by Ven. Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli


This compound has represented, to paraphrase John D. Ireland from his Udāna translation notes, a stumbling block which even the ancient commentaries find difficult to define. If the importance of the term is to be deduced from the extent of its difficulty then indeed understanding of this compound carries a lot of significance in regard to grasping of the Buddha’s Teaching.

There are various translations of papañca-saññā-sankhā, with currently the most prominent ones being either Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “notions [born of] mental proliferations” translating the term papañca as ‘proliferation’; or Ven. Ñāṇamoli Thera’s “calculations of perceptions of diversifications” where he renders papañca as ‘diversification’. Beyond these two, plus the PTS Dictionary definition, I am not familiar in detail with any other different interpretations of this compound. I am aware that Ven. Ñāṇananda in his “Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” addresses this topic to a certain degree and also that Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi based his views of the term upon this interpretation1 but I, myself, have never actually read Ven. Ñāṇananda’s book so my view on this matter will come from perhaps, to some extent, a different angle.

To start with, the respective terms ‘diversification’ and ‘proliferation’ do not deviate from the meaning of papañca. According to the PTS dictionary, papañca is “expansion, diffuseness, manifoldedness” or “obstacle, hindrance or delay”. The other members of the compound are defined as saññā (perception) and sankhā (sign or characteristic). So the above-mentioned translations would, to some degree, convey the nature of papañca-saññā-sankhā quite accurately and, as Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi says in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha2 (endnote no. 229, p. 1204-5), “no rendering [of this compound] is utterly beyond doubt”. The question which raises itself then is not how to etymologically trace the exact roots and origination of the compound, since such, a task in this case proves impossible in the absolute sense (and many seem to agree with this). Rather, it is better to focus and try to find out within one’s own experience and practice what is implied existentially and phenomenologically in the Suttas by this term.

At the risk of being incomprehensible on some points, I would try to use ‘descriptive’ language, rather than overly technical terms as people’s general views are already quite firm in regard to such terminology and it is very likely that they will be coming from a quite different place than me, probably too different which could obstruct them from understanding what I’m trying to say. In order to reduce this possibility to a minimum I thought of using some more common terms in my descriptions which carry less chance of being misunderstood. I hope I won’t miss the mark too much.

Those familiar with phenomenology and the philosophy of existence should not have any problems in understanding a statement like all our experience is intentional or teleological or simply—significant. Each thing (dhamma) which is being experienced in our everyday life has, as its inherent nature, to point to other thing(s), within the experience as a whole. The thing’s significance is not something ‘steady’ or ‘inchangeable’, although it often might appear so. The significance of a thing is, rather, something which is being acquired through the repetition of the respective experiences of that very thing. During this, the whole perception of a thing comes to ‘grow’ in a course of time, so to speak, and though there are certainly significances which are recognized as common to all people, at a more fundamental level they are all individually acquired and carried by each of us3.

Without going into greater details let us say that in the Suttas this intentionality of experience is what is meant by the statement “with the grain” or anuloma. Actually, it is probably better to be more precise and to re-qualify this and say: taking for granted this intentionality, holding it and appropriating it, makes this with of “with the grain” to appear. In the arahant’s case, the ignorance is completely destroyed, yet the grain still remains, i.e. things do not stop pointing to other things, but this ’with’ ceases to exist and is being replaced by ‘against’ as a result of which we get “against the grain”—patiloma. What has changed is the fundamental direction of regarding this very directionality of experience. Thus, even in the case of complete liberation things continue to be teleological or ‘with purpose’ so they still point to other things and so on. All this is being mentioned for the reason that the term papañca is probably too often misunderstood to simply mean ‘mental proliferation’, ‘when one thinks or analyzes too much’ or something like that. Although these things do imply papañca (or to be more precise ignorance and desire-and-lust), the above said nevertheless shows us that if papañca is anything, it is certainly more fundamental than that. In support of this we may add that papañca is frequently linked with maññanā, ‘conceving’ (for which see Mūlapariyāya Sutta, MN 1) which certainly represents the most fundamental ‘occurrence’ in a mind affected with ignorance. Thus, what papañca would imply is nothing less than this very intentionality of our experience and its tendency to grow and expand. However this can happen only when that ‘with’ is present i.e. when the mind is not free from the bonds of ignorance and when it keeps following things in their appearance— “…his consciousness flows after the sign of form [sound, smell, tastes, touches, thoughts], is tied and shackled by gratification in the sign of form, if fettered by the fetter of gratification…”4. And surely enough it is said that the arahant is nippapañca—without diversifications, free from any attachments (upadhi), free from burden accumulated in the past.

ThinkingThus, one’s world (everything which appears—nāma-rūpa), expands. One’s views, desires etc. expand too, yet this should not be understood in a momentary sense, which would suggest that they will somehow ‘shrink’ afterwards5 by themselves. Their intensity or the intensity of their presence, once ‘accumulated’ i.e. came to being, is being ‘assumed’ or ‘held’ (upādāna) at that (new) face value. When this happens—and it happens through the repetition of [ignorant] actions as said above—consciousness “becomes established” upon that degree of presence, which then becomes the actual experience of that thing. Thus, the intensity of experience, that which appears as nāma-rūpa grows (for more details see Mahānidāna Sutta, DN 15 [ii,63]). This kind of pattern stretches from the most fundamental levels of our existence (as seen in Mūlapariyāya Sutta), up to the coarsest ones which we might say are, “resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words and false speech6…”, that is the directly painful actions resulting from one’s ignorance. Thus, based on the above, papañca represents the ‘diffusion’ of this fundamental underlying principle with ignorance being necessarily present, and consequently papañca-saññā-sankhā are all ‘calculations’ or ‘notions’, perceived and originated as a result of taking this principle of diffusion for granted i.e. not understanding it.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that this whole situation would be much clearer if we can bear in mind Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s description of the infinite hierarchy of consciousness, the different levels of generality of nāma-rūpaviññāṇa. That is because papañca-saññā-sankhā is not something which appears on a voluntary level, as if one could stop it at any time; it stretches from the most general (reflexive) levels of existence7. What one is responsible for, in that whole structure, is “delighting in, welcoming and holding to…” the “source through which perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man…”8. Thus the hierarchy of signifying things continues to arise (cease and change-while-standing) but it no longer grows; it is “cut off at the root, made like a palm stump”. Its root was ignorance in itself and with its absence everything founded upon it comes to an end—one is free. In other words the respective experiences of the puthujjana and arahant alike, share the same fundamental nature of impermanence (arising and ceasing) but the respective intensities of those experiences are changed; for the arahant feeling none of it9 and for the puthujjana dependant on the amount of ignorance being present. More ignorance, more ‘intensity’, things appear as more ‘pressing’ and one is easily prone to giving in to desire-and-lust. The arising of things in the puthujjana‘s mind brings diffusion of perceptions and notions which, while not understood at its roots, will in return diffuse further and further and so on. This cannot happen in the arahant‘s mind any more. His consciousness has ‘ceased’ so there is nothing to follow and diversify upon this teleological characteristic of the existential structure, which will remain only until his aggregates ‘break apart’.


1 Which, as I will attempt to show in this essay, is over-simplified.
2 Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Third edition 2005.
3 Preferences and values being perhaps too coarse yet a good enough example of this.
4 Uddhesavibhanga Sutta, MN 138. [iii,225]
5 They would only do so in the arahant‘s case.
6 Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, MN 18; translation taken from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Third edition 2005, p. 202 [i,109].
7 Compare also the nature of the five hindrances. It takes the first jhāna for one to be able to suppress them, which speaks for itself, since such strength of one’s concentration is enough for becoming an arahant (if there is wisdom, of course).
8 op. cit. p. 202.
9 Compare Ven. Sāriputta’s answer to Ven. Udāyi when the later asked him what is there that is pleasant when there is nothing felt [in nibbāna]—”Just this is pleasant, friend, that herein there is nothing felt”, AN iv,414.

0 thoughts on “Papañca-Saññā-Sankhā

  1. Using the metaphor of a horizon, would “anuloma” allude to the tendency to focus one’s attention outwardly towards the horizon, and all the temporal and spatial complexity that it implies, whiile “patiloma” to the option of directing one’s attention inwardly towards the vertex of the horizon? The puthujjana compulsively looks outwardly, and in his “calculations”, “perceptions” in the form of mental images associated with the past and the future beset and overwhelm him as they “expand” and “spread out” the horizon before him. Given the teleological nature of experience, both puthujjana and arahat have their own respective horizons, but the puthujjana’s is animated by appropriation and all the intensity and angst that that entails while the arahat’s horizon is purely utilitarian: looking inward towards its vertex provides him the peace of nibbana.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The tendency to focus one’s attention outwardly towards the horizon would certainly include the anuloma principle I was referring to, but the actual principle goes deeper than that. Strictly speaking it is not so important where one directs the attention (i.e. inwardly or outwardly) because it is the very attention that is already affected by papanca. Initially, one might want to ‘counter’ constant outward pull of the senses by looking ‘inwards’, but that’s a very rudimentary level, and if one does it correctly it would soon become clear that the problem is neither inward nor outward but simply there, in the situation as a whole (which involves that very attention). So, when it comes to papanca, the proliferation happens on the level of one’s being-there, which means that both ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ are affected by it. In this way you could have an outwardly-oriented person, whose habits are simply that of ‘outward’ nature, yet he could be an arahant; on the other hand you could have a thoroughly inward-looking person, never losing sight of the vertex, yet he could still be a puthujjana. What is important is to develop the attention that, regardless of its direction, knows itself as a direction, and this is nothing other than yoniso manasikara. Yoniso literally means ‘womb’, so yoniso-manasikara would be attention which ‘knows its origin’, or ‘direction which knows where it is directed from’ (or knows what its necessary cause is, what it depends upon). It is the very horizon that one attends in the first place, which determines that attention. However, describing in which way this happens is a topic in itself and certainly wouldn’t fit into the casual nature of this comment box.
      Nevertheless, in brief: both puthujjana and arahant have their horizons, but the difference between them is that arahant’s horizon is drained of tanha and free from upadana, while puthujjana’s isn’t. That’s why wherever an arahant casts his look he will see a picture that is free from appropriation and its accompanying anxiety – free from suffering. Consequently, wherever a puthujjana looks he will carry his appropriation with him and in that way remain “a prey to suffering”.
      Bhikkhu. N. Nyanamoli

