Avijjā paccayā sankhārā

Revised April 26, 2019

“Avijjā paccayā sankhārā” (Ignorance as root cause for immoral/unfruitful actions and thoughts). This is the same as saying “avijjā nirōdha” leads to “sankhāra nirōdha”. In fact , all following terms in the akusala-mula paticca samuppāda cycle stop arising and thus all suffering stop arising with the complete removal of avijjā.

1. Avijjā, which is loosely translated as ignorance, is normally defined in many ways: not knowing the Four Noble Truths, not understanding the Noble Eightfold Path, not understanding the Three Characteristics of nature, not understanding dukkha, etc.

  • All these are correct, but just reading about them is not going to help, until the mind clearly sees how suffering arises due to immoral and unwise actions (and thoughts).
  • The paticca samuppāda cycle clarifies how the three kinds of suffering arises because one does not comprehend the true nature of the world, and think (and do) immoral/unfruitful things.

2. If you are reading this without reading the first two posts, you may be wondering whether I was being untruthful when I said this series will be in “plain English”. I did describe these three terms in plain English, and there is no easy way to get the same meaning across without using such key Pāli words.

  • So, once I clarify them, I have to use these Pāli terms in order to keep a post to a reasonable length, AND readable. One can always go back and read previous introductory posts to refresh memory.

3. The standard interpretation of “avijjā paccayā sankhārā” reads “ignorance leads to mental formations”, which does not get the underlying ideas across and also misleading. I believe that “ignorance as root cause and condition for immoral/unfruitful actions” is a better translation, and I will explain why.

First let us look at the difference between immoral acts and unfruitful acts.

  • We saw that dukkha dukkha in the four lower realms is the worst form of suffering. And we saw the cause of that as the immoral acts done with the ten defilements or dasa akusala. Thus worst forms of sankhārā are responsible for dukkha dukkha in the lower four realms.
  • Why do we do any of such strong immoral acts that give rise to dukkha dukkha of the worst kinds in the lower four realms? Because to a very high degree of ignorance of the consequences of such acts. For example, if one does not believe in rebirth, then it is hard to see how such immoral acts can have consequences. After all, there are many people engaged in immoral behavior who seem to be enjoying life.
  • Such high level of ignorance is called moha (which means totally covered, totally blind mind), and the closest English word is delusion.
  • A murderer who PLANS and kills another human is a good example. He thinks that if he can plan it well, he can avoid “getting caught” by the justice system and then will not have to pay for his act. He does not understand that there are MUCH WORSE consequences waiting for him, regardless of whether he is caught by the police or not. He does not know that he is likely to get killed thousand times in return in future births.

4. Thus immoral actions like killing, stealing, etc are responsible for the worst outcomes, the worst kinds of future suffering; these are the worst forms of sankhārā.
On the other side of the spectrum for sankhārā are the unfruitful actions that lead to lower levels of sankhārā dukkha in this very life. For example, when we get attached to things/people via strong attachments or strong dislikes, that can lead to mental suffering in this life as we discussed in previous posts.

  • However, such unfruitful actions can also form bad habits that can grow into bigger problems with time. Someone acting with greed or dislikes habitually can tend to make those stronger and eventually grow into stronger forms of excess greed and hate, leading to immoral acts. We will discuss how this happens via the paticca samuppāda steps.
  • Of course the severity of the consequences will be according to the severity and nature of the act: “pati+ichcha” leading to “sama”+”uppāda”, as we will discuss in detail later. See, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda” for the meaning of paticca samuppāda. When one is even willing to do immoral acts to get what one wants, the consequences will also be stronger and “in kind”. Then there are “unfruitful acts” that can lead to comparatively minor forms of suffering in the near term, but can also add up to bigger effects in the long run.
  • Thus one has to think beyond the five precepts to understand the origin of sankhārā dukkha. I know I am repeating some statements, but I want to make sure to get these important ideas across.

I hope it is clear now why “immoral/unfruitful actions, speech and thoughts” is a better translation for sankhārā than “mental formations”. In fact, sankhārā are really all mental; kāya and vacī sankhārā are those thoughts that LEAD TO actions and speech.

5. Now let us discuss the other erroneous aspect of the translation of “avijjā paccayā sankhārā” as “ignorance leads to mental formations”. For further details, see, “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paticca Samuppada?“.

  • Ignorance (avijjā)is not there all the time. Even the worst criminal does not do immoral acts or even unfruitful acts ALL THE TIME. But when he does, such actions are done with ignorance as a root cause.
  • It applies to all of us: The more we learn Dhamma, the more we get rid of ignorance, the less will we think or do either immoral or unfruitful things, i.e., any type of sankhārā.

6. A closely related issue to think about is what kind of control we have over sankhārā. There are three types of sankhārā: kāya sankhārā (those that lead to physical acts), vacī sankhārā (those that lead to speech), and manō sankhārā (those done with only thoughts).

  • If we know right from wrong, we can control MOST of our physical actions and speech. We may even start saying something bad and stop ourselves in the middle of the sentence.
  • Yet, depending on the emotional state of the mind, it may be not possible to control our actions under extreme stressful situations. For example, even though a person who would not even hurt another’s feelings may get into a rage if he catches his wife is engaging in sex with another man, and may even kill that man in the heat of the moment.
  • We also know “good people” who were tempted to do immoral things if the “payout or the perceived pleasure was big enough”. This is the danger of “not being free of the four lower realms”.
  • More information at: “Sankhāra – What It Really Means“.

7. The third category, manō sankhārā, are also hard to control by will power instantly. I think we all can think about situations where it was hard to control greedy/hateful thoughts. We just get to think about something and the mind takes us all over the place thinking about “what we could have”, etc and also fantasize about all kinds of sense pleasures. One really needs to willfully stop such thoughts and think about their consequences.

  • These, and the kāya and vacī sankhārā done on “impulse” or “temptations” discussed above, can only be lessened and ultimately stopped by changing one’s habits (“gathi”) and cravings (“āsāvas”).
  • And that comes about by realizing the unfruitfulness of any type of sankhārā. This is strongly related to comprehending the Three Characteristics and we will be analyzing this in the upcoming steps of paticca samuppāda.

8. Thus the key is to change one’s bad habits over time. Then, gradually, even such manō sankhārā will STOP FROM ARISING.

  • It may be hard to believe, but big part of this change of habits and cravings comes from comprehending the Three Characteristics of this world. When one realizes that it does not MAKE SENSE to hurt others (including animals) to get sense pleasure for oneself, that makes a BIG DIFFERENCE in one’s outlook about what a “good life is”.
  • Contrary to what most people believe, a “good, peaceful, life” is not a life filled with sense pleasures. An extravagant life can eventually become a “burdened life”, because our body’s ability to accommodate sense pleasures goes down as we age. This realization itself leads to “cooling down” of the mind. Anyway, as we discuss further, and if one contemplates more along these ideas, these concepts will slowly become clear.

9. In summary, all three kinds of suffering arise due to sankhārā that range from highly immoral acts to seemingly innocent unfruitful actions, and all sankhārā arise due to avijjā.

  • This is why “avijjā paccayā sankhārā” is the first step in the paticca samuppāda cycle, which ends with “jarā, marana, sōka, paridēva, dukkha, …..” all kinds of suffering.
  • At the Arahant stage, one has removed avijjā (i.e., optimized paññā), and thus abhisankhāra that lead to rebirth cannot arise; this is called Saupadisesa Nibbāna. At the death of the physical body, the Arahant is not reborn and thus, at that time, all sankhāra cease to arise (Anupadisesa Nibbāna or Parinibbāna or “complete Nibbāna“).
  • That is how “avijjā nirōdha” leads to “sankhāra nirōdha“.

Thus we can see in an approximate way how suffering arises with immoral/unfruitful actions as causes, which themselves arise due to ignorance of the true nature of the world: anicca, dukkha, anatta. Here we discussed how ignorance gives rise to sankhārā. in the next post we will discuss how sankhārā leads to viññāna or defiled consciousness as the next step leading to dukkha (suffering).

Next, “Sankhara paccayā Vinnana – 1“, ……….

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