Difference Between Dhamma and Sankhara

Revised March 22, 2017; Re-revised April 17, 2017

We will discuss the difference between sankhara, sankata, and dhamma.

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 world view” in terms. In a deeper sense it means “Dhamma that leads to the removal of bhava“, i.e., stopping the rebirth process.

  • But here “dhamma” is used in a wider sense, as in “mananca paticca dhammeca uppaddati mano vinnanan“. In this sense dhamma includes “good dhamma” as well as “bad dhamma” (sometimes called “adhamma“): things that come to our minds can be good or bad. As one lives a moral life, one cultivates more “good dhamma” and will be likely to receive “good dhamma” to the mind.
  • So, whatever is in this world that can be grasped by the mind are dhamma. That includes concepts, nama gotta, kamma beeja, etc. as we discuss below.

1. There is confusion about the terms sankhara and dhamma in the Dhammapada verses 277,278, and 279; the first line in each of those three are:

Sabbe sankhara anicca or “all sankhara are anicca (cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction)”

Sabbe sankhara dukkha or “all sankhara eventually lead to dukkha

Sabbe dhamma anatta or “all dhamma are without substance (not fruitful) at the end”

  • It must be noted that “sankhara” mean all three types (mano sankhara, vaci sankhara, kaya sankhara) that lead to any action, speech, or thought. All three types of sankhara arise in the mindvaci sankhara control speech and kaya sankhara control the body; see, “Our Mental Body – Gandhabbaya“.
  • Abhisankhara (potent sankhara) give rise to kamma beeja, which in turn can give rise to sankataa rupa. Any rupa (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 only thing that is not destroyed is nama gotta, which are just records of “all events” (sankhara and abhisankhara) 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.

2. 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 Nibbana in dhamma (p. 57 of 1974 edition). He took the difference between dhamma and sankhara to be Nibbana.

  • But as you can see, sankhara and dhamma are two different entities. Sankhara are only what we generate in minds.
  • Furthermore, Nibbana is not in this world. Therefore, to say Nibbana 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.
  • The problems with the traditional interpretation of anicca, dukkha, anatta are discussed in, “Anicca, Dukka, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“, and  “Anicca, Dukka, Anatta – True Meanings“. Furthermore, anicca, dukkha, anatta are characteristics of “this world of 31 realms”; Nibbana is not included.

3. When we do abhisankhara (strong types of sankhara), that lead to the formation of good or bad kamma beeja, which are part of dhamma. Those strong kamma beeja can lead to the arising of future sankata (living beings and inert things).

  • And nama gotta (pronounced “näma goththä) are just records of what happened. Thus dhamma include sankharakamma beejasankata, nama gotta, and anything else in this world including concepts (pannati) that can be grasped by the mind.

4. Unlike sankhara, kamma beeja, and sankata, nama gotta are PERMANENT (they are just records). This is why someone with abhinna 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 sankhara) an “imprint” (“näma satahana“) is made. Thus for a given sentient being, a record of all activities from the beginning-less time survives, and is one’s nama 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 abhinna through anariya jhanas can trace back the nama gotta for a limited time; but if the abhinna powers were developed with Ariya jhanas, 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 nama gotta); this is why it is said that there is no traceable beginning to the rebirth process.

5. It is easier to explain this “nama 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 “rupa” or physical bodies (which were sankata) have decayed long ago. But their nama gottta are with us to a certain extent. How much of their memories or “nama 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 “nama gotta“; some young children can recall some events in their “nama gotta” in their previous lives.
  • What can be done with abhinna powers is very similar. The abhinna powers enormously stretch the memory or the ability to “look back” at past events in one’s nama gotta.

6. Since nama 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, nama gotta do not have the characteristics of anicca and dukkha.
  • But there is nothing substantial to be had with nama gotta too. Thus they are also anatta.

7. The Buddha’s last words were, “vaya dhamma sankhara, appamadena sanpadeta“, or “sankhara are vaya dhamma, i.e., those that lead to one’s demise (i.e., lead to bad outcomes); therefore, sort out such “san” without delay”.

  • Vaya” means destruction or decay; here it specifically means destruction of morality.
  • Sankhara are those these three types (mano, vaci, and kaya sankhara) 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 sankhara are “vaya dhamma” (those leading to bad outcomes), and thus to clearly comprehend what sankhara are.

8. In the Najeerati Sutta, the nature of nama gotta is clearly stated:

  • rupan jeerati maccanan,  nama gottan najeerati“, or, “material things are subject to decay or jeerati (pronounced “jeerathi“) and death or destruction (maccanan; pronounced ‘machchänan”), but nama gotta do not decay.
  • The “rupa” of those two US presidents we mentioned earlier have decayed and gone. But their nama gotta remain with us, because they are mixed in with our nama gotta at some points and we can access our nama gotta with memory. Someone with abhinna powers can look at a complete nama gotta not only spanning a complete life, but also going back to many lives. All of our nama gotta, back to beginning-less time, are there whether accessed or not.
  • But Dhamma are basically anything in this world (including nama gotta and pannati 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 Nibbana 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 Nibbana.
  • Only Nibbana, 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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