According to noted translator and practicing Buddhist Bill Porter, who publishes as “Red Pine”:
“The word sanskara 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 and perceive. In the past this term has often been translated as ‘impulse,’ ‘volition,’ ‘predisposition,’ or ‘mental conformation.’ But each of these renderings involves certain limitations and distortions. For example, ‘volition’ suggests a separate will tantamount to a self, and ‘impulse’ implies the lack of any will or 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 this term basically refers to is our karmic genome, the repository of all that we have previously intended, whether expressed in the form of words, deeds, or thoughts. Thus, sanskara embraces all the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and that are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present.”
Red Pine therefore translates sanskara as “memory,” and notes that among the meanings for sanskara are “the faculty of memory, mental impression or recollection, impression of the mind of acts done in a former state of existence . . . the reproductive imagination . . .a mental conformation or creation of the mind (such as that of the external world, regarded by it as real, though actually non-existent).”
Sankara can involve anything that might provide us with a prefabricated set of guidelines from the past with which to perceive and deal with the world, both inside and outside, as we experience it in the present. Thus, sanskara supplies the templates that perception applies to sensations and form.
I don’t know of anyone else other than me who has made the connection between sanskara and schemata. I first read about schema about a year ago and realized what they were talking about sounded very similar to sanskara. Study of this has lead me to other sources on schemata and to Erich Fromm’s “mental maps,” but I’ve not read anyone else use both terms (sanskara and schemata) in the same piece. I’m not bragging; in fact, just the opposite - since it’s only me who seems to have made the obvious connection, maybe I'm missing something and this all will come down on me like a house of cards.
But as I see it here and now, sanskara is our habitual ways of perceiving and understanding the world and ourselves. To apply just a little schematic theory, we can substitute “pre-conscious” or “subconscious” for “habitual” and realize that these templates are applied without our conscious realization, so there is no volitional element to it.
Here's a little test for you to experience for yourself how sanskara/schema works - what's going on in these pictures? (I took them today.)
In these days of sensational coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, and the reinforcement of the stereotype that all encounters between men and women, between blacks and whites, are inherently confrontational and potentially violent, it's only natural to assume these are pictures of an altercation, one that may even have left the man wounded, or worse. Or maybe you thought it was a dramatic re-enactment of such an altercation.
In fact, neither could be further from the truth. If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you will see that the couple pictured above are two of the performers from the GloATL dance troupe, which engaged in an outdoor performance today in midtown Atlanta. The woman at the top of this post, who incidentally is not standing in traffic although it might appear that way, was also part of the performance.
Not only was the above encounter not a violent confrontation, although the pictures were carefully selected to suggest otherwise, it wasn't even an artistic recreation of a violent confrontation. In the last picture, the female dancer is laying down next to the male, just outside of the frame, and the sequence of pictures above is in the reverse of the chronological order - this part of the performance started with the two laying down next to each other on the ground, slowly helping each other up, and then gazing into each others eyes. It was actually quite lovely and touching.
But we have a script in our mind, and as soon as we see something that fits the pattern, we use the script to fill in the blanks. You probably also made the assumption, based on past experiences, that the pictures were shown in the same order as the sequence of events. This is schemata, what the Buddha called sanskara, what Fromm refers to as our "mental maps." And while these can be very useful, if not downright essential in understanding the world around us, there's always the danger of mistaking the map for the territory.
My theory is that schema are applied subconsciously and therefore we aren't aware of how our perceptions are filtered by our own minds. As the Buddha put it, sanskara arises out of ignorance. But realizing this, we can use our volition and intention in choosing how we act in response to our filtered perceptions. This requires wisdom, and wisdom, in turn, requires knowledge as well as practice in putting this knowledge to use.
In essence, we might just be consciously creating a new template for ourselves, one of careful and critical self-examination, another but useful schema to be applied to our perception.
|GloATL dancers, 10th and Peachtree, July 10, 2013|