      1. Thank you for your insightful comments. I believe I have a sense of what you are saying. For the puthujjana each layer of the hierarchy of experience — which more accurately could be described as a horizon of horizons, or better a tetrad of tetrads – is affected by asmimána whether he looks inwardly towards the here-and-now — which can only be viewed from a different dimension, a different layer, a different here-and-now of a higher order of complexity, i.e. of generality — or whether he looks outwardly towards the past or future, or is just overwhelmed by the immensity of the present.
        But given that sabbasankhárasamatha is an appellation for nibbána I’m still inclined to think that even when the puthujjana practices samadhi, focusing his attention inwardly, he still has the underlying tendency, the anusaya, to at the very least sense outwardly, even if only through the subjective mood that eventually undermines his one-pointedness of mind. For the arahat such an attainment is feasible: nothing pertains to him, the weight of the world no longer threatens him, unlike the puthujjana he has no need to keep a wary eye to the future. But now I’m pressing into the speculative, so you’re free to disagree with me on this point.
        P.S. I agree with you that a public forum probably isn’t the best venue for discussing such a subtle matter — even how one expresses oneself borders on the tenuous. Consequently you needn’t feel obliged to post what I’ve written on your website.
        With best regards,

      2. Thank you for your prompt comment. It’s not a problem at all discussing things here, since others who read the essay might actually benefit from it. I was merely referring to the fact that describing the relationship between ‘horizon’ and ‘attention’ would be a slightly larger undertaking, not fit for the comment box (i.e. an essay in itself – footnotes, quotations, references, etc). If on the other hand you feel that the questions you might have are too personal, feel free to get in touch with the website administrator who can pass my email address onto you, so you can write to me directly if, of course, you wish to do so.
        As for your post, I am not quite sure what you mean when you say “he still has the underlying tendency, the anusaya, to at the very least sense outwardly, even if only through the subjective mood that eventually undermines his one-pointedness of mind”. What do you mean by “sense outwardly”?
        Also the line, “For the arahat such an attainment is feasible”- were you referring to the attainment of one-pointedness or to something else? Could you say something more on this please – If of course you wish to pursue this discussion further – rather then me replying to what I think you meant, but then finding out that you were referring to an entirely different thing.
        Bhikkhu. N. Nyanamoli

  2. Thank you, Bhante, for your response.
    I believe Ven. Ñanavira’s marginalia to “Being and Time” reflects what I was trying to communicate:
    “[But to be affected by the unserviceable, resistant, or threatening character of that which is ready-to-hand, becomes ontologically possible only in so far as Being-in as such has been determined existentially beforehand in such a manner that what it encounters within-the-world can “matter” to it in this way. The fact that this sort of thing can “matter” to it is grounded in one’s state-of-mind; and as a state-of-mind it has already disclosed the world—as something by which it can be threatened, for instance.]: Yadabhinendati tam bhayam (Udāna iii,10 [Ud.33]) p. 176/25-34
    [Under the strongest pressure and resistance, nothing like an affect would come about, and the resistance itself would remain essentially undiscovered, if Being-in-the-world, with its state-of-mind, had not already submitted itself to having entities within-the-world “matter” to it in a way which its moods have outlined in advance. Existentially, a state-of-mind implies a disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us. Indeed from the ontological point of view we must as a general principle leave the primary discovery of the world to ‘bare mood’. Pure beholding, even if it were to penetrate to the innermost core of the Being of something present-at-hand, could never discover anything like that which is threatening.]: ‘Bare mood’ is more or less asmīti. (See Notes, SN PHASSA (b). Things concern me or matter to me because ‘I am’.—This is the puthujjana’s view.) p. 177/4-14
    [Understanding always has its mood.] u/l: Not with the arahat.p. 182/16”
    There is an onomatopoeic quality about the word papanca that conveys outward expansion. So long as there is asmimána the intentionality of experience is suffused with a need for self-preservation: being in its midst the puthujjana is threatened and captivated by his world (cf. Heidegger’s benommen) — even as he meditates: he always has a tacit awareness of its presence. But in the absence of asmimána such intensity is no longer present: the intentionality that gives experience its intelligibility is still there, but it is drained of all subjectivity. The images that blend with the real in the interplay of presence and absence are no longer appropriated: they are no longer “mine”, they no longer “matter’, but they don’t lose their meaning, their significance. This is how I understand sabbasankhárasamatha.

    1. In principle I agree with what you are saying. For a puthujjana the presence of sankharadukkha is implicit in every experience (hence Heidegger’s call to authenticity). In meditation, (if done correctly – i.e. jhanas), puthujjana can get some respite from it, but ultimately it is only the Right View that sets him straight.
      Bhikkhu N. Nyanamoli

  3. Dear Bhante,
    Sorry for the additional comment, but a thought occured to me. When it is said in the Cúlasíhanádasuttam that any samana or bráhmana who sees the origin and disappearance, the gratification and danger and the escape from the two views of being and non-being has no delight and enjoyment in papañca (nippapañcárámá nippapañcaratino) might it be that he is inclined away from abstraction, from the “plurality of the imaginary” and towards the “singularity of the real”. This is what I alluded to when I said in my earlier comment that the arahat focuses his attention inwardly, towards the vertex of the horizon, which would correspond to káyagatásati or to the ánápánasati Ven. Ñanavira refers to in the latter part of footnote b. to the SN on Mano.
    With best regards,

    1. Not necessarily, since abstraction in itself is not really a problem, it’s just a mode of experience. The reason why a puthujjana has to bring abstraction to a minimum and practice mindfulness and concentration is because his whole experience is underlied by the wrong view of Self, so engaging in abstraction would come under the same roof. (In abstraction the direct relation to phenomenon is pushed away and priority given to the images of it, or images of images of it, as Nv. says). However, the problem does not originate in abstraction, it is that original phenomenon, that “singularity of the real” that contains the root of it – it is affected with avijja and subject to papanca – so if there is an issue with the original phenomenon (the one which is present), the abstraction of it simply reproduces the same issue which in that way intensifies (simply speaking of course).
      You might actually already be implying this, but I somehow got the impression that you are equating papanca with abstraction while overlooking the cause in the presently arisen phenomenon, and that by inclining away from abstraction one overcomes papanca. Or perhaps all you meant was that once papanca is dealt with (at the very root of one’s experience), an arahant would simply lack a desire to engage in abstraction since its main fuel used to be papanca (and of course since jhana is much more pleasant than discursive thinking)? (The latter is not necessarily wrong thing to say, but I don’t think it is accurate enough, since it takes away the relevance of papanca that pertains to the immediacy of one’s experience, and can lead the reader to a conclusion of papanca being simply a “mental proliferation” whereby one tends to “over-think” things and get lost in thought, as the mainstream Theravada would regard it.)
      Let me know what you think.
      Bhikkhu N. Nyanamoli

      1. Dear Bhante,
        Thank you for your thoughts.
        Please excuse the brevity of my reply, but I’m away from home for the next month or so involved in the hustle and bustle of earning a living, much of it social which has a particular way of inhibiting my understanding.
        Thinking over what you’ve written, two things come to mind: the Satta Sutta (SN 23.2) and Ven. Ñanavira’s analogy of trying of trying to stop a moving train while traveling within one of its compartments [L.06]. I think both reflect what we are dealing with here.
        I do think that we share the same orientation in our thinking. One of the remarkable things about Ven. Ñanavira’s ideas is that they do seem to be pieces of a consistent whole that can be explored from multiple angles, and verified in one’s own experience. Though he never really seems to have dealt with the idea of papanca per say, it is certainly reflected in other aspects of the Dhamma that he explains in his writings.
        It’s a pleasure to have been able to share my views with you.
        With best regards,

  4. thank you gentlemen for a substantial discussion
    if i hardly understand what you’re talking about, does it mean that it will take my stream of being much more incarnations to attain nirvana than it would otherwise?

  5. I would point you toward the descriptions of “default network”, elucidated by functional neuro-imaging, originally described by Raichle et al. It applies to a circuit of frontal lobe connections which are “by default” switched on when the executive attentional function of the mind is idle and switched off by focused attention or, more pertinently here, by attending directly to sensory input, including interoception & proprioception & mental activity as described (incredibly accurately) in the satipatthana sutta 2500 years ago. The rambling egotistical ruminative stream of consciousness typical of default network switched on is, to my mind, prapanca. The non adept allow the thought there produced to assume a reality they do not deserve and identify with those imaginings to their own detriment. One contemporary arahant says that all violence grows out of prapanca,I think, in the sense that the non adept believe the thoughts they generate during prapaca/default network are self and true and worthy of acting out.

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