Jhanas - Vittaka & Vicara


Dhammarato Bhikkhu



<The following is taken from replies to questions related to Jhanas posted in a discussion group.>

Question 1

Why, when translated from the Pali do most translators use the wording
applied and sustained thought instead of one pointed concentration?
Applied and sustained thought to me seems like it can cause confusion
where as one pointed concentration is directly what it is.



Applied and sustained thought are mis-translations of two pali terms of vicara and vittaka (not sure of the spelling if you want I'll look them up for you David).

The applied and sustained mis-translation date to the visudhi magga and the wrong headed analogy of striking and bell (applied) and letting the bell ring (sustained). I say this is wrong because the analogy does not fit the much older work the Vibangha Abhidhamma grouping of jhana into five steps with 1=1 3=2 4=3 5=4 and a new step between 1 and 2. this new step has only the vicara (sustained) without the vittaka (applied). the VM analogy falls apart with the question "how does the bell ring if not struck?"


So we need to look deeper, perhaps at the words themselves, Pali after all is an Indo-European language, the roots of our own language can be found there. Just see that the word "video" fits nicely with vittaka and "voice" fits with vicara. 


Now we can also use a very modern tool that we all have available (well most of us do) and that is one's own mind. This may require some skill but that skill can be obtained with meditation (mental training or bhavana.)  So one can investigate for themselves that the mind has two ways of thinking, in pictures and in sound (language).


Put two and two together and wa-la, we can see that the first jhana still has ordinary thinking still there. But as we progress, we let go of both the picture making and then even the internal talking.



Question 2

Pra Achan, please help me understand this issue more fully.
Of course a bell can ring in sympathetic vibration to other bells
ringing, and thus it can ring without being struck. Such it seems to
me to be the way of many if not most people who are not even seeking,
nor even questioning, in that their "ringing" is entirely due to
their reflection of the ringing of others. Where does this fit into this concept?



There are four jhânas in the suttas. The forth jhâna has several mental objects as the adept moves forward. We will confine this discussion to the lower jhânas. The first Jhâna is the first major step in mental development. As one goes further, various factors are eliminated and others are developed and then eliminated.


  1. Imagery that is developed and controlled then eliminated, the first to go.

  2. Verbal formations (known as monkey mind) are developed (controlled) then eliminated, second to go.

  3. Pleasure (rapture, with a bodily component) is developed using Imagery and Verbal formations, then experienced directly and used as mental object to eliminate the above two.

  4. Bliss is developed as above, but when the rapture is more fully developed, it become intense. It then is eliminated giving rise to a bliss that is easy going and pervasive. At the later steps, the bliss becomes more and more subtle. The body becomes difficult to discern, the boundaries break down.

  5. One pointed focus (mistranslated as concentration). The other above four are used to develop this concentration. As the concentration is developed, the objects become more refined until it is eliminated, as an object is eliminated, a new deeper more refined object is used for the focus.  


They are in this order:

  1. Body using the breath, experiencing the whole body, relaxing the whole body (using imagery and verbal).

  2. As the body is experienced and relaxed, sensations become pleasant. They are then used as object and the mind become free of the verbal and imagery.  

  3. As the rapture become more developed, it is refined into bliss.

  4. As the bliss become more refined, the breath become very subtle. The body being very still and completely relaxed gives off few sensations and the boundaries of the body become weak and difficult to discern.


Now back to your question about the bell.  If the bell is struck it will ring. If the bell rings in sympathy of vibrations, that is just another form of being hit. The bell analogy does not fit the mental process. It was used because of the misunderstanding of the 5th century author Bhikkhu Buddhaghosa. He wrongly understood the Pali to be applied (striking or sympathetic vibrations), and sustained (ringing) of the mind.  What he failed to understand was that these two mental processes are actually independent of each other.  If they were dependent upon one another, the Buddha would have them lumped together as did the later author.


The much older commentary, the Vibhanga (second volume of the Abhidhamma) did follow the Suttas and actually gave a  more detailed accounting that proves the two mental processes as being separated.


The untrained mind is not generally aware of the workings and sequences. Generally the mind works like this for most:


A fleeting mental picture will form (the funny papers show a light bulb above the head). This is then followed by a mental discussion describing the mental picture.  It is like a mental version of “A picture is worth a thousand words.”


A side note: Night time dreaming (and often real day-dreams) are mostly mental images while the interpretations are mostly verbal.


The word “applied” may be a mis-translation that has a seed of truth in it because mental images are often fleeting, while the word “sustained” indicates that the verbal formations are somewhat sustained because they last longer.

Phra Achan Dhammarato, Bhikkhu
Wat Buddhayram Buddhist Center
1824 Toddville Rd.
Charlotte, NC 28214


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