Path to Non-Proliferation

Thus the inveterate tendency towards proliferation of concepts manifesting itself through craving, conceit and views (taṇhā, māna, diṭṭhi) is said to estrange the monk from Nibbāna, and the aim of the spiritual endeavors is said to lie in the direction of non-proliferation. The path to this state of nippapañca is set out in the Sakkapañha Sutta (DN 21). In this Sutta, Sakka, the interlocutor, inquires of the Buddha why all great classes of beings such as gods, men, Asuras, Nāgas and Gandhabbas, live in enmity, hating, hostile and malign, despite the fact that they wish to live without enmity or hatred. Through a causally connected series of mental states, the Buddha ultimately traces the origin of this unpleasant situation, to the question of papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. Those mental states, cited in their due order would read as follows:

issā-macchariya ⇒ piyappiya ⇒ chanda ⇒ vitakka ⇒ papañcasaññā saṅkhā

  • envy and selfishness ⇒
  • things dear and not dear ⇒
  • desire ⇒
  • ratiocination ⇒
  • concepts tinged with the prolific tendency
The Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11) also presents a more or less similar series of mental states in tracing the origin of disputes to papañca-saṅkhā—a term virtually equivalent to papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. 

The causal connection between vitakka and papañcasaññā-saṅkhā might, at first sight, appear intriguing. Acquaintance with the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta’s formula of sense-perception (vitakka ⇒ papañca) might make one wonder whether we have here a reversal of the correct order (vitakka ⇒ papañca-saññā-saṅkhā). But the contradiction is more apparent than real. The assertion of the Sakkapañha Sutta that vitakka originates from papañca-saññā-saṅkhā only means that in the case of the worldling the word or concept grasped as an object for ratiocination, is itself a product of papañca. This, in turn breeds more of its kind when one proceeds to indulge in conceptual proliferation (papañca). Concepts characterized by the proliferating tendency (papañca-saññā-saṅkhā) constitute the raw material for the process, and the end product is much the same in kind, though with this difference: it has greater potency to obsess, bewilder and overwhelm the worldling. Thus there is a curious reciprocity between vitakka and papañca-saññā-saṅkhā—a kind of vicious circle, as it were. Given papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, there comes to be vitakka, and given vitakka there arise more papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, resulting in the subjection to the same. Owing to this reciprocity, the path leading to the cessation of papañca-saññā-saṅkhā as propounded in the Sakkapañha Sutta, consists of a mode of training aimed at the progressive elimination of vitakka and vicāra.

“This situation occurs that when there is the designation of reasoning, one will point out the designation of the assault of the concepts tinged with the proliferating tendency of consciousness.” — Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)

Sakka: “But how, Sir, has that bhikkhu gone about, who has reached the path suitable for and leading to the cessation of concepts tinged with the proliferating tendency?”

Buddha: “Happiness, ruler of gods, I declare to be twofold… Unhappiness too, I declare to be twofold… Equanimity, too, I declare to be twofold, according as it is to be followed after or avoided.

“And the distinction I have affirmed in happiness was drawn on these grounds: When in following after happiness one perceives that bad qualities develop and good qualities are diminished, that kind of happiness should be avoided. And when following after happiness one perceives that bad qualities are diminished and good qualities develop, then such happiness should be followed. Now of happiness accompanied by ratiocination and of happiness not so accompanied, the latter is the more excellent.

“Again, ruler of gods, when I declare unhappiness to be twofold… the latter is the more excellent.

“Again, ruler of gods, when I declare equanimity to be twofold… the latter is the more excellent.

“And it is in this way that a bhikkhu, O ruler of gods, must have gone about, who has reached the path suitable for and leading to the cessation of concepts tinged with the proliferating tendency.” — Sakkapañha Sutta (DN 21)

It is significant that although applied and sustained thoughts (vitakka-vicāra) conducive to wholesome mental states are utilized to eliminate those conducive to unwholesome mental states—much in the same way as a carpenter would drive out a blunt peg with a sharper one they have merely a relative value.

This simile is found in the Vitakkasaṇthāna Sutta (MN 20). 

They themselves should finally leave the scene, making way for paññā (immediate intuitive wisdom). Hence the recurrent maxim emphasized in the above passage (bold type). A detailed exposition of the process of gradual elimination of concepts occurs in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9). There one finds the carpenter-like operation for the deconceptualization of the mind, whereby each successive peg is being replaced by a sharper one, until at last he is able to pull out with ease the sharpest of them all. Indeed the stages there enumerated are the pegs on which consciousness hangs—to mix a metaphor. The crucial decision which precedes the removal of the last peg may be fully appreciated in the light of papañca.

“So, Poṭṭhapāda, from the time that the bhikkhu is thus conscious in a way brought about by himself (i.e., from the time of the First Rapture), he goes on from one stage to the next, and from that to the next, until he reaches the summit of consciousness. And when he is on the summit of consciousness, it may occur to him: ‘To be thinking at all is the inferior state. It were better not to be thinking. Were I to go on thinking and fancying, these ideas, these states of consciousness I have reached, would pass away; but other coarser ones, might arise. And so I will neither think nor fancy any more.’ And he does not. And to him neither thinking any more nor fancying, the ideas, the states of consciousness he had, pass away; and no others, coarser than them, arise. So he touches (the state of) Cessation. Thus is it, Poṭṭhapāda, that the mindful attainment of the cessation of perceptions takes place step-by-step.” — Poṭṭhapāda Sutta (DN 9)

The Poṭṭhapāda Sutta thus vividly portrays how one can escape from the ambit of the centripetal forces of papañca, having gradually forced one’s way through to the peripheral layers of the whirling maze of papañca, where those forces are at their weakest.

The close relationship between vitakka and papañca, as well as the necessity of allaying them, seems to be hinted at in the Uraga Sutta (Snp 1.1). It is noteworthy that the refrain running throughout this Sutta of seventeen stanzas emphasizes the fact that a monk has to quit all bounds both here and hereafter, even as the snake sloughs off its worn-out skin. Now, two of the unwholesome tendencies whose abandonment is recommended in the Sutta are vitakka and papañca. They are referred to in two contiguous verses, thus:

“In whom all thoughts which have been concocted within, are burnt without residue, that monk quits bounds both here and hereafter even as the snake its worn-out skin.

“Who neither transgresses nor lags behind, who has transcended all this conceptual proliferation; that monk quits bounds both here and hereafter even as the snake its worn-out skin.”

One might note how harmoniously the implications of papañca blend with the expression nāccasāri na paccasārī, as well as with the refrain of the verses.

Specific instructions for the elimination of papañca by controlling its gateways of vitakka-vicāra may be seen even in some of the most elementary ethical teachings of Buddhism. For instance, at the level of sense restraint enjoined for the monk, it is said that he should not dwell on the general or special characteristics of the data of sense-experience lest unwholesome mental states should flow into his mind.

“And how, O King, is the bhikkhu guarded as to the doors of his senses?

“When, O King, he sees an object with his eye, he is not entranced in the general appearance or the details of it. He sets himself to restrain that which might give occasion for evil mental states, covetousness and dejection to flow in over him so long as he dwells unrestrained as to his sense of sight. He keeps watch over his faculty of sight and he attains to mastery over it. And so in like manner, when he hears a sound with his ears, or smells an odor with his nose, or tastes a flavor with his tongue, or feels a touch with his body, or when he cognizes a phenomenon with his mind, he is not entranced in the general appearance or the details of it…” — Sāmaññyaphala Sutta (DN 2)

This appears to be more or less the ethical statement of what was philosophically stated in the formula of sense-perception in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta. The influx of evil mental states tends to overwhelm the monk who is lax in sense-control and thus brings about the subjection to papañca-saññā-saṅkhā.

That the seemingly simple ethical injunction given above has a deeper significance becomes clearer when we compare it with the Buddha’s pithy exhortation to Bāhiya Dārucīriya as found in the Bāhiya Sutta (Udāna 1.10). It must be noted that this exhortation was so profound at its philosophical core that Bāhiya attained emancipation, then and there. It is, however, tantalizingly brief, and runs as follows:

“Then, Bāhiya, thus must you train yourself: ‘In the seen there will be just the seen; in the heard, just the heard; in the sensed, just the sensed; in the cognized, just the cognized.’ That is how, O Bāhiya, you must train yourself. Now, when, Bāhiya, in the seen there will be to you just the seen, in the heard… in the sensed… in the cognized, just the cognized, then Bāhiya, you will have no ‘thereby’: when you have no ‘thereby’, then Bāhiya, you will have no ‘therein’; as you, Bāhiya, will have no ‘therein’ it follows that you will have no ‘here’ or ‘beyond’, or ‘midway-between’. That is just the end of Ill.” — Bāhiya Sutta (Udāna 1.10)

The first part of the exhortation presents succinctly the sum total of sense restraint, while the latter part interprets the philosophy behind it. This sense restraint consists in stopping short at the level of sense-data without being led astray by them. He who succeeds in this, has truly comprehended the nature of sense-data, so that he no longer thinks in terms of them (na tena = no thereby; na tattha = no therein). He has thus transcended the superstitions of the grammatical structure as also the verbal dichotomy (nev’ idha, na huraṃ, na ubhayamantarena = neither here nor beyond nor midway between). In short, he has attained the Goal. As for Bāhiya, he did attain the Goal almost instantaneously, since he had developed his spiritual faculties to such an extent in his own religious system, that—as we are told in the Sutta—he even entertained the illusion of being an Arahant before he came to the Buddha.

The consummation of the training in sense restraint, therefore, consists in the ability to refrain from maññanā (thinking in terms of) the data of sensory experience. The chimerical and elusive nature of sense data is such that as soon as one thinks in terms of them, one is estranged from reality. This fact is brought out in the following verse in the Dvayatānupassanā Sutta (Snp 3.12):

“In whatever egoistic terms they think of an object, ipso facto it becomes otherwise. And herein, verily, lies its falseness, the puerile deceptive phenomenon that it is.”

