Showing posts with label papañca. Show all posts
Showing posts with label papañca. Show all posts

22 March 2013

Pañca-skandha: Etymology and Dynamics

SKANDHA in the Sanskrit Dictionary (Comparing MW and Apte) primarily means 'bough, branch; shoulder bone (scapular); break, fracture.'  It also means 'a branch of knowledge', 'a chapter in a book', and 'a division of an army' which are obvious metaphorical extensions. Added to this the word apparently means 'a troop or multitude', which is not obvious from the etymology. The supposed root is skandh 'to collect'; sometimes confused with skand 'spring, jump, spurt'  from PIE *skand (AHD) or related to Latin scandare 'to climb, ascend, descend'. Frankly it would seem that the dictionary definition and etymology are inconsistent, except, funnily enough in the Buddhist sense of a 'collection'. However in point of fact the skandhas are not collections at all, and I can't help but wonder if 'collections' have been tacked on here precisely to accommodate Buddhist usage, thus fouling the trail.

Clearly the main meaning of 'branch' (or a tree or a line) is not related semantically to 'collect', but etymologists also draw attention to semantic similarities with Greek κλάδος (klados) 'branch, shoot, an offshoot' (CSED); from PIE *kldo- from *kel 'to cut' and giving rise to English 'calamity, clade, clast, gladiator' etc. The problem here is that, while the semantic field is very similar, the phonetics don't seem to be related.

Another possibility is that skandha comes from a PIE root *(s)k(h)ed or *sked (AHD). It has a form  nasalised form *skend and partly covers the semantic field 'to split' - which would connect it semantically with *kel 'to cut' This root is not well represented in Sanskrit, but is the root behind English words such as 'scatter, shatter and shingle'. If this is the PIE root then it is not well represented in Sanskrit either. I think we have skandha < *skand 'to split off, to branch' and that skandhayati is a denominative. I don't see any other related forms. This rarity of form may have led to confusion with Sanskrit skandh and (homonymous) skand 'to jump'. However I can't be sure of this without a lot more research.

Thus the etymology of the word is obscure. However I think we can agree that 'aggregate' as a translation is madness, and that other modern translations of Buddhist usage (group, mass, heap) are almost equally unhelpful. If indeed skandha were related to Greek klados, at least semantically, then we might translate skandha as 'branch'. The skandhas, then, might be thought of as the five 'branches of experience'. This might be interesting in light of the word prapañca (On the origin of the word prapañca from the branching of the hand into five fingers see: Translating Prapañca). We might postulate that prapañca (becoming fivefold) is related to the five branches of experience, though clearly some work would be required to establish this speculation. Since this is a blog rather than an academic publication I can take liberties and so for this essay I translate skandha as 'branch'; as one of five branches (pañcaskandha) of experience; it's justified by the dictionary and, as we will see, it works pretty well here. I would note that the branching of the end of limbs into five digits is universal amongst animals. What appear to be exceptions (horse hooves etc) turn out to have have fused two or more of the five digits and embryonic forms often begin with five distinct digits. This ought to be a very common basis for metaphors and we should not be surprised to find it.

Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought, 2009) has suggested with reference to the term pañc'upādāna-kkhandhā, that Pāli upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha where aggi-kkhandha means 'a blazing mass' but c.f. Sanskrit skandhāgni 'fire made with thick logs'. (MW) I now wonder whether aggi-kkhandha just means 'a burning bough'. The phrase pañca upādānakkhandha is often rendered 'five aggregates of clinging', where we might read it as 'five branches which are fuel [for the fire]'; where upādāna means 'fuel' and 'the fire' is 'the fire of being'. I find the connection with the extended fire metaphor entirely plausible (see Playing with Fire; and Everything is on Fire!) and I suggest that it works even better when khandha is understood as 'branch'.

Having looked, somewhat inconclusively, at the meaning of skandha, let us now examine a passage from the Pāli Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (M 109; iii.15ff ) which tells us something about the relationships of the skandhas:
The four elements are the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of form. 
Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of sensations. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of recognition. Contact is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of volitions. 
Name & form is the reason for, the condition for the manifestation of the branch of cognition.
Here someone has tried to show the dynamics of the skandhas. The form branch (rūpa-kkhandha) of experience is made up from the four elements: earth, water, fire and wind (catur mahādhātupaṭhavīāpotejovāyo;); or in experiential terms: resistance, cohesion, heat and movement. There's every reason to believe that just as cakkhu 'the eye' stands for the visual faculty; that paṭhavī stands for the experience  of resistance. Before looking at the other branches let us look at an interesting passage (SN 35.93) which sheds further light on this. 
The production of cognition is conditioned by a pair. Visual-cognition arises conditioned by the eye and forms. The eye is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Forms are impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So this pair is transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.

Visual-cognition is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason (hetu) or condition (paccaya) for the arising of visual-cognition, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-cognition ever be permanent?

These three things [i.e. forms, eye, & visual-cognition] coming together, encountered and co-occurring are called visual-contact (cakkhu-samphassa). Visual contact is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. Whatever the reason or condition for the arising of visual-contact, it is impermanent, reversible, and unstable. So how could visual-contact ever be permanent?

The contacted (phuṭṭha) is sensed (vedeti); the contacted is willed (ceteti); the contacted is recognised (sañjānāti). So these things (dhammā) are transient, wavering, impermanent, reversible, and unstable.
[The other senses are outlined in identical terms.]
So now our model has rūpa being made up of the elements (dhātus); and contact (phassa) is the condition for the next three branches. S 35.93 fills in a gap here. Contact comes about when rūpa, cakkhu (the eye, or visual faculty) and cakkhuviññāna 'visual cognition' come together; the latter in fact being conditioned by the former pair. And then contact is sensed, willed, and recognised. 

The last three mental actions are equivalent to the three middle branches. We can match up the verbal and nominal forms: vedanā vedeti 'he senses sensations'; saṅkhārā ceteti 'he wills volitions'; and saññā sañjānāti 'he recognises names' or 'he recognises recognitions'. However note that the three verbal forms are in a different order than the nominal forms. And this is unusual. Sue Hamilton's comprehensive survey of the skandhas in Pāli finds that they always occur in the same order (Early Buddhism, p.72). 

Next we add the three branches of vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā to rūpa to make up nāmarūpa; and nāmarūpa is the condition for the arising of viññāna.

The astute reader will have already spotted a problem here: viññāna (associated with the six kinds of senses) is the condition for the arising of vedanāsaññā and saṅkhārā and thus indirectly the condition for  nāmarūpa. Thus we have two models in which the direction of the relationship between nāmarūpa and viññāna goes in opposite directions. How can we have two mutually exclusive models which are both  canonical? In the  Mahānidāna Sutta (D 15) nāmarūpa and viññāna condition each other? If this was the original idea it might have survived in two fragmentary and contradictory forms with unidirectional conditionality. Or perhaps the Mahānidāna Sutta sought to harmonise the two different models by combining them. Certainly the Mahānidāna Sutta says that nāmarūpa is root, cause, origin and condition for contact (tasmāt iha ānanda, eseva hetu etaṃ nidānaṃ esa samudayo esa paccayo phassassa, yadidaṃ nāmarūpaṃ). Nāmarūpa is quite a problematic term in its own right: see Nāmarūpa. And in another model we find "nāma is 'sensation, recognition, impulse, contact and attention'." (vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro – idaṃ vuccati nāmaṃ. S ii.3). And this in a model where phassa is a stage in its own right that comes after nāmarūpa

It must be the case that viññāna is being used in at least two different senses: cakkhuviññāna (and the other sense-viññānas) and viññāna (as a standalone) cannot be referring to the same process or even the same kind of process. The standard explanation is that viññāna 'furnishes bare cognition of the object' (Nyanatiloka. Buddhist Dictionary) but this is still contradictory. In the model of the five branches we're looking at viññāna simply cannot amount to 'bare cognition' since it is preceded by vedanā, saññā and saṅkhārā. Without 'bare cognition of the object' how could these three exist? Is the problem with the phrase 'bare cognition'? 

Elsewhere I have pointed out that viññāna is said in Pāli to be always related to the sensory stimulus that conditioned it. For example in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta. (MN 38. PTS M i.259):
Bhikkhus from whatever condition viññāṇa arises, it is called that kind of viññāṇa. Viññāṇa arising with the eye and form as condition, is called eye-viññāna (i.e. visual cognition).
From the same sutta we know what viññāna is not: "that which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad." (yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī ti) This is cited as an example of a wrong view. We also know that Buddhists do not posit a 'theatre of consciousness', a metaphorical container in which experiences happen, since viññāna is seldom if ever used in the locative case, and where it is the text is usually arguing against a wrong view.

Idiosyncratic, but none the less insightful, bhikkhu Ñānavīra, says
Consciousness (viññāṇa) can be thought of as the presence of a phenomenon, which consists of nāma and rūpa. Nāmarūpa and viññāṇa together constitute the phenomenon 'in person'--i.e. an experience. The phenomenon is the support (ārammaṇa) of consciousness, and all consciousness is consciousness of something (viz, of a phenomenon). [Notes on Dhamma, p.81]
I don't think Ñāṇvīra has solved the problem I have identified here, i.e. the role of viññāṇa in the khandhas.  Since nāma depends on sense-viññāṇa. However he does add an interesting caveat to this discussion.
Consciousness, it must be noted, is emphatically no more 'subjective' than are the other four upādānakkhandha (i.e. than nāmarūpa)... It is quite wrong to regard viññāṇa as the subject to whom the phenomenon (nāmarūpa), now regarded as object, is present. [Notes on Dhamma, p.82]
Back in April 2012 I argued that Westerner terms like subjective and objective only obscure the discussion. In the Buddhist model of consciousness, subject and object are not relevant. This is a corollary of the idea that existence and non-existence don't apply to experience. We only get confused trying to marry the two modes of thinking about our experience of being aware. Indeed to think of viññāṇa as 'consciousness' is demonstrably wrong (see  The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor.) Nāṇavīra himself implies this, but doesn't not make the leap to rejecting the translation outright. We have our discussions as if Western concepts like consciousness, subject, object, etc., are givens. But they are not. The early Buddhists don't seem to have thought in these terms. Where they encounter this style of thinking, they tend to treat it as irrelevant to the task at hand. Ontological questions that fascinate Westerners, are just a distraction to early Buddhists. We are not trying to understand our self or our consciousness in the abstract, we are trying to understand why we suffer. Of course early Buddhists had a raft of assumptions about their experience of the world and we need to tease these assumptions out in order to understand their worldview. But imposing modern philosophical jargon often obscures more than it reveals.

This essay has at least shown how translating skandha as 'branch' and pañcaskandha as 'the five branches [of experience]' might work, and might be more comprehensible than present alternatives. It is intrinsically interesting that at least one of the strands that made up the Pāli Canon attempted to give the five branches of experience a temporal sequence, though whether it works is moot. My previous understanding, based on reading Sue Hamilton was that the skandhas did not form a sequence, but were to be taken collectively as the "apparatus of experience". That this attempt breaks down with the inclusion of viññāṇa is a puzzle that I'm sure I will come back to.

We have considerable work to do still to untangle early Buddhist ideas about why we suffer from Western ideas about our existence and the ontology of the self with which they seem to have been snarled. The first step in any comparative philosophy will be to understand early Buddhism on it's own terms and I don't think we have done this yet.


Note 5/5/13

In article by Collete Cox I found this the re the *Mahāvibhāṣā "In a discussion of the implications of the various meanings of the term "aggregate," or skandha, as a heap (rāśi), a bundle, an assemblage, or as a collection..." Thus the usage 'heap' predates Conze!
Cox, Collett. (2004) 'From Category To Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32: 543-597.

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".

23 March 2012

Papañca 1: Translating Papañca

AMONGST THE DIFFICULT and obscure terms we Buddhists inherited from our Iron Age Indian predecessors, papañca is one of the most intriguing. Papañca is an interesting case study of a concept which, despite being rendered in English relatively easily, remains very difficult to understand. In this first of two essays I will look at how to translate this word, while in the second I will look at what the word means in context.

It's become common to translate the word as 'proliferation'. I followed this practice myself in 2009 when commenting on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, aka the Honey Ball Sutta (Proliferation). Bodhi's translation was based on a manuscript translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. However, in choosing to renderpapañca as 'proliferation' he says that he was influenced by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (see Middle Length Discourses p.1204, n.229). Other translators and scholars have chosen a range of terms:
  • I.B. Horner: obsession
  • F. L. Woodward: difficulty (obstruction)
  • Nyanaponika: diffuseness
  • Thanissaro: objectification
  • K.R. Norman: diversification
  • Sue Hamilton: making manifold
The Pāli Text Society Dictionary (PED) derives the word papañca (Skt prapañca) a root √pac or √pañc 'to spread', which forms stems with a nasal giving. This root is included in Pāṇini's Dhātupāṭha, unfortunately, it is not included in Whitney's Roots. Monier-Williams' Dictionary lists "pac or pañc 1: to spread out, to make clear or evident." (p.575a) and it seems at first glance that our word is generated from this root. The underlying metaphor, if this is correct, is analytical: separating things out in order to make plain what is there. Sometimes when objects are all jumbled up we cannot see what's what, and so we separate them in order to allow the differences to be clear. Hence, the double meaning of separate and clarify. Lexicographers have seen papañceti as a denominative verb, i.e., a verb derived from the noun papañca. The root is more nominal than most and, indeed, there do not appear to be any other words which derive from this root. Which suggests that the traditional etymology may be wrong. In the Sanskrit grammatical tradition, from at least the time of Patañjali, the word prapañca is used to indicate specifying the instances which come from a general rule (lakṣana) or the expansion of that rule into examples. It is used in this sense in the Vyākaraṇamahābhāṣya

If we look at the semantic field ‘to spread’ then there is a Proto-Indo-European root *pet ‘to spread’ which comes into English in words via Latin (via French): expand, pan, pass, past, and spawn; via Germanic fathom, and compass. From this root we see in Greek πετάννῡμι (petannumi) ‘to spread out sails’; in Avestan paθana- (pathana) 'wide, broad'; and in Swedish panna ‘forehead’. It’s clear from other branches of the Indo-European family that the second consonant is quite changeable. However, the Sanskrit cognate based on Avestan paθana would be √prath ‘to spread’ (with forms prathate, pṛthu, prathana). This is the only possible alternative I have been able to locate.

Richard Gombrich derives papañca from pañca 'five' and suggests that it should mean "quintuplication" (What the Buddha Thought, p.205). He notes that in some texts (e.g., Mahābhārata) the world evolves from "primal unity" into sets of five, for example the five sense, the five great elements. There are, in fact, a large number of sets of five in Sanskrit literature, and these become much more prominent in Tantric literatures where they are arranged in layered maṇḍalas with four cardinal points and a centre. The symbolism is often that the four are synthesised in the central fifth, and that the maṇḍala itself represents the whole universe. Tantra, in particular, looks for homologies between these sets of five. The problem, as Gombrich notes, is that we find no evidence of the Sanskrit prapañca being used in Vedic texts early enough for the Buddha to have known about them. However, the evolution into sets of five is a theme in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and other Upaniṣads without using the word prapañca. As mentioned, Pāṇini records the root √pac/pañc and he lived about a generation or two after the Buddha. The suggestion is that, although the word is coined around the time of the Buddha, the concept is somewhat older. I think Gombrich is on the right track and would like to offer some refinements to his theory.

