30 March 2012

Papañca 2: Understanding Papañca

LAST WEEK WE SETTLED on a serviceable translation of the term papañca, but it's clear that in a Buddhist context simple translation is far from the whole story. Papañca is clearly a negative term in Buddhist texts in contrast to the usually positive sense more generally. We have to keep in mind that in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta papañca-saññā-saṅkhā (whatever they are) are said to assail, beset, or befall (samudāsarati) a man.[1] The word papañca shares this negative connotation with words that also draw on the metaphor of separating out: e.g. vikappa (Skt. vikalpa) where the vi– suffix indicates separation and it means to mentally separate things out, to discriminate, or distinguish. In general this process is seen as having a negative impact on us.

In the texts and commentaries there seem to be 4 distinct ways of talking about papañca:

  1. papañca as result, perhaps the sum total, of the perceptual process: e.g. in M 18, S 35.94 A 3.294, Sn 4.11, Sn 3.6.
  2. papañca as metaphysical speculation: e.g. in A 4.173
  3. papañca in relation to 'I am': e.g. in S 35.248, Sn 4.14.
  4. papañca = kilesas e.g. S 35.248, SA 2.381 (commenting on S 35.94). UdA (commenting on Ud 7.7)

The Perceptual Process

These texts are variations on the process by which contact with sensory perceptions is the basis for the process of perception and leads to cognition of the attractiveness or repulsiveness of sensations, and behaviour in response to this cognition. Here papañca can be the end product of the perceptual process (M 18) arising particularly from thinking (vitakka), or it can more general apply to the whole perceptual process (Sn 3.6, 4.11, S 35.94). Some of the references in which it's not clear what papañca refers to (M 11, Ud 7.7, Dhp v.195, 254) seem to draw on this sense. This approach seems to have the most weight in the suttas because it is the most common, and these references are relatively clear and unequivocal.

However there is a serious problem with these texts as they flatly contradict each other as to the order of the process, particularly M 18, Sn 4.11, and D 21. M 18 has become the standard Theravāda model of perception, and perhaps the best organised of the three. Sn 4.11 by contrast is poorly organised, and uses terminology which becomes superseded (such as sāta/asāta instead of sukha/dukkha). Sn 4.11 also places saññā at the root of the perceptual process, preceding phassa; whereas M 18 has the more familiar sequence phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti. D 21 appears to reverse the order of parts of M 18 so that we have these three sequences:

Sn 4.11
saññā > nāma & rūpa > phassa > sāta & asāta > canda > piya > macchara etc.

M 18
rūpa + cakkhu + cakkhu-viññāna > phassa > vedanā/vedeti > sañjānāti > vitakka > papañca.

D 21
papañcasaññāsaṅkhā > vitakka > chanda > piyāppiya > issā-macchariya > verā etc.
There is no easy way to reconcile these different models. If one is right, then the other two are wrong, and no two agree on all particulars. Is phassa the condition for saññā or vice versa? Similarly with papañca and vitakka. However both the commentary and sub-commentary on D 21 ignore the reversed order and treat the subject as vitakka being the basis of papañca as in M 18. So perhaps it is not surprise that only one of these models survived to become orthodox: M 18. However in terms of a model it is very much over shadowed by the twelve nidānas which became the standard way of describing how dukkha arises.

In any case the meaning here seems to be that the complexity of our human responses arises from sense experience. The role played by vitakka (Skt. vitarka) in the M 18 model might help to elucidate this process. The word literally means to 'twist apart'; takka is cognate with English torque, turn and distort; from PIE *terk or *tork 'to turn, twist'. Figuratively applied to the actions of the mind it comes to mean 'thought' itself in Pāli, though MW definition of the Sanskrit vitarka gives a broader sense in that it specifies: 'conjecture, suppositions, imagination, opinion; reasoning, deliberation; and doubt, uncertainty.' Pāli gives vitakka a special sense as one of the factors of absorption (jhānaṅga), that of mental attention which is directed towards its object. In this sense vitakka is a positive factor in our awareness. In the production of papañca one applies vitakka to the products of sensing (vedeti) and perception (sañjānāti). Since those products are already distinguished according to their desirability and identity, perhaps vitakka here means that we apply out attention to what is desirable and there by sustain the production of dukkha? In the long run, we can see that papañca and dukkha must be closely related if not synonymous.

Metaphysical Speculation

A 4.173 = 4.174 seems to stand alone in defining papañca in terms of speculation. Here the term is used to refer to the asking of questions which speculate on what happens after the "remainderless cessation and fading away of the six spheres of contact." Since contact and proliferation operate in the same domain—i.e. are aspects of the perceptual process—then answering a question about what happens after contact ceases is proliferating the unproliferated. Clearly this application depends on the notion that papañca refers to the perceptual process, but the phrase proliferating the unproliferated, suggests that speculation about the afterlife might be intended as a specific application.


This is the aspect of papañca which seems to fascinate modern Theravādin commentators, and yet it rests on a less sure foundation than the first, and one of the two key texts also seems to rely in part on papañca as the perceptual process.

Much is made of the somewhat cryptic passage in Sn 4.14 which appears to say that 'I am' (asmi) is the root of papañca. Modern commentators, especially Bhikkhu Thanissaro, have taken this to mean that the 'I am' conceit is in fact the cause of papañca. However this not the conclusion of the traditional commentators, nor the obvious conclusion to draw from those texts, which happen to be in a majority, that see proliferation in terms of the perceptual process, either as a product or a general description. Indeed it would be more conventional, and more in keeping with the majority of texts to see 'I am' as a result of the perceptual process, and therefore as a result, rather than a cause, of papañca. This supported by S 35.248 which labels asmīti as papañcita 'proliferated' (past tense) and also an opinion 'maññita' which has the added implication of being the product of mental activity.

