Difference Between Dhammā and Sankhāra

Revised March 22, 2017; April 17, 2017; November 5, 2017; July 19, 2018; August 9, 2019

We will discuss the difference between sankhāra, sankata, and dhammā. Some of the descriptions given here are not compatible with meanings given in many current Theravada texts. However, they are fully compatible with the Tipitaka. Please send me a comment ([email protected]) if you find evidence to the contrary.

  • First, it is essential to remember that the word “dhamma” can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. In “Buddha Dhamma,” it means the “Buddha’s teachings.”
  • Dhammā (with a long “a” at the end) is mostly used to indicate energy created by the mind. It is also called a kamma bija.
  • But “sabbe dhammā” in “sabbe dhammā anattāinclude everything, all phenomena belonging to this world of 31 realms. Nibbāna is not in this world.
  • I always give links to other posts. It is not necessary to read them, but if one needs more information or clarification, one should read them. That will make the concept “really sink in.”

1. There is confusion about the terms sankhāra and dhammā in the Dhammapada verses 277,278, and 279; the first lines in those three verses are:

  • Sabbē sankhāra aniccā or “all sankhāra are anicca (things cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction in the long run). A better way to say it is that it is futile to make plans for such things in the long run. Of course, we must make plans for the necessary things to live this life.
  • Sabbē sankhāra dukkhā or “all sankhāra eventually lead to dukkha (suffering).”
  • Sabbē dhammā anattā or “all dhammā are without substance (not fruitful) at the end”.

2. Sankhārā are thinking, speaking, and acting based on our intentions, hopes, and dreams. It is essential to realize that sankhārā are our current thoughts.

  • “Sankhāra” include all three types (kāya sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, manō sankhāra) that lead to any action, speech, or just thought (n that order). They all arise in citta (our thoughts).
  • We say “Hello” to someone with vaci sankhāra. If we walk from the living room to the kitchen to get a drink, that is done with kāya sankhāra. But those do not initiate kamma vipāka; they are kammically neutral. But if we verbally abuse someone, that is done with strong vaci sankhāra (abhisankhāra), and that will have kamma vipāka.
  • More on sankhāra at, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means.”

3. Those sankhāra (or abhisankhāra) that we generate may lead to the arising of an inert object or a living form; it is said to lead to the arising of a sankata.

  • If one comes up with the idea of building a house, then the following steps may happen. He will carefully think about it (manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra) and may talk about it with others (vaci sankhāra). If he decides to do it, then he may take actions (kāya sankhāra) to make it happen. In this case, our sankhāra gave rise to a house, and that house is a sankata.

4. When we do something with the body (i.e., body movement), that is controlled by kāya sankhāra that arise in our minds.

  • We are not robots (most lower animals are like robots). We can control our thoughts, speech, and actions. Sometimes it may appear that we just do things automatically. But if we want to, we can change our actions. Just try it out.
  • When we speak or talk to ourselves, that involves vaci sankhāra; those also arise in our minds; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • Mano sankhāra are thoughts that arise automatically (due to kamma vipāka).

5. Building a house in #3 above may not involve moral/immoral intentions. One may not generate strong sankhāra (called abhisankhāra) that can create kamma bija (dhammā), that can bring kamma vipāka in the future. Building a house is just a kammically-neutral action.

  • However, planning to kill a human, for example, involves manō sankhāra and vaci sankhāra (in the planning stage) and then doing it with kāya sankhāra.
  • In this case, all those sankhāra are abhisankhāra, that can bring future bad kamma vipāka, in the form of rebirth in the apāyas, which includes the animal realm.

6. Abhisankhāra (potent or strong sankhāra) give rise to kamma bija, which are also part of dhammā. These are energies that were created by javana citta; see, “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power.” They can bring kamma vipāka.

  • However, some dhammā do not have energies (for example, nāma gotta, which are just memory records are also dhammā).
  • At the moment of death, such a strong kamma bija or a dhammā comes to the mind via “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjati manōviññāṇaṃ.” That new viññāna is the patisandhi viññāna for the new life; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhammā are rūpa too!“.
  • Therefore, now a new life is formed as a result of that abhisankhāra. This new lifeform is also called a sankata because it arose due to that abhisankhāra.

7. That sankata came to existence because of that abhisankhāra during that immoral act. It came to life at a later time via kamma vipāka.

  • Moral abhisankhāra or punna abhisankhāra lead to good kamma bija/dhammā that will lead to good rebirths (in human, dēva, and brahma realms).
  • Immoral abhisankhāra or apunna abhisankhāra lead to bad kamma bija/dhammā that will lead to unfortunate rebirths (in the apāyās).
  • That is the link between mind and matter. An abhisankhāra that arose in the mind led to the sankata, which is a rūpa (made of inert matter).
  • That house in #3 was put together by using existing rūpa. But it is also possible to “create” new matter if one has abhiññā powers. Both are called sankata.

8. Any rūpa (including visible objects, sounds, smells, tastes, and body touches) that we experience in this world is a sankata, and they all undergo unpredictable change and eventually are destroyed; see, “Root Cause of Anicca – Five Stages of a Sankata.”

  • The point is that we make our future via our actions, speech, and thoughts; these are (abhi)sankhāra.
  • However, any of these new sankata will not last forever. Even if one is born in dēva or brahma realms, that kammic energy will run out one day. Then one will be directed to the next birth depending on the most potent kamma bija/dhammā present at that time.
  • The only difference is that one will be subjected to much suffering in the apāyas, while one will get to enjoy a “good life” in a higher realm. We all have been going through this “unending journey through most of the 31 realms,” which does not have a traceable beginning.

9. Another critical point is that the net result of all these “journeys through various realms” is suffering. That is because we tend to do more immoral things in “seeking pleasure” and are born mostly in the apāyas.

  • Any sankata that we make for ourselves (whether it is a house or a new life in the dēva realm) that cannot be maintained to our satisfaction in the long run. The home will need repairs, and may even get burned down or flooded. A new life in the dēva realm will end one day, and one will back to square one.
  • That is why it is said that “Sabbē sankhāra aniccā.” It is there because any sankata (that arise due to abhisankhāra) has a finite lifetime, and moreover, is subjected to unexpected changes (viparināma) during that existence.

10. When we don’t get to maintain things to our satisfaction, we suffer. Even if one makes a billion dollars, and has a lovely family, one will have to leave all that behind when one dies. But even before that, there could be many other instances where one suffers (deaths of friends/family, diseases, loss of property, etc.). That is the viparināma nature that arises due to anicca nature.

  • And the root cause of that suffering is sankhāra (more correctly abhisankhāra). That is why it is said, “Sabbē sankhāra dukkhā.”
  • Again, sankhārā are our CURRENT thoughts; as soon as those thoughts go to the past, they become nāma gotta or memories.

11. The only thing not destroyed is nāma gotta, which are just records of “all events” (sankhāra and abhisankhāra) of any given lifestream; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.

  • All these different terms could be confusing at first. But they will all make sense eventually. They are all pieces of a big puzzle.

12. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thero, in his famous and otherwise excellent book, “What the Buddha Taught” did not get it right when he interpreted those verses. He included Nibbāna in dhammā (p. 57 of 1974 edition). He took the difference between dhammā and sankhāra to be Nibbāna.

  • But as you can see, sankhāra and dhammā are two different entities. Sankhāra is what we generate in our minds.
  • Strong sankhāra or abhisankhāra lead to the creation of kammic energy, and that is a dhammā or a kamma bija.
  • However, there are many dhammā other than kamma bija, and only abhisankhāra lead to kamma bija. But both sankhāra or abhisankhāra lead to memory records or nāma gotta. Also, dhammā include concepts and even Buddha Dhamma.

13. Furthermore, Nibbāna does not belong to this world. Therefore, to say Nibbāna is anatta is a terrible mistake. There are four ultimate realities (paramatthathō): Thoughts (citta), mental factors (cētasika), matter (rūpa), and Nibbāna.

  • Everything “in this world” can be described in terms of the first three. Nibbāna does not belong to “this world”.
  • Furthermore, anatta is also mistranslated as just “no-self.” The problems with the traditional interpretation of anicca, dukkha, anatta are discussed in, “Anicca, Dukka, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.

14. When we do abhisankhāra (strong types of sankhāra), that lead to the formation of good or bad kamma bija, or dhammā. That strong kamma bija can lead to the arising of a sankata (living beings and even inert things).

  • And nāma gotta (pronounced “nāma goththā”) are just records of what happened.

15. Unlike sankhāra, kamma bija, and sankata, nāma gotta are PERMANENT (they are just records). As stated in the “Najīrati Sutta (SN 1.76)“: “Rūpaṃ jīrati maccānaṃ, nāmagottaṃ na jīrati,” or “material things decay and get destroyed, but nāmagotta do not decay.”

  • That is why someone with abhiññā powers can go back at any point in time to recall past events; also see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”
  • Whenever we do something (a sankhāra), a “record” (“nāma gotta“) is made. Thus for a given sentient being, a record of all activities from the beginning-less time survives and is one’s nāma gotta. All previous lives and all activities of past lives are in that “record stream,” like a movie reel (not physical of course).
  • Someone who has developed abhiññā through anariya jhanas can trace back that nāma gottā for several past lives. But with well-developed abhiññā powers, a much deeper history can be probed. A Buddha can trace back as far back as he pleases with astonishing speed. (Yet he could not see “a beginning” to any sentient being’s nāma gotta. That is why there is no traceable beginning to the rebirth process.)

16. It is easier to explain this “nāma gotta” with an example. Let us take two popular US presidents, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Their “physical bodies” are no longer with us, i.e., their “rūpa” or physical bodies (which were sankata) decayed long ago. But their nāma gotta are with us to a certain extent. How much of their memories or “nāma gotta” remains with a given person depends on how closely that person associated with them. The moment we say, “John Kennedy” or “Ronald Reagan,” their picture comes to our mind. Not only that, those who met them may remember that vividly and probably can recall that event just like watching a movie.

  • Similarly, we can recall many of the “events” of our lives or parts of our “nāma gotta“; some young children can remember some events in their “nāma gotta” in their previous lives.
  • What can be done with abhiññā powers is very similar. The abhiññā capabilities enormously stretch the memory or the ability to “look back” at past events in one’s nāma gotta.

17. We are subjected to suffering because we make sankhāra (or plans), and since they do not work out in the LONG RUN. Therefore, those sankhāra lead to dukkha at the end, and thus to helplessness in the long run (anatta).

  • But nāma gotta or other types of dhammā does not lead to suffering. Therefore, dhammā do not have the characteristics of anicca and dukkha.
  • But there is nothing substantial to be had with dhammā too; they are also anatta.

18. The Buddha’s last words were, “Vaya dhammā sankhāra, appamādena sampādēta.” Everything in this world (including sankhāra) is dhammā. Only “sankhāra are vaya dhammā, i.e., those that lead to one’s demise (i.e., lead to bad outcomes). Therefore, the Buddha instructed us to “sort out such ‘san’ without delay” (“san” “pādēta,” which rhymes as “sampādēta“).

  • Vaya” means destruction; here it means leading to the destruction of one’s future: sankhāra are vaya dhammā.
  • Sankhārā are those these three types (manō, vaci, and kāya sankhāra) that lead to “san” for extending sansāra; see, “What is “San”? – Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
  • Thus the Buddha was admonishing the bhikkhus that all sankhāra are “vaya dhamma” (those leading to adverse outcomes), and therefore to comprehend what sankhāra are.

19. In the “Najirati Sutta (SN 1.76)“, the nature of nāma gotta is clearly stated:

  • Rūpaṃ jīrati maccānaṃ, nāmagottaṃ na jīrati,” or, “material things are subject to decay or jirati (pronounced “jeerathi“) and death or destruction (maccanam; pronounced ‘machchānam”), but nāma gotta do not decay.
  • The “rūpa” of those two US presidents we mentioned earlier have decayed and gone. But their nāma gotta remain with us because they are mixed in with our nāma gotta at some points and we can access our nāma gotta with memory. Someone with abhiññā powers can look at a complete nāma gotta not only spanning a perfect life but also going back to many lives. All of our nāma gotta, back to beginning-less time, are there whether accessed or not.
  • Dhammā — in the general sense –are basically anything in this world (including nāma gotta and paññāti or concepts) and are without any substance too; they are all anatta. There is no point in “hanging on to them.”
  • Even Buddha Dhamma, which enables us to attain Nibbāna, should ultimately be abandoned (at Arahanthood). The Buddha compared Buddha Dhamma to a raft that one uses to cross a river. Once the river is crossed, there is no point in carrying the raft on one’s back. So, even Buddha Dhamma is of value only until one reaches Nibbāna.
  • Only Nibbāna, which is attained by “giving up EVERYTHING in this material world” is atta or “of value”; see, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?” and “Dasa Akusala and Anatta – The Critical Link.”
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