Tuesday, August 14, 2012


When we say that sanskara gives rise to consciousness, we have to carefully consider what we mean by "sanskara" and what we mean by "consciousness," as well as what is meant by "gives rise to." We will first examine the meaning of the term "sanskara."

According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, the Sanskrit term samskara (literally, "impression, consequence") is generally translated as "formations," "mental formational forces," or "impulses." Samskara refers both to the activity of forming and the passive state of being formed.  "Formations" include all volitional impulses or intentions that precede an action. Since actions can be either physical, verbal, or mental, the corresponding impulses can be distinguished as physical, verbal, or mental. 

In some schools of Buddhism, the presence of samskaras is considered the condition for a new rebirth.  If samskaras are absent, it is taught, no karma is produced and no further rebirth takes place.  In addition, samskaras determine the type of rebirth since they can be good, bad, or neutral, and their quality conditions the consciousness that arises through them.  My Zen teacher points out that we are constantly being reborn in this very lifetime, and that the karmic consequences of our actions determine and condition us and who we are as each moment arises.  However, other schools of Buddhism emphasize that samskaras determine and condition that consciousness that seeks a womb after the death of a being and that brings into existence a new empirical person.

I have my doubts about such an abiding consciousness, but I encourage each of you to reach your own conclusion about this matter.  When I speak of samskara, I consider it more in the psychological sense of Buddhist translator and author Red Pine (Bill Porter).  In his translation and commentary on The Heart Sutra, Red Pine spells the term with an "n" instead of an "m" (sanskara), and notes that the Sanskrit term is derived from a combination of san- (together) and -kri (to make).  Thus, it means "put together" and refers to those things we have "put together" that have a direct bearing on the way we think or perceive.  Red Pine notes, "In the past this term has often been translated as 'impulse,' 'volition,' 'predisposition,' or 'mental conformation.'  But each of these renderings involve certain limitiations and distortions.  For example, 'volition' suggests a separate will tantamount to a self. 'Predisposition' comes closer but does not necessarily establish a connection with past actions.  And such invented terms as .mental conformation' are simply too bizarre to have much use outside academic circles, very small academic circles."

What the term sanskara basically refers to is our karmic genome, the repository of all that we have previously intended, whether expressed in the form of actions, words, or thoughts.  Thus, as pointed out by Red Pine, sanskara embraces all the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present.  Sanskara supplies the templates that our perception applies to the sensations and form.  It is the prefabricated set of guidelines from the past with which we perceive and deal with both the internal and external world as we experience it in the present.  As the faculty of memory is obviously involved in such a process, Red Pine translates sanskara with the English term "memory."  That might be going a bit too far, but for our purposes, consider sanskara the habitual creations of the mind, conditioned by our past experiences and subconsciously applied to our everyday experiences.


Luciano said...


Great article, I think there's a little typo:

"determine and condition us and who be are as each moment arises."

I think you meant who WE are?

Shokai said...

Thanks for the catch! And "who WE are" sounds a lot better that "who we BE."

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