This term has, according to its context,
different shades of meaning, which should be carefully distinguished.
(I) To its most frequent usages (s. foll. 1-4) the general
term 'construction' may be applied, with the qualifications required by the
context. This term may refer either to the act of 'forming or to the passive
state of 'having been formed' or to both.
1. As the 2nd link of the formula of dependent origination, (paticcasamuppāda), sankhĀra has the active aspect, 'forming, and signifies
karma, i.e. advantageous or disadvantageous intentional activity (cetanā) of
body (kāya-sankhĀra), speech (vacī-sankhĀra) or mind (citta- or mano-sankhĀra).
This definition occurs, e.g. at S.XII.2, 27. For sankhĀra in this sense, the
word 'karma-construction' has been coined by the author. In other passages, in the
same context, sankhĀra is defined by reference to
- (a) meritorious
- (b) demeritorious k. (apuññ'abhisankhāra),
- (c) imperturbable k. (āneñj'ābhisankhāra), e.g. in S.XII.51; D.33.
This threefold division covers karmic activity in all spheres of existence: the
meritorious karma-constructions extend to the sensuous and the fine-material
sphere, the demeritorious ones only to the sensuous sphere, and the
'imperturbable' only to the immaterial sphere.
2. The aforementioned three terms, kāya-, vacī- and citta-sankhĀra
are sometimes used in quite a different sense, namely as
- (1) bodily function,
i.e. in-and-out-breathing (e.g. M.10),
- (2) verbal function, i.e.
thought-conception and discursive thinking,
- (3) mental-function, i.e. feeling
and perception (e.g. M.44). See nirodhasamāpatti.
3. It also denotes the 4th group of existence (sankhārakkhandha),
and includes all 'mental constructions' whether they belong to 'karmically forming'
consciousness or not. See khandha,
Tab.II. and S.XXII.56, 79.
4. It occurs further in the sense of anything formed (sankhata) and conditioned, and includes all things whatever in the world, all
phenomena of existence. This meaning applies, e.g. to the well-known passage,
"All constructions are impermanent... subject to suffering" (sabbe
sankhāra aniccā ... dukkhā). In that context, however, s. is
subordinate to the still wider and all-embracing term dhamma (thing); for
dhamma includes also the Unformed or Unconditioned Element (asankhata-dhātu),
i.e. Nibbāna (e.g. in sabbe dhammā anattā, "all things are
without a self").
(II) Sankhāra also means sometimes 'intentional
effort', e.g. in the formula of the roads to power (iddhi-pāda);
in sasankhāra- and asankhāra-parinibbāyī (s.
anāgāmī); and in the Abhidhamma terms
asankhārika- and sasankhārika-citta,
i.e. without effort = spontaneously, and with effort = prompted.
In Western literature, in English as well as in German, sankhāra
is sometimes mistranslated by 'subconscious tendencies' or similarly (e.g Prof
Beckh: "unterbewußte Bildekräfte," i.e. subconscious formative
forces). This misinterpretation derives perhaps from a similar usage in
non-Buddhist Sanskrit literature, and is entirely inapplicable to the
connotations of the term in Pāli Buddhism, as listed above under I, 1-4. For
instance, within the dependent origination, s. is neither subconscious nor a
mere tendency, but is a fully conscious and active karmic intention. In the
context of the 5 groups of existence (s. above I, 3), a very few of the factors
from the group of mental constructions (sankhārakkhandha) are also present
as concomitants of subconsciousness (s. Tab.I,
Tab.II, Tab.III), but are of course not
restricted to it, nor are they mere tendencies.