Difference Between Dhammā and Sankhāra

Revised March 22, 2017; April 17, 2017; re-written November 5, 2017

We will discuss the difference between sankhāra, sankata, and dhammā. Some of the descriptions given here are not compatible with meanings given in many current  Theravada texts. However, they are fully compatible with the Tipitaka. Please send me a comment if you find evidence to the contrary.

  • First, it is important to remember that the word “dhamma” can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. In “Buddha Dhamma”, it means the “Buddha’s teachings”.
  • Dhammā (with a long “a” at the end) is mostly used to indicate an energy created by the mind; it is also called a kamma beeja.
  • But “sabbe dhammā” in “sabbe dhammā anattāseems to include everything, all phenomena belonging to this world of 31 realms. Nibbāna is not included.
  • I always give links to other posts. It is not necessary to read them, but if one needs more information or clarification, one should read them. That will make the concept to “really sink in”.

1. There is confusion about the terms sankhāra and dhammā in the Dhammapada verses 277,278, and 279; the first lines in those three verses are:

  • Sabbē sankhāra aniccā or “all sankhāra are anicca (cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction)”.
  • Sabbē sankhāra dukkhā or “all sankhāra eventually lead to dukkha (suffering)”.
  • Sabbē dhammā anattā or “all dhammā are without substance (not fruitful) at the end”.

2. Sankhāra are our intentions, hopes, and dreams, followed by our speech and actions to fulfill them.

  • It must be noted that “sankhāra” mean all three types (manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, kāya sankhāra) that lead to any action, speech, or just thought; however, they all arise in citta (our thoughts).
  • If we say “Hello” to someone that is done with vaci sankhāra. If we walk from the living room to kitchen to get a drink, that is done with kāya sankhāra. But those do not initiate kamma vipāka; they are kammically neutral. But if we verbally abuse someone, that is done with strong vaci sankhāra (abhisankhāra) and that will have kamma vipāka.
  • More on sankhāra at, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“.
  1. If those sankhāra (or abhisankhāra) that we generate lead to the arising of an inert object or a living form, it is said to lead to the arising of a sankata.
  • If one comes up with the idea of building a house, he will carefully think about it (manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra), talk about it with others (vaci sankhāra), and take actions to make it happen (kāya sankhāra). In this case, our sankhāra gave rise to a house, and that house is a sankata.

4. When we do something with the body (i.e., body movement), that is controlled by kāya sankhāra that arise in our minds.

  • We are not robots (most lower animals are like robots). We can control our thoughts, speech, and actions. Sometimes it may appear that we just do things (some actions are initiated as kamma vipāka), but if we want to we can change our actions. Just try it out.
  • When we speak or just talk to ourselves, that involves vaci sankhāra; those also arise in our minds; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
  • Mano sankhāra are thoughts that arise automatically (due to kamma vipāka).

5. Building a house in #3 above, may not involve moral/immoral intentions, and thus one may not generate strong sankhāra (called abhisankhāra) that can create kamma beeja (dhammā), that can bring kamma vipāka in the future. Building a house is just a kammically-neutral action.

  • However, planning to kill a human, for example, involves manō sankhāra and  vaci sankhāra (in the planning stage) and then doing it with kāya sankhāra.
  • In this case, all those sankhāra are abhisankhāra, that can bring future bad kamma vipāka, in the form of rebirth in the apāyas, which includes the animal realm.

6. Abhisankhāra (potent or strong sankhāra) give rise to kamma beeja, which are also called dhammā. These are energies that were created by javana citta; see, “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power“. They can bring kamma vipāka.

  • At the moment of death, such a strong kamma beeja or a dhammā comes to the mind via “mananca paticca dhammēca uppaddati manō viññānan“. That new viññāna is the patisandhi viññāna for the new life; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhammā are rūpa too!“.
  • Therefore, now a new life is formed as a result of that abhisankhāra. This new lifeform is also called a sankata because it was based on those sankhāra.

