Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means

February 25, 2017; revised January 3, 2018; September 23, 2018; November 1, 2018; July 25, 2019; May 17, 2020

1. “Mental formations” and “formations” are the conventional translations for sankhāra. Certainly, the former is a better translation. But it is much better to grasp the idea of saṅkhāra and just use that word. I recommend the same for most key Pāli words like saññā and viññāna.

  • It comes from “san” + “khāra” or actions that involve “san; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“.
  • However, all saṅkhāra arise in mind. When they lead to conscious thinking or speech, they are called vaci saṅkhāra. Those that lead to bodily actions are kāya saṅkhāra; those that arise automatically in mind are manō saṅkhāra.
  • Therefore, “san” is associated with anything that one is thinking about doing or doing.
  • Sankhāra are responsible for just getting things done to live the current life (everyday activities). They can also lead 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 saṅkhāra or abhisaṅkhāra.

2. Let us look at some examples now.

  • Thinking about going to the bathroom is a vaci saṅkhāra (kammically neutral). One gets the body to move to the toilet using kāya saṅkhāra.
  • Thinking about killing a human being and carrying it out is a saṅkhāra with great kammic consequences or a vaci abhisaṅkhāra; doing the actual killing is done with kāya abhisaṅkhāra. Such vaci and kāya abhisaṅkhāra are apuñña abhisaṅkhāra (or apunnābhisaṅkhāra). They can lead to birth in the apāyās.
  • On the other hand, puñña abhisaṅkhāra (or punnābhisaṅkhāra)  (thoughts responsible for proper 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 saṅkhāra. 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 saṅkhāra is commonly used to indicate those with kammic consequences, as in “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“, where it really means, “avijjā paccayā apunnābhi saṅkhāra”  or “avijjā paccayā punnābhi saṅkhāra“.

  • Here abhi saṅkhāra means “strong saṅkhāra”, and the word apunnābhi comes from “apuñña” + “abhi“, which combine to rhyme as apunnābhi. Here “apuñña” means “bad” or “immoral”.Thus,apunnābhi saṅkhāra means strong immoral saṅkhāra.
  • In the same way, puñña + abhi + saṅkhāra becomes punnābhi saṅkhāra (for strong good saṅkhāra).
  • 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 saṅkhāra that arise in mind. Therefore, it is essential to realize that vaci saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra also arise in mind. One speaks and acts based on those such thoughts.

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

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

  • 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 saṅkhāra are responsible for moving the legs. Now, if the purpose of moving the body was to go somewhere to commit an evil deed, then it becomes an apuñña abhisaṅkhāra. These thoughts would have asōbhana cetasika (like greed or hate) in them.
  • If the purpose were to go somewhere to do a good deed, then it would become a punnābhi saṅkhāra. These thoughts would have sōbhana cetasika (like faith and compassion) in them.
  • If the purpose were to go the bathroom (kammically neutral), then it would be just a kāya saṅkhāra, not an abhisaṅkhāra. Breathing involves moving body parts (lungs), done without conscious thinking, but they are kāya saṅkhāra too. Those thoughts would not have sōbhana or asōbhana cetasika in them.
  • Therefore, the kammic nature of an act is decided by the intention that is in mind, i.e., type of cetasika (mental factors) that arise with those thoughts; see, “What is Intention in Kamma?“.

6. Now, if a person gets angry at another person, he may not move any body parts, but may generate evil thoughts like: “I wish I could hit this person right now”. Those are vaci saṅkhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”

  • When those vaci saṅkhāra build-up energy, one may say those words out. They are still called vaci saṅkhāra.
  • Whether one is just talking to oneself or speaks out such evil words, they are both apuñña abhisaṅkhāra.
  • Of course, vaci saṅkhāra can be puñña abhisaṅkhāra too. Person X watching a good deed by person Y may be generating good thoughts about Y; those are puñña vaci saṅkhāra.
  • Those also will be distinguished by the type of cetasika as in kāya saṅkhāra above.

7. Whether vaci or kāya saṅkhāra, if they have asōbhana cetasika in them, they tend to “heat up” or “stress” the mind (Pāli word is “thāpa“).

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

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

9. So, it is essential to realize that all of the following involve thoughts: automatically thinking (manō saṅkhāra), “just talking to oneself” or speaking out (vaci saṅkhāra), or using the body movements (kāya saṅkhāra).

  • 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. Those initial manō saṅkhāra are automatically in mind due to one’s gati. Then subsequent vaci and kāya saṅkhāra 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 substantial (and one gets interested in it via like or dislike), one will start many such citta vithi in a short time. This leads to corresponding vaci and kāya saṅkhāra to “talk to oneself,” speak out or to do bodily actions.

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

  • Vaci or kāya saṅkhāra 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 critical point is that the javana citta in subsequent citta vithi gets stronger and stronger. This is why when we start thinking about a person that we like or 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 saṅkhāra 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 saṅkhāra, we may not become aware of it for a short time. If one gets 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 determine to catch it earlier next time.
  • We can prevent a lot of suffering in this life by catching such vaci and kāya saṅkhāra early.
  • As we discussed in the desana in the post, “Satipaṭṭhāna 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” could arise in our minds after initial vipāka vēdanā.

  • Those “samphassa jā vēdanā” arise when we generate vaci saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra 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 sensory input. With practice, one can “catch oneself” before generating too many  “samphassa jā vēdanā” or — to say the same thing differently — before making a lot of vaci or kāya saṅkhāra.

  • This concept 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 saṅkhāra.

  • Suppose person X starts generating bad vaci saṅkhāra because he is verbally abused by enemy Y. Such vaci saṅkhāra give rise to a “bad state of mind” or domanassa viasamphassa jā vēdanā.” If the situation escalates, stronger vaci saṅkhāra, i.e., thoughts of hitting Y, may arise and may lead to kāya saṅkhāra for hitting Y.

16. On the other hand, when one is eating delicious food, one will taste it as pleasant, whether one is an average 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 an average human will have a craving for that food, an Arahant will not.
  • One generates manō saṅkhāra automatically based on one’s gati. Then, conscious vaci saṅkhāra and kāya saṅkhāra lead to the critical upādāna (willingly binding or craving) 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 explanation 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 saṅkhāra, which arise automatically due to kamma vipāka.
  • Starting with such manō saṅkhāra, we then consciously generate vaci and kāya saṅkhāra initiating new kamma. Furthermore, “samphassa jā vēdanā” arise during that process.
  • When a kamma vipāka, in turn, leads 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 determines to stop initiating new kamma, especially strong immoral kamma via apunnābhi vaci and kāya saṅkhāra.

18. I recently came across the following “wise words” on the internet:

  • Watch your thoughts; they become words.
  • Watch your words; they become actions.
  • Watch your actions; they become habits.
  • Watch your habits; they become your character.
  • Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Those statements summarize what I have been trying to explain above and also in posts on Paṭicca Samuppāda. Our thoughts or saṅkhāra define and guide our destiny.

 19. Further details on saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkhāra at “Kamma, Saṅkhāra, and Abhisaṅkhāra – What Is “Intention”?

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