In a previous question I asked whether the Theravada posits the selflessness of phenomena?

Where the best answer I understood to essentially state that it does not. At least, it did sound like there was an important difference between the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena. That is, Theravada regards the self of persons as not truly existent while the self of phenomena may or may not be. Further, the latter is not deemed an important question. This is not in agreement with the Mahayana madhyamaka schools AFAIK who I think near uniformly disagree.

In my opinion, the Theravada view according to the Pali suttas imply that:

  1. The self (of persons) is not truly existent.

  2. Whether non-self phenomena are truly existent from its own side or not, is (probably) not important towards the path to the end of suffering. (See the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, Parable of the Simsapa Leaves and the Discourse on the Unconjecturables)

However, in a comment to this recent answer it was asserted by the same that 'papanca' of objects is essentially equivalent to what the Mahayana schools call the selflessness of persons. I'm confused as this seems to be in tension with the previous. What is the solution or is it just my misunderstanding?

Is there any crucial difference between the emptiness of persons and emptiness of objects where the former is to be regarded as definitely non-truly existent while the latter question is not important? Is there some Pali suttas which will illustrate this difference in emptiness between the two selves? Is the 'papanca' of the self of persons different from the 'papanca' of the self of phenomena? What am I missing?

Isn't it the case that SN 22.95 is talking about this 'papanca' of phenomena? Doesn't it compare it to an illusion? If so, then on what basis is it concluded that whether phenomena are truly existent is immaterial in Theravada?

  • As i understand it papanca refers to the activity of applying mind to some object and then exploring whatever is related to the theme of the object by association, so it's kind of like thinking about one thing and leaping on to the next thing associated with the former, there is a continuation where one is ie reminded of something and dwells reminiscing the memories. One makes more of what is similar, like having 'pa' one gets 'pan' and there activity is papancazing.
    – user8527
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 17:29
  • I don't know the etymology but pañca means five
    – user8527
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 17:46
  • @Letsbuddhism PTS dictionary says -- (in its P. meaning uncertain whether identical with Sk. prapañca (pra+pañc to spread out; meaning “expansion, diffuseness, manifoldedness”; cp. papañceti & papañca 3) more likely, as suggested by etym. & meaning of Lat. im-ped-iment-um, connected with pada, thus perhaps originally “pa-pad-ya, ” i.e. what is in front of (i.e. in the way of) the feet (as an obstacle)
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 18:18
  • Sounds loosely close to how i understand it, i like the term 'conceptual proliferation' for english and i think it fits the discourses well. I conceived it as literally 'fi-fiving' so one make five out of 'fi', idk, definitely difficult to translate but not difficult to understand i think. What one sees that one papancizes about.
    – user8527
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 18:21

3 Answers 3


That's easy.

I take "self of phenomena" as being the same as "intrinsic essence" (svabhava) of Madhyamaka, confirmed by this answer.

In this answer (written 15 Aug 2018), I thought that the Madhyamaka "everything is empty of intrinsic essence" meant that everything does not truly exist on its own. A chair is a convention, yes, but whether a chair really exists or not, is not of interest in Theravada. A chair is of course compounded and conditioned (sankhara). The concept of a chair is of course constructed by papanca (reification or conceptualization or objectification-classification).

On that same day, I was exploring the topic of whether Theravada self and Mahayana svabhava are related in this question.

Then a few days later on 21 Aug 2018, I figured out the connection and asked a question, to which Andrei wrote this answer which I quote:

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.

Uhuh! Then I got it. "Everything is empty of intrinsic essence" does not mean that a chair doesn't exist at all, ontologically speaking. It simply means that a chair doesn't exist the way the mind thinks it does.

Then on 28 Aug 2018, I connected the emptiness of Theravada to the emptiness of Mahayana through Snp 4.14 in this question.

So, now my understanding is that they are related.

Fast forward, this answer from 23 May 2020 would answer this question too:

But how does this relate to Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka? According to Madhyamaka, all things are empty of intrinsic essence (svabhava).

The beautiful form of a human being, is such a thing, which is empty of intrinsic essence i.e. it is empty of the essence given to it by your mind. If papanca is like baking, then svabhava seems to be the cake.

In other words, Nagarjuna is talking about the mental concept of things, and further, he generalizes to cover everything, even physical objects and Nirvana. If you see that Nagarjuna is talking about the mental concept of things, then you would find that he is not contradicting the Buddha.

To my understanding, Nagarjuna is not saying that the world is an illusion, rather he is saying that your mental model of the world is an illusion. To think about anything in the world, you actually need to have a mental model of it.

This can be further linked to anatta. Objectification-classification (papanca) assigns intrinsic essence (svabhava) to things, relative to its relationship to the mental idea of the self (atta), which itself has intrinsic essence (svabhava), given to it by objectification-classification (papanca). According to Snp 4.14, when you put an end to "I am the thinker", the root of objectification-classification (papanca), you will end craving and clinging. And by this, you end suffering.

And then I wrote this answer on 1 Apr 2021 which also discusses this in detail.

Also interesting is that mental models are called "the world" (see this question) in some Pali suttas. Andrei explained the difference between "The World" and "The All" there.

I summarized in this answer:

So, the "world" of SN 12.44 corresponds to the world of mental formations (sankhara loka) arising from mental proliferations (papanca), that is derived from the feelings (vedana) coming from the contact of consciousness with the six sense media and their sense objects (The All).

So, in this sense, Theravada does say that everything in "the world" doesn't truly exist at all. So, the chair in "the world" doesn't exist too.

  • 1
    Ok, from all I can tell this looks pretty much how I understand things as well. I still think your answer from 15 Aug 2018 doesn't "sound" correct, but it could be just mere words getting in the way. Like, for me I'd say it is both true that "everything does not truly exist on its own" AND that "Everything is empty of intrinsic essence" does not mean that a chair doesn't exist at all, ontologically speaking.
    – user13375
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 22:00
  • 1
    It seems it is getting harder and harder for me to decipher any real disagreements about doctrine with either you or Andrei once we put aside clumsy words :)
    – user13375
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 22:02

Perhaps you misunderstood the comment in question,

The mental idea of the self is a type of papanca and non-self objects are also papanca.

  • I don't read it as saying that, "papanca is selflessness of phenomena".
  • I read it as saying that, "papanca is (somehow selfish) mental ideas" -- about (any and all) objects, including both the so-called "self" and/or about any other ("non-self") object.

In case it matters I think it's not making an assertion about things -- i.e. an assertion like, "Everything has no self", meaning not just anatta (not my-self) but also even sunyata (not it-self)" -- and is instead commenting on how people tend to think about things/everything.

I think it's used to imply that thoughts are not only self-centered but also "diffuse" or abstract -- I guess like, going from perception of a specific "rock" or "stone" to theories about rock in general.

And it seems to be used colloquially to criticise people's theorizing about experiences.

  • Perhaps you are right, but he also says this: " What you call "selflessness of phenomena" is called papanca (reification or conceptualization or objectification-classification) in Theravada."
    – user13375
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 18:58
  • @YesheTenley I have corrected it now in my answer. "Self of phenomena" = "intrinsic essence" (svabhava). If papanca (reification or conceptualization or objectification-classification) is the process of baking, then svabhava is the cake.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 21:00

I can't answer as to the Mahayana comparison, but afaik the pali discourses never say that the self is like this or like that.

The method states that everything is not self and that a self can not be established to be a truth or reality.

The discourses also speak of a doctrine of self with which beings are yoked.

This is analogical to people holding in mind knowledge or a doctrine of names, surnames & first names, etc

These names are designations for people & things but the things which are named aren't the name and a name of a person cannot be pinned down as a truth or reality as a body can be, a person can live without a name not without a body.

In regards to that one can say that all things are not their name seeing how they exist whether they are named & however they are named.

It doesn't mean that the name of things is something apart from things that are named because we are naming the naming as well as doing it, so there is a truth of naming but that truth is likewise not the name you give it.

This is similar to the difference between a true statement and a lie, both are a statement and exist in as far as the statement exists but the truthful statement refers to something that is existent independently of the statement whereas the false statement can not be said to be referring to truth or reality. This doesn't mean that lies are not included in reality because there is certainly the truth of lying but all reality is not lies and lies can not be pinned down as truth & reality.

In Theravada, there are elements that can be known to be a truth & reality and they are all not a self, incl the word 'self'. It's like the word Buddha is not a Buddha.

The word has an expression, a meaning, and a referent but the referent for this word 'self' will always be a convention as Ruben puts it, I call it abstraction, the abstraction isn't nothing but it is certainly not what we think it is, ie the fist/lap or a fan spinning so that you see a disc where there is no disc if the fan stops spinning you see blades where was a disc.

If a person was to think that all territory which isn't his kingdom was his kingdom, that would be grasping with the wrong view on his account and we could demonstrate that all the territories are not his kingdom to smart ppl.

Likewise, it is with elements which smart people can agree upon as truth & reality, these too can be demonstrably shown to be not personal & not a self.

In Theravada, it is closer to the truth if one says 'what feels is 'feeling', rather than 'a self feels' or that 'a person' feels', although one can speak in conventional terms as well and it is necessary because elements tied to delusion depend on that grasping with the wrong view, so we have to understand what lines of reasoning prompt those.

Technically there is no need for the term person to describe what is there because feeling feels, consciousness cognizes, discernment discerns, the intellect knows, thinking thinks, contact is of the three, body disintegrates &, etc

However one can also think about what is there having grasped with the wrong view and thus abstract what is there in terms of elements being personal.

If one does this then it's called 'being taken in', being taken in a cause for being shook, therefore one shouldn't be taken in and remain unshaken, discerning qualities present right there.

One can entertain this idea of grasping with the wrong view without agreeing with it in order to understand it's coming into play & the effects of papancizing based on it.

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