|Glossary of Buddhism|
In the first (passive) sense, saṅkhāra refers to conditioned phenomena generally but specifically to all mental "dispositions". These are called 'volitional formations' both because they are formed as a result of volition and because they are causes for the arising of future volitional actions. English translations for saṅkhāra in the first sense of the word include 'conditioned things,' 'determinations,' 'fabrications' and 'formations' (or, particularly when referring to mental processes, 'volitional formations').
Etymology and meaning
Saṅkhāra is a Pali word that is cognate with the Sanskrit word saṃskāra. The latter word is not a Vedic Sanskrit term, but found extensively in classical and epic era Sanskrit in all Indian philosophies. Saṃskāra is found in the Hindu Upanishads such as in verse 2.6 of Kaushitaki Upanishad, 4.16.2–4 of Chandogya Upanishad, 6.3.1 of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as well as mentioned by the ancient Indian scholar Panini and many others. Saṅkhāra appears in the Buddhist Pitaka texts with a variety of meanings and contexts, somewhat different than the Upanishadic texts, particularly for anything to predicate impermanence.
It is a complex concept, with no single-word English translation, that fuses "object and subject" as interdependent parts of each human's consciousness and epistemological process. It connotes "impression, disposition, conditioning, forming, perfecting in one's mind, influencing one's sensory and conceptual faculty" as well as any "preparation, sacrament" that "impresses, disposes, influences or conditions" how one thinks, conceives or feels.
In the first (passive) sense, saṅkhāra refers to "conditioned things" or "dispositions, mental imprint". All aggregates in the world – physical or mental concomitants, and all phenomena, state early Buddhist texts, are conditioned things. It can refer to any compound form in the universe whether a tree, a cloud, a human being, a thought or a molecule. All these are saṅkhāras, as well as everything that is physical and visible in the phenomenal world are conditioned things, or aggregate of mental conditions. The Buddha taught that all saṅkhāras are impermanent and essenceless. These subjective dispositions, states David Kalupahana, "prevented the Buddha from attempting to formulate an ultimately objective view of the world".
Since conditioned things and dispositions are perceptions and do not have real essence, they are not reliable sources of pleasure and they are impermanent. Understanding the significance of this reality is wisdom. This "conditioned things" sense of the word Saṅkhāra appears in Four Noble Truths and in Buddhist theory of dependent origination, that is how ignorance or misconceptions about impermanence and non-self leads to Taṇhā and rebirths. The Samyutta Nikaya II.12.1 presents one such explanation, as do other Pali texts.
The last words of the Buddha, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (in English and Pali), were "Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation." (Pali: "handa'dāni bhikkhave āmantayāmi vo, vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā ti.").
| The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
according to the Pali Canon.
|Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001) | diagram details|
In the second (active) sense, saṅkhāra (or saṅkhāra-khandha) refers to the form-creating faculty of mind. It is part of the doctrine of conditioned arising or dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). In this sense, the term Sankhara is karmically active volition or intention, which generates rebirth and influences the realm of rebirth. Sankhara herein is synonymous with karma, and includes actions of the body, speech and mind.
The saṅkhāra-khandha states that living beings are reborn (bhava, become) by means of actions of body and speech (kamma). The Buddha stated that all volitional constructs are conditioned by ignorance (avijja) of impermanence and non-self. It is this ignorance that leads to the origination of the sankharas and ultimately causes human suffering (dukkha). The cessation of all such sankharas (sabba-saṅkhāra-nirodha) is synonymous with Awakening (bodhi), the attainment of nirvana. The end of conditioned arising or dependent origination in the karmic sense (Sankharas), yields the unconditioned phenomenon of nirvana.
As the ignorance conditions the volitional formations, these formations condition, in turn, the consciousness (viññāna). The Buddha elaborated:
'What one intends, what one arranges, and what one obsesses about: This is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing [or: an establishing] of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.'
Mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika; Pali: cetasika; Tibetan Wylie: sems byung) are formations (Sanskrit: saṅkhāra) concurrent with mind (Sanskrit: citta). They can be described as aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object, and that have the ability to color the mind.
The Buddha emphasized the need to purify dispositions rather than eliminate them completely.
Kalupahana states that "the elimination of dispositions is epistemological suicide," as dispositions determine our perspectives. The development of one's personality in the direction of perfection or imperfection rests with one's dispositions.
When preliminary nibbana with substrate occurs (that is, nibbana of a living being), constructive consciousness, that is, the house-builder, is completely destroyed and no new formations will be constructed. However, sankharas in the sense of constructed consciousness, which exists as a 'karmically-resultant-consciousness' (vipāka viññāna), continue to exist. Each liberated individual produces no new karma, but preserves a particular individual personality which is the result of the traces of his or her karmic heritage. The very fact that there is a psycho-physical substrate during the remainder of an arahant's lifetime shows the continuing effect of karma.
English translations for the term Sankhara
- Activities (Ajahn Sucitto)
- Concoctions (Santikaro)
- Conditioning Factors
- Conditioned things
- Formations (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
- Karmic formations
- Mental constructions
- Mental constructs (Bhante S. Dhammika)
- Preparations (Bhikkhu Katukurunde Ñāṇānanda)
- Volitional activities 
- Volitional dispositions 
- Volitional formations (Bhikkhu Bodhi)
- Kleshas (Buddhism)
- Mental factors (Buddhism)
- Samskara (Indian philosophy) - Hindu concept
- Thich Nhat Hahn (2015). The Heart of Buddha's Teaching. New York: Harmony. pp. 73–74.
- David Kalupahana, "A History of Buddhist Philosophy." University of Hawaii Press, 1992, page 71.
- "The word saṅkhatam is explained in various ways. But in short it means something that is made up, prepared, or concocted by way of intention." Katukurunde Ñāṇānanda, in "The Mind Stilled: 33 Lectures on Nibbāna," p. 42, online at http://www.seeingthroughthenet.net.
- See Piyadassi (1999). This is also suggested, for instance, by Bodhi (2000), p. 46, who in writing about one sense of saṅkhāra states: 'In the widest sense, saṅkhāra comprises all conditioned things, everything arisen from a combination of conditions.'
- According to Bodhi (2000), p. 44, 'determinations' was used by Ven. Ñāṇamoli in his Majjhima Nikaya manuscripts that ultimately were edited by Bodhi. (In the published volume, Bodhi changed Ñāṇamoli's word choice to "formations.")
- See, for instance, Thanissaro (1997b).
- See the extended discussion at Bodhi (2000), pp. 44-47. Other translations considered by but ultimately rejected by Bodhi include 'constructions' (p. 45) and 'activities' (p. 45, especially to highlight the kammic aspect of saṅkhāra).
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. pp. 102–112. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- See, for instance, Bodhi (2000), p. 45:
- Saṅkhāra is derived from the prefix saṃ (=con), "together," and the verb karoti, "to make." The noun straddles both sides of the active-passive divide. Thus saṅkhāras are both things which put together, construct and compound other things, and the things that are put together, constructed, and compounded.
- "51 Mental Formations". Plum Village. 2013-11-23. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
- Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 664–665. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
- Monier Monier-Williams (1872). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 1041.
- Stephen Phillips (2009). Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. Columbia University Press. pp. 81–87. ISBN 978-0-231-14484-1.
- Surendranath Dasgupta (1992). A History of Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprint, Original: Cambridge University Press, 1922). pp. 263 with footnote 1, 272–273. ISBN 978-81-208-0412-8.
- David J. Kalupahana (1992). A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 71–72. ISBN 978-0-8248-1402-1.
- Harold Coward (1990). Derrida and Indian Philosophy. State University of New York Press. pp. 161–162. ISBN 978-0-7914-0500-0.
- Jonathan Walters (2015). Donald S. Lopez Jr. (ed.). Buddhism in Practice: (Abridged Edition). Princeton University Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-4008-8007-2.
- N. Ross Reat; Edmund F. Perry (1991). A World Theology: The Central Spiritual Reality of Humankind. Cambridge University Press. pp. 120–121. ISBN 978-0-521-33159-3.
- Paul Williams; Anthony Tribe; Alexander Wynne (2002). Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. Routledge. pp. 65–67. ISBN 978-1-134-62324-2.
- John Clifford Holt (1995). Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapiṭaka. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 8–11. ISBN 978-81-208-1051-8.
- D.C. Wijeratna. "The First and Last Words of Lord Buddha". Academia.edu.
- Sister Vajira & Francis Story. "Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha (DN 16)". Access to Insight (BCBS Edition).
- Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Simon & Schuster. pp. 45–47. ISBN 978-0-86171-973-0.
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. pp. 19–23. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. pp. 16–18. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- See, for instance, SN 12.2 (Thanissaro, 1997b), where the Buddha states: 'And what are fabrications? These three are fabrications: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications. These are called fabrications.'
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- Mathieu Boisvert (1995). The Five Aggregates: Understanding Theravada Psychology and Soteriology. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 93–98. ISBN 978-0-88920-257-3.
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. pp. 190–191 notes 2–5, Chapter 1. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- William S Waldron (2003). The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge. p. 102. ISBN 978-1-134-42886-1.
- SN 12.38 (Thanissaro, 1995).
- Guenther (1975), Kindle Location 321.
- Kunsang (2004), p. 23.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Kindle Location 456.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Kindle Location 564-568.
- David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, page 48.
- David Kalupahana, "A History of Buddhist Philosophy." University of Hawaii Press, 1992, page 75.
- Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 207.
- Leigh Brasington
- See Piyadassi (1999). This is also suggested, for instance, by Bodhi (2000), p. 46, who in writing about one sense of saṅkhāra states: "In the widest sense, saṅkhāra comprises all conditioned things, everything arisen from a combination of conditions."
- According to Nanavira Thera 'the word sankhāra, in all contexts, means 'something that something else depends on', that is to say a determination (determinant).' (Notes on Dhamma: Sankhāra)
- See the extended discussion at Bodhi (2000), pp. 44-47. Other translations considered by but ultimately rejected by Bodhi include "constructions" (p. 45) and "activities" (p. 45, especially to highlight the karmic aspect of saṅkhāra).
- Milinda's questions. Sacred books of the Buddhists. I.B. Horner (trans.). London: Luzac. 1963.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Ñāṇānanda, Katukurunde, 1988-1991, The Mind Stilled: 33 Lectures on Nibbāna, online at http://www.seeingthroughthenet.net. Bhikkhu Ñāṇānanda also notes, "in the ancient Indian society, one of the primary senses of the word saṅkhāra was the make-up done by actors and actresses" (http://www.seeingthroughthenet.net/files/eng/books/ms/nibbana_the_mind_stilled_I.pdf Archived 2015-09-24 at the Wayback Machine, p. 109).
- Gethin, p. 136
- Radhakrishnan and Moore (1957), p. 272.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006). Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
- Guenther, Herbert V. & Leslie S. Kawamura (1975), Mind in Buddhist Psychology: A Translation of Ye-shes rgyal-mtshan's "The Necklace of Clear Understanding" Dharma Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Kunsang, Erik Pema (translator) (2004). Gateway to Knowledge, Vol. 1. North Atlantic Books.
- Piyadassi Thera (trans.) (1999). Girimananda Sutta: Discourse to Girimananda Thera (AN 10.60). Retrieved 2007-11-18 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.060.piya.html.
- Radhakrishnan, S. and Moore, C.A. (1957). A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1995). Cetana Sutta: Intention (SN 12.38). Retrieved 2007-11-16 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.038.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997a). Avijja Sutta: Ignorance (SN 45.1). Retrieved 2007-11-16 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.001.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997b). Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising (SN 12.2). Retrieved 2007-11-16 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.002.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2001). Khajjaniya Sutta: Chewed Up (SN 22.79). Retrieved 2007-11-18 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.079.than.html.