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Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context

Dear forum. 

This thread may be intellectual but I hope is can provide clarity & relieve some intellectual burdens for students; plus be practical. 

The word ‘sankhara’ in context

The Pali word ‘sankhara’ has multiple meanings dependent on the context. It can mean:

(i) a conditioned thing (formed from various causes or parts);

(ii) something that conditions another conditioned thing, i.e., a ‘conditioner’;

(iii) the process of conditioning;

(iv) the aggregate of mental forming, such as desiring, intention, thinking, etc and

(v) .mental conditioning/concocting by greed, hatred & delusion, i.e., uncontrolled disturbing mental proliferating.

For example, shampoo is a ‘conditioned thing’, because it is manufactured from & comprises of many ingredients. When shampoo is applied to hair, a ‘conditioning’ process takes place, which makes hair soft, clean & shiny. Therefore, shampoo is also a (hair) ‘conditioner’. 

Examples of each context from the Pali suttas are below: 


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:30 AM as a reply to Nicky.
1. ‘Sankhara’ as ‘conditioned things’. 

Rūpaṃ kho āvuso channa, aniccaṃ, vedanā aniccā, saññā aniccā, saṃkhārā aniccā, viññāṇaṃ aniccaṃ, rūpaṃ anantā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṃkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā, sabbe saṃkhārā aniccā, sabbe dhammā anattā

Form, friend Channa, is impermanent. Feeling is impermanent. Perception is impermanent. Mental formations (saṃkhārā) are impermanent. Consciousness is impermanent. Form is not-self. Feeling is not-self. Perception is not-self. Mental formations are not-self. Consciousness is not-self. All (sabbe) conditioned things (saṃkhārā) are impermanent (aniccā). All (sabbe) phenomena (dhammā) are not-self (anattā).

SN 22.90

The verse above contains the word ‘sankhara’ twice: (i) as the aggregate of mental forming; and (ii) as all conditioned things, referring to each of the aggregates. 

This stock phrase – sabbe saṃkhārā aniccā – is found in the exact same context at AN 3.134 and at Dhammapada 277. 

The five aggregates are conditioned things because they arise & exist subject to & dependent upon various causes and conditions. Thus, SN 22.21 states:

Rūpaṃ kho ānanda, aniccaṃ, saṃkhataṃ paṭiccasamuppannaṃ khayadhammaṃ

Form…feeling…perception…mental formations…consciousness  are impermanent,  conditioned (saṃkhataṃ), dependently arisen (paṭiccasamuppannaṃ), subject to destruction (khayadhammaṃ)…

Therefore, in this context, ‘sankhara’ also refers to physical or material things, as found in the Pali terms ‘kaya sankhara’ (which is defined in MN 44 as the ‘in & out breathing’) & ‘aayu sankhara’ (defined in MN 43 as the ‘vitality’ or ‘life force’ of the physical body that remains when the mind is unconscious). 


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:33 AM as a reply to Nicky.
2.  ‘Sankhara’ as ‘conditioners’ (similar to 'builders' rather than 'buildings')

Here, ‘sankhara’ as ‘conditioners’ refers to the words ‘kaya sankhara’, ‘vaci sankhara’ & ‘citta sankhara’, which are found at the 2nd condition of Dependent Origination & at stages 4, 7 and 8 of the Anapanasati Sutta and which are defined in MN 44 as follows: 

In-&-out breaths are the body conditioner (kāyasaṅkhāro). Initial & sustained thought are the verbal conditioner (vacīsaṅkhāro). Perceptions & feelings are the mind conditioner (cittasaṅkhāroti).

Why are in-&-out breaths the body conditioner? Why are directed thought & evaluation the verbal conditioner? Why are perceptions & feelings the mind conditioner?

In-&-out breaths are a bodily thing upon which the body depends on (or is bound on). That’s why in-&-out breaths are the body conditioner.

Having first applied & sustained one’s thought, one then breaks out into speech. That’s why applied & sustained thought are the verbal conditioner.

Perceptions & feelings are mental; these are things that determine mental states (i.e., upon which mental states depend). That’s why perceptions & feelings are the mind conditioner.

The above translation has been done liberally to demonstrate the meaning. However, the part of the translation about why thought is the verbal conditioner is the same as all translators. This part demonstrates clearly what the mean of ‘sankhara’ is in this context, namely, the ‘verbal sankhara’ is a preceding cause that determines the happening of speech. Thus ‘thought’ is not the ‘verbal condition’ or ‘verbal fabrication’ but, instead, the ‘verbal conditioner’ or the ‘verbal fabricator’.

Thus, the ‘kaya’ & ‘cittta sankhara’ have the same meaning. The breathing conditions the state of the body. Breathing gives life to the body. If breathing is healthy, the body is healthy & energetic. If breathing is poor, the body is unhealthy & weak. This is why breathing is the body ‘conditioner’ (rather than the bodily 'condition').

Similarly, pleasant feelings & perceptions condition mental formations of love, greed or lust; whilst unpleasant feelings & perceptions condition mental formations of anger or hatred. This is why perception & feeling is the mind ‘conditioner’ (rather than the mental condition). 


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:37 AM as a reply to Nicky.
3. ‘Sankhara’ as ‘conditioning’ or 'generating'.

Below are two straightforward examples of the word ‘abhisaṃkharontīti’.

Kiñca bhikkhave, saṃkhāre vadetha: saṃkhataṃ abhisaṃkharontīti bhikkhave

And why do you call them ‘fabricators’? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called ‘fabricators.’

SN 22.79

Avijjāgatoyaṃ bhikkhave, purisapuggalo puññaṃ ce saṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti

Monks, if a person immersed in ignorance generates a meritorious formation…

SN 12.51 


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:39 AM as a reply to Nicky.
4.  ‘Sankhara’ as the ‘mental formations aggregate’.

There are five aggregates (khandha) of life (body, feeling, perception, mental formations & consciousness), of which ‘sankhara khandha’ (mental formations/forming) is the 4th.

The  ‘sankhara khandha’ operates in all people, including Buddhas. For example, about the end of the life of a fully enlightened being, the scriptures state:

Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?

Thus asked, I would answer, ‘Form is impermanent… Feeling… Perception… Fabrications… Consciousness is impermanent. That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory. That which is unsatisfactory has ceased and gone to its end.

Very good, my friend Yamaka. Very good.

Yamaka Sutta

Therefore, for a Buddha to think or speak, the sankhara aggregate must operate in the mind/brain of a Buddha.

In this context, ‘sankhara’ is not ‘mental suffering’ but referring to a neutral mental faculty or capacity.


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:53 AM as a reply to Nicky.
5.  ‘Sankhara’ as the ‘mental concocting’. 

There are passages about how ‘sankhara’ is the greatest suffering & about how Nibbana is the stilling of ‘sankhara’.

Since a Buddha must think (in order to teach) & is comprised of five undefiled pure aggregates, the term ‘sankhara’ is these passages does not refer to ‘sankhara’ as ‘conditioned things’ or the ‘sankhara aggregate’. Sankhara, here, also probably does not refer to ‘sankhara’ as ‘conditioners’ since Buddhas still have breathing, feeling, perception & thought.

Therefore, ‘sankhkara’ here must refer to the mind being ‘conditioned’, ‘concocted’, ‘stirred up’ & ‘polluted’ by greed, hatred & delusion, i.e., uncontrolled disturbing mental proliferating (

Some relevant well-known passages are below: 

What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions & categories of objectification (papañcasaññāsaṅkhāassail him/her with regard to past, present, & future ideas cognizable via the intellect.

MN 18
Saṅkhāra paramā dukhā…nibbāṇa paramaṃ sukhaṃ.

Mental concocting is the worst suffering….Nibbana is the highest bliss.

Dhammapada 203

Tisso imā āvuso dukkhatā, dukkhadukkhatā saṅkhāradukkhatā vipariṇāmadukkhatā.

There are these three kinds of suffering, my friend: suffering due to/about pain; suffering due to/of mental concocting; and suffering  due to/about change. These are the three kinds of suffering.

SN 38.14

Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace.

MN 140

Idampi kho ṭhānaṃ duddasaṃ yadidaṃ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhakkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānaṃ.

This state, too, is hard to see: the calming (samatho) of all (sabba) mental concocting (saṅkhāra), the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving; dispassion; cessation [of suffering]; Nibbana.

MN 26


RE: Pali: The word ‘sankhara’ in context
6/29/16 5:56 AM as a reply to Nicky.
Conclusion: In the Pali teachings, the word 'sankhara' is used in many different contexts. For a clear & practical comprehension of the Pali teachings, the suitable context is best investigated & discerned.