Translation of Saṅkhārā

Bhante @sujato would there be any chance of changing the word ‘choices’ out for another term? Ven ñānananda uses ‘preparations’, which pertains to the etymology of a stage show.

Saṅkhārā is an actual act of will, a choice to do something, not just preparing to do something.

One of the things that helped me cut through the (very, very many) different takes on the “real” meaning of saṅkhārā was the recognition that saṅkhārā in DO and the five aggregates are fundamentally ethical.

Once you recognize this, you start seeing it everywhere. What, for example, is puñnābhisaṅkhāra? It’s a choice to do good. The point of the term is that choosing to do good is an act that has results. A translation needs to convey that meaning.

Try using one of the other terms, see how they fit:

  • meritorious volitional formations?
  • complexes of merit?
  • meritorious preparations?
  • meritorious kammic formations?
  • meritorious fabrications?
  • good choices?

One of these is actual English. The others are Buddhist Hybrid English: they are words that no-one would ever use, that are solely attempts to fit a rendering into a philosophical idea of the term, rather than saying what the thing means. None of the other candidates are regularly used as ethical terms: intentions, volitions, formations, fabrications, complexes, constructions, activities …

In English we say, “Why did they end up in that bad situation? Because they made bad choices.”
That’s what it means.

It’s not just you, plenty of people don’t like the rendering “choices”. But when you look underneath, the real reason is because it doesn’t bear the weight of their philosophical theories about saṅkhārā. But that’s the point. Words don’t bear the weight of philosophies: texts do. The underlying problem is that we have been conditioned by too many modern exegetes who rely on supposedly linguistic analyses to impute vast philosophical meanings into simple words. But the Suttas don’t work that way. Words are just words. They convey a meaning, that’s all.

A translator is not a theorist about the text. They’re someone who says in the target language the meaning of the thing in the original.

Here’s some of Ven Brahmali’s principles for translation:

And a further discussion by myself here:


For what it’s worth, Ven Brahmali’s translations use a similar but different translation choice:

Intentional activities are not your essence.
Saṅkhārā anattā.

I think what is initially disturbing is that translations such as “volitional formations” sound like grand and mysterious Real DhammaTM. When they are replaced by a “simple” words like “choices”, they lose that mystique - how can the Buddha be using such simple language?

My recollection is that the official Thai translations use Royal Thai, presumably for much the same reason. And, in another context, the King James translation of the Bible is still popular…


yes, exactly!

I always remember when Ken Wilbur wrote that Freud never used the word “ego”. He just said “the I” (in German of course!). But the English translator thought it wasn’t elevated enough and used the Latin.


Well, in German (“das Ich”) it’s a little more impressive. At least it’s more than just one letter! :laughing:


Bhante @sujato how about the classification of three types of sankhara in cula vedalla sutta (MN 44)?

Bodily sankhara: in and out breathing
Verbal sankhara: vitakka and vicara (reasoning & deliberation)
Mental sankhara: feeling and perception

All of these quote obviously are not choices. Something like preparations, or almost anything besides choices, makes more sense. It’s not that you’re choosing a word that’s more easily understandable it’s that you are fundamentally changing the definition of the word. Perhaps the task at hand is not to use language that is understandable by every single person (most won’t understand the dhamma), but to explain the term at hand


Also asankhata makes much more sense as unprepared, unconstructed, etc rather than undecided

1 Like

Nāmarūpa is another example. If we define it as mentality materiality or something like this we miss the subtle definition of name and form. Nāma literally means name, and it comprises the components used to identify form. Consciousness is also mental, no?

Hi Sovatthika,

Saṅkhāra has a wide range of meanings: Pali glossary for Bhikkhus Bodhi and Sujato

Bodhi: (1) volitional activity; (2) formation; (3) strenuous exertion [7:16, 7:55]; (4) conditioned phenomenon
Sujato: (1) choice; (2) condition; (3) active [effort]
Bodhi: conditioned
Sujato: conditioned

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay from his SN translation:

As you say, “choices” is not appropriate in MN44:

“But ma’am, what is the physical process? What’s the verbal process? What’s the mental process?”
“Katamo panāyye, kāyasaṅkhāro, katamo vacīsaṅkhāro, katamo cittasaṅkhāro”ti?

Some other translations

“In-breathing and out-breathing, friend Visākha, is bodily process, thinking and reflection is speech process, perception and feeling is mental process.”


“In-breathing and out-breathing, friend Visākha, are the bodily formation; applied thought and sustained thought are the verbal formation; perception and feeling are the mental formation.”

1 Like

It’s a different context, and the word has a different meaning.

There it means “process” or “activity” or “energy”.

? No-one uses undecided. It means “unconditioned”.

“Preparation” simply doesn’t fit any of these contexts.

Translation is a subtle art. If you are interested in it, I’d suggest doing some background reading, then look at some of the many essays and comments I and other translators have written on the topic.


Sankhara is one of those terms which is hard to translate. I feel even in Pali it was already somewhat artificial, carrying meanings that it did not have before the Buddha, and which it does not have literally. It’s impossible to convey all the meanings in English. Choices captures some of the aspects.

I’m not too sure about “preparations”, though.

Venerable, why do you think this? I would argue nibbana is actually conditioned for it depends on the eightfold path. There’s several suttas saying there are hetu and paccaya for seeing things as they really are, for purification, and so forth.


With deep respect, if nibbana is conditioned then what would you say is the unconditioned that the Buddha spoke about?
If nibbana is conditioned, why would it be the cessation of dukkha?

As Ajahn Sucitto wrote, the Eightfold Path is the kamma that ends kamma. When there’s no clinging, when avijjā has ceased, what’s “left” wasn’t caused or conditioned by the Path anymore than the mountain was caused by the map and the walking to get there IMHO. :slightly_smiling_face: :pray:


I am one who has ever thought, why the word “choices” was chosen for the sankhara translation. Thanks for the description… :smile::pray::pray:

1 Like

What do you think about ‘incentive’ for sankhara?

I am not English speaking but i refer to it in the meaning of ‘those activities that drive us, that drive our toughts, speech and deeds’. It can be moral , immoral or just neutral activities. If one is driven by hate that is ofcourse apunnaabhisankhara. If one is driven by metta it is a punnaabhisankhara. Doing the dishes is also because of sankhara but they are just neutral, or…one must hate doing to dishes :stuck_out_tongue:

The kaya sankhara’s that drive the body, for example, the breath, or other bodily movements, are not really our choices. Also what drives our thinking, speaking and acting is not really a choice, but more like a habitual of conditional pattern that starts the moment we see, hear, smell etc something.

Those sankhara’s drive us in a certain directing.

1 Like


what I’m saying is the Buddha didn’t speak of “the unconditioned”. I’d say asankhata means ‘not created’, or ‘the end of what is created’. That’s something different than unconditioned.

The word sankhata in daily speech is used for a raft that is well build, for example. A raft is not ‘conditioned’. So therefore you will also see translations for asankhata like ‘unfabricated’, 'uncompounde’d, ‘unconstructed’. I even remember Bhikkhu Bodhi saying in an interview that asankhata actually means unconstructed, but it didn’t sound so nice in English, therefore he used ‘unconditioned’.

To me that doesn’t mean the same, though. But maybe I misunderstand the word ‘unconditioned’, which I take to mean without conditions.


Nibbana is the absence of dukkha. The Noble Eightfold Path is practiced to remove dukkha. It is a different matter to say that the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced to condition nibbana.

As a simple example: people take rags to clean windows, not so that the view outside the window becomes existing.

So does Nibbana have independent existence, rather than being dependently originated? :thinking:

Thank you. I see your point regarding asankhata and its relation to the root word for making.

Regarding “unconditioned” in English, it literally means without conditions but can also point to the absence of any conditions necessary to construct or fabricate something.
However, considering the points you made, I’ve come to see that the words you favor are more in keeping with the teachings.
Thanks again. :pray:


Hi! :melting_face:

But the land outside the window existed all the time, whereas the cessation of craving, nibbana, only exists after the mind attains it after we practiced for it. There is not a presence of craving and the absence of craving at the same time, like there is a dirty window and a landscape at the same time. :window: :evergreen_tree:

Nibbana is the going out of a flame. A flame isn’t burning and extinguished at the same time. It’s either one or the other. :fire: :dash:

Well, nibbana is not a thing. Nibbana is cessation of things. So it doesn’t exist in that sense.

If we look at the Upanisa Sutta for example, we see that liberation (i.e. nibbana) has a upanisa, translated as “proximate cause” by Bodhi and “vital condition” by Sujato:

“I say, bhikkhus, that liberation too has a proximate cause; it does not lack a proximate cause. And what is the proximate cause for liberation? It should be said: dispassion. [And so on.]

That’s the point of the fourth noble truth: we can bring nibbana about. Therefore I don’t like the translation “unconditioned”, for it implies that nibbana is somehow already here being obstructed by things, while that isn’t the case.


Dharma-wise, nibbana is not conditioned, nicca (do not change).

We must first understand the problem of conditioned terms. It is called conditioned because all existence is conditioned by the work of perception. Perception is conditioned due to the contact of the six senses. The six senses are conditioned by birth… and so on. When conditions are destroyed, all conditioned things also disappear. There is no perception because there is no base of the six senses. Then everything that exists, insofar as what is called existing by perception becomes non-existent. There is only the unconditioned. But this unconditioned is not an unconditioned thing that can be understood by perception, because perception does not arise again.

As for nibbana in the sense of a living arahat, it is a term for a being who has no conditions for rebirth. This means that nibbana is certain. This if grasped by the thought that nibbana is conditioned by the absence of tanha, of course it can be confused, because this is nibbana in the sense of certainty that the conditioning of rebirth has been destroyed.