May 13, 2019; revised May 14, 2019; August 27, 2022
Origin of the Words Sankhāra and Sansāra
1. All kamma are done with saṅkhāra. However, only abhisaṅkhāra leads to strong kamma that can fuel the rebirth process.
- It is important to realize that saṅkhāra involves everything we do to live in “this world” of 31 realms. These include breathing, walking, eating, and pretty much everything we do; see “Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra.”
- Anything anyone does needs to start as a thought in one’s mind. For example, to lift a leg, one’s mind must decide on that first, even though it appears automatic. Anything one does starts with a thought of “san,” i.e., something to do with “this world”; see “San” and “List of “San” Words and Other Pāli Roots.” All these belong to saṅkhāra (“san” + “khāra” or action).
- Even an Arahant has to be engaged in saṅkhāra until Parinibbāna or death of the physical body.
2. Sankhāra becomes abhisaṅkhāra when acting with greed, hate, and ignorance; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“.
- The sansaric process or the rebirth process is fueled by abhisaṅkhāra. The prefix “abhi” means “strong.”
- An Arahant does not generate abhisaṅkhāra, i.e., thoughts of greed, hate, and ignorance.
- It must be noted that an Arahant would not generate puññābhisaṅkhāra (puñña abhisaṅkhāra) but can do puñña kiriya; see, “Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma“.
- Kriya means “actions” or “deeds” without the involvement of greed, hate, and ignorance.
- One’s puññābhisaṅkhāra turns to puñña kiriya when one fully comprehends Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
3. Therefore, the sansaric process — or the rebirth process — is fueled by abhisaṅkhāra.
- The word sansāra comes from “san” + “sāra” where “sāra” means “beneficial”; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“”.
- One will have the perception that “this world is beneficial or fruitful” as long as one cannot grasp that most births in this world are filled with suffering.
- Even though some realms (like human, deva, and Brahma) may have long stretches of “pleasures,” those are negligible compared to long stretches of suffering in the apāyās (the four lower realms, including the animal realm).
- Sansāric process is fueled by (abhi)saṅkhāra. This is why an Arahant will not be reborn in the 31 realms of this world. He/she would not generate abhisaṅkhāra.
Connection Between Sankhāra and Kammā
4. kammā is any action by us via body, speech, and thoughts (kāya, vaci, and manō kammā). Those three types of kammā are initiated by our thoughts, i.e., kāya, vaci, and manō saṅkhāra.
- We can see that kammā and saṅkhāra are closely related.
- The Buddha said, “cetana ham Bhikkhave kammām vadami”, i.e., “Bhikkhus, I say kammā is intention”. As we will see below, that intention is in saṅkhāra, embedded in the types of cetasika (mental factors).
- “Intention” depends on the types of cetasika in a thought (citta). For example, a thought with “greedy intention” will have the lōbha cetasika, but it may also have other cetasika like issa (jealousy).
5. Let us take some examples to illustrate this relationship. If you swing your arm, that is a kāya kammā, i.e., that action involves moving a body part. That was initiated by kāya saṅkhāra generated in mind.
- Now, if you swung your arm to get hold of a cup, that is a kammically neutral action (kammā) or just a saṅkhāra. You did not do either a moral or immoral act. The intention was to grab a cup, which did not involve any sōbhana or asōbhana cetasika. That is called a kiriya (kiriya in Sanskrit).
- On the other hand, if you swung your arm to hit someone, it was done with anger. So, the dōsa cetasika (an asōbhana cetasika) was in your thoughts. So, it was an apuññābhi saṅkhāra. It can also be called an akusala/apuñña kammā or an immoral deed.
- If you put your arms together to pay respects to the Buddha at a temple, that was done with saddhā cetasika (a sōbhana cetasika), and thus it was a puññābhisaṅkhāra. It can also be called a kusala/puñña kammā or a moral deed.
6. We can see that all kamma involve the mind; they are initiated by saṅkhāra.
- Manō saṅkhāra are thoughts that come automatically to the mind when a sense object is experienced.
- Then if that object is of interest, we start generating conscious thoughts (speaking to ourselves)without talking, and then we may speak out; both are vaci saṅkhāra.
- If we then start moving body parts to respond, those are initiated by kāya saṅkhāra.
- Also, see “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
7. Thus, it is important to note that kāya saṅkhāra are also thoughts. They are responsible for body movements, i.e., kāya kammā. They are also responsible for making “bodily gestures” or “kāya viññatti.”
- In other words, all saṅkhāra are generated by the mental body (gandhabba). It commands the brain to move body parts or to move lips and tongue to speak; see “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba” and other posts on gandhabba.
- Furthermore, kāya kammā, vaci kammā, and manō kammā are all initiated by the respective types of saṅkhāra: kāya, vaci, and manō saṅkhāra.
- More information on these terms can be found at, “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka“.
Sankhāra and Kammā Can be Good or Bad
8. Therefore, saṅkhāra can be understood in a deeper sense by realizing that types of saṅkhāra generated are defined by the types of cetasika (mental factors) in one’s thoughts.
- Some citta (thoughts) do not have either good (sōbhana) cetasika or bad (asōbhana) cetasika. Such a citta is said to have kammically neutral saṅkhāra. Such kammically neutral saṅkhāra involve only the types of cetasika like vedana, saññā, and viriya that do not belong to either sōbhana or asōbhana categories.
- Kammically relevant saṅkhāra (or abhisaṅkhāra) involve either sōbhana cetasika (for kusala kammā) or asōbhana cetasika (for akusala kammā).
- Therefore, it is easy to see that abhisaṅkhāra that involve sōbhana cetasika are puñña abhisaṅkhāra or puññābhisaṅkhāra. Those that involve asōbhana cetasika are apunnābhisaṅkhāra; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.
9. Knowing a bit of Abhidhamma can help clarify certain key dhamma concepts. It is not hard to learn. Since Abhidhamma was finalized after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha (see “Abhidhamma – Introduction“), these details are not in the Suttās.
- Now we can get a new perspective on cetasika in terms of “san.” As we know, “san” is what keeps us in the rebirth process or sansāra; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
- We can see that such asōbhana cetasika are what give rise to “san” in apuññābhi saṅkhāra, which leads to rebirth in the bad realms.
- On the other hand, sōbhana cetasika are what give rise to “san” in puññābhi saṅkhāra, which leads to rebirth in the good realms.
Punnābhisaṅkhāra Are Also Done With Avijjā
10. In Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga, the term “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” in akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda (that leads to suffering) is explained as follows: “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro, kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittāaṅkhāro“.
Translated: “What is avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra, kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, cittāaṅkhāra“. (here, cittāaṅkhāra is the same as manōsaṅkhāra).
- It needs to be noted that these are all abhisaṅkhāra, even though the verse is simplified as “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā“.
- There are two categories of saṅkhāra mentioned there: one category refers to types of kamma accrued. The other refers to whether they are done by the body, speech, or the mind.
- Therefore, saṅkhāra has a much deeper meaning than just “mental formations,” even though that is better than the translation for viññāna as consciousness.
11. A question may arise about how puññābhisaṅkhāra (or meritorious thoughts) arise with avijjā.
- A simple answer is that until one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, and anatta (i.e., that anywhere in this world of 31 realms is not devoid of suffering), one does even meritorious deeds with an expectation of “good outcomes/ good rebirths” in this world.
- Therefore, until one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, and anatta, one WILL have avijjā even when engaged in “meritorious deeds.”
Do We Need to Avoid Good Sankhāra (Punna Abhisaṅkhāra)?
12. However, this does not mean we should stay away from puññābhi saṅkhāra. We MUST engage in puññābhi saṅkhāra to avoid rebirth in the bad realms and also to cultivate morality, and also to prepare the necessary environment (especially to be healthy and to avoid poverty).
- The Buddha has emphasized the need to engage in meritorious deeds (puññābhi saṅkhāra) in many Suttās; see, for example, “Sumana Sutta (AN 5.31)“.
- Nibbāna is attained via realizing the fruitlessness in rebirth anywhere in the 31 realms. For that, one needs to comprehend anicca, dukkha, and anatta, and for that, one needs to attain the correct mindset by engaging in puñña kammā (puññābhi saṅkhāra).
- Once one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, and anatta (i.e., when one becomes an Arahant), one’s puññābhi saṅkhāra will turn into puñña kriyā. This is a subtle point.
Instead of Punnābhisaṅkhāra an Arahant will do Punna Kiriyā
13. Once one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, and anatta (i.e., when one becomes an Arahant), one’s puññābhi saṅkhāra will turn into puñña kiriyā without kammic consequences. Thus one will do meritorious deeds without any expectations (this is what is meant by “vinññāna nirōdha” too).
- Then those meritorious actions will not lead to rebirth even in the “good realms.” An Arahant does not wish to be reborn in any realm because he/she has seen the “anicca nature” of all 31 realms. This is a subtle point.
- This last part may not be clear to everyone. This is the “previously unheard Dhamma” that is hard to grasp (“pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu” that the Buddha mentioned in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta).