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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
66 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2014 of volitional activities, has a wider range. It comprises all kinds of volition, not merely those volitions that are karmically potent but also those that are karmically passive and karmically inoperative. In the later Pali literature, the sankhara- khandha becomes an umbrella category for all factors of mind except feeling and perception, which are aggregates on their own. Thus the sankhara-khandha comes to include wholesome factors such as non-greed, non-hatred, and wis- dom; unwholesome factors such as greed, hatred, and delusion; and ethically variable factors such as contact, attention, thought, and energy. Since all these factors arise in conjunction with voli- tion, the early Buddhist teachers decided that the most fitting place to assign them is in the aggre- gate of volitional activities. Sankharas as Conditioned Phenomena The third major sphere in which the word sankhara occurs is as a designation for all con- ditioned things. In this context, the word has a passive sense, denoting whatever is produced by a combination of conditions—that is, whatever is conditioned, constructed, or fabricated. In this sense it might be rendered simply as “condi- tioned phenomena.” The Pali commentaries, in fact, explain this kind of sankharas as sankhata- sankhara, “sankharas consisting in the condi- tioned,” sankhata being the past participle of the verb sankharoti, from which sankhara is derived. As conditioned phenomena, sankharas include all five aggregates, not just the fourth aggregate. The term also includes external objects and phe- nomena such as mountains, fields, and forests; towns, cities, and villages; food and drink; and we can add to the classical list cars, iPhones, and computers. Sankharas in the Stages of Meditation The fourth context for the word sankhara is a meditative one. Here the word is used to refer to bodily, verbal, and mental generating rebirth. They are thus the factors that shape our destiny as we revolve in samsara, the round of birth and death. In this context the word sankhara is virtually synonymous with kamma, a word to which it is etymologically akin. Both are derived from the verb karoti, meaning “to act, do, or make.” The suttas distinguish the sankharas active in dependent origination into three types: bodily, verbal, and mental. Again, they are divided into the meritorious, demeritorious, and imperturb- able—that is, the volitions present in the four formless meditations. When ignorance and crav- ing underlie our stream of consciousness, our volitional activities of body, speech, and mind have a capacity to produce karmic fruits. The most significant fruit they produce is the renewal of the stream of consciousness following death. It is the sankharas, propped up by ignorance and fueled by craving, that drive the stream of consciousness onward to a new birth. Moreover, exactly where consciousness heads is determined by the karmic character of the sankharas. If one engages in meritorious deeds, the sankharas, or volitional activities, will propel conscious- ness toward a fortunate sphere of rebirth. If one engages in demeritorious deeds, the sankharas will propel consciousness toward a rebirth in a lower realm. And if one masters the formless meditations, the imperturbable sankharas will propel consciousness toward rebirth in the form- less realms. The Aggregate of Volitional Activities A second major sphere to which the word sankharas applies is among the five aggregates. The fourth aggregate is the sankhara-khandha, the aggregate of volitional activities. The texts explicitly define the sankhara-khandha as the six classes of volition (cha cetanakaya): voli- tion regarding forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tac- tile objects, and ideas. Though these sankharas correspond closely to those in the formula of dependent origination, the two are not exactly the same. The sankhara-khandha, the aggregate ©ROMANSIGNER|COURTESYOFTHEARTISTANDHAUSER&WIRTH ➤ continued page 82