Why sankhārā != activities?

Greetings, all! :slight_smile:

I was wondering why the Ven. @sujato opts for ‘choices’ over ‘activities’ for ‘sankhara’? I’m aware that many here prefer the active sense of the word. It seems that ‘activities’ is quite the apt English word for this in a way that is both accurate, clear, and effective at representing the Pāli.

I don’t want to hate on ‘choices’—I know many people have complained and everyone is well aware. But I do think that the flaws that it has are all solved with ‘activities’ without losing anything, and was curious if there was a reason (or what the reason was—I assume the venerable translator made the decision intentionally based on the fact that ‘activities’ is used sometimes).

‘Choices’ to me seems quite neutral. Choosing one thing from another, making choices, etc. are all essential and quite neutral forms of activities. Making good life choices is often not an ethical Buddhist activity nowadays. They can also be merely decisive activities (they are ‘decisions’) rather than the activities that go on by body, speech/subverbally, mind, etc. It seems to cover a particular domain that is sometimes not quite relevant to sankhāra even though it is a form of sankhāra (as any activity is! :wink: ).
But ‘activities’ implies action and the activated/energetic aspect that is implied in the word sankhāra. Bodily activities, verbal activities, mental activities. Activities by body, speech, and mind. The stilling of activities.
Words like “act” and “do” are also clearly connected to ‘activities,’ whereas in English ‘choices’ is unrelated semantically. Even “activity” (singular) can capture the meaning quite well in certain contexts where that would be appropriate.

With ignorance as condition, there are activities.
This, for instance, is still plain English that anyone can read without needing to process Hybrid Buddhist English. It captures the Pāli sense of ‘sankharas’ quite well. It implies the “activity”/“action” involved (without specifically using ‘action’ which is taken). What kind of activity? Bodily, verbal, mental activit(ies). Choices here still (for me, personally) fails to capture that sense. It seems to be a much more calculated, later-down-the-line, often neutral form of activity. Activities also imply something more personal, involved, and potentially ethical. Choices ceasing sounds like a statement about free will or decision making. All translations will require explanation, but reading “With the cessation of ignorance, activities cease” (to me, again) captures that “being active/activating things/‘doing’” aspect ceasing, whereas reading “choices cease” captures some kind of particular mental function is lost.

It also captures that samsāra is an activity! It’s essentially being active, doing. But we can’t say samsāra is a choice in the same way / sense. Craving is an activity, kamma is an activity—the whole thing is maintained by our activities / actions / activity (whichever is most appropriate). Similarly, it relates to kamma more closely where ‘actions’ or ‘deeds’ is clearly related to ‘activities’/‘activity’. It is much less clear how this relates to choices to me.

I think ‘activity’, while closer to the Pāli, also brings together certain usages of the word that are separated in English. When breathing is called a kāyasankhāra, it’s a bodily activity. Other kāyasankhārā were referred to using the exact same word. If we use ‘choice’ for one, the readier is alienated from the fact that in Pāli these words are the same thing. Activity, similar to the Pāli word, encompasses both meanings without implying one over the other. When the Buddha talks about the stilling of activities, he talks about the stilling of speech, breathing, etc. He also talks about the cessation of activities in the context of paticcasamuppāda or the stilling of activities in relation to Nibbāna. They all mean something active, or something activated, and it seems that’s what was being pointed to most (the reason the word sankhara was used). These are all connected in Pāli, but disconnected in English if the rendering is different.

Also, something like āneñjābhisankhāra : is being in 4th jhāna the same as making a decision? It seems more appropriate that this refers to a particular type of activity that has imperturbable karmic effects.

Of course there are plenty of times where it will need to be translates differently (conditioned thing being one of the main/obvious ones). But my main point in asking the question is why the activity and choices translations are not merged when these uses seem to overlap so much in the suttas and activities captures it so well?

I hope to have not re-hashed something people are tired of. I appreciate the translation of ‘choices’ for making people think about words being words and getting a sense of what the Buddha was really saying. Was he saying “don’t generate demeritorious volitional constructions,” or was he saying “don’t act poorly”/“do good actions”?This was (and is!) a good reflection and I’m very grateful for the new take on translation! :pray:

With mettā!


The PTS has a pretty fulsome discussion of this issue, and it certainly seems that both “choices” and “activities” cover a multitude of sins:

saṅkhāra : (m.) essential condition; a thing conditioned, mental coefficients.

Source: Sutta: The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary

Saṅkhāra, (fr. saṃ+kṛ, not Vedic, but as saṃskāra Epic & Class. Sk. meaning “preparation” and “sacrament, ” also in philosophical literature “former impression, disposition, “ cp. vāsanā) one of the most difficult terms in Buddhist metaphysics, in which the blending of the subjective-objective view of the world and of happening, peculiar to the East, is so complete, that it is almost impossible for Occidental terminology to get at the root of its meaning in a translation. We can only convey an idea of its import by representing several sides of its application, without attempting to give a “word” as a def. translation.—An exhaustive discussion of the term is given by Franke in his Dīgha translation (pp. 307 sq. , esp. 311 sq.); see also the analysis in Cpd. 273—276.—Lit. “preparation, get up”; applied: coefficient (of consciousness as well as of physical life, cp. viññāṇa), constituent, constituent potentiality; (pl.) synergies, cause-combination, as in S. III, 87; discussed, B. Psy. , p. 50 sq. (cp. DhsA. 156, where paraphrased in definition of sa-saṅkhāra with “ussāha, payoga, upāya, paccaya-gahaṇa”); composition, aggregate. 1. Aggregate of the conditions or essential properties for a given process or result — e.g. (i.) the sum of the conditions or properties making up or resulting in life or existence; the essentials or “element” of anything (-°), e.g. āyusaṅkhāra, life-element D. II, 106; S. II, 266; PvA. 210; bhavasaṅkhāra, jīvitasaṅkhāra, D. II, 99, 107. (ii.) 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 “precede” those M. I, 301 (cp. 56); S. IV, 293; Kvu 395 (cp. translation 227); Vism. 530 sq.; DhsA. 8; VbhA. 142 sq.—2. One of the five khandhas, or constitutional elements of physical life (see khandha), comprising all the citta-sampayutta-cetasikā dhammā — i.e. the mental concomitants, or adjuncts which come, or tend to come, into consciousness at the uprising of a citta, or unit of cognition Dhs. 1 (cp. M. III, 25). As thus classified, the saṅkhāra’s form the mental factor corresponding to the bodily aggregate or rūpakkhandha, and are in contrast to the three khandhas which represent a single mental function only. But just as kāya stands for both body and action, so do the concrete mental syntheses called saṅkhārā tend to take on the implication of synergies, of purposive intellection, connoted by the term abhisaṅkhāra, q. v.—e.g. M. III, 99, where saṅkhārā are a purposive, aspiring state of mind to induce a specific rebirth; S. II, 82, where puññaṃ, opuñ‹-› ñaṃ, āṇeñjaṃ s. abhisaṅkharoti, is, in D. III, 217 & Vbh. 135, catalogued as the three classes of abhisaṅkhāra; S. II, 39, 360; A. II, 157, where s. is tantamount to sañcetanā; Miln. 61, where s. , as khandha, is replaced by cetanā (purposive conception). Thus, too, the ss. in the Paṭiccasamuppāda formula are considered as the aggregate of mental conditions which, under the law of kamma, bring about the inception of the paṭisandhiviññāṇa, or first stirring of mental life in a newly begun individual. Lists of the psychologically, or logically distinguishable factors making up the composite saṅkhārakkhandha, with constants and variants, are given for each class of citta in Dhs. 62, etc. (N. B. -Read cetanā for vedanā, § 338.) Phassa and cetanā are the two constant factors in the s-kkhandha. These lists may be compared with the later elaboration of the saṅkhāra-elements given at Vism. 462 sq.—3. saṅkhārā (pl.) in popular meaning. In the famous formula (and in many other connections, as e.g. sabbe saṅkhārā) “aniccā vata saṅkhārā uppādavaya-dhammino” (D. II, 157; S. I, 6, 158, 200; II, 193; Th. 1, 1159; J. I, 392, cp. Vism. 527), which is rendered by Mrs. Rh. D. (Brethren, p 385 e.g. ) as “O, transient are our life’s experiences! Their nature ‘tis to rise and pass away, ” we have the use of s. in quite a general & popular sense of “life, physical or material life”; and sabbe saṅkhārā means “everything, all physical and visible life, all creation. ” Taken with caution the term “creation” may be applied as t. t. in the Paṭiccasamuppāda, when we regard avijjā as creating, i.e. producing by spontaneous causality the saṅkhāras, and saṅkhārā as “natura genita atque genitura” (the latter with ref. to the foll. viññāṇa). If we render it by “formations” (cp. Oldenberg’s “Gestaltungen, ” Buddha 71920, p. 254), we imply the mental “constitutional” element as well as the physical, although the latter in customary materialistic popular philosophy is the predominant factor (cp. the discrepancies of “life eternal” and “life is extinct” in one & the same European term). None of the “links” in the Paṭicca-samuppāda meant to the people that which it meant or was supposed to mean in the subtle and schematic philosophy (dhammā duddasā nipuṇā!) of the dogmatists.—Thus saṅkhārā are in the widest sense the “world of phenomena” (cp. below °loka), all things which have been made up by pre-existing causes.—At PvA. 71 we find saṅkhārā in lit. meaning as “things” (preparations) in definition of ye keci (bhogā) “whatever. ” The sabbe s. at S. II, 178 (translation “all the things of this world”) denote all 5 aggregates exhausting all conditioned things; cp. Kvu 226 (translation “things”); Mhvs. IV, 66 (: the material and transitory world); Dh. 154 (vi-saṅkhāragataṃ cittaṃ=mind divested of all material things); DhsA. 304 (translation “kamma activities, ” in connection avijjā-paccaya-s°); Cpd. 211, n. 3.—The definition of saṅkhārā at Vism. 526 (as result of avijjā & cause of viññāṇa in the P. -S.) is: saṅkhataṃ abhisaṅkharontī ti saṅkhārā. Api ca: avijjā-paccayā saṅkhārā saṅkhāra-saddena āgata-saṅkhārā ti duvidhā saṅkhārā; etc. with further def. of the 4 saṅkhāras. ‹-› 4. Var. passages for saṅkhāra in general: D. II, 213; III, 221 sq. , M. II, 223 (imassa dukkha-nidānassa saṅkhāraṃ padahato saṅkhāra-ppadhānā virāgo hoti); S. III, 69 (ekanta-dukkhā saṅkhārā); IV, 216 sq. (saṅkhārāṇaṃ khaya-dhammatā; id. with vaya°, virāga°, nirodha° etc.); Sn. 731 (yaṃ kiñci dukkhaṃ sambhoti sabbaṃ saṅkhāra-paccayā; saṅkhārānaṃ nirodhena n’atthi dukkhassa sambhavo); Vism. 453, 462 sq. (the 51), 529 sq.; DhA. III, 264, 379; VbhA. 134 (4 fold), 149 (3 fold), 192 (āyūhanā); PvA. 41 (bhijjana-dhammā). ‹-› Of passages dealing with the saṅkhāras as aniccā, vayadhammā, anattā, dukkhā etc. the foll. may be mentioned: Vin. I, 13; S. I, 200; III, 24; IV, 216, 259; V, 56, 345; M. III, 64, 108; A. I, 286; II, 150 sq.; III, 83, 143; IV, 13, 100; It. 38; Dh. 277, 383; Ps. I, 37, 132; II, 48; 109 sq.; Nd2 444, 450; also Nd2 p. 259 (s. v. saṅkhārā).

I think from the above it is clear that neither choices nor activities is really adequate to the enourmous range and complexity of the term, and this, along with dhamma really is one of those terms that resist simple rendering in English.


If we’re discussing the sankharas nidana, then translations need to reflect the 3-fold “definition” given in SN12.2.

“kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro.”

Not exactly a wealth of information.

You’re right, though it gives some clues. For example, it’s really the mind that makes choices, leading to verbal and bodily actions. This suggests that “activities” is a better translation than “choices”.


I agree that activities fares better in that context than choices, but I think it still falls over in other contexts like sabbe sankhara anicca for example.

How about arrangements?

And what are choices?
Katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā?

There are these six classes of intention:
Chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā—

intention regarding sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts.

rūpasañcetanā, saddasañcetanā, gandhasañcetanā, rasasañcetanā,
phoṭṭhabbasañcetanā, dhammasañcetanā.

These are called choices.
Ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā.

SN 22.56

However, Sujato has not translated as “choices” below:

“Sir, how many processes are there?”
“kati nu kho, bhante, saṅkhārā”ti?

“Householder, there are three processes.
“Tayo kho, gahapati, saṅkhārā—

Physical, verbal, and mental processes.”
kāyasaṅkhāro, vacīsaṅkhāro, cittasaṅkhāro”ti.

SN 41.6

They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion.

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

They practice breathing in experiencing these emotions. They practice breathing out experiencing these emotions.

‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṁvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṁvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati;

They practice breathing in stilling these emotions. They practice breathing out stilling these emotions.

‘passambhayaṁ cittasaṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṁ cittasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

MN 118


It seems not in all contexts. For example, sankhara below does not seem to mean “activities”:

All conditions are impermanent—
“Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā”ti,
when this is seen with wisdom,
yadā paññāya passati;
one grows disillusioned with suffering:
Atha nibbindati dukkhe,
this is the path to purity.
esa maggo visuddhiyā.



You seem to be suggesting that bodily activity, such as kicking a football, occurs before the arising of consciousness. Can someone blind & deaf, without tactile sense of touch, kick a football?

Also, the Pali here for the subcategories (kaya, vaci & cittasankharo) is singular.

You seem to be suggesting above that craving & kamma arise at the 2nd condition rather than at the 8th and 10th condition (say per AN 3.76)?

Its in SN 41.6 & MN 44 where the breathing is called ‘kayasankharo’ (‘singular’). Yet SN 41.6 & MN 44 say verbal sankhara is initial & sustained thought. It seems obvious here ‘sankharo’ does not mean ‘activity’ because initial & sustained thought is obviously not speech activity. SN 41.6 & MN 44 literally say:

First you place the mind and keep it connected, then you break into speech. That’s why placing the mind and keeping it connected are verbal processes.

Pubbe kho, gahapati, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṁ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro.

Also, feeling & perpection (citta sankharo) appear not to be citta activity. Citta activity is described in many places, such as MN 10:

And how does a mendicant meditate observing an aspect of the mind?

It’s when a mendicant understands mind with greed as ‘mind with greed,’ and mind without greed as ‘mind without greed.’ They understand mind with hate as ‘mind with hate,’ and mind without hate as ‘mind without hate.’ They understand mind with delusion as ‘mind with delusion,’ and mind without delusion as ‘mind without delusion.’ They know constricted mind as ‘constricted mind,’ and scattered mind as ‘scattered mind.’ They know expansive mind as ‘expansive mind,’ and unexpansive mind as ‘unexpansive mind.’ They know mind that is not supreme as ‘mind that is not supreme,’ and mind that is supreme as ‘mind that is supreme.’ They know mind immersed in samādhi as ‘mind immersed in samādhi,’ and mind not immersed in samādhi as ‘mind not immersed in samādhi.’ They know freed mind as ‘freed mind,’ and unfreed mind as ‘unfreed mind.’

If perception & feeling (citta sankharo) were citta activity, it seems they would be included in cittanupassana satipatthana rather than in vedanupassana satipatthana. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thanks for the response :slight_smile:

I edited my post to be more clear — I wasn’t talking about sankhara in all contexts which is generally impossible for the type of translation Ven. Sujato prefers (which is good to have a variety :slight_smile:). I was just referring to all the translations where it is ‘choice(s)’ and trying to show that I think activities could easily replace it ans be more accurate / consistent with Pāli / etc.

With mettā!

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I assumed we were talking about the sankharas nidana in DO.

Yes but your trying to show was not convincing (at least to me).

You seem to be trying to restore Dhamma studies back to the 1800s. Have you been reading that archaic beginner’s book called “What The Buddha Taught”? :smiley:

This discussion refers to a more general duality between perceptions of say a plant, where 1) it is seen in its present state, but at the same time 2) is known to be growing. The static perception is necessary in describing it, and the second in understanding its processes. So ‘activitities’ for sankhara would be the more sophisticated rendering.
This dual perception also applies to the noble eightfold path where it may be perceived as linear, which is helpful in familiarisation with the eight links individually, or later as a moving spiral (Majhima Nikaya 117). The four tetrads of Anapanasati, and the four foundations of mindfulness may also be understood in either of these forms depending on the stage of practice.

I prefer Sankhara as Process construction activities.

When process construction activities (sankharas) cease, Avijja (not knowing) cease as well.

These means the desires for sankhara cease as well. After one has entered the samadhi and stay in samadhi all the time.

Asavas can’t arise when one is in samadhi. No asavas = No avijja → Turn to Vijja → wisdom → free

  • vaci sankhara = thinking and questioning (verbal activites in the mind) → cease at 2nd jhana
  • kaya sankhara = breath in and out → cease at 4th jhana
  • Citta sankhara = sensation & feeling (sanna & vedana) → cease at Sannavedayitanirodha

But not all people will agree because maybe they don’t know yet. :grin:

So we can’t force something when one hasn’t understood yet. But the explanation is in Sutta, MN 43, MN 44, and SN 41.6.

One of the interesting bits of Buddhist categories is that form generally included physical and verbal actions. The fourth aggregate being an aspect of mind, not form, it makes sense to read it as volitional acts in particular, and I believe there are sutra passages that support this by interpreting it as intentions. This is in that particular context, of course. In other contexts, it is much broader, meaning just about any conditioned “thing.”

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First you thinking and questioning, then you break into speech. That’s why thinking and questioning are verbal activities in the mind.

Pubbe kho, āvuso visākha, vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṁ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhāro.

MN 44


The above seems to say the cessation of the effect (sankhara) results in the cessation of the cause (avijja). Therefore, sankhara is the cause of avijja.

When one is still in the path (magga), N8FP. It is from cessation of sankhara leads to cessation of avijja.

But when one has attained the fruit(phala) and has the wisdom from direct personal practice.

Then, it is Avijja ceased then Sankhara ceased, and so on.

So reverse and forward are not a problem by then. :grin:

Maybe but it seems some cessation of ignorance is required for the Path to begin. MN 117 says: “Right View is the forerunner”. :slightly_smiling_face:

If I recall correctly I said or wrote something similar back when Venerable Sujato was still translating and shared some drafts. But since than it has grown on me a bit. (A bit.) Because to me ‘choices’ does capture quite well the ethical aspect of saṅkhāra.

Still, for various reasons I’m not the biggest fan either and prefer something akin to Bodhi’s ‘volitional activities’, even though it’s a bit of a mouthful. But if there is no perfect English term, a translator sometimes has to choose which aspects to highlight. I do understand why Sujato translate it in this way. At times I found it is a helpful way of thinking about things too, pragmatically speaking.

By the way, the saṅkhāras in Dependent Arising are different from the saṅkhāras in MN44 (on the bodily activity being the breath, and so forth). They are a totally different context, with different definitions and different ideas. That’s why Venerable Sujato is justified in translating saṅkhāra differently in those contexts.

Just to illustrate briefly why the can’t be the same context: Ignorance does not lead to breathing! :laughing:

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Greetings! :slight_smile:

Yeah, I understand the reasoning I think, but I wasn’t sure why Bhante didn’t opt for “activities” elsewhere. I still respect the variety, but I just think that ‘choices’ almost doesn’t quite sound ethical to me. Most choices we make are mundane, and don’t necessarily have a lot to do with ethics. Choosing where to sit down, choosing to schedule things a certain way, etc. But I also think it captures how our choices are often very engrained in our underlying inclinations and tendencies. Like when we choose to eat something tasty over something healthier, that subtle choice is influencing our mind and where it’s going to incline and so forth. So it has benefits too! :smiley:

The sankharas are different in DO but the Pali word being the same points to a proximity, which is why I mentioned ‘activities’ capturing both meanings. If a Pali speaker heard it, they hear the same word. But I think this is just a different translation style from the one Bhante prefers.

All the best!

In 2006, Bhikkhu Analayo wrote a nice encyclopedia entry for the word sankhara that might shed some light on the subject.

He has another in EIR, 2017, pp. 1045–1048, but I don’t have access to that.

with metta