On the second page of the preface, the author Venerable Ñāṇananda, a Sri Lankan monk, writes “It is feared that the novelty of some of our interpretations will draw two types of extreme reaction…” And so began a career that for more than forty years has almost continuously bucked traditional interpretations of the Pali Suttas.
The general thesis of the book is that avijja (variously translated as “ignorance,” “delusion,” etc), which according to the Buddha is the root cause of human suffering and which the author describes as “a fundamental error in understanding the facts of experience,” is elucidated through our thoughts, concepts, and speech, and that therefore “an understanding of the nature of concepts…is a preliminary step in the spiritual endeavor in Buddhism” (from the preface). Ñāṇananda proceeds to use two critical terms–papañca and papañca-saññā-sankhā–as gateways toward understanding the deluding influence of concepts. He defines these terms as “”conceptual proliferation” and “reckonings characterized by prolific conceptualizing” respectively, and notes that they have been the subject of controversy throughout Buddhist history. Ñāṇananda plunges right into the controversy, pointing out many shortcomings in the traditional commentarial interpretations.
I will not try here to reconstruct his arguments , but will say this is a very in-depth book, not light reading, and subtle–not to mention controversial–in its implications. The “not light reading” aspect is the only reason it doesn’t get five stars–there are large sections of Pali (followed by translation) and the discussion is on the dense side, so typically only people more educated in the technical aspects of the Dhamma will be able to cope with it. Regardless of where you are in your studies, I would strongly advise two readings back to back–there’s just such a richness of thought here nobody is going to be able to swallow it all in one pop. All in all, this is a unique and brilliant book that should be read by everyone who wants to take their Dhamma deeper.
P.S. I would like to note there is a particularly excellent review of this book on Amazon, by Ian Andrews.
My Amazon rating: 4 stars