In MN 44 is found an explanation of the terms 'kaya, vaci & citta sankhara' (which are terms also found in Anapanasati steps 4, 7 & 8 and in the 2nd nidana of Dependent Origination).

Bhikkhu Thanissaro's translation is:

Now, lady, what are fabrications (sankhara)?

These three fabrications, friend Visakha: bodily fabrications (kaya sankhara), verbal fabrications (vaci sankhara) & mental fabrications (citta sankhara).

But what are bodily fabrications? What are verbal fabrications? What are mental fabrications?

In-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications. Directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications. Perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.

But why are in-&-out breaths bodily fabrications? Why are directed thought & evaluation verbal fabrications? Why are perceptions & feelings mental fabrications?

In-&-out breaths are bodily; these are things tied up with the body. That's why in-&-out breaths are bodily fabrications.

Having first directed one's thoughts and made an evaluation, one then breaks out into speech. That's why directed thought & evaluation are verbal fabrications.

Perceptions & feelings are mental; these are things tied up with the mind. That's why perceptions & feelings are mental fabrications.

The explanation about the 'vaci sankhara' (which is bolded) clearly states thought is the cause of speech. If this is true, how can thought be the "verbal fabrication" when it is obvious that: (a) speech is the verbal fabrication and (b) thought is that which fabricates (or causes) the speech?

Similarly, in MN 10, contemplating the 'citta' means observing to see whether the citta ('the mind-heart') has greed or not, hatred or not, delusion or not, etc. Therefore, how can perception & feeling be the "mental (citta) fabrication" when many suttas state it is feelings & perceptions that are the cause of mental states of greed, hatred & delusion (as shown below)?

If, when touched by a feeling of pleasure, one relishes it, welcomes it or remains fastened to it, then one's lust-obsession gets obsessed. If, when touched by a feeling of pain, one sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats one's breast, becomes distraught, then one's hatred-obsession gets obsessed. If, when touched by a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, one does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback or escape from that feeling, then one's ignorance-obsession gets obsessed. MN 148

In the English language, the term "fabrication" refers to something that is 'fabricated' (such as a 'building'). Therefore, should not the translation here of 'sankhara' mean something that fabricates (such as a 'builder')?

9 Answers 9


Sankara is conditioning which puts together or makes or forms something.

  • Kaya Sankhara - this what sustains keeps the body together hence the breath. If breathing stops the body falls apart.
  • Vaci Sankhara - this is what sustains the formations of verbal thoughts. Before speech thoughts need to form, without them one cannot speak.
  • Citta Sankhara - this is what causes a mind to arise. Feeling and perceptions are what causes a mind to arise.
  • Importantly, feelings & perception condition the citta to generate greed, hatred & delusion. Refer to MN 148. Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 7:04

The explanation about the 'vaci sankhara' (which is bolded) clearly states thought is the cause of speech. If this is true, how can thought be the "verbal fabrication" when it is obvious that: (a) speech is the verbal fabrication and (b) thought is that which fabricates (or causes) the speech?

In Pali just one word, sankhara, or pair of words.

English, being precise, has a lot of grammar. You can't construct an English sentence without a verb, a subject, maybe an object, and "prepositions". Maybe English has too much grammar (maybe there's a similar problem translating from Chinese into English), i.e. that to create a grammatical English translation you need to add extra grammar which didn't exist in the original.

Insisting on having a subject (an actor or an agent) for each verb (as English does), doesn't that invite the same kind of mistake as I-making or I-assuming, or reification?

So FYI (and I might be wrong) I think of (i.e. I mentally translate) sankhara as "putting together", i.e. as a kind of verb or a kind of process ... but without assuming there's a corresponding subject ... or you might translate is construction or constructing (or fabrication) without assuming there's a corresponding constructor.

So if you take thought as the cause (or prequel) of speech, I understand it as saying that it's the putting together (creation or construction) of speech.

You said that "speech is the fabrication" but in this context I think it's the fabricated.

Also I think that in English the word "fabrication" can refer to the process and to the end result (so "a fabrication" can be used as a synonym for "the fabricated"): e.g. "the story is a fabrication" means that telling the story is the process of telling a lie, and the told/completed story is the result of telling or having told a lie.

I think that sankhara is the process of constructing/fabricating something (e.g. breath, speech, thoughts) and also the product or result of that construction/fabrication.

Another thing is (and again I may be wrong), isn't the direction of the causation deliberately a bit vague? I read the answers to this topic as saying that it isn't as simple as "A causes B", nor "B causes A". It's not that "body causes breath" nor "breath causes body", rather it's "body and breath co-arise", or "body is the condition in which breath arises and vice versa". I might be wrong but does Western science/philosophy/logic/religion for one maybe try to teach us to believe in "cause and effect"? But isn't Buddhist logic rather about "co-arising", which might be a better description than simplistic "cause and effect"?

Assuming "causation" leads to (it invites) logical problems/fallacies like Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

For example, I think, it is that "fire causes heat", or is it that "heat causes fire"? Instead of one or the other, let's say that "heat and fire co-arise".

A final comment, if you read the Dharmafarer commentary on MN 44, the author distinguishes (or tells us to distinguish) between the singular saṅkhāra and the plural saṅkhārā -- saying that the singular (e.g. thought forming speech, or mindful speech, or "functional consciousness") is a quality (property or function) of the relatively enlightened mind, whereas the plural is "mental proliferation" or papañca.

  • Imo, sankhara here should be translated as 'fabricator' or 'conditioner'. Breathing conditions the life & health of the physical body; thought conditions speech; and perceptions & feelings condition the state (greed, hatred, delusion, enlightenment etc) of the mind (citta). Thus breathing is body conditioner; thought is verbal conditioner; and perception & feeling are the mind (citta) conditioners. Kind regards Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 23:41

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "Fabricate" means:

to invent or produce something false in order to deceive someone.

I do not see anything wrong with the usage here.

Following is the definition of Sankhara given by the Buddha in Kajjaniya Sutta SN 22.79.

Kiñca, bhikkhave, saṅkhāre vadetha? 'Saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharontī·ti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā 'saṅkhārā·ti vuccati. Kiñca saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti? Rūpaṃ rūpattāya saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti, vedanaṃ vedanattāya saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti, saññaṃ saññattāya saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti, saṅkhāre saṅkhārattāya saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti, viññāṇaṃ viññāṇattāya saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharonti. 'Saṅkhatam-abhisaṅkharontī·ti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā 'saṅkhārā·ti vuccati.

  • Thanks. However. SN 22.79 seems to be about the five aggregates and sankhara there is about sankhara khandha. Where as the 'kaya-sankhara' in MN 44 is defined to be the breathing in & out, which is part of rupa khandha. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 12:16
  • "Sanhkara" in Buddhism is same everywhere. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 13:36
  • No, it is not. Refer to my comments attached to Saptha Visuddhi's vitakka-bahulo. Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 7:18

In this translation (Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bodhi) on page 1242 (in the PDF) there are some explaining footnotes:

465 MA: Dhammadinna anticipated Visakha's intention to ask about the formations that cease when one enters the attainment of cessation. Thus she explained the three formations in this way rather than as wholesome and unwholesome volitions of body, speech, and mind, the meaning relevant within the context of dependent origination.

466 MA explains further that the bodily formation and the mental formation are said to be formations "bound up" with the body and the mind in the sense that they are formed by the body and by the mind, while the verbal formation is a formation in the sense that it forms speech. The verb form vitakketva vicaretva has been rendered in a way that maintains consistency with the rendering of the nouns vitakka and vicara as "applied thought" and "sus- tained thought."

  • Dependent origination explains 'volition' occurs at nama-rupa so it seems inconsistent to say volition occurs at sankhara. When hindrances arise in meditation (flowing out of ignorance & stirring up the 3 sankharas), those hindrances are not 'volitional', which is why many meditators struggle to master & end hindrances. As for 466MA, it is the very contradiction my question addresses. 466MA states the body causes breathing but the thoughts causes speech, thus both differing in meaning. The word "bound up" can also mean "dependent upon". The body depends on the breath for life & good health. Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 12:12

Sankhara is the intentional element in experience—whether physical, verbal, or mental. In Buddha’s teachings on sankhara, He defines fabrication (for want of a better word) as intentional acts. There is an element of intention in all our experiences. This volitional behaviour is internally generated. Without that intention we wouldn’t experience anything. Even if we are to sit still, there’s still the intention, and the intention itself is a doing. It’s a sankhara, a fabrication. It’s what we live with all the time. In fact, all of our experience is based on fabrication, (for want of a better word).

Without the breath one cannot survive. Breath is intrinsically connected with the body. Thus the breath is kaya‐sankhara - the “physical putting‐together” – that puts life together in the body. The question that is asked is more on the other two - vaci‐sankhara and citta sankhara.

Before one speaks aloud, there is a ‘speaking’ or contemplation that takes place internally. The first or initial contemplation of a thought is ‘vitakka’, then we ‘think through’ or further the internal ‘speaking’. We call it consideration, or ‘vicāra’. Thus the contemplation is considered to be the vitakka/vicara. Another name for it is vaci‐sankhara or verbal fabrication. So the two basic verbal sankharas are directed thought and evaluation - vitakka & vicara.

The third is mental formations (citta sankhara). These mental formations are two recognizable attributes – perception and feeling (sañña and vedana). Mental formations always start with a feeling as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Then comes perception - the recognition of the object felt. So mental fabrication, citta‐sankhara, covers feeling and perception. feelings of pleasure, pain, of neither pleasure nor pain. And then perceptions are the labels the mind gives to things: “This is pleasant. This is painful. This is this and that is that.”

The Buddha once mentioned five categories of people who make use of the discourses. Anyone who tries to intellectually grapple with what was said about Sankhara falls into the third of the five categories that the Buddha mentioned. It is the kind of person who philosophises about the discourses, trying all the time to satisfy his philosophical thirst. In his quest he forgets to make use of as mode or life. He is called 'Vitakka-bahulo' who is eager only to indulge in philosophical aspects of the Suttas (Discourses). We will get to know more on this subject only through practice – through meditation.

  • How can breathing be 'intentional'? How does the 'kaya sankhara' put life together in the body using intention when intention is 'nama' & breathing is 'rupa'? Also, 'sankhara' is not always intentional, such as the 'aayu sankhara' (lifeforce) mentioned in MN 43, which exists in the cessation of perception & feeling. I understand breath is kaya‐sankhara - the “physical putting‐together” – that puts life together in the body. Therefore, the breath cannot be the "bodily formation" but that which forms the body. The builder is not the building just as the breath cannot be the formation built. Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 7:12
  • SN 22.90 shows not all sankhara is intention: "Form, friend Channa, is impermanent. Feeling is impermanent. Perception is impermanent. Mental formations (saṃkhārā) are impermanent. Consciousness is impermanent. Form is not-self. Feeling is not-self. Perception is not-self. Mental formations are not-self. Consciousness is not-self. All (sabbe) conditioned things (SAMKHARA) are impermanent (aniccā). All (sabbe) phenomena (dhammā) are not-self (anattā). SN 22.90" Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 7:14
  • I am of the mindset that “Supreme Buddha Knows, I do not know”. What is in the Suttas is the word of the Supreme Buddha. So if I cannot understand something, it does not bother me much. I know that one day I will come to that stage of understanding. One thing that I am always reminded of is “The truth of what Buddha says is beyond doubt; It is beyond reasoning and logic. It is one step from inferential thinking.” That being said, to the question of “Sankhara…… Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 1:31
  • We are been asked to see Sankhara in three different way, and not to mix the three different ways. The first is as part of Pancaupadanakkhandha. (Rupa; Vedana; Sanna; Sankhara; Vinnana). The second way is to understand it through Cycle of Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada). The third is Sabbe sankhara anicca. Here every animate and inanimate thing is Sankhara. The only way for one to understand these in a deeper level is to get into the path. So there is no easy answers. The door to this path is through Saddha. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 1:32
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    The suttas you read are "translations" . If the translations are wrong, those words are not Buddha's words. Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 2:24

It’s hard to find 1 ‘perfect’ English word for sankhara. Ven Dhammavuddho’s dependent origination essay in the link below translates it as activation.

Thought is vaci sankhara (speech/verbal activation), because before one speaks, one must think first. Hence, thought is speech activation.

As for MN148 passages that you quoted, it is describing one who is still fettered by ignorance. Feeling and Perception that are not conditioned by ignorance don’t lead to greed, hatred, delusion. For Arahants, they feel and perceive with true knowledge (means not conditioned by ignorance); hence, they don’t lead to greed, hatred, delusion. Arahant feels a feeling detached (see SN12.51). Note that the ‘sankhara’ that SN12.51 mentioned which an Arahant does not generate anymore is ‘kamma’ (not activation/fabrication as used in dependent origination). The essay below explained sankhara in more details.



These are the physical and mental processes.

The physical processes here refers to breathing and the rest of the bodily processes like heart beating etc. (i.e. kaya sankhara).

Mental processes are of two types - the input and output paths.

One is the "input path" which processes inputs (the six types of feelings) and gives rise to mental states or cittas (i.e. citta sankhara).

The other is the "output path" which produces actions and words (i.e. vaci sankhara).


It's depend on the context.

Kaya-sankhara in DN22 Mahasatipatthanasutta is on KayaAnupassanaSatipatthana Section, Anapana Article, so Kaya in this article's context refer to Anapana (breath).

Kaya-sankhara in MN44 CulavedallaSutta is in the context of SannaVedayitaNirodhaSamapatti (emerging from the cessation of perception & feeling). The cessation of perception & feeling ceases sequentially from Vitakka&Vicara (VaciSankhara) in 1st Jhana, then breath (KayaSankhara) in 4th Jhana, then CittaSankhara (other mind and mind's factors), so Kaya in this article's context refer to Anapana (breath).

All above is talking about how Sankhara be ceased. This happens when the practitioner stop to do action on kaya, vaci, citta.

Kaya-sankhara in SN NidanaVagga VibangaSutta is in Paticcasamuppada's context (dependent origination). This is talking about how Sankhara be arisen. This happens when the practitioner doing action on kaya, vaci, mano.

  • bodily formations/"material phenomenas"
  • verbal (signs) formations/ ...phenomena (incl. -certain perception(s))
  • mental formations/ ... phenomena

saṅkhāra: formation, construct, compound, bound together

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