The contexts in which the term is located are, on the whole, psychological in their import. The Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18) points to the fact that papañca is essentially connected with the process of sense perception, and so also does the Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11) when it emphatically states that papañca-saṅkhā have their origin in sense perception (saññā-nidānā hi papañca-saṅkhā). The following formula of sense perception occurring in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta may however be regarded as the locus classicus, as it affords us a clearer insight into the problem of papañca:
locus classicus: A passage from a classic or standard work that is cited as an illustration or instance.
“Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and material shapes; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement (phassa, contact); because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one turns into papañca; what one turns into papañca, due to that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā assail him in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye belonging to the past, the future and the present. And, brethren, auditory consciousness arises because of ear and sounds; … olfactory consciousness arises because of nose and smell; … gustatory consciousness arises because of tongue and tastes; … bodily consciousness arises because of body and touches; … mental consciousness arises because of mind and mental objects; … belonging to the past, the future and the present.”
This passage indicates that papañca signifies the final stage in the process of sense-cognition. The term definitely concerns the grosser conceptual aspect of the process, since it is a consequent to vitakka (reasoning) which presupposes language. Hence we should determine how papañca differs from—nay, marks a development on—vitakka (reflection, thought, thinking).
Pubbe kho āvuso visākha vitakketvā vicāretvā pacchā vācaṃ bhindati, tasmā vitakkavicārā vacīsaṅkhārā: “Having first had initial thought and discursive thought, one subsequently utters a speech; therefore initial and discursive thought is activity of speech.” — Culla Vedalla Sutta (MN 44)
The etymology of the word papañca would help us at this point. Being derived from pra + √pañc, it conveys such meanings as ‘spreading out’, ‘expansion’, ‘diffusion’, and ‘manifoldness’. The tendency towards proliferation in the realm of concepts may be described in any one of those terms, and this is probably the primary meaning of papañca.
See vipañcitaññū at Ugghaṭitaññū Sutta (AN 4.133). See also “What sort of person learns by exposition? The person to whom comprehension of the doctrine comes when the meaning of what is briefly uttered is analyzed in detail.” — Puggala Paññati, 41
Thus, while vitakka denotes the onset or initial application of thought, papañca may refer to the consequent prolific ideation. One might object, however, that the word vicāra, so often found in the Suttas, would have amply conveyed this meaning. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between vicāra and papañca as well. Vicāra, though it denotes the discursive aspect of the intellect, has the finer sense of investigation and deliberation. It follows faithfully in the wake of vitakka and seeks to sustain it. Hence it is that vicāra hardly ever occurs by itself, and is often found juxtaposed with vitakka, as vitakka-vicāra.
For a detailed definition of vitakka and vicāra, see Paṭhavikasiṇa Niddesa, Visuddhimagga I 142-3.
Papañca on the other hand, is a more comprehensive term hinting at the tendency of the worldling’s imagination to break loose and run riot. If vicāra, at least relatively, denotes cosmos in the mental realm, papañca seems to signify chaos. This of course does not preclude the possibility that what often passes for vicāra might turn out to be papañca when viewed from a higher standpoint.
In any case, the expansion or diffusion of thought as envisaged by papañca tends to obscure the true state of affairs, inasmuch as it is an unwarranted deviation giving rise to obsession. This particular nuance in the meaning of the term becomes obvious when papañca is used to denote verbosity or circumlocution. In fact it is probably this latter sense found in common usage, that has assumed a philosophical dimension with its transference from the verbal to the mental sphere.
As we have already mentioned, conceptual activity presupposes language, so much so that thought itself may be regarded as a form of subvocal speech. The above transference, therefore, is quite appropriate. This tentative definition of papañca provides the key to the other intriguing term, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. In view of the close relationship between papañca and the linguistic medium, it appears that saṅkhā (saṇ + √khyā: to call) may be rendered by such terms as concept, reckoning, designation or linguistic convention. Hence papañca-saññā-saṅkhā can mean concepts, reckonings, designations or linguistic conventions characterized by the prolific conceptualizing tendency of the mind.
“Whatever material form, O monks, that is past, has ceased, has undergone change, its reckoning, its appellation, its designation is: ‘has been’… ” — Niruttipatha Sutta (Snp 22.62)
Equipped with these definitions we may now examine the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta’s formula of sense perception in detail. It begins on an impersonal note reminiscent of Dependent Arising (paṭicca-samuppāda):
“Because of the eye and material objects, O brethren, arises visual consciousness; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement (contact); because of sensory impingement arises feeling …”
The impersonal note is sustained only up to the point of vedanā (feeling). The formula now takes a personal ending suggestive of deliberate activity.
“What one feels, one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one proliferates conceptually …”
The deliberate activity implied by the third person verb is seen to stop at papañceti. Now comes the most interesting stage of the process of cognition. Apparently it is no longer a mere contingent process, nor is it an activity deliberately directed, but an inexorable subjection to an objective order of things. At this final stage of sense perception, he who has hitherto been the subject, now becomes the hapless object.
