Conditioned - Sankhara

From SN 22.79, Sankhara is :

Sankhara produce conditioned phenomena; that’s why they’re called ‘Sankhara’. Saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati.
And what are the conditioned phenomena that they produce?
Kiñca saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti?
Form is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into form. Feeling is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into feeling. Perception is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into perception. Choices are conditioned phenomena; choices are what make them into choices. Consciousness is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into consciousness.

In Phenapandima Sutta SN 22.95

Suppose there was a person in need of heartwood. Wandering in search of heartwood, they’d take a sharp axe and enter a forest. There they’d see a big banana tree, straight and young and grown free of defects. They’d cut it down at the base, cut off the top, and unroll the coiled sheaths. But they wouldn’t even find sapwood, much less heartwood. And a person with clear eyes would see it and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a banana tree?
In the same way, a mendicant sees and contemplates any kind of choices at all … examining them carefully. And they appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in choices?

So can sankhara be understood as following?

Perception as a conditioned phenomena

“This is a tree” → Perception
What is a tree?
“Tree is something with leaves” → Perception
What are leaves?
“Leaves are green” → Perception
What is green?
"Green is a color " → Perception
What is a color?
“Color is a specific sensation from eyes” → Perception

Form as a conditioned phenomena

Form is made of matter → Matter is made of molecules → Molecules made of elements → Elements made of Atoms → Atoms made of electrons, neutrons → Quarks → Quantum Fields theory → String theory → etc. …

This seems to be layered endlessly and only end I can think is assuming " I don’t know". It seems this is similar to the banana tree analogy.

Is this the correct approach to contemplate? or is there a different way?

Generally one thing has to be remembered, Buddha Teaching is only about suffering and cessation of suffering, so it is very likely that descriptions given in these two Suttas are strictly related to understanding, abandoning, cessation and the path leading to cessation of dukkha.

Second thing equally important is that as far as common man experience goes, dukkha or suffering of the first noble truth is something he doesn’t understand, no matter how unhappy personally he feels. So the first noble truth is actually the task to perform: suffering has to be understood.

So it is good to ask oneself: how such contemplation is related to the problem of suffering? Do I understand what suffering in the first noble truth means?

Also, while generally Dhamma is very difficult to understand, sankhara is one of the most difficult aspect of it.

1 Like

The sankharas are impermanent. The product of causes and conditions.
They arise and cease.
What is seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, felt, thought, and remembered are all sankharas. That includes the body itself.

Rūpa is not “matter”. Rūpa is to the eye, as sadda is to the ear. Rūpa is “form” only in the sense of “outward form, appearance”.

If we are invoking the scientific worldview (which is utterly opposed to the Pāli Buddhist worldview) then rūpa is reflected light. Rūpa is what emerges from the object, crosses space, and impacts on the eye, conveying to us how an object appears. Analogous to sound being emitted and impacting on the ear. If rūpa were matter, then cakkhu-viññāna would be more like eating.

Your hierarchy is not entirely coherent and leaves out forces. For example molecules are not “made of elements”. There is no distinction between “an atom” and “an element”. They are two words for the same thing seen from two different perspectives. Molecules are made of atoms and the electromagnetic force. Atoms are indeed made of smaller particles and the electromagnetic and nuclear forces. Current thinking is that underlying the standard model of particle physics are corresponding quantum fields, but that’s as far as it goes. The layers end here, there is no “etc”.

String theory is now widely recognised as a dead end with no real world applications (In The Big Bang Theory, Dr Sheldon Cooper abandons string theory research for this reason).

But none of this is relevant to the Iron Age when the word under consideration was coined. Iron Age Indians had no conception of matter being divided in this way. In their worldview, the physical world was composed of earth, fire, water, wind, and space. And these make up objects, rather than rūpa.

I think that the sutta wants to express that like individual atoms form structures by certain forces of nature, and this way form an aggregate of atoms, the sankhara’s are like the constructing forces of the world we live in. They construct our phenomenological world. How we perceive ourself, others and the world.

We more or less, for example, see the world in Gestalts. We immediately see ‘a tree’ that is seperated from other things and we see this as a whole. Also persons. We see it immediately, at least that is our impression.

But we also know that this Gestalt, is build up, composed. It is not a single perception. It is an aggregation of many perceptions. But we do not notice this. We do not notice individual eye vinanna’s. We see an aggregation of many eye vinnana’s. In neurologic this is called Gestalt. It is not likely that babies see the world this way yet, i read. This is learned and develops over time.

I believe this happens in all sense domains. We live in a meaningful contructed world and not we decide to give meaning or to construct. Our experiences are aggregations, and those agglomeration are build up probably by sankhara’s.

I believe it also means that the unconstructed, that what is not an aggregate, is implied. Ofcourse, you know me :blush: I believe this refers to the empty open nature of mind. The unconstructed, deathless, stable.

I think that it is especially interesting that things get a meaning. Probably we are a specie that is born in a relative meaningless world. Not that i believe we are born tabula rasa but probably compared to others beings, we are born quit empty of meaning and more than other beings learn to give meaning while we live. Not as choice but it happens. I tend to believe that the Buddha has discovered that nothing has an sich a meaning. For a baby a gun does not have the meaning danger. The body does not have an sich the meaning Me, etc. The nature of mind is signless. It is a mere knowing essence.

I believe, there, in this process of meaning and the end of meaning, the Buddha saw the cause of suffering and the cessation. But i do not think that if there would be no domain without meaning there would be an escape of suffering.

1 Like

It often seems like this, but it also seems like the term rūpa both is used both ways? You had a thread about this Must we read rūpa as "body"? . Did you reach any firm conclusions?

See terminology - What is the difference between an element and an atom? - Chemistry Stack Exchange

1 Like

I had already reached a conclusion long before that discussion. LOL.

Clearly word is used to mean “body” in some texts and in some contexts. But that is not what it means in terms of the Buddhist theory of perception. If we are talking about rūpa + cakkhu > cakkhu-viññāna, then rūpa is not and cannot possibly be “body”, and it is not “matter”.

As I say, in this equation, rūpa is to cakkhu, as sadda is to sota. If I blow a conch, it’s not the conch qua object that enters your ear. The sota is not the conch, it’s the sound the conch gives off. Similarly if you look at the conch, it’s not the conch itself that enters your eye, it’s a visual image of the conch. So rūpa is not the object per se (which is not even part of this model), just the image of it or the appearance of it.

In the case of rūpakkhanda, I believe this refers to the same thing, but that rūpa is being used as a metonym for all of the six senses. That is to say, it means the appearance of any sensory experience of any sensory mode, which is experienced as +ve/-ve (vedanā), identified, reacted to, and the associated object is identified, completing the process of reifying experience.

And in nāmarūpa I think it again has the sense of “appearance”. So “name and appearance”, rather than “name and form” in case anyone might think that “form” refers to substance/body/matter. We name something according to what is looks like (most of the time), not what it is. Although a few things (like elements) are named for what they are. Things that are named after what they sound like are unusual enough to have a special name: onomatopoeia. Someone should do a list of onomatopoeic words in Pāli.

I find the consistency of reference pleasing because it does not require me to believe that the word is used in three different ways in contexts that are intimately related. Having one denotation with multiple context sensitive connotations makes more sense to me that multiple unrelated denotations for the same word in related contexts.

I understand that there are instances that don’t fit this pattern. I assume some other process went on in parallel here. “Meaning is use”, as Wittgenstein almost said. Perhaps because Buddhists referred to statues of the Buddha as rūpa, meaning “image” or “likeness”, the meaning drifted to mean “body” or “substance” in that sense?

This doesn’t change the fact that molecules are made of atoms, they are not made of elements. That was the takeaway there.

While we are at it, electrons and neutrinos (etc) are leptons so they are not made of quarks. Only Protons and neutrons are made of quarks, although we should say quarks and gluons.

My BSc in chemistry is now ancient history, but it’s not quite prehistoric.

The point was not that molecules are made of atoms or not but this composition is layered similar to the analogy of a banana tree. No matter how you keep looking for there is no ultimately real thing(particle,field,wave etc) behind it. There is always more layers behind them.

I think this is the analogy for form.

Mendicants, suppose this Ganges river was carrying along a big lump of foam. And a person with clear eyes would see it and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a lump of foam?
In the same way, a mendicant sees and contemplates any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; near or far—examining it carefully. And it appears to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in form?

That all the forms as @Jayarava mentioned composed of sights/touch/sound/etc . These sights/touches/sounds/etc are fleeting and changing. We grasp these sense objects together to form a whole - similar to a glob of foam.

This one is interesting, and seems plausible. (Most of what you said I also suspect.) In English we refer to somebody’s “looks” to mean their body too.


You said earlier that the electromagnetic force is part of what an atom is made up of. It is unusual language, but it works. If you want to say that protons and neutrons are made of gluons then you should say that atoms are made up of photons - photons are the carrier particle for the electromagnetic force.

So what would somebody with a BA in ancient history who is your age say about their BA :laughing: ?

1 Like

I read a book on brain and consciousness. This field has learned a lot from people with brain damage.
But reading this book it becomes so clear, for me, that what we experience as our world is any moment constructed. Senses, nerves, and brain-cells are working together. It is amazing to think about this, i feel. It is pure magic that it even works.

I would not say we grasp the sense objects together but the brain construct an overview of info from a lot of sense-info. Seeing a glob of foam means a lot of brain-power is happening.

Some knowledge about the brain is also, like quantum mechaniscs, irrational. For example there was a person who saw colours but was not able to distinguish forms. I thought…how is this possible? If you are able to see different colours does that not imply having also some sense of form? I have always seen form and colour more or less as intrinsically related as in: if you see colour you see form, if you see form you see colour. But it is not really like that. Often it is explained in this way that seeing colour and seeing form are different neurological circuits. Like seeing movement is also. There was a person who was living in a world in which he saw snapshots and not really a smooth moving object in his visual field.

Ofcourse, i read that buddhist believe the brain does not really proces but the mind has the final answer. The mind rules. I do not know, if this can be said to be really true. I know all these theories but it is not easy to judge for me. Probably a ruling mind is just as wrong as a ruling brain or ruling self.

According the stories Buddha had a phenomenological approach, for example, in how vinnana arises, by what conditions. If this then that. That perspective comes with certain answers or insights, but it is also quit sobering to see things from another perspective, for example, physiological. If the brain is cut of oxigen for 5-10 seconds we loose consciousness. Also when glucose becomes to low. So from this perspective seen, vinnana has really other conditions to arise.

So, i think we talk about perspectives on things. We cannot think about PS as how things really are, or like the only possible chain of conditions explaining things. I think we can say it represents a perpective.

I do not know yet what to think about all this. It feels quit sobering. The word ‘insight’ is a huge claim because what does it even mean? Is not all merely perspective?

But one can also choose not to become cynical, sceptic, afraid, disappointed, sad, mad that it is a mere perspective. I choose for that at this moment. Even if all knowledge from a phenomenological perspective can only be seen as valid from that perspective, it still can be very helpful. It also can instigate modesty, not claiming that one knows the absolute truth and all other perspectives are wrong.

I feel, this is probably also why the Buddha taught that he declared suffering and its cessation. People have always wishes other answers too and have other goals and perspectives.

There is nothing “irrational” about quantum mechanics per se. It is difficult to understand and a lot of nonsense has been talked about it, but in general it is by far the most accurate and precise predictor of the behaviour of matter and energy that we have. In many ways, quantum mechanics represents the triumph of rationality, because it forces us to accept counter-intuitive propositions, like wave particle duality.

You may be thinking of narrative accounts of the “Copenhagen Interpretation” which often are irrational for reasons having nothing to do with quantum mechanics. No working physicist I’ve ever encountered (at school or since) has considered this a useful approach, though they all still teach it to undergraduates.

If you want to get a better overview of the history of quantum mechanics, including the strange story of Niels Bohr, I highly recommend Adam Becker’s book What is Real? One of the best things I ever heard anyone say about Bohr was in an interview of David Albert by Sean Carroll. Albert says:

And there was just this long string of brilliant people who would spend an hour with Bohr, their entire lives would be changed. And one of the ways in which their lives were changed is that they were spouting gibberish that was completely beneath them about the foundations of quantum mechanics for the rest of their lives. And you wanna know how did this guy do this?

0:42:34 SC: And they revered him. There’s a quote from [John] Wheeler saying, “The thing that made me convinced that there were people like Jesus and Moses and Buddha was meeting Niels Bohr.”

You really have to listen to the interview to get how incredulous Albert is about this. Note that both Albert and Carroll agree that Bohr’s account of the implications of the Schrödinger equation was “gibberish” and that those who followed Bohr were spouting gibberish. Becker’s book makes is clear why this was so and what some of the alternatives are.

I find this interesting because almost exactly the same thing occurred with Edward Conze. People would meet him and talk gibberish about Buddhism for the rest of the lives (including my Buddhist teachers). My specialist subject, the Heart Sutra, is often portrayed as being irrational in a similar way to Copenhagen, but Nattier, Huifeng, and I have proved that this is simply nonsense born of not understanding the context, uncorrected transmission errors, and the blind embrace of Madhyamaka metaphysics.

Anyway, quantum mechanics is anything but “irrational”. People are irrational. Some numbers are irrational in a different sense. But quantum mechanics is supremely rational, and as yet incomplete.

The idea that an Iron Age yogin would have any insights paralleling those of quantum physics or neuroscience is far fetched. But then I did also read this today: (PDF) The Einstein effect: Global evidence for scientific source credibility effects and the influence of religiosity | Dimitris Xygalatas - I think this helps explain why religieux keep trying to invoke science as a way of authenticating their beliefs. Science is a lot more credible than religion, even in the minds of religious people.

But science is objective, it is derived from sensory data. Serious religious people aren’t interested in such thing as reality perceived through senses, but rather in mind which perceives objects through the senses.
So these are entirely different field of interest and if it is true that some religious people try authenticated their religious beliefs through science, this only proves that they are confused and not very serious in their belief.*

Whoever appeals to any science in order to justify his basic convictions inspires distrust of his honesty or his intelligence.

Nicolas Gomez Davila

Perhaps you aren’t well informed about religious people, like for example Catholic philosopher who said:

Why deceive ourselves? Science has not answered a single important question.

Science operates entirely in sankhata realm which isn’t really very important, at least for these who like to abandon it by realization of what isn’t conditioned.

There is no science outside of the person, and the person is driven by craving and ignorance. In the same way there is no Buddhism, there are only Buddhists and their personal views.

From “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” by Sabine Hossenfelder:

“As long as physicists developed theories to explain existing or upcoming experiments, success meant getting the right numbers with the least amount of effort. But the more observations our theories could describe, the more difficult it became to test a proposed improvement. It took twenty-five years from the prediction of the neutrino to its detection, almost fifty years to confirm the Higgs boson, a hundred years to directly detect gravitational waves. Now the time it takes to test a new fundamental law of nature can be longer than a scientist’s full career. This forces theorists to draw upon criteria other than empirical adequacy to decide which research avenues to pursue. Aesthetic appeal is one of them.
In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias.”

“Physicists use a lot of math and are really proud that it works so well.
• But physics isn’t math, and theory development needs data for guidance.
• In some areas of physics there hasn’t been new data for decades.
• In the absence of guidance from experiments, theorists use aesthetic criteria.
• They get confused if that doesn’t work.”

“And not only does the history of science thrive with beautiful ideas that turned out to be wrong, but on the flipside we have the ugly ideas that turned out to be correct.
Maxwell himself, for example, didn’t like electrodynamics the way he conceived it because he couldn’t come up with an underlying mechanical model. Back then, the standard of beauty was a mechanical clockwork universe, but in Maxwell’s theory electromagnetic fields just are—they are not made of anything else, no gears or notches, no fluids or valves. Maxwell was unhappy about his own theory because he thought that only “when a physical phenomenon can be completely described as a change in the configuration and motion of a material system, the dynamical explanation of that phenomenon is said to be complete.” Maxwell tried for many years to explain electric and magnetic fields by something that would fit the mechanistic worldview. Alas, in vain.”


Is conditioned and apprehended by the following…


Conditioned through procreative acts and myriad elements.


Conditioned through body in relation to… (mind),

Mental abstraction, forming, thought*

Conditioned by form, feeling and…


“I see blue, I see green”.
Conditioned by the prior.

The understanding of the 5 aggregates is like understanding how a piece of software and hardware works as compared to just using such. There is riding a bike, and then knowing the exact mechanisms that lead to the propulsion of the wheel in relation to the pedal, chain, pressure, and foot force etc.

I break these five down into three sections of mind (perceiving, abstracting, feeling), body (sensor, form, chariot, vehicle), and conscious-aware-ness which is the condition or quality of mind-body. Consciousness/aliveness is understood through the apertures of mind, body and awareness. Awareness is an interesting term as its closely related to consciousness and aliveness.

The five aggregates in themselves are neutral and only become problematic when one clings to such in a way that is marked by giving rise to or further perpetuating suffering. They, paired with the 5 senses and mind, if you wish to call it the 6th, are the basis by which one makes sense. Yet, without awareness of the mechanisms of such from birth, people come to lose themselves in their sense faculties or views, thoughts and perceptions - thus coming to experience pain.

Yet, the aggregate factors also serve as the basis to discern wisdom and cultivate insight into the way.

1 Like

Hi. If we read Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, it reads as though sankhara aggregate creates ideas about the aggregates (rather than creates the aggregates). Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated:

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-hoodFor 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.

Khajjaniya Sutta: Chewed Up

Yes although Thanissaro Bhikkhu seems to suggest it’s ideas that are fabricated, I think it’s the aggregate itself that is fabricated(conditioned). Thus it has the property of being layered(without core). That is conditioned things are also due to conditions → which are also due to other conditions etc.

1 Like

Hi. Sankhara aggregate is thoughts & intentions. It does not create other aggregates. If the other aggregates were ideas, there would only be one aggregate (the sankhara aggregate). To provide an example, the mind sees form aggregate and thinks: “This carpet is beautiful, soft & delicate. I want it for my lounge room”. This is how, for the sake of form-ness, sankhara aggregate fabricates form as a fabricated thing. With metta :slightly_smiling_face:

@Dunlop In SN 22.79 it says Sankhara produce conditioned phenomena.

We already discussed & offered different translations. Sankhara aggregate obviously produces conditioned thoughts. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like