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Saṃsāra (cycle of birth and death) and Saṃskāra (mental formations) seem to be semantically close to one another in the sense that Saṃskāra in the form of unwholesome seeds and habit energies would feed into the endless cycle of Saṃsāra and keep it going.

Given the uncanny phonetic similarity between these two terms, I was just wondering if they are indeed etymologically related and how this conception of present inclinations being dictated by past experiences fit into Buddhist philosophy as a whole.

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6 Answers 6

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As other people said, sam- stands for "togetherness", "sara" stands for "flowing" and "kara" stands for "making".

So the two words are, roughly, "together-flowing" and "together-making".

For me, "Together-flowing" invokes an image of stream infinitely rushing on and yet staying in the same place, like a river. This is a metaphor for the "stream" of the infinitely chaining/forking/joining causes-and-effects that make up the lives of countless generations of sentient beings.

"Together-making" invokes an image of something assembled from multiple parts where these parts condition each other into staying together. That's an abstract term referring to the semi-stable bundles of causes/conditions that come together to produce and sustain (or become and be) every single phenomenon (except Nirvana which is not really an individual phenomenon but I must say it's not a bundle).

In the absolute sense the causal bundles are not good or bad, they just are, but practically speaking some causal bundles are manifestations of bad karma that create experience of suffering or worse, help sustain karmically negative "vicious circles".

So to answer your first question, the two words are not etymologically related except through their common prefix pointing out that both concepts have an element of "togetherness" or co-conditioning.

As to your deeper question, you are correct in your assumption that Samsara is sustained by the effects of the past feeding forward to be the causes of the new, ad infinitum. In my understanding, the samskaras are always cyclic as well, at least to some degree - otherwise they would instantly disband right after coming together.

This principle of causation having a tendency to be self-sustaining is an important part of the Buddhist philosophy both at the everyday level (bad deeds are bad karma, violence begets violence etc) and the level of spiritual practice in pursuit of Enlightenment, since the very Noble Path is a virtuous cycle or spiral.

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  • Nice answer! It is interesting to observe how different Buddhist traditions work with this self-sustaining relationship between karmic energies in the form of Sankhara and the resultant vicious cycle of Samsara sentient beings get caught in. The Zen tradition, for example, tends to shift the whole paradigm altogether, to the extent of declaring the Kleshas (defilements) as equivalent to Bodhi (煩惱即菩提). How this works out exactly is up for debate.
    – Sati
    May 6, 2023 at 6:12
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This Glossary transliterates it as

  • saṃsāra and saṅkhāra

The PTS dictionary has it as:

  • saŋsāra and sankhāra

Note:

  • The PTS dictionary defines the saŋ prefix as meaning something like, "one", "same", primarily "together", also "accentuated".
  • That's about the same as the meaning the Glossary gives for the saṃ prefix
  • So I think they're the same -- the difference is only in how they're transliterated (into a more-or-less Latin alphabet).

As for the roots:

  • The PTS dictionary gives the root saarati which means to "flow", "move", "run along".
  • Conversely the Glossary says that the root of saṅkhāra is karoti meaning "make, do, cause, cause to become, perform act".

So I think they have the same (very common) "prefix", and different "roots".

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With all due consideration,

The Pali sam-, san- preffix is the equivalent of the English com-, con-.

Since samsara is the opposite of nibbana, which is the unconditioned, the most accurate term for qualifying both samsara and sankhara would be conditioned or conditional, pertaining to conditions. Also, many suttas explain that conditional existence samsara is the sum of all conditioned phenomena sabbe sankhara.

The conclusions that arise are graphically sketched as follows.

Respectfully

enter image description here

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The term 'saṅkhāra' does not necessary infer unwholesomeness. The term 'saṅkhāra' is used in many ways, such as in 'kayasaṅkhāra', meaning 'in & out breathing' ('body-condition'; 'body-conditioner'; MN 44) and 'ayusankhara' ('life-condition'; 'life-conditioner'; 'life-force'; MN 43). SN 54.11 for example describes the Buddha calming the kayasankhara & cittasankhara. Or SN 22.85 makes it clear an Arahant has five aggregates, including saṅkhāra aggregate. 'Unwholesome seeds' and 'habitual energies' are called 'anusaya' and 'asava' in Pali rather than 'sankhara'.

The term 'saṁsāra' is always unwholesome, referring to the mind 'continually moving about' due to ignorance & craving continuously grasping the five aggregates as 'self'. Refer to SN 22.99.

The dictionary says about these two words:

  • saṅkhāra = saṁ + kṛ (kāra adjective & noun; doing, making; a maker, a worker; from kār-, Vedic kāra... derived from kṛ)
  • saṁsāra = from saṁsarati = saṁ + sar + a = saṁ + sarati (sarati to go, flow, run, move along)

In summary, both words sharing the same prefix (saṁ) does not mean they have an inherent etymologically relationship. For example, the exclusively wholesome terms 'sambojjhaṅga' ('factors of enlightenment') and 'sampajañña' ('situational understanding') probably share the same prefix (saṁ) as 'saṅkhāra' and 'saṁsāra'.

The prefix 'saṁ' generally means 'together with'. I guess:

  • Saṅkhāra means 'together/joint (saṅ) construction (karoti)'.
  • Sampajañña means 'together/associated (situational) wisdom'.
  • Sambojjhaṅga means 'constituent of/accompaniments/companions of enlightenment'.
  • Saṁsāra means (?? I am not sure ??) maybe 'roaming together with ignorance & craving' (???).

Terms often have an etymologically relationship when they share the same root, possibly such as 'saṅkhāra' & 'kamma' sharing the root 'kar' or 'karoti' (although I am not 100% sure about this example).

However, sharing a root also does not necessarily imply sharing meaning. For example, the Pali terms 'upapanna' and 'paṭipanna' share the same root ('pad') but the respective prefix gives these two terms a different meaning. 'Upapanna' means 'travel in a similar direction' where as 'paṭipanna' means 'travel in an opposite direction'.

There are multi-linguists on this forum with far better language knowledge than I.

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  • "roaming together with ignorance & craving" Interesting guess. I assumed it meant "a universe of wandering" i.e. through all the various realms (all together as in never permanently any one).
    – ChrisW
    May 5, 2023 at 8:49
  • Or perhaps (e.g. from Hinduism) it's "together" to imply that "all beings" (together), "all lives" and so on.
    – ChrisW
    May 5, 2023 at 8:57
  • thank you Chris. I personally do not know. possibly some others can input May 5, 2023 at 9:10
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Actually its san+sāra and san+kāra.

I think prefix san means natural.or unconscious. and we know that the root of nature is three defilement i.e rāga,dosa and moha.

The action i.e kāra which are triggered by san is called sanskāra. i.e a natural action.

and due to momentum of sankhāra you continue the cycle of rebirth or bhavcakra or paticcasamuppada.

Sansāra is another name of cycle of rebirth. because defilements or nature is the essence(sāra) of cycle of rebirth.

In Pali the word 'Nissāra' means escape from Sansāra. but ideally it should means essence-less-ness.

In Sanskrit and in many indian language, we still use these two words in modern time too. Though with different meaning.i.e sansāra as the world and sanskāra as behaviour inherited from parents and teachers.

I got to think about san by reading this link.

according to him san means defilement. tesan means three defilement i.e rāga,dosa and moha.

However I think he is cought up by defining every word starting with san or sam rooted in 3 defilements.

But by closely studding all words in that website, I found the word 'nature' suits more to san. though indirectly it means three core defilements only. but not for all words.. the meaning 'nature' or prakriti suits to all word though.

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  • Any reference for "san means defilement"?
    – ChrisW
    May 5, 2023 at 8:45
  • This guy explain it well. but its upto you to agree. puredhamma.net/key-dhamma-concepts/san-dasa-akusala/…
    – enRaiser
    May 6, 2023 at 5:37
  • But he goes too much into it and says all word start with san or sam are rooted in san. I agree many word are rooted in san but not all,. some are really rooted in sam like samma.
    – enRaiser
    May 6, 2023 at 5:38
  • Thanks for the reference. The author reinterprets a lot of words, e.g. "sara" to mean "fruitful" or "good" (rather than "flowing"); and the meanings of "anicca" and "anatta" and so on.
    – ChrisW
    May 6, 2023 at 9:09
  • I like your answer, samsara might mean “without essence”
    – blue_ego
    May 6, 2023 at 10:17
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Obviously the other answers are correct, but from the time of Vedas to the modern period the term(s) have evolved. In early Vedic times (pre-Buddha), life’s goodness was brimming and people hoped to achieve immortality (moksha). Early Vedic priests performed ritual sacrifice as a means to ensure passage into the afterlife. The crossing over, or transmigration (samsara) of the person was supported by samskara, or rites of passage. Thus we can see how the prefix sam- (non-latin I guess) is similar to the prefix trans- (across, beyond). Eventually the concept of rebirth must gain popularity, and I bet some priests even performed rebirth rites. So the simple notion of samsara as transmigration gets rebooted, and now it’s more like reincarnation (rebirth). This probably got ppl wondering how many times they had died and been reborn, and accordingly, samsara is reimagined as an endless cycle of death-rebirth. The priests performing spells that initiated rebirth are condemned as being witch doctors. Their samskara are now viewed as ‘casual continua’, ie, cause for the continuation of rebirth, and thus death. What was originally beneficial, a means of overcoming death, is now more like an omen of perpetual death. Later on, Buddha or whoever introduces a better idea for overcoming death called Nirdvanda. This basically means freedom or indifference from opposites, aka non-duality. Buddha refers to this sublime state as deathless in his first sermon in the deer park. One more thing. Mostly we accept the term sankhara, perhaps a derivative of samskara, to mean formation or 'that which puts together, but the prefix sans- means without. As so combining we might get something like 'without putting together', 'without forming', 'without doing'...that's just food for thought.

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  • The prefix sans- meaning “without” has a clear Latin origin. Even though Latin is known to have some Sanskrit influences, is there any clear evidence of that for this specific case?
    – Sati
    May 6, 2023 at 2:03
  • @Sati Wiktionary claims that the Latin sine comes from a Proto-Info-European word for "self" thus meaning "by itself" and therefore "without".
    – ChrisW
    May 6, 2023 at 8:28
  • but if we take 'withotu ' as meaning then whole buddha teaching becomes meaningless. because his teaching is getting rid of sankhara.
    – enRaiser
    May 6, 2023 at 8:57
  • @ChrisW Proto Indo-European is the reconstructed common ancestor of Indic languages (like Sanskrit) and European languages (like Latin). Sine having a root at this source is not surprising at all, because the discipline of Historical Linguistics requires all reconstructed proto-languages to be able to explain linguistic trends downstream.
    – Sati
    May 6, 2023 at 11:39
  • In any case, the related phoneme in Sanskrit we are looking at as far as this common ancestry is concerned would be स्व (svá), not सम्- (sam-).
    – Sati
    May 6, 2023 at 11:57

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