Jhanas - Vittaka & Vicara
<The following is taken from replies to questions related to Jhanas posted in a discussion group.>
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.
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.
They are in this order:
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.
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