The Buddha said:
And what, bhikkhus, is right samādhi? It is bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and investigation, which has the rapture and joy born of seclusion. When thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second jhana, which has the rapture and joy born of samādhi, with internal confidence and a unified mind, without thought and investigation. And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third jhana, where they dwell with equanimity, mindful and aware, experiencing the bodily joy of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one dwells in joy.’ Abandoning pleasure and pain, and with the fading of the former joy and displeasure, they enter and remain in the fourth jhana, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but is pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right samādhi (SN 45.8 Forrest).
The controversy is concerning the part I translated as “the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and investigation.” Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as, “the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination.” Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates it as, “the first jhana… accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.” So we pretty much agree.
But Bhikkhu Sujato says that this is a “mistake.” He translates it as, the person “enters and remains in the first absorption… while placing the mind and keeping it connected.” The issue is translating vitakka-vicārā.
Bhikkhu Sujato wrote an article entitled “Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana.” You will instantly notice that none of the above translations render vitakka as “thinking” but as “thought.” Why does Bhikkhu Sujato change that to thinking? Perhaps because of its connotation. Thinking sounds more active, while thought sounds more reflective.
Here’s one of the most often contested issues in Buddhist meditation: can you be thinking while in jhana? We normally think of jhana as a profound state of higher consciousness; yet the standard formula for first jhana says it is a state with ‘vitakka and vicara’. Normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’, and that is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in jhana, too. This has lead many meditators to believe that in the first jhana one can still be thinking. This is a mistake, and here’s why.
Notice he admits that “normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’.” In fact, 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 Sujato, in fact, quotes PTS Pali English Dictionary saying, “we find the combination vitakka & vicara rendered as ‘initial & sustained application.’” But this is out of context. Let me quote the whole sentence:
vitakka is often combined with vicāra or “initial & sustained application” Mrs. Rh. D.; Cpd. 282; “reflection & investigation” Rh. D.; to denote the whole of the mental process of thinking (viz. fixing one’s attention and reasoning out or as Cpd. 17 explains it “vitakka is the directing of concomitant properties towards the object; vicāra is the continued exercise of the mind on that object.”
When read in context, “initial & sustained application” is used “to denote the whole of the mental process of thinking.” It is clear that “initial & sustained application” is referring to thought. As Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it, “applied and sustained thought” (MN 4; MN 19).
Bhikkhu Sujato quotes suttas MN 19 and AN 3.101, claiming that they show that:
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.
I want to emphasize his words, “even these most subtle of thoughts prevent…. Jhana.” I want to show you clearly that this is wrong.
The Buddha said:
When breathing in heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily.’ When breathing in lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly.’ They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion” (MN 10 Sujato).
So here the Buddha is teaching his followers how to meditate. So let me ask you a question. When you breathe in heavily and you notice that, “I’m breathing in heavily.” Is that not a thought? Notice the quotations. These are thoughts that you think – “I’m breathing in heavily.” These are mental and verbal notes that you think as you pay attention to the breath.
Now think with me. If thoughts block the attainment of the first jhana, why did the Buddha teach us to use thoughts as we meditate? According to Bhikkhu Sujato, by following the Buddha’s instructions you would be blocked from entering the first jhana. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t make sense to me either.
Here is an alternative view. The Buddha taught the use of reflective and observant thoughts in order for us to focus our minds. By noticing that we are “breathing in heavily” or “breathing in lightly” we bring the mind to one-pointedness. These thoughts bring us into the first jhana. That’s why the Buddha taught us to notice “I’m breathing in heavily” and “I’m breathing in lightly.”
Which is more reasonable? The Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing to block us from the first jhana, or to that the Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing to help us to enter the first jhana? I think there is only one reasonable conclusion.
He then asks us to do an experiment: “Sit quietly, now, for five minutes. Watch your mind, and notice what happens when you think and when you don’t think.” The result will be that “most of the time you were thinking of this or that.”
This is a straw man. No one believes that in the first jhāna the “thought and investigation” are random thoughts that pop into your mind. Clearly, there is a difference between the skillful and unskillful us of the mind. And the unskillful use of your mind will prohibit one’s entrance into the first jhana.
We just saw in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) that there is a skillful use of the mind. It is to use it to notice the breath, whether it is heavy or light.
A better test would be to sit quietly for five minutes and watch your breath. And make a mental note of its quality.
Why do you think most meditation teachers teach you to be mindful of the breath, noting your in-breath and your out-breath? You are supposed to think “in” on the in-breath, and “out” on the out-breath. This anchors the mind on the breath.
The Second Jhana
The Buddha said:
When thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second jhana, which has the rapture and joy born of samādhi, with internal confidence and a unified mind, without thought and investigation (SN 45.8 Forrest).
Now it is true that “thought and investigation” have to be stilled before you can enter into the second jhana. But that is a change in meditation object. You now follow the rapture, as any experienced meditation teacher will tell you.
But Bhikkhu Sujato’s translation makes no sense, “As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled.” How do you still a connection? You can break a connection, but you cannot still it. And can you really have a “unified mind… without placing the mind and keeping it connected”? Sure, you don’t need to place it, but you certainly have to keep “it connected.”
It is clear that vitakka and vicārā exist in the first jhana and they cease to exist in the second jhana. In the second jhana, the meditator has a “unified mind” and is “without thought and investigation.” The Pali is avicāraṁ. The a is a negative prefix meaning, “not” vicāra. If vicārā means a “connected” mind then that connection ceases in the second jhana, which makes no sense. You can’t have a disconnected “unified mind.”
The verbal gymnastics he has to perform to make the sutta say what he thinks it is supposed to say is evident. My advice is to let the text speak for itself even if it contradicts what you think it should say.
How Language Evolves
Bhikkhu Sujato then appeals to a book by Julian Jaynes to prove that the Buddha didn’t mean “thinking” in the context of the first jhana. But who is this Julian Jaynes?
Julian Jaynes was an American researcher in psychology. He was not a Buddhist, he was not a linguist, and he was not an expert in ancient texts. Furthermore, many of his conclusions are disputed. For example, sociologist W. T. Jones, asked way back in 1979, “Why, despite its implausibility, is [Jaynes’s] book taken seriously by thoughtful and intelligent people?” Nowadays his work is largely ignored.
So it is strange that he uses him to prove that, “All abstract words are derived from more concrete words by way of metaphor.” He calls this “Axiom 1.” However, I have the book, and Julian Jaynes never said that. The closest I could find was, “Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use” (51). So Axiom 1 is unfounded, so the whole structure falls.
So Bhikkhu Sujato uses a disputed authority that he misquotes to prove that the Buddha didn’t mean “thinking” in the context of the first jhana. [To be fair, he did say he was quoting from memory. But it is the foundation of one of his arguments. If you are going to appeal to authority, at least quote it correctly. ]
I agree that language evolves. I also agree that the Buddha gave certain words deeper meanings. But to say that vitakka and vicara mean “though and investigation” in every other place in every single sutta, with the sole exception of the jhana formula, I believe needs justification from the Early Buddhist Texts.
And I do think that “thought and investigation” in the jnana formula has “a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning.” It refers to the subtle reflective use of the mind to notice the quality of the breath. And then to investigates its nature as impermanent, dukkha, and not atman.
Misunderstanding the Word ‘Thought’
Bhikkhu Sujato then asks, “How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?”
Why does thought have to be “coarse, ragged, disturbing?” Why can’t thought be refined, focused, and calming? Clearly, it can, otherwise, the Buddha would not have recommended using thoughts for meditation.
It seems clear that he misunderstands the word ‘thought’. For example, he says, “The English word ‘thought’, however, lacks such flexibility, and remains stubbornly and exclusively verbal.” Notice his words, “exclusively verbal.”
However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘thought’ can mean “careful consideration or attention.” Nothing verbal here. Dictionary.com says ‘thought’ can mean “consideration, attention, care, or regard.” Again nothing verbal here. Interestingly, Dictionary.com says that ‘thought’ can also mean “meditation, contemplation, or recollection.” Collins English Dictionary says that ‘thought’ can mean “application of mental attention, consideration.”
Now when we turn to the Abhidhamma he has a stronger case. I think most scholars would agree that the adhidhamma does redefine vitakka and vicara. As he quotes in the Vibhanga saying that it:
gives a similar definition of vitakka in the context of jhana: takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā sammāsaṅkappo. This text also adds a similar definition of vicara: cāro vicāro anuvicāro upavicāro cittassa anusandhanatā anupekkhanatā. Notice the last terms here: ‘sustained (anu- application (sandh) of the mind, sustained (equanimous) observation (ikkh)’.
And then he admits that we (those who translate vitakka as ‘thought’) “will, of course, reject these texts as inauthentic. And they are quite right; I would not try to argue that these definitions came directly from the Buddha.”
To me, that is case closed. Just because the definitions are later doesn’t mean they are wrong. They are wrong because they contradict the Early Buddhist Texts.
Defending Bhikkhu Sujato
I feel the need to be very clear. I highly respect and appreciate Bhikkhu Sujato and his work. He usually has a good sense of judgment. But here I believe that he has erred.
I think there are three reasons. First, he doesn’t give the proper range of meaning to the words “thought and investigation.” He is thinking of unskillful thoughts racing around one’s head. Which, of course, would block the entrance into the first jhana.
Second, I believe that personal experience tells him that thinking disturbs one’s meditation. Again, he doesn’t distinguish between skillful and unskillful thoughts here.
Third, he is not the only person who makes this mistake. Both Bhikkhu Analoyo and Ajahn Brahm, friends of Bhikkhu Sujato, make the same mistake. This is why it is important to remember that the Abhidhamma is not the word of the Buddha, but was composed hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing.
- Jaynes, Julian. The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. New York: A Mariner Book, 1990.
- Jones, William Thomas. (1979) Mr. Jaynes and the bicameral mind: a case study in the sociology of belief. Humanities Working Paper, 23. Pasadena, CA: California Institute of Technology, 1979.
- Sujato, Bhikkhu. “Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana.” Sujato’s Blog. December 2012.