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Paticca Samuppada - Sankhara




From ignorance as a requisite condition come sankharas - the second link in the chain. It is one of the most difficult terms in Buddhist terminology and has several different shades of meaning depending on its context. A single word translation presents problems. We will focus on the specific context of paticca samuppada [P.S.] but, as it is a key term in Buddhist doctrine and the implications of sankhara in P.S are not independant of the wider doctrine, we will also explore the full range of meaning.

Before we get too involved in that perhaps a broad outline and translation of the term may be useful. Through its general use in the Pali canon sankhara can be thought of as 'formation' or, 'determination' or 'fabrication.' The difficulty is that the term can refer either to 'the act of forming' or to the passive state of 'having been formed' or to both. Sankhara has its roots in classical Sanskrit with the early meaning of: "preparation" and "sacrament," also in philosophical literature: "former impression, disposition." The prefix san means "together" and the root kar means "to make" so the implication is of an aggregate, a combination, or an assemblage - things put together. I will generally use 'formation.'

In the context of P.S. sankhara takes on the active aspect of 'forming' and in this respect is synonomous with kamma. It is a conscious and active kammic determination. It covers both wholesome and unwholesome volitional activity and in this specific sense sankhara could be translated as "kamma-formation." In relation to the three life model this includes actions of body, speech or mind (in the past). As part of a (this-life) evolving sequence - ending in dukkha - sankhara is more the dynamic process of mental formation (fabrication, assembling) which arises through the misconceptions of avijja. These formations can be considered as rudimentary thought forms, little bubbles. Many of them survive and take on (or we 'give' them) associative labels, names, values - there is the arising of perception - they assume an identity [see: nama-rupa]. As sankhara (forming) these 'bubbles' take on the potential of being 'formed.' The things of the world are just as they are, they have no names, no value. When we are born we have no name, no value. Through avijja arises sankhara and when these sankharic 'bubbles' are given heed - there is this kamma-forming - the little bubbles don't just go 'pop,' they persist and this persistance conditions the arising of viññana (consciousness). The image on the 'wheel of life' [  ] is that of a potter making pots for future use. The implication here is that some choice is available around this forming. For most of us, the "falling out of the tree" image presented in the introduction, is what we usually experience: avijja... thud ...dukkha. Nevertheless studying and reflecting on these traditional frames - especially in the context of meditation - establishes a knowledge, a familiarity with your own mind that expands the possibilty of choice.

Here are a few other uses of sankhara:
It is the fourth of the five khandhas [  ] and here includes all 'mental formations' whether they belong to 'karmically forming' consciousness or not. In the Abhidhamma, fifty mental formations are distinguished, seven of which are constant factors of mind. As one of the khandhas sankhara is sub-divided into three: volition (cetana), contact or sense impression (phassa), and attention (manasikara). Volition is the principal 'formative' factor here.
The suggested translation above for sankhara as 'kamma-formation' - actions of body, speech and mind are sometimes found used in quite a different sense with body-sankhara referring to the function of in-and-out-breathing; the verbal function of thought-conception and discursive thinking; the mental-function of feeling and perception.
The more usual use of sankhara has the active mode of 'forming' but it also has the sense of anything formed and conditioned (or determined or fabricated). In this context it includes all things in the world, all phenomena of existence - trees, houses, oceans, people, etc.
Sankhara sometimes means 'volitional effort.'

Sankhara has this curious twist as it is not merely a combination of several factors. It is a changing combination of changing factors, since the combination itself is changing. In the broadest sense the term covers all things, physical or mental, fashioned by causes or conditions, as well as the forces fashioning them and the processes by which they are fashioned. Jumping a few links in P.S. - but within the general bounds of the term - we can consider that sankhara refers not only to matter and properties of matter known as "corporeality" (rupa), but also to mind and properties of mind known as "mentality" (nama).
There is a well known passage in Pali that highlights the conditioned or compounded nature of sankhara:
sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta
It makes clear that all sankhara (formations) are impermanent (anicca) and subject to suffering (dukkha) but it is necessary to introduce the word 'dhamma' to qualify the third condition of existance, 'anatta,' as dhamma is more complete and all-embracing as regards existance as it includes the unconditioned (the unformed = asankhata; the not-sankhara), ie. nibbana. It would be wrong to say that all dhammas are impermanent and subject to change, for the nibbana-dhamma is permanent and free from change. For the same reason, it is correct to say that not only all the sankharas (ie. sankhata-dhamma), but also that all the dhammas (including the asankhata-dhamma) are anatta; not-self, lacking an ego or essential person-ality.

Sankhara can be conditioned by ignorance (as in the case of P.S.) or not. They can be volitional or not (as in the case of khandhas). They can be 'static' or formed. See that nothing is a unity and nothing is an entity - all arises due to conditions. Sankhara arises in the mind and is a persistant factor in the on-going conditioning (paccaya) of the mind.
     Sankhara paccaya viññana.