In the last post I offered a fairly plain description of what was meant by “ignorance” in the first link in the chain of dependent arising. It is ignorance of what dukkha is, how it comes about, that it can come to an end, and the way to do that. I said that dukkha is caused by a particular sense-of-self (the sense that we have a lasting self), and that it is never the sort of suffering that is completely out of our control, but is defined by being something we do have control over, it is the extra bit of drama we tend to add to events, drama centered on us, “my problem, my fault, my pain” — never just “pain, problem, no fault”.

Because what dependent arising describes is how dukkha comes about — through the development of our sense of self (and it describes that, too) — this one teaching is the answer to our ignorance. Understanding dependent arising gives us the tool we need to break the cycles.

The second step is called “sankhara” and is not as easy to explain — it has always given teachers and translators problems — but let’s see how it goes this time.


We’ll start with Sariputta’s description in MN 9, as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, who translate sankhara as “formations”:

There are these three kinds of formations: the bodily formation, the verbal formation, the mental formation. With the arising of ignorance there is the arising of formations. With the cessation of ignorance there is the cessation of formations.

This tells us sankhara has something to do with body (actions), speech, and thoughts, but doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. The reason for this is because Sariputta’s talk focuses on “the nutriment” for each step. He is specifically pointing out the “field” that is going to grow what goes on here, and so he’s telling us to look at what we do to see what’s happening: watch our bodily activities, our speech, and our thoughts.

When looking at a field to spot what arises in it that is part of a problem, we need to remember that lots of things tend to grow up in the same field, and not all of them are going to be the problem. Let’s work a moment with this metaphor: We have a field we want to plant with good things that will sustain a good life, but it has been left to grow wild on its own. There may be some things in the field that grew naturally that are good and useful and will feed us while we work in the field, but most of what grows there without a care from us are weeds. As we learn how to be a successful custodian of the field, we learn what things grow in the field that need to be pulled up (the weeds), what healthy things to encourage (what’s already there that we should water and care for) and as the weeds disappear, we can plant useful seeds in the spaces left behind — and having them grow there will help keep the weeds out. This is, effectively, the metaphor of Buddhist practice. At each step we are replacing the weeds that grow just naturally on their own, with something more useful.

The important thing to realize is that not everything that grows in a field is a weed.

To take this concept out of the metaphor, what I’m saying is that not every action in body, speech, and mind is a problem. It is specifically the things we do and say and think that have as one of their primary causes the ignorance we covered in the last post (the ignorance is the lack of care that lets the weed seeds take root). The narrowing of the definition of what we’re talking about in each step — so that we have to pay attention to which item in the field is the one that’s the problem — is inherent in the nature of a chain of causal events: every later event is colored by the earlier conditions (see Note on causal chains below for an example that may make this clearer). Everything that arises in the entire rest of the cycle has to be able to be labeled “due to ignorance” (of dukkha, its cause, cessation, method to end — always due to that specific ignorance).

In this sutta, translating sankhara as “activities” would be almost adequate, but “activities” is not all that it describes — the word is touching on something much larger, which I’ll try to describe.

Since Sariputta doesn’t tell us what to look for in those fields, since he’s not specifying what is being nourished with those activities, I’ll see if I can describe it: it’s part of our natural desire to continue to exist; it’s all the unnecessary things we do to shore up our sense of self, and to shape it, and to keep it safe in a world where everyone out there seems to want to change us and shape us to their needs. Sankhara describes both the things we do to preserve our sense of self (the activities) and the drive to keep doing that. It describes the hunger to know who we are in relation to the world, to know that we exist, and to protect what we do know about ourselves, and the knowledge of our existence. It is both the drive and the actions that spring from that drive.

So when Sariputta suggests that what nourishes sankhara is our mental, physical, and verbal activities, he is advising us to look at what we do, say, and think, that brings about our sense of self — look at our activities to see in action our drive to do this; look for the ways we do this. Look, too, for the ways in which the things we do feed the drive even more — for example, how that sense of satisfaction we get when we confirm our opinions about something make us want more of that feeling.

But wait! There’s more! For the same low-low price of one word — sankhara — we’re going to throw in one more meaning as a bonus! Because one of the most important things to understand about sankhara is that it is not describing evil deeds — it is from this sense of sankhara that Buddhism draws its “no sin” approach to life. The things that we do that are driven by sankhara, that are sankharas when they occur, may indeed be seen as evil, some may even be intentionally evil — but sankhara‘s cause, you may recall, is not evil, it is ignorance.

The problem with sankhara is that we don’t even know we have this drive and we certainly don’t know how it plays out — at least not at the start. And even when we do learn about it, there are still going to be hundreds of ways it gets us into trouble without us having spotted individual tactics it uses for our self-preservation. There is a lot of ignorance to learn about, to look for, to spot, and it isn’t easy to break the habits that have formed around many of these underlying, unexamined assumptions about how the world works and what our part in it is or should be. Even when we identify the activities, it can be a challenge to put a stop to them.

But the point I’m making here is that sankhara is, primarily, our nature, it is our underlying tendencies. What it really is, is the survival mechanism that has gotten us where we are as a species — a survival mechanism run amok. Our need to feel that we are alive and that we are worth keeping alive, and to protect ourselves, is necessary (therefore it is not sankhara, and activities supporting the basics aren’t sankhara-activities), but our somewhat obsessive need to protect every damned thing about us is unnecessary, and it is the source of most of our problems. The basic need to take care of ourselves (seeking food, water, shelter, medicines) have nothing to do with sankhara; those are the things that grow in the same field, but they aren’t the ones we’re after. It’s when we get into the complexities of human interactions that self-preservation sometimes gets in the way. It’s an old, reptile-brain system that can’t keep up with the times.

Did you think I was done packing value into this one word? I’m not! There is actually one more layer to sankhara, and that is that it is supported by the nature of the society we live in — by its customs and assumptions. It is not just created by our natural tendencies. The word “sankhara” as a Buddhist term derives from a word for rituals, specifically rituals used in community with others. We come into the world with an overactive need to develop certainty about ourselves and the way the world works, and the things we are told by our parents, friends, teachers, and everyone we encounter contribute to the ways in which we develop that certainty. Our natural tendency to develop views about the self gets directed along lines supported by society, and our tendencies feed off of society’s assumptions. If everyone around us seems to be saying that the path to happiness lies in being beautiful, or acquiring wealth or power — or worshipping God in a certain way — we will tend to head in that direction, too.


Sankhara and its primary cause, ignorance, in their place at the beginning of dependent arising, are part of an early sequence that, really, describes our nature. The Buddha was telling us that we come into the world in this state: ignorant, with a strong desire for existence, and the ability to do what it takes to protect our sense of self. We aren’t even aware we are like that, and that’s where the trouble begins.




NOTE on causal chains: In any causal chain the field of possible items we are looking at is narrowed by each event — by all events — that came before. If we are looking at an end product of a sick patient who has celiac disease (CD), we would start by considering the genetic makeup of the parents. One or the other of the parents carries the gene for CD. The two conceive a child — the child conceived is not just any child, it is a child of the type who has one or more parents who carried the CD gene — this is true of the patient at the end of the chain, just as it is true of the patient at the beginning of the chain: the field “children” has been narrowed to a smaller group. In the next step in the causal chain we say that the patient is one who inhereted that gene from one of the parents. We are now talking about a patient who had a parent with the CD gene, and who inhereted it. We are NOT talking about a patient whose parents had the gene who did NOT inheret it — the field just got narrower (from all people who had at least one parent with the gene, to the same field but now leaving out those who didn’t inherit it). In the next link in the chain, there needs to be exposure to gluten. We are now talking about a patient who had a parent with the gene (not one whose parents didn’t); who inherited the gene (not one who didn’t inherit it); who has been exposed to gluten (not one who got the gene but has no exposure to gluten). The field of potential candidates gets narrower with each step. At the next step we have someone who has a triggering event that activates the gene — not someone who has all the previous conditions but NEVER has a triggering event. At the next step we have someone who remains exposed to gluten, not someone who removes gluten from their diet — until by the end we have something very specific being described, having met all the conditions that came before. By the end of the chain what we are talking about has a much smaller set of possible candidates than the pool we drew from in the first step, but the condition of the first step (people who have one parent with the gene) is still just as crucial a factor at the end as it was at the beginning.


NOTE on the source: This description of sankhara has as its basis a new theory of what dependent arising is, a theory based on study of the Buddha’s times, and the way the terms he used are explained by the larger context of what was going on in his culture. This series of blog posts does not attempt to explain the underlying structure or the terms in that context, or to show the case for understanding it that way. The thesis is given, at length (and in fairly plain English) in Volume Two (the May 2012 edition) of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.


For more on the subject of sankhara, please visit my blog’s entry on “The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara” where you’ll find my attempt at testing out a better translation of the word, and many examples of the way the word is used and explained throughout the suttas.

Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Doug on May 23, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Thanks very much for doing this, Linda, it’s very interesting.

    I often have a hard time quite getting my mind around these sankharas. I think I get the abstract idea behind them OK, but I was wondering if you could aid in my understanding by providing me some concrete examples of sankharas in action. (Maybe there are some you know from the suttas). I think a bunch of concrete examples, worked out in a little detail, would help nail it down for me since the words used in translating the term are otherwise so vague. (Viz., “formations”, “activities”).

    • Linda on August 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Hey Doug, remember asking me the above question almost three months ago? And I said I would work on it… well, life got in the way. But here it is, this post is for you:

      I think I actually found a really useful word to translate sankhara, I put it into several different passages to see how it fits. Will you let me know what you think?

      • Doug Smith on October 26, 2012 at 6:35 am

        Thanks, Linda, just saw this. I’ll have to live with this awhile and think about it, but at first glance I do like “drive”; it has the virtue of concision over something like BB’s “volitional formation”, while retaining the concept of causal volition. (I don’t much like Thanissaro’s “fabrication”).

  2. Linda on May 23, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    You could try using the word “rituals” in place of “sankharas”, but you need to have a fairly specific understanding of what sort of rituals for it to work. In the Buddha’s day the sankhara rituals were all about the creation and perfection of the self (atta) with the aim toward improving one’s future existence (here and now or after death or both). I think of our modern-day rituals as the unquestioned things we do because everyone does them, especially things that are self-serving, but I find a stronger emphasis on *the things we think* than *the things we do* though the two are interwoven. Forming opinions seems (from the detail given in parts of DA) to be a big part of it.

    So, an example of what I said above (“Look for the ways in which the things we do feed the drive even more — for example, how that sense of satisfaction we get when we confirm our opinions about something make us want more of that feeling) might be the way one has come to believe that immunizations cause autism, and this being a belief that is strongly held to, when a friend’s child starts showing symptoms shortly after a round of childhood immunizations, instead of that first reaction being “Oh I’m so sorry that’s happened!” the first feeling is “See! I knew it!” — it’s a confirmation of our certainties (we are right, we know what’s going on) so it confirms our sense of who we are and our knowledge of the way the world works — and the next thing you know we’re off to ask Google for more evidence to show our friend because that first “I knew it!” felt soooo good and we want more confirmation to back up our sense that we are right. (Notice we don’t go off looking for disproving evidence, only that which supports us.)

    The explanations of sankhara will make more sense once we get through name and form (namarupa) and the turn into the middle section, because that part details sankharas.

    Edit Added: P.S. I’ll have a look at some suttas on sankharas and see what I come up with. Great suggestion: great exercise for me!

  3. Dana Nourie on May 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    So, Linda, to make sure I understand . . . so the sankharas are the actions, thoughts, and words that are driven by the desire to build and bolster the sense of self in a negative way. I’m thinking of people we comes across from time to time who criticize others because it inflates their sense of self?

    I’m wondering about the good plants in the field too, certain actions we take that might also be a “feel good” to the sense of self, such as when we do something for someone, and we see it has helped them.

    So are the sankharas those actions which drive cravings that bolster the false sense of self that ultimately will fail at some point? Thoughts and actions that lead to feelings of compassion for instance would not be sankharas? Those would be skillful as compassion is always about the other and not about our false sense of self. Is that correct?

    • Linda on May 24, 2012 at 9:10 am

      Hmmm. I think it’s almost more that sankharas are something that can be *seen* in the the things we do, say, and think. I guess it’s not really that sankhara’s *are* the things that are done, though we can and do speak of them that way. They “can be seen in what we think” because, although no one can see what we think, thinking sometimes causes us to refrain from acting, so thinking has to be included when talking about where we can physically see the underlying factors through our actions. The acts themselves are, I think, sankhara’s results, not sankhara itself. They are a visible manifestation of how we’re thinking about things, so they’re the spot we look at to try to locate sankharas. So, yes, people cutting others down to build themselves up is a visible manifestation of sankharas in action, but it’s the drive to do that, and the mental processing that goes on behind it that’s the sankhara, rather than the act itself.

      I believe this is what Sariputta is telling us in every step but one: “Look here; this is where you’ll see it”. It might be a little like pointing to a dust devil blowing through our barren Texas cotton fields and saying, “See the wind?” Sankharas get described as actions only because that’s how we can see something that’s otherwise invisible to us.

      Sankharas are, at the most basic level, the instincts we have toward self-preservation that tend to go overboard. They aren’t those instincts doing the basics (keeping us alive) but those instincts getting over-protective. Sankharas drive, for example, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias — all the things we do to protect our sense of who we are (as if it needs that much protection).

      The good plants in the field can’t be anything that supports that excessive sense of self, so if it feels good to the sense of self, it’s sankhara. Sankhara-free moments definitely aren’t the force behind the good-karma-producing good deeds that bank merit, for example, because those are actually self-serving, self-centered acts. At base we’re doing them for our own benefit however much good they do in the world.

      An example of an action that can be seen as “one of the good plants” would be when the Buddha sat under a tree when he was young and fell into a meditative state that he later recalled and then used as a lever to help him realize that not all meditation was self-serving — simple, goalless meditative states would certainly be a-sankhara (not sankhara). There are things we do and say that are not the result of the need to protect our self-image. Picking an apple off of a tree in the yard to eat when we’re hungry would be one of those, as long as it’s just that simple. If we’re doing it to show our neighbors how great our apples are, or that we only eat organic food, then the action would be a reflection of sankhara.

      Bottom line: Sankhara is the drive itself. So, yes, I think the Buddha would say that thoughts of compassion are not and cannot be sankhara. It seems to me that’s what he’s saying when he describes what we call the Brahma Viharas. If we can truly fill our mind with any one of them, sankhara has no foothold for the duration; we can have one or the other going on but not both.

  4. Candol on May 24, 2012 at 12:55 am

    While i was goenka’s retreat, i learnt that sankharas meant something like a habitual reaction. I think this is much more useful than the word ritual. TO most people ritual is a deliberate act. I think sankharas are so deep they are not deliberate. We act out of habit.

    He was trying to teach equanimity whilst sitting and watching our bodily sensations. The idea was our reactions to pleasant or unpleasant sensations would be either aversion or craving – these are habitual responses. In becoming so acutely aware of them we had the opportunity to avoid responding in the habitual reactive way.

    So say you get an itch on your nose. You feel aversion so you break your stillness to scratch your nose. Now to undermine the strength of the sankaharas you practice not scratching your nose, not reacting. And that goes for pleasant and unpleasant sensations.

    Taking that into daily life. When you are mindful you are acutely aware of your feeling response to stimuli and then you can avoid reacting in either a positive or negative way – both of which reinforce the habit. Its only in resisting reacting that you can wear down the habit and replace it with a new one.

    He also used an image of a groove in a rock. He said that the more we do something the same, the deeper hte groove in the rock. Each time we react in our habitual ways we are strengthening the habits. So we have to practice not deepening that groove. Maybe start another groove which is non-reacting.

    The more we don’t react in habitual ways to any stimulus, the more equanimous we become. The more those sankaharas are weakened.

    That was how he taught sankharas. I find the words habitual and reaction in describing sankharas very helpful.

    • Linda on May 24, 2012 at 9:43 am

      “Habitual” definitely aims in the right direction. “Habits of thought” even more than habits by themselves. But not all habits are sankhara. The habit of arising early and getting right to meditation might not, for example, be sankhara. Habits are the field to look in for sankharas.

      Your point about sankharas being so deep they are not deliberate is an excellent one. This is the problem I have with the oft-used word “intention” when related to sankharas: it implies forethought, which is quite the opposite of what’s going on. Conscious intention replaces sankhara-thinking. Sankhara is a sort of “unexamined intention” but that seems to me to be almost a contradiction in terms. I wonder if the word we translate as “intention” — cetanā — has been mis-translated; it may just be another word we don’t have an equivalent for. The conscious intention that’s #2 in the eightfold path is “saṅkappa” and I’ve always seen it as a replacement for cetanā — useful plant replacing a weed. This is what’s going on in the practices you describe.

      The word habit leaves out any sense of something that is strongly affected by how others perceive the world to be, whereas the concept of “ritual” brings up images of repetitive actions that have an underlying reasoning behind them though the reasoning is rarely well understood or examined anymore — we do these things because everyone else does them, too; it’s the way the world works — everyone says so! — and it’s how you get ahead.

      This is not my way of saying that I think “ritual” is a good translation for sankhara. I don’t think there *are* any good translations for sankhara! The concept is far too complex for any one of our words to cover it.

      You’re very right about mindfulness. It lets us see the instincts to self-preservation in action, and it allows us to replace the instinctual behavior with conscious choice.

      • Candol on May 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm

        Well i just disagree. You see lets look at some examples. I would also note that i said habitual reaction, not just habit.

        how well does ritual or habitual reaction fit with the idea of over eating.
        How well does the ritual or habitual reaction fit with idea of yelling at your child when its become annoying.
        How well does ritual or habitual reaction fit with idea of giving up teh job hunt when you’ve jsut been rejected. The habitual reaction is that one is deflated, one gives up. But there’s no ritual in your response.
        How can you apply ritual to becoming needy in a relationship?
        How can you apply ritual to laziness?
        How can you apply ritual to getting angry?

        Ritual reaction doesn’t make much sense but habitual reaction does.

        You see for me the idea of intention is more easy to access than you’ve suggested. I would distinguish between intention and accidental. I believe that is the distinction that the buddha is making. You did not intend the car accident so that’s not karmic. But if you had an accident becuase you were drink driving, it would have to be karmic.

        In none of the case above is there accident but there is always intention, even if one is not being mindful of it. ONe knows that yelling at the child is not good even if one is not doing it mindfully. One does have the intent to eat more so its intention.

        And i would say habitual should be linked with reaction and not just be said as habit. Because of course we do have good habits. And it should be understood anyway that sankharas are negative in flavour.

        The word reaction is important because it what we often do to any stimulus, we react. Equanimity is not reacting. When we are mindful, we do not react, we respond.

        Ritual is a trendy metaphor these days but i think it can be overused and i think this would be one situation.

        Think about it. If you go out teaching to your group of meditators on a retreat and you use hte word ritual for sankharas. YOu are going to have spend quite a while explaining yourself and delineating its applications and non applications.

        Everyone will easily know what is meant by habitual reactions when you are talking about craving and aversion and trying to shut down the usual responses.

        I find the word ritual useful when talking about routines but to talk about our reactivity to positive or negative stimulus is when it starts to lose its meaning.

        • Candol on May 25, 2012 at 2:11 am

          Sanskara, the Hindu concept of imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience
          Saṅkhāra (Pali), the Buddhist concept of “formations”
          Saṃskāra, Hindu rites of passage

          Also this above from wikipedia when i looked up samskara which is the sanskrit word for sankhara.

          • Candol on May 25, 2012 at 2:16 am


            This link has a good explanation of samskara that i think will resonate well with what is meant for buddhism also.

        • Linda on May 25, 2012 at 9:45 am

          I could wish the Wikipedia page for “sanskara” would give more background for the derivation of the word. Without a single accent on a letter it seems as though it might be a recently-invented word derived to blend the Buddhist word with its ancient Sanskrit — it certainly seems to be addressing the Buddhist concept. But nothing in the article tells us how old this definition and word are, or where they came from.

          • Candol on May 25, 2012 at 6:34 pm

            I do know that John Peacock says samskara and not sankhara. Do you mean you are not convinced that the meaning of the word is correct or original or do you mean that the spelling of the word is a problem? Samskara is the sanskrit word. With scholarly resources available, it shouldn’t be too hard to resolve both of those questions, i would think.

          • Linda on May 25, 2012 at 8:38 pm

            I mean that there are three variants. The one that is the Hindu rituals, which I know about; the one that is in second place in DA, which I know about; and a third version that has no letters with diacritical marks — which makes it suspect to me. I would like to know the history and origin of that word and its attached meaning, not of the other two.

          • Candol on May 27, 2012 at 5:31 am

            In reply to your last point. I wish i had posted a link but anyway nevermind. The way i read it is that just as in his quote from the second article, the marks on the letters which are what i presume you mean by diacritical remarks, are left off becuase teh person doesn’t know how to apply them using their computer. I myself have the same problem when i write french words.

            Either that or they thought given they’ve got an english reading audience who wouldn’t understand how to interpret those marks, they thought they might not matter or they might not know how to pronounce them themselves. But i suppose this quote below from the article in the second link is maybe similar to one of those uses in teh wiki link i referred to.

            Did you read the article in the second link.

            Two Essential Terms

            Two essential terms: To understand the meaning of Karma, and to reduce its control through Yoga, one needs to understand another term, and that is Samskara. Karma literally means actions, and those actions come from the deep impressions of habit that are called Samskaras.
            These two act together: Our actions and speech bring us experiences or consequences in the world. Those, in turn, lead to further creation of deep impressions (Samskaras) in the basement of the mind. Later, those latent impressions come to life and create still further experiences.

            We must deal with both: If we want the higher insights and freedoms, we need to deal with both our actions and these habits.

            Samskara is the most important principle: The most important principle to understand about Karma is the principle of the Samskara, those deep impressions. It is those deep impressions or seed habit patterns, which are at the root of ALL of our Karmas, whether we think of that Karma as good or bad. There are two general things we need to do in relation to those Samskaras:

            External: Allow some Samskaras to wisely play out externally in our life, in ways that allow us to become free from them recycling into more and more loops of habitual actions. (See Archery article)

            Internal: Let go of other Samskaras internally by attenuating the colorings of attractions, aversions, and fears through the processes meditation, contemplation, and prayer.


          • Linda on May 27, 2012 at 11:43 am

            Yes, I read the article. It doesn’t tell me the history of the word and its definition. When did it first come into use? 100 years ago? 500? Was that meaning in use in the Buddha’s day? (I think not.)

  5. Dana Nourie on May 24, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Thanks, Linda, that clarifies for me and is really useful!

  6. […] A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: part 2 […]

  7. fivebells on June 6, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Is there a bright line between sankharas and activities of basic survival? I’m having trouble forming a clear picture of the distinction you’re drawing here:

    …the point I’m making here is that sankhara is, primarily, our nature, it is our underlying tendencies. What it really is, is the survival mechanism that has gotten us where we are as a species — a survival mechanism run amok. Our need to feel that we are alive and that we are worth keeping alive, and to protect ourselves, is necessary (therefore it is not sankhara, and activities supporting the basics aren’t sankhara-activities), but our somewhat obsessive need to protect every damned thing about us is unnecessary, and it is the source of most of our problems.

    • Linda on June 6, 2012 at 10:34 am

      I don’t believe there is any hard-and-fast rule one could come up with that would draw that bright line, fivebells. Even though traditional Buddhism often talks of the dharma as “The Law” it isn’t — it can’t be — that fixed and dogmatic. The only way to talk about what’s being said with sankhara is with generalities and perhaps examples, but even then we have to understand that a similar situation will likely have different factors and, as a result, the best choices would be different. It seems to me the only way to get to know where the line is, is to practice; I believe this is what the Buddha was telling us: that we have to see it — live and in action — for ourselves, to really understand it.

      In the end I don’t see it as being about making intellectual distinctions and drawing lines, anyway. It’s not so much about learning the rules and applying them to situations, as it is about discovering, from first-hand observation of experience, how much trouble the sense of self is, getting disenchanted with it, and so no longer allowing it to run our lives. From that point on, the behavior that is sankhara will come less and less to affect our choices, so the difference in our actions comes from a totally different set of drives within us — and it is then not about thinking situations through and making choices so much as just behave differently because our assumptions about the world and our place in it have changed.

      • fivebells on June 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

        Maybe this more concrete form of the question has a better answer: Is there a state of mind where saving for retirement is part of our need to protect ourselves, but not a form of sankhara? If so, what does it look like?

        • Candol on July 6, 2012 at 3:05 am

          I”m going to have a go at this fivebells. I don’t think saving for your retirement is sankhara at all. When you save for retirement you are protecting yourself but you are not acting in a defensive mode and you are not causing anyone suffering or harm. Saving for retirement is the equivalent of working. You won’t be able to work in your old age probably so you save up now. I don’t think you should understand it as hoarding, given the culture we live in. If as you went along saving for retirement, and you saved in a greedy sort of way, and didn’t give any of it away to those in need, that might be considered sankhara. I think saving for retirement is just common sense and judicious behaviour. Of course if you were a monk and and had vowed to own nothing but your robes and got into a habit of hoarding and hungering after belongings and things, then that would be sankhara. Sankharas are mental formations first and foremost. If you intention to save money comes from being clear sighted about the way world works and is not about clinging and craving and being fearful about the future, then what’s the problem.

          I mean sankharas should generally be understood as problematic reactions, don’t you think. So if your saving for retirement were to become problematic, causing suffering to either your or others, then you’d want to look at that, but if not, why worry about it.

  8. Linda on June 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I believe I’m not evolved enough in my practice to be able to come up with any kind of a useful answer for you, fivebells. Do you have thoughts on the subject?

    • fivebells on June 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Not really, I asked because I’m confused about this. The second question comes out of a paradox that Ken McLeod has pointed out, that we know we’re going to die, but we don’t know when. I can’t imagine saving for retirement without some kind of self concept, but on the other hand saving for retirement seems like a good idea…

    • Linda on June 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      I’m still thinking about this, fivebells; specifically why I don’t have an answer to it. One aspect to it is that when I share my understanding of Buddhism, I try to do it the way the Buddha suggested we all do it — by talking about what I know from direct experience. I think he was wise in suggesting we do this, because it cuts out the speculation. So in that sense, since I don’t have any experience with applying my new understanding to anything like that situation, I have no useful knowledge to give you.

      I’d also note that the Buddha doesn’t give specific advice, or if he seems to, it is not what you’d expect to be advice (like the story of the grieving mother and the mustard seed). I think he tended to keep that kind of advice out of the lessons he passed on because it isn’t actually all that helpful.

      And, finally, I think my first answer to you has the most important point.I don’t see the answer to this sort of question as coming from normal logic. It doesn’t come from applying reasoning to a situation. The answer comes from having done the practice first — having gotten to a place where we can see how reducing the self concept helps, and so we are slowly working on successfully reducing it more — and then being inside the situation, looking at all the factors involved, and seeing what’s best (seeing more clearly because we are seeing our lives in a different, presumably more accurate way).

      You’re asking for what I call an “outside-in morality” answer — where rules are applied from the outside, but what I’m talking about with sankhara is “inside-out morality” — a change in the choices we made that comes not from the logic of rules, but from a change within us.

      But if I try to address what you’ve brought up using a little outside-in thinking, I would say that not providing for your retirement has a factor to consider of the burden lack of planning places on others; it is not entirely a greed issue. Even without the burden we place on others, there is nothing wrong with planning to take care of yourself, because you recognize you will not always be able to; the Buddha taught the requisites are just fine (food, shelter, clothing, medicine and the like) and recognizing the impermanent nature of one’s own health, providing for a future when you won’t be able to get those things without a nest egg isn’t unreasonable. But these issues are caught up in time and place and social customs. They may also be part of the reason the Buddha suggests that giving up the household life in favor of “renunciation” will make the path to liberation much easier; not so many worldly choices need to be made!

  9. […] Sankhara: Why is this word so darned hard to translate? […]

  10. Linda on June 11, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    BTW I haven’t given up on coming up with translations or examples of sankhara — but the term gets used very often but not very often is context provided, so I have a big file to work through that is giving me few useful results. It is, however, a project I’m enjoying — it is exactly the kind of thing I most like to do (see how many different ways one word is used, and which more often than others, and so on) — so I’ll not forget to finish it; there are just so many other things yelling for my attention more loudly lately.

  11. Cultural Trauma, Shame, and Self | Your Life Is A Garden on June 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    […] so we do everything we can to stay that way. There is a natural part to this, as Linda Blanchard points out. Linda argues that this survival mechanism, which we share with all other beings, has run amok in […]

  12. amila on February 9, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Please pay attention in paying respect to the disciples of Lord Buddha.
    In this article it would be much better if you had used “Venerable Sariputta”, instead of just the name.
    Paying respect is a good virtue we should all cultivate.

    I’m sure you didnt intend to pay disrespect here, but it would be good to determine in paying attention to pay respect.

    May you and all be well and Happy.

  13. Bob Rich on July 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    My attempt at defining “sankhara” is:
    This word has no English equivalent. It literally means “construction,” “what has been constructed,” and also “constructing” or “assembling something.” It applies to the source of human suffering: being attached to continuing something pleasant and to avoiding something unpleasant. Perhaps the best is “unconscious, conditioned reaction of attachment and aversion”.

    A critique would be gratefully accepted.

    • Linda on July 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      Hi Bob. I certainly agree that it has no English equivalent. And you are right in that sankhara is a word that tends to be used two ways, as the result, and as the action that brings about the result, so as you have it, that would be both the constructed and the constructing, depending on the context.

