One word in Pali Canon seems to be especially challenging for translators to convey. This word is "papañca" (e.g. MN18, DN21, Sn 4.11, AN4.173). Some attempts at translating papañca include "exaggeration", "proliferation", "association", "conceptualization", "objectification", and "reification".

What is papañca and what is it's significance in Buddhism? How is it used in Pali Canon and what is it's referent in real life?

How is papañca (prapañca in Sanskrit) explained by Mahayana philosophers such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Tsongkhapa?


8 Answers 8


Apologies, because this may be overlong. I would like to look at three examples from Buddhist literature, two being Pāli suttas and one being a Mahāyāna treatise, because they both address directly the issue of "prapañca" (which can be translated as "proliferation," "hypostatization," "objectification," "fetishization," etc.).

The first is the Ānandasutta at AN 4.174. The translation here is from Venerable Sujāto:

Then Venerable Ānanda went up to Venerable Mahākoṭṭhita, and exchanged greetings with him. When the greetings and polite conversation were over, Ānanda sat down to one side, and said to Mahākoṭṭhita:

“Reverend, when these six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, does anything else exist?”

“Don’t put it like that, reverend.”

“Does nothing else exist?”

“Don’t put it like that, reverend.”

“Do both something else and nothing else exist?”

“Don’t put it like that, reverend.”

“Do neither something else nor nothing else exist?”

“Don’t put it like that, reverend.”

“Reverend, when asked these questions, you say ‘don’t put it like that’. … How then should we see the meaning of this statement?”

“If you say that ‘when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, something else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘nothing else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘both something else and nothing else exist’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated. If you say that ‘neither something else nor nothing else exist’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated.

The text that I have bolded, "proliferating the unproliferated," corresponds to "appapañcaṁ papañceti." This is "papañca" with a negatory "a-" prefix followed by another form of "papañca," namely "papañceti." If we substitute the other translations offered for "prapañca," we get:

"conceptualizing the non-conceptual," "objectifying the non-objectified," and "hypostatizing the unhypostatized," among other possibilities.

In the sutta quoted above, Venerable Ānanda asks, essentially, whether or not the Buddha exists after death, or if he both exists and does not exist, or if he neither exists nor does not exist. Venerable Mahākoṭṭhita tells Ven Ānanda that he should not say it like that (referring to his questions). Ven Ānanda asks for clarification, and Ven Mahākoṭṭhita further explains to him that these four positions (or "four theses") are instances of "proliferating the unproliferated." Namely, four kinds of instances:

  1. "when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, something else exists"
  2. "when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, nothing else exists’
  3. "when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, both something else and nothing else exist," and
  4. "when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, neither something else nor nothing else exist."

This is what is called the "tetralemma." It appears in the earliest of Buddhist literatures, but is often associated with Madhyamaka. Here it appears again in another Pāli sutta:

... a mendicant went up to the Buddha ... and said to him:

“Sir, what is the cause, what is the reason why an educated noble disciple has no doubts regarding the undeclared points?”

“Mendicant, it’s due to the cessation of views that an educated noble disciple has no doubts regarding the undeclared points. ‘A Realized One exists after death’: this is a misconception. ‘A Realized One doesn’t exist after death’: this is a misconception. ‘A Realized One both exists and doesn’t exist after death’: this is a misconception. ‘A Realized One neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death’: this is a misconception. An uneducated ordinary person doesn’t understand views, their origin, their cessation, or the practice that leads to their cessation. And so their views grow. They’re not freed from rebirth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from suffering, I say.

(Abyākatasutta AN 7.54 translated by Ven Sujāto)

We see the same four views outlined here and identified as things that concern "the undeclared points." The "undeclared points" are the four positions of the tetralemma that the sutta outlines. They are described elsewhere as "a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views."

What brings these two sections of Pāli suttas together? Ven Ānanda asked if the Buddha existed or not after death. In the other sutta, the Buddha explains that the existence, nonexistence, etc., of the Buddha after death is "an undeclared point." This term, "undeclared/undeclarable" (avyākṛta), is also sometimes translated as "inconceivable," "unfathomable," or "unspeakable."

