Imagination or Just Papañca?

Last week’s fascinating exploration of the role of imagination and creativity in Buddhist practice left me with a niggling question about papañca (the process whereby the mind gets lost in its own thoughts and ideas) and its connection to imagination, as the process of papañca seems to often be described as using imagination. Papañca is invariably a negative term in Buddhism, so naturally this left me wondering if it was possible to identify a difference between the two, or if using your imagination was something that was always going to be tinged with an element of danger

I’ve written about papañca before in Thinking About Thinking Too Much so I won’t go over old ground too much, but from my previous research the conclusions I came to were that while it is usually translated as mental proliferation, and that this is a useful way to think about how it works, papañca has a characteristically obsessive quality about it that I feel is a defining feature of it, it is the obsession and fixation on an idea or thought that comes from thinking about it too much. It also has another characteristic quality of being out of control, it can often be experienced as a  torrent of thoughts and feelings that seem impossible to subdue.

These features of papañca initially felt like enough for me to say that using your imagination wasn’t the same as papañca, but with a bit more digging I realised that this might not be so cut and dried. A compelling day-dream can have a more than a tinge of obsession about it, and while you might not be trying to resist the movement of the mind in the way you would with papañca, it is still more in control of you than you are of it. There was, it seemed, a bit more of a grey area than I had first assumed.

Why was I so concerned about this though, you might ask? Well, while experientially, papañca and some imaginative activities like recollecting the qualities of the Buddha feel quite different, they do both use the capacity of the mind to generate and fabricate, so are all of these kinds of activities reinforcing our bad mental habits and ultimately going to lead to suffering? Foremost in my concerns – like a canoe trip that starts out on a lazy stretch of meandering river and ends up with going over a set of furious rapids- was the possibility that the seemingly sedate activity of bringing up some positive images and ideas runs the risk of spiralling out of our control and dragging us into the dangerous waters of papañca.

The learned scholar monk Ñāṇananda  talks about papañca in terms of “ the tendency of the worldling’s imagination to break loose and run riot” [1]  which seems to suggest that it is the creative capacity of the mind that has the potential to escape from our control, and perhaps papañca is just the natural outcome of that. While it is true that our minds frequently run away from us, does that necessarily mean that any imaginative use of the mind will do this?

But fortunately other writers draw attention to other specific details of the nature of papañca that suggests that it could be possible make a clear distinction between imagination and papañca, or at least to recognise what elements we need to keep out of our imaginative work to keep us away from being dragged over the rapids.

Within the Pali texts papañca is described as having three ‘essential ingredients’ that characterise it from other machinations of the mind:

“1) taṇhā, thirst or self centered desire, 2) diṭṭhi, opinion or, more precisely in this context, uncritical belief or mental acceptance of something without verification, and thus erroneous opinion; 3) māna, conceit, which traditionally has nine aspects, which depend on whether the comparison is done with people who are believed to be inferior, equal or superior to oneself.”  [2]

When we compare these three ingredients to using our imagination in creative practice, we can see that the first point about tanha – normally translated as craving – could apply but if we are coming from the right place then generally it shouldn’t. There is a distinction made in Buddhist practice between tanha, or unskilful desire, and chanda, skilful desire. It is chanda, not tanha, that inspires us to practice, so if we are motived by a skilful desire then our imaginings shouldn’t lead to papañca, but this obviously requires a lot of honesty and self-awareness of our motivations to know the difference between a skilful desire and an unskilful one. It is a useful point to be aware of if you find yourself drifting off into a less skilful day-dream though, the chances are that your idle musings have some kind of craving behind them.

When we look at the second point ditthi, which is more often translated as views, again it is possible that we could carry out our creative practice based on an erroneous  view or opinion, but again if we are coming at it in the right way then this shouldn’t be so much of a problem. The most obvious erroneous opinion I can think of that we could have about our imaginings is that they are in some way real, so I’m inclined to assume that as long as we know that what is going on in our mind is not real, and importantly that it is something that our mind is creating then papañca shouldn’t be able to develop from that.

The third point, conceit based on comparing yourself to others, is an interesting one to ponder. In the practice of recollection of the Buddha clearly one of the reasons you are invoking his image is because he is better than you, he had so many qualities that you currently can only dream of having. Is this conceit? I suppose it is, but it is a kind of skilful conceit, if such a thing is possible. But I would  argue that it also isn’t a conceit because it isn’t him as a person that you are really focussing on, it is those qualities. You never met the Buddha so you can’t really bring up a realistic idea of what he was like as a person, but you know and understand the qualities that he had and that is what you are bringing to mind. You are not really sitting comparing yourself to him or anyone else, which would clearly be an act of conceit. But if you were imagining yourself in fourth jhana, and as a part of that visualisation you had a little grain of being better than anyone else, or ever being better than you are right now, then that may well be bring some conceit to the table.

So based on these three essential ingredients of papañca, it seems like there is always a risk that your imaginings could go off piste if you come at it from  the wrong angle, but if these three ingredients are the defining feature of papañca then it seems clear enough to me that papañca and using your imagination are not automatically the same thing, and if you pay attention to the details of what you are doing then you should be able to use your imagination safely.

But let’s look at a few other ways of thinking about papañca too, to see where other potential differences or similarities may lie. The first ingredient of self-centred desire is somewhat reiterated in  the definition that Thanissaro Bhikkhu leans on to make the definition of papañca, as he sees it is fundamentally a problem caused by creating a subject/object divide in our world view:

“Objectification = papañca. The tendency of the mind to proliferate issues from the sense of “self.”… The categories of objectification stem from the self-reflexive thought, “I am the thinker,” …and include the categories of inappropriate attention (see MN 2): being/not-being, me/not-me, mine/not-mine, doer/done-to. The perceptions of objectification include such thoughts as “This is me. This is mine. This is my self.” These perceptions and categories turn back on the person who allows them to proliferate, giving rise to internal conflict & strife, which then expand outward. [3]

Quite whether it is specifically the concept of self that allows this papañca process to proliferate I haven’t ever examined personally, but the way that Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes the thoughts about I, me, and mine turning back on us and multiplying certainly matches up with the experience of papañca feels like. The train of thought usually involves some perceived slight that the world has inflicted on you, and your mind spinning out endless variations of how unfairly you have been treated. Even if the train of thought appears to be about another person, it is almost always centred on your opinion, and your indignation that it isn’t being listened to – papañca is always very, very personal. This generally isn’t what skilful imaginings and recollections feel like, they are a lot more contained and stable, less centred on opinions, less heated, and they don’t feel like they turn back on you and multiply out of control. Unskilful imaginings though do seem to have the potential to be just as self-centred and impassioned as an outbreak of papañca, so watching out for having too much self in your use of imagination looks like an important factor for keeping it on the skilful side.

Conversely, other writers interpret that the texts suggest there is a strong element of using language involved in the development of papañca and that it is thoughts that are the key ingredient in the process:

“…papañca marks a development on ‘thought’ (vitakka) and is thence closely related to the medium of language. Hence Bhikkhu Ñāṇānanda considers the term papañca as representing a mental extension of the linguistic realm and takes it as referring it to “the tendency towards proliferation in the realm of concepts.”… In this manner papañca refers to the tendency of thought to proliferate abstract concepts. [4]

Similarly Bocardo suggests that papañca has been translated as “ideas and verbal distinctions originated by mental generation”.[5] This would suggest to me that if our creative imaginings were entirely visual, or feeling based, then perhaps there would be no risk of it developing into papañca because we wouldn’t be employing our language faculties at all, nor would we need to do much thinking. I hadn’t ever really noticed this feature before but when I think about something that I might do, like bringing up an image of myself meditating peacefully as a practice to help to settle my mind in meditation, I recognise that it does indeed not require any use of language. Yes, words and concepts might be bouncing around in my mind, but they are just background noise, they are not part of the visualisation. In fact, now that I think about it, it is when I get distracted by the thoughts and ideas floating around that I lose contact with the mental image, which could suggest that they are working from different processes. This is something that might be worth investigating more.

For me, this point also brings up what I would suggest is another important difference between creative imagination and papañca, and that is premeditated action. When we visualise or do a recollection practice it is deliberate, we want to do it and we recognise our agency in making it occur. When we get drawn into papañca it is never something we intended to do, we usually don’t want to do it, and we struggle to feel that we have enough control to make it stop.

So I’m fairly confident that there is a discernible difference between imagination and papañca based on these points, but this still leaves us with the issue of fabrications of reality, surely the most skilful thing to do would be to stay in the ‘real’ world all the time and not go on any mental flights of fancy? The tension between ridding the mind of activity  or utilising its activity for cultivating skilful mental states comes largely down to the difference in focus between early Buddhist practice and later schools. Early Buddhist teachings tend towards cultivating the mind, later schools tend towards emptying the mind.

