Seven cetasikas, the universals (sabbacitta-sādhāranā), arise with every citta. Besides these seven cetasikas there are six cetasikas, the particulars (pakiṇṇakā), which accompany cittas of the four jātis but not every citta. Both the “universals” and the “particulars” are of the same jāti as the citta they accompany. Thus, they can be kusala, akusala, vipāka or kiriya. In addition to the “universals” and the “particulars” there are also akusala cetasikas which arise only with akusala cittas and sobhana (beautiful) cetasikas which arise only with sobhana cittas.
Vitakka, applied thinking or initial thinking, and vicāra, sustained thinking or sustained application, are two cetasikas among the “particulars”1 . We believe that we know what thinking is. We think of what we have seen, heard, smelt, tasted or experienced through the bodysense, or we think of ideas and concepts. We build up long stories of what we experienced and we cling to thinking. In order to know the realities of vitakka and vicāra we should not be misled by the conventional term “thinking”. Through the study of the Abhidhamma and the commentaries we can acquire a more precise knowledge of realities.
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 meditator2 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...
The Atthasālinī (Book I, Part IV, Chapter I, 114) gives a similar definition. This commentary 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 order to know more about vitakka, we should learn which cittas are accompanied by vitakka. We may think that vitakka accompanies only cittas arising in a mind-door process, but this is not so. Vitakka arises in sense-door processes as well as in mind-door processes. Vitakka accompanies all kāmāvacara cittas (cittas of the sense-sphere), except the dvi-pañcaviññāṇas (the five pairs which are seeing, hearing, etc.).
We may wonder why vitakka does not arise with the dvi-pañcaviññāṇas. When seeing arises it performs the function of seeing, it sees visible object and it does not need vitakka in order to see. The other cittas of the eye-door process need vitakka in order to experience visible object, they do not see. The eye-door adverting-consciousness does not see, it adverts to visible object and it needs vitakka which directs it to visible object. It is the same with the other cittas of that process. As regards the other sense-door processes, the dvi-pañcaviññāṇas do not need vitakka in order to experience the object, but all the other cittas of these processes have to be accompanied by vitakka. All cittas of the mind-door process are accompanied by vitakka.
Vitakka accompanies not only cittas arising in processes, it also accompanies cittas which do not arise in processes: the paṭisandhi-citta (rebirth-consciousness), the bhavanga-citta (life-continuum) and the cuti-citta (dying-consciousness).
When vitakka accompanies kusala citta, vitakka is also kusala, and when it accompanies akusala citta it is also akusala. When we are not applying ourselves to kusala, we act, speak or think with akusala citta and thus the accompanying vitakka is also akusala. It is not often that we are performing acts of generosity, that we apply ourselves to sīla (good moral conduct) or to bhāvanā (mental development). There are many more akusala cittas in our life than kusala cittas and thus akusala vitakka is bound to arise very often. When we are attached to a pleasant object there is akusala vitakka which “touches” that object. Or when there is even a slight feeling of annoyance when things are not the way we want them to be, there is sure to be dosa-mūla-citta and this is accompanied by akusala vitakka which performs its function.
There are three kinds of akusala vitakka which are mentioned in particular in the suttas. They are
We read in the “Discourse on the Twofold Thought” (Middle Length Sayings I, no. 19) that the Buddha, while he was still a Bodhisatta, considered both akusala vitakka and kusala vitakka. We read that when the thought of sense-pleasures arose, he comprehended thus:
...“This thought of sense-pleasures has arisen in me, but it conduces to self-hurt and it conduces to the hurt of others and it conduces to the hurt of both, it is destructive of intuitive wisdom, associated with distress, not conducive to nibbāna.” But while I was reflecting, “It conduces to self-hurt”, it subsided; and while I was reflecting, “It conduces to the hurt of others”, it subsided; and while I was reflecting, “It is destructive of intuitive wisdom, it is associated with distress, it is not conducive to nibbāna”, it subsided. So I, monks, kept on getting rid of the thought of sense-pleasures as it constantly arose, I kept on driving it out, I kept on making an end of it...
The same is said about the thought of malevolence and the thought of harming. We then read:
...Monks, according to whatever a monk ponders and reflects on much, his mind in consequence gets a bias that way. Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on thought of sense-pleasures he ejects thought of renunciation; if he makes much of the thought of sense-pleasures, his mind inclines to the thought of sense-pleasures. Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on the thought of malevolence...he ejects the thought of non-malevolence... his mind inclines to the thought of malevolence. Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on the thought of harming, he ejects the thought of non-harming; if he makes much of the thought of harming, his mind inclines to the thought of harming...
It is useful to know on what we reflect most of the time. We have a bias towards akusala, since we have accumulated so much akusala. We are more inclined to unwholesome thoughts and therefore it is difficult to have wholesome thoughts. When there is a pleasant object the thought of sense-pleasures arises almost immediately. When there is an unpleasant object there is bound to be a thought of annoyance or malice, or there can even be a thought of harming. When someone else receives praise and honour, we may be inclined to jealousy and then there is akusala vitakka accompanying the dosa-mūla-citta with jealousy. It is difficult to cultivate kusala vitakka but the Buddha showed that it can be done. Further on in the sutta we read about three kinds of kusala vitakka which are the opposites of the three kinds of akusala vitakka. They are:
The bodhisatta realized that these lead neither to self-hurt, nor to the hurt of others, nor to the hurt of both, but that they are for “growth in intuitive wisdom”, that they are “not associated with distress”, “conducive to nibbāna”. We read about kusala vitakka:
...Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on the thought of renunciation he ejects the thought of sense-pleasures; if he makes much of the thought of renunciation, his mind inclines to the thought of renunciation. Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on the thought of non-malevolence he ejects the thought of malevolence... Monks, if a monk ponder and reflect much on the thought of non-harming, he ejects the thought of harming; if he makes much of the thought of non-harming his mind inclines to the thought of non-harming...
One may wonder whether nekkhamma, renunciation, is the same as retirement from worldly life and whether it therefore pertains in particular to monks. Although a monk's life should be a life of contentment with little, he may not be cultivating nekkhamma. Whoever has not eradicated attachment to sense objects has still conditions for “thought of sense-pleasures”, no matter whether he is a monk or a layman. When a monk receives delicious almsfood, is attachment not likely to arise?
There are many degrees of nekkhamma and not only monks should cultivate it, but laypeople as well. Actually, all kusala dhammas are nekkhamma3. When we perform dāna, observe sīla or apply ourselves to mental development, we are at such moments not absorbed in sense-pleasures, there is renunciation. We can experience that when there is loving kindness or compassion we do not think of ourselves; thus, there is a degree of detachment. If we see the disadvantages of being selfish, of thinking of our own pleasure and comfort, there are more conditions for being attentive to others. Detachment from the concept of self is still a higher degree of renunciation which can be achieved through the development of right understanding of realities. Both monks and laypeople should cultivate this kind of renunciation. When the concept of self has been eradicated, stinginess has been eradicated as well, and thus, there are more conditions for generosity. Moreover, sīla will be purer, there will be no more conditions for transgressing the five precepts.
Vicāra can be translated as sustained thinking, discursive thinking or sustained application. We read in the Visuddhimagga (IV, 88) the following definition:
...Sustained thinking (vicaraṇa) is sustained thought (vicāra); continued sustenance (anusañcaraṇa), is what is meant. It has the characteristic of continued pressure on (occupation with) the object. Its function is to keep conascent (mental) states (occupied) with that. It is manifested as keeping consciousness anchored (on that object).
The Atthasālinī (Book One, Part IV, Chapter I, 114) defines vicāra in a similar way.
Vicāra is not the same reality as vitakka. Vitakka directs the citta to the object and vicāra keeps the citta occupied with the object, “anchored” on it. However, we should remember that both vitakka and vicāra perform their functions only for the duration of one citta and then fall away immediately, together with the citta. Both the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasālinī use similes in order to explain the difference between vitakka and vicāra. Vitakka is gross and vicāra is more subtle. We read in the Visuddhimagga ( IV, 89):
...Applied thought (vitakka) is the first compact of the mind in the sense that it is both gross and inceptive, like the striking of a bell. Sustained thought (vicāra) is the act of keeping the mind anchored, in the sense that it is subtle with the individual essence of continued pressure, like the ringing of the bell...
Several more similes are used in order to explain the difference between vitakka and vicāra. Vitakka is like the bird's spreading out its wings when about to soar into the air, and vicāra is quiet, like the bird's planing with outspread wings. When we read this simile we may think that vitakka has to come first and that then vicāra follows. However, this simile is used in order to show that vitakka and vicāra have different characteristics.
