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In the Madhupindika Sutta: The Ball of Honey (MN 18), what is the difference between Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca?

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Vitakka-vicāra is 'thought-conception and discursive thinking'. Before we speak on something, always conscious, deliberate thoughts on what we are going to say (out loud) takes place within us. In Dhamma, this is called ‘vaci sankhara’. Or as “vitakka vicara vaci sankhara“, which means “vaci sankhara are ‘vitakka & vicara“ - our conscious, deliberate thoughts.

‘Vitakka’ points the mind to a given thought object – the initial ‘thought’. ‘Vicara’ keeps the mind engaged on that thought object, i.e., generating new thoughts about it – thinking through/further on this initial ‘thought’. This has been compared to a bee flying to a certain flower (Vitakka) and then buzzing around that flower (Vicara) while drinking nectar.

Buddha said “dhammo ha vé rakkati dhammacari” or “dhamma will guide one in the direction of dhamma that one follows”. This happens once a person becomes a Sotapanna (stream entrant). Once you attain this initial state in the PATH, your internal dialogue ( any conversation that takes place that is 'inner' and 'unspoken') is in keeping with dhamma. This inner conversation always guide you in the direction of dhamma that you follow.

Vitakka (focused application of thoughts), when cultivated in the Dhamma Path become samma sankappa. Thus Samma Ditthi leads to the next step in the Noble Eightfold Path: Samma Sankappa. “Samma” means “san” (adding things to perpetuate the suffering/rebirth process) + “ma” (remove or get rid of). Thus Samma Ditthi is the vision (anicca, dukkha, anatta) that helps removing “san“; Samma Sankappa are the thoughts that help remove ‘san“.

There are people who attain ‘anariya jhanas’ or ‘mundane jhanas’ by focusing the mind on any thought object (vitakka) that come their way. This could be the breath, a kasina object, or any other religious symbol of any religion, and then fixating the mind on this object.

For one who contemplates the ‘Tilakkhana’ of anicca, dukkha, anatta at least to some extent, such thought objects (vitakka) are in keeping with Dhamma, and it is possible to attain Ariya jhanas. It is because this contemplation gives rise to ‘niramisa sukha’ or a ‘cooling down’ over time. This is what we call ‘kammatthana’ to cultivate jhana. These ‘kammatthana’. The thing is one has to know the meaning of these Pali phrases, for one to think through. These phrases cannot be used just as a chanting object without understanding what is meant by it.

When meditating, in the first absorption, it reads in Pali "vivicceva kamehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkam savicaram vivikajam pitisukham pathamajjhanam upasappajjha viharati." It is when Vitakka-vicāra comes to an end, and Savitakka-Savicāra remains.

Papañca can be said as an unhealthy direction that vitakka-vicāra would lead us to if we do not guard against this very Papañca. Papañca always lead to conflict. The Buddha once described this in the Attadanda Sutta (Arming Oneself– SN 4:15):

“I will tell of how I experienced samvega. Seeing people floundering like fish in small puddles, competing with one another– as I saw this, fear came into me. The world was entirely without substance. All the directions were knocked out of line. Wanting a haven for myself, I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to. Seeing nothing in the end but competition, I felt discontent. And then I saw an arrow here, so very hard to see, embedded in the heart. Overcome by this arrow you run in all directions. But simply on pulling it out you don’t run, you don’t sink.” Buddha wanted to see why rather than trying to solve the problem by looking for a larger puddle for oneself or ones fellow fish, as to why people would want to be fish in the first place. That is when he found an arrow embedded in his own heart. This arrow is papañca. Papañca is a type of thinking that causes conflict within those who think it, and leads them into conflict with people outside.

If we take Papañca to mean “objectification”, then it’s from treating yourself and the world around you as objects–rather than, say, as events or processes–that the perceptions causing inner and outer conflict derive. , It’s because you have passion, desire, delight, or craving for something that you identify with a given thing. In identifying with it, you become tied there. Then you see your sources of food within that puddle as dear, and anyone who blocks those sources as not-dear. From this distinction come envy and stinginess, hostility, violence, rivalry, and ill will.

If we take Papañca to mean falsification and distortion, then the three types of thought: craving, conceit, and views, functions to slow the mind down in its escape from saṁsāra. It is the previous memory of mental events play in influencing mental proliferations. These previous memories are equivalent to what are known as āsava in Pali - an important element responsible for defiling the mind. It is the Papañca that makes us think that people are such and such, when the truth be is the opposite of what we thought of it.