Thanissaro, as he often does, comes out of left-field with his rendering of papañca as 'objectification', but he highlights an important facet of papañca. From his notes on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta his translation seems to be strongly influenced by his reading of the Tuvaṭaka Sutta (Sn 4.14; Sn 915ff). There is some merit in his approach. He translates Sn 916 as:
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'
He should train, always mindful,
to subdue any craving inside him."[2]
Compare Norman's translation:
"Being a thinker, he would put a stop to the whole root of what is called "diversification" (i.e. the thought) 'I am'," said the Blessed One. "Whatever internal cravings there are, he would train himself to dispel them, always being mindful." (p. 151)
Despite the differences of interpretation it is apparent that Sn 916 takes "I am" (asmi) as the root (mūla) of papañca, and Thanissaro sees "I am" as an objectification of experience. Clearly "objectification" is a way of conveying how Thanissaro sees the psychological process under consideration; it is not a translation of the word papañca. It is quite legitimate to approach a text in this way, especially if the individual words do not directly communicate the sense of the text, but to my mind it obscures too much when we merge the two stage process I'm describing in this post and the last one.

Piya Tan attempts to take the equation of papañca and asmi further by drawing attention to the Yakalāpi Sutta (S 35.248) which lists a series of propositions regarding selfhood, beginning with the statement amsīti 'I am' or 'I exist', followed by variations on asmi 'I am' or bhavissāmi 'I will be'. Each statement is to be understood as is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita),[3] a state of conceit (mānagata and all of these are to be regarded as "a disease, a boil, an arrow".

The explanation rests on the past participle papañcita. The commentary at this point relates these qualities to the presence of the kilesas (i.e. lobha, dosa, moha). But it does not define papañca, and in fact if we did not already have an opinion about papañca it would be very difficult to form it from this text. Of the qualities maññita and mānagata are obviously mental activity, and iñjita and phandita are, on face value at least, bodily (though they probably refer to states of anxiety). It's not very clear how papañcita fits into this list of terms. The text clearly says that asmi is an example of papañcita, and undesirable. The formula is: asmīti papañcitametaṃ i.e. "'I am:' this is proliferated." or perhaps "this is a proliferation" since the participle can act as a substantive. Perhaps the sense of this text is how concerns about 'I' proliferate once the thought 'I am' occurs. If we hypostasize our first person perspective then it generates a great deal of 'I' centred thoughts and anxieties.

Does 'I am' constitute objectification in the sense that Thanissaro suggests? Can we objectify ourselves? When we think 'I am' do we really convert ourselves into a thing? Self-objectification seems typically to refer to seeing oneself from another's point of view as an object. It is implicated in body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders for instance – and therefore is concerned more with the identification of the self with the body. I can't really make an object of my self: the thought 'I am' does not make me an object, it makes me a subject. I think what Thanissaro means when he treats proliferation as objectification is the split into subject ('I am') and object ('that is'). The Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) points out that is usual for people to think of the world (loka) in terms of 'it is' (atthi) and 'it is not' (natthi)--the fact of arising and passing away of experience shows that neither of these concepts apply. On the other hand the Buddhist model of cognition depends on objects of perception as its foundation: As the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta itself says: on the basis of form and eye, eye-consciousness arises and the three together constitute contact.

Thanissaro notes that M18 uses verbs which may indicate an agent. The key phrase being:
Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti

"Eye-consciousness arises on the basis (paccaya) of the eye and form; and the three together constitute contact (phassa), from the condition of contact there is a sensation of experience (vedanā). Where there is experiencing (vedeti) there is awareness (sañjānāti); with awareness there is thinking (vitakka); where there is thinking there is proliferation (papañceti).
Ingenious as Thanissaro's interpretation is there is no reason to assume an agent here. The verbs indicate, as in my translation, that a process is occurring. In his translation choices Thanissaro emphasises the agent:
What one feels, one perceives (labels in the mind). What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one "papañcizes."[4]
However if we compare the same terms in the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta all of these terms, with the addition of vedanā, are defined in terms of verbs which undermines Thanissaro's conclusion because he specifically excludes vedanā from having an agent, whereas the Mahā-Vedalla Sutta suggests it too must have an agent if the others do.

In fact there is no agent in Buddhist psychology. There is no "one" however much we feel as though we are an agent: "what one feels" assumes "I am". Thanissaro's interpretation is somewhat paradoxical: for if an agent is required for the process to continue, and there is no agent, then how does it continue? If we commit to the implications of the Buddhist model, we cannot posit an agent. No one perceives, there is just perceiving; no one thinks, there is only thinking; and no one papañcizes, there is just papañcizing. Each active process, as indicated by the locative absolute construction, forms the basis for the next active process. Perceiving is an emergent property experiencing sensations. Convention almost requires us to posit a metaphorical container for this process, for instance we might say that perception takes place in the mind. But in the Buddha's psychology there is no container for this process, because the container is, effective, a manifestation of the thought "I am".

The objectification that goes on is a mistaken perception: what Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has called naïve realism, or in colloquial terms: WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). That naïve realism is unjustified, is neither intuitive nor easy to prove. It only becomes apparent with the highly detailed and focuses study that characterises Buddhist meditation, and (just) in the last few decades through studying the way that our perceptual processes can go wrong and lead us astray.

If we go back to the Tuvaṭaka Sutta we may need to reconsider the idea that the text is saying that "I am" root cause of all papañca and see that "I am" is the root product of prapañca. In any case Thanissaro has strained a little too hard to make papañca fit into his program, and the translation as 'objectification' is misleading and infelicitous

Taint or Obsession

The commentarial tradition, including texts attributed to both Buddhaghosa and Dhammapāla consider papañca to be synonymous with the kilesas. For instance the commentary on S 35.248 says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ' etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are proliferate (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness." Similarly the commentary on Ud 7.7 says "Passion is a proliferation, aversion is a proliferation, confusion is a proliferation, craving is a proliferation, view is a proliferation, and conceit is a proliferation."

This is presumably the origin of the idea that papañca might be translated as hindrance or obstacle, since greed, aversion and confusion are the three main obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. Early English translators followed the Pāli commentarial tradition in translating papañca as obstacle: c.f. Woodward, Buddharakkhita, Horner.


What my study seems to say is that the ambiguity of papañca allows it to be co-opted to suit the agenda of the commentator. Despite the relative importance of papañca in Buddhist doctrine, reconstructing it from the Pāli suttas is really very difficult because papañca and related terms are not used very often. On the face of it I think the best explanation is still that papañca is primarily the perceptual process which gives rise to unskilful behaviour based on the pull and push of our affective reactions to pleasant and unpleasant sensory perceptions. As such the traditional commentators are correct to relate papañca to the taints which underlie unskifulness. We can also see that the modern Theravāda commentators, from Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda on, are not wrong about the role played in this by seeing oneself as a subject and objects of perception as real objects, because this is all part of the process of creating dukkha. However Thanissaro in particular has over-emphasised the ego, and his translation of objectification is confusing since ‘I am’ represents a subject rather than an object.

It is puzzling, but perhaps not so unusual, to find so little foundation for such a well known doctrinal category, and such poor recognition of the flimsiness of that foundation in modern writers. Papañca occurs so few times in the canon that it does not take very long to read and consider all occurrences. It once again reinforces the adage that any one commentary is never the whole story.



[1] In the text the verb is in the plural so we must assume that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā is also plural.

[2] Sn 916 pada a & b: Mūlaṃ papañcasaṅkhāya, (iti bhagavā); Mantā asmīti abbamuparundhe

[3] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear.

[4] However one feels about neologisms Thanissaro has highlighted an important point here which is that papañceti is a denominative verb, i.e. it is a verb derived from the noun papañca, and so literally does mean 'to papañcize".

23 March 2012

Papañca 1: Translating Papañca

AMONGST THE DIFFICULT and obscure terms we Buddhists inherited from our Iron Age Indian predecessors, papañca is one of the most intriguing. Papañca is an interesting case study of a concept which, despite being rendered in English relatively easily, remains very difficult to understand. In this first of two essays I will look at how to translate this word, while in the second I will look at what the word means in context.

It's become common to translate the word as 'proliferation'. I followed this practice myself in 2009 when commenting on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, aka the Honey Ball Sutta (Proliferation). Bodhi's translation was based on a manuscript translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. However in choosing to renderpapañca as 'proliferation' he says that he was influenced by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (see Middle Length Discourses p.1204, n.229). Other translators and scholars have chosen a range of terms:
  • I.B. Horner: obsession
  • F. L. Woodward: difficulty (obstruction)
  • Nyanaponika: diffuseness
  • Thanissaro: objectification
  • K.R. Norman: diversification
  • Sue Hamilton: making manifold
The Pāli Text Society Dictionary (PED) derives the word papañca (Skt prapañca) a root √pac or √pañc 'to spread', which forms stems with a nasal giving. This root is included in Pāṇini's Dhātupāṭha, unfortunately it is not included in Whitney's Roots. Monier-Williams Dictionary lists "pac or pañc 1: to spread out, to make clear or evident." (p.575a) and it seems at first glance that our word is generated from this root. The underlying metaphor, if this is correct, is analytical: separating things out in order to make plain what is there. Sometimes when objects are all jumbled up we cannot see what's what, and so we separate them in order to allow the differences to be clear. Hence the double meaning of separate and clarify. Lexicographers have seen papañceti as denominative verb, i.e. a verb derived from the noun papañca. The root is more nominal than most, and indeed there do not appear to be any other words which derive from this root. Which suggests that the traditional etymology may be wrong. In the Sanskrit grammatical tradition, from at least the time of Patañjali the word prapañca is used to indicate specifying the instances which come from a general rule (lakṣana) or the expansion of that rule into examples. It is used in this sense in the Vyākaraṇamahābhāṣya

If we look at the semantic field ‘to spread’ then there is a Proto-Indo-European root *pet ‘to spread’ which comes into English in words via Latin (via French): expand, pan, pass, past, and spawn; via Germanic fathom, and compass. From this root we see in Greek πετάννῡμι (petannumi) ‘to spread out sails’; in Avestan paθana- (pathana) 'wide, broad'; and in Swedish panna ‘forehead’. It’s clear from other branches of the Indo-European family that the second consonant is quite changeable. However the Sanskrit cognate based on Avestan paθana would be √prath ‘to spread’ (with forms prathate, pṛthu, prathana). This is the only possible alternative I have been able to locate.

Richard Gombrich derives papañca from pañca 'five' and suggests that it should mean "quintuplication" (What the Buddha Thought, p.205). He notes that in some texts (e.g. Mahābhārata) the world evolves from "primal unity" into sets of five, for example the five sense, the five great elements. There are in fact a large number of sets of five in Sanskrit literature, and these become much more prominent in Tantric literatures where they are arranged in layered maṇḍalas with four cardinal points and a centre. The symbolism is often that the four are synthesised in the central fifth, and that the maṇḍala itself represents the whole universe. Tantra in particular looks for homologies between these sets of five. The problem, as Gombrich notes, is that we find no evidence of the Sanskrit prapañca being used in Vedic texts early enough for the Buddha to have known about them. However the evolution into sets of five is a theme in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and other Upaniṣads without using the word prapañca. As mentioned Pāṇini records the root √pac/pañc and he lived about a generation or two after the Buddha. The suggestion is that although the word is coined around the time of the Buddha, the concept is somewhat older. I think Gombrich is on the right track and would like to offer some refinements to his theory.

The PIE root of the numeral five is *penkwe, from which Vedic páñca derives and gives us Sanskrit pañcan and Pāli pañca. The PIE numerals have remained remarkably stable across the Indo-European language family, e.g.
Greek: pénte
Avestan: panca
Latin: quīnque
Welsh: pump
German : fünf (Germanic languages substitute /f/ for /p/ - known as Grimm's Law)
Monier Williams offers a clue to the meaning of papañca/prapañca when he notes that pañcan 'five' means 'to spread out the hand with its five fingers'. That there would be a link between the number five and the five fingers is not surprising. Indeed PIE *penkwe, also means finger, and this link is present in Germanic and Slavic languages. The word fist is also related in West Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German) via *fungkhstiz from PIE *pngkstis, and in Slavic languages.































However note that :

















That the relationship between five and finger is not present in Sanskrit is a weakness of this line of reasoning. However other words are preserved in archaic forms. For example the standard Sanskrit word for heart is hṛd. The word śraddhā preserves a form more closely related to PIE *√kred 'heart'. PIE /k/ regularly becomes /ś/ in Sanskrit. Once in Sanskrit śrad then undergoes another change to hṛd which is used in all other circumstances except the semantic field of ‘trust’. That the change came later is shown by the Avestan zərəd- ‘heart’, and zraz-dā- ‘believe’ (= Skt. śraddhā = Latin credō). I’m proposing, somewhat speculatively, that a parallel process occurred with pañca in connection with fingers.

If this is true then rather than simply 'quintuplication' (i.e. multiplying by five) the underlying metaphor is one that draws on the physical facts of the hand: the five fingers emerge from the hand; one can spread the fingers and separate them to make them distinct. In English we sometimes call the fist a "bunch of fives". Opening the fist makes it clear if something is held in the hand or not – the open hand is a universal gesture of greeting. The hand supplies us with the physical experience of unfolding to reveal complexity (five from one), and at the same time clarity (empty hand, spreading the fingers). This explanation is consistent with the theories of metaphor put forward by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, namely that metaphors derive from how we physically interact with the world.

The suffix pa– (Skt. pra–) is related to the Latin prefix pro-, and has two main senses: 'forward motion', and by association 'intensification'. So on face value the words papañca means 'to spread forth, to expand out'. From this we can see that ‘proliferate’ suits the etymology reasonably well. Indeed there is some similarity in the etymology since 'proliferate' comes from Latin prole 'offspring' which itself derives from PIE pro– 'forth' + *al 'growth'; prole is combined with ferre 'to bear' and therefore prolific means 'bearing offspring'. Proliferation produces a range of conjugations: proliferating, proliferated, which allow us to produce good English translations. Norman’s choice of ‘diversification’ is fine. The meaning is quite similar, though for reasons I cannot specify, I feel that ‘proliferation’ captures something of the dynamic quality of the process under consideration. The popularity of Ñāṇananda’s influential essay Concept and Reality in Early Buddhism has helped ‘proliferation’ to become a standard (I have a copy on order and it will be interesting to see if we agree!)

This leaves us to explain the alternatives, and give some reasons for rejecting them. "Diffuseness" means spread out in the sense of dispersed, and this just seems wrong. The translators who choose variations on "obsession" or "hindrance" seem to be following the Pāli commentaries which equate papañca with the kilesas. For example the commentary on the Papañcakhaya Sutta (Udāna 7.7) by Dhammapala says:
"Passion is a proliferation, aversion is a proliferation, confusion is a proliferation, craving is a proliferation, view is a proliferation, and conceit is a proliferation."
This ties papañca into the various kinds of hindrances to progress on the Buddhist path, or the unskilful kinds of thoughts that obsess the unawakened, and suggests to many translators (especially before Ñāṇananda) an interpretative translation, i.e. they try to translate the concept rather than the word. Thanissaro does similarly with "objectification". This procedure is not wrong by any means, but my preference is to translate the word, and essay the concept separately. The main advantage of this approach is that our word is used in slightly different ways, and the more conceptual translation--especially Thanissaro’s "objectification"--do not always make for felicitous English, such as his "objectifies non-objectification" in the Koṭṭhita Sutta (4.174).

In the next essay I will look at various suttas in order to see how this word is used in practice in a Buddhist context.


16 March 2012

Here Be Dragons: On The Limits of Science.

THOSE WHO RAIL against science usually make the same point: viz that science has limitations which stem from the nature of the human psyche and senses, and that there are places where "science cannot go". Some things are simply "not measurable" and consciousness is always at the top of the list of things not amenable to measurable.

In theology this is known as the "God of the gaps" argument. Retreating in the face of the successes of science, some Christian theologians resorted to arguing that God was to be found where science ended: i.e. in the gaps between measurements. Some Buddhists (and others) argue that the "true nature" of consciousness (or reality, or whatever) is found only where scientific investigation ends. Consciousness is off the edge of the map:
here be dragons (or nāgas in our case). However other theologians realised that the God of the gaps argument meant that as knowledge expanded, God shrank. Some of those who realised this preferred the even more irrational all-or-nothing argument: i.e. the whole universe was God's work. Buddhists who adopt a God of the gaps argument will find themselves increasingly marginalised as the scientific investigation of consciousness proceeds.

Perhaps the first person to complain about the obsession of scientists with measurement, and certainly one of the most vociferous, was the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827). Blake saw visions of God, Jesus, and/or angels most days of his life. He conversed with his visions and to him they were as much a part of life as his wife, his few friends, his house, or the city of London where he lived. Blake hated Isaac Newton with a blazing passion, and the depiction of him (above) with his dividers doing geometry while ignoring the texture of the world around him, was ironic and polemical, though not the everyone seems to get this. For Blake the empirical approach could not measure the higher truth he felt he met in his visions. In his own time Blake was considered a (mostly) harmless crank, but later he was championed by arch Romantic and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Today (for good or ill) Blake would no doubt be treated as "mentally ill".

In the wake of Blake we sometimes find Buddhists at the forefront of the attack on science and materialism, along with Christian fundamentalists, social studies scholars and French philosophers. Sadly the understanding of science in these attacks seems not to have progressed much beyond Blake's time, and we see scientists accused of seeking or claiming
Absolute Knowledge, or thinking they can solve all the worlds problems. In fact it is religions which claim absolute knowledge (which they don't have) and the ability to solve all the world's problems (which they have demonstrably not done). Most people are distinctly better off for having science in the world, and recently Harvard Professor Steven Pinker has suggested, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the values of the Enlightenment have contributed to a long term reduction in violence across the globe. His claim is hotly contested, but one feels that with the retreat of Christianity a vengeful spirit is being exorcised from Europe. That there is a substrate of violent behaviour remaining should not detract from the achievements of Enlightenment values. Secularism and trade have created a more stable, peaceful and unified Europe than Christianity ever did (current problems not withstanding).

But what of this claim that consciousness is inaccessible to science? I think this claim is now demonstrably false. The map is now a globe, we may not have every island and cove mapped, but we know the rough shape of the continents. Turns out there are no dragons.

However before looking more closely at this issue I want to briefly mention another anti-materialist claim: that the brain is simply not complex enough to sustain consciousness. I had wondered about this, but I now think this is one of many failures of imagination on the part of the anti-science lobby. Part of the problem is that it's difficult to get a handle on big numbers. So if I say that the human brain has about 100 billions neurons each with 1000 connections to other neurons, i.e. 100 trillion connections in total, this doesn't really mean anything to most people. To get a sense of it there is a very interesting TED talk by
Henry Markram which shows a visualisation from a realistic computer model of a tiny part of the brain of a rat. Here we are visualising a model equivalent to perhaps 1 ten-millionth of the human brain, and yet the complexity is both staggering and beautiful. Does a brain possess the complexity required to produce and sustain consciousness? I would say undoubtedly, yes, it does.

And so to the idea that consciousness is not accessible to measurement. For many decades now neuroscientists have been studying the way that brain injuries affect consciousness, cognition, and personality. This has given us a rough overview of the way that mind depends on brain. More recently various types of brain scan have allowed us to begin to show in more detail the correlations between brain activity and mental activity, increasingly this is done in real time. We can be reasonably certain that mental activity is always associated with brain activity. Some studies in animals have gone to a much greater level of detail with brain mapping. One group have precisely mapped out each of the 300 or so neurons of a nematode worm and all of the synapses. They have produced the
Worm Atlas to help visualise it. The effort to map out the 100 trillion connections in a human brain has been formalised in the Human Connectome Project. It seems likely that with persistence a complete map of a human brain and all its connections will eventually be realised. This will give us undreamed of insights into how the brain, and therefore the mind, functions.

I glossed over some of the aspects of consciousness that can and have been studied when I reviewed Thomas Metzinger talking about the
first-person perspective. This is one of the ways of studying of how consciousness, particularly self consciousness, is affected by injury. But some neuroscientists have gone further and created non-invasive, and non-destructive ways to test and challenge our sense of self. I've already described Thomas Metzinger's article which links the idea of a soul with out-of-body experiences (OBE), but the OBE provides other insights into the flexibility and contingency of our sense of ownership over our body. A recent feature article in Nature News surveys the life and work of Henrik Ehrsson in this area. Ehrsson uses virtual reality equipment to alter how the body is incorporated into the Self-Model. The self --that is the thinking, ego centre--can be experienced as transferred to an inanimate object for instance. That is to say that the sense of "I" being behind the eyes can be disrupted so that it seems to be located outside the body, and even inside an inanimate artificial body. Similarly inanimate objects can be incorporated into the body image to the extent that seeing them touched can produce a 'felt' sensation. This tells us that the sense of self is not hard wired, but virtual. Metzinger talks about it as a "simulation".

As author and
blogger Ed Yong says "Ehrsson's work also intrigues neuroscientists and philosophers because it turns a slippery, metaphysical construct — the self — into something that scientists can dissect." He also cites neuroscientist David Eagleman: "We can say if we wobble the signals this way, our conscious experience wobbles in this way. That's a lever we didn't have before". And Thomas Metzinger: "There are things like selfhood that people think cannot be touched by the hard sciences. They are now demonstrably tractable."

The field of neuroscience has made huge progress in the last 20 years. News of this progress leaks out in popular press coverage only to a limited extent, and often with distortions. More can be gleaned from popular books by authors such as Vilayanur Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio (to name some of my favourites). But look at the bibliographies of such books, or do a
Google scholar search and you'll get a better idea of the scope and scale of the enterprise. Lay people can scarcely imagine it, and even with my degree in chemistry I cannot follow the great bulk of it, and must rely on interpreters and popularisers to get a sense of what the scientists are discovering.

Of course for Buddhists some of the most interesting research in this area is the study of how meditation affects the brain in the short and long term. We are now getting information about which parts of the brain are activated by different styles of meditation, and how regular meditation practice creates long term changes in the brain. It is these kinds of studies, with objective evidence of benefit that relies on data and not metaphysical claims or mere subjectivity, which are helping to popularise mindfulness techniques (including meditation) beyond our usual audience.

It seems to me that the perceived limitations of science are often in fact the limitations of the perceptions of the critics of science. In the Romantic critique of science there, ironically, seems to be a massive failure of imagination, and inability to take in and think about what is actually happening in the world. Very few critics seem to have understood the impact of the two great figures of the philosophy of science in the 20th century: Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn; let along the progress of knowledge itself. Too many seem to ignore the various revolutions in thinking that have occurred in the years since Blake vented his spleen at the great figures of the Enlightenment. In my view Blake is
not a good role model. He may have been a Romantic figure--a lonely visionary, enunciating a higher truth that lesser mortals could not comprehend --but he was unable to sustain relationships with his friends for instance, and was patently a very frustrated and angry man, who blamed his inability to communicate on others. Blake was no saint, and, in the end, not much of a prophet either.

Humans have limitations, but one of the stand-out characteristics of humans is not accepting those limitations and pushing beyond them. So, yes, science has limits, but they are not set by outdated views, and ideological criticism. We are usually limited only by the scope of our imagination.


Further listening, reading and viewing

09 March 2012

Types of Knowledge

IT'S BEEN A WHILE since I drew directly on the Pāli texts so I thought I would share some observations from my recent Pāli studies. The Mahā-Vedalla Sutta is from the Majjhima Nikāya and features a series of questions put to Sāriputta by Elder Mahākoṭṭhika, and the answers.

The title of the sutta includes the word vedalla which is unusual (there is also a Cūḷa-Vedalla Sutta). PED thinks that it might be similar in form to mahalla 'old, venerable' which seems to be a (dialectical?) mutation from mahā-ariya via mahā-ayya. Veda-ariya doesn't really work as a compound. Another possibility raised by PED is that it derives from vedaṅga. This would give us the sense of 'types of knowledge' which does describe the content of the sutta, especially the paragraphs below. Since this seems the most sensible option I have adopted it.

What follows is a condensed translation of the first seven of Sāriputta's answers and some commentary.
The Great Discourse on Types of Knowledge - condensed translation.
Mahā-Vedalla Sutta (MN 43; M i.292ff.)

Ignorance (dupañña ) is not-understanding (nappajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Intelligence (paññavā ) is understanding (pajānāti) that 'this' is disappointing; that disappointment has a beginning and an end, and there is a way to bring about the end.

Discrimination (viññāṇa) is discriminating (vijānāti ) between pleasure (sukha) and pain (dukkha) and neither (adukkhasukkha).

Understanding and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What one understands, one discriminates; what one discriminates, one understands. The difference is that understanding should be cultivated (bhāvetabba), and discrimination should be fully understood (pariññeyya).

‘Knowns’ (vedanā) are called ‘knowns’ because they cause [things] to be known, they produce knowledge (vedeti ) They cause pleasure to be known; they cause pain to be known; and they cause neither-pleasure-nor-pain to be known.

Perception (saññā) is called ‘perception’ because of recognition (sañjānāti) of blue/green, yellow, red, and white and so on.

Knowns, perceptions, and discrimination are connected and inseparable. What is made known, is recognised; what is recognised, is discriminated.

One of the first things we notice is that the text contains a lot of words deriving from the root √jñā'to know, to understand', including nouns paññā, viññāṇa, and saññā;" >; adjectives dupañña and paññavant; and verbs pajānāti, vijānāti, parijānāti, & sañjānāti; in addition to words from the root √vid 'to know', vedanā & vedeti. And what the text is doing is defining these terms in relation to each other. Understanding Pāli terms pertaining to mental processes can be difficult since the definitions appear to change over time and according to context. So this text is one version of how the terms can be distinguished. As such its quite handy.

In this text, following Indian grammatical practices, nouns and adjectives are defined in terms of verbs.

paññā pajānāti
viññāṇa vijānāti
saññā sañjānāti
vedanā vedeti

So the noun paññā 'understanding' is defined in terms of the verb pajānāti 'to understand'. The paragraphs form two groups: the first defines paññā and viññāṇa and describes the relationship between them; the second defines vedanā and saññā and their relationship to each other and to viññāṇa. Viññāṇa is a conceptual link between the two groups, which as I will try to show represent two different routes to viññāṇa.

In the first group we find the adjective dupañña 'badly understanding, foolish' (here the spelling is pañña not paññā) which is defined as nappajānāti 'not understanding'. This is contrasted with another adjective paññavant 'possessing understanding, intelligent' which is defined as pajānāti 'understanding'. The subject which we either understand or don't, which makes us dupaññā or paññavant is the Four Truths of the Nobles: the fact that 'this' (i.e. our immediate experience) is disappointing; and that disappointment has a beginning and and end, and a way to bring about the end. If we understand this we are intelligent, and if not we are foolish.

Also in the first group viññāṇa is defined as 'knowing' pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain (sukha, dukkha, adukkhasukha). Here the literal meaning of vijānāti is intended: vi- 'division' and jānāti 'knowing' - i.e. understanding the difference between. My reading is that 'consciousness' would be the wrong translation here, and that discrimination (or something along these lines) would be more appropriate.

Now the relationship between paññā and viññāṇa is that they are inseparably connected, that one involves the other. However there is a difference in how we approach each. Paññā is to be cultivated (bhāvetabba), while viññāṇa is to be fully understood (pariññāṇa). The word for cultivated is related to the word bhāvanā in mettābhāvanā 'the development of loving kindness'.

Now to the second group. Here vedanā, usually translated as 'sensations' or 'feelings' (with much discussion of which of these two alternatives is a best fit), is defined in terms of vedeti. The relationship to the verb vedeti shows that neither 'sensations' nor 'feelings' really convey what vedanā is. Vedeti is from the root √vid 'to know' and comes from a PIE root *√weid which means to see; and draws on the metaphor that to see is to know. English cognates include: via German wise, wit; via Greek idea, eidetic; and via Latin video, vision. Vedeti in particular is the causative form which means 'to make known, to bring about understanding'. Vedanā is based on the past-participle vedana 'made known, brought to understanding'. Hence I have translated vedanā as 'a known'. And what is being made known to us is the pleasure and pain of experience. I'm not sure that this is all that we know, but pleasure and pain are what are salient to the Buddha's program.

The next term to be defined is saññā. The definition is here is not entirely helpful but we can infer more about it from what follows. Saññā is primarily defines in terms of sañjānāti recognition and the examples used of what is recognised are the names of colours. The implication here is that saññā is recognition expressed in terms of naming the objects of perception, i.e. apperception.

Finally we see that the relationship between vedanā, saññā and viññāṇa is described as sequential: what is made known, is recognised and named; and what is recognised is discriminated. This further implies that saññā is applied to vedanā; so naming the colours must be seen as a very limited example of the kind of operation involved.

We can diagram the statements above like this:

Anticipating some future posts on papañca I have added it branching off from saññā. What this model suggests is that discrimination has two input streams. One of them is experiential in the sense of being based on processing sense experience (vedanā → saññā → viññāṇa). Vedanā is the point at which we become aware of contact (phassa) which itself rests on the coming together of sense object, sense faculty, and sense-discrimination (also confusingly referred to as viññāṇa). And note that vedeti is the process which causes pleasure or pain to be known, sañjānāti recognises and names the experience, and vijānātidistinguishes between them. In this sense paññā); and it comes from cultivating understanding of the truths of the nobles (ariyasacca). What is implied in the latter is reflection on the truth of the truths. In both cases the senses and their data are secondary. The result of discriminating on the basis of greater and greater understanding is complete understanding (pariññā) which we can take as a synonym for bodhi. My reading leads me away from reading paññā as 'wisdom' in this case - though it may well be appropriate in other cases. I think rather that it refers to intellect, and that someone who possesses paññā is 'intelligent'. [1] Unlike latter Buddhist schools of thought it is viññāṇa which must be perfected in this model, not paññā (Skt. prajñā).

At least one of my regular readers is interested in the khandhas, and I this sutta may shed some light on them. As far as I know the khandhas themselves are not presented as a sequence in the suttas (this seems to be Sue Hamilton's conclusion too). But here we have three of the five khandhas presented as a logical sequence. Since saññā is defined in terms of colours, we could invoke the idea seen in many other suttas that the object of the eye (cakkhu) is form (rūpa). We could then state that here rūpa is implied as the generic object of the senses which combines with a generic sense faculty to produce contact (phassa). This is indeed how most people interpret rūpa in this context. One problem however is that contact rests on a tripod of object, faculty and sense-consciousness (cakkhuviññāṇa, sotaviññāṇa... manoviññāṇa). We would have to suppose that viññāṇa was being used in two different denotations here, which is fine, although somewhat confusing. Another problem is saṅkhārā which is left out, and this is a term that is difficult to understand (I wrote about in Saṅkhāra qua Construct, but that meaning does not seem to apply here). What saṅkhārā means in the khandhas, and why it takes the place it does in the order (if it is an order) are unsolved problems. Perhaps saṅkhārā or in verbal form saṅkharoti (from Skt. saṃskaroti < saṃ-s-√kṛ 'to compose, arrange') may well have its literal meaning here of 'put together, arranged'. [2]

In any case we could see here a kind of prototype from which a model of khandhas might have emerged with some tinkering. Perhaps these slightly incompatible models emerged amongst discreet groups of practitioners and were only brought together in the Canon. My theory, for what it is worth, is that the Canon as we know it was not compiled until the time of Asoka and probably under his direct influence. There is, in the Canon, clear evidence of multiple oral traditions preserving stories with slight variations (which I've noted in the past). Asoka's empire represents the first point in history when widely spread groups might have had a chance to come together, especially as the preceding centuries were full of war and social unrest.

Even if my translation choices and interpretations do not convince (or appeal to) the reader, I think they will agree that this sutta offers some useful insights into technical terms for kinds of knowing.


  1. Intelligence comes from the Latin intelligentem, which is a present-participle of intelligere 'to understand, comprehend'. The etymology is inter- 'between' + legere 'to chose, pick out, read'. The earliest sense of the word was the "faculty of understanding". So the word 'intelligent' is probably more closely related in sense to vijānāti 'discriminating, distinguishing'.
  2. The gerund of the word is used at S ii.269 where akaddamaṃ saṅkharitvā means 'having made clean' (i.e. mud free). In fact 3 of the four occurrences of the word relate to preparing food before one eats it.

02 March 2012

Free Will

For the Abrahamic religions-- Judaism, Christianity and Islam--free will is central to the problem of theodicy or 'God's justice', aka the Problem of Evil. Theists have a hard time explaining why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa). If God is both omnipotent and good (i.e. compassionate), then why doesn't God do a better job? Why allow people, even the supposedly chosen people, to suffer? Surely suffering is bad? Surely, even if there were some grey area, the suffering of the Jews (aka God's chosen people) in Nazi Germany was bad? Yes?

The theist answer is that God set the world up, created us, commanded us to worship and obey him, and then gave us the choice of whether to do so or not. What they play down is that God also gave us propensity not to obey God. As Christopher Hitchens put it: "we have been created diseased, by a capricious despot, and then abruptly commanded to be whole and well, on pain of terror and torture." [Washington Post] So evil from this point of view is not God's problem, but Humanity's problem, and the answer to the problem is to worship and obey a God whose actions are inexplicable in human terms. Except that bad things continue to happen to those who actually do worship and obey God. So really there is no satisfying answer to why we suffer from a theistic perspective.

Buddhists have little interest in the issue of God, but we are still interested in the Problem of Evil. Suffering is at the forefront our various discourses, and our program relies on the notion that we are free to chose our actions, and therefore our destiny. However I think the issue of free will is a red-herring.

What seems more salient is that we can and do assign value to experiences - to some extent all animals do this. It's called "learning". Assigning value to experiences makes us want to repeat them or avoid them, and this builds habits and characters. When we have an experience information about the urgency, relevance and attractiveness of the experience is registered by the amygdala which gives our memories an emotional flavour. This is why memories can provoke emotional reactions just like the original experience, and at the same time why we have stronger memories of emotionally charged events. We can change the value that we give to experiences, by over-riding the amygdala's first reaction with our neocortex. We can do this unconsciously as in Post Traumatic Shock where the value of certain experiences is amplified so that the strength of the arousal associated with the memory provokes a strong fight or flight response each time we bring it to mind. In Clinical Depression the value of experience is dramatically reduced and we no longer feel a sense of reward from doing the things we normally enjoy doing. We can also alter the value of experiences consciously to some extent as when we learn that traffic speeding by us on the road is not a threat unless we step onto the road, or if we learn that the vicious scary dog is always chained up and can't get to us. In both cases the apparent threat turns out to be minimal and the appropriate response might be mildly elevated alertness rather than, say, a fight or flight response.

If we look at this in terms of reason and emotion we find that neither can exist without the other. Facts alone do not make for reason. Reasoning is just assigning value to facts, and value is a function of how we feel about the thing. We know for instance that a person with an intact intellect who, through brain damage, is not able to link facts to emotions is more or less incapable of making a decision because they do not give facts different value. Without the ability to weight facts they all seem equally important. Such cases have been reported by Antonio Damasio (Descarte's Error) and Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel). So reasoning is absolutely dependent on emotions! If I over-value or under-value a fact with respect to the value you place on it, then we may be in conflict - like Atheists and Christians. If I assign a different value to the consensus of society then I am an eccentric or perhaps mad. A person who fails to acknowledge the values of the society around them, and consciously and actively works against those values might even be termed evil.

One of the important tenets of neuroscience is that the brain is made up of many parts all working together. This is true of the supposed left-brain, right-brain split as well. The brain can be looked at as separate systems, but it only works as a whole, which we discover to our cost when we sustain damage to our brains! Neuroscience is a lot more holistic than popular presentation of ideas like left/right brain specialisation would suggest, and it's a shame these distortions propagate at the expense of the true picture.

This idea about the value of facts being a function of emotional explains, to some extent, why people cannot agree on the facts, or can remain unconvinced in the face of a killer self-evident argument such as the idea of evolution to the explain the diversity of life on earth. For the Christian fundamentalist the Bible and traditional Christian narratives have assumed an over-whelming value. The facts of evolution simply cannot carry the same weight, and since the two ideas cannot co-exist evolution must be wrong or at best irrelevant. Some fundamentalists take the approach of co-opting evolution as proof of intelligent design. Anything as long as nothing takes on a higher value than God. I suggest that this is linked to the very strong emotions we experience around the fact of death, which should not be trivialised.

The question people are often implying when they ask "do we have free will?" is "are we free to make any arbitrary decision?" Clearly the simple answer to this is no, we aren't free to make arbitrary decisions. Because the value that we assign to experience is partly genetic, partly determined by our previous experience and our conditioning, and only partly under our conscious control (in order of decreasing influence), but largely assigned unconsciously. When someone says "I had no choice" this is almost never objectively true. We always have arbitrary choices, but we feel constrained. The constraints operate at different levels. We value our own survival over most things for instance, but a mother may value the survival of her infant over herself, or a solider may value the life of his team over his own. To me this seems to derive from our genetic inheritance. Some people value straight talking regardless of emotional impact, and others will sacrifice clarity for politeness, while still others will lie rather than directly disagree with you. I would call this a feature of cultural conditioning. Some people decide to go on a diet, and stick to it for a while, but after a while start falling back into old habits. This is the extent of our conscious influence on decision making.

I have will, or better: I experience 'willing'. I value this experience of willing quite highly. However willing appears to operate on different levels, many of which are unconscious or barely conscious. I am free to the extent that I can make my willing conscious. I can be more free by paying attention to the way I make choices and decisions, the way I place value on experiences. I can inquire into what my values really are, based on how I actually behave (rather than what I say my values are). Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for obtaining this kind of self-knowledge. Is there a magical point beyond which I will be completely free? I don't know. But I do know I feel more free than I used to be, and I'm not sure if there are inherent or practical limitations on how free I can become. Why imagine limits when none are apparent?


Elisa Freschi has written several blogs on free will in Indian philosophy recently:

I had originally intended to include a paragraph on humanist and atheist interest in free will, but I ran out of steam. It's really a non-issue for the same reasons. We only think in terms of free will because of theological debates, and there's no parallel debate in Buddhism!

image from http://spirituality-and-health.com via Google image search.

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