So we see that even in the earliest of Buddhist literatures, "prapañca" is associated with speculation concerning "the undeclared points," which are further known as "the unfathomable things."

In the East Asian Buddhist tradition, prapañca is translated as various versions of "戲論" ("xì lùn). This is sometimes translated as "meaningless talk," but I prefer the rendering "frivolous pondering." In this section of the Madhyamakaśāstra, a 3rd century Central Asian Madhyamaka treatise that was translated by Venerable Kumārajīva in 409AD, the commentator, Venerable Vimalākṣa, engages in a dialogue with an unnamed interlocutor. Notice how Ven Vimalākṣa references "appapañcaṁ papañceti" (proliferating the unproliferated) when he says that Nirvāṇa "cannot be frivolously pondered as a frivolous pondering" (不為戲論所戲論).

[Ven Vimalākṣa] Living beings are of three kinds: a superior, a middling, and an inferior. The superior sees the characteristics of all phenomena as neither real nor unreal. The middling sees the characteristics of all phenomena as either all real or all unreal. The inferior, on account of his shallow intellect, reasons seeing the characteristics of all phenomena as slightly real and slightly unreal. He sees nirvāṇa as the unconditioned phenomena and as the imperishable and reasons it to be "the real." He sees saṁsāra as the conditioned and the false and reasons it to be "the unreal." "Neither real nor unreal" is taught to break (the view of) "Both real and unreal."

[Interlocutor] The Buddhas, in other places, say "separate from neither existence nor nonexistence." In light of this, why say "neither existence nor nonexistence" are the Buddhas' words?

[Ven Vimalākṣa] On those occasions, it was to break the four kinds of attachment to existence that it was taught, not for dramatic discourse. We hear the words of the Buddhas. We attain the way. Like this, we say, "Neither existence nor nonexistence."

[Interlocutor] Even if we know that the Buddha on account of the four theses spoke, how does one attain this true aspect of all phenomena, and by what characteristics is it made known?

[Ven Vimalākṣa] "Not from another," means that even if the non-Buddhists appear to you with godly powers, saying "This is the right, or wrong, path," you will be confident in yourself. Even if they can transform their bodies, even if others cannot tell they are not Buddhas, knowing the true aspect, you will be undistracted by them. Within it, there are no phenomena to be gained or surrendered, as it is quiet tranquility. Because it is characterized by quiet tranquility, it cannot be frivolously pondered as a frivolous pondering. Those are of two kinds. First is the argument from emotion, and the second is the argument from opinion. Via the middle, there are none of these two frivolous ponderings. Two frivolous ponderings (being) naught, there is neither agreement with nor dissent from. "Not another" and undifferentiated from itself, it is described as "reality."

(Madhyamakaśāstra T1564.25a14)

Some notes for context:

In the above, when Ven Vimalākṣa quotes "Not from another," he is quoting from the root text of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XVIII.9, which reads "It is known through itself, not through another. It is quiet tranquility devoid of frivolous ponderings. It is undifferentiated and non-discriminative. Thus, it is called 'the true aspect'" from the Chinese (自知不隨他寂滅無戲論無異無分別是則名實相).

I've also bolded where the tetralemma appears, once referred to as "the four kinds of attachment to existence" and once referred to as "the four theses." The "argument from emotion" refers to argumentation rooted, ultimately, in ignorance and suffering, as well as craving and greed. We want to live forever. An "argument from emotion" to this effect would be "Isn't it awful to believe that people just die? Surely it's better (and makes me feel better) if ordinary persons, or maybe just the Buddhas, were immortal." An "argument from opinion" refers to personal theories as well as to secondary theses derived from primary doctrines. An argument of this sort would be "The Buddha must exist after death, because it is said that he doesn't not exist after death."

  • 1
    Excellent points, I especially loved the Pali examples. In the context of those two Pali suttas I suppose the best translation would be "to reify" or "to hypostatize" (as opposed to "to proliferate" or "to ponder frivolously") - but regardless, I definitely "get" the meaning, no need to "papancize" it :)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 22 at 21:51
  • "Reify" is a good one. I didn't include it in the list of examples in the post. These are all getting at the same sort of thing. To reify is to "thingify," which arguably is the "proliferation" of things. So with that sense, I don't mind "proliferation," but I do admit that it is highly vague. Proliferating what? "Hypostatization" is fine as well, and its only downside is that it is usually associated with Christian theology where it means something completely different. I am somewhat biased to the rendering of the Chinese translations of ~400. "Meaningless talk." It's hardly literal though
    – Caoimhghin
    Feb 22 at 22:17
  • "Frivolous pondering" being a variant reading of "meaningless talk."
    – Caoimhghin
    Feb 22 at 22:17
  • 1
    IMO, it refers to a "conceptual proliferation" of (unskillful) ideas concerning something that is, in truth, inconceivable and unutterable (such as "the Buddha exists after death," "the Buddha does not exist after death," etc.). It is the mental "hypostatization" of a non-entity into an entity (such as "self" from "the five aggregates"). It is an "objectification" and a "reification" because it makes objective and makes real what is non-reifiable and unreal. It is also, ultimately, "meaningless talk." All of the proposed senses can apply. The best is a matter of opinion IMO.
    – Caoimhghin
    Feb 22 at 22:29
  • i downvoted this answer because of its focus on 'non-conceptual' , 'undifferentiated' and 'non-discriminative'. Obviously, the mind of enlightenment discriminates, differentiates and conceptualizes what is papanca vs non-papanca. If non-pancana or appapañcaṁ was not discriminated, differentiated and conceptualized, it could not be described verbally or spoken of. Papanca obviously refers to concocting wrong views & unnecessary views. For example, many suttas say Buddhas do not "die" therefore questions about a Buddha & death are redundant & arise from papanca. Feb 23 at 1:51

I am not a translator and do not know of the proper translation, but another closely related word that I'm particularly fond of is hypostatize. There is also the noun form hypostatization.

Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura translate the Sanskrit version of this term - prapañca - as hypostatization in Nagarjuna's Middle Way so it looks like I'm not too far off :)

enter image description here

The general definition is very close to reification. It means to attribute real ontological identity to a concept and Mirriam Webster gives the root as the Greek hypostatos which is "substantially existing."

Here is my favorite example of hypostatizing...

From Insight Into Emptiness page 258, “For example, a young woman may want to have a child. When she is asleep, she dreams she gives birth to a child and is elated. But later in the dream, the child dies and she is devastated. However, on waking, she sees that neither the exhilarating appearance of having a child that brought her joy nor the horrible appearance of the child’s death that caused her anguish is real.”

Before she woke up she hypostatized her child (attributed real concrete existence to it) and this led to both elation and anguish. After she woke she stopped the hypostatization and the elation and anguish faded. However, there is also something very subtle happening when she woke up: she considered the dream unreal in relation to something else! Unreal and real are a dichotomy and mutually dependent notions :)

Another great and famous example is that of how three different beings perceive a cup filled with a liquid substance.

Three beings each perceive a cup filled with a liquid substance in front of them. The first, a god, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “ambrosia!” The second, a human being, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “water.” The third, a hungry ghost, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “blood and pus.”

Which is real? Which is unreal? What is worthy of being hypostatized and what is not? This is sometimes referred to as the simile of the three cups of liquid in Mahayana texts.

Another famous example by Nagarjuna is the body of a woman being seen differently by an ascetic, a lustful man, or a wild dog:

With respect to the same female body,
Three different notions are entertained
By the ascetic, the lustful and a [wild] dog,
As a corpse, an object of lust, or food.

Each hypostatizes the body as very different things. Which is real? Which is unreal? Can the body be thought of as having any essence whatsoever? Or is each perception thoroughly and utterly relative and dependent? Is there anything whatsoever objectively real or worthy of being hypostatized in such a situation? Can any of it withstand analysis?

In fact, prapañca is a concept so important to Nagarjuna that he opens his famous Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way with this:

enter image description here

And here is how Siderits characterizes the commentaries on this opening Homage Verse:

enter image description here

Indeed, if you look through the rest of Nagarjuna's verses you will see that this is a major subject of the treatise as the commentaries attest.

Here is that very same Homage Verse as translated by Garfield and commented on by Je Tsongkhapa:

I prostrate to the perfect Buddha,
The best of all teachers, who taught that
That which is dependent origination is
Without cessation, without arising;
Without annihilation, without permanence;
Without coming; without going;
Without distinction, without identity
And peaceful—free from fabrication.

Je Tsongkhapa cites Chandrakirti saying in his Prasannapada that these Homage Verses, "reveal the content and ultimate purpose of the Treatise."

Further, this site gives prapanca in Tibetan as spros pa which is also how it is used in Je Tsongkhapa's Ocean of Reasoning:

free from conceptual and verbal elaboration : sgra rtog gi spros pa zhi ba
sgra rtog gi spros pa zhi ba : free from conceptual and verbal fabrication

  • 1
    Thank you for this new word, I have not seen this before. Though the question is more about usage and interpretation of papanca in Pali Canon and Mahayana texts, but I appreciate this information too.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 12, 2018 at 17:20
  • @YesheTenley, it seems your last two examples (while correct) emphasize the other aspect of reification. It is true that our perceptions largely depend on our perspective and interpretation (which is what your examples emphasize) - but the traditional emphasis in (Mahayana) Buddhism is, I think, on our tendency to grasp abstractions as if they were realities, regardless of perspective. To be sure, your emphasis on reality as interpretation is equally important.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 12, 2018 at 19:07
  • 1
    @AndreiVolkov hmm, I see these examples as also providing evidence for what you call the traditional emphasis if I'm understanding you correctly. IOW, the fact that multiple perspectives exist - indeed infinitely different perspectives - undermines that anything real is being perceived at all. Jun 12, 2018 at 19:28
  • @AndreiVolkov found quite a bit more including how the most recent translation of Nagarjuna's MMK from the Sanskrit is filled with this word. It is indeed very important to the teachings of the Middle Way school of Mahayana! Jun 12, 2018 at 20:45
  • Yup, I'm watching the answers, so I see the changes. Already +1'd once so can't do again :) But yeah this is like the heart of the Teaching as per Madhyamika.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 12, 2018 at 21:26

First, I will start with a canonical definition of papanca from MN 18 (translated by Ven. Sujato):

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. What you feel, you perceive. What you perceive, you think about. What you think about, you proliferate. What you proliferate about is the source from which a person is beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions. This occurs with respect to sights known by the eye in the past, future, and present.
MN 18

And the same applies to the other five senses and their sense objects, including mind and thoughts.

For e.g. I see a cup. Feeling means sensing the vision of the cup with my eyes. Then I perceive it, meaning I identify it as "my late grandmother's cup" from memory. Then I proliferate, meaning I think about the times I spent with my grandmother and the times she drank using the cup. It stirs emotions about my late grandmother. Then I think about what I'm going to do with the cup in future. That's mental proliferation (papanca).

"What is Papañca?" is precisely the name of the article by Andrew Olendzki, the editor of the Insight Journal, who tries to answer this question, and then relates the purpose of vipassana later in his article, beyond my quote below.

Basically, papañca is the layers of thoughts and concepts that obscures what is barely perceived.

Imagine you walk through a canteen line and the canteen staff places five pieces of potato on your plate, while placing six pieces of potato on another person's plate. If you get angry about this, thinking perhaps, that the canteen staff is discriminating against you perhaps due to your ethnicity - well, this is an example of papañca, where it gives rise to aversion. You imagined a lot of stuff, on top of what is insignificant.

Another good example is this answer, where the author wrote that she was terrified because she misinterpreted the nightly sounds of cats mating as an adult woman and her baby crying in pain.

I've recently spoken to a depressed friend who did not feel that he is good enough and suffers from a lack of self-confidence. He cites examples of where others are better than him. I quoted qualities and examples of him that are better than each of those other persons and he was shocked. He never saw it in that way before. He was too obscured in his mental commentaries of his deficiencies that he couldn't see his good qualities and personal strengths.

But papañca can be a lot milder than that. For e.g. your feeling of patriotism or pride towards your country or ethnicity or religion is in my opinion, papañca too, as it a built-up concept.

In the article, he continues to speak of Vipassana as a means of one seeing things as they truly are.

The opposite of "papañca" could be "yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti" which means "seeing things clearly as they truly are".

From Andrew Olendzki's article, "What is Papañca?":

papahcabkirata paja nippapanca tathagata
“People delight in proliferation, the Tathagata in nonproliferation.”
—Dhammapada 254

Papañca is one of those delightful Pali words that rolls off the tongue (or bursts through the lips, in this case) and hits the nail on the head. It points to something so immediate, so pervasive, and so insidious that it deserves to join the English language and enter into common usage. The exact derivation of papañca is not entirely clear, but its sense hovers somewhere between the three nodes of 1) to spread out or proliferate; 2) an illusion or an obsession; and 3) an obstacle or impediment. The place where these three meanings converge in experience is not hard to locate. Sit down with your back straight and your legs folded around your ankles, close your eyes, and attend carefully to your experience. What do you see? Papañca.

This term is used to describe the tendency of the mind to 1) spread out from and elaborate upon any sense object that arises in experience, smothering it with wave after wave of mental elaboration, 2) most of which is illusory, repetitive, and even obsessive, 3) which effectively blocks any sort of mental calm or clarity of mind.

These are the narrative loops that play over and over in the mind, the trains of thought pulling out of the station one after another and taking us for a long ride down the track before we even know we’re aboard. Bhikkhu Bodhi, eloquent as always, calls papañca “the propensity of the worldling’s imagination to erupt in an effusion of mental commentary that obscures the bare data of cognition” (from note 229 in Majjkima Nikaya (MN)).

Also of interest from the Tuvataka Sutta:

Seeing in what way is a monk unbound,
clinging to nothing in the world?"
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'

Ven. Thanissaro's footnote states:

On objectification-classifications and their role in leading to conflict, see Sn 4.11 and the introduction to MN 18. The perception, "I am the thinker" lies at the root of these classifications in that it reads into the immediate present a set of distinctions — I/not-I; being/not-being; thinker/thought; identity/non-identity — that then can proliferate into mental and physical conflict. The conceit inherent in this perception thus forms a fetter on the mind. To become unbound, one must learn to examine these distinctions — which we all take for granted — to see that they are simply assumptions that are not inherent in experience, and that we would be better off to be able to drop them.

That means the mind creates a self and then it objectifies and classifies everything else based on its relationship to the self.

For e.g. to a non-vegetarian, cooked meat looks like delicious food and to a vegan, it's disgusting.

The root of objectification-classification is the mental idea of the self.

The Madhupindika Sutta, cited in the question, seems to state that objectification (papañca) leads to "obsessions of passion, the obsessions of resistance, the obsessions of views, the obsessions of uncertainty, the obsessions of conceit, the obsessions of passion for becoming, & the obsessions of ignorance" and also "taking up rods & bladed weapons, of arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing, & false speech".

"If, monk, with regard to the cause whereby the perceptions & categories of objectification assail a person, there is nothing there to relish, welcome, or remain fastened to, then that is the end of the obsessions of passion, the obsessions of resistance, the obsessions of views, the obsessions of uncertainty, the obsessions of conceit, the obsessions of passion for becoming, & the obsessions of ignorance. That is the end of taking up rods & bladed weapons, of arguments, quarrels, disputes, accusations, divisive tale-bearing, & false speech. That is where these evil, unskillful things cease without remainder."