I tend towards the early approach obviously,  as you might have noticed, but not for dogmatic reasons – mostly it is what I have found works better for me. Quietening my mind seems to only work temporarily, occupying my mind in wholesome ways seems to have a more consistent effect. We all have different minds though, so I certainly don’t dismiss that taking the other tack for some people might be the better option, or even that it might be for myself at some point in the future. What I do know is that you can’t do both at the same time, so whatever side you are working on you need to focus on that while that is your practice.

The mind and thoughts get a lot of short shrift in Buddhism, even in the Pali canon, but we can still find instances where the teachings point to a skilful use of our capacity to think, and that it is possible to have thoughts that don’t cause harm. These support the possibility that there are ways that we can use our mind that won’t lead to papañca, and that stepping out of ‘reality’ can have its uses.

Perhaps the most supportive text for the use of skilful thinking is in the description of his own practice before he was enlightened given by the Buddha in the Two Kinds of Thought Sutta .[6] In it he recounts a time when he decided to pay close attention to the results of thinking either wholesome or unwholesome thoughts:

“Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a thought of  renunciation arose… a thought of good will arose … a thought of harmlessness arose. I understood: ‘This thought of harmlessness has arisen in me. It doesn’t lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both. It nourishes wisdom, it’s on the side of freedom from anguish, and it leads to extinguishment.’ If I were to keep on thinking and considering this all night … all day … all night and day, I see no danger that would come from that.” [6]

This passage suggests to us that it doesn’t automatically follow that all kinds of thinking can or will eventually lead to a state of papañca, and not only that but the use of thought in this way is a powerful component of transformation:

“Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination. If they often think about and consider thoughts of renunciation, they’ve given up sensual thought to cultivate the thought of renunciation. Their mind inclines to thoughts of renunciation. If they often think about and consider thoughts of good will [they’ve given up thoughts of ill will]… their mind inclines to thoughts of good will. If they often think about and consider thoughts of harmlessness [they’ve given up harmful thoughts]… their mind inclines to thoughts of harmlessness.” [6]

This is echoed too by the teachings of the four right efforts where we are instructed to use our effort to uproot unwholesome states of mind that have arisen, stop unwholesome states from arising, to maintain wholesome states of mind that have arisen, and to cause wholesome states of mind to arise. [7] By the skilful use of appropriate types of thoughts we can both remove our unskilful thoughts, and we can train it to be our habitual way of thinking.

You might not have thought of it this way, but metta bhavana is also considered to be an imaginative practice because it requires us to imagine the experiences of other people and other beings, and to imagine that they too want to feel happy and safe in the same way that we do. Body scans and mindfulness of the body also require a degree of imagination too because in reality there are plenty of parts of our body that we can’t feel but we can still create a mental image of them being there and hold our awareness on them to get the same benefits when we use them as a meditation object

So this all suggests to me that skilful use of imagination is possible, but looking at the differences between imagination and papañca it appears that it requires us to pay close attention to the details. While it seems like imagination and papañca do indeed share some common ground, if we know our motivations and have a clear sense of what we are doing and why we are doing it then it doesn’t automatically follow that every creative use of our mind will lead to papañca. Still it probably doesn’t hurt to try to give our minds a bit of a rest now and again too though:

“Good is the taming of the mind,

So difficult to control, so swift,

Jumping toward what it desires.

The tamed mind brings happiness.”

Dhp 35 [8]

Image by Heiko Behn from Pixabay


1.       Ñāṇananda (1997) Concept and reality in early Buddhist thought: An essay on papañca and papañca-saññā-saṅkhā /  Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka

2.      Francesco Sferra (2007) Atammatayatā in the Pāli Nikāyas. Accessed 13 Jun 2021

3.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Sakka-pañha Sutta: Sakka’s Questions (Translators Footnotes). Accessed 16 Jun 2021

4.      Anthony Fiorucci The Purview of View: The notion of diṭṭhi in the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga of the Sutta-nipāta and its relation to saññā.

5.      Bocardo E A Note on Papañca. Accessed 13 Jun 2021

6.      Bhikkhu Sujato (2021) Dvedhāvitakkasutta MN19. Accessed 16 Jun 2021

7.      Bhikkhu Sujato (2021) Padhānasutta—. Accessed 16 Jun 2021

8.      Peter Feldmeier (2021) Cittavagga. Accessed 19 Jun 2021

3 thoughts on “Imagination or Just Papañca?

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