From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
(Redirected from Vitakka)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

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 identified as a mental factor.

As a mental factor, vitarka is given slightly different definitions in the Pali tradition and the Sanskrit tradition:

  • in the Pali tradition, vitakka directs the mind towards an object
  • in the Sanskrit tradition, vitarka investigates things roughly

Vitarka is identified as:


Pali tradition

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma describes 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 Buddhist Dictionary states:

vitakka: ‘thought’, ‘thought-conception’, is one of the ‘secondary’ (not constant) mental concomitants...and may be either karmically wholesome, unwholesome or neutral.
“There are three karmically unwholesome (akusala) thoughts:
  • sensuous thought (kāma-vitakka),
  • hating thought (byāpāda-vitakka), and
  • cruel thought (vihiṃsā-vitakka).
There are three karmically wholesome (kusala) thoughts:
  • thought of renunciation (nekkhamma-vitakka),
  • thought of hatelessness (avyāpāda-vitakka),
  • thought of not harming (avihiṃsā-vitakka).”
The latter three constitute ‘right thought’, the second link of the Eightfold Path (see magga 2).
See MN 20; translated in The Removal of Distracting Thoughts—Vitakka-saṇṭhāna Sutta (Wheel 21).[4]

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...[5]

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.[5]

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."[6] It is also said that: vitakka has the characteristic of fixity & steadiness, vicāra that of movement & display.[6]

Sanskrit tradition

The Foundation of Buddhist Practice states:

Investigation (coarse engagement, vitarka) arises depending on intention or wisdom and examines an object in general. Investigating the meaning of impermanence is virtuous, whereas investigating someone's faults with the intention to criticize is non-virtuous.[7]

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)[8]
  • Conception [vitarka] is a mental expression created by the mind's investigation of an observed object [dngos po] 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)[9]

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.[10]

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.[10]

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.[11]

Contemporary explanation

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).[12]

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.[13]

Within meditation (dhyāna)

Vitakka (Pali) is the first of the five factors of meditative absorption (dhyānāṅga). As such, it is present in the first dhyāna (jhana), but it is absent in the higher dhyānas (jhanas).

Five factors related to the first absorption

Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo describes the mental factors related to the first absorption (jhāna, dhyāna) 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.[14]

Alternate translations

  • conception
  • selectiveness
  • gross detection
  • examination
  • application of thought
  • applied thinking
  • initial application
  • investigation, course engagement (Thubten Chodron)
  • thought, thought-conception (Buddhist Dictionary)


  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. Nyanatiloka Thera 2019, s.v. vitakka.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gorkom (2010), Applied thinking (vitakka) and Sustained thinking (vicara)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25).
  7. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2018, s.v. Chapter 3.
  8. RW icon height 18px.png Conception, Rigpa Shedra Wiki
  9. Mipham Rinpoche 2004, s.v. Conception.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Yeshe Gyeltsen 1975, s.v. Selectiveness [rtog-pa] and Discursiveness [dpyod-pa].
  11. Berzin (2006)
  12. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, entry for "Vitarka"
  13. Lilly 2007, p. 148.
  14. Access to insight icon 50px.png Keeping the Breath in Mind, Access to Insight


External links

Sanskrit tradition:

Pali tradition: