I am trying to find a right description of the word Sankhara in dependent origination which includes Kaya Sankhara, Vaci Sankhara and Citta Sankhara. I have not been able to understand what they mean. Would you please help me understand what each of them mean.

When it is said volitional activities from what I have read I think that means something that is done by intention and free will in the present moment (even if we are not aware that we are doing it with intention and free will) Now I have heard that they are kamma in what sense do they mean that they are kamma? I have also heard that they are product of our past actions so that contradicts the notion that they are actions one does with free will (volitional) beacuse they are a result of our past not an intentional action in the present done with free will. Where does Kaya Sankhara or breathing in and out come with all of this? How can that be intentional action in the present or as in the other theory the result of past kamma. Is vaci Sankhara and Citta Sankhara product of our past kamma or is it something that we we are doing with free will and volition in the present moment that can be stopped beacuse it is all free will? Does the past decide our present Sankharas or is it all done by free will and intention in the present and that would mean that it is in our control.

You see I have many questions and I hope someone can clarify that for me. But the most important is to clearly understand what do Kaya Sankhara, Vaci Sankhara and Citta Sankhara really mean I have seen many different views and I am confused and therefor I would really want to know it to progress in my spiritual path.


6 Answers 6


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 throughs. 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.

How this is relevant in meditation is given here.


Householder, interested,

Kamma and the Ending of Kamma from "Wings of awakening, as well as Karma Q & A, generous provided, related to the goodness of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, will give ways for proper understanding that leads to liberation from suffering, if one is able to receive.

All a matter of the current development and tendency of the individual. All a matter of proper actions by body, signs and thoughts.

There will be always the greatest protection by giving and having given the required causes.

(Note that this gift of Dhamma is not dedicated for trade, exchange, stacks or entertainment but as a means to make merits (puññābhisaṅkhāra) toward release from this wheel)


I lost the account I wrote from so I logged in to my account. If kaya,vaci,citta sankhara are not volitional and instead arises automatically without our will then are they result of past kamma? (didnt Buddha say intention is what I call kamma) When you said that these thoughts contains feelings and perceptions , do the thoughts after they arose dependently cause feelings and perceptions or do they arise together automatically and does perception arise before feeling or after it. What is the function of perception here is it the factor that activates the feeling (what is the function of perception and feeling here) or feeling activates perception, This is very subtle and I can see that my mind is doing something like this but I want to understand what kind of functions they have then I will be able to start meditating. If those 3 sankharas are automatic how are we able to stop them.Thank you Dhammadhatu and all for your answers they are really helpful for my practice.

when you wrote SN 12.19 does this mean Samyutta Nikaya sutra number 12 and sutra number 19 or am I wrong.

I will try the anapanasati meditation.

  • sorry. I meant SN 12.51 rather than SN 12.19 suttacentral.net/sn12.51/en/bodhi Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 7:25
  • kaya,vaci,citta sankhara are results of ignorance or underlying tendencies. These underlying tendencies are two-fold: (i) in-born; and (ii) conditioned my past kamma. For example, fear, restlessness or sexual desire may arise without volition; not based on past kamma; and produce the SANKHARAS. These are in-born tendencies. But if you develop a "habit" via kamma, these will also arise without volition. Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 7:28
  • Sankhara is a spontaneous thought (vaci sankhara). For example, if the thought is: "I miss my dog", this thought naturally also includes feelings & perceptions, such as the feeling of pleasure & sadness when thinking about the dog you love. Also, at the same time, your breathing will change, when having sadness & love about missing your dog. Therefore, all three sankharo arise at the same time & are mutually dependent. Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 7:32
  • how to stop the underlying tendencies that developed as a "habit" via kamma?? Is there any difference between what you called Vaci sankhara or a spontaneously arising thought and what you call a underlying tendencie arising without volition such as a fear as you mentioned (a fear is a thought?) Also how is the underlying tendencies automatically arising after they are conditioned by kamma and becomes a "habit" ??
    – Buddhism7
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 5:48
  • I asked the question a bit more clear on my next post and if you have time I would be happy if you could answer it to because I have found all your posts helpful.
    – Buddhism7
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 8:07

The word 'sankhara' in D.O. is the only condition written in plural. What this means is it is expected the three 'sankharo' (kaya, vaci & citta) arise together.

Therefore, SN 12.51, which refers to meritorious, demeritorious & imperturbable formations cannot explain 'sankhara' because: (i) these three formations cannot arise together in a mind-moment & (ii) SN 12.51 literally says these three formations are "clinging".

Also, there are many suttas about "kamma" which refer to kaya, vaci & mano sankhara. Since they refer to "mano sankhara" (rather than "citta sankhara"), they are not about the core supramundane teaching of D.O. but merely worldly kamma teachings.

Kaya, vaci & citta sankhara are as described in MN 44. If you can meditate, you will understand their meaning in D.O. is the same as in MN 44.

For example, if you have samadhi but a very subtle ignorant outflow (asava) emerges from the mind, you will see the 1st thing that happens is the breathing becomes disturbed.

Similarly, when there are distracting thoughts, these are vaci sankhara. They do not arise from volition.

These distracting thoughts also contain perceptions & feelings, which are citta sankhara.

While ignorance can disturb the breathing (kaya sankharo) without the arising of vaci & citta sankharo, when the more common distracting thoughts (vaci sankharo) arise, all three sankharo must & will arise at the same time. This is why 'sankhara' is plural.

In summary, if the mind has samadhi, it can experience the most subtle arising from ignorance is these very subtle sankhara that are not related to volition.

These sankhara are the same as found in the Anapanasati Sutta. If you can meditate, you will be able to integrate the teachings of D.O and Anapanasati.

  • This answer is intended for you, but the OP cannot comment or chat yet. They might like you to edit your answer in response, to address those additional questions. I should probably delete that non-answer presently.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 7:15

We experience pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, touch (which are all different types of rupa), and dhammā (things which we think about). These bodily actions are called kāya in Magadhi language. Sankhāra is “mental formations” that lead to Raga, Dvesha, Moha. If you are to consider manō sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra… thoughts that arise that are clouded and lead to Raga, Dvesha, Moha in a mind are called citta / manō sankhāra; when we consciously think about something, and speaking out that generates the three afflictions, it is called vaci sankhāra.

Kāya sankhāra is erroneously interpreted as “without the breath one cannot survive, & breath is intrinsically connected with the body – therefore the breath is kaya‐sankhara. This is an incorrect interpretation of the Magadhi language.

Sankhāra are really abhisankhāra as they lead to rebirth. An Arahant does not generate ‘san’. S/he generates only ‘khāra’ Citta – thus ending the process of re-birth. We “add to” our rebirth process when we do “san“. The Magadhi word for “doing devoid of greed, hate, and ignorance” is “khāra”. The term “sammā“ comes from “san” + “mā“, which means “to become free of san - Moha (delusion, confusion), Raga (greed, sensual attachment), and Dvesha (aversion). Here “mā“, means “becomes free of the three afflictions”.

All kamma are done with sankhāra / abhisankhāra. Sankhāra are made with everything that we do that generates the three afflictions. For example on any given day we have only “khāra” Citta, or thoughts devoid of the three afflictions. But at times we get a strong desire or impulse of the Raga, Dvesha type. At such moments you should know how to do ‘Anupassana’, to apply the Dhamma to subdue or silence such urges. Anupassana means “discard according to the principles learned”. (“anu” means the present moment and “passana” means to get rid of).

When deeds are done with greed, hate, and ignorance, sankhāra are made [when one does anything with sancētana (“san” + “cētana”)]. An Arahant has stopped the “wheeling process” that form an attachment to what is seen, heard, etc. as it is that “wheeling process” that kicks in the Paticca Samuppāda. Such defiled “actions” done via the mind, speech, or the body lead to manō / citta sankhāra, vaci sankhāra, and kāya sankhāra.

Kammic energy is generated when one creates sankhāra by the “wheeling process”. For example, when one sees an object, that is just khāra (Kriya) due to a kamma vipāka. However, if one then starts thinking about how good it is, or think about how to acquire it, then it becomes sankhāra. Here one now has intensions about that object, one is hoping to get something. That is why the Buddha said, “cētana ham Bhikkhave kamman vadami“, i.e., “I say that intention is kamma“.

Kamma (Actions to Prolong sansāra) is created due to kāya, Vaci, and manō / citta sankhāra. These happen due to our nature or ‘gati’. Those frames of mind or gati are closely associated with āsava (mental fermentations). To not allow āsava to take place, we have to be mindful of what kind of sankhāra arise in our minds. It is in the present moment, that we should not allow the to become an āsava.

(This is the jist of what you need to know. I am hard pressed for time, and this is all the time that I can spare on this.)


There are 2 sets of sankhara used in the suttas.

First set is kaya, vaci, citta, which is used in dependent origination suttas (MN44, SN12.2). This has to do with ignorance and craving.

Second set is kaya, vaci, mano (not citta), which is used in discussion on kamma (not link #2 of dependent origination). This has to do with intention. This set is used in MN57, SN12.25, AN4.171.

Please read the dependent origination essay below by Ven. Dhammavuddho. It will clarify your doubt.


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