SN 41.6 and MN 44 ... needles in a haystack

Dear SC forum

The words kayasankhara, vacisankhara & cittasankhara are found in many places in the suttas.

However, it seems the only suttas defining the above words are SN 41.6 and MN 44.

Interestingly, both SN 41.6 and MN 44 are addressed to householders.

If these needles in the sutta haystack are not found, how can the other more numerous suttas, which contain these words, be understood?

Were these words so commonly understood when the Buddha was alive that they did not require more overt explanation?

How did monks learn the meanings of these words if they did not happen to hear or read SN 41.6 and MN 44?

Please discuss & offer opinions.

Thank you :pray:


Now you’re understanding the reason for numerous interpretations. Some of which can easily be refuted because they contradict eachother and some of which don’t contradict eachother and can be equally valid. It’s a puzzle game and some pieces can fit in the same slots, while others can’t. Overall, your post is a good sign in development because it should lead to not being fanatical, dogmatic or attached to one interpretation or school of thought, let this limitation of the texts keep you aloof and not dogmatic. I, myself, have definitely been a lot more dogmatic in the past, which led to discounting some people who had valid interpretations.

At the end of the day, the proper theory or interpretation should reduce the 5 hindrances and 3 poisons, see the Gotami sutta on how to use and wield dhamma theory, I call suttas like the Gotami sutta “sign posts” suttas because they they keep you from going off track, say from misinterpreting something. There’s a few other of these “sign posts suttas”, if you want to know what they are I can check my notes and post them when I get back home.

This is why tools like suttacentral and which let you search thousands of texts with a pali keyword, are extremely useful and important. They let you dig for these caveat/needle in a haystack suttas that can change your entire belief system.

To directly answer your question, one way they can be understood, without relying on tradition and simply accepting authority at face value, is by swapping puzzle pieces (different translations, interpretations, suttas, EBT sources like Ghandharan fragments), and seeing if they fit and fall in line with the broader suttas like the signpost suttas.

Great post btw, it really opens the mind up.


The suttas addressed to or delivered by householders, Ananda, Rahula, and nuns are particularly relevant to western practitioners because they deal with a level of practice below the ambit of the focus of the Buddha. There are many things in them the Buddha would not say, and questions he would not discuss as outside the arahant’s view. MN 44 makes the point the path is conditioned, that skillful use of conditioned phenomena is the only way the unconditioned can be approached. This is a truth widely overlooked by western practioners as they find difficulty in interpreting their experience in suttas intended for arahants beyond the conditioned. So the beginner suttas should be made a focus and valued.

"…the fact that skillfulness leads ultimately to a dimension where skillfulness is transcended, accounts for a paradoxical dynamic common to all seven sets that form the Wings: the meditator must intentionally make use of qualities from which he/she wants to escape, gaining familiarity with them in the course of mastering them to the point where they are naturally stilled. There the transcendent paths and their fruitions take over. This is the sense in which even the path of right practice must eventually be abandoned, but only after it has been brought to the culmination of its development.

“Many people have misunderstood this point, believing that the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment require that one relinquish one’s attachment to the path of practice as quickly as possible. Actually, to make a show of abandoning the path before it is fully developed is to abort the entire practice. As one teacher has put it, a person climbing up to a roof by means of a ladder can let go of the ladder only when safely on the roof. In terms of the famous raft simile [§§113-114], one abandons the raft only after crossing the flood. If one were to abandon it in mid-flood, to make a show of going spontaneously with the flow of the flood’s many currents, one could drown.”—Thanissaro

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SN 36.11 comes at the matter from a different angle. What is gathered from MN 44 is that kāyasaṅkhāra is in and out breathing (an activity bound up with the body), vacīsaṅkhāra is vitakkavicārā (thinking and pondering), which is the basis for “breaking into speech”, and cittasaṅkhāra is perception and feeling because both are bound up with citta.

In SN 36.11 there are descriptions of the the cessation of those saṅkhāra:

Then, bhikkhu, I have also taught the successive cessation of formations. For one who has attained the first jhana, speech has ceased. For one who has attained the second jhana, thought and examination have ceased. For one who has attained the third jhana, rapture has ceased. For one who has attained the fourth jhana, in-breathing and out-breathing have ceased. For one who has attained the base of the infinity of space, the perception of form has ceased. For one who has attained the base of the infinity of consciousness, the perception pertaining to the base of the infinity of space has ceased. For one who has attained the base of nothingness, the perception pertaining to the base of the infinity of consciousness has ceased. For one who has attained the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception, the perception pertaining to the base of nothingness has ceased. For one who has attained the cessation of perception and feeling, perception and feeling have ceased. For a bhikkhu whose taints are destroyed, lust has ceased, hatred has ceased, delusion has ceased.

