Sankhara - meanings

@mikenz66 wrote:
Here’s Bhikkhu Bodhi’s listing of the contexts saṅkhārā is used in the SN, from the Introduction to his translation. … troduction
I’ve included links where possible.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:Saṅkhārā

In MLDB I had changed Ven. Ñāṇamoli’s experimental rendering of saṅkhārā as “determinations” back to his earlier choice, “formations.” Aware that this word has its own drawbacks, in preparing this translation I had experimented with several alternatives. The most attractive of these was “constructions,” but in the end I felt that this term too often led to obscurity. Hence, like the land-finding crow which always returns to the ship when land is not close by (see Vism 657; Ppn 21:65), I had to fall back on “formations,” which is colourless enough to take on the meaning being imparted by the context. Sometimes I prefixed this with the adjective “volitional” to bring out the meaning more clearly.

Saṅkhārā 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.

In SN the word occurs in five major doctrinal contexts:

(1) As the second factor in the formula of dependent origination, saṅkhāras are the kammically active volitions responsible, in conjunction with ignorance and craving, for generating rebirth and sustaining the forward movement of saṃsāra from one life to the next. Saṅkhārā is synonymous with kamma, to which it is etymologically related, both being derived from karoti. These saṅkhāras are distinguished as threefold by their channel of expression, as bodily, verbal, and mental (II 4,8–10, etc.
SN 12.2); they are also divided by ethical quality into the meritorious, demeritorious, and imperturbable (II 82,9–13 SN 12.51). To convey the relevant sense of saṅkhārā here I render the term “volitional formations.” The word might also have been translated “activities,” which makes explicit the connection with kamma, but this rendering would sever the connection with saṅkhārā in contexts other than dependent origination, which it seems desirable to preserve.

(2) As the fourth of the five aggregates, saṅkhārā is defined as the six classes of volitions (cha cetanākāyā, III 60,25–28 SN 22.56), that is, volition regarding the six types of sense objects. Hence again I render it volitional formations. But the saṅkhārakkhandha has a wider compass than the saṅkhārā of the dependent origination series, comprising all instances of volition and not only those that are kammically active. In the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the commentaries the saṅkhārakkhandha further serves as an umbrella category for classifying all mental concomitants of consciousness apart from feeling and perception. It thus comes to include all wholesome, unwholesome, and variable mental factors mentioned but not formally classified among the aggregates in the Sutta Piṭaka.

(3) In the widest sense, saṅkhārā comprises all conditioned things, everything arisen from a combination of conditions. In this sense all five aggregates, not just the fourth, are saṅkhāras (see III 132,22–27 SN 22.90), as are all external objects and situations (II 191,11–17 SN 15.20). The term here is taken to be of passive derivation—denoting what is conditioned, constructed, compounded—hence I render it simply “formations,” without the qualifying adjective. This notion of saṅkhārā serves as the cornerstone of a philosophical vision which sees the entire universe as constituted of conditioned phenomena. What is particularly emphasized about saṅkhāras in this sense is their impermanence. Recognition of their impermanence brings insight into the unreliable nature of all mundane felicity and inspires a sense of urgency directed towards liberation from saṃsāra (see SN 15.20; SN 22.96).

(4) A triad of saṅkhāras is mentioned in connection with the attainment of the cessation of perception and feeling: the bodily formation, the verbal formation, and the mental formation (IV 293,7–28 SN 41.6). The first is in-and-out breathing (because breath is bound up with the body); the second, thought and examination (because by thinking one formulates the ideas one expresses by speech); the third, perception and feeling (because these things are bound up with the mind). Two of these terms—the bodily formation and the mental formation—are also included in the expanded instructions on mindfulness of breathing (V 311,21–22 SN 54.1; 312,4–5 SN 54.1).

(5) The expression padhānasaṅkhārā occurs in the formula for the four iddhipādas, the bases for spiritual power. The text explains it as the four right kinds of striving (V 268,8–19 SN 51.13). I render it “volitional formations of striving.” Though, strictly speaking, the expression signifies energy (viriya) and not volition (cetanā), the qualifier shows that these formations occur in an active rather than a passive mode.

Apart from these main contexts, the word saṅkhāra occurs in several compounds—āyusaṅkhāra (II 266,19; V 262,22–23 SN 51.10 ), jıvitasaṅkhāra (V 152,29–153,2 SN 47.9) bhavasaṅkhāra (V 263,2 SN 51.10)—which can be understood as different aspects of the life force.

The past participle connected with saṅkhārā is saṅkhata, which I translate “conditioned.” Unfortunately I could not render the two Pāli words into English in a way that preserves the vital connection between them: “formed” is too specific for saṅkhata, and “conditions” too wide for saṅkhārā (and it also encroaches on the domain of paccaya). If “constructions” had been used for saṅkhārā, saṅkhata would have become “constructed,” which preserves the connection, though at the cost of too stilted a translation. Regrettably, owing to the use of different English words for the pair, a critically important dimension of meaning in the suttas is lost to view. In the Pāli we can clearly see the connection: the saṅkhāras, the active constructive forces instigated by volition, create and shape conditioned reality, especially the conditioned factors classified into the five aggregates and the six internal sense bases; and this conditioned reality itself consists of saṅkhāras in the passive sense, called in the commentaries saṅkhata-saṅkhārā.

Further, it is not only this connection that is lost to view, but also the connection with Nibbāna. For Nibbāna is the asaṅkhata, the unconditioned, which is called thus precisely because it is neither made by saṅkhāras nor itself a saṅkhāra in either the active or passive sense. So, when the texts are taken up in the Pāli, we arrive at a clear picture in fine focus: the active saṅkhāras generated by volition perpetually create passive saṅkhāras, the saṅkhata dhammas or conditioned phenomena of the five aggregates (and, indirectly, of the objective world); and then, through the practice of the Buddha’s path, the practitioner arrives at the true knowledge of conditioned phenomena, which disables the generation of active saṅkhāras, putting an end to the constructing of conditioned reality and opening up the door to the Deathless, the asaṅkhata, the unconditioned, which is Nibbāna, final liberation from impermanence and suffering.

From Ven. Ñanamoli’s Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha:

DETERMINATIONS: a great many different renderings of this term are current, the next best of which is certainly “formations.” The Pali word sankhara (Sanskrit samskasa) means literally “a construction,” and is derived from the prefix sam (con) plus the verb karoti (to do, to make); compare the Latin conficere from con plus facere (to do), which gives the French confection (a construction). The Sanskrit means ritual acts with the purpose of bringing about good rebirth. As used in Pali by the Buddha it covers any aspects having to do with action, willing, making, planning, using, choice, etc. (anything teleological); and contact (q.v.) is often placed at the head of lists defining it. Otherwise defined as bodily, verbal, and mental action.