Concept and Reality—Introduction

This classic animation perfectly illustrates the Buddha’s teaching of papañca, or proliferation of concepts. This is the start of a new series on Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s book Concept and Reality [3.3 MB PDF], the work that made him famous, and helped many monks, including myself, attain Path realizations.


In this book, the Venerable Author, formerly an Assistant Lecturer in Pali at the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya, drawing from his broad knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, sheds new light on a deep problem of perennial philosophy, indicated by the title Concept and Reality. This work begins from a deep analysis of two important, but controversial terms found in the Pali Canon—papañca and papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. The characteristic Buddhist doctrine of ‘not-self’ (anattā) is shown in new dimensions of significance, having far-reaching implications not only in the context of Buddhism but also for the student of philosophy, psychology and ethics. The observations on concept and conceptualizing find special import in the context of modern semantic philosophy. Copious quotations from rare Sutta texts provide increased knowledge and new interpretations of obscure passages, and also render the work a substantial source book for Buddhist Philosophy. But most of all, this book speaks to the practitioner who wants to push his meditation beyond the concept of enlightenment to realization of Nibbāna itself.


Concept and Reality came out as my first book in 1971, published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy. As indicated in my Preface to the First Edition, the work had its origin in the academic atmosphere of a University but took its final shape in the sylvan solitude of a Hermitage. Though it has gone through several reprints unrevised, I take this opportunity to bring out a revised edition, as the DGMB is now prepared to include it among its ‘pure Dhamma-dāna’ publications.

I was thirty when I wrote the book. Forty eventful years have passed, during the course of which I have dealt in detail elsewhere on many of the salient points discussed in this book. However, I do not wish to expand the present edition by incorporating all that material, as it might confuse the readers already familiar with the original edition. Instead, I shall limit myself to a few alterations and corrections of misprints.

The title Concept and Reality might be a poser to those acquainted with Western philosophy. It must be emphasized that this work does not subscribe to the dichotomy between concept and reality as envisaged by modern philosophers. The Buddha’s Middle Path steers clear of such extreme notions in its recognition of the Relative Validity and the Pragmatic Value of concepts. The world has yet to learn from the chimerical pursuit of ‘reality’ by modern philosophers and nuclear physicists alike. In this respect, Concept and Reality is more relevant to the times today than when it was written forty years ago.

In this hectic electronic age, very few care to venture beyond ads and keywords. I do not propose to update this work to suit the tastes of this age of haste and waste. Let genuine interest be the ‘mouse’, and radical attention the ‘cursor’ for the readers of this volume. Let them traverse the dark corridors of ignorance with the lamp of Wisdom in their quest for ‘Reality’.

I feel morally obliged to grant permission to the Buddhist Publication Society to continue publishing this work and four of my other books which they have been publishing for decades. Although the B.P.S. is not prepared to toe our pure-Dhamma-dāna line, I do hope and trust that it will in future make available these five books to their readers at least at a much reduced price in deference to our pure-Dhamma-dāna ideal.

Bhikkhu Kaṭukurunde Ñāṇananda
Pothgulgala Āranyāya
‘Pahan Kanuwa’
Kandegedara Devalegama

Preface to the BPS Edition

The analysis of the nature of concepts constitutes an important facet of the Buddhist doctrine of anattā (not-self). Buddhism traces the idea of a soul to a fundamental error in understanding the facts of experience. This ignorance (avijjā) is reflected to a great extent in the words and concepts in worldly parlance. Being unaware of their limitations, man is generally prone to cling to them dogmatically and this accounts for a good deal of complications in his intellectual and emotional life. Hence an understanding of the nature of concepts as such is a preliminary step in the spiritual endeavor in Buddhism. The Buddha’s teachings on this particular aspect of our phenomenal existence can best be appreciated with the aid of the two key-words, papañca and papañca-saṭṭā-saṅkhā, an evaluation of which is the aim of this work.

Papañca and papañca-saṭṭā-saṅkhā comprehend between them a picture of the concept in its dynamic and static aspects, linking up the psycho-ethical foundations of conceptualization with the symbolical superstructure of language and logic. The imperfections inherent in the subjective aspect of the concept are thereby causally related to the frailties that characterize its objective aspect. Thus in its analysis of the concept, Buddhism does not stop at the linguistic or logical level, but delves deeper into its psychological mainsprings. This affords us an opportunity to reassess some of the basic tenets of Buddhism in the light of papañca and papañca-saṭṭā-saṅkhā which we have here utilized accordingly.

It so happens that papañca and papañca-saṭṭā-saṅkhā are controversial terms in Buddhist philosophy. The commentarial tradition and modern scholarship have given us a number of interpretations which are more often contradictory than complementary. We have attempted a reappraisal of the whole problem, and the resulting conclusions were not always in harmony with the traditional or other accepted interpretations. Hence the reader is invited to exercise caution and to judge for himself.

It is feared that the novelty of some of our interpretations will draw two types of extreme reaction. On the one hand, it might give rise to a total antipathy towards critical analysis of doctrinal points, as attempted here. On the other, it might engender an unreasonable distrust leading to a sweeping condemnation of the commentaries as a whole. This work has failed in its purpose if its critical scrutiny of the occasional shortcomings in the commentarial literature makes anyone forget his indebtedness to the commentaries for his knowledge of the Dhamma.

The original essay forming the nucleus of the present work was written some years ago while I was teaching at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. When I entered the Order it was yet unpublished; and it would have even continued to remain so, had it not been for the initiative taken by the Venerable Nyānaponika Mahāthera. While the manuscript was being prepared for publication, the scope of the essay was considerably widened, enabling it to absorb a good deal of fresh material. So it grew to its present size, in which form the work is here presented as a humble tribute to all my teachers.

—to be continued—

Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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