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The Determinations-Aggregate

We now come to the fifth aggregate: the aggregate of determinations (saṅkhārā).

And what, monks, are determinations? These six bodies-of-intention (cetanākāya): intention with regard to sight, intention with regard to sound, intention with regard to smell, intention with regard to taste, intention with regard to touch, intention with regard to mental images. These, monks, are called determinations.” — Upādānaparipavatta Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.56)

In the context of the five aggregates, saṅkhārā refers to the entire body-of-intentions. But we render saṅkhārā as determinations. What is the justification? Let us consider an experience. The positive or actual aspects of the experience would be the color, shape, smell etc. But these aspects alone do not define the experience as a particular thing. To be a particular thing, first it has to be distinguished from all other things; those other things are what this particular thing is not. But being different from all other things does not yet define it as that particular thing. To get so defined it must also point to what it signifies, to what its possibilities and potentialities are. These significances and possibilities of the thing, which are not the thing, are the negative aspects of the thing. The collection of the positive and negative aspects by which the particular thing gets determined or defined as that particular thing and no other are the determinations (saṅkhārā) of the particular thing, the term ‘determinations’ being taken in its broadest sense. In this way, the experience ‘seeing a book’ is determined not only by the positive aspects of color, form, shape etc. but also by the negative aspects of ‘author’, ‘subject’, ‘for reading’, etc.

Every experience has positive and negative aspects. The negatives are images given along with the positives. When I see the book, these images are automatically present due to my past experiences and observations. But if I am faced with something unfamiliar—something I have no previous experience of, and therefore the associated images are insufficient to determine exactly what it is—then if I am to determine what it is, an act of inference is necessary. For this, I have to begin the complicated task of thinking about it. But even in such a case, the insufficiency or inadequacy of the images associated with the sight, smell etc. of the particular thing are enough to determine it immediately as ‘unknown object—handle with care’. Thus even when we resort to inference to precisely determine what a thing is, it has already been determined as ‘unknown object—handle with care’ by the insufficient images given in the immediate experience together with the positive aspects.

However, all negatives do not get equal emphasis in the experience. If we return to the experience of ‘seeing a book’, we recognize the experience as ‘seeing a book’ instead of ‘seeing a pile of paper’ because we give more prominence to the negative aspects such as ‘author’, ‘subject’, ‘for reading’, etc. than to other negative aspects such as ‘for doodling’ or ‘for wrapping things with’. From this, it follows that we know what a thing is when we know what it is for.

Now, of the determinations that determine what a particular thing is, the negative determinative aspects are, in the strictest philosophical sense, intentions or significances. And this is why the Suttas define saṅkhārā in the context of the aggregates as ‘bodies-of-intention’ (cetanākāyā).

Thus an experience is the sum total of the positives—the aggregates of matter, feeling, perception and consciousness—and the negatives—the aggregate of determinations (in this context, intentions). In other words, an experience is the totality of five aggregates. This means that things are present with their significances or potentialities; that is, when they are present, they are present transcending the actual. This is the essence of intentionality, and all consciousness is intentional, at least incipiently.

From the point of view of the problem of suffering, the most important and dominating intention or significance of a thing is that it is ‘mine’ or ‘for me’—an intention that is structurally closely related with the perceptions of pleasurableness and permanence. Further, we are primarily interested in this ubiquitous, ever-present intention ‘for me’, and not in the thing’s other intentions (possible uses). Now, this negative (intention) ‘for me’ has a very important aspect, due to the ubiquitous nature of the negative itself—due to its being present or tending to be present always, whatever there is to be conscious of. This ubiquitous nature of the negative ‘for me’ leads the thinker that there is an ‘I’ existing independently of all experience. In other words, there appears to be positive, actual ‘I’. In this way a negative aspect (’for me’) apparently gives rise to a positive (’I’). Thus there is an ambiguity, and since it is an ambiguity concerned with the very essence of existence, it is an existential ambiguity—in fact, it is the existential ambiguity.

We now come to the question of action. Attention (mamasikāra) may be described as ‘direction of emphasis’. As long as attention is, for example, kept on ‘seeing a book’ the negative aspects such as ‘author’, ‘subject’, ‘for reading’ remain negative—they remain only possibilities, not actual. But with reflexion these possibilities appear as possible, and consequently the actual aspect appears optional. There is now exercise of preference, or exercise of choice; whether to keep seeing the book or read the book, for example. This exercise of preference is action and volition in their simplest form. It can be called intending an intention or intentional intention. The single word ‘intention’ actually denotes this intentional intention in common usage.

Ethically significant action is intentional action (intended intention) related to the problem of what ‘I’ should do. This is the basic ethical problem. And whether ‘what I should do’ is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘moral or ‘immoral’, etc. it is necessarily something that ‘I’ should do; it is intentional action accompanied by notions of subjectivity. The Pāli word kamma refers to this ethically significant action: intentional action wherein the the intentions ‘mine’ or ‘for me’ are always present to some degree. This is why the Buddha describes ‘intention’ (intended intention) concerning the non-arahat as ethically significant ‘action’:

Intention, monks, I declare is action. Having intended, one does action through body, speech and mind.” — Nibbedhika Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 6.63)

The last sentence points to the second layer of action. ‘Having intended’ refers to intending the intention which is action at its first and simplest level. The action done as the result of this ‘having intended’ is the level that follows and makes the action assume a larger perspective.

The question of choice or selection includes the question of what actually decides selection. What decides whether this or that intention should be intended? The answer to this question is very important; its importance lies in the fact that, in the first place, it makes the puthujjana see that his ideas regarding his own actions are rather unsound, and not as noble or selfless as he imagines them to be. What decides the choice for him is purely and simply the perception of pleasure and displeasure. Of all the intentions present that he can intend, the one he intends is just the one he thinks will afford him the highest degree of pleasure, now or in the immediate future. All the intended actions of the puthujjana, from the thoughtless to the most deliberate, are determined by his perception of pleasure and displeasure. Even what he pompously calls his ‘duty’ is included in this principle. If he does his duty, it is only because he would feel displeasure if he neglects it, and he seeks to avoid displeasure. Even when he renounces a present pleasure, he always does so for the sake of what he thinks will be a greater pleasure in the future.

Some degree of reflexion is always present in action. At its lowest level, we may call it a tendency or inclination. At this level the action is irrevocable, but can be modified or toned down by reflexion of a higher order; for example, if I become aware of the action I have already engaged in due to some habit or tendency. But the choice of action may also be made deliberately, in which case it is revocable. The common and convenient idea that our tendencies are impulses to which we can only submit, is mistaken. Far from being an impulse that must be suffered passively, a tendency is actively seeking to determine what is yet only an undetermined situation. A tendency always seeks a situation that is already pregnant in the present situation—which is not the case with a voluntary intention. Late at night I have the tendency to fall asleep, but not to run. My situation is already pregnant with falling asleep, and the intention to fall asleep is immediate and involuntary. But to run at that time I have to voluntarily intend, and make a deliberate effort to run; running is not an action my situation at that time is pregnant with. By making tendency a state of fact, psychology deprives it of its essential character—appetite—and hence also of its modifiability.

Attention (manasikāra) is an important phenomenon, always present in the intentional structure. We have defined it as direction of emphasis. This means that from all the intentions present, we emphasize one more than the others. When the book is used, one among the possible intentions is attended more than the others. It cannot both be seen and read, for to be seen it must be closed, and to be read it must be open and close to hand. Clearly, when there is attention there is voluntary or intentional intention, and there is no consciousness without at least incipient attention. Attention is essentially reflexive, though there are both intention and attention (at least incipient) in the structure of immediate experience, which may be termed immediate intention and immediate attention.

Saṅkhārā = Determinations

Let us discuss the justification for rendering saṅkhārā as determinations. We will consider three outstanding instances of this usage in the Suttas.

  1. It is the name gives to the fourth aggregate—saṅkhrāra-khanda. This fourth aggregate is again defined as ‘bodies-of-intention’ (cetanākāya). Thus in the context of the five aggregates, saṅkhārā are synonymous with intentions (cetanā), which mean both intention and intended intention.
  2. In the doctrine of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) the word saṅkhārā occurs in saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇam: “with saṅkhārā  as a condition, consciousness manifests,” and in this context is defined as follows:

“What, monks, are the saṅkhārā? These are the three saṅkhārā: the body-saṅkhārā, the speech-saṅkhārā and the mind-saṅkhārā. These, monks, are called the saṅkhārā.” — Vibhaṅga Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 12.2)

The following passage tells us what these three varieties of saṅkhārā refer to, and why they are called saṅkhārā:

“Indeed, friend Visākha, the in-&-out breaths are body-saṅkhārā, thinking-&-pondering are speech-saṅkhārā, perception and feeling are mind-saṅkhārā. But why, lady, are the in-&-out breaths body-saṅkhārā, why are thinking-&-pondering speech-saṅkhārā, why are perception and feeling mind-saṅkhārā? Indeed, friend Visākha, the in-&-out breaths are bodily, they are bound up with the body; that is why the in-&-out breaths are body-saṅkhārā. Indeed, friend Visākha, first having thought and pondered, one breaks out into speech; that is why thinking-&-pondering are speech-saṅkhārā. Perception and feeling are mental, these things are bound up with the mind, that is why perception and feeling are mind-saṅkhārā.” — Culavedalla Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 44)

Now, thinking-&-pondering (vitakkavicārā) and feeling and perception (sañña ca vedanā ca) are intentional; that means speech-saṅkhārā and mind-saṅkhārā are intentional things. How about the in-&-out breaths which are the body-saṅkhārā? In fact the in-&-out breaths are intentional, in the sense that breathing is a conscious act, though not necessarily deliberate or and act of awareness; and all conscious action is intentional. The proof that in-&-out breaths are intentional is that if we stop breathing for a few seconds, we experience a tremendous intention to breathe, compelling us to continue our breathing. This intention is there all the time, albeit to a much lesser degree; as long as we keep breathing we don’t observe it. In contrast, if our blood circulation has stopped in some part of the body we experience pain or numbness, but that cannot be described as an intention to circulate the blood.

Incidentally, there is another triad of saṅkhārā in the Suttas, called kāyasaṅkhārā-vacīsaṅkhārā-manosaṅkhārā (not cittasaṅkhārā: the precise meaning of citta has to be determined by context. It can mean mind, consciousness, cognition, heart, reflexive experience, etc.) These two triads simply distinguish intentional action by body, speech and mind.

The above comments regarding the meaning of the triad kāyasaṅkhārā-vacīsaṅkhārā-cittasaṅkhārā mentioned in the doctrine of paṭiccasamuppāda indicate that in the context of Dependent Origination, saṅkhārā refer to intentional things, but not to intention itself. Sometimes however, saṅkhārā do refer to intention. It is important to have this position in mind when studying Dependent Origination, particularly because the traditional three-life interpretation of the commentaries wrongly assumes that the saṅkhārā of this doctrine refer exclusively to intention.

  1. In the Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43) heat is called life-saṅkhārā (āyusaṅkhārā) as that upon which life depends: “Life stands dependent on heat”—āyusmaṃ paṭicca tiṭṭatīti. Clearly, in this case, saṅkhārā has nothing to do with intention. It merely refers to something upon which some other thing depends.

All this brings home two important conclusions:

  1. The Suttas use the word saṅkhārā to refer not only to intention but also to other things. It is used to mean intention, intentional things and other things, neither intention nor intentional.
  2. The Pāli words paṭibaddha (bound up with) and paṭicca (dependent upon) indicate that whatever is referred to as a saṅkhārā is something upon which some other thing depends or is intimately connected to.

These two facts provide us with the justification to render saṅkhārā as ‘determination’ and not as ‘intention’. Intention is insufficient to cover all the uses of saṅkhārā in the Suttas, but ‘determination’ or ‘determinant’ do cover them. All intentions are determinations; that is, they are things that determine other things; but all determinations are not intentions.

If we render saṅkhārā as ‘determination’ or ‘determinant’ we find that this fits all instances of the use of this word in the Suttas, while giving it an appropriate meaning. In the Atthakarana Sutta (SN 3.7) the Buddha tells us why the fourth aggregate, the aggregate of intentions, is called the aggregate of saṅkhārā. If we translate saṅkhārā as determination, the relevant passage reads as follows:

“And what, monks, do you say are determinations? They determine the determined; that is why, monks, they are called determinations. And what is the determined that they determine? Matter as matter is the determined that they determine. Feeling as feeling is the determined that they determine. Consciousness as consciousness is the determined that they determine. They determine the determined; that is why, monks, they are called determinations.” — Khajjanīya Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.79)

A determination (saṅkhāra) can also be called a necessary condition, or it can be called a thing upon which some other thing depends, and it is very important that its meaning is distinctly understood. It means that whatever thing depends on this determination can exist only if this determination is present. The thing cannot be present without the determination being present, for the determination is the necessary condition, without which the thing cannot be. If the determination is absent, then the thing is absent. It should not be understood as ‘once the determination has come and gone, the thing arises’; nor must it be understood that ‘the determination becomes the thing’. There is no temporal succession wherein one comes into being with the cessation of the other, as for example the various items of the cittavīthi do. If the determination is gone, the thing determined by the determination is also gone. If the necessary condition is gone, the thing conditioned by the condition is also gone. This is a structural principle.

It is of great importance that the determination (saṅkhāra) does not refer to the thing (dhamma) that is determined (saṅkhata) by the determination. The thing that is determined by the determination is called the ‘determined thing’ (saṅkhata dhamma). Any determined thing is, however, of the nature of the determination. In Pāli terms, the saṅkhata dhamma is of the nature of saṅkhāra. That is to say, any determined thing is in turn the determination for some other determined thing.

For example, the six internal sense bases are the determination for contact; contact cannot be there unless the six internal bases are there. Therefore the six internal bases are the determinations and contact is the determined thing. Then contact is the determination for feeling. So contact, a determined thing, is also a determination that feeling is dependent upon. Without contact, no feeling. This is the meaning of saying that ‘any determined thing is of the nature of a determination’. Further, any determination is also a determined thing that is determined by other determinations.

These two situations form one of the causes for the immense confusion in regard to saṅkhāra and saṅkhata. Saṅkārā (determination or determinant) is very often taken to mean ‘the determined’, ‘the conditioned’ or ‘the formed’, all of which actually refer to saṅkhata. The very important statement sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā is invariably mistranslated ‘all conditioned things are impermanent’, when it should be translated as ‘all determinants are impermanent’ or ‘all necessary conditions are impermanent’ or ‘all determinations are impermanent’. Saṅkhāra is a key term in the Suttas, and when it is wrongly taken to mean the same as saṅkhata we find that, in addition to misunderstanding the Suttas, the Suttas are deprived of a portion of their essential leading-on character.

Finally, regarding saṅkhāra, within the scope of the structural principle we have elucidated, there are two variations of the temporal relationship between the determinations and the corresponding determined things. They are:

  1. Whenever certain determinations and their corresponding determined things exist, they exist only together. The determination (saṅkhāra) and the determined thing (saṅkhata dhamma) arise together, persist together and cease together. We will come across many such pairs as we continue our discussion.
  2. Other determinations can exist without the corresponding determined things, but if the determined things are to exist, the determinations must also exist. Two examples are perception and knowledge, and thinking-&-pondering and speech. There can be perception without knowledge, but if knowledge is to be there then perception must also be there. Perception comes first, then knowledge comes with perception still present as the determination. Similarly, there can be thinking-&-pondering without speech, but if speech is to be there then thinking-&-pondering must precede it and remain in order for speech to exist.

The common feature in both cases is the structural principle: if the determined thing is to exist, the determination also must be present. And this structural principle is common to both the temporal variations above. In short, whether or not the determination can exist without the determined thing, the determined thing cannot exist without the presence of the determination.

Finally, it is vitally important to remember precisely what this word saṅkhāra refers to, its usage in the Suttas and the attendant implications. Much of the misinterpretation of the Suttas stems from misunderstand go this word and its usage. It is not easy to sort out, but it presents no difficulty once its precise meaning is established.

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