Bondage of Concepts

The Vepacitti Sutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (11.4) brings into clear relief the vicious proliferating tendency in ideation implied by papañca as well as the enslavement it entails. The parable of Vepacitti Asurinda (king of demons), related by the Buddha as a preamble to his sermon proper, is particularly significant in this respect. It concerns the mythical battle between gods and demons, and describes how the victorious gods bound Vepacitti neck, hand and foot and brought him to the presence of Sakka, the lord of the gods. The five-fold bondage of Vepacitti has a peculiar mechanism about it. When Vepacitti thinks that the gods are righteous and the demons are unrighteous and desires to remain in the deva-world, he straightway beholds himself free from the bondage and possessed of the five pleasures of the senses. But as soon as he thinks that the demons are righteous and the gods are unrighteous, and wishes to go back to the Asura world, he finds himself bound with that five-fold bondage, divested of the five sensual pleasures. This fantastically subtle bondage is dependent on the very thoughts of the prisoner. Having cited this parable, the Buddha now transitions from mythology to psychology and philosophy.

“So subtle, brethren, is the bondage of Vepacitti, but more subtle still the bondage of Māra. He who imagines, brethren, is bound by Māra: he who does not imagine, is freed from the Evil One. ‘I am’ — this is an imagining. ‘This am I’ — that is an imagining. ‘I shall be’ — that is an imagining. ‘I shall not be’ … ‘Embodied shall I be’ … ‘Formless shall I be’ … ‘I shall be conscious’… ‘Unconscious shall I be’ … ‘Neither conscious nor unconscious shall I be’ — that is an imagining. The imagining, brethren, is a disease, imagining is an abscess, a barb. Wherefore, brethren ye must say: ‘With mind free from imaginings will we abide.’ Thus must ye train yourselves.

‘I am’, brethren, is an agitation. ‘This am I’ … these, brethren, are agitations, … Wherefore, brethren, ye must say: ‘With mind free from agitation will we abide.’ Thus must ye train yourselves.

‘I am’, brethren, is a palpitation. ‘This am I’ … these, brethren, are palpitations, … Wherefore, brethren, ye must say: ‘With mind free from palpitations will we abide.’ Thus must ye train yourselves.

‘I am’, brethren, is a conceptual proliferation. ‘This am I’ … these, brethren, are proliferations … Wherefore, brethren, ye must say: ‘With mind free from proliferations will we abide.’ Thus must ye train yourselves.

‘I am’, brethren, is a conceit. ‘This am I’ … These, brethren, are conceits … Wherefore, brethren, ye must say: ‘With mind free from conceits will we abide.’ Thus must ye train yourselves.”

It will be seen that each of the nine propositions given above is qualified by five adjectives: maññitaṃ, iñjitaṃ, phanditaṃ, papañcitaṃ and mānagataṃ. These latter may be examined in the light of what we have already stated regarding the question of aspects in Buddhist psychology:

Maññita (√ man—to think) points to the thought activity or imagination which gives rise to those propositions.

Iñjita (√ iñj—to move) reminiscent of the term ejā which is a synonym for taṇhā, probably refers to the emotional appeal of the propositions.

Phanditaṃ ( √ spand—to throb, to palpitate) views them as characterized by the restless mental activity.

Papañcitaṃ (pra + √ pañc—to spread out, to expand) may likewise imply the prolific tendency in conceptualization which gave rise to those propositions.

Mānagataṃ (√—to measure) traces their origin to the measuring and judging tendency inherent in conceptual activity, which is itself a constant process of value-judgment.

The proposition asmi: ‘I am’—is the foremost papañcita, and the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta has already shown us why it is to be reckoned a product of papañca. The other propositions portray, perhaps more clearly, prolificacy in the realm of ideation: the individuating, generalizing, particularizing and dichotomizing tendencies that provide the scaffolding for theoretical superstructures. The particular context in which papañcita occurs in this Sutta thus lends color to the assumption that papañca signifies the inveterate tendency towards proliferation in the realm of ideation.

