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Buddhadharma : Fall 2006
fall 2006| 82 |buddhadharma 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 perva- sive, 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 experi- ence 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 ten- dency 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 Majjhima Nikaya (MN)). Does this sound familiar yet? Vipassana meditation has to do with looking deeply into the mind and body to discern the various processes unfolding in each moment that fabricate the vir- tual world of our experience. The riot of conceptual proliferation is often the first thing one sees, because it is the shallowest and busiest part of the mind. For most of us, the monkey mind chatters inces- santly as it swings from one branch to another, seizing first this thought, then that idea, then a host of miscellaneous associations, memories, and fantasies. The basic themes around which all this activity swirls, according to the insights of the Buddha, are craving, conceit, and views. We could watch this show all day and learn very little. However, as the mind gradually steadies, upon the breath or some other primary object of attention, it gains some strength and becomes calmer. Then it is better able to see the stream of con- sciousness for what it is, a sequence of mind states unfolding one after another in rapid succession. As the foundations upon which mindfulness are established become more stable, one can look upon the flow of experience rushing by instead of being swept away by it. At this point we can begin to explore the inner land- scape and, guided by the teachings of the Buddha, discover how things come to be as they are in our little world. Mind, it turns out, is layered, nuanced, and deep. Working backwards from the surface toward its depths, we first notice that papañca, the perambulations of men- tal proliferation, are based upon thoughts. As the Honeyball Discourse (MN 18) puts it, “What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates.” Mental pro- dharma dicTionary Dandelion Field, 2002 Patrick Jacobs PaPañca reviewed by andrew olendzki papañcabhirata paja nippapañca tathagata People delight in proliferation, the Tathagata in nonproliferation. —Dhammapada 254