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I originally wondered whether the Mahayana shunyata (emptiness) is same as the Theravada sankhara (conditioned and compounded phenomena). The problem here is that Mahayana shunyata says even Nibbana is empty, but Theravada's sankhara does not include Nibbana. So, this does not match.

But after a lot of discussion here, I find that the Mahayana shunyata (emptiness) could be equivalent to the Theravada papanca (objectification-classification or reification), as found in MN 18 and Sutta Nipata 4.14. And Sutta Nipata 4.14 states that the root of papanca is "I am the thinker".

I could say that all papanca is empty of essence or substance.

How somebody (who is not an ariya) imagines Nibbana to be, is the papanca of it in his mind. In that sense, the papanca of Nibbana is empty of essence or substance.

How somebody (who is not an ariya) imagines a chair to be, is the papanca of it in his mind. In that sense, the papanca of a chair is empty of essence or substance.

Even the papanca of papanca itself is empty of essence or substance. This corresponds to Mahayana shunyata's emptiness of emptiness.

So, does it make sense to say that the Mahayana shunyata is same as the Theravada papanca?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu's explanation of papañca in MN 18:

Translating papañca: As one writer has noted, the word papañca has had a wide variety of meanings in Indian thought, with only one constant: in Buddhist philosophical discourse it carries negative connotations, usually of falsification and distortion. The word itself is derived from a root that means diffuseness, spreading, proliferating. The Pali Commentaries define papañca as covering three types of thought: craving, conceit, and views. They also note that it functions to slow the mind down in its escape from samsara. Because its categories begin with the objectifying thought, "I am the thinker," I have chosen to render the word as "objectification," although some of the following alternatives might be acceptable as well: self-reflexive thinking, reification, proliferation, complication, elaboration, distortion. The word offers some interesting parallels to the postmodern notion of logocentric thinking, but it's important to note that the Buddha's program of deconstructing this process differs sharply from that of postmodern thought.

From Sutta Nipata 4.14:

"I ask the kinsman of the Sun, the great seer,
about seclusion & the state of peace.
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 (papañca):
'I am the thinker.'

Commentary (Thanissaro):
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.

  • Note: a very closely related question here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/26819/what-is-papa%C3%B1ca – Yeshe Tenley Aug 21 '18 at 17:36
  • Maybe this could help clarify: does Theravada view the self of persons as papanca? That to understand anatta is to refute papanca of persons? – Yeshe Tenley Aug 21 '18 at 17:42
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    Anatta removes the root of papanca which is "I am the thinker", as found in Sutta Nipata 4.14: ""I ask the kinsman of the Sun, the great seer, about seclusion & the state of peace. 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.'" – ruben2020 Aug 21 '18 at 18:57
  • I agree with @Andrei Papanca means proliferation, or making more out of things than they are. It's not emptiness at all. – user13579 Aug 22 '18 at 13:38
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Yes, more or less.

Although, strictly speaking you are making a category error.

Shunyata refers to the fact that everything is an abstraction, simplification, subjective observation, and that in fact everything appears from interaction of a bunch of processes (known in this context as "causes and conditions") - including the process of perception. Shunyata and Sankhara are closely related.

While Papanca refers to the process by which we take that empty stuff, those appearances, and because of ignorance assign to them the status of real, objective, clearly delineated things.

Papanca is something that can be stopped through Buddhist education. But Shunyata cannot be stopped, it's a fundamental law.

In one sense they are opposite: Papanca is "bad" (because when mind does Papanca - it's confused) - but Shunyata is "good" (because when mind sees Shunyata - it's enlightened).

You are right about Nirvana. It's empty when you think about it as the object of your mind. But when you actually realize that everything is Shunyata and stop clinging to things because of that (including clinging to the concepts of Nirvana and Shunyata) - now that's real Nirvana which is not empty.

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Hard to answer your question without categorising somehow. I will answer in pure sutric Mahayana terms, that is in terms of Yogacara which is a base from which later developments happen in Mahayana, it also exists in majority of Mahayana which is Chan/Zen and Pure Land.

The problem here is that Mahayana shunyata says even Nibbana is empty, but Theravada's sankhara does not include Nibbana. So, this does not match.

For instance within framework of both Sautrāntika and Yogacara, the general separation of purely conceptual phenomena would be non-existent and existent. Nibbana is existent conceptual phenomenon since it's possible (theoretically) to attain it versus impossible, like becoming a God, or a Papa Smurf.

Still, the difference among existent phenomena is that Nirvana is a concept that is relative to the various factors, it cannot be simply explained by mere ideas, it can only have a blueprint to which we, depending on situation and a given karmic burden, draw up and imagine different lines on the very sheet of paper. At a given moment it is like a single page in a colour book that we colour differently whenever it comes to mind. It is not a general characteristic of anything graspable, it cannot come from the touch with reality, it is not there and it does not function. This is not what is claimed in Theravada, things are Good or Bad and Samsara is opposed to Nirvana as hard, concrete things; in here (non-sunyata) there is little room for liberation based on reflection on absolute dualities formed by some inherent bias or absolutist tendencies.

So, does it make sense to say that the Mahayana shunyata is same as the Theravada papanca?

So, in the light of this question, let us navigate towards dependent things - "real" things, like a flower. Whatever is there in reality, in terms of Theravada, is the direct source of representation of the object. That means that object of reality already has all the labels and characteristics (i.e. colour, size, shape etc), and conceptually they arise from the vision of the earth for instance. It is as if to say that these objects already possess these characteristics that make it earth. That is very different from later Mahayana developments.

Firstly, there are two layers added on top of that in Mahayana related to phenomena. On the conceptual level, as I have mentioned, in the whole Mahayana vs Theravada debate, there is inherent divergence regarding things conceptual like Samsara and Nirvana. This layer of purely conceptual things not being real was already added by Sautrāntika, and was a first distinction between early Theravadin understanding. But on dependent phenomena level, "real" level it is pretty much the same. By the same I mean that in Sautrāntika when one is looking at things non-conceptually, this is what happens: all nonstatic phenomena that perform functions truly exist and give characteristics to conceptual phenomena. At this point Sautrāntika had single point of touch with traditional Theravada, but Yogacara diverged in this point completely, and this complete diversion constitutes Mahayana's sunyata.

Yogacara proposed that at this point, everything that we perceive non-conceptually is based on a first, bare perception of consciousness (by alayavijnana or senses), and that is instantly tainted by karmic seeds - those are preconceptions we developed in the past, like being prejudiced against Islam. We actually perceive it already tainted, even non-conceptually. This implies complete nonduality of the natal source of where objects and mental phenomena come from and manifest to us. Here, things appear from mind both conceptually and non-conceptually (mind-only). They don't come characterised from external source but Self pre-characterises them from the start. Immaturity of Self grasping aspect (Manas) and past karma characterise them. All of these preconditions are capable of creating mood and feeling or sensation before a thought or actual deliberate grasping is to be perceived and neutralised. This is seen in the way of not being able to release oneself from fixations, bad habits or having prejudices by attaining some views. The key is ultimately in karma and transforming karmic seeds to transform how objects appear to us in the first place.

From that point a base was formed for further elaboration by Tibetans for example, they especially developed these notions in non-sutra and strictly speaking not "core" Mahayana.

Ultimately, from my point of view, and note that this is just my humble opinion, the concept of sunyata is important for understanding the path to liberation.

In the context of what I have written, Nirvana is empty, it is not a real thing, it comes from the mind and mind is the monarch. It makes sunyata very very different from papanca. In the way that it is much much more elaborated, philosophically.

Sunyata makes sense within the context framework of reconciling two truths; conventional and ultimate, how do they relate to each other, whereas papanca is simply about Self apprehension of the objects that exist as true external sources of characteristics, which is negated in the former. In sunyata, no absolutely infallible reality exists as a direct source to mental fabrications due to posing additional karmic layers in-between.


Important disclaimer: By saying that Mahayana diverges or disagrees with Theravada, I don't meant that things were that crystal clear in Theravadin context; much of what is today implied is just a result of interpretation of something that wasn't deliberately confirmed, nor denied by Buddha.

Another point is that representations of sunyata along with commentary are vast and have some differences (especially in Tibetan context). To actually try to say that it is like this or like that in this context here, would not make me Mahayanist at all, but a dualistic old fart. Thus, I will not make such fixed attempts and chose Yogacara as a reference point, since it has common grounding foundation in most schools.

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The problem here is that Mahayana shunyata says even Nibbana is empty, but Theravada's sankhara does not include Nibbana. So, this does not match.

Theravāda's suññata, anattā, included nibbāna. But mahāyāna's nibbāna is attā of Theravāda. It is the same reason of nikāya-separation in Abh. Katha. age as well.

VN Parivāra:

Saṅkhāra, which means saṅkhata(effect-saṅkhāra)*, is anicca&dukkha&anattā;

But only nibbāna&paññatti which are explained just as anattā.

KN Dhammapada has the same explanation.

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