Explaining sankhāra="choices"

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.”


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,


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,


@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.


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:



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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who is satisfied with “at least some good results” ? . Thats no proof of theory.

“At least some good results” does not mean only some good results or at most some good results, but includes whatever bare minimum of results qualify as good to potentially the greatest results achievable.

And of course someone can overestimate how much they’ve benefitted from some practice.

So is it achievable by linguistic and philologic methods or practice?

If rarely occurring Buddha’s are the only ones who can, one their own, discover the practice leading to the greatest results. And everyone else needs to learn the practice from them. Then in a situation where learning from them comes via learning the texts they left behind, linguistic and philological study might be a prerequisite to proper practice.

(I am now going to stop my off topic posting)


yes, you must go your way i must go my way. But people have have been getting the results from this dhamma vinaya before linguist got their hand on it.


Sankhara the way I understand includes everything which exists in the world. This includes all animate and inanimate things. This means that the six senses which make up the living being too is included in it. When the Buddha said “sabbe sankhara” he meant that. When the Buddha said “sabbe sankhara anicca” and hence “dukkha” he meant the constantly changing nature inherent in them due to which very fact they turn out to be dukkha. In other words, dukkha is a direct result of anicca. By the same logic, since everything is anicca and dukkha it naturally follows that they cannot be identified as “this is mine, this I am, and this is my self”.

Taken in the above context, the key ingredient in sankhara is their constantly changing nature which makes them impermanent, unsatisfactory and non self. This means that everything including the six senses and their counterparts can be seen from two perspectives. One is a seemingly static nature – a passive - and the other which is more difficult to fathom is a constantly changing – an active - nature. The Buddha used such terms as sankatha and patiica samuppannna – conditioned and dependently arisen – to refer to the seemingly static nature. And he used the word sankhara to refer to the constantly changing and phenomenal nature.

Unfortunately, the living beings are either not aware of this fact or they are conditioned by other theories dictated to them by various traditions which obscure this reality for them. Whatever the reason, the Buddha called it ignorance due to which they construct a world out of the six senses. This created world is the five aggregates which they cling to with attachment. The existence bhava is this continuation with attachment to the five aggregates.

In the creation of the so called world, living beings, out of ignorance, make intentions with regard to the six senses because they do not understand the sankhara, sankhata and paticca samuppanna nature or more specifically the phenomenal nature of all which exist including the six senses. The three types of sankhara – kaya, vaci and citta – belong in this active and passive category. The Buddha said “cetana hum bhikkave kamman vadami”, intention, monks, I call action. Because, it is at this point sankhara takes on a new dimension and that is the potential of intentional actions to ripen as consequences vipaka which is commonly referred to as the ethical dimension. However, the Buddha did not invent a new word to refer to this new dimension but continued to use the same word sankhara in spite of the fact they entailed consequences.

I understand the word kamma which is translated as ethical action with an example. Suppose two persons engage in the action of walking from point A to B. The first person walks with just the intention of walking but the second person intends to destroy everything he encounters as he walks from point A to B. Both these instances of walking are sankhara with the three characteristics – impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non self – because there is no walker except on conventional terms. But, in the second, even though there is no walker, there are consequences accruing to the walker. So, in the first instance the action of walking is mere sankhara whereas in the second, it is sankhara with consequences. In the context of dependent origination, it is the second type which is considered. The Buddha used the word punabbhavabhinibbatti – production of future renewed existence – to refer to this second type reflecting the potential of the walker to continue to practice such actions because of his intention based on a self which in reality does not exist.

The actions can be classified as meritorious or demeritorious based on the qualitative aspect of it.
If we now view this scenario in the context of the five aggregates in respect of the first person in the example, the five aggregates are mere sankhara including the aggregate of intention because there is no potential for continuity. Whereas in the context of the second person, the five aggregates are abisankhara, because due to ignorance, he has assumed a self as the doer – the walker – thus, tacitly accepting responsibility for “his” actions.

Now, coming to the translation of the word sankhara, the difficulty associated with capturing all the above nuances in one single word must be pretty evident. The only solution seems to be to use two words with and without the intentional aspect. The word “choice” seems to capture both these aspects since all choices are sankhara at the end of the day. But can all sankhara be choices?. Because they become choices only to the extent they are chosen. What about the ones not chosen?. It can be argued that even those not chosen are choices because they are available to choose from. But the key issue is whether this word captures the phenomenal, impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self nature of all that exists including the six senses which we choose because of ignorance. Bhante Sujato seems to suggest that the phenomenal aspect is pure Abhidhamma and only secondary in the suttas which I fail to understand from Suttas like SN 12.20. Therefore, my personal stand is that “choice” does not capture that phenomenal aspect and I am not sure if it does more harm than good because someone reading it out of the context may come to wrong conclusions particularly with regard to the idea of self in relation to the six senses.

In conclusion, I would prefer Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of “formation” because IMO it captures the phenomenal, impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self nature inherent in all that exists just like a mass of foam.
With Metta


My opinion.

Using the English word Choice to translate Sankhara seems to do away with the root san . Further how can it then be used with the terms kaya sankhara, vacci sankhara, and even with mano sankhara which is defined as perception and feelings, both which are not choices?

I have not read the complete thread above. However, if a reader is required to read such a prologue, then the choice of word is even more questionable.

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