      But like “formations” I find “constructed” to be too vague. It works most of the time because it is so broad that it covers the actual meaning, but it doesn’t tell us enough about the hows and the whys. The answer I came up with draws its meaning from the Prajapati myth that the word is taken from in which sankhara is a force that brings the cosmos and the self (atman) into existence. I use “drive”, which admittedly isn’t as elegant in use, because in our culture we don’t talk about “what is driven into existence by a drive (force)” but I believe that is closer to the specifics of what the Buddha was trying to convey with the word. So I use “the driven” and “drives”. He was also trying to convey that it is something we do together, and I haven’t figured out how to get that in there yet! But to make clearer what I said just above, what is driven into existence is something that is, in some sense, constructed, which is why “constructed” works, but constructing misses the origin of the urge to construct, and I believe this is critical to the point being made.

      That sankhara is a drive, a force, is also backed up by its use in the sutta (DN 16 [pts D ii 107]) that discusses the way the Buddha died — he lost his “āyusaṅkhārā”, the vitality-drive or “life force” — and as you can see, the idea of construction wouldn’t fit in there at all.

      Did I describe that well enough that it makes sense to you?

      • Mark Knickelbine on July 15, 2014 at 9:40 am

        The problem with “drive” for me Linda is that it leaves out a key element of how the sankharas function in the production of the self. They may act like drives but they are drives that produce constructed perceptions of our experience. They prejudice our experiences in the instant they arise. I get where you’re going with “drives” but without this perceptual patterning function it seems that we lose an important part of the meaning.

        • Linda on July 15, 2014 at 12:24 pm

          Oh I agree. But is “formations” or even “volitional formations” any more explicit? Or even “constructions”? Or “habits” or “creations” or any of the many other words? The thing about the Pali words the Buddha used is that, unlike most of English, in which some words can have many meanings but in the most common usages only *one* of the meanings is intended, the culture of the Buddha’s time also maintained many meanings for words but they usually intended for *all* the meanings to come into the mind when the word was used — they layered meaning into words. And this is why we don’t have one word in English that can replace “dukkha” (suffering?) or “karma” (actions?) or “bhava” (becoming?) in a way that would make any translation that contains those words be clear to someone not already familiar with Buddhism.

          In the context of the Buddha’s time, sankhara was the drive that brought the universe into existence and it was a drive to find and know the self — a very specific sort of drive. So just like with “karma” you would need to know its history as actions-in-rituals, and actions-with-consequences, and then as moral-actions and finally, in the Buddha’s system, as intended-actions (in some many-layered sense of the word “intended”) in order to understand why he uses it the way he does, we need to understand what the drive *is* before we understand “drives” and “the driven”.

          But even that’s not all that sankhara was in the Buddha’s time: it represented rituals. It literally means both things *made together* (in this sense it calls up references to sex that leads to childbirth) and things *put together*. How would we *ever* find one word that includes all that? We can’t.

          I think you ask too much, Mark, in saying, “The problem with “drive” … is that it leaves out a key element”… or do you have a word that includes all the key elements, perhaps? One that would make what’s going on with the word clear even to outsiders, non-Buddhists?

          • Mark Knickelbine on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

            As confusing as I found the phrase “volitional formations” when I first encountered it, once you do get the point of sankaras I think it’s the best translation I’ve seen, since they are patterns, or formations, that arise with volition (which speaks to their “drive” nature). It could just be another phrase we don’t translate, but I hear the concerns expressed by those who worry about the teachings only being available to those who have learned the insider argot.

  14. Ron Stillman on July 18, 2014 at 9:46 am

    So, once a person has started the dependent arising chain rolling from their volitional formations (a conscious choice or decision), it’s like a runaway train to suffering.

    I wonder how many of our patterns are unconscious and arise without conscious choice. I guess we could call them involuntary formations.

    • Linda on September 22, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      But see (Ron, Mark) I don’t think it *is* a conscious choice or decision, not in the normal sense of conscious, yet that, to me, is what “volitional” indicates. It is ignorance that drives it — the choices aren’t made with any consciousness of what they mean. When we *react* — suddenly — to having our buttons pushed, that isn’t really “volitional” that’s just a reaction. has volition as:

      1. the act of willing, choosing, or resolving; exercise of willing:
      She left of her own volition.

      2. a choice or decision made by the will.

      3. the power of willing; will.

      I think “volitional” gives the wrong impression altogether. It is volition that *replaces* the sankhara of DA, the sankhara in which we do whatever comes naturally without choosing or deciding much, if at all.

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