What is Papancha?

 

 
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As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, “papancha” is a term rooted in Buddhist philosophy, particularly within the Theravāda tradition. It refers to the proliferation of thoughts, concepts, and mental elaborations that lead to suffering and confusion. Papancha involves the tendency of the mind to get entangled in unnecessary, often obsessive, thinking and mental formations, which can obstruct clear perception and insight. In-Depth Explanation of Papancha: In Buddhism, particularly in mindfulness and insight meditation (Vipassanā), papancha is regarded as a cognitive process that generates suffering by distorting our perception of reality. The mind creates stories, interpretations, and judgments based on sensory experiences, leading to mental proliferation. This proliferation can cause us to become attached to our thoughts, beliefs, and conceptualizations, which in turn can give rise to emotional distress and a cycle of suffering. Papancha involves several key aspects:
  1. Conceptualization: The mind tends to label, categorize, and create concepts about experiences. It assigns judgments, evaluations, and narratives to these concepts.
  2. Attachment and Aversion: Once concepts are formed, the mind can become attached to them if they are pleasant or desirable and averse to them if they are unpleasant or unwanted.
  3. Identification: We often identify with the stories and concepts we create, leading to a sense of self and reinforcing egoic tendencies.
  4. Narrative Creation: Papancha leads to the weaving of narratives about past experiences, future possibilities, and the self, which can take us away from direct, present-moment experience.
Research on Papancha: As of my last update, while papancha is a well-recognized concept within Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices, it may not be a topic that has been extensively researched in the context of academic or scientific studies. The exploration of papancha tends to be deeply rooted in contemplative and meditative practices rather than empirical research. If you are seeking recent research on papancha or its related concepts, I recommend looking into scholarly articles and books on mindfulness, Buddhist psychology, and meditation practices. Keep in mind that my information might be outdated, and there could have been developments in the field since then. For a comprehensive understanding of papancha, it may be valuable to explore primary Buddhist texts, teachings from experienced meditation teachers, and contemporary writings that delve into the intersection of Buddhism, psychology, and neuroscience. As of now, I am unable to access the internet for real-time research updates, so I suggest consulting academic databases, meditation centers, or reputable sources specializing in Buddhist studies and mindfulness for the most current information on papancha and related research. Conceptual Proliferation (papanchain Theravada Buddhism thanks to – by Dr. Ari Ubeysekara In the Buddhist literature, the word “papancha” in (Pali language) or “prapancha” in (Sanskrit language) seems to have been translated by different Buddhist scholars giving several meanings such as obsession, self-reflexive thinking, diversification, mental proliferation, complication, elaboration, reification, objectification, distortion, falsification, exaggeration, manifoldness, spreading out, expansion, diffusion, and differentiation. Buddhist scholar and Pali translator Bhikkhu Bodhi has translated papancha as “mental proliferation”. Venerable Nanamoli, who translated Venerable Buddhaghosa’s classic book “The Path of Purification” (visuddhimagga), from pali into English language, has suggested the term “diversification”. In his book “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought”, Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu K. Nanananda has suggested “conceptual proliferation” as the probable primary meaning of this term which will be used in this article when referring to papancha. (1) Our interactions with the outside world take place when the six sense doors of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind receive corresponding sense objects namely; visual objects, sounds, smell, taste, tangible objects, and mind objects such as thoughts and memories. Conceptual proliferation can be described as the automatic and spontaneous mental process that takes place in the background of our mind when we receive a sense perception through any one of the six sense doors during our normal daily life. Initially, what one receives through a sense door is just a bare sense experience which then sets off an effortless series of subsequent mental events elaborating on the initial sense experience to develop an endless series of concepts and perceptions based on past memories as well as future dreams or fears. Conceptual proliferation (papancha) is an automatic response in the human mind of anyone who is not yet enlightened in response to a sense experience leading to what can be described as a chattering mind. Initially, it takes place at an unconscious level and hence we are not aware that it is going on. However, as the conceptual proliferation continues, magnifying and multiplying by itself, one becomes familiar with the process. Later it may occur even at a conscious level. By the time one becomes conscious of the fact that conceptual proliferation is taking place, one may have no control over it or one may allow it to continue. The concepts developed can distort the sense experience with no resemblance to the initial sense object received and will lead to various emotions, feelings, evaluations, opinions, judgments, desires, and expectations. They will invariably lead to unwanted negative thoughts, suffering, and conflicts. The person experiencing these automatic conceptual proliferations becomes a passive victim with no awareness or control over the process but will have to face the negative consequences both internally and externally. A brief teaching to the monks by The Buddha in the Madhupindika sutta (the Discourse on the Honey-ball) of the Majjhima Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s middle-length discourses) which was later elaborated by Arahant Maha Kaccayana, has shown how a sense experience through any one of the six sense doors leads on to conceptual proliferation in an unenlightened mind. When a sense door meets a sense object, there instigates the consciousness (vinnana) relevant to that sense door and when the three of them (sense door, sense object, and consciousness) come together there is the sense experience or contact (phassa). The sense experience causes feeling (vedana) which in turn causes perception (sanna). Perception is the mental factor that makes sense of the feeling experienced and may identify it as pleasurable, aversive or neutral. Where there is perception, there is thinking (vitakka) and where there is thinking, there is an automatic process of proliferating in terms of concepts (papancha). So, conceptual proliferation (papancha) can also be described as the final stage of the cognitive process that takes place in the mind following a sense experience. Once the process of proliferation has begun, it will continue taking into account further thoughts and perceptions in relation to all the past, present, and future sense perceptions obtained through all sense doors. Finally, it will lead to the development of an enormous complex of perceptions and concepts about the past, the future, and the present sense experiences which the Buddha has described as Papanchasannasankha. This phase of mental proliferation may become so preoccupied with past memories and future projections and dreams so much so that what is happening at the present moment, in reality, may get completely ignored. However, we believe this vicious cycle of conceptions and perceptions to be real, and acting on them causes conflicts within ourselves as well as outside. If we consider the sense door of the eye as an example;
  • the eye (cakkhu) receives the sense object or form (rupa)
  • Then there is simultaneous eye-consciousness (cakkhu vinnana)
  • The eye, sense object and eye-consciousness together is sense impression (cakkhu sampassa)
  • Sense impression leads to feeling (vedana)
  • The feeling is followed by perception (sanna)
  • Perception is followed by thinking (vitakka)
  • Thinking leads to conceptual proliferation (papancha) including the past, present and future forms (rupa) through the eye (2)
Following a sense experience, the process of conceptual proliferation takes place at an unconscious level in relation to the seven latent unwholesome tendencies (anusaya dhamma). The seven latent tendencies
  1. Latent tendency of lust (raganusaya)
  2. Latent tendency of aversion (patighanusaya)
  3. Latent tendency of wrong view (ditthanusaya)
  4. Latent tendency of doubt (vicikicchanusaya)
  5. Latent tendency of conceit (mananusaya)
  6. Latent tendency of desire for existence (bhavaraganusaya)
  7. Latent tendency of ignorance (avijjanusaya)
The latent tendencies of lust, aversion and ignorance play a significant role in identifying and interpreting the sensory experiences received through one of the six sense doors. When feeling (vedana) arises following a sense impression (phassa), the latent tendency of lust will interpret it as a pleasant feeling, while the latent tendency of aversion will interpret it as an unpleasant or aversive feeling. The latent tendency of ignorance will interpret it as a neutral feeling. Bhikkhu Katukurunde Nanananda has divided the sequence of events in a sense experience as presented in the Madhupindika sutta into three different phases.
