Concept & Reality—Papañca

A keyword in Sutta terminology

The term papañca, as it occurs in the Pali Canon, has presented considerable difficulty of interpretation. Attempts at its definition, by the commentators as well as by present-day scholars, have given rise to divergent conclusions. It is, however, generally agreed that the determination of its significance is fundamental to a proper understanding of the philosophy of early Buddhism.

In Canonical passages the term appears in a variety of forms and associations, sometimes as a verb or a verbal-derivative (papañceti, papañcayantā, papañcita) and sometimes as part of a compound (papañca-saññā, papañca-saṅkhā, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā-samudācaraṇa-paññatti, papañca-saṅkhā-pahāna, papañca-vūpasama, papañca-nirodha, chinnapapañca, papañcārāma, papañcarati). Its antonym too, is seen to occur, even beside it in certain contexts (nippapañca, nippapapañcapada, nippapañcapatha, nippapañcārāma, nippapañcarati, appapañcaṇ). This variety of usage, on the one hand, greatly facilitates our quest for a definition, while on the other, it imposes an exacting test of validity for whatever definition we venture to offer.

 The word papañca appears 74 times in the Suttas; in various compound forms, 101 times. Papañca-saññā-saṅkhā appears 14 times.

If we collate the different contexts in which some reference to papañca has been made, one of our first impressions would be the prominence it enjoys in a good number of them. When a list of terms relating to a common topic is set out in the Suttas, one often finds that the most important among them is either placed first, or else is counted last. Now, the term papañca is in fact enumerated last in as many as seven such contexts.

If the logic of arrangement alone is deemed insufficient, a deeper analysis of the contexts themselves will provide abundant proof of the fundamental significance of papañca. The Sakkapañha Sutta (DN 21), Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18) and Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11), for instance, trace the manifold conflict both in the individual as well as in the society, to the question of papañca. It is also significant that in the Aniruddha Sutta (AN 8.30), the Buddha himself adds the eighth mahāpurisavitakka (thought of a great man) to Anuruddha’s seven, and it concerns papañca:

“Well done! Well done, Anuruddha! Well have you pondered over the seven thoughts of a great man! That is to say: ‘This dhamma is for one who wants little, not for one who wants much; for the contented, not for the discontented; for the secluded, not for one who is fond of society; for the energetic, not for the lazy; for one who has set up mindfulness, not for the laggard therein; for the composed, not for the flustered; for the wise, not for the unwise.’

“But, Anuruddha, do you also ponder over this eighth thought of a great man, to wit: ‘This dhamma is for one who likes and delights in nippapañca, not for one who likes and delights in papañca.” —Aniruddha Sutta (AN 8.30)

nippapañcārāmassāyaṃ dhammo nippapañcaratino nāyaṃ dhammo papañcārāmassa papañcaratino. As a tentative measure, we leave the word papañca untranslated. Though we will be depending on the PTS translations to a great extent, we might not be able to cite them verbatim always. However, in spite of alterations, references to standard translations will be given for the reader's convenience.

The series of eight mahāpurisavitakkas (thoughts of a great man) mentioned in the Sutta seem to follow an ascending order in point of importance. This fact, coupled with the reference to papañca in the concluding stanzas of the Sutta, provides a sure index to the high degree of importance attached to this particular term. Hence the nature of its significance must now be determined.

For a vivid example of papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, watch the classic animation Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia.

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