May 13, 2019; revised May 14, 2019
Origin of the Words Sankhāra and Sansāra
1. All kamma are done with sankhāra. However, only abhisankhāra lead to strong kamma that can fuel the rebirth process.
- It is important to realize that sankhāra involves EVERYTHING that we do, to live in “this world” of 31 realms. These include breathing, walking, eating, pretty much everything we do; see, “Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra“.
- Anything anyone does, need to start as a thought in one’s mind. For example, to lift a leg, one’s mind needs to 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 sankhāra (“san” + “khāra” or action).
- Even an Arahant has to be engaged in sankhāra until Parinibbāna or death of the physical body.
2. Sankhāra become abhisankhāra when acting with greed, hate, and ignorance; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“.
- The sansaric process or the rebirth process is fueled by abhisankhāra. The prefix “abhi” means “strong”.
- An Arahant does not generate abhisankhāra, i.e., thoughts with greed, hate, and ignorance.
- It must be noted that an Arahant would not generate puññābhisankhāra (puñña abhisankhāra) but can do puñña kiriya; see, “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Puñña and Pāpa Kamma“.
- Kriya basically means “actions” or “deeds” without the involvement of greed, hate, and ignorance.
- One’s puññābhisankhāra turn to puñña kiriya when one fully comprehends Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
3. Therefore, the sansaric process — or the rebirth process — is fueled by abhisankhāra.
- 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 the fact that most births in the 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)sankhāra. This is why an Arahant will not be reborn in the 31 realms of this world. He/she would not generate abhisankhāra.
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 sankhāra.
- We can see that kammā and sankhāra are closely related.
- The Buddha said, “cetana ham Bhikkhave kammām vadami”, i.e., “Bhikkhus, I say kammā is intention”. That intention is in sankhāra, embedded in the types of cetasika (mental factors) as we will see below.
- “Intention” depends on the types of cetasika in a thought (citta). For example, in 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 involved moving a body part. That was initiated by kāya sankhāra generated in the mind.
- Now, if you swung your arm to get hold of a cup, that is a kammically neutral action (kammā) or a just a sankhāra. You did not do either a moral or immoral act. The intention was to grab a cup, and that 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, then it was done with anger. So, the dōsa cetasika (an asōbhana cetasika) was in your thoughts. So, it was an apuññābhi sankhāra. It can also be called a 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 puññābhisankhāra. It can be also called a kusala/puñña kammā or a moral deed.
6. Now we can see that all kamma involve the mind; they are initiated by sankhāra.
- Manō sankhāra are thoughts that comes 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 these are vaci sankhāra.
- If we then start moving body parts to respond, then those are initiated by kāya sankhāra.
- Also see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
7. Thus it is important to note that kāya sankhāra 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 sankhāra are generated by the mental body (gandhabba). It gives commands to 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 sankhāra: kāya, vaci, and manō sankhāra.
- More information on these terms can be found at, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipāka“.
Sankhāra and Kammā Can be Good or Bad
8. Therefore, sankhāra can be understood in a deeper sense by realizing that types of sankhāra 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 citta are said to have kammically neutral sankhāra. These kammically neutral sankhāra involve only the types of cetasika like vedana, saññā, viriya that do not belong to either sōbhana or asōbhana categories.
- Kammically relevant sankhāra (or abhisankhāra) involve either sōbhana cetasika (for kusala kammā) or asōbhana cetasika (for akusala kammā).
- Therefore, it is easy to see that abhisankhāra that involve sōbhana cetasika are puñña abhisankhāra or puññābhisankhāra. Those that involve asōbhana cetasika are apunnābhisankhāra; see, “Cetasika (Mental Factors)“.
9. Knowing a bit of Abhidhamma can be helpful in clarifying 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 for cetasika, in terms of “san“. As we know, “san” is what keep us in the rebirth process or sansāra; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.
- We can see that those asōbhana cetasika are what give rise to “san” in apuññābhi sankhāra, that lead to rebirth in the bad realms.
- On the other hand, sōbhana cetasika are what give rise to “san” in puññābhi sankhāra, that lead to rebirth in the good realms.
Punnābhisankhāra Are Also Done With Avijjā
10. In Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga, the term “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā” in akusala-mula Paticca Samuppāda (that leads to suffering) is explained as follows: “Tattha katame avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāro, apuññābhisaṅkhāro, āneñjābhisaṅkhāro, kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro“.
Translated: “What is avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā? Puññābhisaṅkhāra, apuññābhisaṅkhāra, āneñjābhisaṅkhāra, kāyasaṅkhāra, vacīsaṅkhāra, cittasaṅkhāra“. (here, cittasaṅkhāra 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, sankhāra 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 how puññābhisaṅkhāra (or meritorious thoughts) arise with avijja.
- A simple answer is that until one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, anatta (i.e., that anywhere in this world of 31 realms is not devoid of suffering), one does even meritorious deeds with expectation of “good outcomes/ good rebirths” in this world.
- Therefore, until one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, anatta, one WILL have avijjā even when engaged in “meritorious deeds”.
Do We Need to Avoid Good Sankhāra (Punna Abhisankhāra)?
12. However, this does not mean we should stay away from puññābhi sankhāra. In fact, we MUST engage in puññābhi sankhāra, in order 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 sankhāra) 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, and for that one needs to comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta, and for that one needs to attain the correct mindset by engaging in puñña kammā (puññābhi sankhāra).
- Once one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, anatta (i.e., when one becomes an Arahant), one’s puññābhi sankhāra will turn into puñña kriyā. This is a subtle point.
Instead of Punnābhisankhāra an Arahant will do Punna Kiriyā
13. Once one FULLY comprehends anicca, dukkha, anatta (i.e., when one becomes an Arahant), one’s puññābhi sankhāra 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).