A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: #2 Sankhara

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. (EDIT to add in April of 2023: Also, a more recent discussion of Sankhara on my blog: Sankhara Take Two.)

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