Explaining sankhāra="choices"


I’m wondering whether venerable @sujato has written any article or essay by way of explaining his choice of “choices” as a translation of sankhāra?


I’m not sure that I’ve done an essay, but it’s come up a few times.

The basic reason is that sankhara in DO and the 5 khandhas refers to ethical acts (puñña, etc.) that create a result. Leaving aside Buddhist Hybrid English constructions, when in English we speak of ethics we can’t really say “good or bad intentions”, because this is often used idiomatically to mean that the results are the opposite of what one intended. “Will” can’t be used in plural. “Volition” is a possibility, although it is somewhat obscure, and it is not really used in an ethical sense.

In English, if we want to speak of ethical actions and their effects, we will usually say something like, “She made her choice, now she must live with it”, “I’m lost because I have made some bad choices in my life”, and so on. Thus “choice” seemed to me to be the simplest and most obvious word to convey the basic sense.

Is Sankhara translated as "Choices"?

Let me say that in Portuguese, the term corresponfing to choices, escolhas, makes much more sense than the term usually choosen formações volitivas - which itself is a direct translation of the obscure Buddhist English hybrid volitional formations.

To me, it was after I started reading choices / escolhas when I found sankhara in the suttas that dependent origination started to make sense! :smile:

Suttas like AN3.23 exemplify the improvement in clarity brought by this simpler terminology.

I can only imagine that to the simple farmers and artisans the Buddha taught most of time sankhara meant something as simple and straightforward as choices, deeds, activities and acts.



Thanks, this is nice to hear!

Much of the struggle in modern English renderings of saṅkhāra ultimately stems from the Abhidhamma: the Nyanatiloka/Nyanaponika/Nyanamoli/Bodhi lineage or tradition is heavily steeped in Abhidhamma, and even while recognizing that words often differ in the suttas, the interests and priorities are still there. And the primary use of saṅkhāra in the Abhidhamma is “conditioned phenomena”, while this is a secondary case in the suttas. And the idea that saṅkhārakkhandha includes a broad range of phenomena is entirely a product of Abhidhamma.

Once we alleviate saṅkhāra from the burden of Abhidhamma we are free to find a simpler and, as you point out, more relatable and historically meaningful, word.


This makes me wonder then about the description of nibbana as “asankhata”. It seems like many have interpreted this as meaning “uncaused”, but Kalupahana in his “Causality” book argues that this is not what it means and that if the Buddha wanted to say this, he would have said nibbana is appaticcasamuppana

Of course, it still seems difficult to see how nibbana could be “unchosen”. But maybe this just means that an arahant does not have preferences like a puthujjahana has, even though he would still have to make choices.

Venerable, how do you translate asankhata?


Thanks a lot venerable. Your brief reply gives the rationale. This is evidently going to give rise to ample discussion and debate, which is always healthy and welcome in my view, though perhaps somewhat exhausting to you!

I wonder what were the indications which have driven you to conclude that the main purport of “sankhara” was “ethical action”? Should you have the time and willingness to reveal how you came by this conclusion this would be very much useful to and appreciated by me and others. But for now I’d only be quite puzzled by how could “ethical action” be reported in the 12 links even before the emergence of namarupa or the actual living creature, and, more over, as a governing condition for such emergence?! And if you agree, what would be your understanding of sankhara, then, in the context of the 12 links (though you translate it in that context as “choices” still)?

Most appreciatively :anjal:


I believe the answer to your question is found in the link below:

Mind that it seems to be the only occurrence of the term asaṅkhata across the whole of the four Nikayas…



If nibbana means to all effects the ending of rebirth then it means the end of choices. :wink:


Because “choices” aka “ethical actions” aka “kamma” drive consciousness to be reborn in a new life.


I take the 12 links as an egg and chicken quandary. What came first of these 12 links? None if there was no beginning to the cycle of samsara.


Exactly, hence the metaphor of a cycle. :wheel_of_dharma:


I see. So choices that have been made, not ones that are being made. Past action. Precisely kamma. Hmmm!

Avijjā → kamma → viññāna …

I will definitely think about this more. For now I will say that this forces us to redefine nirodha (& ñāna) on fundamentally moral grounds! The issue is complicated further because “action”, in my humble view, isn’t even a good equivalent of “kamma”.

Does sankhāra/kamma end by making right choices or no choices? Or perhaps by non-attachment to the choices one makes? Does this make action (or non-action … wei wu?!) the centre of practice (as opposed to awareness)?

Interesting questions. To me, the most vital aspect about actions is not whether they are moral, but rather whether they are conscious! And in turn, the most important aspect about consciousness is whether it is at all conditioned … this is how i have understood “sankhāra”: an umbrella term referring to about everything that is fettered by avijjā, everything that operates through conditioning and causation, whether moral or otherwise. Everything that is thus unfree, and not only within and through “consciousness” in an individual sense, but also within and through consciousness as a sphere, a fundamental, enveloping foundational element of the very fabric of existence and being.

Deep stuff!! :anjal:


I recommend checking AN4.237, which tells us of deeds (kamma) which are neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds - i.e. the noble eightfold path:

And what are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds?
Katamañca, bhikkhave, kammaṃ akaṇhaasukkaṃ akaṇhaasukkavipākaṃ kammakkhayāya saṃvattati?
Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion.
Sammādiṭṭhi … pe … sammāsamādhi.
These are called neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.
Idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, kammaṃ akaṇhaasukkaṃ akaṇhaasukkavipākaṃ kammakkhayāya saṃvattati.



Friend @Gabriel_L … First thank you for making this appear in the correct category (discussion) … I don’t know! each time I have to choose a category for a post i’m starting I experience existential anxeity and confusion; i’m never getting it!!

Now the connection is clear between kamma, its neutralisation, and nibbana (as per the sutta you quote); my concern is mostly regarding the connection between kamma and sankhara, and whether they are (more or less) identical, and whether either can be reduced to moral agency. The traditional understanding of kamma as “action” (or “deed”) is just as much problematic for me (hey! Even in a radical behaviourist sense!) …


Hi @Dhammarakkhita, you are very welcome.

In terms of original etymology (and very much likely original understanding by those speaking the same language as the Buddha) the terms kamma and sankhara were understood as being very close, if not synonymous.

“The word sankhara is derived from the prefix sam, meaning ‘together,’ joined to the noun kara, ‘doing, making.’
Sankharas are thus ‘co-doings,’ things that act in concert with other things, or things that are made by a combination of other things.”
Source: Anicca Vata Sankhara

Kamma in its turn and itself is a noun very closely related to the noun kara, which means act, production, doing, deed.

To me kamma, kara, and sankhara were all synonymous to those alive during Buddha’s time. This is the connection between karma and sankhara.

Maybe @sujato can confirm and elaborate on that (possibly some 12 hours from now as it is not past bed time for bhikkhus here in Western Australia! :sweat_smile: ).



I’m afraid this is not true and oversimplified! These two terms in particular have a rather vast scope of meaning and immensely varied contexts of use. And while “kamma” obviously originates from vedic roots, sankhāra doesn’t. Nor are we able to discern this synonymity between the two terms which you claim, by comparing their use within the corpus of Pāli literature itself. Nor do they retain a single exactly defined meaning in that literature.


I think it is worth inviting Ajahn @brahmali to this conversation as well. It was from him that I learnt that sankhara in dependent origination means kamma.

A sutta worth checking to consider that understanding is SN12.27:

And what are choices?
Katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā?
There are three kinds of choices.
Tayome, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā—
Choices by way of body, speech, and mind.
kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro.
These are called choices.
Ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā.

To me, the reason we don’t see any sutta saying explocitly sankhara is equivalent to kamma, or using the terms at the same time, is because it would be redundant as saying in English “act is equivalent to action”…

Does anyone know if the Chinese characters used by the ancient translators of the Agamas to render the terms kamma and sankhara are close or even the same? Maybe @Sylvester?



If that will help, note that Bhikkhu Bodhi as well akcnowledges the synonimity between sankhara and kamma:

Looking at statements from various suttas, we can see that the sankharas are the volitional activities responsible for producing karma and generating rebirth.
They are thus the factors that shape our destiny as we revolve in samsara, the round of birth and death.
In this context the word sankhara is virtually synonymous with kamma, a word to which it is etymologically akin. Both are derived from the verb karoti, meaning “to act, do, or make.”



Well this no longer really a discussion between you and me now isn’t it!! Out of the myriad uses of sankhara, and proposed explanations of sankhara (including those provided as possible meanings by Ven. Bodhi himself), you cherry-pick those favouring your position and ignore all others as if they don’t exist. I have no options other than to accept that you haven’t even attempted to listen to my concerns, or to investigate or address what I’m actually saying, and rather opted to simply prove me wrong. Very well. You keep your certainty to yourself, I keep my uncertainty to me, and let’s call it a day.

In fact, at no point was I attempting to say that there is no relationship whatsoever between sankhara and kamma; only, what I was trying to say is that there can be a relationship between sankhara and EVERYTHING! In this sense, your insisting on “hey, there is a certain relationship between these two terms” is not really addressing what I’m saying, nor refuting the arguments I’m making.


Don’t worry and please don’t misunderstand me.

I am confident @sujato and @brahmali will be more skilled than I in the explanation.

There is no pressure or expectation that you abandon your views and take my or anyone else.

The quotes I presented above were not cherry picked but consistent with the motivation of keeping the conversation around the term igned with what we find in sutras.

The broader (and to me less likely to be valid) terminology which turns sankhāra in a catch all and somewhat mystical term for all things complex, fabricated, etc is only supported by Abhidhammic exegexis.

To me this is where we differ. :slightly_smiling_face:

You, like Bhikkhu Bodhi takes that exegesis as valid. I don’t. And the reason I don’t is that to me the Buddha in the suttas was teaching to simple people using a simple and accesible language.

I cannot imagine the Buddha making anything mystical or unclear to the point people 2,500 years after his parinibbana would have to get puzzled about the meaning of such a crucial element of his teachings on how the focus on the right sort of ethically effective actions, choices abd behaviours of body, speech and mind is all you need to verify the possibility of putting suffering to an end.

Be well!