Friday, April 30, 2021

AN 3.101 gold purification, exactly which jhanas do the stages correspond to? Now I know for sure.

(5/1/2021 updated to correct an error, notes at bottom)

These were my previous notes on the sutta, where I had some uncertainty about where first and fourth jhana fell in the similes, since the sutta never explicitly uses the term 'jhana'. 

AN 3.101 Paṃsudhovaka: Dirt-washer purifying gold simile. 

misconduct in body, speech, & mind. = gross impurities, 

wrong intention/thoughts = moderate impurities, 

thoughts of family/caste = fine impurities, 

thoughts of Dhamma remain, in the grey zone between doorway of first jhana and just plain 4sp. 

With mind purified, the 6 abhiñña easy to get.

(agama parallel sutta may shed light on details of AN 3.101)

SA 1246, || to AN 3.101

After studying this carefully, I realize there's enough information there to deduce conclusively exactly which jhanas correspond to which stage of gold purification.

Here's the proof

First we will start with fourth jhana passage (not explicitly stated as 'jhana' or 'fourth jhana'), and why I know for sure it's imperturbable fourth jhana.

AN 3.101 passaage on what appears to be 4th jhana, not explicitly stated as such

Hoti so, bhikkhave, samayo yaṃ
But there comes a time when
taṃ cittaṃ ajjhattaṃ-yeva
his mind inwardly
San-tiṭṭhati san-nisīdati
grows-steady, settles-down,
ekodi hoti samādhiyati.
Unified & concentrated.
So hoti samādhi santo paṇīto
His *** concentration (is) peaceful & refined,
Paṭip-passaddhi-laddho ekodi-bhāv-ādhigato
has attained calm & unification,
na sa-saṅkhāra-niggayhavāritagato.
and is no longer kept in place by the fabrication of forceful restraint.
Yassa yassa ca abhiññā
“And then whichever of
sacchi-karaṇī-yassa dhammassa cittaṃ abhi-ninnāmeti
the higher knowledges he turns his mind to know & realize,
abhiññā sacchi-kiriyāya
he can witness them for himself
tatra tatreva sakkhibhabbataṃ pāpuṇāti sati satiāyatane.
whenever there is an opening.

Just a side note on the unusual term na sa-saṅkhāra-niggayhavāritagato, this term occurs rarely, and it seems to be something similar to an imperturbable version of fourth jhana crossed with animitta samadhi. This will be explored in another article another day.

The passage quoted above in isolation is somewhat ambiguous as to exactly which jhana it is. The 'ekodi' references suggest we're talking about at least second jhana, and suttas like MN 122 explicitly use ekodi as a verb, it means 'do the four jhanas'. 

So to deduce the answer, we have to fill in details from what we know about similar passages. What follows right after this passage, is the meditator doing the 6ab abhinna higher knowledges. 

Now whenever the suttas talk about a meditator with samadhi that can easily access and perform the 6ab higher knowledges, it's always a purified fourth jhana, or iddhi pada. For example, this passage for imperturbable 4th jhana occurs frequently in MN:

Compare that STED standard definition of fourth jhana imperturbable that can easily do 6 higher knowledges, with AN 3.101's matching gold analogy, the purified, bright, workable gold:

Hoti so, bhikkhave, samayo yaṃ suvaṇṇakāro vā suvaṇṇakārantevāsī vā taṃ jātarūpaṃ dhamati sandhamati niddhamati.
But there comes a time when the goldsmith or his apprentice has blown on the gold again & again until the dross is blown away.
Taṃ hoti jātarūpaṃ dhantaṃ sandhantaṃ niddhantaṃ niddhantakasāvaṃ,
The gold, having been blown on again & again to the point where the impurities are blown away,
mudu ca hoti kammaniyañca pabhassarañca,
is then refined, free from dross, pliant, malleable, & luminous.
na ca pabhaṅgu,
It is not brittle,
sammā upeti kammāya.
and is ready to be worked.
Yassā yassā ca pilandhanavikatiyā ākaṅkhati—yadi paṭṭikāya, yadi kuṇḍalāya, yadi gīveyyake, yadi suvaṇṇamālāya—tañcassa atthaṃ anubhoti.
Then whatever sort of ornament he has in mind—whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain—the gold would serve his purpose.

They even share many of the same adjectives: Luminous, purified, malleable, workable.

They use slightly different words for luminous - pabhassara in one, and pariyodate in the other, but when you compare with other passages talking about the same visual luminosity that appears in meditation, such as the famous fourth jhana simile in AN 5.28, we know these synonyms are talking about the same thing

Reiterate conclusion on why we know for sure this is fourth jhana:

1. It's always an imperturbable version of fourth jhana, iddhipada, when the 6 higher knowledges are easily accessible. 

2. the gold simile matches up with the standard STED definition of the frequent stock passage on imperturbable fourth jhana that appears in more than 20 suttas. 

3. you never find a sutta where someone is in 1st or 2nd jhana for example and can easily perform the 6 higher knowledges. 

Now we've eliminated that ambiguity, we can prove why the other ambiguous passage is first jhana, and not second or third

Tasmiṃ pahīne tasmiṃ byantīkate santi adhicittamanuyuttassa bhikkhuno sukhumasahagatā upakkilesā
When he is rid of them there remain in him the fine impurities:
ñātivitakko janapadavitakko anavaññattipaṭisaṃyutto vitakko,
thoughts of his caste, thoughts of his home district, thoughts related to not wanting to be despised.
tamenaṃ sacetaso bhikkhu dabbajātiko pajahati vinodeti byantīkaroti anabhāvaṃ gameti.
These he abandons, destroys, dispels, wipes out of existence.
Tasmiṃ pahīne tasmiṃ byantīkate athāparaṃ dhamma-vitakkā-vasissanti.
“When he is rid of them, there remain only thoughts of the Dhamma.
So hoti samādhi na ceva santo na ca paṇīto nappaṭippassaddhaladdho na ekodibhāvādhigato sasaṅkhāraniggayhavāritagato.
His concentration is neither peaceful nor refined, has not yet attained calm or unification, and is kept in place by the fabrication of forceful restraint.

The samadhi that is  'not ekodi' (singular focus),  not 'completely pacified', 'with forceful restraint', is referring to the coded fourth jhana we determined in the previous section. 

Now because it says 'not ekodi' and 'not yet fully pacified (pati-passadhi)', you'd think "ok, so it can't be first jhana, since first jhana is supposed to be ekaggata (synonym for ekodi) and pacified (otherwise piti sukha wouldn't arise)". 

But the passage preceding first jhana here is talking about vitakka thoughts related to the home life, and the passage preceding that talks about having already gotten rid of the 3 wrong resolves/sankappa (equivalent to having abandoned 5 hindrances already).

So at first, this passage seems like an ambiguous mess where we can not say for sure what's going on, we can't determine if this really is first jhana, or a samadhi close to first jhana but short of it.

But studying the standard first jhana and second jhana formula provides the answer.

(STED 1st Jhāna)

🚫💑 vivicc’eva kāmehi
🚫💑 Quite-withdrawn (from) sensuality,
🚫😠 vivicca a-kusalehi dhammehi
🚫😠 withdrawn (from) un-skillful Dhamma [teachings & qualities],
(V&V💭) sa-vitakkaṃ sa-vicāraṃ
(V&V💭) With-directed-thought, with-evaluation,
😁🙂 viveka-jaṃ pīti-sukhaṃ
😁🙂 withdrawal-born rapture-&-pleasure,
🌘 paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
🌘 first Jhāna (he) enters, dwells.

(STED 2nd Jhāna)

Vitakka-vicārānaṃ vūpasamā
(with) directed-thoughts-(and)-evaluation subsiding,
ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ
internal assurance,
🌄 cetaso ekodi-bhāvaṃ
🌄 mind transcended-into-singularity,
🚫(V&V💭) a-vitakkaṃ a-vicāraṃ
🚫(V&V💭) No-directed-Thought, no-evaluation,
🌄😁🙂 samādhi-jaṃ pīti-sukhaṃ
🌄😁🙂 undistractable-lucidity—born rapture-&-pleasure,
🌗 dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
🌗 second Jhāna (he) enters, dwells.

The specialized terms 'ekodi' and 'samadhi' don't appear until the second jhana. Second jhana's bliss is based on samadhi and ekodi.

Whereas first jhana's bliss is based on seclusion from sensuality and the 5 hindrances, and contains [Dhamma] thoughts and evaluation (of those same Dhamma thoughts). 

So this resolves the seeming contradiction with AN 3.101's coded description of first jhana that is a samadhi 'without ekodi singularity (synonym of ekaggata)'.  Note that ekaggata is only said to be in first jhana in a couple of passages in the suttas, both stated by Sariputta, and probably inserted by revisionists to support an Abhidhamma, whereas ekodi and samadhi are specifically not listed in standard first jhana and don't appear until second jhana. The standard jhana formula appears over a 100 times, compared to the 2 ekaggata passages. 

So it should be clear what the Buddha is saying, he means exactly what he says in the terse jhana formula. First jhana is a samadhi, but somewhat weak. The bliss from jhana can't even be said to be based on samadhi and ekodi until the second jhana. 

And what does AN 3.101 ambiguous first jhana passage say? It's a samadhi with Dhamma vitakka, but it's not ekodi. And that Dhamma vitakka has already been purified of 5 hindrances two stages ago (moderate impurities were 5 hindrances, fine impurites were thoughts of household life). Perfect match, therefore this is definitely first jhana samadhi.

Reiterating conclusion on why we know for sure this is first jhana

1. The corresponding gold simile is 'pure gold dust free of impurities', free of the gold impurities (5 hindrances and 3 wrong resolves/thoughts). 

2. Dhamma vitakka of this passage is the same vitakka and vicara that appears in standard first jhana formula. Other suttas, such as AN 8.30, MN 125, MN 78  unequivocally make the same case by giving similar examples of vaci-sankhara (thoughts you think before you say them out loud) and the explicit examples of what kinds of Dhamma vitakka one can think while in first jhana.

3. We know it's not second or 3rd jhana because of the 'not ekodi and samadhi', and we're squeezed on the other end where we know the next part has to be an imperturbable fourth jhana.

One other unusual feature about this sutta AN 3.101

Normally, whenever suttas use similes, it will follow a pattern:

1. It will describe the monks doing something

2. It will then give a simile saying, "it's like this...."

3. It will then repeat (1) again, describing the monks doing something

I can't even think of an example off hand where a sutta doesn't explain similes following that pattern, like this sutta where it describes the gold stages, then the monk action stages, without interleaving them and explicitly tying each monk action to the simile and then repeating the monk action so it's completely unambiguous which action is tied to which simile (so you wouldn't accidentally tie the simile to an adjacent action). 

What's the implication? It almost seems like there were Theravadins deliberately trying to make the sutta ambiguous and hard to interpret whether that first jhana section could be an access concentration, or something short of first jhana. De-coupling it from the simile makes it harder to establish definite correspondence with first jhana.

And that's exactly why B. Sujato cherry picks this sutta to try to 'prove' his theory on why the vitakka of first jhana can't mean ordinary discursive thinking. 


Although the sutta never explicitly uses the word 'jhana', 'first jhana', 'fourth jhana', comparison with similar suttas in the 6 higher knowledge and jhana context, and matching up the gold similes individually with each monk action establishes :

1.  we are definitely talking about first jhana with vitakka  vaci sankhara (thoughts you think before you vocalize them out loud), 

2. and the other coded samadhi sequence is an  imperturbable version of fourth jhana, which is equivalent to iddhi-pada.


5/1/2021 corrected a mistake - the ambiguous first jhana section does say it's a samadhi (but a samadhi that is not ekodi, a synonym of ekaggata that some passages do say is part of first jhana).

AN 3.101 misc., Q&A

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Frank, as advertised

Let's talk about me. Not. 

I don't like talking about myself or sharing details about my personal life. 

I don't like parties, even if they're populated with 100% high quality people discussing important issues.

I'm not interested in converting anyone or convincing them of anything. If it seems that I do, it's only because I express enthusiasm about issues important to me. The reason I'm not interested in converting anyone is because I know it has no long term impact; it's almost always a vain and futile waste of time. True conversion has to come from within, truth has to be seen for oneself. Others may point the way or open up a new perspective, that's all. 

I'd be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life as an anonymous hermit with no name, no friends, no history, no attachments. 

If I share some personal detail, it's only because it has some strategic value, some people may benefit. For example, learning from and not repeating stupid things I've done in my life. 

So if you invite me to a party, and try to engage me in conversation to get to know me, don't be surprised if I take your phone, pull up a browser and point to this page with this document you're reading right now, say, "read this", then walk away and enjoy silence and solitude. 

Now you know why I'm writing an essay about myself when I paradoxically claim I don't like to talk about myself. It's strategic and time saving. You get to know my character so I don't have to waste valuable time and energy speaking to explain why I prefer being a silent hermit. That's efficiency. Do it once, and then not have to ever do it again, ideally. 

My idea of ideal fun social activity: Meditating with other yogis on long retreats in silence, spending maybe one day every month or every two weeks to discuss Dharma, the rest of the time silent cooperation in doing necessary group chores and noble silence. 

Frank, as advertised

What a fortuitous and convenient name. Hello, I am Frank. Truly. That's about all you need to know. If you're expecting the usual white lies used in casual conversation as a social lubricant, to make each other feel good, you've come to the wrong place. Don't ask me what I really think about something unless you really want to know. 

If I'm being serious, and I'm in serious mode most of the time, I say what I mean and I mean what I say. 

I don't throw praise around lightly, so if I say something is really good, consider it. 

If I strongly criticize something, you better believe I did some deep digging and research. I stand behind my words and can back it up with a ton of evidence.

My tombstone would not say, "Here lies Frank", because I'm Frank and I don't lie. It will just say, "Frank. Yes he was." But if I have a say in a matter, I recommend burial after death by natural composting, like this: Least environmental impact, great  way to replenish the earth with nutrients. Plant a mango tree on top of my composting carcass. You're going to get some delicious fruit. But the best way to go out, is to do it completely on your own terms, leaving nothing behind, no need to trouble anyone to clean up anything,  like Ven. Dabba in KN Ud 8.9 . 

(to be continued)


who can you trust?

All courteous inquiries and questions will be answered

All courteous inquiries and questions will be answered, time permitting.  

If I don't respond to a comment or question of yours, it's for one of the following reasons:

* That forum software has a poor or nonexistent notification system so I'm not even aware someone added a new comment or response to a message thread

* TL;DNR (too long; did not read): A discussion thread too long, too dense, no time to read through.

* The question requires too long of an answer and I don't have time to respond. If I know for sure I don't have time or interest in responding, I'll respond promptly to let you know that. If you never hear from me, it's because either I intended to respond and postponed and then forgot about it, or I never saw your comment.

* The question comes from someone with a long track record of being discourteous, dishonorable, disingenuous in discussions. If I ignore someone intentionally, you can be sure that I've already given them at least three chances, and no more time will be wasted on my end. That said, if someone is sincere in asking forgiveness and understanding their transgressions and ceasing wrong behavior, then that's the ideal scenario and I'm happy to start friendship anew.

* If you think a time wasting troll asked a legitimate Dharma question and feel that I should respond, contact me on the link below or ask the question again in the discussion thread under your name so I see the question.

* When it comes to protecting the true Dharma, I'll never turn down a legitimate question. If I don't know, I'll say right away I don't know. If I need time to research, I'll say I need time. If I've already answered the question previously, I'll provide a link.   

The best way to contact me is here

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This means you have a go out of your way to click a button to even see their message (which is normally hidden from view).
I'm responding to this message because someone anonymously notified me that this post contained a useful question worth addressing.
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* Everybody has a bad day once in a while, where they may unintentionally come across as rude, incompetent, negligent, belligerent, etc. So allowances are given. Generosity and forgiveness are virtues. But the larger the sample size, the more probable this pattern is the norm, not the exception. 

* I'm happy to clarify and enjoy having points challenged, but if a user has repeatedly done so in a rude, obnoxious way, then it's time to cut my losses and accept this is a general pattern.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

suicide in SN 4.23 in connection to MN 125 agama parallel MA 198 調御地經, and related suttas on khanti, khamo

 Got an interesting blog comment question from many months ago that I didn't notice until just now. 

This comes from blog post:


  1. Hello Frank.
    How to reconciliate this sutta with SN 4.23?

    "Now at that time Venerable Godhika was staying on the slopes of Isigili at the Black Rock. Then Venerable Godhika, meditating diligent, keen, and resolute, experienced temporary freedom of heart. But then he fell away from that temporary freedom of heart. For a second … third … fourth … fifth … sixth time Godhika experienced temporary freedom of heart. But for a sixth time he fell away from it. For a seventh time Godhika, meditating diligent, keen, and resolute, experienced temporary freedom of heart.

    Then he thought, “I’ve fallen away from this temporary freedom of heart no less than six times. Why don’t I slit my wrists?”

    1. The suicide in SN 22.87 for example, was due to the monk having debilitating pain in some kind of terminal health condition. In SN 4.23 The sutta doesn't explain in detail the reasons and motivation, so we can only guess. My guess is Godhika had a bad enough physical health condition (that would be the only reason for an arahant who can do ceto vimutti to not be able to do it) that perhaps there was also severe enough chronic pain to warrant suicide. That's just a guess. But even if there was no chronic pain, the point of that sutta is for an arahant it's blameless whether they choose to endure (khanti, khamo) the pain or not. So either way, not a contradiction with MN 125 and those related suttas on khanti.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Contradiction regarding directed thought and evaluation in relation to knowledge? (thinking in jhana vs. no jhana)


Re: Contradiction regarding directed thought and evaluation in relation to knowledge?

Post by frank k » 

Yes, it seems contradictory. But it's the difference between using vitakka and vicara in first jhana, and someone with no jhana using V&V.
What he describes in your quote, is someone who's in samadhi of second jhana or higher, and then using vitakka / thought from that state of samadhi, whatever higher jhana or attainment they were in, and then they downshift into first jhana, if you want to think of it that way, or you can also legitmately say theyr'e in an imperturbable purified version of fourth jhana (where they can levitate, exercise psychic power, have conversations with gods that require vitakka)

Think of V&V as a sword. Someone with first jhana, second, ... .fourth jhana, has a sword of samadhi +1, +2, +3, +4. And someone coming out of samadhi to use that V&V can do some serious damage with their wisdom.

An ordinary person is using a rusty unsharpened dull sword, and they lack skill in using it. That's what their vitakka is doing. So in both cases, it's still vitakka thinking, but the vitakka from one with deep samadhi has potency.

Nothing inherently wrong with discursive thinking. It's an impediment with those with no jhana who are in the process of trying to develop jhana, and that's why you hear so many teachers criticize it. But once one is skilled in jhana, one can think or not think whenever they want according to necessity.
Notice wrote: Tue Apr 20, 2021 8:53 amHello!

I was reading ajan lee’s commentary ( ... ledge.html) on the value of directed thought and evaluation in relation to right concentration and it being conducive to insight arising. I have a question regarding a statement he makes that appears to contradict the case he is making in his talk regarding the arising of knowledge.

He begins to separate worldy knowledge from dhamma knowledge. In regards to dhamma knowledge he speaks about different levels and the level after cintamaya-panna is called directed thought and evaluation and has to be given another name: bhavanamaya-panna, the discernment that comes with meditation. He then goes on to say: ‘When the mind gives rise to directed thought and evaluation, you have both concentration and discernment. Directed thought and singleness of preoccupation (ekaggatarammana) fall under the heading of concentration; evaluation, under the heading of discernment. When you have both concentration and discernment, the mind is still and knowledge can arise.’

However a bit further along he makes the following statement: ‘The knowledge here isn't ordinary knowledge. It washes away your old knowledge. You don't want the knowledge that comes from ordinary thinking and reasoning: Let go of it. You don't want the knowledge that comes from directed thought and evaluation: Stop. Make the mind quiet. Still. When the mind is still and unhindered, this is the essence of all that's meritorious and skillful. When your mind is on this level, it isn't attached to any concepts at all. All the concepts you've known — dealing with the world or the Dhamma, however many or few — are washed away. Only when they're washed away can new knowledge arise.’

I have highlighted the sentence in particular that prompted my question. The majority of the commentary here seems to be making the case precisely for the value of directed thought and evaluation in gaining dhamma knowledge as opposed to worldy knowledge so how is one to reconcile or interpret these 2 seemingly contradictory statements?


DN 2: I perform a miracle, B. Sujato claims Buddha had an impoverished language and was forced to redefine 'body' as 'mind'


DN 2 example of how a simile can show that jhana meditation bliss is happening in the mind only, not in the physical body

B. Sujato claims the Buddha had to redefine what "body" and "thinking" means in the four jhānas, because he just didn't have the language to indicate those words changed into a more subtle meaning. And second, he also wasn't able to use simile to accurately convey that the 'body' in jhana was not a physical body, but a mind.

"The body as metaphor", B. Sujato essay from 2012 attempting to justify hiding the dead body in the third jhana formula

The body as metaphor


And in just the same way, the body is not a physical body, but a metaphor for the wholeness and directness of experience. As if this were not obvious enough from the context, notice that the things to be realized with the body are the eight liberations, which include the four formless attainments. These are by definition beyond any kind of physical reality. Elsewhere, the Buddha says that even Nibbana is to be realized with the body.

The body is not the body, the eye is not the eye, and thought is not thought. These are all words, inadequate, struggling, messy words, creeping up from the evolutionary slime, groping and grasping towards the light. As long as we keep them weighed down by the mundane, we can never speak of higher things. And since these higher things are things of the mind, if we cannot speak of them, we cannot imagine them. And if we cannot imagine them, we cannot realize them. And that is rather a sad state of affairs.

The take away

So basically B. Sujato is claiming the Buddha had no choice but  to redefine 'body' as 'mind', and could only use inadequate and misleading similes in DN 2 that seem to unequivocally say that the sukha pleasure of third jhana is felt with the physical body.

Let's test out his theory. 

DN 2: B. Sujato's translation of third jhana, and its simile as of 4/21/2021 Third Absorption4.3.2.7. Tatiyajhāna

Furthermore, with the fading away of rapture, a mendicant enters and remains in the third absorption, where they meditate with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one meditates in bliss.’Puna caparaṁ, mahārāja, bhikkhu pītiyā ca virāgā upekkhako ca viharati sato sampajāno, sukhañca kāyena paṭisaṁvedeti, yaṁ taṁ ariyā ācikkhanti: ‘upekkhako satimā sukhavihārī’ti, tatiyaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja viharati.They drench, steep, fill, and spread their body with bliss free of rapture. There’s no part of the body that’s not spread with bliss free of rapture.So imameva kāyaṁ nippītikena sukhena abhisandeti parisandeti paripūreti parippharati, nāssa kiñci sabbāvato kāyassa nippītikena sukhena apphuṭaṁ hoti.

It’s like a pool with blue water lilies, or pink or white lotuses. Some of them sprout and grow in the water without rising above it, thriving underwater. From the tip to the root they’re drenched, steeped, filled, and soaked with cool water. There’s no part of them that’s not soaked with cool water.Seyyathāpi, mahārāja, uppaliniyaṁ vā paduminiyaṁ vā puṇḍarīkiniyaṁ vā appekaccāni uppalāni vā padumāni vā puṇḍarīkāni vā udake jātāni udake saṁvaḍḍhāni udakānuggatāni antonimuggaposīni, tāni yāva caggā yāva ca mūlā sītena vārinā abhisannāni parisannāni paripūrāni paripphuṭāni, nāssa kiñci sabbāvataṁ uppalānaṁ vā padumānaṁ vā puṇḍarīkānaṁ vā sītena vārinā apphuṭaṁ assa; Variant: paripphuṭāni → paripphaṭāni (sya-all); paripphuṭṭhāni (pts1ed) | nāssa → nassā (bj) | parisannāni → abhisannāni (sya1ed, sya2ed); abhisandāni parisandāni (mr)

I'm going to modify the 3rd jhana simile, and show that it IS possible to use a simile to convey that sukha pleasure is felt only in the mind, not the physical body.

It’s like a pool with blue water lilies, or pink or white lotuses. Some of them sprout and grow in the water without rising above it, thriving underwater. From the tip to the root they’re drenched, steeped, filled, and soaked with cool water. There’s no part of them that’s not soaked with cool water.

A man steps into this pool of cool water, and completely submerges his body (kāya), so that his physical (rūpa)  anatomical body made of 4 elements and 31 body parts, born of mother and father, was completely drenched and steeped enclosed by the cool water. 

In the same way, a monk drenches, steeps, fills, and pervades their MIND (citta instead of kāya)  with pleasure free of rapture. There’s no part of the MIND that’s not pervaded with pleasure free of rapture.


Did I just perform a miracle?

According to B. Sujato, jhana is so exalted and subtle that mere human language and simile can not convey that jhāna is mind only, not bodily experience. He says the Buddha had no choice but to confoundingly and confusingly redefine 'body' to be 'mind' to get the message across about the subtlety of jhana, even at the great risk  and likelihood that all the schools of Early Buddhism would interpret "body" literally and assume the physical body experiences pleasure in third jhana.

So which scenario seems more plausible to you?

1. I'm a miracle worker more skilled than the Buddha, since I was able to come up with a simile and use  language in the ordinary way  to show that the pleasure in 3rd jhana is experienced in the mind, not the body.

2. B. Sujato is mistaken about the Buddha redefining "body" as "mind" for the jhanas.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Pīti and sukha for first jhāna simile from Vism.: man in desert sees water, gets pīti. drinks water, gets sukha.


♦ 73. itaraṃ pana sukhanaṃ sukhaṃ, 

suṭṭhu vā khādati, 

khanati ca kāyacittābādhanti sukhaṃ, 

taṃ sātalakkhaṇaṃ, 

sampayuttānaṃ upabrūhanarasaṃ, anuggahapaccupaṭṭhānaṃ. 

satipi ca nesaṃ katthaci avippayoge iṭṭhārammaṇapaṭilābhatuṭṭhi pīti. paṭiladdharasānubhavanaṃ sukhaṃ. yattha pīti, tattha sukhaṃ. yattha sukhaṃ, tattha na niyamato pīti. saṅkhārakkhandhasaṅgahitā pīti. vedanākkhandhasaṅgahitaṃ sukhaṃ. kantārakhinnassa vanantudakadassanasavanesu viya pīti. vanacchāyāpavesanaudakaparibhogesu viya sukhaṃ. tasmiṃ tasmiṃ samaye pākaṭabhāvato cetaṃ vuttanti veditabbaṃ. iti ayañca pīti idañca sukhaṃ assa jhānassa, asmiṃ vā jhāne atthīti idaṃ jhānaṃ pītisukhanti vuccati.

100. But as to the other word: pleasing (sukhana) is bliss (sukha). 

Or alternatively: it thoroughly (SUṭṭhu) devours (KHĀdati), 

consumes (KHAṇati),30 bodily and mental affliction, thus it is bliss (sukha). 

It has gratifying as its characteristic. 

Its function is to intensify associated states. It is manifested as aid.

And wherever the two are associated, happiness is the contentedness at getting a desirable object, and bliss is the actual experiencing of it when got. Where there is happiness there is bliss (pleasure); but where there is bliss there is not necessarily happiness. Happiness (piti) is included in the formations aggregate; bliss (sukha) is included in the feeling aggregate. If a man, exhausted31 in a desert, saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have happiness (pīti); if he went into the wood’s shade and used the water, he would have bliss (sukha). And it should be understood that this is said because they are obvious on such occasions.

The parable of Bhikkhu Sujato, the 9 mendicants and 9 attainments


The parable of Bhikkhu Sujato, the 9 mendicants and 9 attainments


Bhikkhu = male mendicant, a monk

Bhikkhuni = female mendicant, a nun

Mendicant (can be male or female)

The term mendicant (from Latin: mendicans - "begging") refers to religious ascetics of various backgrounds who rely primarily (or exclusively) on begging and charity to survive...

In Theravada Buddhism, mendicants are known by the terms Bhikkhu (male) and Bhikkhuni (female)...

The translator Bhikkhu Sujato translates the pali term Bhikkhu (a male mendicant) as 'mendicant' (a beggar that can be male or female). Presumably, he does this to emphasize that the suttas, even though 99.9% of the time the Buddha is talking to male monks, are teaching universal Dharmas that apply equally to female nuns. While this translation is defensible from certain points of view, this does establish a precedent where B. Sujato tends to translate in a biased way to advance his various agendas, rather than keeping strictly to the role of translator, and leaving commentary and interpretation to commentaries. 

The parable

At Savatthi. The famous lay supporter of the Buddha, Anathapindika, invited a large group of monks and nuns to a meal on saturday. 

Among the invited, were 9 mendicants who recently realized perfection, who had attained the state of Arahant. 

The Buddha declared that of those 9 mendicants, 4 were nuns, 5 were monks, 4 of the mendicants with the same gender were liberated by wisdom only (their samadhi maxed out at 4th jhana), while the other 5 mendicants, also of the same gender, were liberated in mind and liberated in wisdom (they could competently do all 9 meditative attainments, not just the four jhanas). 

Also in attendance, were the mendicant Sujato and several of his disciples. 

His disciple Newt, asked Sujato, "Teacher, I would like permission to go ask one of the monks about the formless attainments from their personal experience in those attainments." 

Sujato replied, "Why do you assume only the monks could talk to you about the 9 attainments, and not the nuns? Are you a misogynist?" 

Newt replied, "No teacher. I'm just using math and logical deduction. Since the Buddha had declared that 4 of those 9 arahants were nuns, and the 4 mendicants who could only do four jhanas were nuns, then they must be the same group, and that the other group, the 5 monks, were the ones who could do the formless attainments." 

Sujato replied, "That's where your logic is wrong. It's just as likely it's 4 monks could only do four jhanas, and the remaining 5 mendicants, four nuns and one monk, could do all 9 attainments."

Newt protested, "But teacher, the Buddha also said that the 5 mendicants who could do formless attainments were also of the same gender, so it can't be four nuns and one monk, since they're of different gender."

Sujato had a look of angst on his face for a moment, then he switched back into his usual confident demeanor with this reprimand:

"Newt, you confused newbie, you have not been ordained long. You do not understand that the Buddha works in mysterious ways, and that you have to have deep faith in the Buddha and your senior teachers when they tell you the correct interpretation of their words. Otherwise you'll never get the real jhana. Real jhana is so profound, mysterious and ineffable, you can not take words at their face value, even though it looks like the Buddha is trying to be precise and use words according to well defined conventional meaning, and even though he seems to be using a context where one is suppose to use logic and common sense. He's just using the appearance of logic and common sense to test your faith! You must trust your experienced senior teachers! How could common sense and coarse common thinking ever touch the ineffable real jhana, where the body is not the body, the mind is not the mind, thought is not thought? It's impossible to describe with human language.

Newt, with a remorseful tone, said, "I'm sorry teacher. Please forgive me for my transgression. I promise not to question you again. By the way, teacher Sujato, do you prefer if we address you as 'Sir' or 'Madam'? It's not clear when you use the word mendicant whether you mean monk or nun, or when you use the pronoun 'his', whether you mean male or female."

Explanation of parable

DN 2 Here is B. Sujato's translation of third jhana, where he disposes the body of 'kāya' and hides it, with no regard for his own translation guidelines and ethics which state that he should use principle of least meaning and not impose biased and narrow interpretations when the simple literal translation suffices.


Furthermore, with the fading away of rapture, a mendicant enters and remains in the third absorption, where they meditate with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one meditates in bliss.’

Puna caparaṁ, mahārāja, bhikkhu pītiyā ca virāgā upekkhako ca viharati sato sampajāno, sukhañca kāyena paṭisaṁvedeti, yaṁ taṁ ariyā ācikkhanti: ‘upekkhako satimā sukhavihārī’ti, tatiyaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja viharati.

For comparison, here is B. Bodhi's translation of the third jhana. To my knowledge, no other English translator does what Sujato does. Everyone translates as 'kaya' as 'body', consistently with how 'kaya' is carefully used and given a context in DN 2.  Even Visuddhimagga, which shares a similar view of jhana as B. Sujato, does not dare to translate 'kāya' as something other than 'body', relying on other commentarial literature to interpret 'body'. 

With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhāna 

The word 'kāya' (physical body) appears 52 times in DN 2.

What's notable about this sutta is the composers of this sutta were really going out of their way to give kāya and rupa an unambiguous, incontrovertible, unequivocal context that establishes without doubt that kāya and rupa in the meditation context of the four jhānas is referring to the anatomical body made up of 4 elements, created by mother and father and eating porridge.

The one place in DN 2 where kāya is not the anatomical body and is acceptable to be translated not 'body',  fittingly enough, is where the Buddha is describing a type of wrong view heretics have. For example, those heretics say killing the body of people (kāya) by slicing them with swords is merely separating various substances (kāya). 

In many articles I've written previously, I do deep dives and pali + english audits where I show in detail why and how this wrong translation of 'kāya' that B. Sujato does in third jhana drastically affects how meditation practice is understood.

So with that context in mind, here is a parable where I use the same translation method B. Sujato does in his translation of kāya in third jhana, and show the kind of ambiguity that results.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Why vitakka unequivocally means 'thinking' in jhana, and why B. Sujato pretends otherwise

(This article is a work in progress. I'll add to it slowly over time)

If you search for "vitakka and vicara in first jhana" on google, B. Sujato's blog article which I quote in full below, comes up top in the search results. I'm posting a full copy of his article, and inserting my comments within, as if we're having a conversation on the topic. My comments will be in italics, and prefaced with 'frankk'.

Why vitakka doesn't mean 'thinking' in jhana | Sujato's Blog

Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana

I shall give you a simile; for it is by means of a simile that some wise people here understand the meaning of what is said.


frankk also heard a similar quote from anonymous:

"I shall give you a simile, for it is through simile, equivocation, and planting red herrings we can ignore the hard evidence that render my arguments as completely incoherent and without merit." 


The Buddha also said in AN 1

“Ye te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū adhammaṃ dhammoti dīpenti te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū bahujanaahitāya paṭipannā bahujanaasukhāya, bahuno janassa anatthāya ahitāya dukkhāya devamanussānaṃ.
“monks, those monks who explain corrupted  Dharma as the true Dharma are acting for the hurt and unhappiness of the people, for the harm, hurt, and suffering of gods and humans.
Bahuñca te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū apuññaṃ pasavanti, te cimaṃ saddhammaṃ antaradhāpentī”ti.
They make much bad karma and make the true Dharma disappear.”
“Ye te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū adhammaṃ adhammoti dīpenti te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū bahujanahitāya paṭipannā bahujanasukhāya, bahuno janassa atthāya hitāya sukhāya devamanussānaṃ.
“monks, those monks who expose corrupted Dharma teachings for what they are,   are acting for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.
Bahuñca te, bhikkhave, bhikkhū puññaṃ pasavanti, te cimaṃ saddhammaṃ ṭhapentī”ti.
They make much merit and make the true Dharma continue.”

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.

Actually, right now I’m interested in a somewhat subtle linguistic approach to this question. But I’ve found that if you use a complex analysis of a problem, some people, understandably enough, don’t have time or interest to follow it through; and often we tend to assume that if a complex argument is just a sign of sophistry and lack of real evidence. So first up I’ll present the more straightforward reasons why vitakka/vicara don’t mean thinking in jhana, based on the texts and on experience. Then I’ll get into the more subtle question of why this mistake gets made.


Often when we assume sophistry is the case, we tend to be correct! And when we carefully study the situation and find that there's no compelling evidence to support the argument that sounds like sophistry, and that the sophist did not make any attempt to show why the straightforward interpretations they're going against causes incoherence, and that it is in fact the sophist's interpretation that breaks the coherence of the suttas,  that the sophist redefines fundamental important words into completely opposite meaning, that they resort to metaphor when an exhaustive examination of every single occurrence of vitakka in the suttas is referring to literal, plain simple  thoughts of a verbal nature connected with vaci-sankhara, then we know for sure sophistry is the case.

For most of this article I’ll just mention vitakka, and you can assume that the analysis for vicara follows similar lines.

Meaning & etymology

Already in the Pali Text Society dictionary we find the combination vitakka & vicara rendered as ‘initial & sustained application’. This was taken up by Ven Nyanamoli in his translations, but was later removed by Bhikkhu Bodhi as he strove to complete Nyanamoli’s project of effectively finding one English word to translate each significant Pali word.

Etymologically, vitakka harks back to a Sanskritic term (vi-)tarka. This appears in both Pali and Sanskrit literature in the sense of ‘thought’; but more pregnantly also as ‘reflection, reasoning’; in some cases more pejoritively as ‘doubt, speculation’. The Pali Dictionary suggests it is from an Indo-European root, originally meaning ‘twisting, turning’, and related to the English ‘trick’. However, I can’t find any support for this is Indo-European dictionaries; nor can I find it in the Vedas.

In the Suttas

The primary source work is the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19). This is where the Buddha talks in most detail about vitakka specifically, and describes how he discovered and developed it as part of the ‘right thought’ (sammasankappa) of the eightfold path. Note that the terms sankappa and vitakka are often, as here, synonyms.

The Buddha describes how he noticed that thinking unwholesome thoughts leads to suffering, while thinking wholesome thoughts leads to happiness. And he further realized that he could think wholesome thoughts nonstop all day and night, which would not lead to anything bad; but by so doing he could not make his mind still in samadhi. So by abandoning even wholesome thoughts he was able to enter on the four jhanas.

A similar situation is described in AN 3.101. There, the Buddha speaks of a meditator who abandons successively more refined forms of thought, until all that is left are ‘thoughts on the Dhamma’ (dhammavitakka). 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.

In experience

Let’s not even worry about experience of the jhanas; then we’d just end up trying to define what a jhana is. Let me give you a test. Sit quietly, now, for five minutes. Watch your mind, and notice what happens when you think and when you don’t think.

Okay, done now? What happened? Well, let me guess: most of the time you were thinking of this or that, but occasionally there were spaces of silence. And those spaces of silence were more peaceful. Even this much, even just a few minutes of sitting quietly, and you can experience the peace of a quiet mind. And yet in jhana you’re still thinking? Impossible!

Not to mention jhana, anyone who has been on a meditation retreat will have experienced those blessed moments, sometimes several minutes or longer, when the mind is clear, still, and silent. Not all the hindrances are gone, and not all the jhana factors may be present, yet there is a degree of stillness.

How language evolves

If vitakka does not mean thinking, then why did the Buddha use such a misleading word? The answer is simple: it was the best he had. Why this is so, and how such situations can arise, is a fascinating question that takes us into areas of linguistic philosophy, specifically, how we develop words for speaking of refined topics.

My understanding in this area was sparked by Julian Jaynes, who devoted quite some time to this topic in his magnum opus, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t have the book with me, so this comes from my (usually unreliable) recollections.

The basis of his ideas can be expressed in some simple axioms. The first:

Axiom 1: All abstract words are derived from more concrete words by way of metaphor.

By metaphor here I don’t mean, of course, the conscious use of metaphor as a poetic device. I mean the embedded use of metaphor that pervades all language; like, say, the use of ’embedded’ in this very sentence.

The idea is that, whether considering the origins of language in history, or the learning of language by an infant, we must begin with what is concrete. We point to the earth and say, ‘ugh’, then point to the water and say, ‘erg’. I can’t point to ‘solidity’ or ‘liquidity’. We must gradually learn these abstract concepts based on the more concrete ones.

There is a universal pattern we can discern in this process:

Axiom 2: Metaphors move from what is better known to what is less known.

We start with knowledge that is shared. But when one person learns something that others have not, they must draw the others on from what is known towards what is unknown. Jaynes called these things the ‘metaphier’—the relatively concrete, well-known thing on which the metaphor is based—and the ‘metaphrand’—the relatively abstract, less-known thing that the metaphor is intended to illustrate.

