Sankhāra is one of the more versatile and challenging words found in Buddhist teachings. It is based on a root meaning “to do” or “to make” (√kr), and is therefore related to the word karma. Karma has both an active sense, referring to the actions we perform in the moment, and a more passive sense, pointing to the past and future consequences of those actions.

The word sankhāra refines this further by being used in three ways: 1) the intentions or qualities of mind that shape an action; 2) the activities of body, speech, and mind that execute the actions; and 3) the karmic residue that results from the actions, which then serves as an underlying field from which new intentions and actions emerge. For example, the emotion of anger gives rise to an angry word or deed or thought, which then makes one more inclined to anger in the future. Because of this inclination, a person who has practiced being angry for a long time has shaped their personality such that we might say they are disposed to anger.

Of course this all works for positive mental and emotional states as well. When a person feels compassion, acts it out by deed or word or thought, and thereby generates underlying habitual tendencies toward compassion, these render them disposed to compassion. Another way to say this is that states of mind induce behaviors that result in corresponding personality traits.

The concept of sankhāra thus lies at the heart of a process of fabrication by which we shape ourselves through our ongoing responses to the world. In a psychological model lacking a fixed self, the self is formed and re-formed every moment by the nature of our intentions, actions, and ensuing dispositions. We are continually “forming formations,” as one text puts it (sankhāram abhisankharoti—using the word as both a noun and a verb), thereby constantly shaping and reshaping both ourselves and our world by the quality of our responses.

Sankhāra is also the name of one of the five aggregates, the five functions of mind and body that regularly interact with one another to shape our experience. While material form, feeling tone, perceptual interpretation, and consciousness help us understand what is going on each moment, the aggregate of formations (sankhāra) guides what we do about it.

The challenge is to respond skillfully rather than unskillfully, and sankhāra is a tool that can be wielded with delusion or with wisdom.