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! ).
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!