Vitakka & Vicara – What do they mean?

Or: How do i find my way to the first jhana?Vitakka

Let’s say your meditation topic is Anapanasati (remembering the breath). So you would concentrate on breathing. If that is all you do, very soon, you would find yourself lost in millions of thoughts. Hopelessly washed away.

Now you make the following change to your practice:

With each breathing in you mentally note “in” with each breathing out you note “out”. That literally is vitakka, or “thought“. Simple, as the Buddha mentioned. This thought will therefore help you to remember (lit. for sati, maintaining in your mental presence) the breathing (anapana).

Now, what the heck is “vicara“? It is gliding (literally ‘moving about’)! You don’t just think one thought and watch the breath. No, you have to repeat the thought and try to “glide”, “abide”, “skid”, “slide”, “dwell”, “ride” (all words denote a prolonged abiding, which reflects the literal meaning of vicara) on your meditation object (in this case “breathing”).

Repeatedly you will have to tie your mind to the pole of your meditation object, with the help of vitakka. It is like an eagle who wants to soar in the sky. He is looking for a stream of warm air which will carry and lift him up. The bird will repeatedly flap its wings and glide for a while, repeating the flapping, gliding, flapping, gliding … until the eagle finds the stream of uplifting air and comes to a peaceful riding – abiding – effortless soaring, enjoying the ride.

Yathā pakkhī pubbaṃ āyūhati pacchā nāyūhati yathā āyūhanā evaṃ vitakko, yathā pakkhānaṃ pasāraṇaṃ evaṃ vicāro . Like a bird first has to exert itself and later has not to exert itself. In the same way is the exertion vitakko and the spreading of wings is vicaro (Petakopadesa, Khuddaka Nikaya, PTS p. 142)

Let’s take the simile of the pole: You hammer on the top of the pole (which is your meditation object). The repeated hammering is your repetition of a thought, to help focus the mind. The repetition of this thought is initially necessary as your mind is torn in six directions by six animals…the senses. The movement of the pole into the earth is vicara. Each time the hammer hits the stick/pole, it moves a little deeper…..Vicaro

Until the pole is so deep, that it can stand alone, upright and unshaken by the sense impressions…voila! The first jhana! Piti & Sukha have come in as a sign that the mind steadied on the meditation subject. Now, meditation became a vihara, a “dwelling” … and is no longer a fight or struggle.

This, sankhittena, is the meaning of vitakka & vicara.

PS: The same applies for any other samatha meditation object, ie. “metta, metta, metta…” or “light, light, light…” just to name a few famous ones…

PPS: See the post on the 4 jhanas below for some further references to the suttas

PPPS: On sati see this, this and this post.

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  3. belatedbee

    Dear Theravadin,

    Below, I wrote in my diary:

    Tuesday, January 27, 2009

    when noting the breath in-out… sometimes the mind would wander off to daydream about other things, leaving you with an automatic noting mechanism

    you’d hear the language part of you, saying, “in… out..”, and that would be most of what your mind registers

    when counting the breath up… sometimes it also gets automatic… the counting would go up forever while your mind drifts about

    you’d end up knowing the total number of your in-out breath pairs, but what the air does in your cavity, how the quality of your breathing varies, you don’t really know

    and you’re not any less vulnerable to flights of fantasy when you neither note in-out breaths nor count up the breath but simply try to be aware of the breath without verbal aids

    i find that you have to be really diligent in application

    meditation is not a passive activity; it may be passive in a sense that you don’t act upon your thoughts and mental formulations, but it’s an activity in which you constantly strive to apply yourself

    the pull has to be there

    the magnetic pull

    today during my evening zazen, i tried to make my meditation more manageable

    instead of noting in-out, counting up, or just trying to be aware, i counted down for five breaths and acted as if each five were my last

    it kind of worked when you only had five breaths to manage at a time; you kind of livened up and paid attention

    like how you would be in the last minute of an exam

    Am I supposed to be doing that? Am I using vitakka and vicara yet? How long will it take me from this point on to the first jhana? I try to manage a 40-min sitting daily. Tell me how I can improve more/faster.

    Thank you so much for all your help and input in my past postings.

    Much love & gratitude..

  4. jayarava

    Just stumbled on this looking for something else. Wonderful evocation of the two words. Perhaps the pole image is appropriate given the etymology of vitakka < takka 'turning, twisting'.

    Or alternatively Takka can mean 'doubt or uncertainty', so perhaps vitakka could mean 'without-twisting' ie. 'straight' i.e. clear and focussed.

    Anyway I love the image of the eagle or vulture seeking the thermal in order to glide effortlessly. This is what meditation feels like sometimes. Other times it's all flapping :-) (or lately for me sitting on a branch, waiting for the rain to stop!).

  5. Beautiful! I, too, like the “eagle gliding” metaphor. I would like to add that the gliding “feeling” sometimes also seems as if one is surfing over a smooth sea. It is as if one touches the surface of the waves every now and then, and at other times, just floats a few inches over the surface while cruising ahead.

  6. In another more practical application, vitakka and vicaara can be seen as literally “initial and sustained thought”. For example, when we think we should investigate or study a certain topic, like at school or university (=vitakka) and the invesigation (=vicaara). It can be a wholesome topic and therefore Right Concentration, or an unwholesome topic = Wrong Concentration, but it is still concentration. Of course Right Concentration will bring benefit to ourselves and others. Now I am very careful about interpretations of Buddha-Dhamma that do not make the teaching totally relevant to my life.

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