The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara

August 15th, 2012

aka “Everything you wanted to know about sankharas but were afraid to ask.”

Over on the blog at the Secular Buddhist Association website, I did a series on a secular approach to dependent arising, and in the comments for the second post, I was asked if I could give specific examples of sankharas, because the suttas we have — and the word choices used in the translations (“formations” “fabrications” “activities”) or lack of them (some translations just skip the word altogether) make it very difficult to understand what is being said. I said I’d give it a try, but in a brief survey of the many mentions of sankhara, I found that there aren’t “examples” as such, at least not in the way that one might have examples of something like vedana (feelings, experiences) which are described sometimes as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, and we are given stories that can be seen to illustrate these, like the one of the jealous guy who sees his woman talking to another man — the feelings that arise there are examples of vedana, and the thoughts that arise, and ideas for what to do about the situation afterward could be seen to express the tanha and upadana that follow.

But the sankharas don’t get treated that way, probably because they aren’t so much things that happen in our lives, rather, they are underlying tendencies or overall concepts that affect our lives. They get described in a variety of ways, some of which tell us what they look like when they become visible. They become visible as “the actions that are a result of their impact on us”, so we could say that the action the jealous man takes is a sankhara because it is a sankhara-made-visible. But his jealousy is also a sankhara, too, it’s a sankhara-keenly-felt.

Because sankhara is the second term in a conditional chain of events, really, every step afterward is a sankhara in that same sense: the consciousness that arises next is sankhara-consciousness, because sankhara drives it, and in just the same way, it drives every step thereafter.

In working on this, I came to see that what a sankhara is, is a drive. It has limitations on it, like ignorance does (as described in the blogpost just before this one). When I say it is “a drive” I don’t mean just any old drive. It is a very specific drive: a drive for the existence of and protection of and knowledge of the self, a very driven-drive, a slightly over-the-top drive on the best of days, and a very over-the-top drive on the worst of them.

It gets this meaning from the Prajapati myth that is embedded in the first five steps of dependent arising, where sankhara is the craving for existence that brings the universe into being. This leads me to believe that “drive” may be the best all-around translation of sankhara. We can also see the way in which the steps after sankharas are all sankharas, themselves: because every step drives the next.

To test this out, and since I’m not finding jealousy-level examples of sankhara-as-a-drive in the suttas, I figured the next best thing was to find suttas in which sankharas are discussed or described, and see if putting the word “drive” in there makes those sections easier to understand. As a starting point, I used Nanavira Thera’s “Notes on Dhamma” to pull up explanations of, and references to, sankharas, and then wrote my own translation of those bits. I first did a translation that maintained grammatical correctness, and then rewrote it to be more easily read by a modern audience. I did not maintain traditional translations of other words in these pieces (because I feel, after looking at the word origins, that several of them miss the point as well).

I am hoping that gathering so many pieces on sankhara together in this one post will help in understanding the part it plays not just in dependent arising, but in the “aggregates” as well. See what you think.

When they are short enough, I provide the Pali for my translations (or links to the Pali if they are long), followed by my translation of the passage using “drive” for “sankhara”. In most cases, sutta citations are also linked to a more traditional translation given at the bottom of this post, to give you an idea of how the passage has been translated in the past.

SN 12.2 (pts S ii 4)
To Traditional Translation
katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā? tayome, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā — kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro. ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā.

And what kinds of drives are there? Drives are of three types: that which drives the body, that which drives speech, and that which drives thoughts.”

That seems simple enough to me. Not a lot of detail there, but more is coming.

MN 44 (pts M i 301)
To Traditional Translation
“katamo panāyye, kāyasaṅkhāro, katamo vacīsaṅkhāro, katamo cittasaṅkhāro”ti?

“assāsapassāsā kho, āvuso visākha, kāyasaṅkhāro, vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro, saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.

“kasmā panāyye, assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro, kasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro, kasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti?

“assāsapassāsā kho, āvuso visākha, kāyikā ete dhammā kāyappaṭibaddhā, tasmā assāsapassāsā kāyasaṅkhāro. pubbe kho, āvuso visākha, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṃ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro. saññā ca vedanā ca cetasikā ete dhammā cittappaṭibaddhā, tasmā saññā ca vedanā ca cittasaṅkhāro”ti.

“But what is that which drives the body, that which drives speech, and that which drives thoughts?”

“Breathing is a driver of the body. Thought and evaluation are drivers of speech. Perceptions and experience drive thoughts.”

“But why is breathing a driver of the body? Why are thought and evaluation drivers of speech? How do perceptions and experiences drive thoughts?”

“Breathing is physical; the body certainly depends on it. That’s why breathing is a driver of the body. Because we first think and evaluate before speaking, that’s why thought and evaluation are drivers of speech. Perceptions and experiences happen in the mind; the mind depends on them. That’s why perceptions and experiences drive thoughts.”

This makes it clear why sankhara gets identified with breathing — it’s not that when we stop sankhara as part of liberation, we need to stop breathing! It’s just that breathing drives the body. In the Buddha’s day, the breath was often thought of as the life-force, and it seems to be brought up here, in part, to address its importance. It may also be touching on the way our breathing changes in response to various situations — when we can calm the breathing, it is no longer “driving” the body in the same way (this gets touched on in a later passage related to meditation).

The primary point in each of these, though, discusses the mundane requirements for each of the three (body, speech, mind). This is actually another way of discussing ‘nutriment’ or the most foundational element that goes into the process. At the most obvious level, these are the foundations we would not want to have go away. We aren’t wanting to give up breathing, or thinking and evaluating, or being able to perceive our experiences. We might, however, pay attention to each of these to see if we can use them to find the actual problems: a change in our breathing can act as an alarm telling us something new is going on; certain thoughts and evaluations may contribute to our problems; certain perceptions of experiences would, too.

In the translation below I have tried to capture cetanā‘s meaning of thoughts that will become visible through action. It is usually translated as “intention” but in our culture “intention” has a conscious quality to it that I think is not appropriate here because the “thoughts” are actually “drives” and, as such, are below what we would call the conscious level. I’m also trying out “dhamma” as “things we are certain of” — the “truths” we rely on (which is a whole ‘nuther article):

SN 22.56 (pts S iii 60)
To Traditional Translation
“katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā? chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā — rūpasañcetanā, saddasañcetanā, gandhasañcetanā, rasasañcetanā, phoṭṭhabbasañcetanā, dhammasañcetanā. ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā. phassasamudayā saṅkhārasamudayo; phassanirodhā saṅkhāranirodho.’

And what, monks, are drives? There are six types of thoughts that will drive actions: there are those thoughts driven by visual qualities, by sounds, by scents, by tastes, by tactile qualities, and by certainties (dhamma). These are called drives. With the rise of contact, there is the rise of the drives.

This makes it clear why link #6, “contact” is suddenly found preceding link #2 “sankhara”. This apparent “lack of order” has confused many people over the years. The reason is that the first five links are an overview describing how we come to act the way we do, and only with link #6 do we begin to get a description of that acting. It begins with contact through the senses that touches on and fires off that drive we’ve been told about. Contact makes the drive visible through what happens next.

In the passages above, the sankharas have been examined from the perspective of how they appear to us, and how they happen: they are made visible by our bodies, and our speech, and through our thoughts; they are set off by contact through the senses. Below, we consider the direction that these drives lead in, which gives us a different way of categorizing the sankharas, in terms of their results. This is the sense in which sankharas often get associated with karma, which is of a paralleling “three types”.

SN 12.51 (pts S ii 82)
To Traditional Translation
“avijjāgato yaṃ, bhikkhave, purisapuggalo puññaṃ ce saṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, puññūpagaṃ hoti viññāṇaṃ. apuññaṃ ce saṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, apuññūpagaṃ hoti viññāṇaṃ. āneñjaṃ ce saṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti āneñjūpagaṃ hoti viññāṇaṃ. yato kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno avijjā pahīnā hoti vijjā uppannā, so avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā neva puññābhisaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti na apuññābhisaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti na āneñjābhisaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti. anabhisaṅkharonto anabhisañcetayanto na kiñci loke upādiyati; anupādiyaṃ na paritassati, aparitassaṃ paccattaññeva parinibbāyati. ‘khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānāti.

“Monks, if a person in a state of ignorance is engaged with a beneficial drive, their awareness seeks the beneficial; if engaged with a harmful drive, their awareness seeks the harmful; if engaged with a static drive, their awareness moves on to the stable. But when a person has left behind ignorance and has come to deep wisdom, there is no engagement with beneficial drives, or harmful drives, or static drives. Then, unengaged with drives, there is no more being caught up in the world. Not caught, there is no more disturbance. Undisturbed, that person attains complete calm, and the understanding that ‘Birth is finished, the highest conduct has been achieved, what needed to be done has been done, there is no other state following this.’”

Notice that there is mention of being totally unengaged with sankhara of any kind — not the beneficial, not the harmful, not the neutral sort. Examining this passage tells us that the end of sankhara is simply about not being caught up in the world anymore — not being driven by ignorance-contact — with no more problematic states of mind following on. Nothing is said about lack of will to live because the drives being discussed aren’t the useful drives that give us the basics that we need to survive, they are the excessive drives — they are the natural drive for survival taken a bit too far.

The passage below is not included in Nanavira’s consideration of sankhara, but it follows on so nicely from the one above, that it seemed to me I should include it. It also may help to explain why “breath” is the driver for bodily sankharas.

SN 36.11 (pts S iv 216)
To Traditional Translation
tisso imā, bhikkhu, vedanā vuttā mayā. sukhā vedanā, dukkhā vedanā, adukkhamasukhā vedanā — imā tisso vedanā vuttā mayā. vuttaṃ kho panetaṃ, bhikkhu, mayā — ‘yaṃ kiñci vedayitaṃ, taṃ dukkhasmin’ti. taṃ kho panetaṃ, bhikkhu, mayā saṅkhārānaṃyeva aniccataṃ sandhāya bhāsitaṃ… Link to the rest of the Pali

(The Buddha speaking): “I have mentioned these three experiences: of the pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant… I have also said ‘Whatever is experienced, falls within the unpleasant.’ Regarding this, I have said this in reference only to drives’ impermanence: ‘Whatever is experienced, falls within the unpleasant.’ Moreover, I have said this with reference only to the destruction of states of certainty that are the result of drives … the loss of states of certainty that are the result of drives … the indifference towards states of certainty … the cessation of states of certainty … the reversal of states of certainty that are the result of drives. ‘Whatever is experienced, falls within the unpleasant.’

“I have also declared the drives’ gradual cessation. On entering the first jhana, speech vanishes. On entering the second jhana, reflection and deliberation vanish. On entering the third jhana, delight vanishes. On entering the fourth jhana, in-and-out breathing vanishes….”

In the first paragraph above, it seems clear to me that the Buddha is saying that when he talks about experience (aka “feeling”) always being unpleasant (dukkhasmin) — despite the way he elsewhere describes it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral — he is specifically talking about it in reference to experience that takes part in dependent arising — experience that is driven by the sankhara drives. When we are contacted through our senses, if there is a drive toward (for example) beneficial acts, the pleasant/unpleasant/neutral experience that results is always bound up with dukkha; it may feel “pleasant” but it is still going to result in dukkha, because it is driven by the need for an (over-the-top) sense of self. It is not that the pleasant is actually unpleasant (it is not that all experience can be immediately felt as dukkha, or should be), it is that even pleasant experiences — the ones that are grounded in ignorance and driven by the sankhara-drives — lead to dukkha (“the unpleasant”).

In the second paragraph, the four jhanas are related to the three visible forms the sankharas take. Speech goes away first, as one sits silently; thought fades with the second; the third picks up the extra slot, having that sensation of joy and rapture that can be a part of meditation fade away; the fourth is usually translated as the cessation of breath, but all four make just as much sense (and the Pali justifies) all four of them “vanishing” — at least to the perspective of the meditator’s awareness.

And then we have the classic triad:

KN 2.20 Dhammapada 277-279
To Traditional Translation
sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā… sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā… sabbe dhammā anattā

All drives are impermanent… All drives are dukkha… All certainties are not self.

I think the above speaks for itself.

Below we have sankhara as one of the five aggregates that get mistaken for self. “I am my drive to survive”? Seems like a logical belief for the uninstructed to have, to me.

MN 35 (pts M i 228)
To Traditional Translation
‘rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ, vedanā aniccā, saññā aniccā, saṅkhārā aniccā, viññāṇaṃ aniccaṃ. rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā. sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe dhammā anattā’ti.

Form, monks, is impermanent. Experience, perception, drives, and awareness are impermanent. Form is not-self, experience is not-self, perception, drives, and awareness are not-self. All drives are impermanent, all certainties are not-self.

Next up, as if seeing sankharas three ways — in terms of what makes them arise (contact with the senses), and what makes them visible (actions in body, speech, thought), and where they lead (to benefit, harm, or neither) — isn’t enough, here’s one more way to look at them: they drive the way we see ourselves, as the five aggregates. If we perceive of self as form, then when we come into contact with the world, we will perceive self as form; if we perceive self as our experience, then sankhara will drive us to bring about a sense-of-self as experience; if we perceive of ourselves as “the perceiver” we will get confirmation that’s how it is and thereby bring about an active sense of self as “the perceiver”; if we think of ourselves as being our drives, we’ll find that’s what we are; same for awareness. We can see this as “they drive how we see ourselves” or “they drive the appearance of what we mistake for the self as it becomes visible in the world” (which would bring us back to action, both in terms of body, speech, and thought, and actions that are beneficial, harmful, or neither).

SN 22.79 (pts S iii 87)
To Traditional Translation
“kiñca, bhikkhave, saṅkhāre vadetha? saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati. kiñca saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti? rūpaṃ rūpattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, vedanaṃ vedanattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, saññaṃ saññattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, saṅkhāre saṅkhārattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, viññāṇaṃ viññāṇattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti. saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati.

And why do you call them ‘drives’? Because they drive the driven, therefore they are called ‘drives’. What is driven by the drive? In order to bring about form, drives drive form. In order to bring about experience, drives drive experience. In order to bring about perception, drives drive perception. In order to bring about drives, drives drive drives. In order to bring about awareness, drives drive awareness. Because they drive the driven, therefore they are called ‘drives’.

To put it another way, we shouldn’t be reading this as “sankhara creates form”, but as “sankhara gets us to perceive self-as-form”. Sankhara is all about drives that create our sense of self, not our actual physical selves.

Below is one last sutta I found that I think indicates the social aspects of sankhara — that the whole problem does not lie in us, and our perceptions of the world, but that we are often inspired by others’ ways of thinking and being, and we follow them.  It’s not very explicit, so I’m not sure that I have the best understanding of it (I will keep an eye out for any other indications that the Buddha saw sankhara as being able to be a “joint venture” and hope you will point out to me any you find, too). It also points out that we get in trouble through sankhara’s influence whether it is when we are making conscious choices, or just acting without forethought.

SN 12.25 (pts S ii 40)
To Traditional Translation
sāmaṃ vā taṃ, ānanda, manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ. pare vā taṃ, ānanda, manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharonti yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ. sampajāno vā taṃ, ānanda … pe … asampajāno vā taṃ, ānanda, manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ.

Either driven by oneself, or because of another person, inward pleasure and pain arise, driven into existence by that which drives the mind. Either through forethought, or through lack of forethought, inward pleasure and pain arise, driven into existence by that which drives the mind.


Finally, there is a variation on the term we need to consider briefly. It’s āyusaṅkhārā where āyu means “age” or “vitality” and gets extended to mean “life force”, so that when it gets combined with sankhara, it can be seen to mean, literally, the drive that keeps us alive, that keeps us aging. It gets used in MN 43 (pts M i 296) in the answer to a question about whether or not that drive-for-living is vedana (a feeling or experience) or not — and Sariputta says it is not, or with the cessation of feeling in jhana, the meditator would never return! This is because, if “the drive to stay alive” were one of dependent arising’s categories of  feelings/experiences, then when one went into meditative states that brought an end to those problematic experiences, one would lose the will to live, and therefore die.  (I note however, that — as in the sutta described below — the Buddha is said to have lost his drive to stay alive three months before he actually did die.)  That āyusaṅkhārā is described as not being vedana does not mean we can’t feel or experience that desire to keep living, either — it just means that when we feel it we are feeling something that is not included within dependent origination.

In the sutta that talks about āyusaṅkhārā there is also an interesting follow-up discussion immediately afterward, about the difference between being dead, and one who reaches the higher states of meditation. In that section the word āyu (“vitality”) gets separated from sankhara, but sankhara comes up again in reference to bodily- verbal- and mental-sankharas — it’s worth reading to see that “the will to live” would not be part of what goes away when liberated. This is also demonstrated in DN 16 (pts D ii 107) where, three months prior to his death, the Buddha gave up his āyusaṅkhārā – which means he had had that positive, reasonable drive all along, because it is not one of the the sankharas grounded in ignorance of dukkha.

To end the post, I’d like to include the sankhara reference I am currently most fond of, in which Mara questions the nun Vajira about the origins of beings, and she comes back with a pointed answer:

SN 5.10 (pts S i 135)
To Traditional Translation
“kiṃ nu sattoti paccesi, māra diṭṭhigataṃ nu te.
suddhasaṅkhārapuñjoyaṃ, nayidha sattupalabbhati.

What’s this?
Do you believe in ‘a being’, Mara?
Have you arrived at a view?
This is simply a mass of drives.
Here in this world no being exists.



Translation by Nanavira Thera, Notes on Dhamma
back up to post
SN 12.2 (pts S ii 4):
And which, monks, are determinations? There are, monks, these three determinations: body-determnation, speech-determination, mind-determination. These, monks are called determinations.

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
back up to post
MN 44 (pts M i 301)
“But what are bodily fabrications? What are verbal fabrications? What are mental fabrications?”

“In-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications. Directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications. Perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.”

“But why are in-&-out breaths bodily fabrications? Why are directed thought & evaluation verbal fabrications? Why are perceptions & feelings mental fabrications?”

“In-&-out breaths are bodily; these are things tied up with the body. That’s why in-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications. Having first directed one’s thoughts and made an evaluation, one then breaks out into speech. That’s why directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications. Perceptions & feelings are mental; these are things tied up with the mind. That’s why perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.”

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
back up to post
SN 22.56 (pts S iii 60)
“And what are fabrications? These six classes of intention — intention with regard to form, intention with regard to sound, intention with regard to smell, intention with regard to taste, intention with regard to tactile sensation, intention with regard to ideas: these are called fabrications. From the origination of contact comes the origination of fabrications.

Translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Connected Discourses of the Buddha, page 587-8
back up to post
SN 12.51 (pts S ii 82)
“Bhikkhus, if a person immersed in ignorance generates a meritorious volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the meritorious; if he generates a demeritorious volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the demeritorious; if he generates an imperturbable volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the imperturbable. But when a bhikkhu has abandoned ignorance and aroused true knowledge, then, with the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge, he does not generate a meritorious volitional formation, or a demeritorious volitional formation, or an imperturbable volitional formation. Since he does not generate or fashion volitional formations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains Nibbaana. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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KN 2.20 Dhammapada 277-279
All fabrications are inconstant… All fabrications are stressful… All phenomena are not-self…

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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MN 35 (pts M i 228)
‘Form is inconstant. Feeling is inconstant. Perception is inconstant. Fabrications are inconstant. Consciousness is inconstant. Form is not-self. Feeling is not-self. Perception is not-self. Fabrications are not-self. Consciousness is not-self. All fabrications are inconstant. All phenomena are not-self.’

