Dhamma, Saṅkhāra, Sankata, Rupa, Viññāṇa, Gati, Āsava, Anusaya

July 22, 2018; revised October 9, 2022

1. I recently realized that it would be a good idea to explain what some critical Pāli words mean in one place.

  • This information could be spread over hundreds of posts on the website, but not many people have read even a fraction of what is on the website.
  • Since it is critical to understand these key terms, I will try to provide another condensed “big picture” in terms of these keywords. In the last post, we analyzed the big picture in terms of root causes; see “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna).”

2. One way to look at this is to start with how the Buddha described “everything in this world.” We have two worlds: the physical world (rupa lōka) and the mind world (manō lōka).

  • Everything that is in the physical world is detected by the five physical senses of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body: vaṇṇa rūpa (visible objects), sadda rūpa (sounds), gandha rūpa (smells), rasa rūpa (tastes), and pottabba rūpa (touchable objects).
  • Therefore, everything in our physical world is called rūpa and includes the five types mentioned above. Those rūpā are all above the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.
  • For example, we can see vaṇṇa rūpa with eyes: “cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpē ca uppajjāti cakkhuviññāṇaṃ.” Similarly, for the other four.
  • Some objects in the physical world can be detected with more than one sense faculty, and the more information we get, the more knowledgeable we become of the object: we can see and touch an apple; if we can also smell it, the apple is probably ripe; if we taste it, we can confirm that it is ripe.

3. We have a sixth sense faculty: mana indriya, which detects everything else in our world, and they are called dhammā: “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manōviññāṇaṃ.” These dhammā are in our manō lōka  (mental world).

  • These dhammā include everything that is not detected with the five physical senses.  They include, for example, kamma bīja, nāma gotta (memory records or memories), mathematics, philosophy, Buddha Dhamma, etc.
  • Those are also called rūpa, but those rūpā are different from the rūpa in the physical world: Some have energies that lie below the suddhashtaka stage (kamma bīja), and the rest of them are either just memories (nāma gotta) or concepts.
  • These fine rūpa are described as “anidassanan, appaṭighan, dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rrūpam” or “rūpa that cannot be seen, touched, and only detected via dhammāyatana (mana indriya).”

4. When one of our senses detects something in our physical world or the mental world, one of the six types of viññāna arise, and we become aware of that “thing,” whether it is a vaṇṇa rūpa, sadda rūpa, or a dhammā.

  • Viññāna is a very complex entity: it includes or encompasses the following: our feelings (vēdanā), perceptions (saññā), and a set of individual mental factors (cētasika). They all arise together, and the set of cētasika arising depends on each person’s gati.
  • For example, different sets of vēdanā, saññā, and saṅkhāra (i.e., cētasika) arise when a famous politician is seen by one of his supporters and a person from the opposition party.
  • But in addition, viññāna also includes one’s hopes for the future. That is important. 

5. The initial response in one’s mind upon being subjected to an external sensory input (seeing, hearing, or just a memory coming to the mind) is called a manō saṅkhāra. Of course, that is part of viññāna.

  • We can see why different people generate different types of viññāna when exposed to the same sensory input. Such manō saṅkhārā —  generated instantaneously — depends on one’s gati or set of kilesa (lōbha, dōsa, mōha).
  • Each person has a set of kilesa called āsava, and one’s gati (and therefore manō saṅkhārā) closely follow those anusaya/āsava; we will discuss that below.

6. If that sensory input is an interesting one (a like or a dislike), one immediately starts thinking about it. This is called “generating vaci saṅkhāra” or “talking to oneself.” Now one is fully aware that one is thinking about that sensory input, whether it is a picture, sound, memory, or anything else.

  • Furthermore, if one gets animated about that object, one may speak about it (still with vaci saṅkhāra) and may even take a bodily action that will involve kāya saṅkhāra.
  • In contrast to manō saṅkhāra that arise AUTOMATICALLY, both vaci and kāya saṅkhāra are generated consciously. This is key to Ānapāna and Satipaṭṭhāna meditation since we can stop or continue with those vaci and kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Those three types are collectively called saṅkhāra.
  • So, I hope you now have a better understanding of what is meant by viññāna and saṅkhāra and also how they are related. From #4 above, we can also see that saṅkhāra are part of dhammā.

7. By the way, kāya kamma are those actions done with the body, but we see that kāya saṅkhāra are responsible for such kāya kamma.

  • In the same way, vaci saṅkhāra are responsible for vaci kamma, and manō saṅkhāra are responsible for manō kamma.
  • All kamma (actions) are done with saṅkhāra. They all have origins in mind.

8. Now, such saṅkhāra can be “harmless,” “dangerous,” or “beneficial.” Our actions, speech, and thoughts are all based on such saṅkhāra.

  • When one gets hungry, one may generate vaci and kāya saṅkhāra to ask for food or walk to the kitchen to get something to eat. Such saṅkhāra are kammically neutral because they don’t lead to “good or bad kamma vipāka” in the future other than getting what one wants to satisfy the hunger.
  • Of course, if one gets attached to that food while eating, one may generate strong saṅkhāra or abhisaṅkhāra that will have significant kammic consequences. That is an apuñña abhisaṅkhāra since that involves the lōbha cētasika.

9. If one is planning to kill another human, then one would be generating very strong “apuñña abhisaṅkhāra” that involves vaci saṅkhāra and may lead to kāya saṅkhāra if one goes through the killing. Then one would have generated a strong kamma bīja that can bring a future birth in the apāyās.

  • On the other hand, if one is studying Buddha Dhamma, one will be generating all three types of puñña abhisaṅkhāra (thinking, contemplating, and doing things like downloading material from the internet). They will create good kamma bīja that will lead to good vipāka: either leading to magga phala or at least births in good realms so one could continue on the Path.

10. Now, we can see how saṅkhāra can lead to the formation (or arising) of sankata. A potent kamma bīja generated via a strong apuñña abhisaṅkhāra can lead to, say, animal bhava and to the birth of an animal.

  • Therefore, that sankata (animal) came to be because of that kamma bīja, and many abhisaṅkhāra could have contributed to that kamma bīja.
  • In the same way, a strong “good kamma bīja” generated via puñña abhisaṅkhāra (puñña kamma) can lead to a human or a dēva birth. That human or dēva is a sankata too.

11. It is much more complex, but ALL material things that arise in this world are due to saṅkhāra. I will take a simple example to show the basic idea.

  • A house (a sankata) comes into being due to many types of saṅkhāra. First, one needs to get the idea of building a house. Then he/she may consult an architect, and after much discussion (a lot of manō and vaci saṅkhāra and also kāya saṅkhāra), they will come up with a blueprint (plan) for the house.
  • Then many people will work to build the house. Innumerable manō, vaci, kāya saṅkhāra are involved in bringing the house to completion (of course, most of those are not puñña or apuñña abhisaṅkhāra; they are just primarily neutral saṅkhāra).
  • The explanation of how a tree arises is more complex, but it also has origins in mind. We may get to that in the future, but it is not necessary to attain Nibbāna. As the Buddha said: “mind is the precursor to everything in this world.”

12. Any sankata has the following universal properties: it comes into being and eventually is destroyed and undergoes unexpected change while in existence. Think about anything in this world. Those three characteristics are associated with any of them.

  • This is why ANY sankata HAS the anicca nature. It is said that “uppāda vayattēna aniccā” emphasizes those main properties: any sankata arises and eventually is subjected to decay and death, whether living or inert.

13. However, it is essential to realize that a sankata WILL NOT bring suffering to anyone unless one gets attached to it. A sankata has the anicca nature (i.e., the potential to bring suffering), but it does not automatically lead to suffering.

  • A bottle of poison sitting on a table has the potential to kill someone. But unless someone takes the bottle and drinks from it, he/she will not be affected.
  • In the same way, we will be subjected to suffering ONLY IF we get attached to worldly things (sankata, whether it is a person, house, car, etc.). Then why do we get attached to such things all the time? That is because we have not comprehended the real anicca nature of sankata. It is not easy to see anicca nature.

14. Therefore, the critical point is that any type of rūpa (or any sankata in general) WILL NOT bring us dukkha unless we get attached to (or repulsed by it), i.e., it leads to taṇhā in mind.

  • This is why the Buddha said, ‘”..panca upādānakkhandhā dukkhā“, and NOT “pancakkhandha dukkhā.”
  • There could be all kinds of attractive/hateful things around us, but if we don’t generate upādāna for them via craving (lōbha) or hate (dōsa), we will not be subjected to suffering.
  • However, that is hard until one cultivates paññā (wisdom) by learning Buddha Dhamma and eventually grasping the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta).

15. Until then, when we experience a sense input via any of the six senses (see above), we may automatically generate bad manō saṅkhāra and then willingly generate vaci and kāya saṅkhāra along the same lines if we are not being mindful.

  • As we discussed above, manō saṅkhāra arises AUTOMATICALLY according to our gati. Those gati are closely associated with anusaya (mental fermentations) that cannot be removed until one comprehends Tilakkhana.
  • Based on the sense input, those anusaya may come to the surface, and that is called āsava; see “Gati (Gati), Anusaya, and Āsava.”
  • The only way to change those gati (i.e., to remove āsava from one’s mind permanently) is to cultivate Ānapāna and Satipaṭṭhāna by being mindful of what kind of saṅkhāra arise in our minds as we are exposed to such external sense inputs.
  • So, it is VERY IMPORTANT to both learn Buddha Dhamma (in particular Tilakkhana) and ALSO to practice real Ānapāna/Satipaṭṭhāna bhāvanā.

16. It must be clear now that the main cause of suffering is not sankata but saṅkhāra, specifically apuñña abhisaṅkhāra.  This is why it is said that “sabbē saṅkhāra aniccā” and NOT “sabbē sankata aniccā” or “sabbē dhamma aniccā.

  • Another word for apuñña abhisaṅkhāra is dasa akusala. Abstaining from dasa akusala is the same as stopping BAD manō, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Some of that can be done via pure determination. However, that discipline becomes challenging when one gets tempting sensory inputs. For example, one may not take a bribe, but if the offer is a million dollars, one may be tempted to take the bribe.

17. That is the difference a fundamental comprehension of Tilakkhana will accomplish; one’s tendency to do immoral things will naturally reduce as one’s comprehension of Tilakkhana increases. An Arahant will not be tempted by absolutely anything.

  • An Anāgāmi will not be tempted by any “kāma” input, for example, seeing the most attractive person. But he/she will have a liking (craving) for Buddha Dhamma and possibly for jhānic pleasures.
  • A Sōtapanna WILL NOT do any apāyagāmi akusala (i.e., will not generate such apuñña abhisaṅkhāra).
  • Those controls take place automatically. The mind will automatically do that by not generating even spontaneous manō saṅkhāra belonging to those categories. That is done via permanently changing one’s gati for the better via paññā.

18. Finally, another thing to remember is that most of what we experience is dhammā via the mana indriya.

  • Those five physical senses are active ONLY in bringing that sensory input, which means that sense experience is very brief.
  • Let us take the example of watching a person walking toward you. When the person is 100 meters away, you see a snapshot of him. Then that mental imprint immediately goes to the past. By the time he is close to you, all those visual events of him walking towards you will have gone to the past; they can now be recalled only as dhammā.
  • The same is true for all five physical senses. We experience them only DURING the sense event, only momentarily. After that, we can only RECALL those events with the mana indriya. Those past sense events come back as nāma gotta or memories. A day after meeting that person, you can visualize the whole event with the mana indriya.

19. Therefore, pancakkhandha (except for those arising at any given moment) is dhammā, experienced by the mind via the mana indriya. This subtle point may not be apparent immediately; also, see “Where Are Memories Stored? – Viññāṇa Dhātu” and “Pancakkhandha or Five Aggregates – A Misinterpreted Concept.”

20. If you think deeply enough, you will realize the world that one’s mind makes up one experiences to some extent. It is easy to see that our vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna are all highly personal and are based on one’s gati.

  • The physical world around us exists for sure and is real, but what we perceive is highly personal. What we see and experience is our own “mental picture” of the world: our vēdanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna.

21. This post became longer than I expected. However, it is impossible even to provide a basic outline in a short post. Still, one would need to read other relevant posts to understand this basic layout, thereby understanding those keywords better. But it is essential to do if one is interested in grasping the actual teachings of the Buddha.

  • As the Buddha said, “this Dhamma has never been known to the world, and it is not easy to comprehend.” It requires a real effort. On the other hand, getting released from the apāyās should not be expected to be done quickly. Otherwise, none of us would still be here.
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