Akase padam natthi, samano natthi bahire,
Papancabhirata paja, nippapanca tathagata.

There are no footprints in the sky;
You won’t find the sage out there.
The world delights in conceptual proliferation (papanca).
Buddhas delight in the ending of that (nippapanca).

Akase padam natthi, samano natthi bahire,
Sankhara sassatta natthi, natthi buddhanam injitam.

There are no footprints in the sky;
You won’t find the sage out there.
There are no eternal conditioned things.
Buddhas never waver.

(Dhammapada 254–255)

The Buddha taught that the generation of suffering is intimately connected to the process of perception, particularly the way in which we relate to thinking. When concepts and thoughts are entertained without wisdom, the world becomes fragmented and filled with complexity. The Buddha called this tendency papanca, or “conceptual proliferation.” A simple thought like “me” gives rise to a “you.” A “this” necessitates a “that.” As conditions change, the notion of time is created. The actual flow of sense experience is ever-changing and ungraspable, but the nature of language imparts apparent solidity and “thingness” to the world. When thought and concept are thus conjoined with ignorance, it leads to grasping, proliferation, increasing complexity, and the suffering of endless “birth and death.” We think, for instance, that we’ve attained something solid, like “my happiness,” but instead we’re left with perpetual frustration, bound by the mercurial, discriminating mind.

Our true nature is like the infinite sky, unmarked by whatever drama temporarily appears in its vast space. The heart remembers its essential spaciousness. Heedless thinking complicates, entangles, and traps the sense of “me” into sticky webs of suffering. Mindful of a thought, like the momentary glimpse of a colorful sunbird flashing through the light, the heart remains undisturbed, serene in its sky-like presence. Whatever the circumstance, bodily movement or stillness, feeling well or distressed, with good concentration or scattered attention, everything can be brought back to awareness.

The ending of papanca—nippapanca—reveals the true, undivided nature of the reality we inhabit. When the proliferating tendency of the mind ceases, even for a moment, the everpeaceful radiant heart is recognized. Papanca means “to spread out,” and the word conveys the dynamic web of thoughts and concepts that create our sense of reality. Rather than illuminating reality, papanca actually eclipses the direct seeing of what is really true. Papanca endlessly separates, and nippapanca means the cessation of that. It is a profound practice, to see through thinking and its activity of concretizing the self and the world. This is done not by hating thought, but by mindfully noticing a thought, particularly its beginning and ending.

In our early monastic retreats decades ago, Ajahn Sumedho, the senior Western monk of the Thai forest tradition, taught us the transformative technique of using thought to consciously explore its nature. He instructed us to take any thought, like “My name is . . . ,” and slow it down. In those moments, rather than heedlessly thinking about this and that, there is a conscious reflection on thought itself, and its origin. For a moment it is possible to see thought as just thought, a vibrating perception that arises out of silence and returns to silence. Usually thought is part of a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, and a story, a whole enchanting framing of reality.

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