Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra

Vacī Sankhārās are involved in speech and conscious thoughts (talking to oneself), per Tipiṭaka.

November 8, 2016; revised September 25, 2018; October 16, 2020; May 8, 2024

July 12, 2021: It is critically important to understand what is meant by “saṅkhāra.” I just started a new “Basic Framework of Buddha Dhamma” section to discuss the relationship among the Noble Truths, Tilakkhana, and Paṭicca Samuppāda. I include this post in that section.

Conscious Thoughts Are Also Vaci Saṅkhāra

1. Many people believe that only speech involves vacī saṅkhāra. However, in the following, we will see that vacī saṅkhāra are our conscious, deliberate thoughts that can lead to speech. 

  • In the Cūḷa­ve­dalla­ Sutta (MN 44)” vacī saṅkhāra are defined as “vitakka vicārā vacī saṅkhāra,” which means “vacī saṅkhāra are vitakka and vicārā.” 
  • First, thoughts arise, then words may come out if “feelings” get strong; see Cūḷa­ve­dalla­ Sutta (MN 44)
  • So, we need to figure out what vitakka and vicāra are. A succinct explanation of vitakka can be found in the “Vitakka Sutta (SN 56.7).“
Vitakka Closely Resembles Saṅkappa

2. Vitakka and saṅkappa are closely related words. They are thoughts that arise based on a given thought object (ārammana). Once risen, vicāra keeps the mind engaged with that thought object, i.e., generating more thoughts about it. Abhidhamma gives the following analogy. A bee flying to a particular flower is like vitakka (going to a new ārammana), and then buzzing around that flower while drinking nectar is like vicāra (engaging with that ārammana).

  • For example, if we start thinking about an enemy, akusala vitakka (saṅkappa) arises. Then, we may spend many minutes or even hours thinking evil thoughts, and that is vicāra.
  • 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.
Vitakka/Vicāra, Savitakka/Savicāra, and Avitakka/Avicāra

3. Normally, vitakka and vicāra are associated with akusala thoughts. When used with the prefix “sa” (i.e., savitakka and savicāra), good and wholesome thoughts are indicated, the opposites of vitakka and vicāra.

  • Furthermore, the absence of vitakka and vicāra is indicated by the words avitakka and avicāra; however, savitakka and savicāra (“good thoughts) can be present. In fact, when discussing jhanasavitakka/avicāra refers to a state where only savitakka and savicāra are present.
  • A higher version of savitakka and savicāra is represented by “Sammā Saṅkappa.”  While savitakka and savicāra represent “moral thoughts” by any person, “Sammā Saṅkappa” can arise only in a Noble Person. In the “Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (MN 117), “ sammā saṅkappa is defined as “thinking, re-thinking, Noble thoughts (vacī saṅkhāra) devoid of āsava. See #11 of “Vacī Saṅkhāra – Saṅkappa (Conscious Thoughts) and Vācā (Speech).”

4. Following is the basic idea of the “Vitakka Sutta (SN 56.7)“:

  • Bhikkhus, do not engage in evil unwholesome thoughts, which are sensual thoughts, thoughts of ill will, thoughts of harming others (pāpake akusale vitakke vitakkeyyātha, seyyathidaṃ— kāma vitakkaṃ, ­byāpā­da­ vitak­kaṃ, vihiṃ­sā­ vitak­kaṃ).
  • For what reason? These thoughts, bhikkhus, are without real substance (Nete, bhikkhave, vitakkā atthasaṃhitā), irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to escape from this world and to Nibbāna. When your mind starts such thoughts, bhikkhus, you should think: ‘This will lead to suffering.’
  • Instead, you should think, ‘These are the causes of suffering’; you should think, ‘The way to the cessation of suffering is by cultivating thoughts of renunciation and compassion.” Such thoughts will lead to escape from this world, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”
Savitakka/Savicāra Are Present in “Good Thoughts”

5. When describing jhāna, vitakka and vicāra specifically refer to kāma rāga, vyāpāda or other akusala. There, avitakka and avicāra mean the absence of them.

  • 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: Eliminating (or suppressing) vitakka/vicāra and cultivating savitakka/savicāra.
  • This is seen in any sutta that describes 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.
Kammaṭṭhāna (Meditation Recital) Can Be Silent

6. When doing a kammaṭṭhāna (i.e., meditation recital), one could either say the phrase(s) out loud or recite it 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 meditation phrase’s concepts, the more powerful javana citta will be, and thus, the more effective the meditation session becomes.
  • When starting 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 can recite it internally without getting the words out.
  • This is an example of a punnābhi saṅkhāra (meritorious deed) that involves vacī saṅkhāra.
Need to Be Careful With Silent Vaci Saṅkhāra

7. Now, let us consider an apunnābhi saṅkhāra (immoral deed) that involves vacī saṅkhāra, where one starts generating evil thoughts about an enemy or a person that one dislikes. One could generate a lot of such vacī saṅkhāra internally without saying a single word. However, when the feelings get intense, the words may just come out because the javana power of 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.
  • Like in the earlier example, the “power” behind 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 dealing with someone one hates.
Sammā Saṅkappa Involve Vacī Saṅkhāra

8. 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 involves both Sammā Saṅkappa and Sammā Vācā.

  • “Saṅkappa” in Pāli or “sankalpanā” in Sinhala means conscious thoughts that involve “saṅ” or things that contribute to the sansaric journey (rebirth process). Here “sankalpanā” (සංකල්පනා) comes from “saṅ” + “kalpanā,” where “kalpanā” means conscious thoughts. When one keeps thinking about something, those thoughts are “sankalpanā.”
  • Of course, “saṅ” is a crucial Pāli term in Buddha Dhamma; see the subsection posts, “Saṅ – A Critical Pāli Root.” Sammā means to get rid of, as discussed in the same section.
  • Therefore, Sammā Saṅkappa means removing bad conscious and deliberate thoughts and cultivating moral thoughts.
  • Sammā vācā involves stopping immoral speech and generating moral speech.

9. 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 a long time. When one becomes aware of such thoughts, one CAN stop them. This is the basis of both Anāpāna and Satipaṭṭhāna Bhāvanā.

Nibbāna Is Not “Stopping Thoughts”

10. I know of several “Buddhist” groups that try to “stop” all thoughts, believing that is what happens at the Arahant stage of Nibbāna. They think the Buddha spent 45 years of his life trying to teach people how to stop thoughts, which is an even worse interpretation of Nibbāna than the Mahāyānists.

  • When we are in deep sleep or unconscious, we do not “think thoughts.” Does that mean we can attain Arahanthood during such times?
  • The Buddha advised us to stop immoral thoughts and cultivate moral thoughts; that is how one purifies the mind. This is what one does in the correct ānāpānasati meditation, too; see “What is Ānāpāna?” and “Elephant in the Room 3 – Ānāpānasati.”
  • The reality is that Arahant‘s thoughts are crystal clear (and pure) because they are devoid of defilements. Their memory is, in fact, actually enhanced.
  • Stopping ALL thoughts can lead to loss of perception (asañña) and memory; those who cultivate asañña can be reborn in the asañña realm.
Mano Saṅkhāra Arise Automatically Per Our Gati

11. Manō saṅkhāra arises automatically according to our gati. We don’t have any control over manō saṅkhāra other than by changing our gati over time.

Kāya Saṅkhāra Control Bodily Actions

12. Kāya saṅkhāra involves kamma done with bodily actions. Thus, one can wrongly conclude that speech is also kāya saṅkhāra since body parts (tongue, lips, and associated facial muscles) are moved during speech.

  • To understand this, one must know how our body parts move according to our thoughts. If you are unfamiliar with Abhidhamma, you can skip the rest of the post.

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

Gandhabba (Mental Body) Controls the Physical Body

14. Let us briefly discuss how the mind of the gandhabba controls a physical body. The physical body is made of 32 parts, just like a robot, which is made of 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 tiny in “weight,” it has a fine body that spreads over the physical body like a fine mesh; it is more like an energy field. The gandhabba is associated with an invisible nervous system that overlaps the physical nervous system, which consists of billions of nerve cells.
  • Gandhabba also has the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and five pasāda rūpa (which 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.
The Role of the Brain

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

16. When someone decides to move his arm, the mind resides in the gandhabba makes that decision (and generates corresponding kāya saṅkhāra). Then, that signal goes to the brain, which converts that “mental signal” into chemical signals. They, in turn, transmit through the nervous system to the muscles in the arm and move it.

  • The energy produced by the digestion of our food goes into energizing the brain and moving body parts.
  • So, the gandhabba uses a negligible fraction of the energy needed to move body parts. That is similar to the tiny amount of energy a computer spends controlling a fighter jet. Jet fuel provides energy to move the heavy jet. In the same way, the food we eat provides the energy to move our physical bodies.
  • We generate that small energy in our thoughts — via javana cittā — as we discuss below.
Kāya and Vaci Viññatti Rūpa

17. 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 rūpās control bodily movements and the vacī viññatti rūpā control speech.
  • Javana cittās generate these “rūpa” or “energy signals.” Again, more information can be found in the Abhidhamma section.

18. Speech — done with vacī viññatti rūpa — is different from moving body parts. Speech involves complex muscle movements 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 javana citta responsible for speech. However, when we “talk to ourselves,” the javana citta responsible are weaker than those responsible for speech. But those two cētasika are in both types of javana citta.
  • Javana cittās 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 speaking) and kāya saṅkhāra (bodily actions) involve javana cittā. 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.”
Vottapana Citta – Decision to Take Action

19. The initial decision to generate vacī or kāya saṅkhāra 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 sensory 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.
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