  • Thanks SV.Can I say Mitya Sankappa as Papanca? – SarathW Jun 17 '17 at 8:48
  • Sadhu! Maybe useful The Arrows of Thinking - Papañca & The Path to End Conflict, it list also the kind of thought called papanca, Nyom Saphta Visuddhi, @SarathW . – Samana Johann Jun 17 '17 at 10:37
  • Yes, and No… @SarathW. I am still not clear on Papañca. Think of it this way… If your wife or friend has done something, and without asking her as to why she did that, you come up with other thoughts as to why she could have done that… - that is Papañca. You could have given the benefit of the doubt to her, or you could have asked her as to why she did it. So most conflicts start because of Papañca. Papañca is the vitakka-vicāra that we do, that lead to conflicts. – Saptha Visuddhi Jun 17 '17 at 11:41
  • In 16 steps breath meditation, are you in Vitakka/Vicara mode? Why it is not Papanca? – SarathW Jun 17 '17 at 23:27
  • After the first jhana you go beyond the Vitakka/Vicara mode to the Savitakka/Savicara mode. These states are without reflection and discursive thinking (Avitakka/Avicara). Where there is no Avitakka/Avicara, there are no possibility for Papañca to occur. – Saptha Visuddhi Jun 17 '17 at 23:57
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Vitakka/Vicara are the factors which gives rise to thoughts. When Vitakka/Vicara subsides the through ability is lost. Papanca is the stream of thoughts in succession resulting from an initial thought.

Say I get the desire to have burger. This is the 1st thought. This arises partly due to Vitakka/Vicara. If Vitakka/Vicara is missing the you cannot get this thought. Now you start planning the way to get this. This is your next thought, followed by a lot more thoughts on the subject. You will think shall I go to this restaurant or that. The road you take. Etc. This is Papanca. (The additional throughs arise due to the fact that Vitakka/Vicara is present.)

Vitakka/Vicara is present in all Papanca. Papanca is the snowballing of thoughts starting from initial thought. In all proliferated thought Vitakka/Vicara is present.

If the train of thoughts are represented like this:

  1. initial thought - unprompted by other thoughts - Vitakka/Vicara only - e.g. a smell
  2. next thought - as reaction to thought 1 - Vitakka/Vicara (without Vitakka/Vicara no thoughts will arise) and Papanca - e.g. some one who wore the perfume - this is a related thought
  3. next thought - as reaction to thought 2 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. party that person was in - fills in details
  4. next thought - as reaction to thought 3 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. something that happened in the party - fills in details
  5. next thought - as reaction to thought 4 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. something about another person involved with the incident - relate thought
  6. next thought - as reaction to thought 5 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. if this has happened like this it would have been better - imagination about the past
  7. next thought - as reaction to thought 6 - Vitakka/Vicara and Papanca - e.g. if I was in a similar situation I would do this - imagination about the future

...

Also note: Unwholesome Vitakka/Vicara is generally Papanca but this leads to be scatterbrain than concentrated. Also leading to Restless Worry. This does not result in any Jhana. Also Papanca is obsessed with a thought. If a memory or thought comes and you do not keep thinking along the initial thought it is not Papanca. If you continue thinking from the initial though then it is Papanca. When you say Papanca aimless string of thoughts. If you maintain wise attention then thinking and planning will not be unwholesome.

Also see: What is Papañca? BY ANDREW OLENDZKI

  • Thank you, Suminda. Vitakka and Vicara are defined as initial application and sustained application. How do you reconcile this with Papanca? – SarathW Jun 17 '17 at 4:22
  • I updated. See if this is more clear. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Jun 17 '17 at 16:22
  • @SarathW why the downvote? – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Jun 18 '17 at 4:27
  • It is not me. Sorry – SarathW Jun 18 '17 at 5:26
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Thanks all. Based on your answers I came to the following conclusion. Papanca is the unwholsome Vicara just before the first Jhana.

Further reading.

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=29748&p=428110#p428110

https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/wh ... ca/5706/10

  • Unwholesome Vitakka/Vicara is Papanca but this leads to be scatterbrain than concentrated. Also leading to Restless Worry. This does not result in any Jhana. Also Papanca is obsessed with a thought. If a memory or thought comes and you do not keep thinking along the initial thought it is not Papanca. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Jun 18 '17 at 5:46
  • Yes, that is how I understand it now. Thanks. – SarathW Jun 18 '17 at 7:41

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