Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means

February 25, 2017; revised January 3, 2018; July 25, 2019; May 17, 2020; re-written January 23, 2021; revised December 23, 2022

July 7, 2021: It is critically important to understand what is meant by “saṅkhāra.” I just started a new section, “Basic Framework of Buddha Dhamma” to discuss the relationship among the Noble Truths, Tilakkhana, and Paṭicca Samuppāda. I include this post in that section.

“Mental Formations”? – What Does That Mean?

1. “Mental formations” and “formations” are the conventional translations for sankhāra. Indeed, the former is a better translation. But it is much better to grasp the idea of saṅkhāra and use that word. I recommend the same for most critical Pāli words like saññā and viññāna.

  • It comes from “san” + “khāra” or actions that involve “san; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.
  • All saṅkhāra arises in mind. When they lead to conscious thinking or speech, they are called vaci saṅkhāra. Those conscious thoughts that lead to bodily actions are kāya saṅkhāra. On the other hand, manō saṅkhāra arises automatically in the mind.
  • Therefore, “san” is associated with anything one thinks about doing.
  • Sankhāra are responsible for just getting things done to live the current life (everyday activities). They can also lead to moral/immoral actions that can bring results (vipāka) in future lives.
Categorizations of Saṅkhāra

2. First categorization: Saṅkhāra can be of three types: mano, vaci, and kāya. Mano saṅkhārā arise automatically due to one’s gati. For example, when one hears a type of music, one may generate “thoughts of liking.” But another person may not like that music. That is why it depends on one’s gati.

  • Based on such mano saṅkhārā, one may start consciously thinking (talking to oneself) about it, and one may start talking about that music in the above example. Both are vaci saṅkhāra. See “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • Kāya saṅkhāra are “conscious thoughts” that make our bodies move.
Kammically Neutral or Not

3. Second Categorization: Some saṅkhāra are kammically neutral. Others have kammic consequences.

  • Thinking about going to the store to buy food is a vaci saṅkhāra. One walks to the store using kāya saṅkhāra. Both are kammically neutral.
  • Thinking involving greed, anger, and ignorance will have kammic consequences. They can bring vipāka in the future. A strong saṅkhāra that could lead to rebirth is abhisaṅkhāra.
  • Thinking angry thoughts about an enemy is a vaci saṅkhāra with kammic consequences. If then one hits that person, that is done with kāya saṅkhāra. Both have kammic consequences.
  • Saṅkhāra with kammic consequences can be categorized according to the type of kamma. Let us discuss that now.
Saṅkhāra With Kammic Consequences

4. Third Categorization: Those with kammic consequences fall into three categories.

  • Apuñña saṅkhāra are “defiled thoughts” (with greed, hate, ignorance.)  Apuñña means “immoral.”
  • On the other hand, puñña saṅkhāra are “moral thoughts” (without greed, hate, or ignorance.)  They are thoughts responsible for proper speech and actions) and have good kammic consequences.
  • There is a third type with kammic consequences:  āneñjābhisaṅkhāra. These come in ONLY the abhisaṅkhāra category leading to rebirth (see below.)
  • Good or bad kammā are done via those types of saṅkhāra. They can immediately bring results (kamma vipāka) in this life or future lives. However, not all kammā lead to kamma vipāka; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

5. Strong saṅkhāra with kammic consequences are abhisaṅkhāra, where abhi” means “strong.” They usually indicate those leading to rebirths.

  • Apuñña abhisaṅkhāra (or apunnābhisaṅkhāra) can lead to birth in the apāyās. Such “strong” saṅkhāra are typically vaci saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra. Mano saṅkhārā have kammic consequences but do not lead to rebirth.
  • Puñña abhisaṅkhāra (or punnābhisaṅkhāra) lead to “good births,” specifically in the human realms, 6 Deva realms, and the 16 rupāvacara Brahma realms. These include engaging in “moral deeds” and cultivating the lower four rupāvacara jhāna. Even more importantly, they are essential for making progress on the Path.
  • Āneñjābhisaṅkhāra (or āneñja abhisaṅkhāra) lead to rebirths in the arupāvacara Brahma realms. That means the cultivation of the higher four arupāvacara jhāna. They lead to rebirths in the four arupāvacara Brahma realms. See #3 in, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka.”
Why Do “Good Saṅkhāra” Also Arise With Avijjā?

6. “Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” explains the step “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” as, “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro.”

Translated: “What is meant by ‘avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā?’ It means Puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra.”

  • So, how can puññābhisaṅkhāra and āneñjābhisaṅkhāra arise due to avijjā, if they are “good saṅkhāra?”
  • This CRITICAL point differentiates “living a moral life” from “working towards Nibbāna.”
Avijjā Is Ignorance About the Four Noble Truths!

7. One can be engaged in “moral deeds” and cultivate anariya jhāna without comprehending the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca samuppāda/Tilakkhana.

  • That is why ANY living-being living today has been born in most higher realms, as well as in suffering-filled lower realms, an uncountable number of times. Most live in the “bad realms” (apāyās) today.
  • Some of us are living in a good realm today, but we will not be released from future rebirths in the apāyās until we comprehend the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.
  • That is the CRITICAL point to understand.
The Essence of Buddha Dhamma – Four Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana 

8. The Four Noble Truths are: (1) the rebirth process is filled with suffering, (2) The root cause of that suffering is not understanding (avijjā) that our cravings for sensory pleasures (summarized as icchā/taṇhā), (3) That suffering-filled rebirth process will end when avijjā/taṇhā removed, and, (4) The way to achieve that is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Paṭicca Samuppāda explains HOW good OR bad rebirths (jāti) arise due to the generation of (abhi)saṅkhāra via avijjā. That is why the Paṭicca Samuppāda process starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā.”
  • Tilakkhana explains why it is NOT ENOUGH to engage in moral deeds. However, engaging in moral deeds is necessary to comprehend Tilakkhana. That is why the cultivation of the mundane eightfold path comes first. See “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty).”
  • When one starts understanding Tilakkhana, one becomes a Sotapanna Anugāmi. At that point, one automatically switches over to the Noble Eightfold Path. Following that path leads to various magga phala and eventually the Arahant stage.
  • Now that we have the above summary, we can look into the word saṅkhāra a bit more.
Relationship Between Vedanā and Mano Saṅkhāra

9.  To generate saṅkhāra, one MUST feel (vedanā) and recognize (saññā) something first. That “something” is a new ārammaṇa coming through one of the six sense faculties.

  • Mano saṅkhāra (same as citta saṅkhāra) are DEFINED as “saññā ca vedanā ca citta saṅkhāro” in the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44).”
  • Thus, when a new ārammaṇa comes to the mind, mano/citta saṅkhāra (vedanā, saññā) arise automatically.
  • Therefore, mano saṅkhārā arise automatically WITH a new ārammaṇa (which is due to a kamma vipāka.) As we discuss below, such mano saṅkhārā arise according to one’s gati/anusaya.
Based on Mano Saṅkhāra We May Generate New Kamma

10. Based on that kamma vipāka, we may generate a new kamma. If one gets “attached” to that ārammaṇa, one starts thinking how nice it would be to enjoy it more, for example. That could lead to immoral speech/actions, i.e., vaci and kāya saṅkhāra that are apuññābhisaṅkhāra.

  • Of course, some ārammaṇa (seeing someone doing a good deed, for example) may initiate “good, moral thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra). Those can develop by talking about it (more vaci saṅkhāra) and even taking actions with kāya saṅkhāra (like helping that person to continue those efforts.) Thye are all puññābhisaṅkhāra.
  • Therefore, initial mano saṅkhārā can be good or bad and can lead to puññābhisaṅkhāra or apuññābhisaṅkhāra.
Mano Saṅkhāra and Gati/Anusaya

11. Those initial manō saṅkhāra are automatically in mind due to one’s gati/anusaya. Then subsequent vaci and kāya saṅkhāra are generated, and we do have control over those; see, for example, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”

  • So, the seeds for thinking, speaking, and acting start at the instant of the first sensory input: seeing something or hearing something that gets one’s attention.
  • If the sensory input is strong (and one gets interested in it via like or dislike), many such citta vithi will flow quickly. This leads to corresponding vaci and kāya saṅkhāra to “talk to oneself,” speak out or do bodily actions.
  • It is a good idea to follow the new section “Understanding the Terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda” to clarify that in detail. But let us discuss a few more details.
The Way to Purify the Mind

12. As we can see from the above discussion, the mind is not pure UNTIL undefiled mano saṅkhāra arise automatically. By that time, anusaya and “defiled gati” would have been removed from the mind.

  • That is achieved by being mindful at all times and following the three critical steps in meditation: (1) stopping bad vaci and kāya saṅkhāra, (2) cultivating good vaci and kāya saṅkhāra, and — most importantly — comprehending the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.
  • Comprehending Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana makes one understand the dangers in the rebirth process. With the understanding, one’s goal will change from “enjoying life” to “seeking Nibbāna.”
  • For that to happen, one would have to “see” the hidden dangers in sense pleasures. Then the “tendency to attach” (see #10 above) will decrease.  When that happens, “puññābhisaṅkhāra” will “switch over” to “kusala kammā,” leading to Nibbāna. See, “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Puñña and Pāpa Kamma.” I highly recommend reading this post.
  • That is how one starts on the Noble Path. That is why Sammā Dihi is the first step there.

13. The following “wise words” summarize the process of “cleansing the mind”:

  • Watch your conscious thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra) – they become words (stronger vaci saṅkhāra.)
  • Watch your words – they become actions (kāya saṅkhāra.)
  • Watch your actions – they become habits (gati.)
  • Watch your habits – they become your character (stronger gati.)
  • Watch your character – it becomes your destiny (future births.)

Steps in Paṭicca Samuppāda describe that sequence. The following are further clarifications.

Vaci and Kāya Saṅkhāra Involve Javana Cittā Generating Kammic Energy

14. Conscious thinking that could lead to speaking and physical actions occur in the seven javana cittā in a citta vithi. We will discuss that in “Understanding the Terms in Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • Vaci or kāya saṅkhāra arise due to many citta vithi running one after another. As we discussed, billions of citta vithi can run in a second; see “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).”
  • Another critical point is that the javana citta in subsequent citta vithi gets stronger and stronger. This is why when we start thinking about a person we like or dislike, we can keep generating stronger feelings about the situation.
  • Sometimes, we can see people getting angry by the minute. They are generating a lot of vaci saṅkhāra even without getting a word out. But one can see the person getting highly agitated: the face gets red and facial expression can show how angry he/she has become.
Samphassa-jā-Vēdanā Lead to Vaci Saṅkhāra and Kāya Saṅkhāra

15. In the post, “Vedanā and Samphassa-Jā-Vedanā – More Than Just Feelings,” we discussed how samphassa-jā-vēdanā” could arise in our minds after the initial vipāka vēdanā. They are “mind-made” due to our gati/defilements and lead to new kamma.

  • Those “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” arise when we generate vaci saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra as a result of the initial vipāka vēdanā. Details at, “Vipāka Vēdanā and “Samphassa-jā-Vēdanā” in a Sensory Event.”
  • Those  “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” are all made by us consciously. However, for someone who has not cultivated Satipatthāna or Ānāpāna (the correct versions), this may not be obvious.
  • If one is mindful, one can see when one starts consciously having good or bad thoughts about sensory input. With practice, one can “catch oneself” before generating too many  “samphassa-jā-vēdanā” or — to say the same thing differently — before making a lot of vaci or kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Of course, if the ārammaṇa is a good, moral one, that would lead to good, moral vaci and kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Such good, moral vaci and kāya saṅkhāra can lead to Nibbāna IF one has comprehended the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana.
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