Another simile the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasālinī use is the following : vitakka is like the bee's diving towards a lotus and vicāra is like the bee's gyrating around the lotus after it has dived towards it.
Like vitakka, vicāra arises with all kāmāvacara cittas, cittas of the sense-sphere, except the dvi-pañcaviññāṇas (the sense-cognitions of seeing, hearing, etc.). When seeing-consciousness, for example, arises, it does not need vitakka nor does it need vicāra, because seeing-consciousness just sees. The other cittas of the eye-door process need vitakka which directs them to visible object and they need vicāra which keeps them occupied with visible object. It is the same in the case of the other sense-door processes. Vitakka and vicāra arise in sense-door processes as well as in mind-door processes, and they also accompany cittas which do not arise in processes4 .
Vitakka and vicāra are conditioned dhammas, saṅkhāra dhammas, which arise and fall away together with the citta they accompany. They perform their functions only during an extremely short moment, namely the duration of one citta. Their object can be a paramattha dhamma or a concept. We may wonder how vitakka and vicāra perform their functions while we are engaged with the thinking of “stories”. It seems that thinking can last for a while, but in reality there are many cittas accompanied by vitakka and vicāra and other cetasikas, which arise and fall away, succeeding one another. It is because of saññā, remembrance, that we can remember the previous thought and that there can be connection of different thoughts.
Both vitakka and vicāra are jhāna-factors which can be developed in samatha, tranquil meditation. The jhāna-factors are sobhana (beautiful) cetasikas which are developed in order to inhibit the “hindrances”, defilements which obstruct the attainment of jhāna, absorption. Vitakka which is developed in samatha “thinks” of the meditation subject and it inhibits the hindrances which are sloth and torpor (thīna and middha). The Visuddhimagga states in the definition of vitakka (IV, 88) :
“...for the meditator is said, in virtue of it, to have the object struck at by applied thought, threshed by applied thought...”
Thus, in samatha vitakka “touches” the meditation subject again and again until calm has developed to the degree that jhāna can be attained.
As regards the jhāna-factor vicāra which is developed in samatha, this keeps the citta “anchored on” the meditation subject and inhibits the hindrance which is doubt. As we have seen, in the case of kāmāvacara cittas, both vitakka and vicāra arise together when they accompany the citta. In the case of jhānacittas however, a distinction has to be made. In the first stage of jhāna both vitakka and vicāra are needed in order to experience the meditation subject with absorption. Thus, both vitakka and vicāra accompany the rūpāvacara kusala citta, the rūpāvacara vipākacitta and the rūpāvacara kiriyacitta of the first stage of jhāna5. In the second stage of jhāna one has acquired more skill in jhāna and vitakka is no longer needed in order to experience the meditation subject with absorption. At that stage vitakka has been abandoned, but vicāra still arises. In the subsequent stage of jhāna, which is more tranquil and more refined, also vicāra has been abandoned; it is no longer needed in order to experience the meditation subject with absorption. Some people have abandoned both vitakka and vicāra in the second stage of jhāna and thus for them there are only four stages of rūpa-jhāna instead of five. That is why the stages of jhāna can be counted in accordance with the four-fold system or the five-fold system.
When we consider the jhāna-factors vitakka and vicāra we may be able to understand that vitakka is more gross than vicāra. Vitakka is needed in the first stage of jhāna but it is abandoned in the second stage of jhāna which is more tranquil and more refined. Vicāra which is more subtle than vitakka still accompanies the jhānacitta of the second stage of jhāna. The person who has accumulated conditions to attain jhāna must be able to distinguish between different jhāna-factors such as vitakka and vicāra and this is most intricate. This shows us how difficult it is to develop calm to the degree of jhāna.
The more we study the realities which are taught in the Abhidhamma, the more we see that there are many different phenomena which each have their own characteristic. They appear one at a time, but when we try to name them there is thinking of a concept instead of mindfulness of a characteristic. Sometimes a reality which thinks may appear and then we may doubt whether it is vitakka or vicāra. It is useless to try to find out which reality appears because at such a moment there is no awareness. Thinking has a characteristic which can be realized when it appears and then there is no need to name it vitakka or vicāra.
