiding of thinking and pondering, by gaining inner tranquility and oneness of mind, enters and remains in the second jhana (DN 2 Walshe).
He translates vitakka-vicārā as “thinking and pondering.” Concerning the translation “initial and sustained application,” Maurice Walshe says that L.S. Cousins wrote him personally saying, “The words simply do not mean this.” He says that, “I am indebted to L.S. Cousins for the suggestion that I should adopt the Ven. Nanamoli’s original rendering ‘thinking and pondering’ (altered by the editor) in his MN translation” *543, 587).
Bhikkhu Suddhāso translates a conversation between two monks. Venerable Mahākoṭṭhita asks Venerable Sāriputta, “Venerable, what is the first Jhāna?” Venerable Sāriputta answers:
Here, Venerable, a monk who is separated from sensuality and separated from unwholesome phenomena attains and remains in the first Jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and investigation, and has rapture and happiness produced by seclusion. (MN 43 Suddhāso).
Here he translates vitakka-vicārā as “thought and investigation.” This is exactly how I translate it for the Partitioner’s Modern Translation. I think this catches the correct idea. You are using thought to direct your mind to the object of meditation (body, feelings, mind, dhammas) and then you are investigating it (short breath, long breath, etc.).
Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates vitakka-vicārā as “directed thought and evaluation”:
Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation…. with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters and remains in the second jhana (DN 2 Thanissaro).
In an article, Bhikkhu Thanissaro says that “Vitakka and vicara are two Pali words that mean thinking. They’re classified as verbal fabrication.” He goes on to explain:
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.
- Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. Barre, MA: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 2017.
- Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization. Cambridge, MA: Windhorse Publications, 2010.
- Arbel, Keren. “A summary article of the book Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight.” NP, ND. PDF file.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
- Brahmavamso, Ajahn. The Jhanas. Penang Malaysia: Inward Path, 2005.
- Brasington, Leigh. Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2015.
- Gomes, Gabriel J. Meditation for Beginners in Six World Religions. United States: Xlibris US, 2019.
- Gunaratana, Bhante Henepols. Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English: An Introductory Guide to Deeper States of Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
- Holder, John J. Early Buddhist Discourses. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.
- Kraft, Doug. Buddha’s Map: His Original Teachings on Awakening, Ease, and Insight in the Heart of Meditation. Nevada City, CA: Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2013.
- Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. “Vitakka & Vicara.” Dhammatalks.org, 2017. https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Meditations9/Section0033.html
- Vimalaramsi, Bhante. Life is Meditation – Meditation is Life: A Practical Guide to the “Emancipation Proclamation” of the Anapanasati Sutta and Loving-Kindness Meditation. Annapolis, MO: Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center, 2013.
- Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya, translated by Maurice Walshe. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.