Volitional Activities?

I have seen this aggregate (Sankhara) translated as volitional activities over and over again, and yet this has never made any sense to me. If it is also anatta, then how could there really be volition. In my mind, I have always read it as conditioned activities, so this would be all mental processes that are just running as a result of different causes (Genetics, environment, etc.). I mean even when it seems that you’ve made a decision to do something, there really is no volition involved, that was just how the mind that you have was always going to react when presented with specific variables and factors. I suppose this is a deterministic way of seeing things, but regardless of the label you put on it, it doesn’t make it any less true. Besides, if you translate it as volitional activities, you leave out all of the mental processes that couldn’t even be considered volitional even if you tried, for example all of the background mental processes that go on running without us even really knowing, mental reflexes and subconscious habits. I am not saying that you can’t incline the mind one way or another, but even that inclination is just the way your specific mind is reacting to the specific perceptions that have been input into it since birth. I mean how could anatta result in volition, it seems to imply a self, something making the decisions. Even if no one is making the decisions, they’re just decisions, that’s not volition anymore in my opinion, that’s just conditional response. Any thoughts?

1 Like

A few thoughts, hopefully relevant:

You say “how could anatta result in volition?”; I wouldn’t really frame things that way myself. Anatta is not the cause and condition for the arising of sankhara, avijja is. Anatta is not a substance that things are made out of - it is just the way things are, which stands in sharp contrast to the way we actually see things. Avijja to me implies not completely understanding that all things are in fact anatta. So first I would ask the question: Do I feel like I am a self, or have a self, or there is a selfy like thing somewhere that is doing and/or experiencing things? So perhaps it is based on this wrong view of self that volitional formations arise - but of course, volitional formations are also anatta - although it doesn’t feel that way to us. Maybe it is just a conditional response, but the important point is that we don’t actually understand it deeply enough, and we keep suffering…

1 Like

Yeah that was poorly worded on my part, what I actually meant was how could there be volition if anatta is true.

Think of it as dependent originated choices.

You don’t need a self for it to occur but only the illusion of it.

That’s indeed a key element of Buddha teaching’s uniqueness.

An interesting and somehow related read I would suggest is:

1 Like

I totally agree, except that it also means that the choice itself is also an illusion, that free will is an illusion. Yeah we feel like we made a choice, but our mind at that specific time in that specific circumstance was always going to make that decision. You could rewind the tape a billion times and we would make the same decisions over and over again. That’s I really think conditioned mental processes fits Sankhara-khanda far better than “Volitional.” Actually I don’t think volitional is accurate translation of Sankhara in any circumstance. Surely the buddha knew that free will or volition was also an illusion. The nature of kammic influences on everything that happens in the world was more his style. I always understood kamma that way instead. It has nothing to do with making decisions, but more so just the universal law of cause and effect, circumstances conditioning other circumstances. Of course this change in syntax doesn’t change anything for us, we still have to make an effort and make those “choices” that will lead us to awakening. But it would just be more honest and accurate. Although this does raise an interesting point, if there is no free will, and it’s all just conditioned formations across the board, then really, we are either destined for awakening or we’re not. Whatever the exact nature of things is in this very moment, if you were a Buddha and could understand the inner workings of Kamma, you should be able to extrapolate out as far as you wanted, knowing exactly who would be where and what thoughts they were having and whether the kammic stream of whoever had ended, or anything really. So in a strange way, that doesn’t affect how we should go about our lives at all, we really have no actual control over whether we reach awakening. We just have to hope that conditions set infinity ago send us in the right direction. Although, after actually writing that just now, I almost hope that someone has an argument against it…lol

IMHO we must keep in mind the moderation of the Middle Path here! The presumption that we exercise the will or volition in one and the same way is itself the misunderstanding of tilakkhana as it manifests in the mind; such as to say that we are always predetermined in our actions or always endowed with freewill. The principle is that when our thoughts, feelings, and actions, are emotionally conditioned, through desire, craving and aversion; then in that situation our actions and choices are predetermined, lets call them “karmic”. But when our thoughts, feelings, and actions are arising from our recollection and devotion to Dhamma, based on Pañña, characterised by non-attachment and dispassion, not conditioned by desire; then in that case our actions are freely chosen, lets call them “dharmic”. So there are karmic and dharmic actions, feelings, and thoughts. And the whole point is to develop in the peaceful and wise training of gradually withdrawing the awareness and the will from what is karmic, while investing it in what is dharmic.


That is really interesting, I like that. I’ll have to think about that more but I like where you’re going with it. Although, I wonder if Dharmic means heading toward unconditioning, not actual unconditioned actions or decisions, and the ultimate end of that is awakening, in which there is true unconditioning, no more predetermination because there is no more action, no more decision, that’s all been cut off and ended. Then it’s like what they call Arhatship with Karmic remainder, those conditions of the past are still playing out, but you aren’t putting anymore into play, and so once it runs out and you die for the last time, the fire is extinguished, there are no more conditions driving the aggregate.

1 Like

Don’t take it wrongly but I reckon nowhere in early Buddhist texts we find anything to support such categorisation of actions. The closest thing to such rendering is to be found in Hindu texts such as Bhagavad-Gita, etc.

In EBTs we learn that, for example, the choices made around the noble path, as the fourth noble truth’s enobbling task is fullfilled are to be understood as separate sort of karma for it leads to the end of karma.

“Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”
– AN4.237

We could say that somehow this is equivalent to the Hindu idea of dharmic actions but still, given that “Dharma” for them does not necessarily mean the same Dhamma meant to the Buddha, I would avoid stretching things that far.


I think it’s difficult to discuss the topic of free will in the framework of Buddhism, because it partly stops to be clear philosophy in favor of pragmatism. To say that only predetermined fate exists would be surely wrong view according to the texts.

The whole idea of the 6th element of the path is, if you will, that the non-existent individual adopts a view of limitless volitional energy that it can direct towards spiritual progress. If this is ontologically true or not becomes irrelevant. Supposed-individuals who believe in their power and open future will act differently than the ones who believe in fate - that’s the main point here.

Apart from that you can find bits and pieces to support some fatalism in the EBT. You could for example argue that the foundational parts of the gradual training work without will (“A Tathagata appears in the world. A householder hears that Dhamma.On hearing the Dhamma he acquires faith and goes forth”, etc…). For a modern fatalist approach that works rather well I can recommend Ramesh Balsekar.

But all-in-all I’d say the overwhelming majority of dhamma teaches the exercise of will. A dramatic example is the IMO very old transmitted text “Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up in my body, but I will not relax my energy so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, energy, and exertion.” (e.g. in AN 2.5)
Here we have the key words like purisathāma, purisavīriya, purisa­pa­rakka­ma which emphesize the exercise of will-power.

Still I join @jimisommer in doubting sankhara in that sense, but a detailed exposition of the term in different contexts would be worthwhile.

[Edit: Repetti wrote a series of articles on free will in Buddhism in the “Journal of Buddhist Ethics”, I think they are quite good]


Hi all there ,

Would you think sankhara in 5 aggregates is actually different from sankhara in DO ?

In DO , after ignorant
is sankhara !
Whereas , in 5 aggregates the sankhara is after vedana and sanna !

Therefore , Imo the Sankhara in 5 aggregates carried the meaning
of mental Inclination !
( not will )

But , Sankhara in DO actually was referring to the self view !

Thank you .

Hi friend @gnlaera … I think you provided both the question and answer! :).

You could simply say that what the mendicant Dhammarakkhita, perhaps somewhat idiosyncratically, calls “dharmic actions”, is a reference to those actions that are based on such “intentions” which lead to the diminishing and ending of kamma. Not all actions result in the propagation or reinforcement of kamma. Actions must exist which lead to the diminishing and ending of kamma. Otherwise liberation or bhavanirodha is impossible, which is a 100% EBT registered and certified wrong-view! This classification of action (including neutral actions) is all over the text, it’s just never called “dharmic”. Often the Buddha says “in line with Dhammavinaya”, or “in accordance with Dhammavinaya”, and many other expressions too. I don’t recall all.


If one had no control over anything, and everything were pre-determined, then the Four Right Exertions taught by the Buddha would’ve been completely meaningless:

There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds & exerts his intent:

  1. for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen…
  2. for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen…
  3. for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…(and)
  4. for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen."

That’s not true though, because we still need to read that, have it processed by our minds, and make the “decision” to put it into practice. That’s why I say not having free will changes nothing. We still have to “make an effort” and all of that. It just so happens that when we heard the Dhamma, and pursued it in whatever way, that was always going to happen. We were always going to make the decision to put the 4 right exertions into practice or not put them into practice. And although the suttas do talk about will, of course they do, there’s really no other way of talking about these things. It’s like the difference between conventional and ultimate. Conventionally it’s just the easiest way to convey these ideas and practices, but ultimately, you always gonna do whatever you were gonna do. There’s no avoiding the mind you have and the variables the environment has put in front of you.

1 Like

We are conventional beings who live in a conventional world. So until one’s made the leap to the ultimate, there will be free will, conventional or not, to follow and practice the Four Exertions. It is completely up to one to become a Mara or a Buddha thru that Four Exertions, conventionally or not.

1 Like

Right, but it’s really only an illusion. Every “decision” you think you make, that’s just your mind receiving input and processing it in the only way it can, and then providing an output in the form of thoughts and actions. Even that response you just typed, that wasn’t really a decision, you read my response, that input was processed, and the particular brain and mind you have, which is governed and bound by physical law and karmic conditions, processed it and reacted in the only way it could have, with you typing that and posting it. There was really no free will involved, even the fact that you feel as if there is and think that there is, that is just the exact set up of your mind right now responding to that input. Especially when considering anatta, there can’t be free will, because that assumes a self. If you had any control at all, then that would be an agent of control, a self. It is just like the Buddha said when he talked about you being unable to “let your mind be like this” or “let your consciousness be like this.” You have no control over what your mind does or how it tells your body to act. The illusion of volition is there, but there is no real will. And whatever response you write to this will be the same. You’ll read this, and however your brain and mind is at that particular moment, will process this, bound by physical law, in the only way possible. The light from the screen will hit your eyes, your brain and mind will decode it, it will then process it through the language center, and so on, setting off a chain reaction that will cause a response, and that response is bound by the same laws, it will appear you are making decisions but every move you make is the result of exact conditions playing out. You can try and make a different “decision,” but whatever you end up doing, that is always how it was going to play out. There is no avoiding it.

1 Like

Whatever you end up doing right now and for every single subsequent moments thru the Four Exertions, have everything to do with your future state. Whether it is “always how it was going to play out” and “there is no avoiding it” is questionable, especially in the framework of the Four Exertions. At the end of the day, maybe the real question is, after you have typed all those texts on this post and on this forum, regardless of whether it’s “always how it was going to play out”, or “there is no avoiding it”, how do you apply the Four Exertions toward yourself and toward others? Let’s be real and be conventional here.

When we discuss we follow certain paradigms or discourses. The discourse of philosophy or ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘free will’ are alien to the EBT, so I find it difficult to combine the two. It’s not early Buddhism any more but a form of neo-Buddhism. Not that these discussions didn’t happen at the Buddha’s time. An established tradition of Brahmins and professional debaters advocated pure reasoning.

In the EBT there are no philosophical truths, but ditthis, i.e. views or perspectives. In this paradigm views have consequences, and views whose consequences lead further on the Buddhist path are defined as ‘right views’. Philosophical, ultimate or naked truth is, to put it strongly, irrelevant. It matters how the mind is fed, it yields certain results. And to feed it in a ‘Buddhist’ way will create a different development than to feed it in an ‘Ajivaka’ way.

The Ajivakas were, next to the Niganthas/Jains, the most prominent alternative ascetic movement at the Buddha’s time. And they had a paradigm without free-will. One of their leaders, Makkhali Gosala, is quoted with these words

there is no cause or condition for the defilement of beings… There is no cause or condition for the purification of beings… There is no self-power or other-power, there is no power in humans, no strength or force, no vigour or exertion. All beings, all living things, all creatures, all that lives is without control, without power or strength, they experience the fixed course of pleasure and pain through the six kinds of rebirth… Therefore there is no such thing as saying: ‘By this discipline or practice or austerity or holy life I will bring my un-ripened kamma to fruition, or I will gradually make this ripened kamma go away.’ Neither of these things is possible, because pleasure and pain have been measured out with a measure limited by the round of birth-and-death… Just as a ball of string when thrown runs till it is all unravelled, so fools and wise run on and circle round till they make an end of suffering… (DN 2, MN 60, MN 76, SN 22.60, SN 24.7)

Needless to say that this set of views is described in the EBT as misleading, wrong and harmful.

In my mind, the Buddha was only saying you shouldn’t get lost in that. It’s the middle way, so yes we don’t really have free will, but also yes, you still have to make “decisions” and put forth effort toward awakening. You don’t have free will, but that’s no excuse to just do nothing. It’s interesting because whatever you’re gonna do, you’re gonna do, but he said that so people would see it and react in a way that leads them toward nibbana. You still have to tell people to put forth effort so they actually move in that direction. If he didn’t teach the 4 exertions, then people would never see them and have a conditioned response to act on that teaching. The Buddha was really just putting conditions out there that would cause people to lead themselves to awakening. It’s as I keep saying, there’s is no free will, no agent of choice, no self making decisions, but it doesn’t change anything about how we must act. If you get wrapped up in that then you’ll just be stuck. If free will existed, then that would mean there is a self, someone making those decisions. There can’t be no self and free will. It’s all the law of kamma. Kamma is determinism essentially. The Buddha became awakened, and then taught, adding conditions into the world that would bring lots more to awakening. Before his teachings, it was nearly impossible for the conditions to be just right to allow a person to come to find the truth and awakening. Once you realize that our bodies and minds are irrevocably bound to laws and conditions that govern everything, then the possibility for free will disappears. The truth of Kamma and Anatta together are proof of a lack of free will.

Also I just read that sutta, and it’s pretty clear that what he was actually saying there was not determinism, but that whatever was going to happen to you was already going to happen “regardless of conditions or actions.” This is actually pretty tricky, because that sounds like no free will, but what he was saying was that even if wholesome deeds are done, if you are destined to suffer, then they won’t do anything. He was actually teaching destiny with no conditionality, which is of course wrong view. Clearly every action has consequences. The conditions and consequences may be set in stone, but it is a result of those conditions, a playing out of the law of Kamma that makes them happen. Not some cosmic destiny that just somehow happens regardless of what goes on. So this was really a subtle wrong view based on a confused understanding of conditionality and determinism.

What can I say, certainly not that you are ‘wrong’. And yet, it seems you want to play with your friends and bring some ontology-dolls, and I think they just want to play with their pragmatic-soteriology-dolls. The ontology game is just a different discourse (in my mind). Words suggest that the two can be combined, but the EBT is a somewhat closed ecosystem.

1 Like