There is another aspect of vitakka I want to mention. Vitakka is one of the factors of the eightfold Path and as such it is called: sammā-saṅkappa, right thinking. Sammā-saṅkappa has to arise together with sammā-diṭṭhi, right understanding, in order to be a factor of the eightfold Path6. When there is right understanding of a nāma or rūpa which appears, there are both vitakka and vicāra accompanying the citta, but vicāra is not a factor of the eightfold Path. Sammā-saṅkappa has its specific function as path-factor. Sammā-saṅkappa “touches” the nāma or rūpa which appears so that sammā-diṭṭhi can investigate its characteristic in order to understand it as it is. Thus, sammā-diṭṭhi needs the assistance of sammā-saṅkappa in order to develop. In the beginning, when paññā has not been developed, there cannot yet be clear understanding of the difference between the characteristic of nāma and of rūpa. When, for example, sound appears, there is also hearing, the reality which experiences sound, but it is difficult to know the difference between the characteristic of sound and the characteristic of hearing, between rūpa and nāma. Only one reality at a time can be object of mindfulness and when they seem to “appear” together it is evident that there is not right mindfulness. Only when there is right mindfulness of one reality at a time right understanding can develop. At that moment sammā-saṅkappa performs its function of “touching” the object of mindfulness.
When there is sammā-saṅkappa there is no akusala vitakka, wrong thinking; there is no “thought of sense-pleasures”, no “thought of malice”, no “thought of harming”. When the eightfold Path is being developed the four noble Truths will be known and “unprofitable thoughts” will eventually be eradicated. We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (V, Mahā-vagga, Book XII, Chapter I, par7, thoughts) that the Buddha, while he was at Sāvatthī, said to the monks:
Monks, think not evil, unprofitable thoughts, such as: thoughts of lust, thoughts of hatred, thoughts of delusion. Why do I say so?
Because, monks, these thoughts are not concerned with profit, they are not the rudiments of the holy life, they conduce not to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to tranquillity, to full understanding, to the perfect wisdom, they conduce not to nibbāna.
When you do think, monks, you should think thus: This is dukkha. This is the arising of dukkha. This is the ceasing of dukkha. This is the practice that leads to the ceasing of dukkha. Why do I say this?
Because, monks, these thoughts are concerned with profit, they are rudiments of the holy life...they conduce to nibbāna.
Wherefore an effort must be made to realize: This is dukkha. This is the arising of dukkha. This is the ceasing of dukkha. This is the practice that leads to the ceasing of dukkha.
The “thinking” referred to in this sutta is not thinking about the four noble Truths. It refers to the direct realization of the four noble Truths which are: dukkha, which is suffering, its origin, which is craving, its cessation, which is nibbāna, and the way leading to its cessation, which is the eightfold Path. When there is right mindfulness of a reality which appears, sammā-saṅkappa “touches” it and then paññā can investigate its characteristic in order to know it as it is. This is the way to eventually realize the four noble Truths. At the moment of enlightenment the four noble Truths are penetrated. When the citta is lokuttara citta, sammā-saṅkappa is also lokuttara. It “touches” nibbāna.
 See also Dhammasangaṇi par7 and 8.
 The Visuddhimagga deals with vitakka in the section on samatha. The meditator is someone who cultivates samatha.
 Vibhaṅga, Book of Analysis, 3, Analysis of the Elements, par182.
 For details about the cittas accompanied by vitakka and vicāra, see par Appendix 3.
 Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Chapter 22. The rūpāvacara vipākacitta is the result of the rūpāvacara kusala citta. The rūpāvacara kiriyacitta is the citta of the arahat who attains jhāna.
 The factors of the eightfold Path are: right understanding (see Chapter 34), right thinking, right speech, right action and right livelihood ( for the last three see Chapter 32), right effort (see Chapter 10), right mindfulness (see Chapter 26) and right concentration (see Chapter 6). These factors perform each their specific function so that the goal can be attained: the eradication of defilements. The reader will also come across the terms insight or vipassanā and satipaṭṭhāna. The development of vipassanā, the development of satipaṭṭhāna or the development of the eightfold Path, it all amounts to the development of right understanding of nāma and rūpa, of ultimate realities. When a reality appears through one of the six doors there can be a moment of investigation of its characteristic: it can be seen as a nāma or a rūpa, not a person, not a thing. That is the beginning of understanding of its true nature of non-self. At such a moment there is also mindfulness, non-forgetfulness of the reality appearing at the present moment.