Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra

November 8, 2016; revised September 25, 2018

Pronunciation of Pāli words like vacī, vitakka, and vicārā can be found in “Pāli Glossary – (L-Z)“.

1. Many people believe that vacī saṅkhāra are involved only in speech, i.e., when one speaks out. However, vacī saṅkhāra are defined as “vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāra“, which means “vacī saṅkhāra are vitakka and vicārā“. This is in, for example, “Cūḷa­ve­dalla­ Sutta (MN 44)“.

  • In the following we will see that vacī saṅkhāra are our conscious, deliberate thoughts in addition to speech.
  • Furthermore, this post explains how our minds initiate all our actions and speech via javana citta.

2. Vitakka is the cētasika that points the mind to a given thought object (ārammana). Vicāra cētasika keeps the mind engaged on that thought object, i.e., generating new thoughts about it. In Abhidhamma, this has been compared to a bee flying to a certain flower (Vitakka) and then buzzing around that flower (vicāra) while drinking nectar.

  • In the same way, when we focus the mind on a certain object, and then keep the mind there, we generate many thoughts about that object; these are conscious, deliberate thoughts, and not manō saṅkhāra that arise automatically.
  • For example, if we start thinking about an enemy, we could be spending a many minutes or even hours thinking bad thoughts (vacī saṅkhāra) about that person. We do most of that in our minds, just talking to ourselves. But we may also get some of those thoughts out as actual words.

3. However, vitakka and vicāra involve defiled thoughts or at least thoughts about getting things done to live this life.

  • When one generates thoughts that specifically do not involve kāma rāga or other akusala  but the opposites (nekkhamma/kusala) — those are called savitakka and savicāra.
  • That is how one gets into jhāna: By eliminating (or suppressing) vitakka/vicāra and cultivating savitakka/savicāra.
  • This is clearly seen in any sutta that describe jhāna. For example, in “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)“: “..So kho ahaṃ, ānanda, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharāmi.” When one is a jhāna, vitakka/vicāra with kāma rāga/akusala are absent and only savitakka/savicāra will be present.
  • In the above verse, “vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi” means kāma rāga/akusala are absent in the mind while in jhāna.

4. In contrast, when we first thought about that person in the example of #2 above, only manō saṅkhāra were AUTOMATICALLY generated according to our gati. We don’t have any control over manō saṅkhāra other than by changing our gati over time.

5. Kāya saṅkhāra involves kamma done with bodily actions. So, it is possible for one to come to the wrong conclusion that speech also is kāya saṅkhāra, since body parts (tongue, lips and associated facial muscles) are moved during speech.

  • I automatically came to that wrong conclusion when I first analyzed these terms, without contemplating deeply on them. The key is that speech originates via types of rūpa that are different from those rūpa that lead to other bodily movements (like walking or moving arms).
  • In order to understand this, one needs to have some idea of how our body parts move according to our thoughts.

6. Our physical body parts are really mechanical parts. There is no “life” in them unless a gandhabba controls that body. gandhabba is an important concept in Buddha Dhamma, but has been neglected simply because it is not discussed in the infamous Visuddhimagga and other literature by Buddhaghosa, who single-handedly distorted Buddha Dhamma; see, “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline“.

7. Let us briefly discuss how the mind of the gandhabba controls a physical body. The physical body is composed of 32 body parts just like a robot is made out of its various parts. What gives life to this physical body is the gandhabba, a very fine body smaller than an atom in modern science.

  • Even though the gandhabba is negligibly small in “weight”, it has this fine body that spreads over the physical body like a fine mesh; it is more like an energy field. There is a fine nervous system associated with the gandhabba that overlaps the physical nervous system consisting of billions of nerve cells.
  • Gandhabba also has the seat of mind (hadaya vatthu) and five pasāda rūpa (that receive signals from the five physical senses via the brain) located close to the physical heart; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body” for details.

8. How can such a negligibly small gandhabba move a heavy physical body? gandhabba is more like a signal source that gives appropriate commands. It is the brain (which is a very sophisticated computer) that translates those commands into actual signals given to the physical nervous system.

  • The energy to move those body parts comes from the food that we eat.
  • In the post, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“, and other related posts this is discussed in more detail. But let us discuss the concept using an example, without getting into those details.

9. When someone decides to move his arm, it is actually the mind that resides in the gandhabba that makes that decision (and generates corresponding vacī saṅkhāra). Then that signal is sent to the brain and the brain converts that “mental signal” into chemical signals that are transmitted through the nervous system to the muscles in the arm, which in turn move the arm.

  • The energy produced by the digestion of our food goes into energize the brain, as well as to move body parts.
  • So, the energy spent by the gandhabba is a negligible fraction of the energy that is needed to move body parts and to keep the brain functioning. This can be compared to the tiny amount of energy spent by a computer in controlling a fighter jet. The fighter jet gets its energy from the fuel burned, just like our physical body gets its energy from the food digested.
  • We generate that small energy in our thoughts — via javana citta — as we discuss below.

10. The commands from the gandhabba are signals or tiny amounts of energy, and these come in two varieties: kāya viññatti rūpa and vacī viññatti rūpa. These are two of the 28 types of rūpa in Abhidhamma.

  • The kāya viññatti rūpa control bodily movements, and vacī viññatti rūpa control speech.
  • These “rūpa” or “energy signals” are created in javana citta that arise in our thought streams or citta vithi. Again, more information can be found in the Abhidhamma section.

11. Speech — done with vacī viññatti rūpa — is different from moving body parts. Speech involves complex muscle movements that are not yet understood by science. Moving body parts — done with kāya viññatti rūpa — is simpler.

  • What is behind vacī viññatti rūpa are vitakka and vicārā cētasika that are in those javana citta responsible for speech. However, when we just “talk to ourselves”, the javana citta responsible are weaker than those responsible for actual speech. But those two cētasika are in both types of javana citta.
  • Those javana citta that are responsible for physical action (like raising an arm or walking) involve kāya viññatti rūpa, and the javana citta that generate those are even stronger.
  • Therefore, both vacī saṅkhāra (whether talking to oneself or actually speaking) and kāya saṅkhāra (bodily actions) involve javana citta. All kamma that can be controlled directly by us are done via javana citta; see, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)” and “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power“.

12. The initial decision to generate vacī or kāya saṅkhāra actually happens at the vottapana citta, which comes just before the seven javana citta in a citta vithi, which has 17 citta in total; see, “Citta Vithi – Processing of Sense Inputs“, and other related posts in the Abhidhamma section.

  • That “initial reaction” to a sense input comes AUTOMATICALLY in the vottapana citta, and the nature of that reaction depends on one’s gati. Thus, the AUTOMATIC manō saṅkhāra are generated in that vottapana citta.

13. If you are not familiar with Abhidhamma, don’t be discouraged by these details. I wrote this post to provide undeniable evidence that vacī saṅkhāra are generated not only during speech but also while “talking to oneself”.

  • But for those who are familiar with Abhidhamma, the relationship between terminology and  concepts could become much more clear with this discussion.

14. Now let us take a couple of examples to illustrate this without Abhidhamma. When one is doing a kammattana (i.e., meditation recital), one could either say the phrase(s) out loud or one could recite in one’s head. Both involve vaci saṅkhāra.

  • A kammatthāna can be done in either of those two ways, and both involve vacī saṅkhāra.
  • Furthermore, the more one understands the concepts behind the meditation phrase, the more powerful those javana citta will be, and thus more effective the meditation session becomes.
  • By the way, when one is starting on meditation, it is better to say the phrases out loud because it is easier to keep the mind on that topic. When one gets better at it, one could just recite it internally, without getting the words out.
  • This is an example of a punnābhi saṅkhāra (meritorious deed) that involves vacī saṅkhāra.

15. Now let us consider an apunnābhi saṅkhāra (immoral deed) that involves vacī saṅkhāra, where one starts generating bad thoughts about an enemy or a person that one dislikes. One could be generating a lot of such vacī saṅkhāra internally, without saying a single word. However, when the feelings get strong, the words may just come out because the javana power of those javana citta could become uncontrollable.

  • Even though the javana power involved in “silent vacī saṅkhāra” are less than those involved in speech, one could be generating much more of those  “silent vacī saṅkhāra” and thus could be generating more kamma vipāka.
  • Just like in the earlier example, the “power” behind those javana citta with vacī saṅkhāra will be higher when the degree of hate associated with that person is higher. That is why it is harder to control oneself, when one is dealing with a person that one really hates.

16. In the Noble Eightfold Path, Sammā saṅkappa deals with only one component of vacī saṅkhāra, those conscious thoughts without speech. Getting rid of all vacī saṅkhāra involve both Sammā Saṅkappa and Sammā Vācā.

  • “Saṅkappa” in Pāli or “sankappanā” in Sinhala means conscious thoughts that involve “san” or things that contribute to the sansaric journey (rebirth process). Here “sankappanā” comes from “san” + “kappana“, where “kappanā” means conscious thoughts. When one keeps thinking about something, those thoughts are called “sankappanā“.
  • Of course “san” is a key Pāli term in Buddha Dhamma; see the posts in the subsection, “San“. Sammā means to get rid of, as discussed in the same section.
  • Therefore, samma saṅkappa or Sammā sankappanā means removing bad conscious and deliberate thoughts, and cultivating moral thoughts.
  • Sammā vācā involves stopping immoral speech and generating moral speech.

17. The main point to be extracted from this discussion is that one needs to be very careful about generating hateful (or greedy) conscious thoughts for long times. When one becomes aware of such thoughts, one CAN stop them. This is the basis of both Anapana and Satipaṭṭhāna bhavana.

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