What is, in the classical Buddhist tradition, called papanca in Pali and prapanca in Sanskrit is usually translated as ’emotional-conceptual proliferation’. It has a very central role in the understanding of the dharma and in the practice of the dharma.
I want to quote from the Buddha himself. There is this passage where he says, ‘What one perceives, one thinks. Then one starts proliferating about what one has thought. And because of this, concepts and images attack him from all sides.’ Yes, it sounds familiar! On the other hand, the man or woman who is realised, the realised one, is described as someone who rejoices and delights in the state or in the field of nonproliferation, a condition in which the proliferation has evaporated, where there is freedom from papanca. The original meaning of papanca is ‘unfolding’, the constant unfolding, constant proliferation of our mind.
This is reflected on in all Buddhist schools and traditions. In a famous scripture it was said that those who conceptualise, those who cover the Buddha with concepts, will never reach Buddhahood, will never reach Buddha-nature, the ultimate nature. And in Japan in the eighteenth century, a master of Dogen’s lineage describes emotion-thought as the root of delusion. The original mind, the original state, the innocent state, is where thought-emotion is not present any more and the spiritual practice is a means par excellence for overcoming or dissolving emotion-thought, of reaching a condition of freedom from proliferation. ‘Differentiation’ is also a word which is used in connection with emotion-thoughts.
When we hear a phrase like ‘freedom from emotions’, we may have an ambivalent reaction to it. Evoking an image of no-emotions may bring about some fear that our lives will become flat. It is important to understand, however, that this not what results from the practice. On the one hand there is a decrease of emotions and the attachment to emotions, but on the other, there is an increase in sensitivity and, therefore, an increase in loving-kindness, compassion, and ethical sensitivity.
We may equate emotions and sensitivity, but that is incorrect. Becoming more sensitive, becoming more transparent to what is of value, to what is beneficial, is one of the most important fruits of the practice. Whereas, being overwhelmed and blinded by emotions is something which causes suffering. The practice goes beyond this. So, maybe we should bear this in mind when we face expressions like ‘freedom from emotions’.
We say that mental activity is the problem. But this is certainly not the case! Many of you may be familiar with the famous Fire Sermon of the Buddha where basically he says, ‘The mind is not the problem; the senses are not the problem; the objects of the senses and of the mind are not the problem. The problem is the relationship between the mind and its objects, between the senses and their objects. And this relationship is charged with attachment, aversion and ignorance. So the problem is in the relationship; it is not in the mind or in the objects of the mind; it is not in the mental activity. And yet that mental activity is impregnated with what is called the kilesas, the toxins, attachments, fears, aversions, ignorance. This is the important thing in considering proliferation, in considering and reflecting on papanca.
The aggregates which make up our mind and body are called ‘aggregates of attachment’, upadanakkhandha. In other words, our mental activity is so impregnated by the afflictions, by the kilesas (attachment is just one word which includes all the kilesas in the classical Buddhist tradition) that the entire mental activity has that attachment as its main and fundamental mark. What happens through practising the dharma, through practising meditation, however, is that a gradual purification takes place so that the khandhas, the aggregates, become purer and purer, and in the end are called visuddhi-khandha, pure aggregates. No more aggregates of attachment, no more mind of attachment, but a pure mind, a mind which instead of generating attachment and suffering, now generates dharma.
We could say that from mental confusion the mind turns to ‘enlightened creativity’. We can think of all the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of the many great masters and teachers where thinking and concepts are used in the service of the dharma, in the service of what is good, in the service of truth, instead of in the service of increasing confusion, attachment and pain.
So the mind is there and not only is it working and functioning, but it is doing so at its best in order to produce what is kusala, what is helpful, true and beneficial. The khandhas, the aggregates are essential, but their quality should change and their functioning become creative in a positive sense.
You might remember a famous illustration that the Buddha gives of what a healed mind is like. He said, ‘In what is seen, there is only what is seen. In what is heard, there is only what is heard.’ And he repeats it for all six senses, the mind being one of them. This means no more proliferation, no more fabrication, no more additions, mental concoction; there is just pure being in the present. When Krishnamurti talked about thought, he talked about something very similar to mental proliferation. He said, ‘Thought is always old. Thought is never fresh. Thought is what enslaves us to time and memory.’ Going beyond thought is going into sensitivity; it is going into awareness and finally having the mind thinking in a creative, positive, sensitive way, instead of being clogged by the afflictions.
If we look at this from the point of view of our practice, one of the first things we may discover is that we are attached to proliferation and that, actually, this attachment is fundamental and even more important than any attachment to material things—a strong attachment to emotions and thinking and to the proliferation around emotions and thinking. The mind wants to be stimulated, to be entertained constantly, and we are used to that; so much so that when some mental stillness comes we can feel threatened. Maybe we are immersed in a noisy environment and then, perhaps, go into the mountains. But then we can feel scared by the silence because of being so used to a constant background of noise. Similarly, in our minds there is this constant proliferation and even if proliferation just thins out a little, we can feel that something is wrong. This is because of the strong habit of the mind wanting something to chew on—pleasant if possible, but if not, unpleasant—just something, anything.
Meditation retreats give us ample opportunity to look into the power and strength of this proliferation. Sometimes we may be afraid, not so much of silence or emptiness, but of certain kinds of mental proliferation, the gloomy, depressing kind, and maybe we try ways of igniting different forms of proliferation where there is more energy. It is understandable; it can even be a reasonable thing to do. The problem is that we stay in the domain of proliferation. We move the furniture around, but basically we don’t change anything. Proliferation is still ‘home’; it is the thing we are most used to, that we have become most habituated to. Even when we hear terms like ‘mental silence’, there may be fear looming in the background. Perhaps we think of times in a tropical country, for example, where we were so hot we could hardly think, and maybe we think that that is mental silence. Or maybe we equate mental silence with altered states of consciousness, like ecstasy and so on. But a more spacious mind is a more silent mind. And this is the work of the practice.
A few points should, I think, be kept in mind. The first is very simple—though perhaps not so simple in its development—and that is the more awareness there is, the less proliferation. The second point we should remember is closely connected with this first—awareness is nonconceptual, nonverbal, nonjudgmental; it is a different function from conceptualising, imagining and judging. Sometimes we use expressions like ‘nonjudging’, ‘awareness’, ‘nonconceptual awareness’, and this is correct, but then there is the danger of thinking that if there is a nonjudging awareness, there is also a judging awareness, a conceptual awareness, a proliferating awareness. The point is, awareness is nonconceptual, nonverbal, nonjudging, otherwise it is not awareness. This is why the more awareness there is, the less proliferation there is. And this is why awareness, mindfulness, is the best cure for proliferation. A still, spacious mirror-like presence has nothing to do with the movement, turmoil and confusion of proliferation. And the more we taste this stillness, this mirror-like quality, the more we understand the suffering of proliferation, and the more we want awareness instead of proliferation. This takes some time to happen. Usually at the beginning we love proliferation, unless it gets really obsessive. But to the extent that we taste of a different dimension we start questioning proliferation. Up until that moment we do not question it.
Another point which is crucial is that proliferation, emotional-conceptual proliferation, and self-centredness are very closely connected. Just a simple example can show us. Suppose we overhear someone talking, and maybe they are saying two or three words about us, and maybe it is neither complimentary nor insulting; it is just a general comment about ‘me’. Well, we can proliferate for a long time about those few words which were rather irrelevant but were about me. The same two words about someone else—nothing! So there is a very strong connection between self-centredness and proliferation. Again, a meditation retreat is unique in showing us this strong connection. And it is important that we deepen our understanding of this connection because such proliferation is suffering—I/my is suffering. We are learning about suffering from the mental source of suffering.
There is no peace when there is proliferation. Again, we are very used to nonpeace, and yet there may be a yearning for peace, and that yearning for peace is a yearning to go beyond proliferation.
As another example: Suppose there is some sort of discomfort—physical or mental—and we reflect on it. We shall see that there are at least two sources of proliferation when facing discomfort. The first is aversion. Because we feel averse to this discomfort—maybe even only a small one—this aversion ignites proliferation. It is rare that we have a silent aversion for discomfort. We talk a lot with our minds, and it is talking impregnated with emotional-conceptual proliferation. The tension, the contraction, the suffering, comes with this verbalisation, this turmoil of proliferation. Really the obvious source of proliferation is the aversion to discomfort, I say really because unless there is some meditation or mindfulness experience, usually we don’t know about this. We lump discomfort and aversion together. Are they the same thing? No! One thing is discomfort; the other is aversion. And we can be in discomfort without aversion. It’s a little miracle, but it’s possible.
If we keep lumping these two together and think that aversion obviously is discomfort and discomfort obviously is aversion, then we never get a good understanding of this very basic issue. It is as though a part of us thought that the function of pleasant things is to generate attachment and the function of unpleasant things is to generate aversion. This is distorted thinking. The pleasant is pleasant; the unpleasant is unpleasant. Attachment and aversion are conditioned reactions that we have.
Then there is a more subtle source of proliferation when facing discomfort, an important one. This is relating to discomfort as ‘my discomfort’, claiming it as something which is ‘mine’. We start comparing, we start judging, and we put it in time: ‘How is it by comparison to a similar discomfort I had in the past?’ And so: time-dimension, space-dimension, aversion as a source of proliferation and self-centredness, relating to something as ‘mine’, the inability to see it as an impersonal process which would free us of much proliferation.
Referring back to the aggregates, the khandhas, there are two which are crucial in the creation of proliferation. One is sanna, which is perception and memory, and the other is sankhara, which is active thinking and imagining. A great living Thai master, Maha Boowa, very often emphasises how important these two factors are in creating mental suffering. Sanna may be a conclusion, a judgement, an image, a memory, and then sankhara jumps in constructing, fabricating, concocting a wealth of images and stories. And from there new sannas, new labels, new conclusions, new judgements, and new sankharas, and on and on. It is a circular process—sanna-sankhara-sanna-sankhara—being impregnated with kilesas, with attachment, aversion and ignorance. As already said, it is not functional in a spiritually creative way as when there is a profound, coherent spiritual teaching.
With regard to awareness, people who have been meditating for quite some time generally find that they come to a turning point in their lives when awareness starts to become stronger than proliferation; the controlling power of proliferation begins to diminish. This is crucial. Something which might be called ‘returning to silence’ may then occur. It may be like seeing a swarm of thoughts subsiding and silence taking over. This will not necessarily take place in the formal sitting practice, and maybe it will be a short-lived experience, but it has a very specific quality. It is very restful, a rest from proliferation, and very peaceful. And this is different from wanting to be aware. Of course, there are many moments of wanting to be aware behind it, but this is a more spontaneous awareness. And then we may again see another swarm of thoughts taking off from that silence.
There is a mysterious thing here. At one level we feel that silence and proliferation are two opposites, but at another, are they? The feeling we get in those moments is that proliferation ends in silence and proliferation is again born from silence. Are they relatives of some kind?
The important thing, in my opinion, is that such moments are more inspiring than many others involving things we read or hear. They have an especially convincing quality and provide an incredible fuel for practice. Pointing out to us that somewhere inside there is this possibility for peace, for a solid peace which brings unexpected comfort. The quality of it is so that it startles us, and we feel supported. Dharma means ‘support’; we experience this strong and unexpected support, and there is a sense of gratitude to the practice because of it. We then feel motivated to deepen our practice, and proliferation becomes something which is workable. It is a threat no longer.
From Buddhism Now May 2002
To see more posts by Corrado Pensa just click here.
Categories: Beginners, Buddhist meditation, Corrado Pensa, Theravada
Skilful exploration of Tathatha/Suchness to me. Striving to initiate such contemplation is supportive Dharma, it occurs to me. Grateful to Corrado Pensa🙏
Silence blossoms with truth.
‘Returning to silence.’ Beautifully expressed!
I really appreciated the timing in my life of reading this article. I am in the place of seeing the proliferation continue to occur and feeling frustrated with that, yearning to be free of it. I will continue to contemplate this in my meditation and not try to rush or judge the process. Thank you for this wonderful article!
Good luck in you meditation Tanya.
Thanks for this – a good but complex article for me.
I come away from this with two messages: pain is inevitable but suffering is optional
and it’s not what happens to us that matters – it’s how we choose to deal with what happens to us.