09 December 2011

Saṅkhāra qua Construct

This word saṅkhāra is one of the most puzzling terms in our Buddhist lexicon. It is used a number of different ways, meaning quite different things in different contexts. There is no reason why a word should not have different senses - a phenomenon known technically as polysemy 'many meanings'. Indeed polysemy is the rule with words in most languages. Take a word like gravity. It has a sense in Physics as one of the fundamental forces. As an adjective in ordinary speech it might signify that someone, or something is important or wise. Incidentally the Sanskrit word guru is cognate and means 'weighty'. Context usually resolves any contradictions so if I say that "Newton spoke with gravity about gravity", you'll probably be able to see the two distinct ways I'm using the word gravity. However within a technical jargon it is much less useful to have important words being polysemic, in fact it's downright confusing. And yet so many of our important Buddhists jargon terms are polysemic: dharma is particularly troublesome, and whole books have been written on this one word.

I want to highlight a particular use of this word saṅkhāra in a Pāli text, but let's see if I can encapsulate the main senses of the word to begin with. The Pāli saṅkhāra is equivalent to the Sanskrit saṃskāra - the skā conjunct being reduced to khā in Pāli. The root of the word is √kṛ 'do, make' and here the prefix saṃ is equivalent to the Latin com- and means 'with, together; or complete'. The basic sense here is 'to construct or make up', and a close English cousin is confect, where -fect is from the Latin facere 'to make, do'. The word has a technical meaning in Vedic, but we'll leave that aside for our present purposes.

Saṅkhāra occurs in Pāli as the second of 12 nidānas, and the 4th of 5 khandhas. In the first instance it seems to mean volitional activity (and is defined in terms of cetanā). In the second it suggests a wider definition of all mental activity or indeed everything constructed from conditions - e.g. in the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. It is used in the sense of 'function' in reference to the body, speech and mind. So we might say that it has the active sense of "putting together" and the passive sense of "having been put together". [1]

In the text I am exploring today - The Pālileyya Sutta (SN 22.81; S iii.94f) it seems to have the sense of 'construct'. I'm particularly interested in this sense because it appears to confirm an intuition I've had about this term for some time (which should alert readers to the problem of confirmation bias!). In the Pālileyya Sutta we find this equation - I have simplified the text a little:
rūpaṃ attato samanupassati... yā samanupassanā saṅkhāro so.
he perceives form as his self, that perception is a construct.
Why is the perception (samanupassanā) a construct? Because in order to have a perception sense object and sense faculty must come together in the presence of sense cognition - perceptions are constructed (saṅkhāta) from these specific building blocks. The text asks the same question and answers (again simplifying a little:)
avijjāsamphassajena vedayitena phuṭṭhassa [tassa] uppannā taṇhā, tatojo so saṅkhāro
thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance.
Bear with me here as this sentence is not easy to translate. Firstly uppannā taṇhā is easy 'desire has arisen'. Here tassa 'for him' is standing for assutavato putthujjanassa 'for the unlearned ordinary person' and phuṭṭhassa tassa 'for the one who has been affected (phuṭṭha)'. Then vedayitena 'by the experience [which is] 'avijjāsamphassaja'. This last compound needs unravelling: it is made up of three parts: avijjā 'ignorance' + samphassa 'contact, reaction' + ja 'born'. So the whole thing is probably: 'born of contact with ignorance' or perhaps 'born of a reaction from ignorance'. I suggest the latter makes more sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi has come up with a particularly torturous translation here: "When [he] is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises." It's not clear what "ignorance-contact" is. [2] Thanissaro does better on Access to Insight with "To [him] touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises." But what is "contact with ignorance"? In the Buddhist model of mental functioning it can only be contact while being ignorant surely? Hence my translation: "thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance." Thirst for existence perhaps?

The sutta notes that this construct is impermanent (anicca), constructed (saṅkhāta) and arisen in dependence on conditions (paṭiccasamuppanna). Similar constructs include
rūpavantaṃ attānaṃ samanupassati - perceiving myself as endowed with form
attani rūpaṃ samanupassati - regarding form as within myself
rūpasmiṃ attānaṃ samanupassati- seeing myself amongst forms
All of these are conditioned and impermanent constructs. The whole formula is repeated with other four khandhas vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. Note the statement that saṅkhārā are a saṅkhāra does not seem to bother the author of the text, probably because he is consciously using the word in two different senses. In the plural it is defined in some places as the cetanā or 'intention' associated with the six senses (e.g. S iii.60).

So we may say that these perceptions of a being a self are only what we project onto experience., they are a construct, and not a property of experience. By the way, I see no connection here with Upaniṣadic thought on the nature of the ātman. There's no reason to think that this formulation of the teaching was in reaction to Brahmanical metaphysics.


  1. Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary insists that the interpretation of saṅkhāra as 'subconscious tendencies' (which is common in the Triratna Movement) is incorrect and "entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pali Buddhism" (p.193).
  2. Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. P.922.
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