On āyusaṅkhāra and jīvitasaṅkhāra

Tags: #<Tag:0x00007fc458227f58>


The Pali texts use two terms to refer to the energy, or force, or will, that sustains life. The terms are āyusaṅkhāra and jīvitasaṅkhāra. Normally, these would be synonyms, however it may not be as clear cut as that.

Warning: this is a boring article with a predictable conclusion. I wrote it while doing the research, thinking it might lead somewhere interesting, but it didn’t. Oh, well. Anyway, you can skip to the last paragraph if you want.

In interpreting these it’s important to bear in mind that in ancient times it was commonly held that there was a distinct force or energy, vitality, which sustained life. Whether this is intended by these terms is unclear, but it should be borne in mind. This is philosophically interesting, as it raises the question of the extent to which the Buddha accepted the reality of physical phenomena rejected by modern science.

One of the problems is the wide range of meanings of saṅkhāra. Here it might mean either “will”, in the sense of the “will to live”, or “energy(s)” as in “vital forces”.

The best known context for these is the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16, also SN 47.9). There, the Buddha first refers to jīvitasaṅkhāra (singular) when deciding to remain alive for the time being so as to address his followers.

Yannūnāhaṃ imaṃ ābādhaṃ vīriyena paṭipaṇāmetvā jīvitasaṅkhāraṃ adhiṭṭhāya vihareyyan
Why don’t I forcefully suppress this illness, resolve on the jīvitasaṅkhāra and live on?

In this context, I find the use of the term adhiṭṭhāya interesting. Normally it means to “apply to, concentrate on, commit to, stabilize”. It thus seem to fit nicely with the idea that jīvitasaṅkhāra here means “will to live”. We could render it as “commits to the will to live”. Nevertheless, while on the face of it I find this reading the most natural, it is not at all impossible that this means “resolves upon the life force”. In this sense, we might render it “stabilize the life force”.

Later, (found in DN 16 and AN 8.70) he relinquishes the āyusaṅkhāra (also singular):

Atha kho bhagavā cāpāle cetiye sato sampajāno āyusaṅkhāraṃ ossaji
Then at the Capala shrine the Buddha, mindful and aware, relinquished the āyusaṅkhāra.

Since one appears after the other, there is no contradiction if they mean the same thing. The terms appear rarely in other contexts, let us see.

SN 20.6 has:

Yathā ca, bhikkhave, tassa purisassa javo yathā ca candimasūriyānaṃ javo yathā ca yā devatā candimasūriyānaṃ purato dhāvanti tāsaṃ devatānaṃ javo, tato sīghataraṃ āyusaṅkhārā khīyanti.
As fast as that man is, as fast as the sun and moon are, and as fast as the gods that run before the sun and moon are, the waning of the āyusaṅkhāras (plural) is faster.

Here the āyusaṅkhāras are something that fade and fail, whose running out presumably leads to death. A similar sense appears to be the case at Mil 5.3.6:

Na, mahārāja, tatonidānaṃ bhagavato koci anuppanno rogo uppanno, api ca, mahārāja, bhagavato pakatidubbale sarīre khīṇe āyusaṅkhāre uppanno rogo bhiyyo abhivaḍḍhi.
Great King, it’s not for that reason that a new illness afflicted the Buddha. Rather, when the Buddha became naturally weak, with the waning of the āyusaṅkhāra (singular), the illness that was already present flared up.

At Thi-ap 28#5 the sense appears to be the same.

In these cases the sense of “will to live” would not work. It must mean some kind of natural life force or vital energy.

My searching has turned up just one other use of jīvitasaṅkhāra, at Ps 1.6:

Paṭi­sandhik­khaṇe tayo jīvitasaṅkhārā sahajā­ta­pac­cayā honti, añña­mañña­pac­cayā honti, nissayapaccayā honti, vippa­yutta­pac­cayā honti
At the moment of rebirth-linking the three jīvitasaṅkhāras (plural) are conditioned by conascence …

(Incidentally, this passage is a neat example of why this text, the Patisambhidhamagga, despite appearing in the Khuddaka, must be later than the canonical Abhidhamma texts.)

