Papañca-Saññā-Sankhā

This compound has represented, to paraphrase John D. Ireland from his Udāna translation notes, a stumbling block which even the ancient commentaries find difficult to define. If the importance of the term is to be deduced from the extent of its difficulty then indeed understanding of this compound carries a lot of significance in regard to grasping of the Buddha’s Teaching.

There are various translations of papañca-saññā-sankhā, with currently the most prominent ones being either Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “notions [born of] mental proliferations” translating the term papañca as ‘proliferation’; or Ven. Ñāṇamoli Thera’s “calculations of perceptions of diversifications” where he renders papañca as ‘diversification’. Beyond these two, plus the PTS Dictionary definition, I am not familiar in detail with any other different interpretations of this compound. I am aware that Ven. Ñāṇananda in his “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” addresses this topic to a certain degree and also that Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi based his views of the term upon this interpretation1Which, as I will attempt to show in this essay, is over-simplified. but I, myself, have never actually read Ven. Ñāṇananda’s book so my view on this matter will come from perhaps, to some extent, a different angle.

To start with, the respective terms ‘diversification’ and ‘proliferation’ do not deviate from the meaning of papañca. According to the PTS dictionary, papañca is “expansion, diffuseness, manifoldedness” or “obstacle, hindrance or delay”. The other members of the compound are defined as saññā (perception) and sankhā (sign or characteristic). So the above-mentioned translations would, to some degree, convey the nature of papañca-saññā-sankhā quite accurately and, as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi says in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha2Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Third edition 2005. (endnote no. 229, p. 1204-5), “no rendering [of this compound] is utterly beyond doubt”. The question which raises itself then is not how to etymologically trace the exact roots and origination of the compound, since such, a task in this case proves impossible in the absolute sense (and many seem to agree with this). Rather, it is better to focus and try to find out within one’s own experience and practice what is implied existentially and phenomenologically in the Suttas by this term.

At the risk of being incomprehensible on some points, I would try to use ‘descriptive’ language, rather than overly technical terms as people’s general views are already quite firm in regard to such terminology and it is very likely that they will be coming from a quite different place than me, probably too different which could obstruct them from understanding what I’m trying to say. In order to reduce this possibility to a minimum I thought of using some more common terms in my descriptions which carry less chance of being misunderstood. I hope I won’t miss the mark too much.

Those familiar with phenomenology and the philosophy of existence should not have any problems in understanding a statement like all our experience is intentional or teleological or simply—significant. Each thing (dhamma) which is being experienced in our everyday life has, as its inherent nature, to point to other thing(s), within the experience as a whole. The thing’s significance is not something ‘steady’ or ‘inchangeable’, although it often might appear so. The significance of a thing is, rather, something which is being acquired through the repetition of the respective experiences of that very thing. During this, the whole perception of a thing comes to ‘grow’ in a course of time, so to speak, and though there are certainly significances which are recognized as common to all people, at a more fundamental level they are all individually acquired and carried by each of us3Preferences and values being perhaps too coarse yet a good enough example of this..

Without going into greater details let us say that in the Suttas this intentionality of experience is what is meant by the statement “with the grain” or anuloma. Actually, it is probably better to be more precise and to re-qualify this and say: taking for granted this intentionality, holding it and appropriating it, makes this with of “with the grain” to appear. In the arahant’s case, the ignorance is completely destroyed, yet the grain still remains, i.e. things do not stop pointing to other things, but this ’with’ ceases to exist and is being replaced by ‘against’ as a result of which we get “against the grain”—patiloma. What has changed is the fundamental direction of regarding this very directionality of experience. Thus, even in the case of complete liberation things continue to be teleological or ‘with purpose’ so they still point to other things and so on. All this is being mentioned for the reason that the term papañca is probably too often misunderstood to simply mean ‘mental proliferation’, ‘when one thinks or analyzes too much’ or something like that. Although these things do imply papañca (or to be more precise ignorance and desire-and-lust), the above said nevertheless shows us that if papañca is anything, it is certainly more fundamental than that. In support of this we may add that papañca is frequently linked with maññanā, ‘conceving’ (for which see Mūlapariyāya Sutta, MN 1) which certainly represents the most fundamental ‘occurrence’ in a mind affected with ignorance. Thus, what papañca would imply is nothing less than this very intentionality of our experience and its tendency to grow and expand. However this can happen only when that ‘with’ is present i.e. when the mind is not free from the bonds of ignorance and when it keeps following things in their appearance— “…his consciousness flows after the sign of form [sound, smell, tastes, touches, thoughts], is tied and shackled by gratification in the sign of form, if fettered by the fetter of gratification…”4Uddhesavibhanga Sutta, MN 138. [iii,225]. And surely enough it is said that the arahant is nippapañca—without diversifications, free from any attachments (upadhi), free from burden accumulated in the past.

Thus, one’s world (everything which appears—nāma-rūpa), expands. One’s views, desires etc. expand too, yet this should not be understood in a momentary sense, which would suggest that they will somehow ‘shrink’ afterwards5They would only do so in the arahant’s case. by themselves. Their intensity or the intensity of their presence, once ‘accumulated’ i.e. came to being, is being ‘assumed’ or ‘held’ (upādāna) at that (new) face value. When this happens—and it happens through the repetition of [ignorant] actions as said above—consciousness “becomes established” upon that degree of presence, which then becomes the actual experience of that thing. Thus, the intensity of experience, that which appears as nāma-rūpa grows (for more details see Mahānidāna Sutta, DN 15 [ii,63]). This kind of pattern stretches from the most fundamental levels of our existence (as seen in Mūlapariyāya Sutta), up to the coarsest ones which we might say are, “resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words and false speech6Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, MN 18; translation taken from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Third edition 2005, p. 202 [i,109].…”, that is the directly painful actions resulting from one’s ignorance. Thus, based on the above, papañca represents the ‘diffusion’ of this fundamental underlying principle with ignorance being necessarily present, and consequently papañca-saññā-sankhā are all ‘calculations’ or ‘notions’, perceived and originated as a result of taking this principle of diffusion for granted i.e. not understanding it.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that this whole situation would be much clearer if we can bear in mind Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s description of the infinite hierarchy of consciousness, the different levels of generality of nāma-rūpaviññāṇa. That is because papañca-saññā-sankhā is not something which appears on a voluntary level, as if one could stop it at any time; it stretches from the most general (reflexive) levels of existence7Compare also the nature of the five hindrances. It takes the first jhāna for one to be able to suppress them, which speaks for itself, since such strength of one’s concentration is enough for becoming an arahant (if there is wisdom, of course).. What one is responsible for, in that whole structure, is “delighting in, welcoming and holding to…” the “source through which perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man…”8op. cit. p. 202.. Thus the hierarchy of signifying things continues to arise (cease and change-while-standing) but it no longer grows; it is “cut off at the root, made like a palm stump”. Its root was ignorance in itself and with its absence everything founded upon it comes to an end—one is free. In other words the respective experiences of the puthujjana and arahant alike, share the same fundamental nature of impermanence (arising and ceasing) but the respective intensities of those experiences are changed; for the arahant feeling none of it9Compare Ven. Sāriputta’s answer to Ven. Udāyi when the later asked him what is there that is pleasant when there is nothing felt [in nibbāna]—”Just this is pleasant, friend, that herein there is nothing felt”, AN iv,414. and for the puthujjana dependant on the amount of ignorance being present. More ignorance, more ‘intensity’, things appear as more ‘pressing’ and one is easily prone to giving in to desire-and-lust. The arising of things in the puthujjana‘s mind brings diffusion of perceptions and notions which, while not understood at its roots, will in return diffuse further and further and so on. This cannot happen in the arahant‘s mind any more. His consciousness has ‘ceased’ so there is nothing to follow and diversify upon this teleological characteristic of the existential structure, which will remain only until his aggregates ‘break apart’.

by Bhikkhu Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli