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Vitarka mudrā, Tarim Basin, 9th century
Translations of
gross detection
application of thought
applied thinking
initial application
Sanskritvitarka, वितर्क
Chinese尋 (T) / 寻 (S)
(RR: sim)
(Wylie: rtog pa;
THL: tokpa
Glossary of Buddhism
Translations of
Englishsustained application
sustained thinking
subtle discernment
Sanskritvicāra, विचार
Chinese伺 (T) / 伺 (S)
(RR: sa)
(Wylie: dpyod pa;
THL: chöpa
Glossary of Buddhism

In Buddhism, vitarka (Sanskrit वितर्क; Pali: vitakka; Tibetan phonetic: tokpa), "applied thought," "attention," and vicara, (Sanskrit (विचार) and Pali; Tibetan phonetic: chöpa) "discernment," "sustained thinking," are qualities or elements of the first dhyana.

In the Pali canon, Vitarka-vicara form one expression, referring to "the normal process of discursive thought," which is suppressed by concentration in the second dhyana.[1][2] The Buddhist commentarial tradition, as represented by the contemporary Theravada, interprets vitarka and vicara as the initial and sustainted application of attention to a meditational object, which culminates in the stilling of the mind.


Vitarka (Sanskrit: वितर्क ), "thoughts,"[3][4] "applied thought,"[5][4] "applied attention."[4] its roots are:

  • वि vi, a prefix to verbs and nouns it expresses;
  • तर्क tarka, "reasoning, inquiry."[6]

Vitarka may refer to mental activities that are manifest both in normal consciousness and in the first stage of dhyana.[4] In general, it means "thought," "applied thought," or "distracted thoughts."[4] According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, "In the Suttas, the word Vittaka is often used in the loose sense of thought, but in the Abhidhamma it is used in a precise technical sense to mean the mental factor that mounts or directs the mind towards an object."[3]

Vicāra (Sanskrit: विचार) means "thought" or "idea." Its roots are:

  • वि vi, a prefix to verbs and nouns it expresses;
  • चर् cār, to move, roam, obtain knowledge of.[7]

Vitarka investigates things roughly, while vicara investigates things exactly.[8][9][10][11]

First dhyana[edit]

Vitarka and vicara are two of the qualities or elements of the first dhyana (Pali: jhana), which are absent in the higher jhanas.[12][13]

According to Roderick S.Bucknell, "vitakka-vicara, the factor that particularly characterizes the first jhana, is probably nothing other than the normal process of discursive thought, the familiar but usually unnoticed stream of mental imagery and verbalization."[12][note 1]

Martin Stuart Fox explains, referring to Rhys Davids and Stede, when vitarka-vicara are mentioned in tandem, they are one expression, "to cover all varieties of thinking, including sustained and focused thought. It is thinking in this inclusive sense that the meditator suppresses through concentration when he attains one-ness of mind and thus moves from first to second jhana."[1]

Ulrich Timme Kragh explains vitarka (discernment) and vicara (discursiveness), as understood by the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra, thus: Discernment is "the cognitive operation that is responsible for ascertaining what is perceived by the senses by initially labeling it with a name", while Discursiveness is "the subsequent conceptual operation of deciding whether the perceived sense-object is desirable and what course of action one might want to take in relation to it."[14]

According to Polak, in the Pali Canon vitarka and vicara are mostly related to thinking about the sense-impressions, which give rise to further egoistical thought and action.[15] The stilling of this thinking fits into the Buddhist training of sense-withdrawal and right effort, culminating in the eqaunimity and mindfulness of dhyana-practice.[15][16]

According to Stuart-Fox, the Abhidhamma separated vitarka from vicara, and ekagatta (onepointednes) was added to the description first dhyana to give an equal number of five hindrances and five anti-dotes.[17] The commentarial tradition regards the qualities of the first dhyana to be antidotes to the five hindrances, and ekagatta may have been added to the first dhyana to give exactly five anti-dotes for the five hindrances.[18][note 2]

While initially simply referring to thought, which in present at the onset of dhyana, the terms vitarka and vicara were re-interpreted by the developing Abhidharma and commentarial tradition. In Theravada, vitarka is one of the mental factors (cetasika) that apprehend the quality of an object. It is the "initial application of attention"[4] or the mind to its object,[13] while vicara is the sustained application of the mind on an object.[19] Vitarka is regarded in the Theravada-tradition as an anti-dote for thina-middha (sloth and torpor), one of the five hindrances.[3]

The Yogacara term manas means both "intentionality"[20] or 'self-centered thinking',[21] and "discriminative thinking" (vikalpa). The provess of meditation aims at "non-thinking," stopping both these cognitive processes.[20]

Vitarka Mudrā[edit]

The Vitarka mudrā, "mudra of discussion," expresses vitarka, joining the tips of the thumb and the index together, and keeping the other fingers straight. This mudra has a great number of variants in Mahayana Buddhism, and is also known as Prajñāliṅganabhinaya and Vyākhyāna mudrā ("mudra of explanation").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bucknell refers to:
    * Martin Stuart-Fox, "Jhana and Buddhist Scholasticism," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 12.2 (1989): 79-110
    * Paul Griffiths, "Buddhist Jhana: A form-critical study," Religion 13 (1983): 55-68.

    See also Bhante Sujato, Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana
  2. ^ Stuart-Fox further notes that vitarka, being discursive thought, will do very little as an anti-dote for sloth and torpor, reflecting the inconsistencies which were introduced by the scholastics.[18]


  1. ^ a b Fox 1989, p. 82.
  2. ^ Bucknell 1993, p. 375-376.
  3. ^ a b c Bhikkhu Bodhi 2003, p. 56-57.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Buswell & Lopez 2013, p. 983.
  5. ^ Visuddhimagga ( IV, 88)
  6. ^ Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit, tarka
  7. ^ V.S.Apte. the Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Digital Dictionaries Of South Asia. p. 1422.
  8. ^ Rhys-Davids, Stede & 1921–25.
  9. ^ Guenther & Kawamura 1975, p. Kindle Locations 1030-1033.
  10. ^ Kunsang 2004, p. 30.
  11. ^ Berzin 2006.
  12. ^ a b Bucknell 1993.
  13. ^ a b Keown 2004, p. 333.
  14. ^ Ulrich Timme Kragh (editor), The Foundation for Yoga Practitioners: The Buddhist Yogācārabhūmi Treatise and Its Adaptation in India, East Asia, and Tibet, Volume 1 Harvard University, Department of South Asian studies, 2013, p. 72.
  15. ^ a b Polak 2011.
  16. ^ Arbel 2017.
  17. ^ Fox 1989, p. 85-87.
  18. ^ a b Fox 1989.
  19. ^ Bodhi 2003, p. 56-57.
  20. ^ a b Zhu 2005.
  21. ^ Kalupahana 1992, p. 138-140.


  • Arbel, Keren (2017), Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhanas as the Actualization of Insight, Routledge
  • Berzin, Alexander (2006), Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (2003), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
  • Bucknell, Roderick S. (1993), "Reinterpreting the Jhanas", Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies: Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1993
  • Buswell; Lopez (2013), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press
  • Guenther, Herbert V.; Kawamura, Leslie S. (1975), Mind in Buddhist Psychology: A Translation of Ye-shes rgyal-mtshan's "The Necklace of Clear Understanding" (Kindle ed.), Dharma Publishing
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: ri Satguru Publications
  • Kewon, Damien (2004), A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
  • Kunsang, Erik Pema (2004), Gateway to Knowledge, Vol. 1, North Atlantic Books
  • Polak, Grzegorz (2011), Reexamining Jhana: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology, UMCS
  • Rhys-Davids, T.W.; Stede, William, eds. (1921–25), The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English dictionary, Pali Text Society)

External links[edit]

Mahayana tradition:

Theravada tradition: