Connection Between Sankhāra and Viññāna

January 11, 2019

1. In a recent post, “Viññāna – Consciousness Together With Future Expectations“, I discussed how viññāna or “future expectations” are established when one gets attached to something and starts doing sankhāra (conscious thinking, speech, and actions) about it.

  • In this post, I will elaborate more on the importance of sankhāra and the connection to viññāna. In a few posts, I will try to explain how we create our own future suffering by engaging in abhisankhāra or “strong sankhāra“.
  • These abhisankhāra are nothing but how we think about, speak about, and take actions on moral/immoral issues. If we do any of the dasa akusala, then we are generating “bad abhisankhāra” or “apunna abhisankhāra” (abbreviated as “apunnābhisankhāra“).
  • Those apunnābhisankhāra lead to suffering. Therefore, key to stop future suffering is to gradually reduce apunnābhisankhāra and eventually to stop them.

2. In addition to what we discussed in that previous post, another key point is to realize that all our speech and bodily actions are started by the mind.

  • Can you do anything, if you (or your mind) does not want to do?
  • You may be in the middle of doing something (say walking to the kitchen), but you can decide you don’t really want to go the kitchen and instead walk to the living room. If you start saying something, you can stop in mid-sentence if you want to.
  • Some people have strange ideas about humans not having free will. They should try what I just suggested above. It is not that hard to verify.

3. All the progress that science has made is based on the “mind power” of the humans (scientists coming up with breakthrough innovations in their minds). Mind comes first and this is what is expressed in the very first Dhammapada gāthā: “manōpubbangamā dhammā..” or “mind is at the forefront”.

  • A child’s future depends on how well he learns. If the mind of the child goes in the wrong direction, he/she could become a drug addict or even a murderer.
  • In the same way, we determine our own LONG TERM future in the rebirth process by the ways in which we think, speak, and act. That is what is really explained in Paticca Samuppāda (normally translated as “Dependent Origination”; again, it is much better to use the Pāli term and understand what is really meant by it).

4. From the moment we wake up in the morning, we do nothing but generate sankhāra.

  • When we just experience a sense input (seeing, hearing, etc) , “manō sankhāra“ are automatically generated.
  • The Buddha said, “vēdanā, sañña are manō sankhāra“: we just experience the sense input by recognizing it and generating a “sukha, dukkha, or neutral feeling about it”.

5. When we start thinking consciously about a particular sense input (what we saw, heard, tasted, etc), we start generating vacī  sankhāra; we may also speak with vacī  sankhāra. Here, vacī is pronounced “vachee”.

  • For example, if we see a nice car and start thinking about how nice it would be to own such a car, how we can impress our friends with it, etc, we are fully aware of such thoughts.
  • Such conscious generation of thoughts about “what to do about a given sense input and how to go about it”, for example, are vaci sankhāra. Actual speech is also vaci sankhāra.
  • The Buddha said, “vitakka, vicāra are vaci sankhāra“: stay on the given sense input and generating thoughts about it or related things.
  • Furthermore, we can keep going with such “day dreaming” or we can stop them. If it is something we like, it may be hard to stop thinking about it, i.e.,  it may take will power.
  • That is what is involved in Ānāpāna/Satipatthāna: stopping bad vaci sankhāra.

6.  If we just proceed with those vaci sankhāra, our emotions may get strong and we may start speaking out (stronger vaci sankhāra). If we get “really worked up” we may do bodily actions with such emotions, then those are done with kāya sankhāra.

  • For example, let us say two people get into an argument and start shouting at each other. Each person is speaking harsh words (generated via vaci sankhāra).
  • Then one of them (person X)  gets “really worked up”, loses all restraint, and hits the other person. That “hitting action” was done with kāya sankhāra (generating thoughts to raise the hand and hit that person).

7. It is important to realize that both speech and bodily actions are initiated by the mind.

  • In the above example, both people were engaged in generating “bad vaci sankhāra“, which are nothing but “bad speech”, the opposite of “Sammā Vāca” or “correct speech”.
  • Then person X took did an even worse thing by hitting the other person. That was a “bad action”, opposite of “Sammā Kammanta“.
  • Therefore, they were both acting with “avijjā” or ignorance of the consequences of their actions. That is “avijjā paccayā sankhāra“, the first step in Paticca Samuppāda.

8. Now, we can see what is meant by “sankhāra” (and “abhisankhāra“).

  • In the above example, both vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra generated by person X were “abhisankhāra” or “strong sankhāra“.
  • If those two people were just taking about something kammically neutral, say about the weather, then that would involve just “sankhāra“.
  • If they were talking about weather, while walking, then that would involve both vaci and kāya sankhāra that are NOT of “abhisankhāra” type. That speech and action did not involve generation of “kammic energy”.

9. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between just sankhāra and abhisankhāra. In the suttas, or in Paticca Samuppāda, the word “sankhāra” is used often without specifically saying whether it is just “sankhāra” or “abhisankhāra“.

  • Depending on the context, we should be able to determine whether it is  just “sankhāra” or “abhisankhāra“.
  • Not only that, but abhisankhāra are also two types: punnābhisankhāra (punna abhisankhāra or “good deeds”) and apunnābhisankhāra (apunna abhisankhāra or “bad deeds”).
  • Here by “deeds” we include all three types of sankhāra: manō, vaci, and kāya. We should AVOID all three types of apunnābhisankhāra or immoral thoughts, speech, and actions.

10. It is again important to emphasize that manō sankhāra arise AUTOMATICALLY based on two things: (1) the sense input, and (2) one’s own gati or gathi (character/habits), as we discussed in the post: “Pāli to English – Serious Problems With Current Translations“.

  • For example, if someone has a bad temper (that is a bad gati), then that person can be made angry by the slightest provocation.
  • On the other hand, there are people who are calm and measured and are not easy to become angry. It will take much stronger provocation to make them angry.
  • In the same way, some people are greedy and are easily attached to tasty foods. Some people are kind and quick to come to help for others in need, etc.

11. The key to making progress in the Path of the Buddha is to cultivate “good gati” and gradually reduce “bad gati“.

  • If one is “quick to anger”, that is a bad gati. One important way to reduce that bad gati is to stop generating vaci and kāya sankhāra by will power when they start arising.
  • For example, some people get angry even when they hear the name of a person they do not like. Then they start thinking about all the bad things that person has done in the past. That is generating “bad vaci sankhāra“.
  • Even though one may not be saying a single bad word, just consciously think about bad thoughts about another person will feed that bad habit. So, it is important to realize that generating such “silent bad thoughts” is as bad as saying harsh words.
  • Of course actually speaking out (also vaci sankhāra) and doing bad things to person (hitting for example), are also bad abhisankhāra.

12. This “feeding bad habits” via (apunnābhi)sankhāra generation is explained via the step, “sankhāra paccayā viññāna” in Paticca Samuppāda.

  • When person X has a “grudge against person Y”, person X has a “viññāna” or an expectation in his mind to “get back to Y or hurt Y” whenever an opportunity arises. 
  • That viññāna “gets food to grow” each time X starts generating bad thoughts about Y, speak against Y, or do something to hurt Y.  Those all belong to vaci and kāya sankhāra.
  • On the other hand, manō sankhāra about Y arise automatically in X’s mind when X sees Y or even when Y’s name is mentioned by someone else. Then X is likely to start generating vaci sankhāra or “conscious thoughts about Y”.
  • The key to progress is to STOP such vaci sankhāra AS SOON AS one becomes aware of them.

13. Just like a person, an animal, or even a tree would grow when given food on a regular basis, one’s viññāna would grow when “it is fed on a regular basis” by generating vaci and kāya sankhāra.

  • It works backwards too. If food is reduced, a tree will not grow well. If food and water are totally stopped, the tree will die.
  • In the same way, if one stops feeding a given “viññāna” (or a “future expectation”) by stopping vaci and kāya sankhāra, that viññāna will die with time.
  • In the same way, we want to “feed a good viññāna“, say to act kindly towards other people and animals. So, we should INCREASE vaci and sankhāra generation: generate more compassionate thoughts and engage in compassionate activities like giving.

14. So, hopefully, we now have a good idea about what sankhāra (and abhisankhāra) are and how they lead to good or bad viññāna.

  • We will discuss more on viññāna in the next post. In the mean time, please do not hesitate to ask questions. It is important to understand these basic concepts.