Through sutta study groups and via email questions recently, I have been involved in several discussions about sankhara. Sankhara is usually translated in English as mental formations, volitional formations, activities, inclinations, or fabrications. Sankhara appears as a factor of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising and as one of the Five Aggregates. This factor tends to be quite confusing to many students of Buddhism. In this post I shall share a recent series of questions and responses with a student about sankhara as it appears in the model of the five aggregates.

Question: What does sankhara refer to?

Shaila’s Response: For a basic description, I’ll refer to the description I wrote in Wisdom Wide and Deep“Mental formations (sankhara) include all the formations of mind—wholesome and unwholesome—such as hindrances, intentions, compassion, tranquility, thoughts, hopes, fears, plans, mindfulness, effort, anger, determination, opinions, attitudes, joy, envy. This is a vast category of mental phenomena that includes qualities we endeavor to cultivate, qualities we seek to abandon, and all the thoughts that proceed from the basic perception of an object. This category encompasses the fifty-two mental factors defined in chapter 13, but excludes feeling, perception, and consciousness since they appear as specific aggregates in the context of this model.

The scope of this aggregate is vast. Although experiences are composed of many mental factors that function together to form the interdependent state, they are essentially hollow and without a core—like a banana tree. As the traditional commentary explains, “One cannot take anything from a plantain stem and bring it away to make even as much as a rafter . . . A plantain stem is a combination of many sheaths, so also the formations aggregate is a combination of many states.””

Question: Where is memory classified in the five aggregates? Is it a mental formation or an aspect of perception?

Shaila’s Response: A memory is a mental object, a concept. Mental objects and concepts would fall under the category of mental formations. To understand this in practice, remember that the model of the 5 aggregates is used to describe the functions and elements that must be present for experience to occur. Contact with concepts, thoughts, or memories can stimulate mind-consciousness to cognize that particular mental contact. The perception aggregate would be the aspect of experience that recognizes the mind-contact as a memory. But the mental formations aggregate would embrace the necessary condition of contact with the mental object, that is, the memory as it is known on contact.

But interestingly, traditional vipassana practices consider concepts unsuitable as objects for vipassana practice. Concepts are not contemplated as impermanent. Only the ‘real’ constituents of experience are contemplated as impermanent. In this case, thought-contact would be the real formation, not the thought itself.

Question: When a memory is triggered by a smell, for example, is it really volitional?

Shaila’s Response: Volition is necessary for anything to be known. The potential for smelling is always present, if conditions come together. We could say that all matter has an odor, but is it really an odor if it is not consciously smelled? Many functions must come together in a single moment in order to become conscious of a smell. One of the most essential mental formations that accompany the knowing of any sensory contact is the volition toward it. In contemporary speak one might say that we open to that experience or tune in. That is the intention/volition aspect. Volition is a universal aspect of all cognitive processes.

Our bodies are continuously bombarded by the potential for sensory contacts —impact of gravity, contact with clothes, hardness of the seat, pressure of blood moving in our veins, internal organs in contact with each other, sensitivity to temperature, muscular movements that cause friction, the taste of saliva in our mouths, sounds in the room etc.. But we only notice what the mind has volition toward. It is similar with odor. Every breath carries the potential for smelling, and the mucous in our nostrils has an odor to it, but we will only know what the mind moves toward. In a moment of conscious contact, not only is the physical potential for sensation stimulated, simultaneously feeling is associated with that contact, perception recognizes what it is, and there is a cluster of mental factors that characterize how we relate to that contact. That is, the five aggregates arise in a moment of contact.

Once a smell is known, that sense-door cognitive process is past. But usually mind-door cognitive processes that were stimulated and conditioned by the previous cognition of an odor arise quickly. The apprehension of the odor had volition. And the apprehension of later thoughts that were triggered by the odor, also have volitions. They are separate and distinct volitions, though they might occur in rapid succession.

This exploration can become very refined by considering the multiplicity of facets that occur within each cognitive process. The basic practice, however, is to notice the distinction between a physical stimulus and our response to it. Distinguish between the material and the mental, and then look closely and discover that the material and mental aspects of every experience are distinguishable in their functions and characteristics, but are inseparable. They arise and perish together.

Enjoy the fun of exploring this amazing interaction with the world.