CONCEPTUAL PROLIFERATION (PAPANCHA) IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM
– Ari Ubeysekara
In the Buddhist literature, the word “papancha” has been translated by Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Katukurunde Nanananda as “conceptual proliferation”.This is the probable primary meaning of this term which will be used here when referring to papancha.
Our interactions with the outside world take place when the six sense doors of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and the 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, judgements, desires and expectations. They will invariably lead to mostly 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 The Honey-ball Sutta 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, very specific to the person, 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 that a person identifies with and takes as reality—conceptual proliferation. 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.This causes confusion, delusion, and conflicts within ourselves as well as outside.
Take the sense door of the eye as an example;
The eye receives the sense object or form
Then there is simultaneous eye consciousness
The eye, sense object and eye consciousness together is sense impression
Sense impression leads on to feeling
Feeling is followed by perception
Perception is followed by thinking
Thinking leads on to conceptual proliferation including the past, present and future forms through the eye
Following a sense experience the process of conceptual proliferation takes place at an unconscious level in relation to latent, mostly unwholesome, tendencies.
In the Anuruddha sutta the Buddha has stated the importance of freeing one’s mind from conceptual proliferation in order to attain the final liberation. The eight thoughts of a great person are;
This Dhamma is for one…
– with few desires, not for one with strong desires
– who is content, not for one who is discontent
– who is at peace with solitude, not for one who always seeks company
– who is energetic, not for one who is lazy
– with mindfulness established, not for one who lacks mindfulness
– who is concentrated, not for one who is not concentrated
– who is wise, not for one who is unwise
– who delights in non-proliferation, not for one who delights in proliferation (papancha)
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.
The Buddha gives him the following short instructions for training.
In the seen, there will only be the seen
In the heard, there will only be the heard
In the sensed, there will only be the sensed
In the cognised, there will only be the cognised
Through the practice of mindfulness meditation as described by the Buddha in the Satipatthana sutta, 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 as they are. Impermanent Unsatisfactory and Not-self.
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. 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.
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 inner drives of cravings. 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.
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, 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. .