The PIE root of the numeral five is *penkwe, from which Vedic páñca derives and gives us Sanskrit pañcan and Pāli pañca. The PIE numerals have remained remarkably stable across the Indo-European language family, e.g.
Greek: pénte
Avestan: panca
Latin: quīnque
Welsh: pump
German : fünf (Germanic languages substitute /f/ for /p/ - known as Grimm's Law)
Monier Williams offers a clue to the meaning of papañca/prapañca when he notes that pañcan 'five' means 'to spread out the hand with its five fingers'. That there would be a link between the number five and the five fingers is not surprising. Indeed, PIE *penkwe, also means finger, and this link is present in Germanic and Slavic languages. The word 'fist' is also related in West Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German) via *fungkhstiz from PIE *pngkstis, and in Slavic languages.































However note that :

















That the relationship between five and finger is not present in Sanskrit is a weakness of this line of reasoning. However, other words are preserved in archaic forms. For example, the standard Sanskrit word for 'heart' is hṛd. The word śraddhā preserves a form more closely related to PIE *√kred 'heart'. PIE /k/ regularly becomes /ś/ in Sanskrit. Once in Sanskrit śrad then undergoes another change to hṛd, which is used in all other circumstances except the semantic field of ‘trust’. That the change came later is shown by the Avestan zərəd- ‘heart’, and zraz-dā- ‘believe’ (= Skt. śraddhā = Latin credō). I’m proposing, somewhat speculatively, that a parallel process occurred with pañca in connection with fingers.

If this is true, then rather than simply 'quintuplication' (i.e., multiplying by five) the underlying metaphor is one that draws on the physical facts of the hand: the five fingers emerge from the hand; one can spread the fingers and separate them to make them distinct. In English we sometimes call the fist a "bunch of fives". Opening the fist makes it clear if something is held in the hand or not – the open hand is a universal gesture of greeting. The hand supplies us with the physical experience of unfolding to reveal complexity (five from one), and at the same time clarity (empty hand, spreading the fingers). This explanation is consistent with the theories of metaphor put forward by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, namely that metaphors derive from how we physically interact with the world.

The suffix pa– (Skt. pra–) is related to the Latin prefix pro-, and has two main senses: 'forward motion', and by association 'intensification'. So on face value the word papañca means 'to spread forth, to expand out'. From this we can see that ‘proliferate’ suits the etymology reasonably well. Indeed, there is some similarity in the etymology since 'proliferate' comes from Latin prole 'offspring' which itself derives from PIE pro– 'forth' + *al 'growth'; prole is combined with ferre 'to bear' and therefore prolific means 'bearing offspring'. Proliferation produces a range of conjugations: proliferating, proliferated, which allow us to produce good English translations. Norman’s choice of ‘diversification’ is fine. The meaning is quite similar, though for reasons I cannot specify, I feel that ‘proliferation’ captures something of the dynamic quality of the process under consideration. The popularity of Ñāṇananda’s influential essay Concept and Reality in Early Buddhism has helped ‘proliferation’ to become a standard (I have a copy on order and it will be interesting to see if we agree!)

This leaves us to explain the alternatives, and give some reasons for rejecting them. "Diffuseness" means spread out in the sense of dispersed, and this just seems wrong. The translators who choose variations on "obsession" or "hindrance" seem to be following the Pāli commentaries which equate papañca with the kilesas. For example, the commentary on the Papañcakhaya Sutta (Udāna 7.7) by Dhammapala 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 ties papañca into the various kinds of hindrances to progress on the Buddhist path, or the unskilful kinds of thoughts that obsess the unawakened, and suggests to many translators (especially before Ñāṇananda) an interpretative translation; i.e., they try to translate the concept rather than the word. Thanissaro does similarly with "objectification". This procedure is not wrong, by any means, but my preference is to translate the word, and essay the concept separately. The main advantage of this approach is that our word is used in slightly different ways, and the more conceptual translation--especially Thanissaro’s "objectification"--do not always make for felicitous English, such as his "objectifies non-objectification" in the Koṭṭhita Sutta (4.174).

In the next essay I will look at various suttas in order to see how this word is used in practice in a Buddhist context.