Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra – What Is “Intention”?

November 23, 2019; revised July 8, 2022; August 27, 2022

Saṅkhāra Create Causes for Future Suffering

1. Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) describes how future suffering arises due to saṅkhāra done with avijjā. Intention plays a significant role, depending on one level of avijjā.

  • The PS cycle starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” and ends with “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti.” And then it says, “Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayō hōti.“ or “That is how this whole mass of suffering arises.”
  • Therefore, the PS cycle generally addresses ALL TYPES of future suffering. That includes bad kamma vipāka DURING a given life and stronger kamma vipāka that lead to future REBIRTHS. In particular, rebirths in the four lowest realms (apāyā) lead to the worst kinds of suffering.
  • All these FACTS appear in a long list of short suttā (plural of sutta) in the Anguttara Nikāya (10), starting with the “Sādhu Sutta (AN 10.134)” and ending at AN 236 (over one hundred suttā!)
  • I have translated several of them into English at “Anguttara Nikāya – Suttā on Key Concepts.”
Suffering (and Pleasures) Arise Due to Kamma Vipāka

2. According to those suttās, suffering (dukkha) arises due to the vipāka (results) of akusala kamma or apuñña kamma (translated as immoral deeds.)

  • In the same way, pleasures (sukha) result from kusala kamma/puñña kamma (translated as moral deeds.)
  • There is a big difference between kusala kamma and puñña kamma. See, “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma.”
  • Until then, we may use kusala/puñña and also akusala/apuñña without much distinction. So, at this point, we are just assuming that kusala/puñña kammā are “good” and akusala/apuñña kammā are “bad.”
  • Even though we loosely translate kusala/akusala kamma as moral/immoral deeds, kammā are done via bodily actions, speech, or thoughts.
Dasa Akusala – Seeds for Future Suffering

3. The Buddha identified three fundamental categories of akusala kamma. Those done with bodily actions (kāya kamma) are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. There are four types of kamma done with speech (vacī kamma.) They are lying, slandering, harsh speech, and gossiping. Finally, three types done with thoughts (manō or citta kamma) are excess greed, excess anger, and wrong views.

  • Those ten types of akusala kamma (dasa akusala) in Pāli are: Pāṇātipāto, adinnādānaṃ, kāmesu­micchā­cāro, musāvādo, pisuṇā vācā, pharusā vācā, samphappalāpo, abhijjhā, byāpādo, micchā diṭṭhi.
  • Those are the ten types of akusala kamma separated into three categories.
All Types of Kamma Originate In the Mind

4. When we look at the ten types of akusala kammā, we can see why kamma DOES NOT mean JUST bodily actions. The way of THINKING and SPEAKING contribute to the accumulation of kamma, which can bring vipāka in the future.

  • It is critically important to understand this point. Some people speak very nice words and even appear to be engaged in “good deeds” but have very bad intentions/mindsets. For example, someone may pretend to speak nicely but could be thinking bad thoughts to him/herself about the person they are talking to. See. “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • Going through the motions of good actions/speech DOES NOT count for GENERATING good kammic energy.

The Buddha clarified this point very clearly. In the “Nib­bedhi­ka Sutta (AN 6.63)“:Cetanāhaṃ (cetanā aham), bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā.”

That means: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. One does kamma with intention (in mind)via body, speech, and thoughts.

  • Therefore, kammic ENERGY for ALL ten types of kammas are GENERATED in mind. Thus, MIND creates kammic energy associated with all ten types of kamma.
  • I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding this CRITICAL point.
Intentions are in Saṅkhāra

5. It is cētanā in javana citta that PREPARES kamma viññāna or kamma bija using various types of cētasika. Such kamma viññāna or kamma bīja are PART OF dhammā.

6. What we discussed in #4 above can be stated in Buddha’s terminology. The mind generates three types of ­saṅ­khāra: manō, vacī, and kāya ­saṅ­khāra. All three types of ­saṅ­khāra arise in mind.

  • How do those intentions end up as speech and bodily actions?
  • It is the brain that “carries out” bodily movements and speech INTENDED in kāya ­saṅ­khāra and vacī ­saṅ­khāra. The brain gets the body parts to move with the help of the muscles and the nervous system. Speech, similarly, is generated via the movement of the tongue and the muscles in the mouth area.
  • Therefore, kāya ­saṅ­khāra LEAD to kāya kamma (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct.) Vaci ­saṅ­khāra LEAD to vacī kamma (lying, slandering, harsh speech, and gossiping.) Manō (or citta) ­saṅ­khāra LEAD to manō (or citta) kamma (excess greed, excess anger, and wrong views.)
Mind/Physical Body to Pilot/Airplane Analogy

7. The seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) is where thoughts arise. The hadaya vatthu is part of the manōmaya kāya, mental body, or the gandhabba. The hadaya vatthu is in constant contact with the brain.

  • In other words, the MIND decides what to do, and the brain carries out those commands. An analogy is how an airplane flies. The pilot decides where to go, and the onboard computer carries out those commands.
  • More details are in “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
  • Modern scientific evidence on the importance of the hadaya vatthu is only at an early stage. The following quote is from “Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance.”  “The heart is the most powerful source of electromagnetic energy in the human body, producing the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field of any of the body’s organs. The heart’s electrical field is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity generated by the brain.”
  • However, hadaya vatthu is NOT the heart. It is in the mental body (gandhabba) but close to the physical heart.
Not All Saṅkhāra Will Have Kammic Consequences

8. Even though Paṭicca Samuppāda states, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā,” not all saṅkhāra will have kammic consequences. Stated differently: We do not act with avijjā all the time.

