In Nov 2007 I led an evening on the Arapacana Alphabet at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre which involved a led meditation and a talk which looked at the recent research on Arapacana, especially the work of Dr Richard Salomon. In order to lead the meditation I took the text of the verses associated with the Arapacana in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and attempted to put them into an idiom which conveyed what I perceived to be the intention in a way that would be familiar to an FWBO audience.
For the purposes of this exercise I decided to use "experience" as a translation of "dharma" - that is dharma in its aspect as phenomena or element, and in particular mental phenomena or element. I also made the caveat that in a meditation one often makes categorical statements which are not meant to literally describe Reality, but simply to be the subject of reflection. Finally I had to admit that this is simply my reading of a text, and that as far as I know there is no living tradition of meditating in this way.
We began with some samatha meditation focussing on the body and breath. Then having calmed down and become concentrated to some extent we reflected on each of the letters (or more accurately syllables) in turn, although only the first five: a ra pa ca na. As you may know each letter is the initial letter of a word in Sanskrit, which fits into a sentence that provides a reflection on the nature of experience. My method will become more clear as we look at the examples.
The letter A (the short vowel sound in the English word cut), according to the text, is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (adyanutpannatvat). I take this to mean that even though we undeniable have experiences, no 'thing' - no ontologically solid and lasting entity - arises as a result. So rather than thinking, for instance, there is "the in-breath" and "the out-breath", we can reflect that there is no 'thing' called breath, there is just the experience, the physical sensation of breathing. Instead of thinking in terms of "this feeling is in my body", try to think in terms of "there is a physical feeling". Using verbs rather than nouns helps this I think. Focus on the experience, that is the flow of sensations and perhaps mental activity, rather than extrapolating from the experience to something solid.
RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas). In this stage of the meditation we reflect that although we have experiences which are either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, the feeling tone is not intrinsic to the experience. Something done once might be pleasant, but done a dozen times may be unpleasant; one day it might thrill us, the next it might bore us. Experience is just experience, and therefore it is "pure". We tend to be attracted to pleasant, and repulsed by the unpleasant. We want to hold onto what attracts us, and to push away what is unpleasant. It is these attempts at holding and pushing away which cause us to suffer, not the bare experience of pleasant or unpleasant. Ultimately experience is just experience.
PA is a door to the insight that all dharmas have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha). This aspect took me a little time to understand. What I think it means is that when you reach out to determine what underlies experience, or what lies behind it, you can only have another experience. So for instance although I feel embodied I might want to confirm that I have a body. I might reach out my hand and touch myself - this is simply a touch sensation; or I might look down at my body, and this is simply a sight sensation. It's as if we look behind the mirror to see if we can find the object in the mirror, only to find another mirror. This is the true nature of things, the ultimate (paramartha) explanation - we are immersed in experience, and there is nothing beyond this.
CA is a door to the insight that the decrease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dharma cannot be apprehended, because all dharmas do not decrease, nor are they reborn. Because we now know that no 'thing' arises, then we should see that the corollary is that no 'thing' ever ceases. The best we can say is there is experience. Once we start trying to talk about this experience, or that experience; my experience or your experience we are already dividing things up (vijñana) and attributing thingness to them. If there is just experience, then what is it that arises, what that dies?
NA is a door to the insight that the Names [i.e. nāma] of all dharmas have vanished; the essential nature behind names cannot be gained or lost. Since all we can be aware of is a ceaseless flow of experience, changing from moment to moment, how could any name apply to anything. By the time we have though of a name, the experience has passed and been replaced by another. The very act of conceiving a name is simply a mental experience.
There are of course another 39* letters in the Arapacana alphabet and each was associated with an aspect of experience and meditated on in turn. At the end however the text makes it clear that one is to contemplate how each letter is merely a facet of a larger truth, that each letter is in the long run identical in meaning to all the others. All experiences are impersonal and impermanent. And they are all we have.
One thing I did not mention in my talk was the way in which this meditation practice developed after the Large Perfection of Wisdom text. In the Mahavairocana Tantra the meditation begins in the same way (although substituting the Sanskrit consonants for the Gandhari ones), but then one imaginatively places the letters around the body while visualising oneself as the Buddha. The Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha Tantra pares the whole thing down to just meditating on the letter a. It is this latter meditation which became important in Shingon, and other Vajrayana lineages - the whole shebang boiled down to contemplating that no things arise.
A recording of my talk and the led meditation are available on the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website. See also other things I've written on the Arapacana Alphabet.
15/3/08. I've just added a page to visblemantra.org which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.
*Various versions of the alphabet differ. There are 44 in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, although the same text when discussing the meditation practice talks about the 42 letters! Other texts have 43 letters. The variation is likely to be related to difficulties representing the sounds of Gandhari from a Sanskrit perspective.
image: alphabet by Kukai from visiblemantra.org