What is proliferation, and why is it a problem?

What exactly is proliferation (papanca), and why is it a problem?

1 Like

Here’s a lecture by Bhikkhu Bodhi on AN 4.173 on the topic:

(Download link)


I believe everything we will do apart from sitting and meditating properly according to noble eightfold path to achieve fruit of arhatship, can be termed as proliferation.
It can also include us discussing what is proliferation or anything!


Papañca (prapañca, 戲論) is “meaningless argumentation” (p. 40 in The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism, Choong Mun-keat).


In Bikkhu Bodhi’s discussion of AN 4.173 the first question from the audience is the correct one (48.15). The answer is that although the arahant has ‘overcome sense contact’, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel anything, it means they have relegated conventional reality according to its real value, which is subordinate to ultimate reality. The task practitioners face is overcoming that conventional reality purports to be ultimate.

" “An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:
He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’

knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”—SN 1.25


From my understanding papanca is done unintentionally, therefore it is ignorance and a sign of an untrained mind. It’s mind pollution. It’s bad because it’s unnecessary existential noise on top of raw sense contact that creates dukkha.

The scope of the six fields of contact extends as far as the scope of proliferation. When the six fields of contact fade away and cease with nothing left over, proliferation stops and is stilled

i.e. papanca is a layer of pollution/noise above the senses. This pollution ends when one has perfected the training, and ignorant sense contact cannot arise.


So the Arahant still experiences sense-objects, but doesn’t get involved with them? Thinking of the Arrow Sutta, he feels them “detached”?

1 Like

Could you elaborate on what you mean by “ignorant sense-contact”?
The suttas seem to describe contact (phassa) as a basic and neutral function (the meeting of the three), with craving/aversion only arising subsequently when ignorance is present.
It probably depends on how one interprets DO. Do phassa and vedana continue for the Arahant, or do all these nidanas cease?

1 Like

Well identified.

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it disjoined from it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it disjoined from it. This is called a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones disjoined from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is disjoined, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”—SN 36.6

But it goes further than a single experience. SN 1.25 encompasses a whole sector of understanding, everything to do with conventional reality is relegated to a lesser status.

1 Like

Maybe ingnorant sense contact is the one which gives rise to craving/aversion as a result of presence of ignorance. :thinking:

Maybe arhat is one for whom it doesn’t matter if they continue or cease! Because there is noone in arhats mind for whom such experience will arise, there is only experience if it is there at all!


MN1 says that conceiving has ceased for the Arahant, presumably because experiences are no longer viewed as “me” and “mine”.


Yes that’s exactly what I was trying to say!


It is the diffusion and spreading outward of perceptions. Further it is often described with the delighting in the diffusion, delighting in the availability of “more”. The whole outward direction is rooted in the premise that security and salvation are available on that level of acquisition and ownership; purely in what can be gauged in terms of perception. If that is the established direction there is no opportunity to find the problem of suffering, which is found on the level the nature of experience, of view, not perception alone.

@Martin mentioned MN 1, and it seems that is exactly what is described in that sutta. The ordinary person stays engaged on the level of perception to try and solve the problem, which only results in the conceiving of a solution, which will always include it as “mine”. The practice of virtue and renunciation will draw the mind back from that type of spreading, and when there is no further delight, there can be training in that non-conceiving - training to no longer look to perception for acquisition, but to use it to discern the nature of suffering. That doesn’t require any spreading. That is a very interesting distinction made in MN 1; early on the ordinary person conceives the percept (and the situation grows), whereas the sekha and higher “directly knows” it; which is to say the nature of perception is understood so there is no reason to spread any further than that knowledge.

As I always say, I’m out on a limb, but looking at SN 35.248, it seems conceiving, proliferation, and conceit go hand in hand.


You might be interested in: Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought: An Essay on Papañca and Papañca-saññā-saṅkhā Bhikkhu Nanananda. It is available online for free.


Ignorant-contact is found in a few suttas and SN 22.81 expands it.

Someone who isn’t trained is vulnerable to ignorant sense contact arising from any of the 5 hindrances, and in the case below from the hindrance of doubt. Theoretically they can accept no-self and have right view and agree that the 5 aggregates are not self but they still don’t know how to make contact without ignorance yet.

Perhaps they don’t regard form or feeling or perception or choices or consciousness as self. Nor do they have such a view: ‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After passing away I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, and imperishable.’ Nor do they have such a view: ‘I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine.’ Still, they have doubts and uncertainties. They’re undecided about the true teaching. That doubt and uncertainty, the indecision about the true teaching, is just a conditioned phenomenon. And what’s the source of that conditioned phenomenon? When an uneducated ordinary person is struck by feelings born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That conditioned phenomenon is born from that. So that conditioned phenomenon is impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated. And that craving, that feeling, that contact, and that ignorance are also impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated. That’s how you should know and see in order to end the defilements in the present life.”


So craving can only come up when ignorant-contact is made with improper attention and lack of sati-sampajanna. However, if at the time of contact with the senses one has Supermundane right view in that moment, and therefore contact is not ignorant, then craving is averted.

Notice the Buddha is saying defilements can be stopped if you remember that even doubt is conditioned. I.e. if you remember (sati) that doubt is also conditioned, then when you make mind sense contact (i.e. thoughts) even with unwholesome thoughts like doubtful thoughts, which is one of the hindrances, then you can prevent that from developing into craving, you break dependent origination from developing further after contact.

So there are several points in dependent orgination that you can break to prevent it from developing further into suffering. Bhikkhu Buddhasa has a list of all the points with sutta references in this great pdf Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu - Suan Mokkh

But an Arahant doesn’t have to break it because they don’t even have ignorance to start with. Hence my original response saying

“This pollution ends when one has perfected the training, and ignorant sense contact cannot arise.”

Note: my post above is mostly my own beliefs mixed with several interpretations by different monks, not just Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s

1 Like

I’m not sure. In DO tanha arises from feeling (vedana), and not from contact (phassa). The suttas seem to say there is still feeling arising for the Arahant, the difference being that ignorance has been removed, so feeling no longer leads to craving and aversion.
But again, it depends upon one’s interpretation of DO. Do all the nidanas cease for the Arahant, or do the nidanas from volition to feeling remain, but without ignorance? And if all the nidanas cease, how does the Arahant experience anything?
In any case, I don’t think “ignorant contact” means not guarding the senses. It could mean contact while ignorance is present, IMO.

1 Like

the sutta said that craving conditions doubt not doubt conditions craving

It doesn’t really make a difference. Ignorance is conditioned by the 5 hindrances as well

I say, bhikkhus, that ignorance has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for ignorance? It should be said: the five hindrances. The five hindrances, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the five hindrances? It should be said: the three kinds of misconduct. The three kinds of misconduct, too, I say, have a nutriment; they are not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for the three kinds of misconduct? It should be said: non-restraint of the sense faculties. Non-restraint of the sense faculties, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for non-restraint of the sense faculties? It should be said: lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension. Lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of mindfulness and clear comprehension? It should be said: careless attention. Careless attention, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for careless attention? It should be said: lack of faith. Lack of faith, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for lack of faith? It should be said: not hearing the good Dhamma.



Dependent Origination isn’t a theory of how experience or metaphysics is born, it’s a theory on how suffering is born. So my interpretation is that Arahants don’t have dependent origination, since they don’t have ignorance. In other words, if you have no fetters, then you don’t have the 5 hindrances, and no 5 hindrances then no ignorance, and no ignorance, no dependent origination, no suffering.

It could mean contact while ignorance is present, IMO.

Ignorance is defined as not knowing the 4 noble truths, that’s why I said if one has Supermundane right view (and therefore sati-sampajanna and yoniso manasikara) at the time of contact, then craving can be averted, and dependent origination broken.

It’s important to remember that mundane right view is about rebirth and beings, and that Supermundane right view is timeless (akaliko) and visible here and now (sandiṭṭhiko), and thus is about the 3 poisons and 5 hindrances, not beings and time (rebirth) which are mere conventions and not things as they really are. So dependent origination is about how the 3 poisons manifest as suffering, not about how beings are reborn.

In my interpretation, bhava means the birth of a being, aka, the birth of mundane view, which therefore must result in birth and death of said being, and therefore suffering. Once Bhava is reached a being (classification/convention) is born as one has misconceived with improper attention, and suffering must follow. Arahants don’t see beings, they see processes (3 poisons, 5 hindrances, 5 aggregates, etc…), so mundane view (bhava) is not born for them. They never reach that late in dependent origination, whereas for a non-returner craving can still sneak in and bhava (mundane view) can still take over the mind.


Possibly, though with DO in “cessation mode”, the suttas describe a progressive cessation of nidanas, including contact. It looks like a complete cessation of all the nidanas, not a partial cessation.

1 Like