How to analysis this vocabulary?

Pac(a/i) + [ṃ of abbhāsa(root-repeating)] + pac(a/i) + a = papañca (saddanīti dhātumālā).

Pāka/vipāka, which use the same pac(a/i)-root, didn't abbhāsa by Buddha, because it is resultant. It is not the lead-cause dependent-origination-loop's repeating. So, Buddha didn't abbhāsa it.

What does pac(a/i) of papañca mean?

It refers to kilesa-vatta (unwholesome-causes) of the dependent origination which are the causes of the dependent-origination-loop's repeating. Because Kamma-vatta (formation/kamma-becomming) depending on kilesa-vatta (avijjā/taṅhā/upādāna) to cook(pacati) pāka/vipāka (resultants) of the dependent origination (vaṭṭa/paṭiccasamuppāda).

Why Buddha did abbhāsa(root-repeating) to pac(a/i) as papañca?

To refer papañca to kilesa-vatta (unwholesome-causes) of the dependent origination. I described above.

Where are kilesa-vaṭṭa (formation) in dependent origination?

The italic text below of Saṃ. Nidāna. Vibhaṅgasutta are kilesa-vaṭṭa (formation), the bold text are vipāka-vaṭṭa, the regular text are kamma-vaṭṭa:

– Katamo ca, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo?

– And what, bhikkhus, is paṭicca-samuppāda?

Avijjā·paccayā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā;

Conditioned by avijjā, bhikkhus, there are saṅkhāras

saṅkhāra·paccayā viññāṇaṃ;

conditioned by saṅkhāras, there is viññāṇa

viññāṇa·paccayā nāmarūpaṃ;

conditioned by viññāṇa, there is nāmarūpa

nāmarūpa·paccayā saḷāyatanaṃ;

conditioned by nāmarūpa, there are saḷāyatanas

saḷāyatana·paccayā phasso;

conditioned by saḷāyatanas, there is phassa

phassa·paccayā vedanā;

conditioned by phassa, there is vedanā

vedanā·paccayā taṇhā;

conditioned by vedanā, there is taṇhā

taṇhā·paccayā upādānaṃ;

conditioned by taṇhā, there is upādāna

upādāna·paccayā bhavo;

conditioned by upādāna, there is bhava

bhava·paccayā jāti;

conditioned by bhava, there is jāti

jāti·paccayā jarā-maraṇaṃ soka parideva dukkha domanass·upāyāsā sambhavanti. Evam·etassa kevalassa dukkha'k'khandhassa samudayo hoti.

conditioned by jāti arise jarā-maraṇa, sorrow, lamentation, dukkha, domanassa and distress. Thus arises this whole mass of dukkha.

Which are the evidence sutta of this answer?

Every sutta which are contented papañca and papañceti are the evidences. They talking about dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). So, I analysis papañca-word as dependent origination follow to those suttas' context.

Why atthakathā comments papañca as the Resistance?

Because the kilesa-vaṭṭa causes the repeating of dependent-origination-loop. So, atthakathā comments papañca as the resistance of the dependent-origination-loop cessation.

Why atthakathā comments papañca as only Taṇhā, Diṭṭhi, and Māna, but the sutta refer to 7 anusaya?

It is just a brief of those 7 anusaya to cover 10 fetters in brief 3 kilesa, some point of atthakathā comment more than 3 as well. So, the sutta and atthakathā similarly explained papañca.

  • The PTS dictionary says it means "obstacle or impediment", and that it maybe isn't related to the Sanskrit prapañca.

  • It's used in DN 21 e.g. like this:

    “But how does a mendicant appropriately practice for the cessation of concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions?”
    “Kathaṃ paṭipanno pana, mārisa, bhikkhu papañcasaññāsaṅkhānirodhasāruppagāminiṃ paṭipadaṃ paṭipanno hotī”ti?

    In papañcasaññāsaṅkhānirodhasāruppagāminiṃ perhaps the "proliferation" part of the meaning comes from saṅkhā rather than papañca, and "perception" is from saññā -- therefore papañca by itself only means "impediment" not "conceptual proliferation".

  • In MN 18 too it's mostly used in compound words like papañcasaññāsaṅkhā (as in DN 21 above).

  • The only other way it's used in MN 18 is in papañceti which Ven Sujato translated as ...

    What you think about, you proliferate.
    yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti

    ... but I don't know how to verify/justify that translation.

  • There are not many suttas in which it's used at all: it's not a commonly-used word.

    (That search also returns results like pāpañca i.e. with a long first vowel, but I think that's a different word, which means evil).

    (That search may be unreliable e.g. it didn't find it's being used in Snp 4.11, I don't know why, so maybe by relying on this search as I do in this answer I miss some places where it's used).

  • A few suttas use it in the formula "Papañca udapānañca", e.g. SN 1.47, where it's translated as "a drinking place and a well" (I don't know why, so I'll ignore this meaning), ditto in the phrase "Papañca vivane".

  • It's used in AN 4.174, in phrases like iti vadaṃ appapañcaṃ papañceti translated as "you’re proliferating the unproliferated". However a) I don't understand the overall meaning of this sutta b) for all I know this might just as well be translated as "you're hindering the unhindered".

  • It's used in Thag 17.2 translated as follows ...

    Whoever is devoted to proliferation,
    A wild animal delighting in proliferation,
    Is deprived of nibbāna,
    The unexcelled safety from the yoke.

    Whoever has given up proliferation,
    Delighting in the path free of proliferation,
    Is blessed with nibbāna,
    The unexcelled safety from the yoke.

    ... I dont know why that's translated as (specifically) "proliferation" instead of (more generally) "an unspecified kind of hindrance". The same formula is used in AN 6.14 and AN 6.15.

  • It's used in Snp 4.11 whose topic is "Arguments and Disputes". I guess this is a famous use of the word. Here it's used in the phrase Saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā -- note that here again it's used with Saññā and saṅkhā explicitly.

That's about all there is, the only places it's used.

In summary I think that:

  • It's rarely used
  • It just means "hindrance"
  • In the (only) places where it's (famously) used i.e. DN 21 and MN 18, it's used in the compound word papañcasaññāsaṅkhā -- which maybe explains why that's translated as "conceptual proliferation" ... I guess that compound word means literally "the hindrance of numerous perceptions".

  • Snp 4.11 uses the similar-but-not-identical phrase ...

    Na saññasaññī na visaññasaññī,
    Nopi asaññī na vibhūtasaññī;
    Evaṃ sametassa vibhoti rūpaṃ,
    Saññānidānā hi papañcasaṅkhā

    That's translated as ...

    Neither one of normal perception nor yet abnormal,
    neither unperceiving no cessation of perception,
    but form ceases for one who (has known) it thus:
    Conceptual proliferation has perception as its cause.

    ... i.e. translating papañca and/or papañcasaṅkhā as "conceptual proliferation" again, even though it's missing the word saññā.

    I guess that literally should be translated as "perceptions cause many troubles" -- except that papañcasaṅkhā should be understood as actually saying (or meaning) papañcasaññāsaṅkhā: IMO it's been abbreviated from papañcasaññāsaṅkhā to fit the meter (because Snp 4.11 is verse, and they do that when it comes to versifying).

  • All three (MN 18, DN 21, and Snp 4.11) are describing this as a cause of arguments and quarrels (MN 18 and Snp 4.11), and/or envy and hostility (DN 21).

    That explains this introduction to MN 18:

    This discourse plays a central role in the early Buddhist analysis of conflict. As might be expected, the blame for conflict lies within, in the unskillful habits of the mind, rather than without. The culprit in this case is a habit called papañca.

  • I'm not sure how it comes to be translated as "reification". Perhaps it's from e.g. this bit in MN 18: Yatonidānaṃ ... purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti, translated "a person is beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions." Maybe that's saying that papanca is the "reification" of identity -- although not necessarily in the (modern?) "this is a logical fallacy" sense but more in the "this is the cause or foundation (or conditioned arising) of" sense (see also What does “hypostatize” mean?).
    – ChrisW
    Jun 13, 2018 at 11:52
  • Thanks for looking at this @ChrisW but I think your conclusion is generally wrong. In addition to Thanissaro Bhikkhu's account of the importance of this concept have a look at the book that Larry Pitts just linked to below. It does not support your answer. Jun 13, 2018 at 15:51
  • 1
    Ironically, arguing about the meaning of papanca is an example of papanca in action ;))
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 13, 2018 at 17:16
  • 1
    @AndreiVolkov such is the lot of sentient beings... endlessly papancanating :) Jun 13, 2018 at 17:30
  • 1
    @YesheTenley The "Concept and Reality" book you refer to says, Being derived from 'pra √pañc' it conveys such meanings as ‘spreading out’, ‘expansion’, ‘diffusion’, and manifoldness -- which I think begs the question: starting with that assumption implies a different conclusion. Do you know what evidence there is, that it's related to prapañca? Why does the PTS dictionary says that its origin is more likely "pa-pad-ya", like, "(an obstacle) in front of the feet"? I don't know.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 14, 2018 at 13:12

A good reference on this topic is Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda's 155 pg. book, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. It is available online as a free download.

Quoting from the blurb on the back cover:

This work deals primarily with two important, but controversial doctrinal terms, found in the Pali Canon - Papañca and Papañca- saññā-sankhā. The characteristically Buddhistic doctrine of 'not-self' (anattā) is shown in new dimensions of significance having far-reaching implications not only in the context of Buddhism but also for the student of philosophy, psychology and ethics, as well.

  • Thanks, would you like to summarize the main points of the book here in this answer? Link-only answers are helpful but tend to get broken when the target moves. Inline answers are easier for readers to consume, since they don't have to follow the link and study the other resource.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 13, 2018 at 15:35

I think it probably means "recognizing". Thus we get something like

What one perceives that one thinks about. What one thinks about one recognizes. One's recognition is the starting point from which a person is beset by the proliferating perceptions associated with the theme. This occurs with respect to sights known by the eye in the past, future, and present.

  • that would make it synonymous with "samjna"?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 22 at 13:12
  • The two aren't synonyms albeit the semantic properties overlap. Used together in a sentence 'I perceive pleasure recognizing the drawbacks of sensual pleasures'
    – user23486
    Feb 22 at 21:00

Papañca means proliferating with ignorance.

For example, SN 22.81 says 'contact' in dependent origination is 'contact with ignorance' ('avijjāsamphassajena').

For example, MN 18 says papanca (arising following contact, feeling & perception) is/results in vexation & suffering.

SN 22.5 says the word 'samudaya' ('arising') means when the mind continues to desire the five aggregates. Therefore, the word 'cessation' means when ignorance, desire & clinging cease.

Suttas such as MN 140 say a Buddha does not die ('marana') because their mind is free from conceiving 'self'.

The 1st noble truth summarizes all suffering as attachment (upadana).

Since MN 18 says papanca is vexation & suffering, papanca must be similar to attachment.

AN 4.174 says the cessation of sense contact is appapanca or non-papanca. AN 4.174 accords with the definition of cessation in SN 22.5, namely, the cessation of ignorance & attachment towards the five aggregates & sense contact.

AN 4.174 may also suggest views about Buddhas & death are papanca. They are certainly papanca because the word 'death' ('marana') does not apply to Buddhas (refer to SN 22.85).

Therefore, papanca appears to mean mental proliferation that produces suffering and is characterized by wrong views.

Papanca appears to not simply mean thinking, conceptualization or differentiating. Papanca appears to refer to ignorant thinking & foolish proliferating.

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