What the suttas teach us about the meaning of saṅkappa

I have for some time wondered what the actual meaning of saṅkappa is. Here are some renderings used by the main translators:

thought, intention, aspiration, aim, resolve

What I have done was simply use the search function in the DPR to list occurences of the word throughout the Vinaya and the four Nikayas.

It seems that the word may sometimes be exactly equivalent to vitakka and sometimes has a connotation of wish, or desire, intention, purpose, aim, resolve… and I have come to the conclusion that a good rendering could be “[an] aspiration [that is articulated in words]”. So here is how I have arrived to this conclusion:

First, cases when saṅkappa simply means vitakka, i.e. thought

The most blatant case is in the verses following AN 8.30, the Anuruddha-mahā-vitakka Sutta. Here I don’t think anyone would disagree that the word vitakka is used in the entire sutta clearly meaning “thought”. But the verses read:

“mama saṅkappamaññāya, satthā loke anuttaro.
manomayena kāyena, iddhiyā upasaṅkami.
“yathā me ahu saṅkappo, tato uttari desayi.

Knowing my thoughts, the Teacher, unexcelled in the cosmos,
Came to me through his power in a body made of mind.
He taught in line with my thoughts, and then further.

Then there is AN 3.128 that compares unwholesome thoughts to flies:

pāpakā akusalā vitakkā makkhikā
Evil, unwholesome thoughts are the ‘flies.’

And then it refers to the same flies using the word saṅkappa:

Aguttaṃ cakkhusotasmiṃ,
indriyesu asaṃvutaṃ;
saṅkappā rāganissitā.

One who is unguarded in the eye and ear,
Unrestrained in the sense faculties,
The flies will pursue,
[That is to say] thoughts based on lust.

Next, there is AN 4.35, where vitakka and saṅkappa are taken either as synonyms or as having very close meanings:

So yaṃ vitakkaṃ ākaṅkhati vitakketuṃ taṃ vitakkaṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakkaṃ nākaṅkhati vitakketuṃ na taṃ vitakkaṃ vitakketi; yaṃ saṅkappaṃ ākaṅkhati saṅkappetuṃ taṃ saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti, yaṃ saṅkappaṃ nākaṅkhati saṅkappetuṃ na taṃ saṅkappaṃ saṅkappeti. Iti cetovasippatto hoti vitakkapathe.

He thinks any thought he wants to think, and doesn’t think any thought he doesn’t want to think. He wills any resolve he wants to will, and doesn’t will any resolve he doesn’t want to will. He has attained mastery of the mind with regard to the pathways of thought.

In MN 60, either the words “thought” and “to think”, or “to aspire” and “aspiration” could fit since “saṅkappa” is here an intermediary between views (diṭṭhi) and speech (vācā):

santaṃyeva kho pana paraṃ lokaṃ ‘natthi paro loko’ti saṅkappeti; svāssa hoti micchāsaṅkappo.
Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that ‘There is no next world,’ that is his wrong resolve.

An instructive expression is “sara-saṅkappā, memories and aspirations”. It appears at MN 125:

‘ehi tvaṃ, samma hatthidamaka, āraññakaṃ nāgaṃ damayāhi āraññakānañceva sīlānaṃ abhinimmadanāya āraññakānañceva sarasaṅkappānaṃ abhinimmadanāya āraññakānañceva darathakilamathapariḷāhānaṃ abhinimmadanāya

'Come you, good elephant tamer, tame the forest elephant by subduing his forest ways, by subduing his forest memories, and aspirations and by subduing his distress, his fretting and fever for the forest

And again at SN 54.8:

bhikkhu cepi ākaṅkheyya: ‘ye me gehasitā sarasaṅkappā te pahīyeyyun’ti
If a monk should wish: 'May my memories & resolves related to the household life be abandoned

More interesting yet is the expression “paripuṇṇa-saṅkappo, having fulfilled [his] aspiration”, which makes it clear that “thought” would not really fit to render the meaning. At MN 29:

so tena lābhasakkārasilokena attamano hoti paripuṇṇasaṅkappo.
He is gratified with that gain, honour, and renown, and his aspiration is fulfilled.

MN 146:

tā bhikkhuniyo nandakassa dhammadesanāya attamanā ceva paripuṇṇasaṅkappā ca
those bhikkhunı̄s are satisfied with Nandaka’s teaching of the Dhamma and their aspiration is fulfilled

Then MN 78 hints that “saṅkappa” has something to do with language and thoughts articulated by concepts (which are crystallized as words):

daharassa hi, thapati, kumārassa mandassa uttānaseyyakassa saṅkappotipi na hoti, kuto pana pāpakaṃ saṅkappaṃ saṅkappissati, aññatra vikūjitamattā!

Even the thought ‘resolve’ does not occur to [a stupid baby boy, lying on its back], so from where would it resolve on any evil resolve, aside from a little bad temper?

The fact that a saṅkappa would be a wish or aspiration that is articulated with words could be corroborated by the stock definition of abyāpada, where the corresponding saṅkappa is formulated as a sentence (so made up of words). E.g. at AN 10.176:

abyāpannacitto hoti appaduṭṭhamanasaṅkappo: ‘ime sattā averā hontu abyāpajjā, anīghā sukhī attānaṃ pariharantū’ti.

He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of his heart. [He thinks,] ‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!’

So in the end, the meaning that could fit all those contexts, it seems to me, would be an “aspiration that is articulated in words”.


Thank you @silence for your excellent essay.

AN 9.14 uses both saṅkappa & vitakkā together, appearing to be two different things.

Kimārammaṇā samiddhi, purisassa saṅkappavitakkā uppajjantīti?

Based on what, Samiddhi, do thoughts & resolves arise in a person?

AN 9.14

In contrast, the three right sankappa in the Noble Eightfold Path (SN 45.8) & the three right vitakka in MN 19 are the same, namely, renunciation, non-ill will and non-cruelty.

That being said, right sankappa (in the Noble Eightfold Path) is mentioned at the end of MN 19, again possibly pointing to something different to mere vitakka.


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It has been useful to me to equate sankappa with “attitude”, “stance” - almost “mental abiding”.

Hence, the cultivation of samma sankappa becomes less mechanic and more organic.

It allows this aspect of the path to be developed more in the sense of a wholesome and pleasant mental background to one’s daily activities - including meditation.

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It seems “aspiration” would also do that work.

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I have always been curious & not understood as to why renunciation (of sensual pleasures), non-ill will and non-cruelty are included in the standard (Noble) Samma Sankappa when so many other possible kinds of sankappa could also be.

My curiosity & dissatisfaction is supported by MN 117, which, strangely (since it is a contradiction to the standard teaching) yet relevantly classifies renunciation , non-ill will and non-cruelty as ‘mundane’ sankappa, in contrast to ‘supramudane’ (‘lokuttaro’) sankappa, namely:

The thinking, thought, intention, mental absorption, mental fixity, directing of mind, verbal fabricator in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is taintless, who possesses the noble path and is developing the noble path: this is right intention that is noble…a factor of the path.

Takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro—ayaṃ, bhikkhave, sammāsaṅkappo ariyo anāsavo lokuttaro maggaṅgo.

As Bhante Analayo demonstrated, I wouldn’t go by this classification into mundane and supramondane as proposed in MN 117. It doesn’t seem to be very authentic.

Thank you. However, I disagree with Bhikkhu Analayo. I have held this view that the standard Samma Sankappa is deficient from even before when Bhikkhu Analayo ordained.

For me, MN 117 is authentic from a meditative perspective, just as the standard formula is deficient from a meditative perspective (unless the more subtle kinds of resolve for abandonment are expressed in Right Mindfulness, where it states: “abandons covetousness & distress”).

When I first read MN 117, I found it wonderfully refreshing, like it completed something that was missing. It has always been my favourite sutta. For example, its description of the operation of mindfulness I regard as perfect since that was exactly the way I myself engaged mindfulness (even before I read MN 117). I am a big fan of MN 117.

