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Sankhāra: This term has, according to its context, different shades of meaning, which should be carefully distinguished.
I To its most frequent usages see: foll. 1-4 the general term 'construction' may be applied, with the qualifications required by the context. This term may refer either to the act of 'forming or to the passive state of 'having been formed' or to both.
1. As the 2nd link of the formula of Dependent Origination, paticcasamuppāda, sankhāra has the active aspect, 'forming, and signifies kamma, i.e. advantageous or disadvantageous intentional activity cetanā of body kāya-s speech vacī-s or mind citta or mano-s This definition occurs, e.g. at S. XII, 2, 27. For s.: in this sense, the word 'kamma-construction' has been coined by the author. In other passages, in the same context, s. is defined by reference to a meritorious kammic-constructions puññ'ābhisankhāra b disadvantageous k. apuññ'abhisankhāra c imperturbable k. āneñj'ābhisankhāra e.g. in S. XII, 51; D. 33. This threefold division covers kammic activity in all spheres of existence: the meritorious kammic-constructions extend to the sense-and the fine-material sphere, the disadvantageous ones only to the sense-sphere, and the 'imperturbable' only to the immaterial sphere.
2. The aforementioned three terms, kāya, vacī- and citta-s are sometimes used in quite a different sense, namely as 1 bodily function, i.e. in-and-out-breathing e.g. M. 10, 2 verbal function, i.e. thought-conception and discursive thinking, 3 mental-function, i.e. feeling and perception e.g. M. 44. See nirodhasamāpatti.
3. It also denotes the 4th group of existence sankhāra-khandha and includes all 'mental constructions' whether they belong to 'kammically forming' consciousness or not. See khandha Tab. II. and S. XXII, 56, 79.
4. It occurs further in the sense of anything formed sankhata and conditioned, and includes all things whatever in the world, all phenomena of existence. This meaning applies, e.g. to the well-known passage,;All constructions are impermanent... subject to suffering; sabbe sankhāra aniccā dukkhā In that context, however, s. is subordinate to the still wider and all-embracing term dhamma thing; for dhamma includes also the Unformed or Unconditioned Element asankhata-dhātu i.e. Nibbāna e.g. in sabbe, dhammā all things are without a self;.
II sankhāra also means sometimes 'intentional effort', e.g. in the formula of the roads to power iddhi-pāda, in sasankhāra and asankhāra-parinibbāyī see: anāgāmī, and in the Abhidhamma terms asankhārika and sasankhārika-citta i.e. without effort = spontaneously, and with effort = prompted.
In Western literature, in English as well as in German, sankhāra is sometimes mistranslated by 'subconscious latent tendencies' or similarly e.g Prof Beckh:,unterbewußte Bildekräfte,; i.e. subconscious formative forces. This misinterpretation derives perhaps from a similar usage in non-Buddhist Sanskrit literature, and is entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pāli Buddhism, as listed above under I, 1-4. For instance, within the dependent origination, s. is neither subconscious nor a mere tendency, but is a fully conscious and active kammic intention. In the context of the 5 groups of existence see: above I, 3, a very few of the factors from the group of mental constructions sankhāra-khandha are also present as properties of subconsciousness, but are of course not restricted to it, nor are they mere latent tendencies.
Maha Thera Nyanatiloka. Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Buddhist Publication Society, first edition 1952.