Using Papañca Against Itself

Using Papañca Against Itself

Papañca is a word from original Buddhist language and concepts.

Understanding this mechanism of action is key to liberation because it describes the essence of entrapment. No hardship or situation causes human suffering like the proportion of a lifetime spent in wasted energy of mind, spinning, projecting, absently moving in construction.

Papañca evolves from the smallest moments of sensory experience, but acquires a life of its own and then takes over sensory experience as a tool of its own perpetuation. When a sense impression impinges on consciousness, a minute binary emotional reaction occurs, which leads to some bit of perceptual construction, then reasoning. Without some awareness of this process, that bit of reasoning becomes papañca, and starts gobbling up further sensory and conceptual data to support its own conclusion.

Papañca then overwhelms its creator. It is described in early Buddhist writing as “assailing” us. There is a story in the early sutras comparing papañca to a tiger who is magically resurrected by a wizard from a skeleton and then proceeds to devour the wizard (1). Everyone knows the feeling of responding to something with worry, for example, and then feeling like the worry sucks the past and future and everything perceived into its vortex.

The vehicle of papañca is language. Language requires a certain fixed format because it is consensual and the Pali word for letter, aksara, means stable or durable. This very durability can trip off illusion when we lock into language’s structure as permanence or truth. Even the short word “I” helps us overemphasize a definitive self and a subject/object duality (2).

The goal of the Buddhist writer is to carjack papañca. How can we use the deep and generative structure of language to bring us closer to plain reality instead of coating it with something like a child’s glued popsicle stick sculpture? How do we keep language anchored to discernment and careful investigation?

In the words of an early sutra, “one neither delights in nor asserts nor clings to that which makes one subject to concepts characterized by the prolific tendency.” In the words of Bhikkhu Nanananda, one simply takes in what is simply there in the sensory world, “transcending the superstitions of the grammatical structure (3).” This is a tall order and intense discipline.

The Buddhist practice of “right speech” is a repeated effort to use words dynamically. We dwell by birth in human language’s structure and need to carefully acquire strategies to unlock its stable base without destabilizing our own process. In an article about applying metta to ourselves, Pema Chodron used words that help with this paradox of words. She said, “Curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open – actually being able to let go and be open (4).” This provides an instruction in language use.

Being generous is remembering that language creates karma. Trying to think with a kind view keeps language’s base wholesome. But precision strips down the potential for extra ripples of affectation or desire, convolutions of internal fashion. Precision means deferring to cause and effect rather than the wished for patterns of events. Staying open while within the structure of language means using it to keep all possibilities available, to ask questions with and of language, to generate equanimity with a non-evaluative response.

It is always a problem of adjustment from within. We are working within papañca, consciousness, states, and a multi-directional moving reality. We write to unpack enfolded experience and meaning as well as to gather in this potential we have for papañca. We steal the vehicle of proliferation but we need to make friends with the conductor also.


(1) —page 6.

(2) page 11.

(3) page 31.

(4)—page 3.