  • For example, ANY bodily movement involves kāya ­saṅ­khāra. If one’s mind decides to stand up, the brain moves leg muscles. That does not have any kammic energy to bring future vipāka. Therefore, not all bodily actions have kammic consequences.
  • Saṅ­khāra with kammic consequences are “strong ­saṅ­khāra” or “abhisaṅkhāra. Let us discuss that in detail first.
Good or Bad Cētasika Responsible for “Intention”  – Cetana Is in Every Citta

9. Swinging your arm is a kāya kammā because it involves moving a body part. That action was initiated by kāya ­saṅ­khāra generated in mind, but it does not have kammic consequences (except for the movement of the arm).

  • Now, if you swung your arm to get hold of a cup, that is also a kammically neutral action (kammā) or just a ­saṅ­khāra. You did not do either a moral or immoral act. The intention was to grab a cup, which did not involve any sōbhana or asōbhana cētasikaThat action is a kiriya (kriyā in Sanskrit or ක්‍රියා in Sinhala).
  • On the other hand, if you swung your arm to hit someone, it was done with anger. So, the dōsa cētasika (an asōbhana cētasika) was in your thoughts.  Thus, it was an apuññābhisaṅkhāra (apuñña abhisaṅkhāra). That apuññābhisaṅkhāra in mind led to an akusala/apuñña kammā or an immoral deed.
  • If you put your arms together to pay respects to the Buddha, it is a puññābhisaṅkhāra (puñña abhisaṅkhāra.) The saddhā cētasika (a sōbhana cētasika) is in the mind. We can also call it a kusala/puñña kammā or a moral deed.
  • Therefore, “good or bad” cētasika (mental factors) are the ones that bring intention to thoughts. The cētanā cētasika is in ALL thoughts. The cētanā cētasika incorporates the other relevant good or bad” cētasika to a given thought to convey the “intention.” 
Assāsa Passāsa (Breathing) Is Kāya Saṅkhāra

10. The very basic kāya saṅkhāra are involved in breathing. It is also the most IMPORTANT kāya saṅkhāra since we cannot live without breathing.

  • Any type of saṅkhāra involves cētanā, and thus saṅkhāra involves citta vithi. It does not seem like we breathe intentionally. That is because no javana cittā are present in such citta vithi associated with breathing. They are parittārammana citta vithi. That means they are “weak.”
  • Of course, breathing has no kammic consequences. It is a “bodily action,” but a critically important one.
Apuññābhi ­saṅ­khāra, puññābhi ­saṅ­khāra, and Āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra

11. We introduced two new words above that are relevant in generating kammic energy: apuññābhisaṅ­khāra and puññābhi­saṅ­khāra. Here, apuññābhi ­saṅ­khāra lead to akusala (or apuñña or immoral) kamma. Good, moral deeds, speech, or thoughts with kammic energy involve puññābhisaṅ­khāra. 

  • There is a third type of abhisaṅkhāra: āneñjā­bhisaṅ­khāra (āneñja a­bhisaṅ­khāra). These types of ­saṅ­khāra are in the minds of those who cultivate arupāvacara jhāna, the highest four jhāna.
  • Apuññābhisaṅ­khāra lead to rebirth in the apāyā. These, of course, lead to akusala kamma.
  • Puññābhi­saṅ­khāra leads to rebirth in the human, deva, and rupāvacara Brahma realms. Puñña kamma is done with such puññābhi­saṅ­khāra. Note that cultivating rupāvacara jhāna is a puñña kamma.
  • Āneñjā­bhisaṅ­khāra leads to rebirths in the arupāvacara Brahma realms.
Saṅkhāra in Paṭicca Samuppāda Are Abhisaṅkhāra

12. Even though the first step in Paṭicca Samuppāda is simply, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā,” it refers to abhisaṅkhārā.

Paṭic­ca­samup­pāda ­Vibhaṅga, explains the term “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” in akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda (that leads to suffering) as follows: “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro“.

Translated: “What is avijjā paccayā saṅkhārāPuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, cittāaṅkhāra“. (here, citta saṅkhāra is the same as manō saṅkhāra).

  • Those are all abhisaṅkhāra, even though the verse is simplified as “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā. “
  • Two categories of saṅkhāra are mentioned there. One category refers to types of kamma accrued (Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra.)
  • The other category points out the three modes: body, speech, or mind (kāya saṅkhāra, vacī saṅkhāra, citta saṅkhāra, or manō saṅkhāra).
  • This is clarified in several suttā as well. for example, “Saṅgīti Sutta (DN 33)“: “Tayo saṅkhārāpuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāro, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāro.”

13. Therefore, the word ­saṅ­khāra can have different meanings in different contexts. That is why ­saṅ­khāra SHOULD NOT be translated as just “mental formations.”

  • I hope you can see that translating saṅkhāra as just “mental formations” does not provide much insight. Once one understands the basic concepts discussed above, it will be easier to see the real meaning of different types of saṅkhāra.
  • We will discuss kāya, vacī, and manō saṅkhāra in detail in the next post. Then, the critical connection of vitakka/vicara with vacī saṅkhāra will become clear.
  • Also, see “Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra” and “Kamma are Done with Sankhāra – Types of Sankhāra.”

All posts at “Origin of Life.”

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