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From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Vitarka (Sanskrit, also Vitarkah; Pali: Vitakka; Tibetan phonetic: tokpa) is a Buddhist term that is translated as "conception", "application of thought", etc. In the Theravada tradition, it is defined as the Mental factor that mounts or directs the mind towards an object. In the Mahayana tradition, vitarka is defined as a Mental factor that investigates things roughly.

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Vitarka is identified as:



Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:

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).

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...

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.

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." It is also said that: Vitakka has the characteristic of fixity & steadiness, Vicāra that of movement & display.


The Abhidharma-samuccaya explains vitarka together with Vicara as follows:

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.

Herbert Guenther explains:

Selectiveness is a rough estimate of the thing under consideration and discursiveness is an exact investigation of it.

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.

Within meditation

Jhana (Vitakka)

See also:Jhana

Vitakka is the first of the Mental factors to be present in the first Jhana, but it is absent in the higher jhanas.

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.

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)."

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).

According to Dr. John C. Lilly, vitarka represents, "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."