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
back up to post
SN 22.79 (pts S iii 60)
“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.

Translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi
back up to post
SN 36.11 (pts S iv 216) p 1271
“These three feelings have been spoken of by me: pleasant feeling, painful feeling, neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. These three feelings have been spoken of by me. And I have also said: ‘Whatever is felt is included in suffering.’ That has been stated by me with reference to the impermanence of formations. That has been stated by me with reference to formations being subject to destruction… to formations being subject to vanishing… to formations being subject to fading away…, to formations being subject to cessation… to formations being subject to change.”

“…I have also taught the successive cessation of formations. For one who has attained the first jhana, speech cas ceased. For one who has attained the second jhana, thought and examination have ceased. For one who has attained the third jhana, rapture has ceased. For one who has attained the fourth jhana, in-breathing and out-breathing have ceased…”

Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
back up to post
SN 12.25 (pts S ii 40)
(From ignorance as a requisite condition, then) either of one’s own accord one fabricates bodily fabrication on account of which that pleasure & pain arise internally, or because of others one fabricates bodily fabrication on account of which that pleasure & pain arise internally. Either alert one fabricates bodily fabrication on account of which that pleasure & pain arise internally, or unalert one fabricates bodily fabrication on account of which that pleasure & pain arise internally.

Translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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SN 5.10 (pts S i 135)
Why now do you assume ‘a being’?
Mara, have you grasped a view?
This is a heap of sheer constructions:
Here no being is found.

3 Responses to “The Words of Dependent Arising: Sankhara”

  1. Thank you, Linda! I hope you provided a link to this article from the one on SBA about the sankharas!

    So, I’m curious. If Buddha had a will to live that was not a part of the sankharas, then why did he lose his will to live, and what was that?

    I need to reread this to grok it all, but super helpful!

  2. [...] 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 [...]

  3. star says:

    Thanks, Dana. Sankhara gets described in so many different ways in the suttas that there is a lot to grok! I think the various “faces” of sankhara (looking at it from different angles) is part of what has made it a confusing concept over the years. People tend to lock onto one of the definitions and not realize that they’re only touching one part of the elephant.

    The story goes that the day he died, when he ate, he had a particular set of symptoms that were very painful. (His death often gets attributed to food poisoning — pork or mushrooms — or actual poisoning.) But he had had those symptoms three months before, as well. The tale we find in the suttas of his death has him aware that he is going to die in three months — more or less choosing the time of his own death, three months hence, at the point of the first set of symptoms. Well, we can’t have an omniscient Buddha *not* knowing, not choosing, right? So he would in that sense have lost his will to live three months before he died. Whether this is a reflection of actual events or not is hard to say — did the Buddha get tired of living? Was he dealing with stomach pain a lot, in smaller amounts than we have described in detail? Who knows.

    But I trust Sariputta’s reading on the matter. The drive to stay alive, he says here, is something that, if lost, would cause you to die pretty much instantly. I think the stuff about the Buddha losing it three months earlier should be put in the same basket as the stuff about him choosing the moment he would die (the waste basket). It may well be that with the first round of illness he recognized that he might not have much longer to live, but I doubt he knew just when it would happen, or he would not have set out to return to the place of his birth with too little time to arrive there.

    There is a great article in the year-2000 edition of the Journal of the Pali Text society (the same volume that has Joanna Jurewicz’ “Playing With Fire”) detailing reasons for suspecting that the Buddha died of mesenteric infarction. If you can get your hands on it, the article is called “The Cause of the Buddha’s Death” and is by Mettanando Bhikkhu and Oskar von Hinüber. You can also read a little about it on the Wiki:

    Just search on:

    mesenteric infarction

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