Saṅkhāra (Pali; Devanagari: सङ्खार) or saṃskāra (Sanskrit; Devanagari: संस्कार) is a term figuring prominently in the teaching of the Buddha. The word means 'that which has been put together' and 'that which puts together'. In the first (passive) sense, saṅkhāra refers to conditioned phenomena generally but specifically to all mental "dispositions". These are called 'volitional formations' because they are formed as a result of volition. In the second (active) sense of the word, saṅkhāra refers to that faculty of the mind/brain apparatus (sankhara-khandha) that puts together those formations. 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').
In the first (passive) sense saṅkhāra 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. The Buddha taught that all such things are inconstant, arising and passing away, subject to change and that knowing this, not in a rational, but empirical manner, is wisdom. Saṅkhāra is often used in this first sense to describe the psychological conditioning (particularly the habit patterns of the unconscious mind) that gives any individual human being his or her unique character and make-up at any given time.
The last words of the Buddha were (English and Pali):
'Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration - strive on untiringly for your liberation.' (Mahāparinibbāna Sutta)
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In the second (active) sense, saṅkhāra (or saṅkhāra-khandha) refers to the form-creating faculty of mind, often described as "volitional" or "intentional." States the Buddha:
'And why do you call them 'fabrications'? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called 'fabrications.' What do they fabricate as a fabricated thing? For the sake of form-ness, they fabricate form as a fabricated thing. For the sake of feeling-ness, they fabricate feeling as a fabricated thing. For the sake of perception-hood... For the sake of fabrication-hood... For the sake of consciousness-hood, they fabricate consciousness as a fabricated thing. Because they fabricate fabricated things, they are called fabrications.'
In the doctrine of conditioned arising or dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), saṅkhāra-khandha is understood to be that which propels human (and other sentient) beings along the process of becoming (bhava) by means of actions of body and speech (kamma). The Buddha stated that all volitional constructs are conditioned by ignorance (avijja) of the reality (sacca) behind appearance. It is this ignorance that ultimately causes human suffering (dukkha). The calming of all such fabrications (sabba-saṅkhāra-nirodha) is synonymous with Enlightenment (bodhi), the achieving of arahantship.
As ignorance conditions volitional formations, these formations in turn condition 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.'
Tradition relates that after the Buddha's complete enlightenment he uttered the following words (English and Pali):
'Seeking but not finding the housebuilder, I have traveled through the round of countless births. How painful is birth over and over again. Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught! You shall not build a house again. Your rafters have been broken. Your ridgepole demolished. The unconditioned consciousness has been attained. And every kind of craving has been destroyed.' (Dhammapāda, verses 153,154)
The 'housebuilder' to which the Buddha refers is just this mental faculty of sankhāra-khandha whose products, the volitional formations, are conditioned by ignorance.
The Buddha emphasized the need to pacify or appease 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.
Although an enlightened individual's consciousness is a karmic result, it is not limited by usual samsaric constraints.
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.
↑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 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).
↑This facet of saṅkhāra – cetana – is translated at times by Thanissaro as "intention" (e.g., see Thanissaro, 1995), while Bodhi consistently translates it as "volition" (e.g., see Bodhi, 2000, p. 45).
↑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.'
↑In a similar fashion, in SN 45.1, the Buddha identifies ignorance as leading to wrong view which leads to wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness and wrong concentration – that is, the antithesis of the Noble Eightfold Path(Thanissaro, 1997a).