14 October 2011

Sound, Word, Reality

Sound Word RealityKŪKAI'S 声字実相義 (Shōji jissō gi) [1] is one of a trilogy of texts that set out to both answer his critics and to instruct his students. Each of the three texts is rather dense, and fairly esoteric in itself. I have been working through a commentary on this work for a book I am editing which reprints Professor Thomas Kasulis's article: ‘Reference and Symbol in Plato’s Cratylus and Kūkai’s Shōjijissōgi’ [2] alongside translations of the two dialogues and some introductory essays.

In his text Kūkai develops a way of interpreting mantra, a hermeneutic, which relies on different syntactical analyses of the combination word: Shō-ji-jissō 'sound, word, reality'. He analyses the Chinese as though it were a Sanskrit compound to demonstrate that we can construe the relationships in various ways, some more profound than others. This is a novel approach, but where does this principle of sound, word, reality come from?

In this exegesis Kūkai makes use of some lines extracted from chapter two of the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras
Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses;
Like the statements made by Indra,
They are meaningful and effective.[3]
In the verse ‘the perfectly enlightened one’ stands for the Body Mystery of the Dharmakāya and corresponds to reality; “mantras” make up the sounds that constitute the Speech Mystery; while the “syllables” and “names” correspond to word. Note that he does not equate these with the Mind Mystery. So the verse itself demonstrates the principle in action. Kūkai believes that there are hierarchies of being, or layers to reality, and that by paying careful attention to our mundane level of perception that we can get insights into higher levels because not only is each phenomena interpenetrated by all the others, but the levels of being or perception also interpenetrate each other. As in Indra’s net an insight at one level provides access to all levels. To reinforce this Kūkai shows that the principle holds good for the Mahāvairocana Sūtra as a whole, and even for the single syllable ‘a’.

The 'power' of a mantra, then, is related to its associative relationships with aspects of experience. This ties into a tradition which goes back to the early days of the Mahāyāna in Gandhāra – in the north-west of what is Pakistan (including the towns of Peshawar and Taxila, and the Swat Valley). There we find, in texts and sculptures, the local alphabet being used a mnemonic. For many years the sequence of alphabet, still not fully explained, lead people to think that it was invented or ‘mystical’. But Professor Richard Salomon, in three published articles, has shown that the alphabet is that of the local language, now called Gāndhārī, though Buddhists often still refer to it as the Arapacana Alphabet or the Wisdom Alphabet. This alphabet was written in the Kharoṣṭhī script which was most likely modelled on the form of Aramaic writing used by the Achaemanid Persian who administered that area for a time. Kharoṣṭhī, like Semitic and Tibetan scripts, has only one vowel sign which is modified by diacritics to indicate different vowels. The unadorned sign is ‘a’. Like other Indic scripts each written syllable has an implicit ‘a’ vowel unless accompanied by diacritics.

The mnemonic use of the alphabet seems to be closely associated with meditation practices in prajñāpāramitā texts, particularly the larger 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 line versions. The first five letter of the Gāndhārī alphabet – a ra pa ca na – came to be associated with the wisdom deity Mañjuśrī (his mantra is oṃ a ra pa ca na dhīḥ) and with the Prajñāpāramitā tradition generally. This tradition pervades the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. In some Buddhist texts, e.g. the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the original Gāndhārī alphabet is substituted for the Sanskrit alphabet. Curiously the MAT has a kind of hybrid – the consonants are from Sanskrit, but in most cases they are only accompanied by a single vowel as in Kharoṣṭhī.

Each letter in the alphabet was made to stand for a word, and each word was the focus of a reflection on śūnyatā. So for example 'a' stands for the Sanskrit word anutpāda ‘non-arisen’. The reflection was akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt "The syllable 'a' is a door because of the non-arisen-ness of all dharmas." This is pointing to the idea that dharmas, as the objects of the mind, are neither existent nor non-existent - when we have an experience, nothing substantial comes into being. There is no doubt that we have experiences, and objects present themselves to our minds, but the ontological status of the experience itself is indeterminate. The original insight of Buddhism was that mistaking experience for something substantial, and treating it as something which could be held on to was the cause of suffering. Hence reflecting on the contingent, impermanent, and unsatisfactory nature of experience was one of the prime methods of accessing the insights that freed one from suffering. These reflections clearly continue that original Buddhist tradition.

In Tantric texts the syllable is not simply a sign for the verbal sound, but has become a fully fledged symbol of the aspect of reality indicated by the word it signifies. This symbolic function is in the foreground in Tantra to the point where merely visualising the written form of a letter is seen as putting one in touch with the quality it represents. This finds its apotheosis in the meditation on the syllable 'a' – where one simply visualises the letter, usually written in the Siddhaṃ script, and by such close association one becomes imbued with the wisdom which sees dharmas – mental phenomena – as the really are.

The correspondence between the sound of the letter, the word it reminds us of, and the reality it points to in the example above is seen by Kūkai as a special case of a general principle. But the point is that here we have sound, and word and reality.







sarva-dharmāṇāṃ ādy-anutpannatvāt
阿字門,一切法 初不生故 [4]

Although it is not entirely obvious from the translations and commentaries, I believe that this is the idea that underlies Kūkai's analysis of “sound, word, reality”. The sound /a/ stands for the word 'non-arising' (anutpāda), i.e. not coming into being; and this reminds us that 'all dharmas have the primal quality of not having come into being'. That is to say that when we perceive a dharma we do have an experience, but though we have an experience nothing permanent, satisfying or substantial comes into being. In Mahāyāna terms the experience is empty of intrinsic being (svabhāva śūnyatā).

Of course finding a correlation is not the same as finding a cause; and finding a precedent is not the same as showing a genetic relationship. However I think this explanation is a plausible account of the origins of the sound, word, reality.


  1. There are two complete translations of this text into English: Hakeda, Y. (1972) Major Works, p.234-245; and Giebel, R. (2004) Shingon Texts, p.83-103. The text is also partially translated and discussed in detail Abe, R. (1999) The Weaving of Mantra, (esp p. 278ff.) though his reading is one which relies heavily on contemporary Semiotics jargon, which I struggle to make sense of.
  2. Philosophy East and West, 1982.
  3. Hodge, Stephen. (2003) The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. Routledge, p. 129. Hodge translates from the Tibetan. The Tibetan text replaces the line about Indra with ‘by mastery of the words’. The Chinese reference is Taisho 18.850, 83a22-a23. The Chinese text is:
    等正覺真言 - Děng zhèng jué zhēnyán
    言名成立相 - Yán míng chénglì xiāng
    如因陀羅宗 - Rú yīn tuó luó zōng
    諸義利成就 - Zhū yìlì chéngjiù
  4. Chinese text from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T.223).

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