Of an analogous character is a passage from the Avyaktara Sutta (AN 7.51). Here we find each of the alternatives of a quadrilemma (tetralemma) being qualified in seven ways suggestive of aspects. The quadrilemma concerns the state of the Perfected One after his death and comprises the last four of the famous ten moot-points known as the Ten Indeterminates (dasa avyākatavatthūni). These ten, it may be added, together formed a kind of questionnaire with which the ancient Indians used to confront any religious teacher of note. This questionnaire, arranged in dilemmas and quadrilemmas, seems to have been popularly regarded as a valid ready-reckoner for evaluating any religious system—hence the flippancy with which it was put forward.

Kutūhalasālā SuttaAvyākata Saṃyutta (SN 44.9)

The Buddha himself was confronted with it on several occasions, and in each case he rejected the questionnaire in toto, much to the dismay of the interrogators. He held that these ten questions are the outcome of wrong reflection and hence do not admit of a categorical reply. He declared that they are speculative views which are a veritable jungle of error: a set of fetters that bring suffering, frustration, dejection and anguish in their train. That being so, an attempt at their solution was not regarded as conducive to Enlightenment. Now, the passage under consideration containing the quadrilemma, is yet another exposition of the unwholesome character of these speculative views. In it we find the Buddha explaining to a certain monk why an Ariyan disciple conversant with the Dhamma, does not entertain any doubts with regard to the Indeterminate points.

“Verily, it is by the cessation of views, monk, that doubt ceases to arise in the instructed noble disciple as to unexplained points. ‘Is the Tathāgata after death?’ This is but a viewpoint, monk. ‘Is the Tathāgata not after death?’ ‘Both is he and is he not after death?’ ‘Neither is he nor is he not after death?’ — these are but viewpoints, monk.

“The uninstructed average man does not understand views, does not understand the origin of views, does not understand the cessation of views, does not understand the way leading to the cessation of views. For him views grow; and he is not freed from birth, old age, death, from sorrows, grief, ills, tribulations; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

“But the instructed noble disciple understands views, understands their origin, their cessation and the way leading to their cessation. For him views cease; and he is freed from birth, old age, death, from sorrows, grief, ills, tribulations; he is freed from suffering, I say.

“Thus knowing, thus seeing, the instructed noble disciple indeed, does not assert, ‘Is the Tathāgata after death’ and like questions… Thus knowing, thus seeing, the instructed noble disciple thus holds as unexplained, the unexplained points. Thus knowing, thus seeing, the instructed noble disciple is not afraid, trembles not, wavers not, shakes not, despairs not, concerning these points: ‘Is the Tathāgata after death?’ and the like … These, monks, are but ways of craving… of perceptions… are but imaginings… conceptual proliferations… issues of grasping… are but a source of remorse.
Avyākata Sutta (AN 7.51)

“Vaccha, to think that the world is eternal — this is resorting to a (speculative) view, a jungle of views, a wilderness of views, it is accompanied by anguish, distress, misery, fever; it does not conduce to disenchantment nor to dispassion, cessation, calming, super-knowledge, awakening nor to Nibbāna.” — Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72)

One can discern the criticism of the quadrilemma in the seven standpoints from which it is viewed. Diṭṭhigataṃ suggests the speculative nature of the view. Taṇhāgataṃ may well refer to the desire that prompts one to entertain these views. Saññāgataṃ reminds us of the sensory origin of the same. Maññitaṃ points to the thought activity or imagination that precedes their formulation. Upādānagataṃ refers to the grasping aspect which makes them dogmas. Vippaṇisāro emphasizes the delusion and wavering that they bring about. As for papañcitaṃ, we may infer that it visualizes the proliferating, expanding and diffusing quality of the speculative views in question. The above quadrilemma is actually illustrative of those qualities since it is an unwarranted extension of linguistic conventions to what is transcendental.

The dialogue between Ven. Mahākoṭṭhita and Ven. Sāriputta in the Koṭṭhita Sutta (AN 4.174) also gives us an insight into the conceptual prolificacy implied by papañca. Here again, the four questions put to Ven. Sāriputta by Ven. Mahākoṭṭhita assume the form of a quadrilemma relating to the transcendental:

