Sankhāra – Life is a Bundle of Sankhāra

Revised November 26, 2017

In the previous introductory post, “What is “San”?”, we introduced the term “sankhāra”, and in the next post sankhāra was discussed in somewhat technical terms.  Since it is such an important term, in this post I will discuss it in a bit more detail.

1. Buddha Dhamma is based on the fact that all “sankhāra” are done in vain: “sabbē sankhāra aniccā”.

  • As we saw in the previous post, sankhāra (“san” + “kāra” or actions; සන් + කාර in Sinhala) are anything (thought, speech, bodily actions) done while living in “this world” of 31 realms. This includes breathing, walking, or thinking about the chores for the day.
  • All sankhāra arise in the mind. We cannot utter a word or lift a finger without generating sankhāra in the mind. It happens very fast, so it feels like we just speak or do things; see, “Sankhāra – What It Really Means” and “Difference Between Dhammā and Sankhāra“.

2. So, all sankhāra involve thinking (some could be manifested as speech or bodily actions), but some actions like breathing happens without CONSCIOUS thinking. Those are just sankhāra that do not have kammic consequences.

  • However, sankhāra become abhisankhāra when they involve conscious thinking with lōbha, dōsa, mōha (or alōbha, adōsa, amōha) coming to play roles. Those abhisankhāra have bad (or good)  kammic consequences.
  • Thus even an Arahant keeps doing sankhāra until death. But an Arahant does not do abhisankhāra, a “stronger version” of sankhāra that will lead to accumulating mental energy (kamma) for future repercussions (kamma vipāka) until that kammic energy is exhausted.
  • In order for a sankhāra to become an abhisankhāra, one of the six root causes (greed, hate, ignorance, generosity, kindness, wisdom) need to be involved.

3. If the “bad roots” of greed, hate, and ignorance are involved, then those thoughts, speech, actions will create kamma beeja (or energy seeds) that either lead to bad outcomes during a life or to rebirth in the lowest four realms (apāyas). These are apunnābhisankhāra  (“apunna” + “abhisankhāra” where “apunna” means non-meritorious).

  • On the other hand, abhisankhāra done with the “good roots” of generosity, kindness, wisdom either lead to good outcomes during a life or to rebirth in the realms at or above the human realm. These are punnābhisankhāra (“punna” + “abhisankhāra” where “punna” means meritorious).
  • If no roots are involved, they are just sankhāra, and their kamma seeds are duds; there is no energy in them. Basically one can say, sankhāra (that are not abhisankhāra) do not generate kamma seeds.

4. Let us take some examples. When we see someone is walking with a knife in hand, we cannot come to a conclusion about what kind of sankhāra is that person is generating.

  • He may be just taking the knife from one place to another, in which case, it is just sankhāra.
  • If he is planning to stab someone, then he is generating apunnābhisankhāra.
  • If he is planning to rescue an animal who got entangled in a trap, then he is generating punnābhisankhāra.
  • In any type of speech or bodily action, what really matters is the INTENTION behind the speech or action.

5. In another example, we may see two people have built and donated two hospitals for the poor. Even though both seem to be “good actions”, we cannot say both had punnābhisankhāra. One could have had an ulterior motive of getting elected in an upcoming election, rather than thoughts of loving kindness for poor people. In that case, he would be generating mostly apunnābhisankhāra, even though there may be some punnābhisankhāra involved too.

  • This is why sorting out kamma is impossible for anyone but a Buddha. Some of our actions could involve both kinds of abhisankhāra. For example, if we see a bird digging up a worm and chase the bird away, we would have done both kinds of abhisankhāra: Saving the life of the worm is a punnābhisankhāra, but we also did an apunnābhisankhāra because we denied the bird of its meal. Both types of abhisankhāra can bear fruits (vipāka) in the future.

6. There is this famous “trolley problem” in ethics, where one could save five people from death by sacrificing the life of a single person; see, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

This “thought experiment” has been debated for many years. We can make the following observations based on Buddha Dhamma:

  • If one decides to take action (i.e., save five by sacrificing one), then one will acquire “good kamma” for saving the five lives, and “bad kamma” for killing the other person. Both types can bear fruits in the future.
  • But it goes even deeper. What if the person that we sacrificed was an Arahant or at least a Sōtapanna, and the other five were normal people or even criminals? Then we would have acquired much more bad kamma than good kamma.

7. When someone is talking or doing some bodily action, we can at least try to guess what kind of sankhāra are involved. But if a person is just sitting down quietly, he/she could be generating any kind of sankhāra ranging from just thinking about whether or not to go out for a walk (just sankhāra) to planning a murder (worst kind of apunnābhisankhāra).

  • We generate more abhisankhāra via thinking than via speech or actions.
  • When we have disagreement with other people, we normally do not hit the person or even refrain from saying anything. But depending on the purity of our minds, we may be generating a little to unimaginable amounts of apunnābhisankhāra. This is a key factors that most people tend to disregard.
  • If someone’s outward actions/speech seem to be “disciplined”, we automatically assume that he/she is a good person; and the person may be trying to fool himself/herself by displaying that outward appearance. But if the mind is impure, there could be a lot of hateful/greedy  thoughts in that mind. Whether or not any verbal or bodily actions are committed, those thoughts still accumulate kamma seeds.

8. Therefore, it is utterly useless to judge other people. Each person has true awareness AND control only over one’s own thoughts, speech, actions, which are ultimately based on the intentions.

  • But we know exactly what our own intentions are. And that is what really matters. We may be able to fool a court of law by hiring a good lawyer, but we will have to reap the results of what we sow in the future at some point.

9. This is the basis of ānāpāna meditation, to be aware of the types of sankhāra involved in a given action; see, “What is Anapana?“.  If someone asks us to join in fishing trip, we need to think what kind of kamma will be associated with killing fish for our pleasure; this is the basic form of “kāyānupassanā”. Contemplate on any bodily action one is about to do and abstain from doing it if it involves apunnābhisankhāra (in this case taking the lives of several fish for our pleasure).

  • Bodily actions are easier to prevent, because they take time and we have time to contemplate.
  • Speech is a bit more tricky, because speech comes out faster than carrying out bodily action. Still one can stop oneself even after uttering a few sentences.
  • Thoughts are the hardest, and that is why “cittānupassanā” comes after one has practiced “kāyānupassanā”.

10. If one wants to start doing ānāpāna meditation, one should first control one’s bodily actions, and the more one does it, the easier it becomes. And then it also becomes easier to control one speech. When both actions and speech are brought under control, one’s thoughts will be easier to control too.

  • Furthermore, willfully engaging in punnābhisankhāra also helps to keep apunnābhisankhāra at bay. By concentrating on meritorious deeds, one’s mind is automatically turned away from thinking about unmeritorious deeds.
  • This is why real Buddhist meditation is much more than just formal sitting meditation.  The key is to purify the mind, and avoid defiling the mind at anytime. One could be doing the breath meditation for a lifetime, but may not get anywhere in purifying the mind.
  • This is explained in detail and how to start practice in the “Living Dhamma” section. One does not even need to believe in rebirth in the beginning.

11. Nibbāna is attained not by abstaining from both punnābhisankhāra and apunnābhisankhāra as some suggest. On the way to Nibbāna, one needs to do punnābhisankhāra AND also engage in learning Dhamma so that one could comprehend the true nature of all types of sankhāra, i.e., that all sankhāra are anicca, dukkha, anatta. This leads to the purification of the mind.

  • Ultimately, just by doing  punnābhisankhāra is not enough to purify the mind. However, one MUST start there before being able to comprehend  anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Living Dhamma“.

Next, “Difference Between Dhammā and Sankhāra“,…

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