Reality may seem solid, says Bhikkhu Bodhi, but it is merely a reflection of unstable, conditioned processes, or sankharas, coming together with no one in charge.
Impermanent, alas, are conditioned things! Their very nature is to arise and vanish. Having arisen they then cease. Their subsiding is blissful!
In Theravada Buddhist lands, this verse is always recited at funerals to console the grievers over the death of a loved one. However, I have not quoted it here in order to begin an obituary. I do so simply to introduce a term that I wish to explore. The term is sankhara, one of those Pali words with such rich implications that merely to draw them out sheds abundant light on the Buddha’s understanding of reality.
The word occurs in the opening line of the above verse: Anicca vata sankhara, “Impermanent, alas, are conditioned things!” Sankhara is a plural noun derived from the prefix sam, meaning “together,” joined with the noun kara, meaning “doing” or “making.” The corresponding verb is sankharoti, “to put together” or “to compose,” which is sometimes augmented with another prefix to yield the verb abhisankharoti, which usually indicates that volition is involved in the process of “putting together” or composing. Etymologically, sankharas are thus “co-doings”: both things that act in unison with other things to produce an effect and the things produced by the combined action of those productive forces. Translators have rendered the word in many different ways: formations, confections, activities, processes, fabrications, forces, compounds, compositions, concoctions, determinations, synergies, constructions. All are clumsy, imprecise attempts to capture the meaning of a concept for which we have no exact parallel in English.
Although it may be impossible to discover an exact English equivalent for sankhara, by exploring its actual usage we can see how the word functions in the thought world of the Buddha’s teachings.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.
Bhikkhu Bodhi is a senior Theravada monk and scholar who has translated and edited several important Pali texts, including most recently The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha. He resides at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York.