“Pray, brother when the six spheres of contact cease without residue, is there anything still left?”
“Ah! say not so, brother.”
“Pray, brother, when the six spheres of contact cease without residue, is there not anything still left?”
“Ah! say not so, brother.”
“Pray brother, when the six spheres of contact cease without residue, is it the case that there both is and is not anything still left?”
“Ah! say not so, brother.”
“Pray, brother, when the six spheres of contact cease without residue, is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything still left?”
“Ah! say not so, brother.”
“To my several questions thus put, brother, on each occasion you reply: ‘Ah! say not so, brother.’ Now what am I to understand by this?”
“Brother, he who says: ‘When the six spheres of contact cease without residue there is still something left… there is not anything still left… there both is and is not anything still left… there neither is nor is not anything still left’ is conceptualizing what should not be proliferated conceptually. Brother, whatever is the range of the six spheres of contact, that itself is the range of prolific conceptualization. And whatever is the range of prolific conceptualization, that itself is the range of the six spheres of contact. By the utter detachment from, and the cessation of the six spheres of contact, there comes to be the cessation, the allayment of prolific conceptualization.” — Koṭṭhita Sutta (AN 4.174)

Sāriputta disallows all four alternatives, saying that they reflect an attempt to indulge in papañca where one should not resort to it. He points out that the scope of papañca is co-extensive with the range of the six senses, and that the cessation of the spheres of six senses without residue, results in the cessation or allayment of papañca. Thus the quadrilemma of Mahākoṭṭhita turns out to be yet another illustration of the presumptuous attempt of the phenomenal consciousness to transgress its limits of applicability (i.e., the empirical) by overflowing into the transcendental in a spree of speculative metaphysics. Dogmatic speculative views are by far the most virulent and typical instances of papañca in the sense of prolific conceptualization.

The reference to a range of papañca (papañcassa gati) in Sâriputta’s reply, is strongly suggestive of the dynamic import of the term in Buddhist psychology. This particular aspect is evident in several other contexts. In the Udāna, for instance, we find the Buddha giving utterance to the following paean of joy while reflecting on the fact that he has rid himself of concepts characterized by proliferating tendencies of the mind:

“He in whom ramblings and standing-still are no more;
He who has overcome bond and hindrance;
That sage, from craving free as he fares onward,
The world with its devas contradicts him not.”
— Papañ­ca­kha­ya­ Sutta (Udāna 7.7)

Here the juxtaposition of papañca (ramblings) with ṭhiti (standing still) seems to suggest the primary sense of the term with its dynamic overtones. Metaphorically conceived, papañca signifies the ramblings in the realm of ideation and ṭhiti the dormant tendencies of the mind (anusaya) which prompt those ramblings.

See ṭhiti nāma anusayāNetti, Catub­yūha­hā­ravi­bhaṅga 

The following verse also conveys this primary sense of papañca besides pointing to its essential connection with the process of sense perception:

“Being endowed with sense-perception, human beings whose consciousness is characterized by the prolific tendency, approach sense-objects (mentally) by proliferating conceptually. Giving up all that is mind-made and is appertaining to household life; he (the recluse) resorts to that which is connected with renunciation.” — Adanta­a­gutta­ Sutta (SN 35.94)

The approach here meant is a mental one as suggested by the word manomayaṃ, and it is done in the course of mental ramblings. One might also note the significance of the word upayanti, especially in its sense of calling or reckoning.

The fact that papañca is usually looked upon as a peculiar mental activity which the worldling is wont to indulge in, becomes evident from a Sutta in the Sārāṇīya Vagga of the Anguttara Nikāya. Ven. Sāriputta enumerates six types of activity, which if habitually indulged in (anuyutta), would hinder the spiritual progress of a monk:

“Herein, brethren, a monk finds delight in worldly activity, is delighted in worldly activity, gets engrossed in the delight of worldly activity; so too, of talk, sleep, company, companionship and prolific conceptualization—finding delight in each, he is delighted with each and gets engrossed in the delight of each; and thus, brethren, the more he so fashions his life, the more he fashions it to a woeful death, a woeful fate; and of this monk it is said: He is greatly delighted in selfhood; he has not got rid of selfhood for the utter ending of Ill.” — Bhaddhaka Sutta (AN 6.14)

The last in the list (papañca) is obviously reckoned the most important, so much so that its ethical significance is summed up in a couplet at the end of the Sutta:

“The fool who indulges in and delights in prolific conceptualization is far removed from Nibbāna, the incomparable freedom from bondage.

“He who, having given up such conceptualization, delights in the path to non-proliferation—he attains to Nibbāna, the incomparable freedom from bondage.”

 These verses are found also at Theragāthā 17.2. 

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