Sankhāra – What It Really Means

February 25, 2017; revised January 3, 2018; September 23, 2018; November 1, 2018

1. Sankhāra is conventionally translated as “formations” and “mental formations”. Certainly the latter is a better translation. But it is much better to grasp the idea of sankhāra and just use that word. I recommend the same for most key Pāli words like saññā and viññāna.

  • It comes from “san” + “kāra” or actions that involve “san“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.
  • Therefore, “san” is associated with anything that one is thinking about doing or actually doing.
  • Sankhāra are responsible for just getting things done to living the current life (everyday activities) to moral/immoral actions that can bring results (vipāka) in future lives.
  • The latter type (those that can bring vipāka in future) are called strong sankhāra or abhisankhāra.

2. Let us look at some example now.

  • Thinking about going to the bathroom is a vaci sankhāra (kammically neutral). One gets the body to move to the bathroom using kāya sankhāra.
  • Thinking about killing a human being and carrying it out is a sankhāra with high kammic consequences or a vaci abhisankhāra; doing the actual killing is done with kāya abhisankhāra. Those can lead to a birth in the apāyās, because both are based on immoral or apunna abhisankhāra (or apunnābhisankhāra).
  • On the other hand, punna abhisankhāra (or punnābhisankhāra)  (thoughts responsible for good speech and actions) have good kammic consequences and can lead to “good births”. Even more importantly, they are essential for making progress on the Path.
  • Good or bad kammā are done via those types of sankhāra. They can bring results (kamma vipāka) immediately, in this life, or in future lives. However, not all kammā lead to kamma vipāka; see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

3. The word sankhāra is commonly used to indicate those with kammic consequences, as in “avijjā paccayā sankhāra“, where it really means, “avijjā paccayā apunnābhi sankhāra”  or “avijjā paccayā punnābhi sankhāra“.

  • Here abhi sankhāra means “strong sankhāra”, and the word apunnābhi comes from “apunna” + “abhi“, which combine to rhyme as apunnābhi. Here “apunna” means “bad” or “immoral”.Thus,apunnābhi sankhāra means strong immoral sankhāra.
  • In the same way, punna + abhi + sankhāra becomes punnābhi sankhāra (for strong good sankhāra).
  • So, one really needs to pay attention to exactly what meaning need to be taken in a given case.

4. All our thoughts, speech, and bodily actions are based on sankhāra that arise in the mind. Therefore, it is important to realize that vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra also arise in the mind. One speaks, and acts based on those such thoughts.

  • Sankhāra are thoughts. Kammā are actions based on such thoughts.
  • Kāya sankhāra are “conscious thoughts” that make our bodies move. Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are due to apunnābhi kāya sankhāra.
  • Vaci sankhāra are “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and also those thoughts that lead to speech by moving the lips, tongue etc. Hate speech is due to apunnābhi vaci sankhāra. Thinking about a Dhamma concept is a punnābhi vaci sankhāra; see,  “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.
  • On the other hand, manō sankhāra are “unconscious thoughts” that arise automatically. We are not aware when they arise. They arise due to our gati (character/habits) and can indicate our level of mōha or avijjā. Since they arise unconsciously, manō sankhāra are unlikely to be abhisankhāra that have strong kammic consequences.
  • The fact that cetanā plays a key role is clear when we look at the following definitions: “kāya sancetanā kāya sankhāra“, “vaci sancetanā vaci sankhāra“, and  “manō sancetanā manō sankhāra“.

5. Let us take some examples to illustrate these three types of sankhāra.

  • In order to move the physical body, the mind or the mental body or the gandhabba must first generate thoughts about moving the body. Then that thought is executed with the help of the brain that sends necessary signals to the leg muscles, say, to move the legs.
  • So, those kāya sankhāra are responsible for moving the legs. Now, if the purpose to move the body was to go somewhere to commit a bad deed, then it becomes an apunna abhisankhāra. These thoughts would have asōbhana cetasika (like greed or hate) in them.
  • If the purpose was to go somewhere to do a good deed, then it would become a punnābhi sankhāra. These thoughts would have sōbhana cetasika (like faith and compassion) in them.
  • If the purpose was to go the bathroom (kammically neutral), then it would be just a kāya sankhāra, not an abhisankhāra. In fact, breathing involves moving body parts (lungs), which is done without conscious thinking, but they are kāya sankhāra too. Those thoughts would not have sōbhana or asōbhana cetasika in them.
  • This is why the kammic nature of an act is decided by the intention that is in the mind, i.e., type of cetasika (mental factors) that arise with those thoughts; see, “What is Intention in Kamma?“.

6. Now, if person X gets angry at another person, X may not move any body parts, but may be generating very bad thoughts (saying to himself “I wish I could hit this person right now”); those are vaci sankhāra. This is explained in “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.

  • When those vaci sankhāra get strong, one may actually say those words out. They are still called vaci sankhāra.
  • Whether one is just talking to oneself or actually speaks out such bad words, they are both apunna abhisankhāra.
  • Of course vaci sankhāra can be punna abhisankhāra too. Person X watching a good deed by person Y, may be generating good thoughts about Y; those are punna vaci sankhāra.
  • Those also will be distinguished by the type of cetasika as in kāya sankhāra above.

7. Whether they are vaci or kāya sankhāra, if they have asōbhana cetasika in them, they have the tendency to “heat up” or “stress” the mind (Pali word is “thāpa“).

8. All other thoughts that arise in the mind without conscious thinking are manō sankhāra.

  • For example, when one gets hit by a cane, say, one feels the pain associated with it, and one realizes that the pain was caused by another person hitting with a cane. So, the manō sankhāra that are involved at the beginning have two cetasika of saññā (recognition of what happened) and vēdanā (pain caused). Another way to say it: manō sankhāra are involved in the vipāka stage.
  • However, based on that “sense input” of getting hit, now one could start generating vaci sankhāra and even kāya sankhāra. Those vaci sankhāra may involve just generating bad thoughts about that person or actually saying bad things to him. If the pain was strong, one may start generating bad kāya sankhāra and hit that person.

9. So, it is important to realize that whether one is just thinking (manō sankhāra and early stages of vaci sankhāra), or speaking out or just “talking to oneself” (vaci sankhāra), or using the body movements (kāya sankhāra), they all involve thoughts (citta).

  • Those thoughts arise in the gandhabba (mental body), and become the commands to the brain to carry out the tasks of speaking and body movement. That is how the mental body (gandhabba) controls the physical body; see, “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba“.

10. The initial manō sankhāra is triggered by a kamma vipāka and are automatically generated in the mind due to one’s gati. Then  subsequent vaci and kāya sankhāra are generated and we do have control over those; see, for example, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.

  • So, the seeds for thinking, speaking, and acting start at the instant of the first sense input, say, seeing something or hearing something that gets one’s attention.
  • If the sense input is strong (and one gets interested in it via like or dislike), one will start many such citta vithi in a short time, and generate corresponding vaci and kāya sankhāra to “talk to oneself”, speak out, or to do bodily actions.

11. Without getting into details, conscious thinking that could lead to speaking and bodily actions occur in the seven javana citta in a citta vithi.

  • Vaci or kāya sankhāra arise due to many  citta vithi running one after another. As we discussed previously, billions of citta vithi can run in a second; see, “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)“.
  • Another key point is that the javana citta in subsequent citta vithi get stronger and stronger. This is why when we start thinking about a person that we really like or really dislike, we can keep generating increasingly stronger feelings about the situation.
  • Sometimes, we can see people getting angry by the minute. They are generating a lot of vaci sankhāra even without getting a word out. But one can see the person getting highly agitated: the face gets red and facial expression can show how angry he/she has become.

12. Therefore, even if we may start generating vaci and kāya sankhāra, we may not become aware of it for a short time. If one gets really angry one may lose control and may not even realize that one is getting into a bad situation.

  • “Catching oneself early” in the process of becoming angry is the key to control anger management. When one understands how this process happens and that it can escalate quickly into a bad situation, one can make a determination to catch it earlier next time.
  • We can prevent a lot of suffering in this life by catching such vaci and kāya sankhāra early.
  • As we discussed in the desana in the post,”Satipattana Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“, this is the key to ānāpāna and satipatthāna bhāvanā.

13. In a previous post, “Vedana – What It Really Means“, we discussed how “samphassa jā vēdanā” can arise in our minds subsequent to initial vipāka vēdanā.

  • Those “samphassa jā vēdanā” arise when we generate vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra as a result of the initial vipāka vēdanā.
  • Those  “samphassa jā vēdanā” are all made by us consciously. However, for someone who has not cultivated satipatthāna or ānāpāna (the correct versions), this may not be obvious.

14. If one is mindful, one could see for oneself when one starts consciously having good or bad thoughts about a sense input. With practice, one can “catch oneself” before generating too many  “samphassa jā vēdanā” or — to say the same thing differently — before generating a lot of vaci or kāya sankhāra.

  • This may need a bit of thinking, but let us take some examples to clarify.

15. We first need to pay attention to those  “samphassa jā vēdanā” that arise due to immoral thoughts, i.e., due to immoral vaci and kāya sankhāra.

  • Suppose person X is verbally abused by enemy Y, and starts generating bad vaci sankhāra. Those vaci sankhāra give rise to domanassa  “samphassa jā vēdanā“. If the situation escalates, stronger vaci sankhāra, i.e., thoughts of hitting Y, may arise and may actually lead to  kāya sankhāra of hitting Y. This is an example of a situation to be avoided.

16. On the other hand, when one is eating a delicious food, one will taste it as delicious, whether one is a normal human or an Arahant. It is a “kāma guna” associated with the human realm; see, “Kāma Guna, Kāma, Kāma Rāga, Kāmaccanda“.  That is not an immoral thought.

  • The difference is that while a normal human will have craving (tanhā) for that food, an Arahant will not.
  • One generates manō sankhāra automatically based on one’s gati. Then, conscious vaci sankhāra and kāya sankhāra lead to the critical upādāna (willingly binding) stage; see, “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna“.

17. All this is put together at the viññāna stage. The discussion on viññāna will complete our simplified discussion on the four aggregates that are associated with the mind or the mental body, gandhabba; see, “Viññāna Aggregate“.

  • Furthermore, we will see that vēdanā (excluding “samphassa jā vēdanā“) and saññā are associated with manō sankhāra, which arise automatically due to kamma vipāka.
  • Starting with those manō sankhāra, we then consciously generate vaci and kāya sankhāra initiating new kamma. Furthermore, “samphassa jā vēdanā” arise during that process.
  • When kamma vipāka in turn lead to making new kamma (thus giving rise to more kamma vipāka), the whole process repeats itself over and over. This is how the rebirth process rolls on forever, unless one makes a determination to stop initiating new kamma, especially strong immoral kamma via apunnābhi vaci and kāya sankhāra.

Difference between sankhāra and dhammā at, “Difference Between Dhammā and Sankhāra“.

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