Point being, just because that one angle was not frequent in the canon, other angles were certainly explored elsewhere.

Another (hopefully) helpful thing to consider is that suttas do not account for every discussion of Dhamma that ever occurred. Nor do they account for how often a single discourse was repeated and circulated after that specific account. Even the first line in the excerpt above starts with, “I have also taught…”, which seems to imply it was taught many times before. Also, it seems likely that the description of the venerable nun Dhammadinnā in MN 44 was repeated for years to come. In fact, if we look at SN 47.12, the Buddha says, “Therefore, Sāriputta, you should repeat this Dhamma exposition frequently to the bhikkhus and the bhikkhunis, to the male lay followers and the female lay followers.” So, it is probably correct to assume that many discourses were repeated, especially if they were so potent and comprehensive as what is found in MN 44. That is just what I’ve gathered over the years.

If the monks didn’t read or understand SN 41.6 and MN 44, they will never understand the Anapanasati or satipatthana or Paticca Samuppada or 4 Noble Truth or Noble 8 Fold path properly.

Because to properly do Anapanasati properly, one needs to understand the sankhara terms. Otherwise they can’t still/stop the sankhara(s) progressively step by step.

Hence one never see the complete path to Nibbana and can’t have wisdom. Because according to AN 11.7 and many others, Nibbana is:

This is peaceful; this is sublime—that is, the stilling of all creation activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, Cooling.’

‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ, yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti.

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Thank you Paul. If the above is from Venerable Thanissaro’s point of view, it seems debatable. It seems to Buddha spoke about/explained many worldly and conditioned phenomena.

"…the fact that skillfulness leads ultimately to a dimension where skillfulness is transcended, accounts for a paradoxical dynamic common to all seven sets that form the Wings: the meditator must intentionally make use of qualities from which he/she wants to escape, gaining familiarity with them in the course of mastering them to the point where they are naturally stilled. There the transcendent paths and their fruitions take over. This is the sense in which even the path of right practice must eventually be abandoned.


What exactly are these “transcendent paths transcending skillfulness”? Where do the Suttas refer to these? Thank you :thinking:

Thank you. Where are other examples of “elsewhere” apart from SN 36.11?

Regardless, it seems SN 36.11 offers no insight into understanding kayasankkhara, vacisankhara and cittasankhara. It seems the explanations/definitions in MN 44 was required for you to make a correlation between MN 44 and SN 36.11. Respectfully, your comment seems both redundant and highlighting the matter i raised. SN 36.11 is directly literal; it requires no explanation. Everyone knows what speech, breathing, feeling & perception in SN 36.11 mean. Also, the term “sankhara” used in SN 36.11 (which Sujato, for example, translates as “conditions”) appears to have no direct relevance to the use of the term “sankhara” in MN 44 (which Sujato, for example, translates as “processes”). About the meaning of “sankhara” in MN 44, the PTS Dictionary point of view was:

Essential conditions, antecedents or synergy (co-ordinated activity), mental coefficients requisite for act, speech, thought: kāya˚, vacī˚ citta˚, or mano˚, described respectively as “respiration,” “attention and consideration,” “percepts and feelings,” “because these are (respectively) bound up with,” or “precedethose MN.i.301 (cp. 56); SN.iv.293 Kv.395 (cp. translation 227); Vism.530 sq.; Dhs-a.8; Vb-a.142 sq.


Mmm… the above seems to be speculative. However, it at least stimulated my next consideration. The end of MN 44 says:

The Buddha - If you came to me and asked this question, I would answer it in exactly the same way as the nun Dhammadinnā.

Yet, we cannot ever find the Buddha explaining this question in the suttas. In SN 41.6, it is Venerable Kāmabhū offering the explanation.

In summary, the above seems to show a ‘gap’ or ‘missing link’ in the Suttas, where something very important or central has no report of the Buddha directly teaching it; even though it seems fairly conclusive the monks & nuns learned their understanding/explanation from the Buddha. :face_with_monocle: :thinking:

The above said, even if MN 44 & SN 41.6 were directly attributed to the Buddha, they would remain “needles in a haystack”.

As mentioned in the quote from Thanissaro:

‘And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, “How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?” In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. Even so monks, I have taught you the Dhamma like a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma to be taught like a raft, you should let go even of dhammas, to say nothing of non-dhammas.’

MN 22

Seem you look like a smart person.

I recommend you look at the pali terms of each Sutta more closely. You will get better understanding.