  1. Phase one: An impersonal contingent phase based on Dependent Arising (paticca samuppada) from sense door, sense object, sense consciousness, sense impression up to and including feeling (vedana)
  2. Phase two: A personal, deliberate activity from perception (sanna), thinking (vitakka) to proliferation (papancha)
  3. Phase three: A neither contingent nor personal phase of further proliferation involving sensory experiences of the past, present and future conceptualised around one’s self. Here, the person becomes the victim of his own perceptions and thought constructions (3)
In the Sakkapanha sutta of the Digha Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s long discourses), in response to questions from Sakka, the king of Devas, the Buddha has described how perception and proliferation (papancha) eventually lead to hostility, violence, rivalry and ill-will as follows;
  • Perception and proliferation (papancha sanna sankha) leads to reflection (vitakka)
  • Reflection leads to desire (chanda)
  • Desire leads to likes and dislikes (piyappiya)
  • Likes and dislikes leads to envy and selfishness (issa-macchariya)
  • Envy and selfishness leads to hostility, violence, rivalry and ill-will (4)
During the process of conceptual proliferation, countless generations of pointless thoughts may be produced following a pleasant, aversive or neutral sense experience through one of the six sense doors. Whether these thoughts are positive or negative, they act to conceal the reality of the present moment and will instead present a set of evaluations, judgements and expectations that will lead one to respond in completely inappropriate ways unique only to the individual’s level of ignorance. These responses through the delusional belief that these value judgements are the reality at the present moment, will ultimately cause suffering to the individual and conflicts in relationships within the family, outside the family and the world at large. According to Buddhist teaching there are three fundamental inner drives which are responsible for the phenomenon of conceptual proliferation (papancha) in the mind of one who is not yet enlightened. They are;
  1. Craving (tanha)
  2. Conceit or pride (mana)
  3. Wrong view (ditthi)
They correspond to three of the seven latent tendencies (anusaya dhamma) mentioned above namely; latent tendency of lust (raganusaya), latent tendency of conceit (mananusaya) and the latent tendency of wrong view (ditthanusaya). Craving (tanha) Craving is one’s tendency to seek sensual gratification through objects that are pleasurable, comforting or gratifying. Corresponding to the six sense doors of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and the mind, there are six types of craving;
  1. Craving for visible objects
  2. Craving for sounds
  3. Craving for smell
  4. Craving for taste
  5. Craving for body sensations
  6. Craving for mind objects
Conceit (mana) Conceit is the tendency to arrive at value judgements about one self by comparing with others. It is one of the ten fetters (mana samyojana) that keep beings bound to the cycle of birth and death (samsara) and has also been described as one of the 14 unwholesome mental factors in the Buddha’s higher teachings (abhidhamma). Conceit can be one of three types;
  1. I am superior to…. (seyya mana)
  2. I am equal to………(sadisi mana)
  3. I am inferior to……(hina mana)
The very subtle conceit (asmi mana) in which one carries the feeling of “I am” is eradicated only at the attainment of the final stage of enlightenment (Arahathood). Wrong view (ditthi) Wrong view (ditthi) is the mistaken belief of a sense of self in relation to the five aggregates of materiality (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana) that make up the Psycho-physical complex (nama rupa) viewed as the individual or personality. These three inner drives of craving (tanha), conceit (mana) and wrong view (ditthi) will lead to the consideration of the sense experiences through the six sense doors in terms of “this is mine”, “this I am” and “this is myself”.
  1. Craving leads to the belief “this is mine”
  2. Conceit leads to the belief “this I am”
  3. Wrong view leads to the belief “this is myself”
The innate tendency of someone who is not enlightened yet to construct a sense of “I am” can be described as the main ingredient for the process of developing conceptual proliferations following a sense experience. In the Yavakalapi sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya (collection of the Buddhas’s connected discourses), the Buddha has described nine different forms of identifications with the self arising from the above three inner drives of craving, conceit and wrong view which are mental proliferations. They are;
  1. “I am”
  2. “I am this”
  3. “I will be”
  4. “I will not be”
  5. “I will have a form”
  6. “I will be formless”
  7. “I will have consciousness”
  8. “I will be non-conscious”
  9. “I will be neither percipient nor non-percipient”
While comparing them to a sickness, a tumour and a dart, the Buddha has instructed us to free our minds from these mental proliferations as they can cause pain and keep us bound to the cycle of birth and death (samsara) (5) In the Anuruddha sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s numerical discourses), the Buddha has stated the importance of freeing one’s mind from conceptual proliferation (papancha) in order to attain the final liberation. While Venerable Anuruddha was reflecting on seven qualities of a great person (some one on the path of liberation), the Buddha instructed him on an eighth quality or thought involving the freedom from conceptual proliferation (papancha) that helped Venerable Anuruddha to attain final liberation (Arahathood). The eight thoughts of a great person (mahapurisa vitakka) according the Anuruddha sutta are;
  1. This Dhamma is for one with few desires, not for one with strong desires
  2. This Dhamma is for one who is content, not for one who is discontent
  3. This Dhamma is for one who resorts to solitude, not for one who delights in company
  4. This Dhamma is for one who is energetic, not for one who is lazy
  5. This Dhamma is for one with mindfulness established, not for one who lacks mindfulness
  6. This Dhamma is for one who is concentrated, not for one who is not concentrated
  7. This Dhamma is for one who is wise, not for one who is unwise
  8. This Dhamma is for one who delights in non-proliferation, not for one who delights in proliferation (papancha) (6)
As described above in the Anuruddha sutta, one who practises Dhamma in order to attain liberation is expected to delight in non-proliferation (nippapancha) instead of delighting in proliferation (papancha). So, Nippapancha is equal to Nibbana or the liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death. In several discourses the Buddha has described the significance of sense restraint by training oneself to stop at the stage of bare sensation by letting them just come and go so that they are treated as just objective phenomena. When one understands this phenomenon and does not identify with any sense experience or react to them, they have no opportunity to develop proliferations and perceptions that will lead to suffering. In the Bahiya sutta of the Khuddaka Nikaya (collection of the Buddha’s minor discourses), when ascetic Bahiya Daru Ciriya pleads with the Buddha to teach him some Dhamma, the Buddha gives him the following short instruction to train himself;
  1. In the seen, there will only be the seen (ditthe dittha mattam bhavissati)
  2. In the heard, there will only be the heard (sute suta mattam bhavissati)
  3. In the sensed, there will only be the sensed (mute muta mattam bhavissati)
  4. In the cognised, there will only be the cognised (vinnate vinnata mattam bhavissati)
So, when the eye receives a visual object, let there be just the eye consciousness with no self reference through sensual desire, aversion or delusion. Similarly, when the ear receives a sound, let there be just the ear consciousness with no self reference through sensual desire, aversion or delusion. When there are sensations through the sense doors of the nose, tongue and the body let there be just nose consciousness, tongue consciousness and body consciousness respectively with no self-reference through sensual desire, aversion or delusion. When the mind receives mind objects let there be just the mind consciousness with no self reference through sensual desire, aversion or delusion. It is recorded that as soon as Bahiya heard the above instruction, he realised the Dhamma and gained wisdom by attaining the final stage of liberation (Arahathood) (7) Similarly, in the Malunkyaputta sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha asks Venerable Malunkyaputta, an elderly monk, whether one would develop any desire to a sense object that one has not received before, one is not receiving at present and one will not receive in the future through any of the six sense doors. When the answer was given as “no”, the Buddha instructs that when one trains oneself to consider what is received through a sense door as just an event without identifying with it or reacting to it, one will be free from suffering and rebirth. For example;
  1. In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen
  2. In reference to the heard, there will be only the heard
  3. In reference to the sensed, there will be only the sense
  4. In reference to the cognised, there will be only the cognised (8)
Through the practice of mindfulness meditation as described by the Buddha in the Satipatthana sutta, (9) it would be possible to keep one’s attention in the present moment so that it will not run away into the past or the future. Through the development of mindfulness, the mediator would be able to disregard the general and specific signs of a sense object received through one of the six sense doors so that there will not be a response in terms of sensuality, aversion or ignorance. This will help to reduce or to get rid of the process of conceptual proliferation and help the mind to gain insight into the reality of all phenomena namely the three universal characteristics of all physical and mental phenomena. They are;
  1. Impermanence (anicca)
  2. Unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha)
  3. Insubstantiality or Not-self (anatta)
In the Madhupindika sutta, the Buddha has stated that if one does not regard the process of cognition following a sense experience, in terms of craving (tanha), conceit (mana) or wrong view (ditthi) from the sense of self, proliferation of conception and perception will not take place. That would be the end of the seven latent tendencies of lust, aversion, wrong view, doubt, conceit, desire for existence and ignorance. The cessation of those unwholesome latent tendencies will result in the ending of the taking up of rod and sword, quarrels, conflicts, disputes, strife, malicious words, and false speech. The eradication of the seven latent tendencies also mean that one has attained the state of Nibbana with the ending of all suffering. (10) In the Sakkapanha sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Sakka asked the Buddha how one should practise in order to prevent perception and conceptions (papancha) being developed which give rise to reflection followed by all the other factors causing ill-will, hostility, violence etc. The Buddha’s advice was not to blindly follow any happy, unhappy or neutral feeling that arises in the mind. Instead, with a great deal of mindfulness, one should follow only those feelings whether happy, unhappy or neutral, that give rise to an increase in wholesome states (kusala dhamma) and decrease in unwholesome states (akusala dhamma). On the other hand, one should not follow but try to remove any happy, unhappy or neutral feeling if it causes an increase in unwholesome states and a decrease in wholesome states. (11) Conceptual proliferation (papancha) takes place when one is not fully mindful of the present moment. It will allow the mind to run away to hypothesise and create a vicious cycle of perceptions and conceptions about the past, the present and the future sense experiences based on the three inner drives of craving (tanha), conceit (mana) and wrong view (ditthi). In an unenlightened mind, this automatic and initially unconscious process takes place around the belief of a self in relation to the five aggregates of materiality (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana) that constitute what is called a person or individual. The evaluations, judgements, expectations, emotions and feelings created by this process would be completely out of any reality of the original sensory experience. When one believes them to be the reality and reacts accordingly, it would naturally lead to immense suffering to oneself and to ill-will, hostility and conflict with the external world. In meditation, mindfulness can be described as an antidote to conceptual proliferation. When one is fully mindful of the present moment through meditation and wise reflection (yoniso manasikara), the mind is unable to proliferate conceptually and as long as the mindfulness is maintained, the mind will be free from proliferations and wrong perceptions. This will enable one to develop wisdom and see the true characteristics of all physical and mental phenomena namely; impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self (anatta). When one is able to live a life with the mind free from any conceptual proliferation it will lead to the destruction of the seven latent tendencies (anusaya dhamma) of lust, aversion, wrong view, doubt, conceit, desire for existence and ignorance. And, when the seven latent tendencies are abandoned and destroyed, that is the state of Nibbana, liberation from all suffering and from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). References:
  1. Bhikkhu K. Nanananda 1971, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
  2. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, Madhupindika sutta, Translation of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications.
  3. Bhikkhu K. Nanananda 1971, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
  4. Sister Vajira 2008, Sakka’s Quest, Sakka-panha Sutta, Introduction, Translation and Comments, The Wheel Publication No: 10, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
  5. Bhikkhu Bodhi 1999, Yavakalapi sutta, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
  6. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2012, Anuruddha sutta, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
  7. Arahatta Bahiya Sutta, The Discourse to Bahiya, translated by Piya Tan 2010, dharmafarer,org.
  8. Bhikkhu Bodhi 1999, Malunkyaputta sutta, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Wisdom Publications.
  9. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, Satipatthana sutta, Translation of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications.
  10. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, Madhupindika sutta, Translation of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications.
  11. Sister Vajira 2008, Sakka’s Quest, Sakka-panha Sutta, Introduction, Translation and Comments, The Wheel Publication No: 10, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka
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