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In this excellent answer giving an in depth explanation of the various uses of sankhata in various suttas, the first usage is explained as 'conditioned things' based upon the famous phrase, "sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā" which is translated in various ways by different translators. Observe:

’All conditioned things are impermanent’

I.B. Horner

’All formations are impermanent’

Bhikkhu Bodhi

’All form is impermanent’

Bhikkhu Bodhi

‘All processes are inconstant’

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

’All conditional things are impermanent’

Suddhāso Bhikkhu

’All conditional things are impermanent’

Ācāriya Buddharakkhita

’That all conditional things are impermanent’

Peter Feldmeier

‘All conditions are impermanent’

Bhikkhu Sujato

‘All conditions are impermanent’

Bhikkhu Ānandajoti

Questions:

  1. Are the differences in these translations meaningful?
  2. If so, what is the correct translation/meaning?
  3. Is it incorrect to translate sankhara in the context of 'sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā' as 'a thing' or 'a phenomena?'
  4. Is there any other place in the suttas where we can definitely say that sankhara is used to mean 'a thing' or 'a phenomena?'
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  • ’All form is impermanent’ = sabbaṁ rūpaṁ aniccaṁ Nov 11, 2023 at 22:27
  • pubbe ceva rūpaṁ etarahi ca sabbaṁ rūpaṁ aniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vipariṇāmadhamman = all form, whether past or present, is impermanent, suffering, and perishable Nov 11, 2023 at 22:29

4 Answers 4

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saṅkhāra = noun = essential condition; a thing conditioned, mental coefficients

saṅkhata = past participle of verb saṅkharoti = conditioned; prepared; produced by a cause

All of the translations, except I.B. Horner, have not used the translation of "conditioned thing", probably to ensure saṅkhāra is differentiated from saṅkhata.

The dictionary says:

saṅkhāra one of the most difficult terms in Buddhist metaphysics

The best translation for 'saṅkhārā' in 'sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā' will be the broadest translation.

For example, if we consider Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of SN 22.90, it says:

When this was said, the elder bhikkhus said to the Venerable Channa: “Form, friend Channa, is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, volitional formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent. Form is nonself, feeling is nonself, perception is nonself, volitional formations are nonself, consciousness is nonself. All formations are impermanent; all phenomena are nonself.”

Above, Bhikkhu Bodhi has translated the 1st use of saṅkhārā as "volitional formations". Similarly, Sujato has translated the 1st use of saṅkhārā as "choices". The 2nd use of saṅkhārā, Bodhi & Sujato have translated as "formations" & "conditions". The different translations of the 2nd use of saṅkhārā is to highlight the 2nd use of saṅkhārā includes form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations & consciousness as being saṅkhārā. When SN 22.90 says 'sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā', it is saying form, feeling, perception, mental formations & consciousness are all saṅkhārā.

To conclude, none of the translations offered are inherently accurate as an explanatory principle because the word 'saṅkhārā' is too broad to be translated using one single English word. However, as already said, the best translation is the broadest, which is Sujato's & Ānandajoti's "conditions". This said, bear in mind, the word "conditions" here refers to both:

  • prerequisite/causal agent conditions
  • resultant conditions

Btw, saṅkhārā is never translated as 'thing' or 'phenomena'. The Pali for 'thing' or 'phenomena' is 'dhamma' or 'dhatu'.

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  • This is just excellent.
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 1:18
  • I will say, I still wonder about the translation as volitional formations. I'm researching where and how this meaning of saṅkhāra as 'mental coefficients' or 'volitional formations' came from and what faults arise from considering the second link as just 'conditions'
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 1:20
  • Hmm, I'm also wondering a bit about 'a thing conditioned' as that seems in tension with your last sentences.
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 1:26
  • Yes, the dictionary says "a thing conditioned". I think "sankhata" always means "conditioned thing". But sankhara can also refer to "conditioned thing" but not always. In Pali, the work cittasankharo is a noun & refers to "mind conditioner". It is a causal condition. But the word "manosankharam" is always used as an object of the verb "saṅkharoti" and is a resultant condition. Yet manosankharam is a conditioned thing. In other words it appears valid in Pali to say manosankharam is a sankhata (mind formation is a conditioned thing). Nov 12, 2023 at 5:55
  • Thanks for answering. saṅkhārā is never translated as 'thing' Really? Because I think it is translated that way, sometimes, by some authors: e.g. "all things" here or here. Your saying previously that the word 'saṅkhārā' is too broad to be translated may mean it's not logical to say that, "it doesn't or can't mean 'thing' because there's another more precise word for thing". Maybe you're saying it refers to or includes "things", but "things" isn't the best translation.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 12, 2023 at 10:23
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Sankhara means compounded phenomena (combination of phenomena). “Sabbe Sankhara Anicca” means all combinations of phenomena are impermanent. Impermanent means combinations arise , change and vanish because all combinations take place conditionally. All conditions are themselves Sanskharas and therefore impermanent.

For example :- Meeting of eye(a Sankhara , a phenomena made up of other phenomena )and sight(a Sankhara , a phenomena)give rise to eye consciousness(a Sankhara, a phenomena). Meeting of eye consciousness and eye and sight give rise to vision contact. Vision contact gives rise to feeling dependent on vision contact. Visual feelings can be good or bad or neutral. Coming together of vision feelings , vision contact give rise to visual cravings. Visual cravings can be lustful or hateful or neutral. Coming together of visual cravings and visual feelings give rise to visual clinging. Clinging can be lustful or hateful or neutral. Clinging and cravings gives rise to visual attachments. Visual attachments can be lustful , hateful or neutral.Attachments and clinging give rise to visual becoming.Visual becoming can be lustful , hateful or neutral. Visual becoming and visual attachments give rise to Sankhara of good , bad or neutral visual birth( for example attachment to awesome scenery ), visual ageing (for example rough scenery)and visual death (for example dilapidated scenery), together giving rise to the Sankhara of visual suffering.

Same applies to all other senses like nose , touch , ear ,taste and mind. Sense of good (or lustful)or bad (or hateful)or neutral is the Sankhara of mind consciousness.

I think this definition of sanskharas was not given in the list of translations in the posted question.

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In the three marks of existence, sankhara refers to conditional things or conditional phenomena, specifically the five aggregates, while dhamma refers to all phenomena.

The term dhamma includes Nibbana, while sankhara does not. Nibbana is not suffering, not impermanent and not self.

“Suppose, mendicants, there was a mountain river that flowed swiftly, going far, carrying all before it. If wild sugarcane, kusa grass, reeds, vetiver, or trees grew on either bank, they’d overhang the river. And if a person who was being swept along by the current grabbed the wild sugarcane, kusa grass, reeds, vetiver, or trees, it’d break off, and they’d come to ruin because of that.

In the same way, an unlearned ordinary person has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen true persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the true persons.

They regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form. But their form breaks off, and they come to ruin because of that. They regard feeling … perception … choices … consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness. But their consciousness breaks off, and they come to ruin because of that.

What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.” …

“Is feeling … perception … choices … consciousness permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“So you should truly see … Seeing this … They understand: ‘… there is no return to any state of existence.’”.
SN22.93

And what do the astute deem as existing, which I too say exists? Form that is impermanent, suffering, and perishable.

Feeling … Perception … Choices …

Consciousness that is impermanent, suffering, and perishable. This is what the astute deem as existing, which I too say exists.
SN22.94

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To add, Yeshe Tenley commented:

Hmm, I'm also wondering a bit about 'a thing conditioned' as that seems in tension with your last sentences.

Dhamma Dhatu then answered to the comment with the example of manosankhara from AN 3.23.

The translation of AN 3.23, whether using Sujato's "choices" or Bodhi's "activities" is not the core matter. The core matters are:

  • As I already mentioned in my main answer, AN 3.23 contains the phrase: "manosaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti". Here, saṅkharoti is the verb form of saṅkhara. Also, here saṅkhāra, ending in , is the accusative case of saṅkhāra, i.e., saṅkhāra is the object of the verb saṅkharoti. In other words, as I already explained, manosaṅkhāraṁ is a resultant condition because it is caused by saṅkharoti. Its like saying: "the creation (accusative case noun) was created/generated (verb); the condition was conditioned/generated". Thus, AN 3.23 says: "some person generates afflictive bodily sankhara". The bodily sankhara is a resultant condition.

  • Manosaṅkhāraṁ abhisaṅkharoti in AN 3.23 can be contrasted with cittasankharo in SN 41.6 & MN 44. "Cittasankharo", ending in "o", is a nominative case noun. Cittasankharo is also a causal or prerequisite condition. Cittasankharo (which is perception & feeling) is the prerequisite condition that causes the mind (citta) to generate/condition greed, hatred & delusion. "Cittasankharo" means "mind conditioner".

  • In other words, contrary to the Theravada Abhidhamma & Commentary Tradition, the term cittasankharo is not synonymous with the term manosaṅkhāra. This is why Sujato's translation of cittasankharo as "choices by way mind" in SN 12.2 is incorrect, similar to how Bodhi's "mental volitional formation" is also incorrect. This is also why Sujato has translated cittasankharo differently as "mental process" in SN 41.6 & MN 44.

Note: Sujato & Bodhi appear to be translating in a certain way in order to conform to the Three-Life-Model of Dependent Origination taught in the Visuddhimagga (which is not Early Buddhism).

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  • Couldn’t an alternative translation be “depending on the body, bodily activity arises” or “depending on the mind, mental activity arises?” Why do I prefer this construction? Because it is in keeping with the affirmative form of dependent arising.
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 14:46
  • Yes, I am wondering whether the second link should be more generally translated as “conditions” rather than volitional formations, choices and etc. One reason for this is the second link is not designated as saṅkharoti the verb form which would allow for “intent” or “choice” but rather it is the noun form which in my increasing opinion should only be translated as conditions and not the phenomena or things that are the result of conditions
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 14:52
  • Hmm, maybe manosaṅkhāraṁ more literally translated would be “with body as condition” instead of “depending on body as condition” but I prefer the latter as it is more in keeping with how dependent arising is presented…
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 15:04
  • And then saṅkharoti would be “bodily activity arises”
    – user13375
    Nov 12, 2023 at 15:06
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    Quick Pali lesson. Consider the English sentence "the car struck & killed the dog". This sentence is "the car (nominative noun) struck (verb) & killed (verb) the dog (accusative noun)". One noun is "accusative" because it is the object of the verb or action. Therefore, in Pali, which has different word endings, the sentence would be "the car-o struck-oti & killed-oti the dog-am". Nov 13, 2023 at 2:32

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