Difference Between Dhammā and Saṅkhāra

We discuss dhammā and saṅkhāra in the context of sabbē saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbē saṅkhārā dukkhā, and sabbē dhammā anattā.”

Revised March 22, 2017; rewritten January 6, 2023; revised January 9, 2023

Dhammā May Include Everything in This World

1. A word meaning different things in different contexts is common in any language. For example, in English, “I object to the ruling” and “Moon is an object in the sky” mean two different things for the word “object.” The word dhammā may mean somewhat different things.

  • As pointed out in the post “Dhamma and Dhammā – Different but Related,” dhammā may include everything in this world, in general; see #9 and #10 there. Also, see the three suttas on anicca, dukkha, and anatta starting with “Sahetuanicca Sutta (SN 22.18)” explicitly stating that.
  • Anything can exist only if there is energy to sustain its existence. In that sense, anything in existence is a “dhammā” and is “bearing the causes” that gave rise to it. 
  • Our physical bodies can live for only up to about 100 years. Our human gandhabbas (the mental body) may live for thousands/millions of years depending on the kammic energy acquired at the paṭisandhi moment of “grasping this human existence.” A star, like our Sun, may last billions of years.
  • The shortest existing entity in this world is a citta. It lasts less than a billionth of a second. There must be a “seat of the mind” or a hadaya vatthu to provide energy to give rise to a citta

2. Thus, any mental or physical entity that arises (uppāda) stays in existence (ṭhiti) and dies (bhaṅga.) These entities are rupa (alive or inert) and the mental states (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, and viññāṇa) associated with rupa with sentient life. Those entities (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, and viññāṇa) are, thus, also called saṅkhata (prepared.) See “Saṅkhatalakkhaṇa Sutta (AN 3.47).”

  • (By the way, we NEVER experience a single citta but only experience trillions of citta (aggregates or khandha), even over a short time. Even seeing a rupa happens one trace at a time, and we experience only rupakkhandha. See “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy.”)
  • Thus, in a way, all saṅkhata are dhammā in general. 
Dhammā With Embedded Kammic Energy

3. However, a specific type of dhammā (kammic energies arising via abhisaṅkhāra) is the root cause of all dhammā; see #11 of “Dhamma and Dhammā – Different but Related .” That is a deeper meaning of dhammā, the root cause of all dhammā.

  • Those dhammās are the kammic energies we all have accumulated through the rebirth process. We accumulate kammic energies with the Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process, starting with “avijjā paccayā (abhi)saṅkhāra.”
  • Thus, a specific type of dhammā (kammic energies arising via abhisaṅkhāra) is the root cause of all dhammā. They eventually lead to all dhammā, including those in #1.

4. The Buddha taught that everything in this world has eventual causes in mind: “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..” The verse, “manōpubbangamā dhammā” means “all dhammā in this world have mind as the precursor.”

  • That is why the famous verse: Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā, Tesaṁ hetuṁ tathāgato āha; Tesañca yo nirodho, Evaṁvādī mahāsamaṇo” captures the essence of the Four Noble Truths, as pointed out in the Peṭakopadesa, one of the three original commentaries included in the Tipiṭaka.
  • See “1. Ariyasaccappakāsanapaṭhamabhūmi,” where I have pointed to that verse. It says that the verse represents the Four Noble Truths (Tattha katamāni cattāri ariyasaccāni?.)
  • I have discussed that in the post “Ye Dhammā Hetuppabhavā.. and Yam Kiñci Samudaya Dhammam..
  • Now we have the proper background to examine three famous Dhammapada verses in proper context. They refer to specific dhammā, the root cause of all dhammā, i.e., kammic energies arising via abhisaṅkhāra.
Famous Dhammapada verses

5. The following three sentences appear in the Dhammapada verses 277,278, and 279:

  • Sabbē saṅkhārā aniccāor “all saṅkhāra are anicca (they give rise to saṅkhata that we cannot maintain to our satisfaction in the long run). A deeper interpretation is that it is futile to seek a “permanent happy existence” in the rebirth process. 
  • Sabbē saṅkhārā dukkhā or “all saṅkhāra eventually lead to dukkha (suffering).”
  • Sabbē dhammā anattā or “all dhammā generated via such (abhi)saṅkhāra are without substance (not fruitful) at the end.”

6. An often-asked question is why the first two verses refer to saṅkhāra and the third to dhammā.

  • That question is reasonable because, as we saw in #1 above, everything in this world has the three characteristics: anicca, dukkha, and anatta. Thus, in general, saṅkhāra is included in dhammā too. Therefore, Sabbē saṅkhārā anattā“ and “Sabbē dhammā aniccāare also correct statements.
  • The point here is to highlight the fact that it is fruitless to engage in saṅkhārā and to generate the specific type of dhammā with kammic energies to give rise to future existences! That is what we discussed in #3 above.
  • Because of that implication, those three famous verses in #5 also appear in several suttas. See, for example, “Uppādā Sutta (AN 3.136).” There it is emphasized that those three statements are inviolable; they are dhammaniyāma: “Uppādā vā, bhikkhave, tathāgatānaṁ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṁ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā” or “Bhikkhus, whether a Buddha arises or not, these are the laws of nature that always hold.”
Dhamma and Dhammā

7. We discussed Dhamma and dhammā in “Dhamma and Dhammā – Different but Related.” The word “Dhamma” is related to “dhammā” (with a long “a” indicating plural.) 

  • First, “Dhamma” (with uppercase “D” and a short “a”) means “teaching.” Thus Buddha Dhamma is “teachings of the Buddha or “teachings that can lead to Nibbāna (“bhava uddha” or “stopping bhava and thus rebirth.”) See “A Buddhist or a Bhauddhayā?
  • Dhammā” (with a long “a”) is a broad category meaning “to bear things in this world.” 

8. Everything in this world arises based on dhammā” (with kammic energies) created via various types of adhamma.

  • Buddha Dhamma or saddhamma does not give rise to dhammā; instead, Buddha Dhamma help neutralizes/deactivate dhammāWe will address that below. In other words, dhammā are associated with anything in this world, and Buddha Dhamma help transcend this world and attain Nibbāna, “the deathless state.” 
  • A short sutta, “Dhamma Sutta (AN 10.182),” clarifies Buddha Dhamma or saddhamma and adhamma. It says, “taking a life, stealing, abusing sense pleasures, speaking untruth, slandering, harsh speech, gossiping, greed, ill-will, wrong views” belong to adhamma. Those are dasa akusala; see “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma.” Abstaining from dasa akusala is saddhamma. 
  • Another short sutta, “Dhamma Sutta (AN 10.138),” describes adhamma as: “Wrong views, wrong thoughts, wrong speech, wrong actions, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindset, wrong samadhi, wrong understanding, wrong vimutti.” The opposite, Sammā Diṭṭhi through Sammā Vimutti, is saddhamma.
  • However, saddhamma with Sammā Diṭṭhi through Sammā Samādhi has two versions followed by the mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths. Those on the Noble Path have comprehended “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”
Adhamma and Mundane Version of Saddhamma Give Rise to Rebirths

9. In the post “Dhamma – Different Meanings Depending on the Context,” we discussed different types of Dhamma.

   (i) “Deva dhammās” bear energy to sustain a Deva existence (bhava.) Thus, if one lives with “Deva Dhamma and accumulates “Deva dhammā,” one is likely to be born a Deva. Similarly, manussa dhammā and Brahma dhammā, for example, bear energies to sustain human and Brahma existences. 

   (ii) In the same way, if one lives an immoral life, according to “animal Dhamma,” one is likely to be born an animal; one living with niraya dhamma (engaged in killings, rapes, etc.) one can be born in a niraya (hell.) One would accumulate “niraya, peta, asura, animal dhammā” by living an immoral life or living by adhamma

  • The first category is “mundane saddhamma” per the “mundane eightfold path” mentioned in #8. The second category is adhamma.
  • It is essential to understand that any dhammā “bears and sustains” things in this world of 31 realms; see #1 above.
  • Both categories do not lead to Nibbāna, but the first category is NECESSARY to cultivate the Noble Path to Nibbāna.
Dhammā With Kammic Energies Responsible for Rebirth

10. At the moment of death, a strong kamma bija or a dhammā comes to the mind via “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manō viññāṇaṃ.” That new viññāna is the paṭisandhi viññāna for the new life; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhammā are rūpa too!“. (However, “manañca paṭicca dhammē ca uppajjāti manō viññāṇaṃ” can also bring kamma vipāka and memories during a lifetime as well; those are the “general type of dhammā.”)

  • Therefore, a new life is now formed due to potent dhammā (or kamma bija) originated via abhisaṅkhāra. This new lifeform is also a saṅkhata because it arose due to that abhisaṅkhāra.
  • Details at “Icchā (Cravings) Lead to Upādāna and to Eventual Suffering” and “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna.
  • After Arahanthood, the generation of dhammā with kammic energy stops because the Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process, starting with “avijjā paccayā (abhi)saṅkhāra,” would not operate for an Arahant. However, the “general type of dhammā” will bring kamma vipāka and memories until the death of an Arahant.
  • That is why all dhammās are “nirodha dhammā” or “dhammā that can be stopped from arising.” Of course, that happens with the total elimination of avijjā and the stopping of Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda processes starting with “avijjā paccayā (abhi)saṅkhāra.
Sankhārā Are Our Thoughts Leading to Speech and Actions

11. Sankhārā are involved in thinking, speaking, and acting based on our intentions, hopes, and dreams. It is essential to realize that ALL sankhārā are based on our thoughts.

  • “Sankhāra” include all three types (kāya saṅkhāra, vaci saṅkhāra, manō saṅkhāra) that lead to any action, speech, or just thought (in that order). They all arise in citta (our thoughts).
  • We say “hello” to someone with vaci saṅkhāra. If we walk from the living room to the kitchen to get a drink, that is done with kāya saṅkhāra. But those do not initiate kamma vipāka and are kammically neutral.
  • But if such thoughts involve lobha, dosa, and moha, they become strong saṅkhāra (abhisaṅkhāra.) More on saṅkhāra at “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”
  • Abhisaṅkhāra (potent or strong saṅkhāra) gives rise to kamma bija, which belongs to the primary type of dhammā. 
Buddha Dhamma Does Not Lead to New Dhammā

12. At the beginning of the post, I mentioned that “dhammā” bear everything in this world of 31 realms. In #9 above, we discussed how rebirths in other realms arise via different types of dhammā created by following corresponding paths or Dhamma.

  • Any teaching/way of life other than Buddha Dhamma is based on attempts to seek happiness while remaining in this world of 31 realms. 
  • Most people don’t even go that far. They only seek happiness in this life. The basic idea for most people is to get a good education and a job. That is all most people are concerned with. 
  • Then there are “religiously motivated people” who believe in an afterlife and follow a religion seeking to be born in a heavenly realm. They believe that will be a permanent existence full of happiness. But there is a “theory” that explains any reasoning behind that belief.
  • In contrast, Buddha Dhamma is a “self-consistent theory” that explains the reasoning. That analysis is in the Sutta Piṭaka in the form of an outline but is more thorough in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. The Abhidhamma analysis is the ultimate “Grand Unified Theory” that Einstein was seeking. However, he was very much off the track since such analysis MUST be based on mental phenomena, not material phenomena.
Buddha Dhamma Leads to Stopping of Arising (Nirodha) of Dhammā

13. Buddha Dhamma teaches how to stop potent dhammā from bringing rebirths.

  • As discussed above, dhammā are kammic energies created as bhava in the Akusala-Mula (or anuloma) PS processes.  
  • Those processes are initiated by an ārammaṇa coming to mind via one of the sensory inputs. Such processes lead to the creation of new dhammā and the grasping of new bhava (existence) at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, i.e., at the end of the current bhava
  • That process is reversed in the “Paṭilōma Paṭicca Samuppāda – Key to Nibbāna” leading to Nibbāna. Also, seeDistortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
  • As a Noble Person progresses through the Sotapanna, Anāgāmi, and Arahant stages, the possibility of grasping existence in an apāyās, kāma loka, and all 31 realms are removed respectively. Rebirth in any realm WILL NOT lead to the end of suffering.

14. That is why it is “bhava uddha” (Buddha) Dhamma. Instead of creating new dhammā, a Noble Person strives to “stop the accumulation of new dhammā” and “de-energize” existing dhammā! That is the correct meaning of “nirodha dhammā” in #9 of “Dhamma and Dhammā – Different but Related.”

  • Stopping (nirodha) of any saṅkhata at the Parinibbāna of an Arahant. After that, nothing of this world can arise, and thus, Nibbāna is the asaṅkhata or the “unconditioned” as translated commonly. See the second half of the “Saṅkhatalakkhaṇa Sutta (AN 3.47).” Nibbāna does not arise due to causes and conditions; it is what results when all conditions to bring the results (vipāka) of past causes (kamma) are removed. Those conditions are lobha, dosa, moha, and the mundane versions of alobha, adosa, and amoha.
  • Also, see “Nirōdha and Vaya – Two Different Concepts.”
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