Can 'sankhara' meaning 'conditioning'?

Dear forum

This question is related to the topic of SN 41.6/MN 44 however is a departure from SN 41.6/MN 44. This question is merely a question related to the possibilities of Pali grammar.

In the topic of SN 41.6/MN 44, it was assumed these suttas were required to understand MN 118. However, on this question, I take another approach, keeping in mind Bhikkhu Sujato has translated MN 118 as follows:

They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion.

‘passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

They practice breathing in experiencing these emotions. They practice breathing out experiencing these emotions.

cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṁvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṁvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

They practice breathing in stilling these emotions. They practice breathing out stilling these emotions.

‘passambhayaṁ cittasaṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṁ cittasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

I think if MN 118 is read carefully, particularly the following section on vedanupassana, it is clear steps 7 and 8 are about feelings:

at that time they meditate observing an aspect of feelings—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world.

vedanāsu vedanānupassī, bhikkhave, tasmiṁ samaye bhikkhu viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

For I say that close attention to the in-breaths and out-breaths is an aspect of feelings.

Vedanāsu vedanāññatarāhaṁ, bhikkhave, evaṁ vadāmi yadidaṁ—assāsapassāsānaṁ sādhukaṁ manasikāraṁ.

That’s why at that time a mendicant is meditating by observing an aspect of feelings—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world.

Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, vedanāsu vedanānupassī tasmiṁ samaye bhikkhu viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

Therefore, with the above in mind, including Bhikkhu Sujato’s unorthodox translation, my questions for any knowledgeable linguists are:

  • Can the word ‘sankhara’ be translated as ‘conditioning’?
  • Can the word ‘sankhara’ be translated as ‘reaction’?
  • This is similar to translating ‘sankhara’ as ‘activity’ or ‘motion’.
  • It follows can ‘cittasankhara’ be translated as ‘the mind’s conditioning’ or ‘the mind’s reaction’?

I suppose a positive answer to this question would negate the need of MN 44/SN 41.6 to understand MN 118. :innocent:

Hmm, I would lean towards something in between conditioning and reaction.

Just in the grandscheme of things, the Buddha introduces someone to the teaching with a talk on heaven/hell aka on virtue. Someone who is virtuous is less agitated, implying you cannot have sense-restraint if you’re unvirtuous, and if you cannot have sense-restraint then you cannot attain sublime pleasure, and if you cannot attain sublime pleasure (rapture not of the flesh), the body sankhara cannot be calmed.

So, it seems like sankhara is a reaction to conditions. A hostile environment leads to hostile reactions and conditions.

Thanks Thito but my question is purely grammatical rather than interpretive.

Thus I suppose the question is: “Can a translation of sankhara end with ‘ing’?

In other words, instead of “condition” or “formation” or “fabrication”, can sankhara be translated as “conditioning” or “forming” or “fabricating”? I understand it must be noun or adjective rather than a verb.

Thanks :slightly_smiling_face:

P.S. Keep in my personal activity here on the forum is merely asking questions. I was asking Bhikkhu Sujato some Pali questions via PM but Sujato advised me to now ask them on the public forum. I’m not here for debate & stuff.

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Don’t translate it into verb. when we say cittasankhara, it means a thought, an emotion, a concept, an idea, a piece of memory, a plan, a fantasy etc. they are resultant from the action/fabrication/motion of the mind citta. the sutta you mentioned is a practice to calm the mind to reduce these outcomes. does it make sense?

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From the collected teachings of Ajahn Chah:

  • “Conditioned things are the realm of samsara”

  • The mind becomes the unconditioned, the state which no longer contains conditioning factors.
    The mind is no longer conditioned by the concerns of the world, conditions no longer contaminate the mind. Pleasure and pain no longer aeect it. Nothing can affect the mind or change it, the mind is assured, it has escaped all constructions. Seeing the true nature of conditions and the determined,
    the mind becomes free. This freed mind is called the ‘unconditioned’, that which is beyond the power of constructing influences

  • Please clearly understand that when the mind is still, it’s in its natural, normal state. As soon as the mind moves, it becomes conditioned (sankhara). When the mind is attracted to something, it becomes conditioned. When aversion arises, it becomes conditioned. The desire to move here and there arises from conditioning. If our awareness doesn’t keep pace with these mental proliferations as they occur, the mind will chase after them and be conditioned by them. Whenever the mind moves, at that moment, it becomes a conventional reality"

Some explain kaya sankhara as those mental formations that condition or give rise to bodliy movements such as breath but also raising an arm, moving a leg etc.
Vaci sankhara as those mental formations that condition or give rise to inner verbalisations (thoughts) and outer, speaking.
Mano or citta sankhara as those mental formation that condition or give rise to certain states of mind, that cause mentallity, an angry mindset, a greedy, jalous etc. Constructing influences.

I do not think it is really appropriate to think about those arising sankhara’s as willed but more like habitual forces. I belief it is like the breath. It is not that we every moment decide to breath.

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kayasanhara is all the metabolic activities of the body, including heart beats.

of course these citta and kaya sankharas are all for humans. for super beings cittasankhara are something like a storm, fire, lightening, etc. for super super being, cittasankhara could be the creation/destruction of a world. our physical world is too fragile for super beings to move around.

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Speaking about superbeings, what kind of beings do you refer to?

Thank you. ‘Conditioning’ can be a noun, such as in the term ‘air conditioning’. :dizzy:

As you probably know, a literal translation of this Pali would be something like,
One trains, “I will breathe in stilling the body saṅkhāra”.

As you say, kāyasaṅkhāraṁ must be a noun or adjective as it’s the object of the verb along with the present participle passambhayaṃ.

Since ‘saṅkhāra’ itself is a noun, I’m not sure how it could be translated as a present participle.

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Thank you Stephen. I was hoping for “stilling the body conditioning’” i.e., stilling the conditioning or activating or stress-manufacturing of/happening to the body.

conditioning

noun

  1. ​the training or experience that an animal or a person has that makes them behave in a particular way in a particular situation
    Is personality the result of conditioning from parents and society, or are we born with it?

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries

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I suppose that is possible. As saṅkhāra is sometimes translated as ‘conditioned thing’, kāyasaṅkhāra could mean ‘the body, which is conditioned’ or ‘the body, which has been formed by conditions’.

But it seems to me the sense is that what is being stilled is ‘the body’, which has been brought into existence (and its current state) by conditions.
I’m not sure if this is what you are getting at.
To be honest, I don’t quite understand what Ven. Sujato is getting at with ‘body’s motion’. What do you think?

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Thank you. For me, busy &/or unwholesome mental states cause stress in the breathing & body, as follows:

If I think and ponder upon this thought even for a night, even for a day, even for a night and day, I see nothing to fear from it. But with excessive thinking and pondering I might tire my body, and when the body is tired, the mind becomes strained, and when the mind is strained, it is far from concentration.’

MN 19

When one abides inflamed by lust, fettered, infatuated, contemplating gratification, then the five aggregates affected by clinging are built up for oneself in the future; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—increases. One’s bodily and mental troubles increase, one’s bodily and mental torments increase, one’s bodily and mental fevers increase, and one experiences bodily and mental suffering.

MN 149

Therefore, by learning to calm the breathing, which also involves calming or stilling the mind, the physical body is also calmed and particularly the ordinary stresses/tensions afflicting & stored in the body are calmed, dissolved, purified, etc.

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“For me, busy &/or unwholesome mental states cause stress in the breathing & body”

Yes, I think that is certainly true. The current state of the body is dependent on conditions.
And the current state of the body will condition things going forward.
The careful in and out breathing can create conditions where the body is no longer stressed or tired.

I recall Bhante Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society once saying that just as there is air conditioning, there is ‘body conditioning’, using the breath.
This seems what
passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.
is all about.

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Conditioning is too strong, not proper in this context . It needs a much stronger mind to claim to condition or recondition an existing reality. Humans needs continuous repetitive deliberative efforts to be able to do that.

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Also, conditioning is a bit more deliberate, sankhara is general. Seems different. Well, English is my third language, need to confirm.

You seeing, air conditioning is a very specific function, it’s designed this way, more purposeful. Sankara is a general term.

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For a discussion of the active and passive senses of ‘sankhara’, this essay by Ven. Bodhi may be helpful:
https://accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_43.html

a couple of excerpts:

" The third major domain in which the word sankhara occurs is as a designation for all conditioned things. In this context the word has a passive derivation, denoting whatever is formed by a combination of conditions; whatever is conditioned, constructed, or compounded. In this sense it might be rendered simply “formations,” without the qualifying adjective. As bare formations, sankharas include all five aggregates, not just the fourth. The term also includes external objects and situations such as mountains, fields, and forests; towns and cities; food and drink; jewelry, cars, and computers."

" The fact that sankharas can include both active forces and the things produced by them is highly significant and secures for the term its role as the cornerstone of the Buddha’s philosophical vision. For what the Buddha emphasizes is that the sankharas in the two active senses — the volitional formations operative in dependent origination, and the kammic volitions in the fourth aggregate — construct the sankharas in the passive sense: “They construct the conditioned; therefore they are called volitional formations. And what are the conditioned things they construct? They construct the body, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness; therefore they are called volitional formations” (SN XXII.79)."

So we can say that ‘volitional formations’, or ‘choices’, construct the body.

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Right, in the above sutta the cittasankhara and kayasankhara are all kamma related, passive sense.

From modern scientific technical terms, I would like to translate Sankara as output, Vedanta as input, sanna as internal processing, vinnana as AI, rupa as hardware. Now everyone understands what a robot human kind is!

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Etymologically speaking, there are many options for how to render this word. Yet, we should never forget that it is ignorance>sankhara that is the basis for dependent origination, “this mass of suffering”. It seems that we should always be trending towards a usage that doesn’t neglect this most significant description.

Though, it will not always be the case that a reference to DO is an explicit. Here is unique passage from SN 22.57

Katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā? Chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā— rūpasañcetanā …pe… dhammasañcetanā. Ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā. Phassasamudayā saṅkhārasamudayo; phassanirodhā saṅkhāranirodho. Ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo saṅkhāranirodhagāminī paṭipadā, seyyathidaṁ— sammādiṭṭhi …pe… sammāsamādhi.

And what, bhikkhus, are volitional formations? There are these six classes of volition: volition regarding forms … volition regarding mental phenomena. This is called volitional formations. With the arising of contact there is the arising of volitional formations. With the cessation of contact there is the cessation of volitional formations. This Noble Eightfold Path is the way leading to the cessation of volitional formations; that is, right view … right concentration.

This seems to point out that sankhara, from the point of view of the five aggregates, is heavily in the domain of cetana (intention), bound up with contact, and something to practice towards the cessation of via the eightfold path. So DO is implied, though is not the direct focus of this description.

All in all, sankhara has to do with the things that are basis for ignorance, which is to say they are the basis for suffering and samsara, for not knowing the four noble truths. Remember the king from DN 17? When he was about to pass away his wife tried to make him feel good about his life by describing the possessions that defined his life. He was upset by this in his final hour because he now understood those things as, “undesirable, unpleasant, and disagreeable.” When asked how he preferred to be addressed at the end, he said:

Like this, my queen: “Sire, we must be parted and separated from all we hold dear and beloved. Don’t pass away with concerns. Such concern is suffering, and it’s criticized. Sire, you have 84,000 cities, with the royal capital of Kusāvatī foremost. Give up desire for these! Take no interest in life!”’ And so on for all the king’s possessions.

(“Such concern is suffering.” What a HUGE gem!)

Come to find out at this point, that the Buddha was this King Mahāsudassana in the past, at which point he goes on to describe the possessions once again, but now refers to them as sankhara:

Passānanda, sabbete saṅkhārā atītā niruddhā vipariṇatā. Evaṁ aniccā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā; evaṁ addhuvā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā; evaṁ anassāsikā kho, ānanda, saṅkhārā. Yāvañcidaṁ, ānanda, alameva sabbasaṅkhāresu nibbindituṁ, alaṁ virajjituṁ, alaṁ vimuccituṁ.

See, Ānanda! All those conditioned phenomena have passed, ceased, and perished. So impermanent are conditions, so unstable are conditions, so unreliable are conditions. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.

Those possessions were sankhara in the sense they defined his entire life as a king, which is to say they were the things that supported that mass of suffering. And the instructions are so wonderfully concise here: “become disillusioned, dispassionate and free” from what sankhara support.

Whatever word is used, it is the connotations that will matter the most. I don’t think they’ll be a usage anywhere in the suttas that does not in some way apply to the broad meaning described above in DN 17 and in any sutta about DO. As pointed out in AN 9.36 in this post, the principle of sankhara, available on account of jhana, should be used to discern the deathless.

Hope this is useful to the discussion. :slightly_smiling_face:

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Nice direct insight.

I suggest to keep analyze the sutta, also bring your own personal experience as the reference. Sutta explanation should match your own experience if one follow the exact steps of N8FP.

Also, Don’t stuck with structure or current translation. Current translation might be misleading at the time.

Fyi, vayama, sati and samadhi are inseparable in N8FP. Also needs the samma ditthi and morality as foundation.

Good luck and keep going.

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