Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech)

November 30, 2019; December 1, 2019; July 17, 2021; September 10, 2022 (esp. #11)


1. Vacī Saṅkhāra is looking into a ārammana deeper (vitakka) and in detail (vicāra). We introduced that in a previous post but will discuss it in more detail here.

  • Vācā is, of course, speech. Saṅkappa has been translated as “thoughts or intention.” Here, we will see that saṅkappa means “thoughts with intention.” We will also discuss how vacī saṅkhāra relates to both vācā and saṅkappa.
  • The first four steps in the Noble Eightfold Path are Sammā Diṭṭhi, Sammā Saṅkappa, Sammā Vācā, and Sammā Kammanta. One’s thoughts depend on one’s views, and one’s speech and actions depend on how one thinks. This is why Sammā Diṭṭhi comes first and why “having correct views” about the nature of this world is at the forefront.

2. There are various types of saṅkhāra. In the previous post, we discussed categorizing saṅkhāra in two different ways.

  • Three types depending on whether they lead to bodily actions, speech, or thoughts: kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, and cittasaṅkhāra. 
  • There are three more types according to future vipāka: Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra, āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra. These are discussed at #14 below.
  • Let us review the first category briefly and then focus on vacī saṅkhāra. I explained kāya and citta (or manō) saṅkhāra in recent posts.
Three Types of Saṅkhāra Responsible for Actions, Speech, and Thoughts

3. There are succinct statements in the  Cūḷa­ve­dalla Sutta (MN 44) on the types of saṅkhāra generated in mind:

Tayome, āvuso visākha, saṅkhārā—kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro”ti.
– There are three types of saṅkhārakāya saṅkhāra, vacī saṅkhāra, citta saṅkhāra.

Katamo panāyye, kāyasaṅkhāro, katamo vacīsaṅkhāro, katamo cittasaṅkhāro”ti?
– What are kāya saṅkhāra, What are vacī saṅkhāra, What are citta saṅkhāra (or manō saṅkhāra)?

Assāsapassāsā kho, āvuso visākha, kāyasaṅkhāro, vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro, saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.
– Assāsa passāsā
are kāya saṅkhāra, vitakka vicāra are vacī saṅkhāra, saññā and vedanā constitute citta saṅkhāra.

Kasmā panāyye, assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro, kasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro, kasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti?
– Why are the three types of saṅkhāra categorized in that way?

Assāsapassāsā kho, āvuso visākha, kāyikā ete dhammā kāyap­paṭi­baddhā, tasmā assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro. Pubbe kho, āvuso visākha, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṃ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro. Saññā ca vedanā ca cetasikā ete dhammā cittap­paṭi­baddhā, tasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.
Assāsa passāsā (breathing in and out) is associated with the body (movements). Thus, assāsa passāsa is kāya saṅkhāra.
arise before speech “breaks out.” Therefore, vitakka/vicāra are vacī saṅkhāra.
– Saññā
and vedanā are associated with any citta. Thus, Saññā/vedanā are citta saṅkhāra. 

No Kammic Consequences for Citta (Mano) Saṅkhāra

4. Citta (manō) saṅkhāra does not have strong kammic consequences that can result in rebirth. As mentioned above in #3, they encompass vēdanā and saññā, which are in ALL citta. Therefore, even vipāka cittā have citta (manō) saṅkhāra.

  • As we discussed in the post, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta),” any thought goes through nine stages within a billionth of a second. The early stages are citta and manō. Those two stages already have vēdanā and saññā.
  • Bad (asōbhana) or good (sōbhana) mental factors (cētasika) are incorporated into thought only in the latter stages of that nine-step process. Furthermore, such cētasika involve in those latter stages ONLY IF there is an attachment (taṇhā) and one is consciously thinking about a ārammana.
  • The six steps described in the Chacakka Sutta happen within a split second. There is no time to “think,” and thus, there cannot be any vacī or kāya saṅkhāra. See #6 below.
Vacī or kāya saṅkhāra Can Lead to Abhisaṅkhāra 

5. Vacī or kāya saṅkhāra MAY ALSO lead to actions that do not have kammic consequences. Such “harmless” vacī or kāya saṅkhāra cannot become abhisaṅkhāra that can bring future vipāka, including rebirths.

  • Breathing or walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water involves such “harmless” kāya saṅkhāra. Thinking about what needs to be done at work tomorrow or talking to the spouse about dinner plans involves such vacī saṅkhāra.
  • Other kāya and vacī saṅkhāra lead to actions and speech that have kammic consequences. Those lead to abhisaṅkhāra. Such abhisaṅkhāra “prepare or give rise to” sankata. Thus, sankata are entities that are “prepared” via saṅkhāra or “arise” due to saṅkhāra. Paṭicca Samuppāda describes that process, and we will get to it.
No Vacī or Kāya Saṅkhāra Involved in Initial Sensory Experience

6. Some thoughts that have gone through the nine stages do not involve conscious thinking. Thus, no vacī or kāya saṅkhāra are possible in such thoughts. Those are the vipāka citta described in the Chachakka Sutta (MN 148.)

  • As discussed in recent posts, the six steps in the Chachakka Sutta take place due to kamma vipāka. During that vipāka stage, first, one of the six types of viññāna experienced. They all are vipāka viññāna. They are cakkhu, sōtaghāna, jivhā, kāya, and manō viññāna. The last step is “vedanā paccayā taṇhā.”
  • In all those six steps, one does not get to think. They happen automatically. It is essential to realize that one consciously generates vacī or kāya saṅkhāra with sōbhana or asōbhana cētasika. Only manō saṅkhāra (without kammic consequences) is generated in those six steps.
Paṭicca Samuppāda Starts With “Salāyatana Paccayā Phassa

7. As we discussed in previous posts, the Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle starts not with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” but with “salāyatana paccayā phassa.” This is why we spent a lot of time discussing the Chacakka Sutta (MN 148.) It may be a good idea to review those posts.

  • There has to be a ārammana strong enough to generate interest. For example, seeing an attractive/repulsive figure, tasting something tasty/bitter, hearing a soothing/loud noise, etc.

8. Such vipāka viññāna come about via, “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ” through “mānañca paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjāti manoviññāṇaṃ” per Chacakka Sutta. We discussed in a previous post that those steps are equivalent to “salāyatana paccayā phassō, phassa paccayā vēdanā, vēdanā paccayā taṇhā” steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda. See “Paṭicca Samuppāda – A “Self” Exists Due to Avijjā.”

  • In other words, during the vipāka stage, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” followed by “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” DOES NOT take place, as we can see.
  • After getting to “vedanā paccayā taṇhā” with the initial sensory event on a new ārammana, the next step in the Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle starts. The next step is “taṇhā paccayā upādāna.That is when kamma viññāna arises because we start acting with avijjā. 
  • Let us see how vacī and kāya saṅkhāra arise once one gets attached and gets “stuck” in a ārammana (taṇhā.) That is the beginning of a complex process involved in the “taṇhā paccayā upādāna” step.
Vitakka/Vicara Initiate Abhisaṅkhāra

9. When one is “stuck” with a particular ārammana, one starts CONSCIOUSLY thinking about it. That involves vitakka and vicāra mental factors (cētasika.) That means one starts “looking into that ārammana deeper (vitakka) and, in detail (vicāra).

  • We can get an idea with the following example. Suppose we go to a showroom to buy a car. If we get interested in a particular car, we scrutinize it. We questioned the salesman and got more information about that car. In the same way, when we get interested in any ārammana, we start thinking about different aspects of it.
  • In particular, when we like a given ārammana (that car could be one), we start imagining how nice it would be to have it parked on the driveway and how the neighbors may be impressed by it. We often start “daydreaming” about how we will enjoy it. Those are all vacī saṅkhāra with vitakka and vicāra.
  • Of course, we may also start talking about how good it is. Speaking out also involves vitakka/vicāra.
  • If any of those thoughts involve “bad” (asōbhana) cētasika (like greed), then such conscious thoughts become vacī abhisaṅkhāra.

10. If we get interested in a ārammana, we may take action too.  We may go to other showrooms to look at similar models and compare prices. We may search the internet for other car dealers in the area, etc.

  • Such actions involve moving body parts. As we will see below, kāya saṅkhāra lead to those actions.
  • If those thoughts involve “bad” (asōbhana) cētasika, then such kāya saṅkhāra becomes kāya abhisaṅkhāra.
  • More information at “Vitakka, Vicāra, Savitakka, Savicāra, and Avitakka, Avicāra.” I recommend reading that post to get further details and Tipiṭaka references.
Saṅkappa Means Thinking, and Thus Vacī Saṅkhāra

11. “Mahā­cat­tārīsa­ka Sutta (MN 117)“: “Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo? Yo kho, bhikkhave, ariyacittāsa anāsa­va­cittāsa ariya­magga­samaṅ­gino ariyamaggaṃ bhāvayato takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā (fixing of thought on an object) byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā (application) vacī saṅkhāro—ayaṃ, bhikkhave, sammā saṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo. “

Translated: “What, bhikkhus, is sammā saṅkappa that is noble, blameless, supramundane, a factor of the noble path? The thinking, re-thinking, Noble thoughts devoid of āsava in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is devoid of āsava (anāsavo), who is on the noble path. That is, sammā saṅkappa which is noble and a factor of the path.

  • Thus, it is evident that Sammā Saṅkappa means generating thoughts focused on making progress on the Path. 
  • They are “Noble vacī saṅkhāra” with the comprehension of anicca, dukkha, and anatta and thus focused on Nibbāna.
  • By the way, such saṅkhāra arise in the “Kusala-Mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda” starting with “kusala-mūla paccayā saṅkhāra.” Note the difference from the Akusala-Mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda that starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra.” We will discuss the Kusala-Mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda in the future in this series. It is discussed in the Paṭicca Samuppāda section, “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
Not All Sankhārā Are Due to Avijjā (and Tanhā)

12. Now we can see how one starts doing saṅkhāra due to avijjā only IF one is attached via taṇhā. That is the beginning of a Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle: “avijjā paccayā sankhārā.”

  • However, not all saṅkhāra create kamma viññāna that can bring good or bad kamma vipāka. For example, one may get thirsty (due to a ārammana, too) and decide (with vaci saṅkhāra) to go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Walking to the kitchen involves kāya saṅkhāra (to get the body to move.) But that intention is neither good nor bad. It is kammically neutral. It was not due to avijjā.
  • All bodily activities, including breathing, are done with kāya saṅkhāra. But “avijjā paccayā sankhārā” comes into play ONLY IF bad or defiled intentions are in mind. There is no avijjā or taṇhā involved in breathing or the activities mentioned above (thus, they DO NOT lead to abhisaṅkhāra).
Apuñña Abhisankhārā Done with Avijjā (and Tanhā)

13. Now, let us consider the actions of a thief. A person is waiting to see a doctor and sees someone has dropped a wallet. The moment he sees the wallet, his mind attaches to it (taṇhā). Then he thinks there could be some money in the wallet and an easy way to get some “free money.” Those conscious thoughts are vacī saṅkhāra. Then he picks it up and puts it in his pocket. That last step involves kāya saṅkhāra.

  • Here he did bodily actions with kāya saṅkhāra. He did that because he did not realize the future bad consequences of stealing. Thus “avijjā paccayā sankhārā” generated bad thoughts of picking up the wallet AND putting it in his pocket.
  • While doing that, he had “bad saṅkhāra” (with bad cetana) in his mind. The cetana (intention) was to steal. Such bad saṅkhāra are apuñña abhisaṅkhāra. Both vacī and kāya saṅkhāra, in this example, were apuñña abhisaṅkhāra.
Punna Abhisankhārā Also Done with Avijjā (and Tanhā)

14. In the previous post, “Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra” (under #12), I pointed out briefly that puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra and āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra are also done with avijjā.

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). It is quite clear that apuññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra are due to avijjā. But why are the other two said to be done due to avijjā?

  • Puññā­bhi­saṅ­khāra are, of course, Moral and good deeds AND also the cultivation of rupavacara jhāna
  • Āneñjā­bhi­saṅ­khāra involve cultivating arupavacara jhāna.  
  • When a person who has not comprehended anicca, dukkha, or anatta engages in those two types of “good saṅ­khāra,” they are still done with avijjā! That is because one has not yet grasped the dangers in remaining in the rebirth process.
  • To get the basic idea, let us briefly consider the following example.

15. Now, let us consider the same scenario of #13 above with another average human. But this person has good moral gati. He is always trying to do moral things and tries to abstain from doing immoral things.

  • This person will pick up the wallet and take it to the receptionist. The person who dropped the wallet may come back looking for it. It is possible that the wallet had not only his driver’s license but possibly credit cards and money. So, our good samaritan saved a lot of stress and work for the wallet owner.
  • That is an example of a puñña abhisaṅkhāra. But if it is an abhisaṅkhāra, done via “avijjā paccayā sankhārā.” Is that not a contradiction since he did a “good deed”?
  • To answer that question, we need to understand the difference between the mundane eightfold path and the Noble Eightfold Path.
Two Eightfold Paths – Mundane Eightfold Path and the Noble Eightfold Path

16. The Buddha said that there are two eightfold paths (Mahā­cat­tārīsa­ka Sutta, MN 117). One is the mundane path, where one does good deeds without the comprehension of the “real nature of this world (yathābhūta ñāna).” One gets to the mundane path by first getting rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi. I have discussed the two paths in the post “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?

  • Once one gets rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi, another critical step involves getting to the Noble Eightfold Path. One must learn the “real nature of this world” or the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature from a Noble person who learned that from a Noble person. That lineage goes back to the Buddha. See “Four Conditions for Attaining Sōtapanna Magga/Phala.”
  • Only a Buddha can discover the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature by himself. All others need to learn that from a Noble person (Ariyā.) That is why most people are only exposed to the mundane eightfold path.
  • We will discuss the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature in upcoming posts once we finish going through the steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda. Of course, it has been discussed in the sub-section, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.” The current “Origin of Life” series attempts to get there systematically.
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