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Vitarka (P. vitakka; T. rtog pa རྟོག་པ་; C. xun; J. jin; K. sim 尋) is translated as "conception", "application of thought", etc. In the sutras, vitarka has the general sense of "thoughts"[1] or "distracted thought."[2] In the Abhidharma traditions, vitarka is defined as a mental factor that:

  • directs the mind towards an object (Pali Abhidharma tradition)
  • investigates things roughly (Sanskrit Abhidharma tradition)

Vitarka is identified as:


Pali tradition

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma desribes vitakka in the context of the jnanas as follows:

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. Just as a king's favourite might conduct a villager to the palace, even so vitakka directs the mind onto the object. In the practice of attaining jhana, vitakka has the special task of inhibiting the hindrance of sloth and torpor (thina-middha).[1]

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma describes vitakka as one of the six occasional mental factors as follows:

Initial application (vitakka): ... Vitakka is the application of the mind to the object. Its characteristic is the directing of the mind onto the object. Its function is to strike at and thresh the object. It is manifested as the leading of the mind onto an object. Though no proximate cause is mentioned in the Commentaries, the object may be understood as its proximate cause.
Ordinary vitakka simply applies the mind to the object. But when vitakka is cultivated through concentration it becomes a factor of jhāna. It is then termed appanā, the absorption of the mind in the object. Vitakka is also called sankappa, intention, and as such is distinguished as micchā-sankappa or wrong intention and sammāsankappa or right intention. The latter is the second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.[3]

The Visuddhimagga ( IV, 88) defines vitakka as follows:

...Herein, applied thinking (vitakkama) is applied thought (vitakka); hitting upon, is what is meant. It has the characteristic of directing the mind onto an object (mounting the mind on its object). Its function is to strike at and thresh—for the meditator is said, in virtue of it, to have the object touched and struck at by applied thought. It is manifested as the leading of the mind onto an object...[4]

Nina van Gorkom explains:

The Atthasālinī (Book I, Part IV, Chapter I, 114) [...] uses a simile of someone who wants to “ascend” the king's palace and depends on a relative or friend dear to the king to achieve this. In the same way the citta which is accompanied by vitakka depends on the latter in order to “ascend” to the object, to be directed to the object. Vitakka leads the citta to the object so that citta can cognize it.[4]

In relation to vicara, it is said that: "vitakka is the directing of concomitant properties towards the object; vicāra is the continued exercise of the mind on that object."[5] It is also said that: vitakka has the characteristic of fixity & steadiness, vicāra that of movement & display.[5]

Sanskrit tradition

The Khenjuk states:

  • Tib. རྟོག་པ་ནི་སེམས་པ་དང་ཤེས་རབ་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས་དམིགས་པའི་དངོས་པོ་ཀུན་ཏུ་ཚོལ་བའི་ཡིད་ཀྱིས་བརྗོད་པ་སྟེ། དོན་འོལ་སྤྱི་ཙམ་འཛིན་པ་རྩིང་བའི་རྣམ་པ་ཅན། རྒྱང་རིང་པོའི་གཟུགས་ལ་ཁམ་ཕོར་དང་བུམ་པའི་ཁྱད་མ་ཕྱེ་བར་དེ་ཙམ་འཛིན་པ་ལྟ་བུའོ།
  • Conception [vitarka] is a mental expression created by the mind's investigation of an observed entity by means of intention and wisdom. It apprehends an object coarsely and produces a rough understanding, just like perceiving a distant form without distinguishing whether it is a clay bowl or a vase. (Rigpa Translations)[6]
  • Conception [vitarka] is a mental expression created by the mind's investigation of an observed object by means of apprehension and discrimination. It is merely grasping a rough meaning and it has a coarse form, just like perceiving a distant form without distinguishing whether it is a clay bowl or a vase. (Erik Pema Kunsang, translator)[7]

The Necklace of Clear Understanding explains vitarka together with vicara:

Selectiveness [vitarka] is a rough estimate of the thing under consideration and discursiveness [vicara] is an exact investigation of it.[8]

The Abhidharma-samuccaya explains vitarka together with vicara:

What is selectiveness (vitarka)? It is a mental addressing that takes in everything in the wake of intention (chanda) or appreciative discrimination (prajna). It is a coarse mental operation. What is discursiveness (vicara)? It is a mental addressing which is attentive to one thing at it time in the wake of intention or appreciative discrimination. It is an exact mental operation. It has the function of becoming the basis of happiness or unhappiness.[8]

Alexander Berzin explains:

Gross detection (vitarka; Tibetan: rtog-pa) is the subsidiary awareness that investigates something roughly, such as detecting if there are mistakes on a page.[9]


The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism states:

In Buddhist psychology [vitarka is] the initial application of the mind to its object. It is defined as the mind laying hold of the object of thought and directing attention towards it. Closely associated with vitarka, and usually following it, is vicāra or ‘discursive thought’. The relationship between the two is said to be like taking hold of a bowl in one hand and scrubbing it with the other, to the striking of a bell and its resounding, or to the fixed point of a compass and the revolving point which moves around it. Both vitarka and vicāra are eliminated from the mind in the early stages of transic meditation (dhyāna).[10]

John C. Lilly presents vitarka as a level of consciousness that can be described as:

The neutral biocomputer state, the state for the absorption and the transmission of new ideas; for the reception and transmission of new data and new programs; doing teaching and learning with maximum facilitation, neither in a positive of a negative state, neutral. On the earth.[11]

Within meditation


Vitakka (Pali) is the first of the mental factors to be present in the first Jhana, but it is absent in the higher jhanas.[12] In this context, vitarka implies a very strong leading of attention, as it leads to more concentrated mental processes: vicāra, pīti, sukha, upekkha and ekaggatā.

Five factors related to the first jhana -- medition on the breath

Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo describes the mental factors related to the first jhana within the contexts of meditation on the breath.

To think of the breath is termed vitakka, directed thought. To adjust the breath and let it spread is called vicara, evaluation. When all aspects of the breath flow freely throughout the body, you feel full and refreshed in body and mind: This is piti, rapture. When body and mind are both at rest, you feel serene and at ease: This is sukha, pleasure. And once you feel pleasure, the mind is bound to stay snug with a single preoccupation and not go straying after any others: This is ekaggatarammana, singleness of preoccupation. These five factors form the beginning stage of Right Concentration.[13]

Samprajnata samadhi

Vitarka or savitarka describes the nature of consciousness in the first stage of samprajnata-samadhi. In Sutra 1:17 Patanjali tells us that samprajnata samadhi comprises four stages: "Complete high consciousness (samprajnata samadhi) is that which is accompanied by vitarka (reasoning), vicara (reflection), sananda (ecstasy), and sasmita (a sense of 'I'-ness or pure beingness)."

Alternate translations

  • conception
  • selectiveness
  • gross detection
  • examination
  • application of thought
  • applied thinking
  • initial application


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Fine Material Sphere Consciousness.
  2. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. vitarka.
  3. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. The occasionals: (1) Initial application (vittaka).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Gorkom (2010), Applied thinking (vitakka) and Sustained thinking (vicara)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25).
  6. RW icon height 18px.png Conception
  7. Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. Conception.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Yeshe Gyeltsen 1975, s.v. Selectiveness [rtog-pa] and Discursiveness [dpyod-pa].
  9. Berzin (2006)
  10. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, entry for "Vitarka"
  11. Lilly 2007, p. 148.
  12. The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation
  13. Access to insight icon 50px.png Keeping the Breath in Mind, Access to Insight


External links

Sanskrit tradition:

Pali tradition:

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