Despite referring to the three jīvitasaṅkhāras as if it was a recognized term, it doesn’t appear elsewhere as far as I know. The fact that it’s plural while the sutta reference is singular may or may not imply that they refer to different things.

The commentary explains it as the group of three, āyu usmā viññāṇaṃ (life, heat, consciousness), which are found in the suttas at MN 43#51 and SN 22.95#12. They are best known as the energies that distinguish between a meditator in the attainment of cessation and someone who is dead.

If this is accepted, it would seem that jīvitasaṅkhāra is a broader term that includes āyusaṅkhāra. In any case, it cannot mean “will to live”, since it is used precisely to illustrate what happens at death.

So it would seem that all of the cases that yield a clear meaning use saṅkhāra in the sense of “force, energy” rather than “will” here. The sense of “will” is possible only in the sutta source for jīvitasaṅkhāra. This would mean that it differs from the sense in the Patisambhidamagga. This, however, is not a big deal, since that text is several centuries later, and in addition uses a plural form.

In context, I come back to the different sense of the verbs used with these term. While adhiṭṭhāti and ossajjati are not, so far as I know, a recognized pair of opposites, their sense is pretty much opposite: to “stabilize” or “commit to” and to “relinquish”. This suggests that the terms are in sutta usage synonyms.

The association of jīvitasaṅkhāra with adhiṭṭhāti and āyusaṅkhāra with ossajjati is supported by the Sanskrit. There, however, the first context—stabilizing the life force when ill—is missing, and instead we consistently find:

jīvitasaṃskārān adhiṣṭhāyāyuḥsaṃskārān utsṛjati
Having stabilized the jīvitasaṅkhāra he relinquished the āyusaṅkhāra

This is no accident, as we find comparable phrases in multiple texts: the (Mula) Sarvastivada Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Divyavadana and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. I can’t account for the strange sense this yields, unless my Sanskrit is way off (which is quite possible!) My guess would be that the conjunction of terms arose during a confusion in editing of the MPS originally, and became part of the stock lexicon. The simplest reading of these passages, therefore, would be that jīvitasaṅkhāra and āyusaṅkhāra were read as synonyms, and adhiṭṭhāti was taken in a different sense here.

Anyway, the rather unspectacular conclusion of all this is that these terms are probably synonyms, and mean “life force” rather than “will to live”. The differentiation of the two in the Patisambhidamagga is probably a later development.

As far as translation goes, the best term is “vital” as in “vital energies”, etc., since this is the standard term for the idea in western thought. However, these days it’s used mostly in the sense of “necessary”, so it might be confusing. Best stick with “life force” for both.

As a final note, after giving up his “life force” (āyusaṅkhāra) the Buddha speaks some verses, which include the term bhavasaṅkhāramavassaji. Since the verb is the same, and the phrase is referring back to the immediate past events, bhavasaṅkhāra and āyusaṅkhāra must mean the same thing. This is a good example of how bhava often means “life”.

Death may be a process, not a distinct moment in time

I still found it interesting to follow :slight_smile:.

In the vitalism wiki, emergentism was also mentioned, BuddhaDhamma can often seem kind of emergentist with concepts like D.O.


Can’t one interpret ‘life force’ as metabolism, an ongoing process of reworking matter into energy? Possibly energy resulting from metabolism? When one’s body is not working properly any more, the metabolism and, consequently, energy produced by it, start to wane as it were. When a meditator attains cessation, all of his conscious processes are stopped and the only difference between him and a dead body is that he’s still metabolizing.


Sure, why not? In the west, the vitalism idea was wrapped up in metaphysics, but there’s no reason why the Buddhism concept should be.

I don’t think we could use metabolism as a translation, though, tempting as it is. What would it mean for the Buddha to “relinquish his metabolism”? In fact, it is this problem that prompted me to question whether ayusankhara meant “will to live”, since it makes this passage easier to explain.


Dear Bhante,

I noticed your post with interest, as i’ve also had questions about the meaning here.

With regards to
"jīvitasaṃskārān adhiṣṭhāyāyuḥsaṃskārān utsṛjati
Having stabilized the jīvitasaṅkhāra he relinquished the āyusaṅkhāra"

Back when i was studying Sanskrit, i listened to several lectures on the Bhagavad Gita.

With focus just on adhiṣṭhātā, you may be interested to see this {source}:

"ajo ’pi sann avyayātmā bhūtānām īśvaro ’pi san |
prakṛtiṁ svām adhiṣṭhāya sambhavāmy ātma-māyayā ||6|| (IV)

He says: “I am ajo, I am unborn, avyayātmā, I am imperishable; bhūtānām īśvaro ’pi, I am also the Ishwara of all the bhūtā(s); sarvo bhūtānaṁ, of all the creatures; in spite of all this, prakṛtiṁ svām adhiṣṭhāya, I have my own Prakriti, svām prakṛtiṁ.” Not the ordinary Prakriti of three Gunas, but beyond these three Gunas there is a higher Prakriti: prakṛtiṁ svām adhiṣṭhāya: adhiṣṭhā, is one of the most important words in the Bhagavad Gita, in this context.

adhiṣṭhātā is the one who dwells and yet presides: dwells inside and presides, that is called adhiṣṭhātā. When you are a ruler of a kingdom, you dwell in the kingdom, and yet you overpower the kingdom, you supervise it: this is the meaning of the word adhiṣṭhā; adhiṣṭhātā or adhiṣṭhātṛ, feminine is adhiṣṭhātṛ, the masculine is adhiṣṭhātā. When somebody is given the designation of adhiṣṭhātā or adhiṣṭhātṛ, it means that you dwell in a kingdom or in a household or wherever you are, you dwell in the field and yet you supervise that field; you are not under the control of the field, you are not controlled by the field, but you control the field.

prakṛtiṁ svām adhiṣṭhāya, “I dwell, I come to dwell in my Prakriti, but adhiṣṭhā, I remain the powerful master of that Prakriti, of my own Prakriti. I do not get clouded, I do not get possessed: I possess that Prakriti.”

This is something different from what happens to us, the individuals. Later on Sri Krishna will tell us as, how all the creatures, all of us happen to be where we are. There, the word used is avaṣṭhāya, that is to say: we enter into the Prakriti, but then we become overpowered, it is the word ava, here the word is adhiṣṭhāya; that is avaṣṭhāya. Here it is adhiṣṭhāya.

So, the connotation, also as i remember it, is one of mastery. This makes the meaning clear in the quote above.

With appreciation for your work
and kind greetings to all,

Ayya Tathaloka


Hi Ayya, lovely to hear from you. I was thinking of you just before seeing this post! I just got an email from a friend in SF, which got me thinking about visiting, maybe in a year or so.

I wasn’t aware of this pregnant philosophical sense of adhiṣṭhā, so thanks for that. My Sanskrit is not great, so I can’t tell if it’s applicable in the Buddhist context, but it is a possibility.


Ayusankhara possibly refers to life span (as in the number of years).

Jivitasankhara refers to life itself (as in whether the person is dead or alive).

I read about a monk who predicted his own time of death (Ven Nyanaponika?). I think it maybe possible for arahanths to access this sankhara or fabrication of the mind, like they can access other fabrications such as aasava and anusaya (or at least a Buddha can).

With metta


If we are to take much of the Buddha Dharma seriously, especially many of those things related to dhyana and samadhi, then we cannot only limit ourselves to current scientific consensus.

That having been said, the concept of a life force does not necessarily mean any one corresponding scientific phenomenon. It may be an abstract or general concept, or a synonym for something already accepted as being fundamental to life.

Like some Sarvastivadin dhyana teachers believed, the faculty of life may simply be the breath. If the Buddha focused on his own breath in order to sustain his life, then that would be in keeping with the Anapana Samyukta, which describes the practice of anapana as preserving the health of the body.


It’s also important to not assume that Buddhist ideas succumb to the same fallacies as similar-sounding ideas from the West. In the west, such notions are almost always based on metaphysical assumptions about God and the soul, and accordingly were debunked by science.

From a Buddhist point of view, however, there is no need to think of the “life force” as some metaphysical principle. On the contrary, it’s just a general term for the set of conditions are associated with being alive. Such conditions are a manifestation of more fundamental physical properties, i.e. catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāyarūpa.


Yes, it seems like “life force” captures the idea better than “will to live”, since it includes factors that are not entirely psychological.

Perhaps a somewhat more neutral term for modern sensibilities is “vitality”? For example, people will still comfortably speak of a society of organization losing its vitality. The precise meaning is obscure, but the general idea is that complex organized systems have to have a whole lot of factors working together to maintain that system in its battle, so to speak, against entropy. When enough of those factors cease functioning, the system goes into an accelerating decline toward collapse and disintegration. The same with an organism. As a person nears death, a doctor or others might speak of a “rebound” where it seems like the organizing factors struggle back and recovery might happen, but then there is a “turn for the worse”. “Metabolism” seems a little weak, since there is always some degree of metabolism taking place up until death, even during the death rattle, but it is probably not literally inaccurate.


Cattārome bhikkhave, āhārā bhūtānaṃ vā sattānaṃ ṭhitiyā sambhavesīnaṃ vā anuggahāya. Katame cattāro? Kabaliṅkāro1 āhāro oḷāriko vā sukhumo vā, phasso dutiyo, manosañcetanā tatiyā, viññāṇaṃ catutthaṃ.
Hello all,

“Monks, there are these four nutriments for the maintenance of beings who have come into being or for the support of those in search of a place to be born. Which four? Physical food, gross or refined; contact as the second; intellectual intention the third; and consciousness the fourth”.

So there is several factors keeping an animal alive. Metabolism (physical food) is part of it. Intention is a sankhara (ayu/jivita sankhara) and will to live seems to describe it. However saying the ‘Buddha lost the will to live, after Ven Ananda kept repeatedly missing the opportunity to keep him alive for longer’ doesn’t quite cut it. So maybe ‘gave up the life force’ seems appropriate. We don’t need to sterilize the suttas of any mention of what might seem magical, after all it is a religious text.

Which perhaps leads to a bigger question- does any form of supernatural exist?

with metta



Yea, I thought for sure I had read somewhere that one of the iddhi/abhiñña is the power to prolong one’s life, a kind of “will to live”. I can’t find any references for that though, it’s certainly not in the standard lists of psychic powers.


Sorry to revive this old thread, but I have just been studying the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and I still feel unclear about the exact connotation of āyusaṅkhāra. Bhante, you say:

Ok, but what exactly might it mean to “relinquish the life force”? Might this not mean precisely to “relinquish the will to live”? And if not, then how do you think it should be understood?


The difference is that “life force” or “vital energy” is a quasi-physical property, a natural spark of vitality that keeps our bodies alive. “Will to live” is be a mental desire or wish to keep living. Someone who is suicidal, then, might have no “will to live”, but they would have “vital energy”.


That is how I understand it too.
These two terms are commonly used in Sinhalese language.
For instance Buddha relinquish his Ayusankhara but continued to live (jivitasankhara) until the time he predicted to live.
I know a patient who said that s/he lived enough and passed away in three months.


Ok, and what might it mean to let go of this quay-physical property?


Well, I think it means to determine to cut life off. The intention to relinquish is, of course, itself a form of will or choice, so it’s not completely clear-cut. But the choice is to “turn off” the force, like a doctor might turn off a life-support system.

Using the same analogy, a doctor might “give up” on a patient in the sense of mentally relinquishing any hope or even desire for their patient to live. But that might not affect their actions. Perhaps they keep them on life support on the request of the family, or for legal reasons, even though personally they have no wish to keep the patient alive. So having the will to prolong the patient’s life is different from maintaining the “vital energy” through life-support.


No it was actually a very nice thing as I would have otherwise missed it.

And schopenhauer is probably turning in his grave with interest in the conversation! :0)


Okay, you’re going to have to explain that bit …


A significant aspect of his philosophy that went mostly unnoticed in the west. (Though the wiki article doesn’t do it justice! )

Thanks for a very nice essay, venerable @sujato :anjal: