Pointless narrative (prapañca)
My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)
In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta
Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is
Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.
The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.
Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.
In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.
People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).
Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.
The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.
No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.