The MN 44 has statement that Buddha will repeat the same thing. So i imagine he repeat, but the reciter probably didn’t repeat the whole thing. Because MN 44 is already long sutta.

Try to look at SN 12.2 about analisis of DO. Buddha also stated the 3 sankhara(s) there.

Vaci sankhara, kaya sankhara and citta sankhara.

Then on MN 62 maha rahulovada Sutta or MN 118 anapanassati Sutta, you will find:

passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.
­ ‘­citta­saṅkhā­r­apa­ṭisaṁ­vedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati

If one doesn’t understand these terms, one can’t discern the whole teaching and progress to higher mind development.

You might want to listen from Late Bhante Punnaji and other video from him. Maybe his explanation can enlighten you.

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It seems we are quite far apart in how we understand saṅkhāra, which is not necessarily an issue, but will likely make it difficult for us to find middle ground. We can respectfully agree to disagree at that point, but I’ll try to clarify my position nonetheless. To start, I see not a spec of difference between what is described in SN 36.11 and MN 44 as far as saṅkhāra is concerned. In the end, it is a matter of one thing being thoroughly bound up with the other, and knowledge of either would require an understanding of that relationship of dependency. That is a very common description of the entire nature of suffering (more on that by the end).

Having said that, any insight into the nature of jhana - in terms of SN 36.11 - would reveal the depths of these three relationships. It seems that the experience of first jhana always implies a cessation of that possibility of “breaking into speech”, which means the nature of the relationship between thinking and pondering and speech is perpetually available for discernment if jhana has been acquired; an so on for the cessation of thinking-and-pondering and in-and-out breathing. What is not going to be readily apparent - and is the true gem of the Buddha’s teaching - is that the nature of things being bound up in terms of saṅkhāra, is the same activity that is responsible for the belief in self and the conceit “I am”, for suffering, for samsara. That principle is revealed in jhana, but must be applied elsewhere in the experience, not just the three ways described in MN 44 and SN 41.6. Cessation does not imply insight, i.e. samadhi does not imply insight; not unless the principle is discerned on the level of view.

Point being, this is the entirety of how dependent origination is described. The cases in the suttas from the OP of this thread address it from just that one angle, which is directly available via the practice of jhana. However, every sutta about dependent origination describes the different pairs in the same bound up nature and how it applies to “this mass of suffering”. In short, this principle of dependent origination occurs thousands of times in the suttas and is not isolated to the description from the OP. I’m not saying that what you’ve raised is not a rare description, it most certainly is, but since the broader application of the principle is described very frequently elsewhere, the insight is available through other means.

My raising of SN 36.11 was meant to show that the availability of the principle is there in first jhana. All the listener needs at that point is a description of DO to see the broader application. Perhaps this is why - according to AN 9.36 - first jhana is all that is required for complete cessation, but that is a different topic. (Edit: this broader application of the principle is actually found there in AN 9.36: So tehi dhammehi cittaṁpaṭivāpetvā amatāya dhātuyā cittaṁ upasaṁharati: ‘etaṁ santaṁ etaṁ paṇītaṁ yadidaṁ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti. Sotattha ṭhito āsavānaṁ khayaṁ pāpuṇāti. They turn their mind away from those things, and apply it to the deathless: This is peaceful; this is sublime—that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, fading away, cessation, extinguishment.’ Abiding in that they attain the ending of defilements.)

This is just how I’ve come to understand it based on the descriptions of different monks and my own reading and contemplation. It is the way I prefer to look into the matter, but I fully understand if you see things differently. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thank you SDC however the above appears to be straying from the question. I posted my question here hoping for Bhikkhu Sujato to offer an opinion because Bhikkhu Sujato advised me personally to post any scholarly questions on the public forum. The topic is about the sparseness of suttas explaining/defining key terms.

I apologize but the above effort is not winning a covert here. SN 36.11 seems to literally say speech is impossible in the 1st jhana yet vitakka & vicara remain. This appears to debunk rather than support the co-dependency theory of MN 44 you seemed to suggest.

I recall Ajahns Brahmavamso, Sujato & others have taught vitakka & vicara in the 1st jhana does not have the same meaning as vitakka & vicara as vacisankhara or as pertaining to ordinary thought (such as in MN 20, about distracting thoughts).

When the breathing ceases, the body still exists albeit lifeless. When speech ceases, vitakka & vicara can remain. When defilements of the citta cease, such as in an Arahant, pleasant & painful perceptions & feelings remain in the Arahant (refer to Iti 44).

Again, the above seems to be a very popular translation but my impression is the word “samatha” can mean “calming” rather than “stilling”. If the Buddha’s enlightenment in MN 26 was the stilling of all sankhara, then it seems he could not have pondered/spoken the following words because vacisankhara is required for thought & speech:

‘I’ve struggled hard to realize this, enough with trying to explain it
This teaching is not easily understood by those mired in greed and hate
Those besotted by greed can’t see what’s subtle,
going against the stream, deep, hard to see, and very fine
for they’re shrouded in a mass of darkness.’

MN 26

In conclusion, this topic is not about sankhara. Its best to stay on topic. There are other suttas & dhammas that can substitute for SN 41.6 and MN 44.

The topic is about the sparseness of suttas explaining/defining key terms. The topic was not created to preach any specific interpretation of MN 44 & SN 41.6.

Regards :dizzy:

Thank you Joe. While not specifically on topic, yes, the ideas of Bhikkhu Dhammavaddho are the same as those of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, namely, “conditioner” or the “determinant” suggested by Ñanamoli Thera.

However, as posted above, the topic is not about sankhara specifically. There are other suttas & dhammas that can substitute for SN 41.6 and MN 44; where a key definition is only explained in two suttas.

Regards :dizzy:

Hi CC, like I said we are quite far apart with the terms being used in this discussion. As much as you see my thoughts as straying from the topic, the way I’m using the terms - pending you accept the usage, which you don’t and that’s fine - is an offer of how something very specific in one sense applies to something broader in another. From that perspective, the case you raised in the OP is not an issue of spareness at all. To be clear, I see why you would say so, but I don’t agree for the reasons already stated. This, however, is your topic and will respect that you prefer not to continue in this direction. :pray:t3:

Well, MN 118 and the multitude of other suttas on Anapanasati contain the term cittasankhara in two steps; as well as refer to four additional steps about the citta. This 16 stage framework does not seem to exactly correlate with the teachings about jhana (such as SN 36.11). Therefore, there seems to arise obviously no consensus about how the 16 steps of Anapanasati relate to jhana. In other words, if SN 41.6 and MN 44 did not exist, I myself can discern no way of knowing what steps 7 & 8 in MN 118 are supposed to mean. The Visuddhimagga (Vsm) says stages 7 & 8 of Anapanasati are about perception & feeling. But how can Vsm and us know this apart from SN 41.6 and MN 44 spoken to laypeople, including an ex-husband?

This topic was only intended to be a minor topic; that’s all. Most of us probably read about kaya, vaci & citta sankhara in the MN (rather than in the SN). Chapter 41 of the SN is about Citta The Householder therefore I imagine it would be easy for a monk or nun to overlook this chapter. Its a strange place to find a definitive sutta. Therefore, possibly this raises the status of the MN as a nikaya (collection) initially learned by monks & nuns. :dizzy:

That would imply that there are no caveat/needle in a haystack suttas in other nikayas like AN and KN that are as equally important as sankhara defining suttas like MN 44.

AN for example has some really detailed suttas on giving up fetters and practice related suttas. AN 10.76 for example explicitly states you cannot give up the first 3 fetters without giving up “Mental Sluggishness”, and the antidote for giving up “Mental Sluggishness” is in SN 47.10 - so following your questioning style, how is one supposed to solve mental sluggishness if they only have Angutarra Nikaya and no access to Samyutta Nikaya? Seems to me the nikayas are all interconnected and cannot stand alone individually. As to which Nikaya would be read first, hard to say, as DN also has some caveat suttas that are aimed at people who are completely new to the teaching, like DN 18 talking about the 3 openings that lead one to attain the fruit of stream entry (experiential confidence in the triple gem).

There is another but I prefer to avoid that one. The other only has explanation/definition in the SN. The SN 41.6/MN 44 example already stimulated enough drama. :slightly_smiling_face:

What lead to this subject arising in my mind was the SN & other suttas contain so much repetition of subject matters. Yet we find the opposite with this subject matter. If the 16 step Anapanasati format is repeated so many times in the suttas, one would expect a sufficiently commensurate amount of explanatory suttas such as MN 44 & SN 41.6 required to understand Anapanasati.

I’m guessing it’s the “one thing” AN sutta on anapanasati.

Agreed, however there’s an assumption (by a Buddhadasa interpretation) here that there is a direct link between calming breathing to calming the other sankharas, thus giving those 2 suttas (mn44 and sn 41.6) greater importance. Perhaps it is hearing the true dhamma that leads to seeing that the 5 hindrances are not present that results in joy which results in calming the breathing, which is just one possible interpretation of many, thus giving less significance to the anapanasati → sankhara connection.