30 March 2012

Papañca 2: Understanding Papañca

LAST WEEK WE SETTLED on a serviceable translation of the term papañca, but it's clear that in a Buddhist context simple translation is far from the whole story. Papañca is clearly a negative term in Buddhist texts, in contrast to the usually positive sense more generally. We have to keep in mind that, in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā (whatever they are) are said to assail, beset, or befall (samudāsarati) a man.[1] The word papañca shares this negative connotation with words that also draw on the metaphor of separating out: e.g., vikappa (Skt. vikalpa) where the vi– suffix indicates separation and it means to mentally separate things out, to discriminate, or distinguish. In general this process is seen as having a negative impact on us.

In the texts and commentaries there seem to be four distinct ways of talking about papañca:

  1. papañca as result, perhaps the sum total, of the perceptual process: e.g. in M 18, S 35.94 A 3.294, Sn 4.11, Sn 3.6.
  2. papañca as metaphysical speculation: e.g. in A 4.173
  3. papañca in relation to 'I am': e.g. in S 35.248, Sn 4.14.
  4. papañca = kilesas e.g. S 35.248, SA 2.381 (commenting on S 35.94). UdA (commenting on Ud 7.7)

The Perceptual Process

These texts are variations on the process by which contact with sensory perceptions is the basis for the process of perception and leads to cognition of the attractiveness or repulsiveness of sensations, and behaviour in response to this cognition. Here papañca can be the end product of the perceptual process (M 18) arising particularly from thinking (vitakka), or it can more general apply to the whole perceptual process (Sn 3.6, 4.11, S 35.94). Some of the references in which it's not clear what papañca refers to (M 11, Ud 7.7, Dhp v.195, 254) seem to draw on this sense. This approach seems to have the most weight in the suttas because it is the most common, and these references are relatively clear and unequivocal.

However, there is a serious problem with these texts as they flatly contradict each other as to the order of the process, particularly M 18, Sn 4.11, and D 21. M 18 has become the standard Theravāda model of perception, and perhaps the best organised of the three. Sn 4.11, by contrast, is poorly organised, and uses terminology which becomes superseded (such as sāta/asāta instead of sukha/dukkha). Sn 4.11 also places saññā at the root of the perceptual process, preceding phassa; whereas, M 18 has the more familiar sequence phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti. D 21 appears to reverse the order of parts of M 18 so that we have these three sequences:

Sn 4.11
saññā > nāma & rūpa > phassa > sāta & asāta > canda > piya > macchara etc.
M 18
rūpa + cakkhu + cakkhu-viññāna > phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti > vitakka > papañca.

D 21
papañcasaññāsaṅkhā > vitakka > chanda > piyāppiya > issā-macchariya > verā etc.
There is no easy way to reconcile these different models. If one is right, then the other two are wrong, and no two agree on all particulars. Is phassa the condition for saññā, or vice versa? Similarly with papañca and vitakka. However, both the commentary and sub-commentary on D 21 ignore the reversed order and treat the subject as vitakka being the basis of papañca as in M 18. So perhaps it is no surprise that only one of these models survived to become orthodox: M 18. However, in terms of a model it is very much overshadowed by the twelve nidānas, which became the standard way of describing how dukkha arises.

In any case, the meaning here seems to be that the complexity of our human responses arises from sense experience. The role played by vitakka (Skt. vitarka) in the M 18 model might help to elucidate this process. The word literally means to 'twist apart'; takka is cognate with English torque, turn and distort; from PIE *terk or *tork, 'to turn, twist'. Figuratively applied to the actions of the mind, it comes to mean 'thought' itself in Pāli, though MW definition of the Sanskrit vitarka gives a broader sense in that it specifies: 'conjecture, suppositions, imagination, opinion; reasoning, deliberation; and doubt, uncertainty.' Pāli gives vitakka a special sense as one of the factors of absorption (jhānaṅga), that of mental attention which is directed towards its object. In this sense vitakka is a positive factor in our awareness. In the production of papañca one applies vitakka to the products of sensing (vedeti) and perception (sañjānāti). Since those products are already distinguished according to their desirability and identity, perhaps vitakka here means that we apply our attention to what is desirable and thereby sustain the production of dukkha? In the long run, we can see that papañca and dukkha must be closely related, if not synonymous.

Metaphysical Speculation

A 4.173 = 4.174 seems to stand alone in defining papañca in terms of speculation. Here the term is used to refer to the asking of questions which speculate on what happens after the "remainderless cessation and fading away of the six spheres of contact." Since contact and proliferation operate in the same domain—i.e. are aspects of the perceptual process—then answering a question about what happens after contact ceases is proliferating the unproliferated. Clearly this application depends on the notion that papañca refers to the perceptual process, but the phrase "proliferating the unproliferated" suggests that speculation about the afterlife might be intended as a specific application.


This is the aspect of papañca which seems to fascinate modern Theravādin commentators, and yet it rests on a less sure foundation than the first, and one of the two key texts also seems to rely, in part, on papañca as the perceptual process.

Much is made of the somewhat cryptic passage in Sn 4.14 which appears to say that 'I am' (asmi) is the root of papañca. Modern commentators, especially Bhikkhu Thanissaro, have taken this to mean that the 'I am' conceit is, in fact, the cause of papañca. However, this not the conclusion of the traditional commentators, nor the obvious conclusion to draw from those texts, which happen to be in a majority, that see proliferation in terms of the perceptual process, either as a product or a general description. Indeed, it would be more conventional, and more in keeping with the majority of texts, to see 'I am' as a result of the perceptual process, and therefore as a result, rather than a cause, of papañca. This is supported by S 35.248, which labels asmīti as papañcita 'proliferated' (past tense) and also an opinion 'maññita' which has the added implication of being the product of mental activity.

Thanissaro, as he often does, comes out of left-field with his rendering of papañca as 'objectification', but he highlights an important facet of papañca. From his notes on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta his translation seems to be strongly influenced by his reading of the Tuvaṭaka Sutta (Sn 4.14; Sn 915ff). There is some merit in his approach. He translates Sn 916 as:
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'
He should train, always mindful,
to subdue any craving inside him."[2]
Compare Norman's translation:
"Being a thinker, he would put a stop to the whole root of what is called "diversification" (i.e. the thought) 'I am'," said the Blessed One. "Whatever internal cravings there are, he would train himself to dispel them, always being mindful." (p. 151)
Despite the differences of interpretation, it is apparent that Sn 916 takes "I am" (asmi) as the root (mūla) of papañca, and Thanissaro sees "I am" as an objectification of experience. Clearly, "objectification" is a way of conveying how Thanissaro sees the psychological process under consideration; it is not a translation of the word papañca. It is quite legitimate to approach a text in this way, especially if the individual words do not directly communicate the sense of the text, but to my mind it obscures too much when we merge the two stage process I'm describing in this post and the last one.

Piya Tan attempts to take the equation of papañca and asmi further by drawing attention to the Yakalāpi Sutta (S 35.248) which lists a series of propositions regarding selfhood, beginning with the statement amsīti 'I am' or 'I exist', followed by variations on asmi 'I am' or bhavissāmi 'I will be'. Each statement is to be understood as is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita),[3] a state of conceit (mānagata and all of these are to be regarded as "a disease, a boil, an arrow".

The explanation rests on the past participle papañcita. The commentary at this point relates these qualities to the presence of the kilesas (i.e., lobha, dosa, moha). But it does not define papañca and, in fact, if we did not already have an opinion about papañca it would be very difficult to form it from this text. Of the qualities, maññita and mānagata are obviously mental activity, and iñjita and phandita are, on face value at least, bodily (though they probably refer to states of anxiety). It's not very clear how papañcita fits into this list of terms. The text clearly says that asmi is an example of papañcita, and undesirable. The formula is: asmīti papañcitametaṃ; i.e. ,"'I am:' this is proliferated." or perhaps "this is a proliferation", since the participle can act as a substantive. Perhaps the sense of this text is how concerns about 'I' proliferate once the thought 'I am' occurs. If we hypostasize our first person perspective then it generates a great deal of 'I' centred thoughts and anxieties.

Does 'I am' constitute objectification in the sense that Thanissaro suggests? Can we objectify ourselves? When we think 'I am' do we really convert ourselves into a thing? Self-objectification seems typically to refer to seeing oneself from another's point of view as an object. It is implicated in body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders for instance – and therefore is concerned more with the identification of the self with the body. I can't really make an object of my self; the thought 'I am' does not make me an object, it makes me a subject. I think what Thanissaro means when he treats proliferation as objectification is the split into subject ('I am') and object ('that is'). The Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) points out that is usual for people to think of the world (loka) in terms of 'it is' (atthi) and 'it is not' (natthi)--the fact of arising and passing away of experience shows that neither of these concepts apply. On the other hand, the Buddhist model of cognition depends on objects of perception as its foundation: As the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta itself says: on the basis of form and eye, eye-consciousness arises and the three together constitute contact.

Thanissaro notes that M18 uses verbs which may indicate an agent. The key phrase being:
Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti

"Eye-consciousness arises on the basis (paccaya) of the eye and form, and the three together constitute contact (phassa); from the condition of contact there is a sensation of experience (vedanā). Where there is experiencing (vedeti) there is awareness (sañjānāti); with awareness there is thinking (vitakka); where there is thinking there is proliferation (papañceti).
Ingenious as Thanissaro's interpretation is, there is no reason to assume an agent here. The verbs indicate, as in my translation, that a process is occurring. In his translation choices Thanissaro emphasises the agent:
What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one "papañcizes."[4]
However, if we compare the same terms in the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta all of these terms, with the addition of vedanā, are defined in terms of verbs which undermines Thanissaro's conclusion because he specifically excludes vedanā from having an agent, whereas the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta suggests it, too, must have an agent if the others do.

In fact, there is no agent in Buddhist psychology. There is no "one" however much we feel as though we are an agent: "what one feels" assumes "I am". Thanissaro's interpretation is somewhat paradoxical: for if an agent is required for the process to continue, and there is no agent, then how does it continue? If we commit to the implications of the Buddhist model, we cannot posit an agent. No one perceives, there is just perceiving; no one thinks, there is only thinking; and no one papañcizes, there is just papañcizing. Each active process, as indicated by the locative absolute construction, forms the basis for the next active process. Perceiving is an emergent property experiencing sensations. Convention almost requires us to posit a metaphorical container for this process, for instance we might say that perception takes place in the mind. But in the Buddha's psychology there is no container for this process, because the container is, effective, a manifestation of the thought "I am".

The objectification that goes on is a mistaken perception: what Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has called naïve realism, or in colloquial terms: WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). That naïve realism is unjustified is neither intuitive nor easy to prove. It only becomes apparent with the highly detailed and focused study that characterises Buddhist meditation, and (just) in the last few decades through studying the way that our perceptual processes can go wrong and lead us astray.

If we go back to the Tuvaṭaka Sutta, we may need to reconsider the idea that the text is saying that "I am" is the root cause of all papañca, and see that "I am" is the root product of prapañca. In any case, Thanissaro has strained a little too hard to make papañca fit into his program, and the translation as 'objectification' is misleading and infelicitous

Taint or Obsession

The commentarial tradition, including texts attributed to both Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla consider papañca to be synonymous with the kilesas. For instance, the commentary on S 35.248 says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ', etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are proliferate (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness." Similarly, the commentary on Ud 7.7 says "Passion is a proliferation, aversion is a proliferation, confusion is a proliferation, craving is a proliferation, view is a proliferation, and conceit is a proliferation."

This is presumably the origin of the idea that papañca might be translated as hindrance or obstacle, since greed, aversion and confusion are the three main obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. Early English translators followed the Pāli commentarial tradition in translating papañca as obstacle: c.f. Woodward, Buddharakkhita, Horner.


What my study seems to say is that the ambiguity of papañca allows it to be co-opted to suit the agenda of the commentator. Despite the relative importance of papañca in Buddhist doctrine, reconstructing it from the Pāli suttas is really very difficult because papañca and related terms are not used very often. On the face of it, I think the best explanation is still that papañca is primarily the perceptual process which gives rise to unskilful behaviour based on the pull and push of our affective reactions to pleasant and unpleasant sensory perceptions. As such, the traditional commentators are correct to relate papañca to the taints which underlie unskillfulness. We can also see that the modern Theravāda commentators, from Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda on, are not wrong about the role played in this by seeing oneself as a subject and objects of perception as real objects, because this is all part of the process of creating dukkha. However, Thanissaro, in particular, has over-emphasised the ego, and his translation of objectification is confusing since ‘I am’ represents a subject rather than an object.

It is puzzling, but perhaps not so unusual, to find so little foundation for such a well-known doctrinal category, and such poor recognition of the flimsiness of that foundation in modern writers. Papañca occurs so few times in the canon that it does not take very long to read and consider all occurrences. It once again reinforces the adage that any one commentary is never the whole story.



[1] In the text the verb is in the plural so we must assume that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā is also plural.
[2] Sn 916 pada a & b: Mūlaṃ papañcasaṅkhāya, (iti bhagavā); Mantā asmīti abbamuparundhe

[3] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear.

[4] However one feels about neologisms Thanissaro has highlighted an important point here which is that papañceti is a denominative verb; i.e., it is a verb derived from the noun papañca, and so literally does mean 'to papañcize".
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