Explaining sankhāra="choices"

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.

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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?

:anjal:

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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.”

:anjal:

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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.

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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!

:anjal:

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Hi @Gabriel_L and Ven. @anon61506839,

I shall be most happy to provide my perspective on this. Whether it will clarify things is, of course, an entirely different matter!

In a nutshell I think you are both right. I agree with Gabriel that the main meaning of saṅkhāra in the EBTs is “intentional activity”, and as such it is synonymous with kamma. On the other hand, I agree with Ven. Dhammarakkhita that saṅkhāra is used broadly, and that its various meanings must be carefully distinguished according to context.

When looking at this sort of question I usually ask myself what are the main context in which a particular word occurs. If this question can be answered with a degree of certainty, then we should be able to establish the default meaning of the term, with other meanings being of subsidiary importance. The two main doctrinal contexts for saṅkhāra in the EBTs are the five khandhas and dependent origination. What it means in the context of the five khandhas (“personality factors”) can be seen from the following two EBT quotes:

Katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā? Chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā – rūpasañcetanā, saddasañcetanā, gandhasañcetanā, rasasañcetanā, phoṭṭhabbasañcetanā, dhammasañcetanā. Ime vuccanti bhikkhave, saṅkhārā.

And what, bhikkhus, are volitional formations? There are these six classes of volition: volition regarding forms, volition regarding sounds, volition regarding odours, volition regarding tastes, volition regarding tactile objects, volition regarding mental phenomena. This is called volitional formations. (SN 22.56/57)

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, bhikkhus, do you call them volitional formations? ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called volitional formations. And what is the conditioned that they construct? They construct conditioned form as form; they construct conditioned feeling as feeling; they construct conditioned perception as perception; they construct conditioned volitional formations as volitional formations; they construct conditioned consciousness as consciousness. ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called volitional formations. (SN 22.79)

In the first two suttas (SN 22.56 + 57) saṅkhāra is explicitly equated with cetanā/sañcetanā, cetanā being the term which is normally used to define kamma. So here saṅkhāra is used interchangeably with kamma. In the second sutta the saṅkhāras are said to be that which produces existence and hence again they are indistinguishable from kamma. This, I think, is an important finding, because it sets a fairly unambiguous benchmark for our interpretation of saṅkhāra.

Let’s turn to dependent origination. Here are a couple of instructive quotes:

Yattha atthi saṅkhārānaṃ vuddhi, atthi tattha āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti.

Where there is the growth of volitional formations, there is the production of future renewed existence. (SN 12.64)

Sāmaṃ vā taṃ, ānanda, kāyasaṅkhāraṃ/vacīsaṅkhāraṃ/manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ. Pare vā taṃ, ānanda, kāyasaṅkhāraṃ/vacīsaṅkhāraṃ/manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharonti, yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ. Sampajāno vā taṃ, ānanda, kāyasaṅkhāraṃ/vacīsaṅkhāraṃ/manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ. Asampajāno vā taṃ, ānanda, kāyasaṅkhāraṃ/vacīsaṅkhāraṃ/manosaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti yaṃpaccayāssa taṃ uppajjati ajjhattaṃ sukhadukkhaṃ.

Either on one’s own initiative, Ᾱnanda, one generates that bodily/verbal/mental volitional formation conditioned by which pleasure and pain arise internally; or prompted by others one generates that bodily/verbal/mental volitional formation conditioned by which pleasure and pain arise internally. Either deliberately, Ānanda, one generates that bodily/verbal/mental volitional formation conditioned by which pleasure and pain arise internally; or undeliberately one generates that bodily/verbal/mental volitional formation conditioned by which pleasure and pain arise internally. (SN 12.25)

Both of the above suttas are found in the Nidāna-samyutta and so the context is dependent origination. Saṅkhāra is here connected to rebirth and the future arising of pleasure and pain. Once again it seems fairly clear that this refers to kamma. Given our previous finding of what saṅkhāra means in the context of the five khandhas, the case for this is strong. (Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the meaning of saṅkhāra in the context dependent origination at length here.)

Since the two main doctrinal contexts for saṅkhāra concern kamma, we should assume that this is the general meaning of the word, unless the context demands otherwise. Let’s look at a couple of such contexts.

In the well-known phrase sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā it is almost unavoidable to conclude that saṅkhāra must be broader than volition or kamma. Since it is the five khandhas that are dukkhā, in the present context saṅkhāra must refer to all conditioned phenomena. In other words, saṅkhāras are created by saṅkhāras as a constructive force. That saṅkhāra refers to both the active side of creating as well the passive side of that which is thus created is a peculiarity of this word. There is a clear link between the two, but it is difficult to render both sides with a single word in English, which is what leads most translators to choose several words to render saṅkhāra, with each word being relevant to a specific context.

There are also context where saṅkhāra is used to mean “effort”, not just the intention that originates the effort. In these contexts the meaning is close to kamma, but somewhat expanded.

So saṅkhāra is a relatively complex word. However, once you get the idea that it refers both to that which creates and to that which is created it is fairly straightforward. But of these two meanings the creative aspect is much more important in the suttas. That’s how is seems to me.

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Thanks a lot, venerable @Brahmali, for your generous reply. :anjal:

At first please let me clarify that I have done a lot of reading on this issue, I mean really a lot. I just don’t go about posting links and making references to favour my position and negate the other view out of existence; that would defeat the very point of debating and having a discussion forum. And so I appreciate that you present your own arguments and understanding rather than argue from authority. However I must say that I find this “culture” of stating that one’s arguments are supported by, or drawn from some “EBT” to be very troubling, and not only because we haven’t the slightest agreement about what is EBT and what is not, but even if we agreed, the fact that something is stated in a certain way in the text is simply not enough to give authority to one interpretation over another, and especially in the case of Pali literature and language. Let me give an example in order to avoid misunderstanding:

Now the very notion that a “specific” meaning exists for “sankhara”, as well as many other key, vital Pali expressions, is itself merely a “belief”, and one which I have contested in a recent paper I wrote on the problems of Pali literature and language. Here is a quote from the paper (forgive me for the length):

For ancient Indian psychology and philosophy of mind (along with the ―expression thereof) -and even if, or particularly if, we exclude from the comparison the cosmological dimensions altogether!- are fundamentally different from those which are rooted in Western scientific traditions and methods. Adding to that the dynamic and complex linguistic situation that had prevailed (and to some extent still does) in that curious part of the world in north India, and which gave birth to Pāli in its final, written form, possibly as a literary language following a diglossic path of historical development, hence also following a manner of language-usage that is also unfamiliar or even discordant with Western writing. The Western educated reader, researcher, or translator, is therefore encountering something that he cannot immediately or readily understand by taking recourse to his own Western education, culture, or even intuitive reasoning; and this being the case on two most important and intimately connected levels: those of the very ideas and their verbal expression. But in his attempt to understand and interpret such ancient Indian ideas and their expression, he ever continues to rely precisely on his own Western education and culture! If he does not abandon his standpoint and truly embrace that which he seeks to understand, at best by experiencing it in its fullest reality, and at least by being able to imagine such reality with a sound intuition – it will be very difficult for him to truly understand it; and not just that, but it is likely that he will fill the gaps (which may be quite giant!) by unfounded presumptions and speculations about those very ideas and their expression. […]

Words like dhamma, dukkha, and sankhāra, to name just a few, carry within and around themselves a whole spectrum, an aura or halo of effective and potential meaning – and though upon hearing any one of them they will evoke in the experienced intuition of an experienced listener a recognition of something specific and exact, depending on the context in which they are uttered – nevertheless, as words in and of themselves they have no such exact and fixed semantic meanings as those we intuit in any of their fixed European equivalents. What the translator has done here, and most probably unconsciously, is to reduce that entire spectrum of meaning, and the existence of which he himself may be unaware, to a single exactly defined and fixed part of it; often resorting in the process to etymological references which may even be semantically-irrelevant. […]

The kind of habit which drives a translator to relate in this way to such hardly definable, but vital Pāli words, comes from the translator‘s culture and education which regard such exactness and precision of speech as a necessary characteristic and requirement of serious knowledge and wisdom, or of science (in the Latin sense of the word) – all of which conditions the translator to not only seek, but excel in seeking, the most exact equivalent in the target language. And more over, they condition him further to presume that the same condition of exactness applies even to the Pāli itself, which prevents him further from being able to envisage the subtleties of these Pāli words, and of how, in their natural cultural context and original tongue, they impress and appeal to the intuition of the listener in a significantly different way than do the same words, or words in general, in the translator‘s own culture and language.

K. R. Norman noted this as well:

We are inclined, in western philology, to believe that there is only one correct answer to a question of etymology. In India, however, there was a custom of seeing more than one meaning in any word or phrase - the so-called śleșa. So, instead of saying the meaning is either this or that, as we would do, commentators very often say that the meaning is this and that.

Furthermore, supposing that any such original specific meaning was intended in the speech of the Buddha, I have argued that investigating its purport should not be a mere conceptual or intellectual exercise, but rather one that is based on progress in the experience and practice of Dhamma. I gave “nibbida” as an example of a word that cannot be really understood simply by reading and analysing the text in general and that word in particular (say through etymological analysis), only practice will reveal to the practitioner its intended meaning. But here, practitioners will still disagree among themselves about what it is!!! Even when the Pali word corresponds to an “experience” that manifests experientially through the consciousness or citta and self-awareness of practitioners, they are still unable to pin it down in words or through verbal descriptions.

If this applies to nibbida, then why not to sankhara?! The later being more of a concept, an abstraction of something real, rather than a lived experience, makes it even harder for us to pin it down. Further, there is ample evidence that, unlike nibbida, sankhara refers to a rather wide [vast I’d say] scope of possible meanings, and where in the one context “kamma” my only possibly seem as a suitable equivalent, in another “things”, or even “stuff” (“made-up stuff” that’s how I often read in the original Pali), seems far more successful in representing the presumed “intended” meaning, which we can reach to only through an effort of interpretation. And why? Because as much as we are lucky to have any Pali texts at all, we are also so unlucky in the manner with which this language was used to record and preserve these vital teachings.

Having generously supplied the original Pali in your reply above, in a short time I found myself unable to ignore the fact that, indeed, our issue is complicated further by looking at the word “kamma” itself; another word which has a vast scope of meaning. Venerable Sir, you regard it as “intentional action”, the Venerable @sujato regards it as “ethical action”, I regard it as “habitual action” (the opposite of “intentional” it seems!), others have argued that it does not refer to any genre of action in particular but only to the variety of “temperaments” out of which all action conditionally emerge, etc. etc. The word had obviously come down to us from Vedic sources (apparently unlike “sankhara”), but is its meaning in a Buddhist context identical to that of the Brahmana?! Why do we act as if this indeed is the case, especially when we know that words like “nibbida” and “āsava”, just to name a few examples, where already in use before the rising of Lord Buddha in the samana culture and pool of vocabulary in the midst of which Buddhism emerged, but were later used in a slightly or significantly different sense in the Buddhist context? Is it because what is believed to be the “EBT” suggests that such and such is indeed the meaning of “kamma” in the intention of Buddha, or are these simply our own comfortable interpretations of it? And whether there was any way to tell!!

This leads us to the question of whether the selection of “choices” negates, or at least downplays the significance of “intentional”, “habitual”, “temperamental”, and other dimensions of behaviour which are not morally (or “ethically”) significant, as if these don’t play a significant role in the renewal of bhava, and as if their cessation is not necessary for the realisation of bhavanirodha, and as if a certain form of ethical action is alone responsible and sufficient for the attainment of salvation or vimutti, and realisation of gnosis or ñāna.

There is a lot that has happened in the translation of sankhara as choices, and we have to acknowledge that:

  1. A presumption or belief that the Pali “sankhara” does have a single specifically defined meaning,
  2. that an interpretation of what is believed to be “EBT” or the original speech and teaching of Buddha on “sankhara” makes it identical with “kamma”,
  3. another presumption or belief that “kamma” has a single specifically defined meaning,
  4. the meaning of “kamma” has been interpreted in line with Vedic teachings to denoted moral action or “choices”.

This is the rationale behind this translation, and I respect that and will still think about it more, although obviously for now I find (sankhara = “moral agency”) to be quite “reductionist” to such a surprising extent.

Many thanks, venerable Brahmali, for your participation. :anjal:

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To be clear, it is “intentional action”. But the kind of sankharas that matter in the Dhamma are those that have an ethical dimension, i.e. good and bad deeds. So our rendering should be apt to accommodate an ethical reading, lest we end up saying things like “one generates a demeritorious volitional formation”, when what we want to say is, “one makes a bad choice.”

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saṅkhāra = san + kara where san is the good and bad things we acquire and kara is the act of doing, so saṅkhāra is the action done with san, thus saṅkhāra is an intentional action that carries kamma.

saṅkhāra are the fifty cetasikas (good and bad) minus vedanā and saññā.

Here is the list of 52 cetasikas (mental factors) at a glance .

Hi gnlaera,
The term ‘choice’ or ‘escolha’ carries a sense of a conscious action. Volitional formations, on the other hand, embrace better the sense that most of our ‘choices’ are actually already formed before we consciously acknowledge it or even are aware that there was a choice or action towards an object. We usually don’t choose what to pay attention to, for example, but the objects on which we put our attention on are frequently driven by volitions formations.
With metta,
David

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Sankharas require a climate of ignorance, (unconsciousness), and are our conditioned responses. Repeated behaviours, (through memory), give us a sense of “self knowing”.
And so we see, sankhara-ly? Is that right? :slight_smile:

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I agree that we see sankhara-ly. If you enter a B&N bookstore (while they still exist) you feel already attracted to go to certain sections and not others.
I enjoyed sometime ago a non-buddhist book called “On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation” where the author imagines different people (and a dog!) walking down the same block in NY and how their perceptions of the block could be entirely different. That’s one aspect of sankhara at work, IMHO.
With metta,
David

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@kstan1122’s beliefs surrounding the ‘saṅ’ in ‘saṅkhara’ mirror those published on the website “Pure Dhamma”. These idiosyncratic teachings are further an extension of the Dhamma dispensation of Ven Waharaka Abhayaratanalankara Thero.

The etymology given follows after the etymological analysis at Pure Dhamma. This page in particular seems a likely candidate:

This is a quote from the page:

As we can see, Pure Dhamma follows the hypothesis that the authentic Pāli meanings and etymologies of key words have been lost and that they can be reconstructed following the teachings of the aforementioned Venerable. These reconstructed etymologies generally seem to involve reading Pāli words with Sinhala pronunciations (removing aspirations, etc) and meanings derived from modern Sinhala words that are loanwords from Pāli. In the above example they claim that the “kha” in sankhara ought rightly not be aspirated (i.e. “sankara”).

If Ven @Dhammanando does not mind I would like to cut-and-paste a quote from the DhammaWheel thread addressing Pure Dhamma. In the above excerpt from Pure Dhamma, it recommends the reader view a page called “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Samsāra)“, it seems Ven Dhammanando happens to analyze just that same very page:

My phone has a very active and brutal autocorrect. I have to redo the formatting for that post so that the quotes would work here (DhammaWheel has a different posting system). I had to go through changing how italics are generated. My phone wanted to change the Pāli words to all sorts of things. If there are any errors above, the conversion process caused them. I will be proofreading for a while.

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Hi, thanks for coming into the discussion. Can you provide a sutta which directy or indirectly endorses this abstract concept?

I see room for broader terms like behaviour, habits (comportamentos) but again those are rooted in choices in the end of the day.

But in terms of ‘volitional formations’ I just think we take it as making any sense because in one way or the other we went through a abhidhamma-influenced Buddhist hybrid English 101 ourselves when we learned first about the Dhamma from secondary sources and not EBTs.

And the idea of using in new translations a simpler and more meaningful is to save others from having to go through the same over-complicated learning process!

The idea is therefore to use the simplest term possible to render an actionable meaning.

In the case if DO, having choices (escolhas) right there after ignorance and the other 10 links is more likely to ring the bell of “‘a-ha!’ so this is where choices and intentional actions influenced by ignorance in regard to the four noble truths from previous births conditions the whole linkage of dependent orgination that eventually resulted in this new birth I came about through.”

To me, sticking with the less relatable volitional formations brings me close to accepting it as some sort of mystical and ethereal substance or element which sticks around and I better burn out to liberate my soul or mind. This being more a Jain view than a Buddhist one! And unfortunately, many Buddhists nowadays meditate in pain mislead by such understanding!

The term choice on the other hand is lighter in the sense of being easier to contemplate as empty and not a solid mark of what I call myself: although the choices I have made in previous birth and in this birth are effective (as they have shaped in conjunction with external circumstances who I have become) they are in the end of the day just choices, sometimes made with some wisdom and most of the time without it.

All i need is to look back at those with the right mindset and it will become clear to me they are inherently empty, are not self, and repeat them or stick with them is all about the choices I make right now.

This is how moving from volitional formations to choices helped me understand what the Buddha probably meant when using the term sankhara.

In the end, in light of possibility of knowledge, to remain ignorant is indeed a choice! :wink:

:anjal:

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Curious to see what people here make of Michael Olds definition (source):

Saŋkhārā [saŋ = own, con, com, co, with; khārā making] Own-making, co-founding, confounding in the sense of founded with, conjuration in the sense of the joining together of this and that, you and the world, identified-with consciousness with nama/rupa. This term is a near-synonym for ‘kamma’, but is applied to the personal. It is, like ‘kamma’, two-sided. [Which is why Mrs. Rhys Davids’ translation as ‘activities’ [SN 2 12 1] is incorrect: it is only one-sided.] It is the identification with the intent to produce experience of existing through acts of body, speech, and mind, and it is the identified-with result of that action. The term selected for its translation should clearly point to its nature as the force of personalization. This will clearly separate it from the process of ‘conditioning’ or ‘causing’.

It captures I think the core of the issue when choices are made based on ignorance while avoiding the strangeness of statements like what Javier points to:

By using own-making we have nibbana as not own-made.

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Reducing sankhara to kamma or to volition is Abhidarmic. And equating both sankhara and kamma with moral agency or agency in general (i.e. intentionality) is Brahmanic. For me, there is no trace of “Dhamma” in any of these assertions, even if such like statements will be found in “EBT”. For the teaching is clear on the conditionality of “will”; non of our actions are free, chosen, or even rational; all are conditioned by motivation and desire, and a host of emotional causes and habitual responses; this is what kamma is in a Buddhist sense. It is that which begets action and which reinforces itself through action. Then you will say: “But we still make ‘decisions’, and those decisions we ‘choose’!” But that’s precisely what gives the impression of agency, freewill, and the self; in reality, any given choice is as much rationalisable as any other choice! What is important to understand, and to become conscious of, is the set of motivations and desires and emotional compulsions which condition not only one’s choices, but even one’s will to choose! Agency belongs only with the atman.

Authenticity and inauthenticity are not to be measured by the sutta, but by each utterance in it. A sutta can involve both authentic and inauthentic utterances, and more prominent in its confounding effects than inauthenticity, is ambiguity, with which the text is rife. So it is not necessarily the case that Abhidharmic and Vedic influences are found in the text due to inauthenticity, but often, Abhidarmic and Vedic influences are found in the interpretation of the text due to its characteristic ambiguity. And this is understandable, because only an accomplished practitioner can allow himself or herself to embark on a completely intuitive, fresh, reinterpretation of the text; and i suspect that even an arahant will meet numerous challenges and exclaim often: “I haven’t a clue what this (sentence, phrase, section, or entire sutta) is talking about!” etc. An interpreter whose practice and training is still ongoing, on the other hand, is in dire need for a point of reference, or points of reference, to aid him in the understanding of that which he cannot independently grasp, and in as much as we struggle now to pin down “sankhara”, previous generations in the distant past did just as well, probably even in times before any teachings were committed to writing. What I’m trying to refer to here is an easily observable phenomenon: the attempt to explain something that one does not understand oneself (like a fish trying to explain what is wind!). The greatest danger here is that one may, consciously or unconsciously, develop and rely on that which is not necessarily or fully Dhamma, to understand and explain Dhamma. The Abhidhamma is born! And the intellectual fingerprint of the editor and, I’d go so far as to say, the author, is to be visibly found all over the text!

Hence followed the understanding of avijja, sankhara, and viññana, as “specific” and “local” phenomena, properties of the individual rather than of the cosmos and what is beyond the cosmos. What is Avijja? Merely the ignorance of the Four Ennobling Truths. What is sankhara? The volition or intention. What is viññana? The consciousness of the individual being. The Buddha’s most transcendental teaching on the origins and functions of this entire world of manifestation, has been reduced to a single manifestation; the specific local experience of the individual being. And even when we look into how these grand, incredibly profound cosmological realities manifest themselves in the experience of individuals, of you and me, we find their resonance and, dominating presence, manifesting in ways far deeper than these systematic perfunctory descriptions of the text. And are we making this stuff up now, when we speak of these deep transcendental things? No! Other parts of the text bear witness, and without them, we would not have been able even to imagine what we’re talking about!

The Teaching is predominantly lost! And the discourse of the fish on the nature of wind has gained prominence to such an extent that even those who denounce the “exegetical” and “inauthentic” fish have based their interpretation of wind on fishy propositions! The scale is far from even, and the column tilts extremely; “This, is a device of Mara!” The Mahayana seem to have felt that way a long time ago, when the split first occurred, and indeed, they have since then made every effort to uphold a cosmological understanding of suffering and of its causes, and with the aid of Taoism, have fully embraced a concept of an agency-free reality of will, intentionality, and action … Wei Wu!

The fish would only suffocate if one was to force it out of the ocean to experience what wind is; what we need is folk who can breath in air: accomplished practitioners who have realised the Dhamma in its fullest reality right in their own experience, whose explanations are never speculative or analytic, but intuitive, direct, and certain, and uttered in a contemporary style and tongue. The observation so far is that whenever such practitioners direct their attention to the text and to what is in the text, the result is always either profoundly revealing, or seriously challenging, to those who approach the text from without experience, or with a more limited experience. In all cases we must not fail in seeing the vital importance of this truth and need: no one and nothing is better equipped in interpreting the text than those accomplished in practice, and no certainty can be purported in any interpretation that is not founded in mastery over practice. The reason this truth is somewhat harsh and hard to bear, is that we know that it is extremely difficult to reach that mastery, and harder to find those who are thus masters, and yet harder to establish a connection between that level of devotion to practice and to psychological renunciation, while at the same time pay heed to the Pali text. But I see the day when this happens as a day of great significance; a resurrection, perhaps, of the Buddha’s most vital teachings.

Till that miracle happens we will have to continue to rely on our jerky minds! And “debate”, vigorous and daring and exploratory and ambitious and far-reaching, especially that in which really devoted, striving, purposeful, humble, and sincere practitioners are involved, extended over successive generations, is perhaps the only other way through which an ever increasingly clearer approximation of the truth can be gradually reached. And this being the case despite of the fact that such debate may have its dangers and shortcomings too! For the utility and great value of debate is not just an opinion or a prophecy, but an observation, drawn from the eventful history of not only scientific advancement, but also other spiritual traditions which embraced and encouraged the practice of debate since medieval times, all of which very unfortunately seem characteristically historically lacking in our Theravada tradition.

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Hello Bhante @anon61506839,

You suggest in earlier posts that Pali words are often so polysemous as to be very hard to pin down and that westerners will have a particularly hard time understanding Pali.

You also suggest that it would take an arahant or at least an ariya to really understand Pali words, e.g. nibbida, at least these days since none of us are native to ancient magadha.

I think we can say that most of the discourses, and most of the Buddha’s speech, would have been directed towards the unawakened. If the Buddha spoke in such a way that only arahants could understand him, then he would not have been able to edify anyone with his speech. His speaking would be pointless since there would be no arahants until someone really understood what he was saying and his speaking could only understood by arahanats. He would be preaching to a choir of one, himself.

So it must be that whatever dialect(s) the Buddha spoke in, he spoke in such a way as to be comprehensible to the unawakened. So it seems that the basic problem we have nowadays is a problem with understanding an ancient language, and not a problem with being spiritually deficient. Now it might be that the spiritually accomplished will have a greater ability to see what Pali words and sentences in all their polysemy mean, but it would be, it would be too esoteric to be credible to think that it is necessarily the case that one must be spiritually accomplished in order to understand Pali. At best, it is only accidentally the case that one may have to be spiritually accomplished to understand Pali.

If it accidentally happens to be the case that one must be spiritually accomplished to understand Pali, I’m afraid the unaccomplished among us are left without a particularly useful method to understand the texts. And this is because of the massive problem of determining who is truly spiritually accomplished in the sense of achieving some actual state of awakening that frees one from an endless round of rebirths (assuming such a round exists). There are many people who may have great spiritual qualities, such as kindness, equanimity, contentment with little etc., and yet many of these people disagree with each other regarding key doctrinal points.

Or to say it another way:

Many ascetics will be indistinguishable from each other in terms of virtue, equanimity etc., to the layman, but will vary widely in terms of the way they describe their ultimate achievements or spiritual experiences. There is therefore no reasonable criteria for the unaccomplished to choose who has the ability to properly understand some ancient Pali Text.

I think, therefore, that the only appropriate way to attempt to understand the Pali texts in a rational manner, is by listening to what the linguists and philologists have to say, rather than arbitrarily choosing some monk over another as one’s guru and revealer of textual meaning, e.g. Ajahn Maha Bua over Ajahn Brahmali, or you Venerable over Venerable Dhammanando, or vice versa and etc.

It could be that such a rational manner of approaching the texts is insufficient, but methinks it must be chosen over arbitrary choice, even though that choice could turn out to be the right one incidentally. Of course, there’s also the combo choice (which most of us in practice do) of studying what the linguists have to say and visiting samana’s and training under them and gradually building one’s own hybrid understanding. But still in terms of understanding texts, study over practice wins the day methinks.

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Hello Bhante @sujato,

I think there could be a problem in translating sankhara as choices when dealing with dependent origination. And the reason comes from the following sutta passage:

If you don’t intend or plan, but still have underlying tendencies, this becomes a support for the continuation of consciousness. When this support exists, consciousness becomes established. When consciousness is established and grows, there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future. When there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future, future rebirth, old age, and death come to be, as do sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. That is how this entire mass of suffering originates. - SN 12:38

Intend is here ceteti, i.e. cetana right?, which as I believe you said above is how kamma is defined and why you translate sankhara as choices. But here it seems, even if there is no cetana, but there is anusaya, there is rebirth. So it seems that sankhara as the driver of rebirth in dependent origination is somewhat broader than choice.

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Why ? choose any body. No self respecting man likes to sign away his intelligence to any one. I would say give ear to any one who you think worth while listening to. But the proof any theory is in the experimental verification of it.

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I said listen, not sign away your intelligence. I’m not saying that Gombrich should be your guru. The problem with experimental verification of the meaning of ancient texts through spiritual practice is that you can get at least some good results with all kinds of different theories on what the texts mean. But I suppose that’s just part of the messiness of reality. We work with what we got.

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