Revised May 12, 2016
There is much confusion about these words. These are key Dhamma concepts, and one needs to sort them out in order to really understand other key concepts like rebirth and Paticca Samuppāda. Please read the post, “What is “San”? – Meaning of sansāra (or Samsara)” before reading this post.
sankhāra (what we accumulate)
1. “Punnābhi sankhāra, apunnābhi sankhāra, ānenjābhi sankhāra ayan vuccathi avijjā paccayā sankhāra“. This is how the short verse of “avijjā paccayā sankhāra” in akusala-mūla paticca samuppāda is explained in detail.
- Thus only abhisankhāra (“abhi” means higher or stronger), those sankhāra done with avijjā, lead to the rebirth process.
- Note that punnābhi sankhāra is punna+abhisankhāra, and similarly the other two are also abhisankhāra. Also, “apunna” means immoral,” punna” means moral, and “ānenja” means “higher jhanic“. All three modes lead to rebirth in one of the 31 realms (lowest 4 realms with apunnābhi sankhāra, realms 5 through 11 with punnābhi sankhāra, and realms 12 through 31 with annejabhi sankhāra, respectively).
- Thus any kind of abhisankhāra is done with ignorance (avijjā or not knowing the real characteristics of this world of 31 realms: anicca, dukkha, anatta).
- However, we will see below that we do need to accumulate punnābhi sankhāra in a strategical way, mainly to avoid rebirth in the apāyas (lowest four realms) until we attain Nibbāna.
2. As we saw above, “san” is what one acquires when one does anything with sancetana (“san” + “cetana”). sankhāra (san+kāra) is simply actions that lead to acquiring “san“. However, it is only “abhisankhāra” or sankhāra that arise through avijjā that can lead to rebirth. There is a difference between sankhāra and abhisankhāra:
- When deeds are done to live in this world, one has to do sankhāra. They become abhisankhāra when those are done with greed, hate, and/or ignorance. sankhāra become abhisankhāra when one starts generating further thoughts (“wheeling process”) about the sense experiences (pictures, sounds, tastes, etc) ; see #9 on “Nibbāna – Is It Difficult to Understand?“.
- Thus an Arahant does sankhāra to live; even breathing is kāya sankhāra. But an Arahant has stopped the “wheeling process” or form an attachment to what is seen, heard, etc. It is that “wheeling process”, which is detailed in the Paticca Samuppāda section that leads to abhisankhāra.
3. Abhisankhāra are three kinds as mentioned above:
- There are actions that lead to bad consequences during life and also to bad rebirths in the four lowest realms (apāyas). These are “apunnābhi sankhāra” or immoral deeds.
- Actions that lead to good consequences in life and also to good rebirths are called “punnābhi sankhāra” or meritorious deeds; these lead to birth in good realms (human, deva, and the rūpa lōkas), thus avoiding rebirth in bad realms where one could get trapped for many aeons. Thus it is important to accumulate punnābhi sankhāra; more on this below.
- When one cultivates “lōkiya jhānas” or mundane higher meditative states (arūpa jhāna leading to rebirth in the highest four arūpa lōka realms), via breath meditation for example, one is able to be reborn in the four higher Brahma worlds. These also prolong sansāra, and are called “ānenjābhi sankhāra“.
- It is interesting to note that “ānenjābhi” means “no more rebirths”: the ancient yogis (including Alara Kalama and Uddakarama Putta) thought these realms have infinite lifetimes and equated the births there to the “ultimate release”. Of course, the Buddha found out that those also have finite lifetimes, even though extremely long lasting aeons.
Therefore, it is easy to remember abhisankhāra as those actions that lead to prolonging sansāra (or samsāra), the cycle of rebirths. There is a “latent energy” that is produced by each such action (abhisankhāra) that will give fruits at a later time.
4. Such “actions” can be done via the mind, speech, or the body; these lead to manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra respectively. The “defiled actions” are abhisankhāra.
5. Does this mean one should not do meritorious deeds (with punnābhisankhāra) because those also prolong sansāra? No. The Buddha emphasized that one should not shy away from doing meritorious deeds.
- There is a way to do meritorious deeds without prolonging sansāra, and that is detailed in the “Kusala-mūla Paticca Samuppāda“, an important part of the Buddha’s Paticca samuppāda doctrine that has been hidden for thousands of years. But one needs to stay away from wishing for “things in return” for such meritorious deeds as much as possible, because such thoughts are based on greed.
- In the Abhidhamma language, one should generate “ñāna sampayutta, somamnassa sahagata citta” (thoughts generated with wisdom and joy), which is the highest moral (sobhana) citta. Here wisdom means comprehension of the true nature; it starts with getting rid of 10 miccā ditthi and then further grows as one understands anicca, dukkha, anatta to higher levels. Wisdom culminates at the Arahant stage.
- Any good deed will have its good consequences whether one wishes or not. By wishing for “material things” or “jhanic pleasures” one turns a meritorious action to either a less potent “nana vippayutta” (devoid of wisdom) moral citta or even an apunnābhi sankhāra. We will discuss that below.
Kamma (Actions to Prolong sansāra)
Kammic energy is generated when one turns sankhāra to abhisankhāra by the “wheeling process”; see above. For example, when one sees an object, that is just sankhāra due to a kamma vipāka. However, if one then starts thinking about how good it is, or think about how to acquire it, then it becomes abhisankhāra; here one now has INTENTIONS about that object, one is hoping to get something.
- That is why the Buddha said, “cetana ham Bhikkhave kamman vadami“, i.e., “I say that intention is kamma“.
- So it is important to remember that kamma is intention, and even though it can be done by the mind, speech, or the body, all those have their root in the mind. We cannot say anything or do anything without a thought in the mind to do so (see the Abhidhamma section for details).
- For example, the intention to go for a walk is a kamma that does not have any power to generate a good or bad vipāka in the future. That kamma will only get that task done.
Thus the key to Nibbāna is to stop valuing and thinking about käma äsvada (sense pleasures). This cannot happen until one sees the fruitlessness of sense pleasures in the long run (anicca, dukkha, anatta); see, the section Äsvada (Mind-Made Pleasures), Ädeenava (Bad Outcomes), Nissarana (Relinquish) under Paticca Samuppāda.
Kamma Beeja (Kamma Seeds) or Kamma Bhava
When a kamma (abhisankhāra) is committed, the kammic potential of that kamma is deposited in a kamma beeja (kamma seed); kamma seed is NOT a physical entity, it is an “energy” or “potential” to bring about an effect in the future. It can also be called a “kamma bhava“.
- A kamma seed can be compared to a normal seed, say for example, a seed of an apple tree. The potential to bring about a fully grown apple tree is in the apple seed. However, if the seed is kept in a dry place with no contact with soil, it does not get to germinate. It will germinate if placed under soil and fed with water and nutrients. Then it can grow to an apple tree which can yield thousand more seeds.
- Similarly, a kamma seed has the POTENTIAL to germinate or come to fruition if suitable conditions appear; but a kamma seed is an energy lying below the suddhashtaka stage. It can then yield results with an impact that is many times the impact of the original deed (this holds true for both good and bad); the results are the kamma vipāka; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.
- It is also possible to remove many of one’s bad kamma seeds. When we acquire a “bad kamma seed” we get indebted to another being. Just like one can be debt-free by paying off existing loans, one can “pay back” old debts that have been accumulated in the cycle of rebirths by “transferring merits” when one does good deeds, and also by doing the Ariya metta bhavana; see, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidana)- How Does that Happen?” and “5. Ariya Metta Bhavana (Loving Kindness Meditation)“.
Nothing in this world is permanent (but that impermanence is not anicca); kammic energy in a kamma seed also eventually loses its power, and the “staying power” depends on the strength of the particular kamma. For example, those seed corresponding to “anantariya akusala kamma” such as killing one’s parents or an Arahant, will bring fruits without delay (i.e., in the very next birth) before they lose their power.
Kamma vipāka (Results of a Kamma Seed or Kamma Bhava)
So it is important to distinguish between kamma and kamma vipāka: the first is the action, second is the consequence. When someone laments “this is my kamma” when he/she faces a bad situation, what is really meant is that this happens “because of what I had done in the past”. It is a kamma vipāka.
When one does something good or bad that kammic energy is deposited as a kamma beeja (seed), which is also called a kamma bhava. Then that kammic energy can give rise to kamma vipāka in the future when suitable conditions materialize. There are two ways to avoid kamma vipāka:
- Just like a seed will not germinate until the right conditions appear (soil, water, sunlight), kamma vipāka cannot materialize until suitable conditions appear. Thus by acting mindfully (not getting into “bad situations”) one can avoid them; see, “Annantara Samanantara paccayā“.
- Most importantly, we can remove many kamma seeds by doing metta bhavana. When we acquire a bad kamma seed we become indebted to another being; we can get rid of that kamma seed by paying off that debt. The best way to do that is to ask for forgiveness and transfer merits of one’s good deeds to all beings (since we have become indebted to uncountable number of beings); see, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation“.
Kamma vipāka (from the germination of seeds) lead to two main consequences:
- They can lead to consequences during a lifetime (either the present or a future life). These are called “pavutti kamma bhava“.
- Some strong kamma vipāka give rise to new existence (in the rebirth process). These are called “uppatthi kamma bhava“.
In either case, kamma vipāka are NOT deterministic. Both types can be reduced in strength or even be made ineffective. This can be done via several ways:
- When one becomes an Arahant, since there is no more rebirth, all kamma seeds that do not get to come to fruition before the death of an Arahant become ineffective in producing a rebirth: Because an Arahant has removed avijjā, the “akusala-mūla paticca samuppāda cycle” becomes ineffective and thus “bhava paccayā jati” does not get to initiate a new birth.
- However, even an Arahant is subjected to any kamma vipāka that get a chance to emerge during the current life, especially the strong ones. Even the Buddha suffered from physical pains during the last years of his life. Even if one transfers merits to other beings (as Arahants do), if the other being cannot accept those merits, then those debts do not get paid off; see, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidana) – How Does it Happen?“. Thus even the Buddha had a few “unpaid debts” left.
- We all have done innumerable kamma in this long sansāra. Thus many kamma seeds are waiting to “bear fruit” under right conditions. This is a key point one really needs to digest. Just like a seed can lay dormant for long times, and start germinating only under the right conditions (soil, water), a kamma vipāka bears fruit only when the conditions become right.
- Thus most kamma vipāka can be suppressed and avoided (not letting them germinate) by acting with mindfulness (yōniso manasikara). This is where a calm mind helps. An agitated mind is not able to make rational decisions. See, “Key to Calming the Mind“. As mentioned there, working on the Five Hindrances (panca nivarana), that covers a mind, is important.
How to do Meritorious Deeds without accumulating Abhisankhāra
Most people, even born Buddhists, do not get this right. They think Nibbāna can be attained by just doing meritorious deeds. Here are some key points to consider:
1. One definitely needs to avoid apunnābhi sankhāra (unmeritorious deeds) that will lead to bad life events and/or bad rebirths, i.e., the four lower realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of the Dhamma“. They are “akusala” by definition, but ones of the worst kind; these are called “pāpa” in Pali and Sinhala and “paw” (rhymes with “cow”) in Sinhala. This is what one needs to avoid in leading a moral life; see, “Moral Living“.
2. Punnābhi sankhāra (meritorious deeds) may be accompanied by apunnābhi sankhāra if one’s intention is not good. If one does a good deed AND wishes for something in return, that wishing is done with greed. Any good deed WILL produced good results whether one wishes or not. They actually lead to good life events and good rebirths (at or above human realm). Thus punnābhi sankhāra can help in pursuing Nibbāna, and should be done without greedy intentions. A Sotapanna automatically does meritorious deeds with such understanding; we will discuss this in the “Kusala-mūla Paticca Samuppāda“. Thus the Aryan way is to do a good deed and share the merits of that deed with all beings, instead of wishing for something in return.
- Thus one needs to be careful here because one may be acquiring apunnābhi sankhāra at the same time. This is a bit complex and is best illustrated with an example. Suppose one donates a meal to a hungry person. That act is inherently one that will produce a good outcome. However, if the person “makes a wish” such as “may I get delicious foods in the future because of this good deed”, that is a greedy thought, a greedy intention (cetana). Thus while this does not negate the good deed, it also could produce ANOTHER kamma vipāka leading to bad life events.
- This pitfall can be avoided by doing the good deed with a pure intention, that is not associated with greed, hate, or ignorance. One gives a meal to hungry person out of compassion; to quench the hunger. That is all. Here one does not lose any possible benefits of the act.
- When one starts comprehending anicca (that one cannot maintain anything to one’s satisfaction over the long run), one AUTOMATICALLY stops wishing for “good things”.
- Furthermore, one can reap more benefits by additionally doing a mental act to quench the potential of previous bad kamma seeds. This is called “giving of merits” or “pattidana” which is mislabelled as “punna anumōdana” frequently; see, “Ten Moral Actions (Dasa Kusala) and Ten Meritorious Actions (Punna Kriya)“. One could wish that the merits of this good deed be shared with all other beings. We have built-up debts with all the beings in this long sansāra, that needs to be paid off (see, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation“). Thus, sharing the merits actually becomes a “visankhāra” or “unwinding the power of previous sankhāra“. This is thus one way to lessen the impact of previous bad kamma vipāka.
- The Buddha said that one always need to do good, meritorious, deeds. Giving is especially encouraged. One could turn these deeds to visankhāra by sharing the merits. By the way, sharing merits does not remove any possible good outcomes to oneself. Those were already acquired in the original act itself. The key here is not to wish for “profits in return”, because such thoughts are associated with greed (of course this cannot be stopped by sheer will power until one comprehends anicca).
3. The third kind of abhisankhāra, “ānenjābhi sankhāra” are associated with higher (arūpavacara) jhanic states attained via samatha bhavana, such as breathing meditation or kasina meditation. They are pursued in order to achieve higher meditative states, and thus are pursued with a greedy thought (pleasure).
- These meditation techniques do not help with the cleansing of the asavas; see, “Samsaric Habits and Asavas“, and “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Asavas“.
4. Lokottara (transcendental) jhanic states are achieved automatically when pursuing Nibbāna. The goal here was to achieve Nibbāna, and thus no sankhāra are accumulated in this process. This brings up another question: Is seeking Nibbāna another type of craving (āsava)?
- Nibbāna is attained via removing craving for everything in this world: “rāgakkhayō Nibbānan, Dōsakkhayō Nibbānan, Mōhakkhayō Nibbānan”.
- “Craving” for Nibbāna is called chanda (one of the The Four Bases of Mental Power (Satara Iddhipada). This “liking for Nibbāna” is the key factor that fuels the other three: viriya (effort), citta (thoughts), and vimansa (investigations).
- Thus in seeking Nibbāna, one is not craving for anything in this world. One is thinking and working diligently to comprehend the true nature of the world (vimansa), and with that wisdom gained, the mind automatically gives up craving for anything.
kāya, Vaci, and manō sankhāra
1. sankhāra can lead to body movements, speech, and thoughts; they are respectively called kāya, Vaci, and manō sankhāra. If those are not done with greed, hate, or ignorance, they are merely sankhāra. But if they are done with greed, hate, or ignorance, they become abhisankhāra.
2. By the way, speech is not vaci sankhāra, but it is kāya sankhāra. One has to move body parts in the mouth (lips, jaws, tongue, etc) to speak. Vaci sankhāra are generated when we “talk to ourselves” without getting the words out, i.e., conscious, deliberate thinking.
- When we are thinking about doing something we “play it out” in the mind (for example reciting something silently in the mind). That is mostly vaci sankhāra; also called vitakka and vicara; when we are thinking and contemplating Dhamma concepts, they are called savitakka and savicara, with the prefix “sa” denoting “good”.
- manō sankhāra are feelings (vedana) and perceptions (sanna) that arise automatically due to a sense input that comes via a kamma vipāka .
3. Thus it is clear that most enjoyments that we experience come through vaci sankhāra. We can be sitting at one place quietly and generating enormous amounts of vaci sankhāra, thoroughly enjoying the experience. Most people do this when they go to bed at night while waiting to fall asleep.
- It is a good idea to try to keep the mind away from defiled thoughts while falling asleep; this can be done getting to habit of thinking about a Dhamma concept, or to listen to chanting of sutta (pirith), keeping the volume low (like playing background music); see, “Sutta Chanting (with Pali Text)“. It will be easier to fall asleep and one will have a restful sleep too.
For more details, see, “Sankhāra and Kammā, Viññāna and Kamma Beeja “.