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Translations of
English formations
volitional formations
volitional activities
Pali saṅkhāra
Sanskrit saṃskāra
Burmese သင်္ခါရ
(IPA: [θɪ̀ɴkʰàja̰])
(rōmaji: gyō)
(RR: haeng)
Sinhala සංස්කාර
Tibetan འདུ་བྱེད་
Thai สังขาร
Glossary of Buddhism

Saṅkhāra (Pali; Sanskrit saṃskāra) is a term figuring prominently in Buddhism. The word means 'that which has been put together' and 'that which puts together'.

In the first (passive) sense, saṅkhāra refers to conditioned phenomena generally but specifically to all mental "dispositions".[1] These are called 'volitional formations' both because they are formed as a result of volition and because they are causes for the arising of future volitional actions.[2] English translations for saṅkhāra in the first sense of the word include 'conditioned things,'[3] 'determinations,'[4] 'fabrications'[5] and 'formations' (or, particularly when referring to mental processes, 'volitional formations').[6]

In the second (active) sense of the word, saṅkhāra refers to that faculty of the mind/brain apparatus (sankhara-khandha) that puts together those formations.[7]

Conditioned things

In the first (passive) sense saṅkhāra can refer to any compound form in the universe whether a tree, a cloud, a human being, a thought or a molecule. All these are saṅkhāras. The Buddha taught that all such things are impermanent (arising and passing away, subject to change), are essenceless (not worthy of reifying attachment or aversion), and are not reliable sources of pleasure. Understanding the significance of this reality is wisdom. Saṅkhāra is often used in this first sense to describe the psychological conditioning (particularly the habit patterns of the unconscious mind) that gives any individual human being his or her unique character and make-up at any given time.

The last words of the Buddha, according to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (in English and Pali), were "Disciples, this I declare to you: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation." (Pali: "handa'dāni bhikkhave āmantayāmi vo, vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā ti.")

Sankhara-khandha: The builder of lives

  The 12 Nidānas:  
Name & Form
Six Sense Bases
Old Age & Death
 The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
according to the Pali Canon.
form (rūpa)
  4 elements


  mental factors (cetasika)  



 Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001)  |  diagram details

In the second (active) sense, saṅkhāra (or saṅkhāra-khandha) refers to the form-creating faculty of mind, often described as "volitional" or "intentional."[8] States the Buddha:

'And why do you call them 'fabrications'? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called 'fabrications.' What do they fabricate as a fabricated thing? For the sake of form-ness, they fabricate form as a fabricated thing. For the sake of feeling-ness, they fabricate feeling as a fabricated thing. For the sake of perception-hood... For the sake of fabrication-hood... For the sake of consciousness-hood, they fabricate consciousness as a fabricated thing. Because they fabricate fabricated things, they are called fabrications.'[9]

In the doctrine of conditioned arising or dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), saṅkhāra-khandha is understood to be that which propels human (and other sentient) beings along the process of becoming (bhava) by means of actions of body and speech (kamma).[10] The Buddha stated that all volitional constructs are conditioned by ignorance (avijja) of the reality (sacca) behind appearance.[11] It is this ignorance that ultimately causes human suffering (dukkha). The cessation of all such fabrications (sabba-saṅkhāra-nirodha) is synonymous with Enlightenment (bodhi), the achieving of arahantship.

As the ignorance conditions the volitional formations, these formations condition, in turn, the consciousness (viññāna). The Buddha elaborated:

'What one intends, what one arranges, and what one obsesses about: This is a support for the stationing of consciousness. There being a support, there is a landing [or: an establishing] of consciousness. When that consciousness lands and grows, there is the production of renewed becoming in the future. When there is the production of renewed becoming in the future, there is future birth, aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.'[12]

Theravada tradition relates that after the Buddha's complete enlightenment he uttered the following words (English and Pali):

The 'housebuilder' to which the Buddha refers is just this mental faculty of sankhāra-khandha whose products, the volitional formations, are conditioned by ignorance.

Mental factors

Mental factors (Sanskrit: caitasika; Pali: cetasika; Tibetan Wylie: sems byung) are formations (Sanskrit: saṅkhāra) concurrent with mind (Sanskrit: citta).[13][14][15] They can be described as aspects of the mind that apprehend the quality of an object, and that have the ability to color the mind.[16]


The Buddha emphasized the need to purify dispositions rather than eliminate them completely.[17]

Kalupahana states that "the elimination of dispositions is epistemological suicide," as dispositions determine our perspectives. The development of one's personality in the direction of perfection or imperfection rests with one's dispositions.[18]

When preliminary nibbana with substrate occurs (that is, nibbana of a living being), constructive consciousness, that is, the house-builder, is completely destroyed and no new formations will be constructed. However, sankharas in the sense of constructed consciousness, which exists as a 'karmically-resultant-consciousness' (vipāka viññāna), continue to exist.[19] Each liberated individual produces no new karma, but preserves a particular individual personality which is the result of the traces of his or her karmic heritage. The very fact that there is a psycho-physical substrate during the remainder of an arahant's lifetime shows the continuing effect of karma.[19]

English translations for the term Sankhara

  • Activities (Ajahn Sucitto)
  • Concoctions (Santikaro)[20]
  • Conditions
  • Conditioning Factors
  • Conditioned things[21]
  • Determinations[4][22]
  • Fabrications[5]
  • Formations (Bhikkhu Bodhi)[23]
  • Karmic formations
  • Mental constructions
  • Preparations (Bhikkhu Katukurunde Ñāṇānanda)[24]
  • Volitional activities (Gethin, p. 136)
  • Volitional formations (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

See also


  1. David Kalupahana, "A History of Buddhist Philosophy." University of Hawaii Press, 1992, page 71.
  2. "The word saṅkhatam is explained in various ways. But in short it means something that is made up, prepared, or concocted by way of intention." Katukurunde Ñāṇānanda, in "The Mind Stilled: 33 Lectures on Nibbāna," p. 42, online at
  3. See Piyadassi (1999). This is also suggested, for instance, by Bodhi (2000), p. 46, who in writing about one sense of saṅkhāra states: 'In the widest sense, saṅkhāra comprises all conditioned things, everything arisen from a combination of conditions.'
  4. 4.0 4.1 According to Bodhi (2000), p. 44, 'determinations' was used by Ven. Ñāṇamoli in his Majjhima Nikaya manuscripts that ultimately were edited by Bodhi. (In the published volume, Bodhi changed Ñāṇamoli's word choice to "formations.")
  5. 5.0 5.1 See, for instance, Thanissaro (1997b).
  6. See the extended discussion at Bodhi (2000), pp. 44-47. Other translations considered by but ultimately rejected by Bodhi include 'constructions' (p. 45) and 'activities' (p. 45, especially to highlight the kammic aspect of saṅkhāra).
  7. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000), p. 45:
    Saṅkhāra is derived from the prefix saṃ (=con), "together," and the verb karoti, "to make." The noun straddles both sides of the active-passive divide. Thus saṅkhāras are both things which put together, construct and compound other things, and the things that are put together, constructed, and compounded.
  8. This facet of saṅkhāracetana – is translated at times by Thanissaro as "intention" (e.g., see Thanissaro, 1995), while Bodhi consistently translates it as "volition" (e.g., see Bodhi, 2000, p. 45).
  9. "Khajjaniya Sutta: Chewed Up" (SN 22.79), translated from the Pāḷi by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 12 February 2012 . Retrieved on 5 April 2013.
  10. See, for instance, SN 12.2 (Thanissaro, 1997b), where the Buddha states: 'And what are fabrications? These three are fabrications: bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications. These are called fabrications.'
  11. In a similar fashion, in SN 45.1, the Buddha identifies ignorance as leading to wrong view which leads to wrong resolve, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness and wrong concentration – that is, the antithesis of the Noble Eightfold Path (Thanissaro, 1997a).
  12. SN 12.38 (Thanissaro, 1995).
  13. Guenther (1975), Kindle Location 321.
  14. Kunsang (2004), p. 23.
  15. Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Kindle Location 456.
  16. Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Kindle Location 564-568.
  17. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, page 48.
  18. David Kalupahana, "A History of Buddhist Philosophy." University of Hawaii Press, 1992, page 75.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 207.
  20. Leigh Brasington
  21. See Piyadassi (1999). This is also suggested, for instance, by Bodhi (2000), p. 46, who in writing about one sense of saṅkhāra states: "In the widest sense, saṅkhāra comprises all conditioned things, everything arisen from a combination of conditions."
  22. According to Nanavira Thera 'the word sankhāra, in all contexts, means 'something that something else depends on', that is to say a determination (determinant).' (Notes on Dhamma: Sankhāra)
  23. See the extended discussion at Bodhi (2000), pp. 44-47. Other translations considered by but ultimately rejected by Bodhi include "constructions" (p. 45) and "activities" (p. 45, especially to highlight the karmic aspect of saṅkhāra).
  24. Ñāṇānanda, Katukurunde, 1988-1991, The Mind Stilled: 33 Lectures on Nibbāna, online at Bhikkhu Ñāṇānanda also notes, "in the ancient Indian society, one of the primary senses of the word saṅkhāra was the make-up done by actors and actresses" (, p. 109).


Preceded by
Twelve Nidānas
Succeeded by