When the mind has Right View (of the Four Noble Truths), with that understanding, it immediately resolves to abandon all kinds of craving & attaching, rather than merely sensual pleasures, ill-will & cruelty. In meditation, its resolves to abandon thoughts of “I”, "me’ & "mine’.

MN 117 states, in a natural & proper way, that:

In one of right view, right intention comes into being; in one of right intention, right speech comes into being; in one of right speech, right action comes into being; in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being; in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being; in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being; in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being…

If the only teaching one ever heard was the 1st sermon, the only resolve that would arise is the resolve to abandon all three kinds of craving (& any resultant grasping).

Thank you. However, I disagree with Bhikkhu Analayo.

Well then it would be interesting to hear why.

I have no argument that MN 117 may not be authentic words of the Buddha. However, merely the following two points below from an initial browse are difficult to sustain, namely:

The Mahācattārī­saka-sutta is the only discourse in the Pāli canon that presents such a supramundane version of the path-factors.

Moreover, the treatment of the path-factors from a supramundane viewpoint in the Mahācattārīsaka-sutta qualifies the mundane wholesome path-factors as “with influx” and as “ripening in attachment”. Yet, the definitions given in the Mahācattārīsaka-sutta for the path-factors of mundane right intention, right speech, right action and right livelihood recur in other discourses as part of the standard definition of the noble eightfold path that leads to the eradication of dukkha. Thus, what according to other discourses leads to the eradication of dukkha, in the Mahā­cattārīsaka-sutta is presented as something that ripens in attachment and is associated with the influxes.

The possible reasons why are as follows:

(1) There may not be other older suttas with the supramundane distinction. This is probably because those old suttas were implicitly intended to be “supramundane”.

(2) However, with the introduction of mundane teachings, such as the ten bases of skillful action, which include the four kinds of right speech; and the introduction of other possible unauthentic suttas, such as MN 60, which ascribe a ‘mundane right view’, it appears it was necessary to compose MN 117 to straighten out the mundane right views found in MN 60 and similar suttas.

(3) MN 117 is not wrong when it states the standard right intention, right speech, right action and right livelihood can be employed in a mundane manner because they are merely factors of morality (sila). There is nothing implicit in those original descriptions to make those factors supramundane. The only factors that make the traditional Noble Eightfold Path implicitly supramundane are Right View & Right Mindfulness.

(4) Similarly, the right views found in MN 60, etc, are implicitly mundane. They cannot directly result in liberation. MN 60 even includes the statement that right view is the view of continued existence (atthikavādo), which contradicts the supramundane view in SN 12.15, which states the view of existence (atthitañceva) is a wrong view.

These are at least my personal reasons why MN 117 should not be simply dismissed. MN 117 appears to be a later sutta composed to reconcile other later suttas that focus on mundane kamma.

With metta :deciduous_tree:


If that has not been done yet, I would highly recommend reading the whole article before trying to dismiss it. As far as I remember, it has quite compelling arguments.

Thank you but your recommendation is unnecessary for me because I believe MN 117, due to its exquisiteness, was composed by an arahant. The parallels cited cannot compare with the perfection of MN 117, both in respect to its expounding of the Dhamma & its practicality. As I previously posted, I regard its description of the use of mindfulness as perfect.

With metta :slight_smile:


Respectfully, I believe the following verse from MN 117 is absolute:

Bhikkhus, if any recluse or brahmin thinks that this Dhamma discourse on the Great Forty should be censured and rejected, then there are ten legitimate deductions from his assertions that would provide grounds for censuring him here and now… he would honour and praise those recluses and brahmins who are of wrong view… he would honour and praise those recluses and brahmins who are of wrong deliverance…

I strongly personally believe any action, encouragement or promotion to move the Dhamma faithful away from MN 117 is unmeritorious and similar to an action of Mara. Since the MN 117 paper was published, I have read many views which I sincerely & compassionately believe the following stock phrase applies:

… wrong grasp have misrepresented us, injured yourself, and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time… MN 22 MN 38

I trust I would disagree with most, if not all, of the salient points in the paper, such as:

… instead of referring to a prolonged period of practice, “path” stands only for the moment when
the four stages of awakening are attained.

For me, the “path” certainly stands only for the moment when the four stages of awakening are attained given the path results in the ending of suffering (eg. SN 13.1). It is ‘akaliko’ (immediately effective). In other words, if the path is not practised correctly, it is not really being practised but, instead, only “fondled” with, similar to “sīlabbata-parāmāsa”.

Again, the paper states:

Similarly, the qualification “without influxes” refers, in accordance with the use of the same term in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, only to the four paths and fruits. That is, the exposition of the supramundane path-factors in the Mahācattārīsaka-sutta does not seem to refer to the path-factors of an arahant, which is what the term “without influxes” usually refers to in the discourses, but rather describes the path-factors present at the moment of attaining any of the four levels of awakening.

Now, MN 117 does not state “without influxes” (“anāsavā”) refers to the permanent “uprooting” of the influxes (‘āsavanirodho’) of the arahant. It simply states when the path comes to fruition, the mind is free from (however temporarily) the influxes of sensual desire, becoming & ignorance.

For example, if we read Ajahn Brahm’s book on jhana, where it describes the preliminary “letting go” through to the various fruition of jhana, do we find Ajahn Brahm referring to any influxes or eruptions of hindrances?

With metta & thank you again for your excellent essay on sankappa :slight_smile:

Friend, should we rely on beliefs and idiosyncrasy or facts and common sense?

Friend, the Dhamma is “is visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise for themselves”.

I trust I have responded in a valid & arguable way to every point of the paper mentioned so far.

For me, the paper has not “demonstrated” anything in terms of Dhamma truth. It only demonstrates the language used in MN 117 is similar to the language of some commentaries.

If this criteria made MN 117 invalid, then the teachings of all contemporary teachers would be invalid.

MN 117 makes the essential distinction that certain teachings in the suttas are mundane and others are supramundane, as follows:

Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, supramundane, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves. SN 20.7

MN 117 is not wrong in stating the sankappa, speech, action & livelihood factors of the noble path can be practised in a mundane (egotistical) way, just as effort, mindfulness & concentration absent of right view can also be practised in an egotistical way (eg. AN 4.123). Only right view can make the path noble. Only right view can give the seven factors of enlightenment described in MN 118 the quality of “vossagga” (giving up; relinquishment); otherwise those factors will be tainted with craving (asava) & clinging (upadi) Thus MN 117 states:

Right view is the forerunner; the leader. Thus these three states run and circle around… right view, right effort and right mindfulness.

If I abandoned MN 117, I would have to abandon the whole of Buddhism.

With metta. :deciduous_tree:

Thanks for your essay. From all I can see the direction of your rendering can hardly be disputed. May I refer to a paper by L.S. Cousins ‘Vitakka/vitarka and vicāra’. He also comes to the conclusion that sankappa and vitakka are not always identical in meaning - even though in the dhammasangani sankappa is listed as closely related to vitakka. “[Sankappa] should perhaps mean thought formation rather than thought, but not surprisingly it does not in practice seem greatly differentiated in its use from vitakka.” Further “vitakka cannot mean purpose”.

Gombrich in the appendix of his “What the Buddha Thought” adds to the nuances: ‘The Sanskrit equivalent to samkappa, samkalpa, has several meanings; but I am not aware that it has been pointed out that it is a technical term in brahminical ritual. When embarking on a ritual, the performer is supposed to make an explicit statement of intent, which normally includes his name, the date and the purpose of the ritual, whether worldly or spiritual.’

Might be helpful to further investigate these related sanskrit words:



Here is a list of various definitions found in a Sanskrit dictionary for sankalpa. It seems to confirm the above research:

solemn vow or determination to perform any ritual observance
conception or idea or notion formed in the mind or heart
idea or expectation of any advantage
Will personified
declaration of purpose
definite intention or determination or decision or wish for


Hot take: we have seen above that sa. nkappa lies somewhere between views and speech, what if it lies somewhere between thought (vitakka) and intention (cetanaa)?

This would seem to fit neatly with compounds such as nekkhamma-sa.nkappo (sa.nkappa of renunciation).

Thoughts? (no pun intended!)

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