It is this same relentless tyranny of the empirical consciousness metaphorically put across in the parable of Vepacitti discussed above. Maññanā (imaginings) which stem from the triune papañca centering on the ego, are themselves even called papañca, as we have already pointed out. Hence, to resort to maññanā is to identify oneself with the sense data, as suggested by the term tammayo. No sooner does one clutch at these data with maññanā (imaginings) than they slip into unreality.

Tammaya = tad + maya, literally ‘made of that’. The word and its opposite occur in the Tiṭhāna Sutta (AN 3.42)

This is most probably the philosophical implication of the well-known simile of the Buddha in which the aggregate of perceptions (saññā) is compared to a mirage—the typical illustration of elusiveness. Thus percepts are elusive, while the concepts, with which we reach out for and grasp them, are delusive. Since identification with sense-data results in the vain quest of papañca, one desists therefrom, holds oneself aloof (tammayo) and attempts to view those data objectively. As the Sappurisa Sutta (MN 113) explains in detail, this training ultimately enables one to rid oneself of all proclivities to imaginings (maññanā) after the attainment of the cessation of perceptions and sensations (saññāvedayitanirodha-samāpatti):

“But a good man reflects thus, monks: Lack of desire (non-identification) even for the plane of neither-perception-nor-non-perception has been spoken of by the Lord: ‘for whatever they imagine it to be, thereby it becomes otherwise.’ He, having made lack of desire (non-identification) itself the main thing, neither exalts himself on account of that attainment of the plane of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, nor disparages others. This, too, monks, is dhamma of a good man.

“And again, monks, a good man, by passing quite beyond the plane of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, enters on and abides in the cessation of perception and feeling, and when he has seen by means of wisdom, his cankers are caused to be destroyed. And, monks, this monk does not imagine he is aught or anywhere or in anything.”

The sage who, by putting an end to maññanā no longer identifies himself with any element of sense data, is called atammayo.

“That persevering sage who, having conquered Māra, and vanquished Death, has reached the end of births, the wise one, endowed with true knowledge of the world, is ‘such’ and as regards all phenomena, he is not of-them.” — Ādhipa­teyya­ Sutta (AN 3.40)

From the standpoint of the average worldling, there is an ego as the agent or mentor behind the sum total of sense experience. Its existence is postulated on the basis of a wide variety of soul theories, and its reality as an incontrovertible self-evident fact of experience is readily taken for granted. Even at the end of a thorough introspection, he is often tempted to agree with Descartes in concluding cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Thus behind the data of conditionally-arisen sense experience, there looms large the illusion of an ego as the agent. It is the root of papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, and its eradication is the aim of the spiritual training in Buddhism. This fact is clearly brought out in the following two verses of the Tuvaṭaka Sutta (Snp 4.14):

Querent: “I ask you, who are a kinsman of the Ādiccas and a great sage, about seclusion and the state of peace, with what manner of insight, and not grasping anything in this world, does a bhikkhu realize Nibbāna?”

Buddha: “Let him completely cut off the root of concepts tinged with the prolific tendency, namely, the notion ‘I am the thinker’. Whatever inward cravings there be, let him train himself to subdue them, being always mindful.”

The Niddesa takes mantā to be a synonym for paññā (wisdom). But the primary meaning can be traced to to the agent noun mantar (Sanskrit mantr) ‘thinker’ as suggested in the PTS Dictionary. Wisdom may be regarded as a secondary meaning which is permissible in many contexts where the word occurs. Yet in this context the primary sense (thinker) is preferable.

The eradication of the illusion of an ego, has to be accomplished through penetrative wisdom focussed on one’s own personality. He has to analyze the mental and corporeal constituents of his individuality and see them in their correct perspective, as being impermanent (anicca), fraught with suffering (dukkha) and not his own (anattā). He has to bring about a total transformation of his concept of individuality which is characterized by papañca. A verse in the Sabhiya Sutta (Snp 3.6) may be examined with profit in this connection.

“He who has comprehended name-and form characterized by the prolific tendency, which is the root of sickness within and without, is released from bondage to the root of all sickness, and is truly called the Knowing One — the ‘Such’.”

The papañca which taints the worldling’s concept of his individuality is none other than the notion of an ego. This wrong notion is said to be the root of all sickness within the individual and out in the society. The diseases in the case of the individual, are lust (rāga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha), while some of their symptomatic manifestations in the society are quarrels (kalaha), strife (viggaha), dispute (vivāda), conceit (mānātimāna), slander (pesuñña), jealousy and avarice (issāmacchariya). The relevance of papañca to an analysis of the individual and social sickness referred to above, is amply illustrated in Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18), Sakkapañha Sutta (DN 21) and Kalahavivāda Sutta (Snp 4.11).

Bondage of Concepts | CONTENTS | Relative Validity and Pragmatic Value of Concepts 

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