Which leads us to our third axiom:

Axiom 3: A metaphrand brings something over from the metaphier, and leaves something behind.

If the basis on which the metaphor is made (the metaphier) has nothing in common with the object of the metaphor (the metaphrand), then there would be no illumination. On the other hand, if they had nothing different, they would be the same thing.

But what is it that is common, and what is lost? Since we are speaking of the movement of language from the coarse to the subtle, we can say that:

Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

This is all very abstract, so how about some ‘concrete’ examples. Let’s look closer at ‘earth’.

In English, we have two different words for ‘earth’ (as in the ground, not the planet) and for ‘solidity’. This is such a natural part of our language that we don’t think that it’s anything special.

In Pali, by contrast, the same word, pathavi, is used for both ‘earth’ and ‘solidity’. (There are other words for these, too, but I will keep it as simple as I can). In, say, a Vinaya text that discusses digging, it is clear that pathavi just means ‘earth’ in the ordinary concrete sense of the dirty stuff in the ground. On the other hand, in a philosophical or meditative text that discusses the contemplation of the ‘earth element’ (pathavidhatu), it is clear that a more abstract notion is meant. Parts of the body such as the skin, bones, and hair, are said to be the ‘earth-element’, so clearly this doesn’t mean ‘dirt’. In fact, pathavi is given an explictly abstract definition in the Suttas as ‘hardness, solidity’.

Both languages have a concrete idea of ‘earth’ and an abstract idea of ‘solidity’. And from the Pali it seems obvious that one rose from the other. However, from the English perspective we can’t see that in this case; the metaphorical roots of ‘solidity’ are lost in the mists of time. We no longer feel it as a metaphor. It is just a word that means what it says. In times long past, however, it must have arisen from its own metaphorical roots, which may or may not be the same ‘earth’; in fact, the etymologists say that ‘solid’ is from an ancient Indo-European root *solo-, originally meaning ‘whole’. Since ‘whole’ is itself an abstract concept it must have come from a still deeper metaphor. Interestingly enough, ‘earth’ is also an Indo-European term, meaning ‘ground’; but neither of these is related to pathavi.

So, while the general process is universal, the historical details are arbitrary. Why a language abstracts a certain word and keeps another close to its roots depends on all kinds of random factors. It is not simply that English is a more evolved language than Pali.

Take, for example, the Sanskrit term trsna. This means ‘thirst’, and the English word is indeed derived from the same Indo-European root (which originally meant ‘dry’) and keeps the same meaning. On the other hand, in Pali trsna is split in two: tasina stayed close to its metaphier, and means primarily ‘thirst’, while tanha has almost totally lost its metaphorical connections and just means ‘craving’.

Notice, also, that these words can themselve be used as the basis for further metaphors. We can speak of a ‘solid’ character, or an ‘earthy’ character; but these are not the same kind of thing. Similarly, we can have a ‘thirst’ for knowledge, or tasina can be used to mean craving, just like tanha.

But in all these cases we still feel the metaphor. The words stay close enough to their concrete roots that we know their meaning is being stretched to new forms.

This topic of how language evolves is a fascinating and profound one, and we could take it in all manner of directions. But for now let’s return to our main topic, the Buddha’s description of jhana.

How did the Buddha speak about jhana?

Following the principles sketched out above, what can we say about how the Buddha spoke of jhana?

One thing that seems clear from the historical record is that the Buddha was the first teacher to describe in straightforward, empirical terms the experiences of higher consciousness. Earlier teachings, such as the Upanishads, seemed so overwhelmed by states of transformed consciousness that they had no choice but recourse to a mystical evocation of a divine encounter.

The Buddha, in what must have been a striking innovation, used only simple, empirical terms to describe jhana and other states of higher consciousness. In common with his typical empiricist approach, this means that he used words that remained as close as possible to their ordinary meanings. He wanted people to understand these states, to refer to their ordinary consciousness, and to see how that can be developed and transformed to become something wonderful.

So there is this twofold tendency. On the one hand, the Buddha emphasized countless times how powerful and radically transformative the jhanas were. They are the ‘higher mind’, the ‘expanded mind’, the ‘unexcelled mind’, the ‘radiant mind’, the ‘liberated mind’, the ‘light’, the ‘bliss of Awakening’, the ‘end of the world’; they are ‘beyond human principles’, and are ‘distinctions of knowledge and vision worthy of the Noble Ones’.

At the same time he emphasized how attainable they were. If one is dedicated to following the full course of training that he outlined in places such as the Samannaphala Sutta, one could realize a gradual evolution of blissful consciousness eventually culminating in the full release of jhana.

Any understanding of jhana must take full account of both these aspects, neither reducing jhana to an mundane state of easily-attained relaxation, nor making them so exalted and abstract that they seem unreachable.

I should notice, incidentally, that the common expression found in Abhidhamma literature of ‘mundane jhana’ is very misleading. This has nothing to do with the experience of jhana itself. It simply means that jhana, when practiced outside the eightfold path, leads to rebirth.

What do the words in the jhana formula mean?

If we look closely at the terms in the jhana formula, then, we find that they are words that have a more coarse physical or psychological meaning in everyday language. They are common words that everyone can understand, and can relate to their own experience. And in every single case, they clearly have a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning in the context of jhana. We have moved from the ordinary mind to the ‘higher mind’, and everything about the experience is transformed.

So, for example, the first word in the formula is viveka. This normally means physical seclusion; going away from others into the forest or a solitary spot. In jhana, however, it refers to a mental seclusion, where the mind turns away from the senses and withdraws into itself. The Pali texts make this distinction clear, as elsewhere they speak of three kinds of seclusion: physical, mental (i.e. the jhanas), and seclusion from all attachments (Awakening).

The next word in the formula is kama. In ordinary language this means the pleasures of life, especially sex, but also food, drink, luxuries, and other pleasures of the senses. In jhana, however, it has a more subtle nuance, referring to the mind that inclines to taking pleasure in any experience through the five senses.

Then there is the word akusala. Normally this means ‘unskilful’, as, for example, someone who is no good at a certain craft. One who is kusala, on the other hand, is clever and adroit. In the jhana formula, however, kusala includes any tendency of the mind that creates suffering.

Similarly there is the word dhamma, which is what akusala qualifies. Dhamma in ordinary language has a variety of meanings, such as ‘law’, ‘custom’, and so on. In jhana, however, it takes on a far more subtle meaning, that is, any object, quality, or tendency of the mind. The akusala-dhammas, or ‘unskilful qualities’, especially refer to the five hindrances which must be abandoned before entering jhana.

And so on. I could go on through the entire jhana formula and show how each word is related to, but abstracted from, its more concrete everyday basis, its ‘metaphier’. But I think that’s enough examples.

So what do vitakka & vicara mean?

Finally we are ready to return to our original question. Now we can look again at the claim that vitakka must mean thinking in jhana, because that’s what it means in everyday discourse. And I trust that this claim now appears a lot less plausible than it might have earlier.

If this is true, then vitakka (& vicara) are the sole exceptions. Every other term in the jhana formula takes everyday words and transforms them, in what the Buddha emphasizes at every turn is a special, exalted, and refined context. Only vitakka is exempt from this, and means exactly the same thing in higher consciousness as it does in lower consciousness.

This argument is not merely implausible, it is totally impossible. Words just don’t do that. And they specially don’t do that in a context like jhana, where the very point of the state of mind is that it is integrated and whole. How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?

Let us consider again our Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

Sit again for a couple of minutes. This time, don’t be quiet: have a think. Look at what thinking is like. Raise a question: what is the nature of thought? Then stop: be silent: look at the space that reverberates after the words have ended.

When you think, the most obvious aspect, the coarsest aspect, is the verbalizations. But they don’t happen alone. There is a kind of lifting of the mind onto an object. This is normally quite subtle, and we don’t notice it because we are interested in the words. It becomes more obvious sometimes when you try to think about something, but your mind is not really interested. It’s as if you keep moving the mind towards that topic, but nothing much happens. You can also feel it when the words stop. The ‘thought’ in some sense is there, apart from the verbalizations. It’s a subverbal thought, a placing or hovering of the mind in a certain way.

This is what vitakka refers to in jhana. This is the subtle aspect of ‘thought’ that is carried over into jhana, when the coarse aspect, the verbalization, is left behind.

And as with vitakka, so with vicara. Vicara is the ‘exploring’ of something, and in ordinary language refers to wandering about a place on foot. Psychologically, it normally means a more sustained reflection or examination of a thought, a keeping in mind of the topic that vitakka has brought to mind. In jhana, it follows the same process. The coarse verbal reflection is long gone, and in its place is the gentle holding or pressing of the mind with its object.

Early definitions

Unfortunately, there are no further definitions of these terms in the very early strata of texts. However, in the next strata, the late sutta/early Abhidhamma phase, we do have definitions. Our first example comes from a sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya; on text-critical grounds, however, it seems this should be viewed as a proto-Abhidhamma work. Sankappa is defined in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (MN 117) as takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro. Vitakka is included in this definition; and notice the last term, cetaso abhiniropanā, which means ‘application of the heart’.

The earliest Abhidhamma text, the Vibhanga, 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)’.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that these definitions include both ordinary and abstract terms. This is merely a feature of the Abhidhamma definitions in general. They are concerned to show the range of meanings that terms have in different contexts, so that one can understand what terms have the same or different meanings in various sutta passages. It is a means of referring to and defining terminology, and it is not meant to imply that they have the same meaning in all these cases. On the contrary;, the overall tendency of these definitions is exactly as we have been describing: they move from the relatively coarse to the relatively subtle.

Those who are proponents of the ‘vitakka always means thinking and nothing else’ school of interpretation 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. But that does not mean that the definitions are wrong. They come from a time shortly after the Buddha, likely within a couple of hundred years, when the monks were still immersed in the early Suttas and, crucially, spoke Pali (or something very like it) as a native tongue. They had access to a far more diverse and richer linguistic context than we do, and their opinions must be taken seriously. While on a doctrinal level it is true we can see certain (minor) shifts from the Suttas to the early Abhidhamma, linguistically they belong to the same period, and we would need strong and clear grounds before rejecting their linguistic explanations.

The waywardness of language

Consider once more the process of the gradual abstraction of words from a more concrete metaphorical basis (metaphier) towards a more abstract metaphorical object (metaphrand); from the relatively coarse thing that provides the illumination to the relatively subtle thing that is illuminated. As we saw above, this process is largely arbitrary. Accidents of history, anthropology, and usage will influence which words get used in which sense, and this process will occur in different ways in different languages; and even within the same language.

One of the consequences of this arbitrariness is that there is a certain unpredictability, even obfuscation, in how abstract words are formed. The speaker intended certain aspects of the underlying metaphier to be carried across to the metaphrand, while the listener understood something else. This happens all the time, and is the main reason why, in any higher discipline, experts spend a lot of time arguing over terminology. We can’t simply agree on the meaning of a word by pointing to what it stands for and saying it.

One of the most intriguing ideas that Jaynes introduced was the notion of ‘paraphiers’ and ‘paraphrands’. These are unintended implications or connotations that are carried over from the original idea to the subsequent one. Central to Jaynes’ thesis, in fact, is the highly challenging notion that our ability to consciously reflect on ourselves as subjects arose in just such a way.

Leaving aside this intriguingly counter-intuitive idea, Jaynes’ essential point is that the paraphiers direct our attention in unexpected ways. And attention creates realities. This is not merely a matter of a kind of poetic allusion or idea. When our minds are drawn towards something—perhaps a new way of seeing or thinking—this creates a new world in our mind, and as we know from our basic Buddhism, such new mental worlds create the world outside.

In the context of jhana, the notion that vitakka always means thinking and nothing else creates realities in meditation. It encourages certain kinds of expectations and responses. By doing so it shapes the nature of the meditative experience. This in turn effects speech about meditation, and a whole range of more concrete realities: books, retreat centers, teaching careers, relationships, organizations.

This is another fascinating aspect of Jaynes’ theory. The process of abstraction creates powerful mental worlds that then become expressed in material forms, thus returning from the abstract to the concrete. The forms that emerge as expressions of the mind then serve to reinforce and validate the particular mental abstractions that gave rise to them in the first place. Jaynes discusses how this happens in religions through the creation of idols, temples, and the like. When enough people share an idea, they band together to create physical representations of their own mental world; and these physical representations in turn confirm and reinforce the idea.

It is in this way, I believe, that the innocent term vitakka has taken on a whole new life. In Pali it had a certain spectrum or flexibility of meaning, such that the Buddha could prod it out of its everyday meaning of ‘thought’ and tease it into a new meaning, ‘application of the mind on to its object in profound meditation’. The English word ‘thought’, however, lacks such flexibility, and remains stubbornly and exclusively verbal. When used as a metaphier for the less-knowable ancient word vitakka, the unexpected and unintended connotations of thought, its paraphiers, are transferred over.

The process of jhana is, at its heart, nothing more than the deepening stillness of the mind that lets go of all pre-occupations and worries. The Buddha used, as he must, everyday words to point to something that moved beyond the everyday. And it is no small irony that one of the crucial terms in this journey from perplexity to stillness, a word whose less edifying connotations include ‘doubt, speculation, the endless twists and turns of the mind’, has itself provoked such doubts and endless discussions.