Close this search box.


What Keeps the Cycle of Births and Deaths Rolling?

In this essay I give a brief explanation of the concept of ‘saṅkhāra’, an important factor in the Buddhist theory of Causality, showing its role in the process of births and deaths of beings.

Regarding the philosophical application of the term ‘saṅkhāra’ the Pali-English dictionary remarks: it is “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 definite translation.”

Although a one-word definition may be difficult, the concept of ‘saṅkhāra’ is not very complex. The etymology of the word sankhāra can be explained well from its Sanskrit counterpart saṃskāra. It is formed by the combination of saṃ + kāra/karasaṃ is a prefix that gives a collective sense when added to verbal roots or nominal words. Literally saṃ means ‘together’, ‘combination,’ ‘compounding…’ etc. Kāra or kara is derived from the verbal root kṛ which has got a wide range of connotations and usages. Literally it means to do, make, etc. When combined with saṃ, it means putting, making, forming, combining, compounding together [something]. Generally saṅkhāra is translated as ‘compounded things’, ‘formation’, or ‘mental formation’. A popular expression sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā is translated as ‘all compounded things are impermanent’. Venerable Nyanaponika renders a better phrase translating saṅkhāra as ‘kamma-formation’.

Considering the etymological explanation of the word, one may ask, putting, forming or compounding together what? In reply to such a question some important points with regard to Buddhist metaphysics become clear. It is referring to the compounding of several aspects of mentality and materiality. A saṅkhāra is built in our inability to separate the various aspects that are involved in creating our sensations, actions, and reactions. In our lifetimes and in the cycle of births and deaths, this inability recurs inestimable times. As a result we continue to form saṅkhāra-s.

Basically verbal, physical, or mental actions are completed as a result of our senses coming in contact with their respective sense objects. As an example the eyes [cakkhu] see an object, the eye-consciousness [cakkhuviññāṇa] passes it to the defining part [saññā] of our minds. This in turn evaluates the object positively or negatively and reacts accordingly. All these happen so fast that we do not see each and every aspect of the process.

To clarify the point further computer is the most appropriate analogy. Although we seem to be very familiar to using computer we can only see its hardwares in the surface. Their activities are not apparent to us, except the experts. We see the input and output of data, not the real function. In the same way, we are conditioned to see human beings and everything in terms of the actions and reactions without concentrating deeper into the reality.

Thus the performance of an action involving all the aspects of mind and matter constitutes a saṅkhāra which is always changing externally and internally. A person who did some harm to me about five years ago has changed so much when I meet him after five years to make another quarrel. Such a situation arises due to our inability to see the changes within mind and matter of beings and things on Earth.

In the popular expression avijjāpaccaya saṅkhāra: “saṅkhāra arising because of/due to not-knowing”, two main aspects of forming saṅkhārā are seen. The first is the not-knowing of the mental and physical factors, in their disintegrated forms, that perform an action. Secondly, even if one may be aware of them intellectually or theoretically, one does not have the experiential knowledge of the arising and passing away of them. As a result, we continue to build more and more saṅkhāra-s. Venerable Nyanaponika explains this aspect of saṅkhāra as ‘kamma-formation’ where kamma and ‘saṅkhāra’ become synonymous. As long as there is action [kamma] we are bound to undergo miserable or happy consequences. Thus, harboring aversion to miserable consequences and grasping for happy consequences the cycle of births and deaths continues.

Any miserable or happy feeling involves mind and matter. There are innumerable parts that the mind and matter can be divided. Of them only what we see in the surface is clear. Even that we fail to notice due to illusion. Vipassanā is the technique that helps to see the process of actions and reactions perfectly. The technique of Vipassanā trains one to be vigilant and aware of the fact that when the senses come in contact with sense objects, there is an immediate change in one’s sensations. If it is strong or gross sensation one notices, but, if it is subtle one fails to notice. One is unaware of the fact that one always seeks to satisfy these gross or subtle; positive or negative sensations. One generally sees it as an action-reaction entity. The missing link is the ‘awareness of sensations’.

Vipassanā helps see one’s sensations objectively and equanimously without reacting. It also helps us see the arising and passing away of sensations without building any new saṅkhāra. Thus, an accomplished Vipassanā practitioner could comprehend the functions of mind and matter internally and externally. When individual entities that build up a saṅkhāra are seen, we see that there is in fact, nothing permanent. There is only the process of change and continuity. Therefore, the Buddha says that when a person comprehends that all the compounded things are impermanent, not merely intellectually, but in the experiential level, that is the total extinction of misery. And, that indeed is the termination of the cycle of births and deaths.

Editor’s Note:

The concept of ‘Sakhāra’ is lucidly presented in this article by Ven. Upali. Buddhist approach to actualize emancipation is the inner struggle through the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Cattāri satipaṭṭhāna) to annihilate grasping or clinging (upādāna) that fabricates the self-centric ego (ahaṃkāra). Self-centric ego constructs sakhāra. It is therefore crucial for a practising Buddhist to comprehend correctly what sakharā is. This article is a concise exegesis on it. 

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments