Sankhara – What It Really Means

February 25, 2017

1. Sankhära 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 sankhara and just use that word.

  • It comes from “san” + “kära” or actions that involve “san”. We know that “san” means anything that is associated with the world of 31 realms, either by giving rise to future births (as in abhisankhara) or just helps in living the current life (sankhara).
  • Thinking about going to the bathroom is a sankhara (kammically neutral).
  • Thinking about killing a human being and carrying it out is a sankhara with high kammic consequences or an abhisankhara. It can lead to a birth in the apayas, and is an apunna abhisankhara (or apunnäbhisankhara).
  • On the other hand, punna abhisankhara (or punnäbhisankhara)  have good kammic consequences and can lead to “good births”. Even more importantly, they are essential for making progress on the Path.

2. However, the word sankhara is commonly used to indicate those with kammic consequences, as in “avijja paccaya sankhara“, where it really means, “avijja paccaya apunnabhi sankhara“. So, one really needs to pay attention to exactly what meaning need to be taken in a given case.

  • By the way, it would have been better to spell the word as sankära, instead of sankhära, but it is too late to change since that could cause problems with, for example, Google searches.

3. All our thoughts, speech, and bodily actions are based on sankhara that arise in the mind. Therefore, it is important to realize that vaci sankhara and kaya sankhara also arise in the mind.

  • Kaya sankhara are in “conscious thoughts” that make our bodies move. Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are apunnabhi kaya sankhara.
  • Vaci sankhara are in “conscious thoughts that we silently generate” and also those thoughts that lead to speech by moving the lips, tongue etc. Thinking about a Dhamma concept is a punnabhi vaci sankhara. Hate speech is due to apunnabhi vaci sankhara.
  • On the other hand, mano sankhara are in “unconscious thoughts” that arise automatically. We are not aware when they arise. They arise due to our gathi and can indicate our level of moha or avijja. Since they arise unconsciously, mano sankhara are unlikely to be abhisankhara that have strong kammic consequences.
  • The fact that cetana plays a key role is clear when we look at the following definitions: “kaya sancetana kaya sankhara“, “vaci sancetana vaci sankhara“, and  “mano sancetana mano sankhara“.

4. Let us take some examples to illustrate these three types of sankhara.

  • In order to move the body, the mind in the gandhabbaya 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 kaya sankhara 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 abhisankhara. These thoughts would have asobhana cetasika (like greed or hate) in them.
  • If the purpose was to go somewhere to do a good deed, then it would become a punnabhi sankhara. These thoughts would have sobhana cetasika (like faith and compassion) in them.
  • If the purpose was to go the bathroom (kammically neutral), then it would be just a kaya sankhara, not an abhisankhara. In fact, breathing involves moving body parts (lungs), which is done without conscious thinking, but they are kaya sankhara too. Those thoughts would not have sobhana or asobhana 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 that arise with those thoughts.

5. 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 sankhara.

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

6. Whether they are vaci or kaya sankhara, if they have asobhana cetasika in them, they have the tendency to “heat up” or “stress” the mind (Pali word is “thäpa“).

7. All other thoughts that arise in the mind without conscious thinking are mano sankhara.

  • 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 mano sankhara that are involved at the beginning have two cetasika of sanna (recognition of what happened) and vedana (pain caused). Another way to say it: mano sankhara are involved in the vipaka stage.
  • However, based on that “sense input” of getting hit, now one could start generating vaci sankhara and even kaya sankhara. Those vaci sankhara may involve just generating bad thoughts about that person (talking to oneself) or actually saying bad things to him. If the pain was strong, one may start generating bad kaya sankhara and hit that person.

8. So, it is important to realize that whether one is just thinking (mano sankhara and early stages of vaci sankhara), or speaking out (vaci and kaya sankhara), or using the body movements (kaya sankhara), they all involve thoughts (citta).

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

9. As I will explain in a future post in the Abhidhamma section, initial mano sankhara and subsequent vaci and kaya sankhara start arising in the same initial thought process called a citta vithi.

  • 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 kaya sankhara to “talk to oneself”, speak out, or to do bodily actions.

10. 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 kaya sankhara arise due to many  citta vithi running one after another.
  • 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 sankhara 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.

11. Therefore, even if we may start generating vaci and kaya sankhara, 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 kaya sankhara early.
  • As we discussed in the desana in the post,”Satipattana Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“, this is the key to anapana and satipattana bhavana.

12. In the previous post, “Vedana – What It Really Means“, we discussed how “samphassa ja vedana” can arise in our minds subsequent to initial vipaka vedana.

  • Those “samphassa ja vedana” arise when we generate vaci sankhara and kaya sankhara as a result of the initial vipaka vedana.
  • Those  “samphassa ja vedana” are all made by us consciously. However, for someone who has not cultivated satipattana or anapana (the correct versions), this may not be obvious.

13. 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 ja vedana” or — to say the same thing differently — before generating a lot of vaci or kaya sankhara.

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

14. We first need to pay attention to those  “samphassa ja vedana” that arise due to immoral thoughts, i.e., due to immoral vaci and kaya sankhara.

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

15. On the other hand, when one is eating a delicious food, one is likely to generate vaci sankhara (saying to oneself how tasty it is) associate with somanassa  “samphassa ja vedana“. That is not an immoral thought.

  • However, that type of vaci sankhara keeps one bound to kama loka, and thus one who is already a Sotapanna (or Sakadagami) may want to try to control such vaci sankhara.

16. We will be able to put all this together when we discuss vinnana. So, far we have discussed sanna, vedana, sankhara. The discussion on vinnana will complete our simplified discussion on the four aggregates that are associated with the mind or the mental body, gandhabbaya.

  • Furthermore, we will see that vedana (excluding “samphassa ja vedana“) and sanna are associated with mano sankhara, which arise automatically due to kamma vipaka.
  • Starting with those mano sankhara, we then consciously generate vaci and kaya sankhara initiating new kamma. Furthermore, “samphassa ja vedana” arise during that process.
  • When kamma vipaka in turn lead to making new kamma (thus giving rise to more kamma vipaka), 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 apunnabhi vaci and kaya sankhara.

Later, we will discuss how the fifth aggregate of rupa actually arise due to those four mental aggregates.

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