B. Thanissaro introuction to MN 18
The Ball of Honey
Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (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. Unfortunately, none of the early texts give a clear definition of what the word papañca means, so it’s hard to find a precise English equivalent for the term. However, they do give a clear analysis of how papañca arises, how it leads to conflict, and how it can be ended. In the final analysis, these are the questions that matter—more than the precise definition of terms—so we will deal with them first before proposing a few possible translation equivalents for the word.
Three passages in the discourses—DN 21, MN 18, and Sn 4:11—map the causal processes that give rise to papañca and lead from papañca to conflict. Because the Buddhist analysis of causality is generally non-linear, with plenty of room for feedback loops, the maps vary in some of their details. In DN 21, the map reads like this:
the perceptions & categories of papañca > thinking > desire > dear-&-not-dear > envy & stinginess > rivalry & hostility
In Sn 4:11, the map is less linear and can be diagrammed like this:
perception > the categories of papañca
perception > name & form > contact > appealing & unappealing > desire > dear-&-not-dear > stinginess/divisiveness/quarrels/disputes
In MN 18, the map is this:
contact > feeling > perception > thinking > the perceptions & categories of papañca
In this last case, however, the bare outline misses some of the important implications of the way this process is phrased. In the full passage, the analysis starts out in an impersonal tone:
“Dependent on eye & forms, eye-consciousness arises [similarly with the rest of the six senses]. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as a requisite condition, there is feeling.”
Starting with feeling, the notion of an “agent”—in this case, the feeler—acting on “objects,” is introduced:
“What one feels, one perceives [labels in the mind]. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one ‘papañcizes.’”
Through the process of papañca, the agent then becomes a victim of his/her own patterns of thinking:
“Based on what a person papañcizes, the perceptions & categories of papañca assail him/her with regard to past, present, & future forms cognizable via the eye [as with the remaining senses].”
What are these perceptions & categories that assail the person who papañcizes? Sn 4:14 states that the root of the categories of papañca is the perception, “I am the thinker.” From this self-reflexive thought—in which one objectifies a “self,” a thing corresponding to the concept of “I”— a number of categories can be derived: being/not-being, me/not-me, mine/not-mine, doer/done-to, signifier/signified. Once one’s self becomes a thing under the rubric of these categories, it’s impossible not to be assailed by the perceptions & categories derived from these basic distinctions. When there’s the sense of identification as a being that needs to feed (see Khp 4), then based on the feelings arising from sensory contact, some feelings will seem appealing—worth feeding on—and others will seem worth pushing away. From this there grows desire, which comes into conflict with the desires of others who are also feeding because they, too, engage in papañca. This is how inner objectification breeds external contention.
How can this process be ended? Through a shift in perception, caused by the way one attends to feelings, using the categories of appropriate attention (see MN 2). As the Buddha states in DN 21, rather than viewing a feeling as an appealing or unappealing thing, one should look at it as part of a causal process: When a particular feeling is pursued, do skillful or unskillful qualities increase in the mind? If skillful qualities increase, the feeling may be pursued. If unskillful qualities increase, it shouldn’t. When comparing feelings that lead to skillful qualities, notice that those endowed with thinking (directed thought) and evaluation are less refined than those free of thinking and evaluation, as in the higher stages of mental absorption, or jhāna. When seeing this, there is a tendency to opt for the more refined feelings, and this cuts through the act of thinking that, according to MN 18, provides the basis for papañca.
In following this program, the notion of agent and victim is avoided, as is self-reflexive thinking in general. There is simply the analysis of cause-effect processes. One is still making use of dualities—distinguishing between unskillful and skillful (and affliction/lack of affliction, the results of unskillful and skillful qualities)—but the distinction is between processes, not things. Thus one’s analysis avoids the type of thinking that, according to DN 21, depends on the perceptions and categories of papañca, and in this way the vicious cycle by which thinking and papañca keep feeding each other is cut.
Ultimately, by following this program to greater and greater levels of refinement through the higher levels of mental absorption, one finds less and less to relish and enjoy in the six senses and the mental processes based on them. With this sense of disenchantment, the processes of feeling and thought are stilled, and there is a breakthrough to the cessation of the six sense spheres. When these spheres cease, is there anything else left? Ven. Sāriputta, in AN 4:173 warns us not to ask, for to ask if there is, isn’t, both-is-and-isn’t, neither-is-nor-isn’t anything left in that dimension is to papañcize what is free from papañca. However, this dimension is not a total annihilation of experience. It’s a type of experience that DN 11 calls consciousness without surface, luminous all around, where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing, where long/short, coarse/fine, fair/foul, name/form are all brought to an end. This is the fruit of the path of arahantship—a path that makes use of dualities but leads to a fruit beyond them.
It may come as cold comfort to realize that conflict can be totally overcome only with the realization of arahantship, but it’s important to note that by following the path recommended in DN 21—learning to avoid references to any notion of “self” and learning to view feelings not as things but as parts of a causal process affecting the qualities in the mind—the basis for papañca is gradually undercut, and there are fewer and fewer occasions for conflict. In following this path, one reaps its increasing benefits all along the way.
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 saṁsāra. 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.
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B.Bodhi footnotes MN 18
226 Da˚ḍapāni, whose name means “stick-in-hand,” was so called because he used to walk around ostentatiously with a golden walking stick, even though he was still young and healthy. According to MA, he sided with Devadatta, the Buddha’sarch foe, when the latter attempted to create a schism in the Buddha’s following. His manner of asking the question is arrogant and deliberately provocative.
227 The first part of the Buddha’s reply directly counters Da˚ḍapāni’s aggressive attitude. MA quotes in this connection SN 22:94/iii.138: “Bhikkhus, I do not dispute with the world, it is the world that disputes with me. A speaker of Dhamma does not dispute with anyone in the world.” The second part may be taken to mean that, for the arahant (spoken of here as “that brahmin” with reference to the Buddha himself), perceptions no longer awaken the dormant underlying tendencies to defilements, to be enumerated in §8.
228 This response seems to be an expression of frustration and bewilderment.
229 The interpretation of this cryptic passage hinges on the word papañca and the compound papañca-saññā-sankhā. Ñm had translated the former as “diversification” and the latter as “calculations about perceptions of diversification.” It seems, however, that the primary problem to which the term papañca points is not “diversification,” which may be quite in place when the sensory field itself displays diversity, but the propensity of the worldling’s imagination to erupt in an effusion of mental commentary that obscures the bare data of cognition. In a penetrative study, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhism, Bhikkhu Ñā˚ananda explains papañca as “conceptual proliferation,” and I follow him in substituting “proliferation” for Ñm’s “diversification.” The commentaries identify the springs of this proliferation as the three factors—craving, conceit, and views—on account of which the mind “embellishes” experience by interpreting it in terms of “mine,” “I” and “my self.” Papañca is thus closely akin to maññanā, “conceiving,” in MN 1—see n.6.
The compound papañca-saññā-sankhā is more problematic. Ven. Ñā˚ananda interprets it to mean “concepts characterised by the mind’s prolific tendency,” but this explanation still leaves the word saññā out of account. MA glosses sankhā by koṭṭhāsa, “portion,” and says that saññā is either perception associated with papañca or papañca itself. I go along with Ñā˚ananda in taking sankhā to mean concept or notion (Ñm’s “calculation” is too literal) rather than portion. My decision to treat saññā-sankhā as a dvanda compound, “perceptions and notions ,” may be questioned, but as the expression papañca-saññā-sankhā occurs but rarely in the Canon and is never verbally analysed, no rendering is utterly beyond doubt. On alternative interpretations of its components, the expression might have been rendered “notions [arisen from] the proliferation of perceptions” or “perceptual notions [arisen from] proliferation.”
The sequel will make it clear that the process of cognition is itself “the source through which perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation beset a man.” If nothing in the process of cognition is found to delight in, to welcome, or to hold to, the underlying tendencies of the defilements will come to an end.
230 Ven. Mahā Kaccāna was declared by the Buddha to be the most eminent disciple in expounding the detailed meaning of a brief saying. MN 133 and MN 138 were also spoken by him under similar circumstances.
231 Cakkhubhūto ñāṇabhūto dhammabhūto brahmabhūto. MA: He is vision in the sense that he is the leader in vision; he is knowledge in the sense that he makes things known; he is the Dhamma in the sense that he consists of the Dhamma that he utters verbally after considering it in his heart; he is Brahmā, the holy one, in the sense of the best.
232 This passage shows how papañca, emerging from the process of cognition, gives rise to perceptions and notions that overwhelm and victimise their hapless creator. Ms contains a note by Ñm: “The meeting of eye, form, and eye-consciousness is called contact. Contact, according to dependent origination, is the principal condition of feeling. Feeling and perception are inseparable (MN 43.9). What is perceived as ‘this’ is thought about in its differences and is thus diversified from ‘that’ and from ‘me.’ This diversification—involving craving for form, wrong view about permanence of form, etc., and the conceit ‘I am’—leads to preoccupation with calculating the desirability of past and present forms with a view to obtaining desirable forms in the future. ” Perhaps the key to the interpretation of this passage is Ven. Mahā Kaccāna’s explanation of the Bhaddekaratta verses in MN 133. There too delight in the elements of cognition plays a prominent role in causing bondage, and the elaboration of the verses in terms of the three periods of time links up with the reference to the three times in this sutta.
233 The Pali idiom phassapaññattiṁ paññāpessati, in which the verb takes an object derived from itself, is difficult. Ñm originally rendered “that one will describe a description of contact.” “To point out a manifestation” is less literal, but it should do justice to the meaning without jeopardising intelligibility. MA says that this passage is intended to show the entire round of existence (vaṭṭa) by way of the twelve sense bases; §18 shows the cessation of the round (vaṭṭa) by the negation of the twelve sense bases.
234 A large sweet cake or a ball made from flour, ghee, molasses, honey, sugar, etc. See also AN 5:194/iii.237.