7. That sankata came to existence because of those immoral abhisankhāra during that immoral act. It came to existence at a later time via kamma vipāka

  • This  is basically the link between mind and matter. In this case the sankata is a rūpa (made of matter) that is created by an abhisankhāra that arose in the mind.
  • That house was just put together by using existing rūpa. But it is also possible to “create” new matter if one has abhiññā powers. Both are called sankata.

8. Any rūpa (including visible objects, sounds, smells, tastes, and body touches) that we experience in this world is a sankata, and they all undergo unpredictable change and eventually are destroyed; see, “Root Cause of Anicca – Five Stages of a Sankata“.

  • The point is that we make our own future via our actions, speech, and thoughts. Moral actions lead good kamma beeja/dhammā that will lead to good rebirths (in human, dēva, and brahma realms).
  • However, any of these new sankata will not last; even if born in dēva or brahma realms, that kammic energy will run out one day, and then one could be directed to the next birth depending on the most potent kamma beeja/dhammā present at that time.
  • The only difference is that one will be subjected to much suffering in the apāyas, while one will get to enjoy a “good life” in a higher realm. We all have been going through this “unending journey through most of the 31 realms” which does not have a traceable beginning.

9. Another important point is that the net result of all these “journeys through various realms” is suffering. This is because we tend to do more immoral things in “seeking pleasure” and are born mostly in the apāyas.

  • Basically, any sankata that we make for ourselves (whether it is a house or a new life in the dēva relam), that cannot be maintained to our satisfaction in the long run. A house will need repairs, and may even get burned down or flooded. A new life in the dēva realm will end one day, and one will back to square one.
  • This is why it is said that “Sabbē sankhāra aniccā“. It is there because any sankata has a finite lifetime, and moreover, is subjected unexpected changes (viparināma) during that existence.

10. When we don’t get to maintain things to our satisfaction we suffer. Even if one makes a billion dollars and has a nice family, one will have to leave all that behind when one dies. But even before that there could many other instances where one suffers (deaths of friends/family, diseases, loss of property, etc). That is the viparinama nature that arise due to anicca nature.

  • And the root cause of that suffering is sankhāra (more correctly abhisankhāra). This is why it is said that, “Sabbē sankhāra dukkhā“.

11. The only thing that is not destroyed is nāma gotta, which are just records of “all events” (sankhāra and abhisankhāra) of any given lifestream; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.

  • All these different terms could be confusing at first. But they will all make sense eventually. They are all pieces of a big puzzle.

12. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thero, in his popular and otherwise excellent book, “What the Buddha Taught” did not get it right when he interpreted those verses; he included Nibbāna in dhammā (p. 57 of 1974 edition). He took the difference between dhammā and sankhāra to be Nibbāna.

  • But as you can see, sankhāra and dhammā are two different entities. Sankhāra are what we generate in minds.
  • Strong sankhāra or abhisankhāra lead to the creation of kammic energy, and that is a dhammā or a kamma beeja.

13. Furthermore, Nibbāna does not belong to this world. Therefore, to say Nibbāna is anatta is an extremely bad mistake. This error resulted because, as with millions of people over hundreds of years, he had been misled by the wrong interpretations of anicca, dukkha, anatta.

14. When we do abhisankhāra (strong types of sankhāra), that lead to the formation of good or bad kamma beeja, or dhammā. Those strong kamma beeja can lead to the arising of sankata (living beings and even inert things).

  • And nāma gotta (pronounced “nāma goththā) are just records of what happened.

15. Unlike sankhāra, kamma beeja, and sankata, nāma gotta are PERMANENT (they are just records). This is why someone with abhiññā powers can go back at any point in time to recall past events; also see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“.

  • Whenever we do something (a sankhāra) an “imprint” (“nāma satahana“) is made. Thus for a given sentient being, a record of all activities from the beginning-less time survives, and is one’s nāma gotta. All previous lives and all activities of previous lives are in that “record stream”, like a movie reel (not physical of course).
  • Someone who has developed abhiññā through anariya jhanas can trace back the nāma gotta for a limited time; but if the abhiññā powers were developed with Ariya jhānas, a much deeper history can be probed. A Buddha can trace back as far back as he pleases with astonishing speed (and yet he could not see “a beginning” to any sentient being’s nāma gotta); this is why it is said that there is no traceable beginning to the rebirth process.

16. It is easier to explain this “nāma gotta” with an example. Let us take two popular US presidents, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Their “physical bodies” are no longer with us, i.e., their “rūpa” or physical bodies (which were sankata) decayed long ago. But their nāma gottta are with us to a certain extent. How much of their memories or “nāma gotta” remains with a given person depends on how closely that person associated with them. The moment we say, “John Kennedy” or “Ronald Reagan”, their picture comes to our mind. Not only that, those who met them may remember that vividly and probably can recall that event just  like watching a movie.

  • Similarly, we can recall many of the “events” of our lives or parts of our “nāma gotta“; some young children can recall some events in their “nāma gotta” in their previous lives.
  • What can be done with abhiññā powers is very similar. The abhiññā powers enormously stretch the memory or the ability to “look back” at past events in one’s nāma gotta.

17. Since nāma gotta do not decay, the definitions of anicca (“cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction”) or dukkha (“eventually leads to suffering”) do not apply.

  • Therefore, nāma gotta do not have the characteristics of anicca and dukkha.
  • But there is nothing substantial to be had with nāma gotta too. Thus they are also anatta.
  • The word dhammā is used in other contexts than kamma beeja. Basically, anything that belongs to this world (including Buddha Dhamma) is called dhammā. 

18. The Buddha’s last words were, “vaya dhammā sankhāra, appamādena sampādēta“, or “sankhāra are vaya dhammā, i.e., those that lead to one’s demise (i.e., lead to bad outcomes); therefore, sort out such “san” without delay” (“san” “pādēta“, which rhymes as “sampādēta“).

  • Vaya” means destruction or decay; here it specifically means destruction of morality.
  • Sankhāra are those these three types (manō, vaci, and kāya sankhāra) that lead to “san” for extending sansara; see, “What is “San”? – Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
  • Thus the Buddha was admonishing the bhikkhus that all sankhāra are “vaya dhamma” (those leading to bad outcomes), and thus to clearly comprehend what sankhāra are.

19. In the “Najirati Sutta (SN 1.76)“, the nature of nāma gotta is clearly stated:

  • Rūpaṃ jīrati maccānaṃ, nāmagottaṃ na jīrati“, or, “material things are subject to decay or jirati (pronounced “jeerathi“) and death or destruction (maccanam; pronounced ‘machchānam”), but nāma gotta do not decay.
  • The “rūpa” of those two US presidents we mentioned earlier have decayed and gone. But their nāma gotta remain with us, because they are mixed in with our nāma gotta at some points and we can access our nāma gotta with memory. Someone with abhiññā powers can look at a complete nāma gotta not only spanning a complete life, but also going back to many lives. All of our nāma gotta, back to beginning-less time, are there whether accessed or not.
  • Dhammā — in the general sense –are basically anything in this world (including nāma gotta and paññāti or concepts) and are without any substance too; they are all anatta. There is no point in “hanging on to them”.
  • Even Buddha Dhamma, which enables us to attain Nibbāna should ultimately be abandoned (once the Arahanthood is attained). The Buddha compared Buddha Dhamma to a raft that one uses to cross river; once the river is crossed, there is no point in carrying the raft on one’s back. So, even Buddha Dhamma is of value only until one reaches Nibbāna.
  • Only Nibbāna, which is attained by “giving up EVERYTHING in this material world” is atta or “of value”; see, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?” and “Dasa Akusala and Anatta – The Critical Link“.
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