… “What one proliferates conceptually, due to that, concepts characterized by the prolific tendency assail him in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye, belonging to the past, the future and the present …”
Like the legendary resurrected tiger which devoured the magician who restored it to life out of its skeletal bones, the concepts and linguistic conventions overwhelm the worldling who evolved them. At the final and crucial stage of sense perception, the concepts are, as it were, invested with an objective character.
A somewhat humorous anecdote suggestive of the vicious character of papañca-saññā-saṅkhā occurs in the Bhāgineyya-saṃgharakkhitattheravatthu of the Dhammapadaṭṭhakathā.
This phenomenon is brought about mainly by certain peculiarities inherent in the linguistic medium. As a symbolical medium, language has an essential public quality about it. This public quality has necessitated the standardization of the symbols (words) as well as of the patterns of their arrangement (grammar and logic), and these, therefore enjoy a certain degree of stability. Thus the letter, as the smallest unit of language, was called an aksara (stable or durable) and language itself was associated with God and eternity by the ancient Indian philosophers.
Now, the vague percepts, which are already tainted with a notion of stability owing to the limitations of the sensory apparatus, become fully crystallized into concepts in the realm of ideation. Nouns, abstract nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs—in short, the whole repertoire of language—assumes a certain substantial character by virtue of its relative stability. It is probably this particular phenomenon that is hinted at, by such oft-recurring phrases in the Suttas as thāmasā parāmassa abhinivissa voharanti: “Having seized tenaciously and adhering thereto, they declare…” and takkapariyāhata: “Hammered out on the anvil of logic…” cited in connection with dogmatic theories, which themselves are called diṭṭhijāla: “veritable networks of views”.
See, for example, Dighanaka Sutta (MN 74) and Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1).
The vicious proliferating tendency of the worldling’s consciousness weaves for him a labyrinthine network of concepts connecting the three periods of time through processes of recognition, retrospection and speculation. The tangled maze with its apparent objectivity entices the worldling and ultimately obsesses and overwhelms him. The Buddha has compared the aggregate of consciousness to a conjuror’s trick or an illusion (māyā) and we may connect it with the above-mentioned image of the resurrected tiger.
“The Kinsman of the Sun (the Buddha) has compared corporeality to a mass of foam, feelings to a bubble, perceptions to a mirage, fabrications to a plantain tree, and consciousness to an illusion.” Phena Sutta (SN 22.95)
It must be confessed at this stage that our interpretation of the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta’s formula of sense perception differs to some extent from that advanced by Buddhaghosa. Besides rendering, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā as ‘parts of papañca’, thereby ignoring its essential connection with language, Buddhaghosa pays little attention to the peculiar syntactical arrangement of the formula. This latter peculiarity will be obvious when one compares the above formula with another occurring in the Nidāna Saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya:
“Because of eye and material objects, brethren, arises visual consciousness; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement (contact), because of sensory impingement arises feeling; because of feeling, craving; because of craving, grasping; because of grasping, becoming; because of becoming birth; and because of birth, decay and death, grief, lamentation, suffering and despair arise. This is the arising of the world.” — Loka Sutta (SN 12.44)
This is the meaning of the passage beginning with cakkhuñcāvuso: “Brethren, because of the sensitive surface of the eye as the support and the four originating material elements as the object, there arises eye- consciousness. By the meeting of those three arises contact (phassa). Because of that contact, arises feeling, with contact as its condition by way of co-nascence … Whatever object is felt by that feeling, that, perception perceives; whatever perception perceives, reasoning reasons about that very object; whatever reasoning reasons about, papañca transforms into papañca that very object. With these factors such as the eye and visible object, parts of papañca overwhelm that man who is ignorant of those facts; that is, they exist for him.”
In this case the formula of perception is seen to branch off towards the stereotyped formula of paṭicca-samuppāda (Dependent Arising). The aim here is to illustrate the fact of Dependent Arising. The Madhupiṇḍika Sutta’s formula has a different purpose, and we may ascertain this from a study of the context. It must be noted that the formula in question is in effect a commentary by Ven. Mahākaccāna on the following brief discourse by the Buddha:
“If, O monk, one neither delights in nor asserts, nor clings to, that which makes one subject to concepts characterized by the prolific tendency, then that itself is the end of the proclivities to attachment, aversion, views, perplexity, pride, ignorance and attachment to becoming. That itself is the end of taking the stick, of taking the weapon, of quarreling, contending, disputing, accusation, slander and lying speech. Here it is that all these evil unskilled states cease without residue.” — Madhupiṇdika Sutta (MN 18)
On being requested by the monks who were perplexed by this brief discourse, Ven. Mahākaccāna gives a detailed commentary, and in doing so he pays particular attention to the word yatonidānaṃ (because of which). Hence the concluding portion of the formula of sense perception begins with its correlative tatonidānaṃ (because of that). The formula, therefore, is part of an attempt to illustrate how (literally, ‘because of what’) these papañca-saññā-saṅkhā manage to overwhelm the worldling. Thus our inferences based on the syntax of the formula are not without justification. Indeed, we may add in passing, that this Sutta which has been so aptly titled Madhupiṇḍika (honey-ball) by the Buddha himself, owing to its immense richness of meaning, has not yet exhausted its flavor at the hands of the commentators.