Saṅkappa vs cetanā


I am just starting my journey of learning Pāli, and I have benefited so much from discussions here! I am curious if someone can help me understand to what extent there are differences, and what those differences are, between saṅkappa and cetanā? Both can be translated as “intention”, but I’m curious if there are significant shades of meaning that I need to understand that separate them.

Thank you to anyone who takes the time to offer an answer!


The search for sankappa reveals somewhat of a “greedy intention”.

Whereas the search for cetana reveal the end results of even innocent intentions, such as wishing to be reborn in a better life by doing ethical deeds.

Note: using SuttaCentral search also shows this distinction in the word definitions from the Pali dictionary.


The search for sankappa reveals somewhat of a “greedy intention”.

Thank you for your reply! I’m also working through search results. Could you elaborate your thoughts on this? I ask because I imagine “greedy intention” is not what is meant in sammā-saṅkappa!


Good point. Upon further investigation I see that sankappa is associated with plan and so is more elaborate, whereas cetana is simpler, a wished intention. Therefore I retract “greed” and insert “elaborate/subtle/manifold”.


Volition (cetanā), the act of willing. From a psychological standpoint, volition
determines the activities of the associated states; from an ethical standpoint it
determines its inevitable consequences. Volition leads to action by body, speech and
mind and thus becomes the principal factor behind kamma. Therefore the Buddha
said: “Cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi”—“Volition, O monks, is kamma, I
declare.” Thus wholesome or unwholesome acts, willfully done, are followed at some
time by their appropriate consequences. But if one unintentionally steps on an insect
and kills it, such an act has no moral or kammic significance as volition is absent. The
Buddha’s position here contrasts with that of his contemporary, Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta,
the founder of Jainism. Nātaputta taught that even involuntary actions constitute
kamma, thus release from saṃsāra (the round of rebirths) can be achieved only by
abstaining from all activities.


In Noble Eightfold path:
Samma Sankappa = right volition of mind.
Samma Vacha = right speech
Samma Kammantha = Right bodily action


Translation of Sankappa as intention is IMO not very accurate. If you consider the context in which it is used in for example N8FP it is more akin to thoughts. These thoughts are 1. thoughts of renunciation 2. thoughts of ill will and 3. thoughts of non harm.
Cetana is surely intentions. They are part of name nama which originate along with consciousness. This means cetana is part of the root of thoughts which are actually proliferations.
Hope this will help.
With Metta


Volition (cetana) is one of the primary formations present in all consciousness. Thought (sankappa) is a secondary formation not present in all consciousness. So right thought is a generated intention of renunciation, non-ill will or harmlessness which has been roused by an act of will.


Thanks everyone for your contribution.

I agree, I switched my translation from “intention” to “thought”. But it is difficult to map these psychological terms one-to-one with English!


To me thought means Vitakka and Vicara.
Sankappa is more of the blue print of a project or the objectives.
For instance a person want to travel to London or New York may have diffrent Sankappa.
Sankappa is what determines the bodily, verbal and mental actions.
Generally Views (Dithi) determines th nature of Sankappa.
I may be wrong.


saṅkappa is usually a synonym of vitakka.


Everyone, thank you so much for your answers! This has been very helpful!


In one Upanisad sankalpa is the object of the mind-faculty, just like forms are the objects of the eye-faculty. It that sense it would be thought or mind-stuff (possibly including intention).


This does point to the meaning of sankappa, being about the minds ‘purpose’ or what the general direction is that the mind is pointing towards.
What purpose/sankappa is the minds particular cetanas based upon or influenced by?

For example:
I have chosen intentionally/ cetana to go and eat, with the an underlying purpose/sankappa of eating only so that I may continue the practice of renunciation.
I choose intentionally on a particular level,regarding an unpleasant situation to endure arisen anger because non-ill will is my minds purpose/direction.

Sankappa seems more like ones general intention, ones overarching purpose, which will be determining ones particular choices and intentions/ cetana. So if ones intentions are based on the purpose of sensuality then sensual decisions will be made.

Right ‘purpose’ is right because one has a view of what is the right direction to head towards. Having understood what Nibbana is, then ones right view positions the mind’s purpose accordingly. The whole point(minds purpose) is then in regards to Relinquishment…Non-ill will and Non-harming, and all of one’s particular choices will be influenced because of having that purpose in mind.


Saṅkappa is ‘thought, intention, purpose, plan’ define: saṅkappa - SuttaCentral
I would say it is more like a plan (as in ‘goals, objectives, actions…’ type scenario) as it set the foundations for right action, right speech etc.