Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra

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Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra

March 7, 2019; revised December 3, 2019; July 27, 2022; August 29, 2022; March 25, 2023


1. It is important to understand the meanings of vitakka/vicāra, savitakka/savicāra, and avitakka/avicāra. I see many discussions on discussion forums without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and most sutta translations are incorrect. In particular, savitakka and savicāra are incorrectly translated as “with vitakka and vicāra.”

As always, one MUST start with the basics. Trying to extract the meanings of such keywords from deep suttā is counter-productive.

We need to start with the basic definitions. Then the meanings of verses in deeper suttā CAN BE figured out using those basic definitions. I have seen that this method ALWAYS works within the Tipiṭaka.

Please comment on the discussion forum if someone can point out a sutta in the Tipiṭaka that is inconsistent with this post.

Possible inconsistencies MAY arise if one tries to make them compatible with late commentaries like the Visuddhimagga.

What Are Vitakka and Vicāra?

2. For the words takka, vitakka, vicāra (තර්ක, විතර්ක, විචාර in Sinhala), the closest English words could be further/counter analysis, investigate in depth (based on one’s views.) They are the same as vacī saṅkhāra (“talking to oneself”) or saṅkappa.

All those words describe conscious thinking about a thought object (ārammaṇa). One either silently “talks to oneself” or speaks out while analyzing the situation. [takka :[m.] thought; reasoning; logic. (nt.), butter-milk. vitakka :[m.] reflection; thought. vicāra :[m.] investigation; management; planning; discursive thinking.]

A clear explanation is given in Abhidhamma, in the discussion on kāma dhātu, byāpāda dhātu, vihiṁsā dhātu, nekkhamma dhātu, abyāpāda dhātu, avihiṁsā dhātu, in the following section: “WebLink: suttacentral: Dhātuvibhaṅga.” [avihiṁsa : (Avihesa) (f.) [a + vihiṁsā] absence of cruelty, mercy, humanity, friendliness, love.]

For example, “Tattha katamā kāma dhātu? Kāmapaṭisaṁyutto takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā micchāsaṅkappo—ayaṁ vuccati kāma dhātu.”

Translated: “What is the element of kāma (indulgence in sensual thoughts)? Analysis/investigations of sensual objects lead to establishing wrong thinking. That is the element of desire/indulgence.” In other words, when one constantly generates such sensual (kāmapaṭisaṁyutto) thoughts, the kāma element (related to kāma rāga) builds up.

Similar explanations can be found elsewhere. The “WebLink: suttacentral: Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)” states, “Saṅkappa rāgo purisassa kāmo, Nete kāmā yāni citrāni loke..”.

Translated:A person’s kāma is getting attached and thinking about (saṅkappa rāga) those pleasing things in this world (citrāni loke). Those beautiful things in the world are not kāma.

3. The opposite, element of nekkhamma is defined as: “Tattha katamā nekkhammadhātu? Nekkhammapaṭisaṁyutto takko vitakko, saṅkappa, … pe … sammā saṅkappo—ayaṁ vuccati “nekkhamma dhātu.”

Translated: “what is the element of renunciation sensual thoughts? Analysis/investigations of renunciation of sensual objects lead to establishing correct views (leading to the removal of defilements). This is called the element of renunciation.” In other words, when one constantly generates such thoughts, kāma rāga is diminished.

Similarly for byāpāda dhātu (angry /hateful), vihiṁsā dhātu (cruel,) and the opposites abyāpāda (kind) dhātu, avihiṁsā (compassionate) dhātu. [vihiṁsā : [f.] (& adj. °a) [abstr. fr. vi+hiṁs, to injure] hurting, injuring, cruelty, injury. hiṁsā : [f.] [Vedic hiṁsā] injury, killing.]

It is essential to see the connection between vacī saṅkhāra (“talking to oneself”) and saṅkappa (as in Sammā Saṅkappa.) A second version of vacī saṅkhāra involves “speaking out.” See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Saṅkhāra.

Vacī Saṅkhāra Are Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts)

4. We can now see that kāma (abhijjhā) saṅkappa, byāpāda (or vyāpāda) saṅkappa, vihiṁsā saṅkappa are all “bad” vacī saṅkhāra. They associate with greed, hate, and ignorance.

Their opposites are associated with Sammā Saṅkappa: nekkhamma (renunciation of sensuality,) abyāpāda (renunciation of anger,) and avihiṁsā  (renunciation of cruelty) saṅkappa. [nekkhamma : [nt.] giving up the world; renunciation.]

Note that Sammā Saṅkappa comes next to Sammā Diṭṭhi in the Noble Eightfold Path. Therefore, we can see the importance of vacī saṅkhāra.

5. Now, we can also see the connection to vacī saṅkhāra as defined clearly in the “WebLink: suttacentral: Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44)”: ..” vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāro” OR “vacī saṅkhāra are vitakka vicārā.”

Vacī saṅkhāra means “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and those thoughts that lead to the speech by moving the lips, tongue, etc. Hateful or greedy speech is due to apuññābhi vacī saṅkhāra. Thinking about a Dhamma concept is a puññābhi vacī saṅkhāra; see “Correct Meaning of Vacī Saṅkhāra.”

Vacī Saṅkhāra (Vitakka Vicārā) Are Saṅkappa

6. Another important sutta where this is discussed is “WebLink: suttacentral: Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117)”:

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammā saṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittassa anāsavacittassa ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṁ bhāvayato takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacī saṅkhāro—ayaṁ, bhikkhave, sammā saṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo..”

Translated: “And what, bhikkhus, is Sammā Saṅkappa that is Noble, without āsava, supramundane, a factor of the Noble Path? Those are Noble thoughts (ariyacittassa) that are devoid of cravings (anāsava cittassa) and belong to the Noble Path (ariyamaggasamaṅgino ariyamaggaṁ bhāvayato) with analysis.investigations (takko vitakko saṅkappo): that is Sammā Saṅkappa that is Noble, a factor of the Noble Path.”

Vitakka is Usually Reserved for “Bad Saṅkappa

7. “WebLink: suttacentral: Akusala Vitakka Sutta (SN 9.11)” provides one example: “Tena kho pana samayena so bhikkhu divāvihāragato pāpake akusale vitakke vitakketi, seyyathidaṁ—kāma vitakkaṁ, byāpāda vitakkaṁ, vihiṁsā vitakkaṁ.”

Meaning: “That bhikkhu engaged in generating highly immoral (pāpa) and akusala vitakka during his resting time – they were sensual, ill-will, and cruel thoughts. [pāpake akusale vitakke vitakkeyyātha, seyyathidaṁ— kāma vitakkaṁ, byāpāda vitakkaṁ, vihiṁsā vitakkaṁ.]

Another verse in the same sutta: “Ayoniso manasikārā, so vitakkehi khajjasi..” or “with the wrong mindset (ayoniso manasikāra), he is burdened with such defiled thoughts.”

8. Succinct explanations can also be found in the “WebLink: suttacentral: Vitakka Sutta (SN 56.7).”

Following is the basic idea of the whole sutta:

Bhikkhus, do not engage in evil unwholesome thoughts, which are: sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, thoughts of harming others (pāpake akusale vitakke vitakkeyyātha, seyyathidaṁ— kāma vitakkaṁ, byāpāda vitakkaṁ, vihiṁsā vitakkaṁ).

For what reason? These thoughts, bhikkhus, are without real substance (Nete, bhikkhave, vitakkā atthasaṁhitā), irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to escape from the sense world, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.        When your mind starts such thoughts, bhikkhus, you should think: ‘This will lead to suffering.’

Instead, you should think: ‘These are the causes of suffering’; you should think: ‘The way to the cessation of suffering by cultivating thoughts of renunciation and compassion.” Such thoughts will lead to escape from the sense world, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”

Vitakka/Vicāra and Savitakka and Savicāra

9. In many instances, the words vitakka and vicāra indicate “bad thoughts” or defiled thoughts.

However, in some cases, they indicate “all kinds of thoughts, good or bad.”

Therefore, one must identify which meaning to use in the words’ context. The above examples illustrate that point.

10. When one generates thoughts that specifically do not involve kāma rāga or other akusala but the opposites (nekkhamma/kusala) — those are called savitakka and savicāra.

That is how one gets into jhāna: Eliminating (or suppressing) vitakka/vicāra and cultivating savitakka/savicāra.

11. You can see that in any sutta that describes jhāna. For example, in “WebLink: suttacentral: Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)”: “..So kho ahaṁ, ānanda, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ vivekajaṁ pītisukhaṁ paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja viharāmi.”

Translated: “Ānanda, when one stays away from vitakka/vicāra with kāma rāga and akusala and cultivates savitakka/savicāra, one will get into the first jhāna.”

However, vitakka/vicāra with kāma rāga and/or akusala may occasionally come to mind in the case of anāriya jhāna.

Also see “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)– Akuppā Cetovimutti.”

Avitakka and Avicāra

12. The absence of any “bad thoughts” is indicated by avitakka, avicāra. In this case, one would only have savitakka and savicāra (good thoughts). That is possible with Ariya jhāna.

This happens in the second jhāna, where only savitakka/savicāra remains.

Therefore, it is essential to realize that avitakka/avicāra DOES NOT mean “without thoughts”; it just means the absence of sensual or immoral thoughts.

13. This is very clear at the end of the “WebLink: suttacentral: Upakkilesa Sutta (MN 128)”: “ ..So kho ahaṁ, anuruddhā, savitakkampi savicāraṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, avitakkampi vicāramattaṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, avitakkampi avicāraṁ samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, sappītikampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, nippītikampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, sātasahagatampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ, upekkhāsahagatampi samādhiṁ bhāvesiṁ..”

Translated: “Anuruddha, I systematically cultivated the following samādhi in this order. Savitakka savicāra samādhi, avitakka vicāramattaṁ samādhi (absence of vitakka with a trace of vicāra left), avitakka avicāra samādhi (absence of vitakka and vicāra), sappītikampi samādhi (with pīti or joy), nippītikampi samādhi (absence of pīti or joy), sātasahagatampi samādhi (with only sukha left), and upekkhāsahagata samādhi (sukha also removed to be in the upekkhā state).”

What the Buddha described above is getting to the first jhāna with savitakka savicāra, and then to the second jhāna with the absence of vitakka and vicāra (with pīti and sukha), the third jhāna with just sukha (joy removed), and the fourth jhāna with sukha also removed and with just upekkhā).

For a description of Ariya jhāna with jhānaṅga removed at each successive stage, see “WebLink: suttacentral: Rahogata Sutta (SN 36.11),” for example. [jhānaṅga : ‘constituents (or factors) of absorption’. aṅga : [nt.] 1. a constituent part; 2. a limb; 3. quality.]


14. Saṅkhāra is of different types, so it is necessary to get an idea of how to use these basic definitions of vitakka/vicāra, savitakka/savicāra, and avitakka/avicāra in terms of different types of saṅkhāra: puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Saṅkhāra” and “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”

Further details in the post, “Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech).”

15. Finally, the “WebLink: suttacentral: Savitakkasavicara Sutta (SN 43.3)” clearly states that Nibbāna is reached (asaṅkhatagāmi maggo) via the following sequence. Savitakka savicāra samādhi, avitakka vicāramatta samādhi, avitakka avicāra samādhi.

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo? Savitakkasavicāro samādhi, avitakkavicāramatto samādhi, avitakkaavicāro samādhi—ayaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo.