Samskara or Sankhara

This is a vital component of Buddhist teaching

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Samskara (Sanskrit; the Pali is sankhara) is a useful word to explore if you are struggling to make sense of Buddhist doctrines. This word is defined by Buddhists in many ways—volitional formations; mental impressions; conditioned phenomena; dispositions; forces that condition psychic activity; forces that shape moral and spiritual development.

Samskara as the Fourth Skandha

Samskara also is the fourth of the Five Skandhas and the second link in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, so it's something that figures into many Buddhist teachings. It's also closely linked to karma.

According to Theravada Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi, the word samskara or sankhara has no exact parallel in English. "The word sankhara is derived from the prefix sam, meaning 'together,' joined to the noun kara, 'doing, making.' Sankharas are thus 'co-doings,' things that act in concert with other things, or things that are made by a combination of other things."

In his book What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1959), Walpola Rahula explained that samskara can refer to "all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental."

Let's look at specific examples.

Skandhas Are Components That Make an Individual 

Very roughly, the skandhas are components that come together to make an individual—physical form, senses, conceptions, mental formations, awareness. The skandhas are also referred to as the Aggregates or the Five Heaps.

In this system, what we might think of as "mental functions" are sorted into three types. The third skandha, samjna, includes what we think of as intellect. Knowledge is a function of samjna.

The sixth, vijnana, is pure awareness or consciousness.

Samskara, the fourth, is more about our predilections, biases, likes and dislikes, and other attributes that make up our psychological profiles.

The skandhas work together to create our experiences. For example, Let's say you walk into a room and see an object. Sight is a function of sedana, the second skandha. The object is recognized as an apple -- that's samjna. An opinion arises about the apple—you like apples, or maybe you don't like apples. That reaction or mental formation is samskara. All of these functions are connected by vijnana, awareness.

Our psychological conditionings, conscious and subconscious, are functions of samskara. If we are afraid of water, or quickly become impatient, or are shy with strangers or love to dance, this is samskara. 

No matter how rational we think we are, most of our willful actions are driven by samskara. And willful actions create karma. The fourth skandha, then, is linked to karma.

In the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of yogacara, samskaras are impressions that collect in the storehouse consciousness or alaya-vijnana. The seeds (bijas) of karma arise from this.

Samskara and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination is the teaching that all beings and phenomena inter-exist. Put another way, nothing exists completely independently from everything else. The existence of any phenomenon depends on conditions created by other phenomena.

Now, what are the Twelve Links? There are at least a couple of ways to understand them. Most commonly, the Twelve Links are the factors that cause beings to become, live, suffer, die, and become again. The Twelve Links also are sometimes described as the chain of mental activities that lead to suffering.

The first link is avidya or ignorance. This is ignorance of the true nature of reality. Avidya leads to samskara—mental formations— in the form of ideas about reality. We become attached to our ideas and unable to see them as illusions. Again, this is closely linked to karma. The force of mental formations leads to vijnana, awareness. And that takes us to nama-rupa, name, and form, which is the beginning of our self-identity—I am. And on to the other eight links.

Samskara as Conditioned Things

The word samskara is used in one other context in Buddhism, which is to designate anything that is conditioned or compounded. This means everything that is compounded by other things or affected by other things.

The Buddha's last words as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 16) were, "Handa dani bhikkhave amantayami vo: Vayadhamma sankhara appamadena sampadetha."  A translation: "Monks, this is my last advice to you. All conditioned things in the world will decay. Work hard to gain your own salvation."

Bhikkhu Bodhi said of samskara, "The word stands squarely at the heart of the Dhamma, and to trace its various strands of meaning is to get a glimpse into the Buddha's own vision of reality." Reflecting on this word may help you understand some difficult Buddhist teachings.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Samskara or Sankhara." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). Samskara or Sankhara. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Samskara or Sankhara." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).