23 July 2007

Arapacana Alphabet Bibliography

Arapacana in Siddham Script
I've been continuing to explore the so-called Mystical Alphabet over the last few weeks. Rather than writing things up here, I've been adding to my Visible Mantra website. Now see also my book Visible Mantra, which has a lot more information on the Arapacana including comparisons of the various Chinese translations of the Arapacana in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras. I'd like to draw attention to various bits of that site here, and to post a selection from my bibliography covering the alphabet.

As you may know the Arapacana Alphabet is used as a mnemonic in Buddhism: each letter expands into a word, which itself expands into a phrase which encapsulates some insight into the nature of experience. So:

the letter a expands into
the word anutpanna and this in turn expands to
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt

The translation of which is:

"The letter A is a door to all dharmas because they are originally unarisen".

The background theory of this statement is covered on Visible Mantra on the page called Dharma Doors. I have also created a calligraphy project based on this phrase. Additional aspects are discussed on pages devoted to a alphabet calligraphy project, and on the Mañjuśrī mantra page. There is much more that could be said about this phrase as it moves from it's source as an insight meditation subject in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, to the Mahāvairocana Sūtra where it takes on a tantric character, and then into the final phase in the yogini tantras, such as the Hevajra Tantra, where it becomes a mantra in it's own right.

oṃ akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt āḥ hūṃ phaṭ svāhā

Various pages in Visible Mantra covering seed syllables take the theory of mantra in a slightly different direction, initially established by Upanishadic sages. Blog posts on hrīḥ, dhīḥ are now supplemented by the Visible mantra page on hūṃ, which gives a very short account of Kūkai's text Ungi gi - The Meanings of the Seed Syllable Hūṃ. The oṃ page now features the greatest range of variations of writing styles - and there are more to come.

Bibliography of sources directly related to the Arapacana Alphabet.

Bays, G. (1983). The Lalitavistara Sūtra. 2 vol. The Voice of the Buddha: the beauty of compassion. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

Brough, John. (1977). The arapacana syllabry in the old Laita-vistara. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 40 (1), p.85-95.

Clear, Thomas. (trans.) 1989. Entry into the realm of reality : the text : a translation of the Gandavyuha, the final book of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston : Shambala.

Conze, E. 1975. (trans.) The large sutra on perfect wisdom : with the divisions of the Abhisamayālankāra. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Conze, E. 1978. The prajñāpāramita literature. (2nd rev. ed.) Tokyo : The Reiyukai.

Davidson, R. M. 1995. The Litany of names of Mañjuśrī in Lopez, Donald S. [ed.] Religions of India in Practice. University of Princeton Press.

Farrow, G.W. and Menon, I. 1992. The concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra : with the commentary Yogaratnamālā. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 2001 printing.

Gethin, Rupert. 1992. The mātikās : memorizations, mindfulness, and the list in In the mirror of memory : reflections on mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. State University of New York Press, p.149-172

Gyatso, Janet. 1992. Letter magic : a Peircean perspective on the semiotics of Rdo Grub-chen’s dharani memory in In the mirror of memory : reflections on mindfulness and remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. State University of New York Press, 1992, p.173-213

Hakeda, Y.S. 1972. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. New York : Columbia University Press

Lamotte, Étienne. 1958. History of Indian Buddhism : from origins to the Śaka era. [trans. 1988 Sara Webb-Boin] Louvain-la-neuve : Université Catholique de Louvain

Mukherjee, B. N. 1999. Arapacana : a mystic Buddhist script in Bhattacharya, N. N. (ed) Tantric Buddhism New Delhi : Manohar Publishers & Distributors. p.303-317.

Salomon, Richard.
1990. New evidence for a Gāndhārī origin of the arapacana syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Apr-Jun, vol.110 (2), p.255-273.

1993. An additional note on arapacana. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol.113 (2), p.275-6.

1998. Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages. New York, Oxford University Press.

2004. An Arapacana Abecedary from Kara Tepe (Termez, Uzbekistan). Bulletin of the Asia Institute. Vol. 18, p. 43-51.

2006. Kharoṣṭhī syllables used as location markers in Gāndhāran stūpa architecture. Pierfrancesco Callieri, ed., Architetti, Capomastri, Artigiani: L’organizzazione dei cantieri e della produzione artistica nell’asia ellenistica. Studi offerti a Domenico Faccenna nel suo ottantesimo compleanno. (Serie Orientale Rome 100; Rome: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 2006), pp. 181-224.

2016. Siddham Across Asia: How The Buddha Learned His ABC. 23nd J. Gonda Lecture 2015. Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science. https://www.knaw.nl/nl/actueel/publicaties/siddham-across-asia-how-the-buddha-learned-his-abc

Scharfe, Harmut. 2002. Kharoṣṭhī and Brāhmī. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 122 (2), p.391-3.

Skilling, Peter. 1996. An arapacana syllabry in the Bhadrakalpika-sūtra. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 1996, Vol.116 (3), p.522-3

Strauch, Ingo. 2007. The Bajaur collection: A new collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts. A preliminary catalogue and survey (in progress). Available online [pdf]. See especially p.37-40.

Wayman, A. 1985. Chanting the names of Mañjuśrī : the Mañjuśrī -nāma-samgīti : Sanskrit and Tibetan texts. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, [1999].

Yerushalmi, Dan. (2007). Devotional, Covenantal and Yogic — Three Episodes in the Religious Use of Alphabet and Letter from a Millennium of Great Vehicle Buddhism in: Sergio La Porta and David Shulman, eds., The Poetics of Grammar and the Metaphysics of Sound and Sign, Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture series no. 6. Brill, 201-229. https://www.academia.edu/3790540/Devotional_Covenantal_and_Yogic_Three_Episodes_in_the_Religious_Use_of_Alphabet_and_Letter_from_a_Millennium_of_Great_Vehicle_Buddhism


31 August. A further note on this subject. I've just discovered the Bajaur Collection website which describes a collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts discovered in Pakistan in the site of a old Monastery. Amongst the texts is fragment 5 which is:
"the only hitherto known Gāndhārī text arranged according to the sequence of the Arapacana syllabary. In addition, it is the only Gāndhārī text preserving an almost complete specimen of this alphabet which later on became widely popular in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna circles."
This is a very important find! It confirms much of what Prof. Richard Salomon has been proposing in his papers (see above), and may give us further insight into the use of alphabet based mnemonics. What the text says I still don't know... watch this space.

24 Nov. Sound files from my evening at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 1 Nov 2007.
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.

14 July 2007

The Seed Syllable of Great Compassion

Seed Syllable Hrih, symbolising the Buddha's Compassion
In a previous article I looked into the seed syllable of Perfect Wisdom. Wisdom is always matched and balanced by compassion in Buddhism so I thought I'd take a look at the seed syllable of Amitābha, the Buddha of Compassion, hrīḥ or ह्रीः or ཧྲཱིཿ, pronounced /hriːh/ (IPA). Hrīḥ is also the seed syllable for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara or as the Tibetans call him Chenrezig, who is closely associated with Amitābha. In the system of Tantra magic they are all associated the with the Red Rite.

However even less is written about hrīḥ than about dhīḥ. One source is Lama Govinda's book The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. Despite the fact that he was a friend of my main Buddhist teacher, and his book is recommended by some of my Buddhist friends, I've come to be wary of Govinda's interpretations. His exegesis on mantra is informed more by Upanishads than Buddhist texts, as is evident from the sources which he quotes on the subject. The Buddhist view on mantra has some distinctions from the Vendantic. With the caveat let's look at what Govinda says.

By the time of the Buddha, the Vedantic scholar priests were beginning to break magical syllables such as oṃ into their theoretical component parts. They also adopted the diphthongised version of the syllable, i.e. auṃ  (ओं > औं or ॐ). So it's a common place thing to see auṃ analysed as a + u + ṃ or anusvāra (the nasalisation symbol). This practice was also adopted by Vajrayana Buddhists, though Buddhists stuck with oṃ. So we would expect hrīḥ to be analysed into four part: ha + ra + ī + ḥ, i.e. visarga or aspirated vowel symbol. Govinda however says that as the Tibetans seldom pronounce the visarga (which is usually described as a soft echo of the preceding vowel) and that they analyse only three sounds. H according to this scheme symbolises : "the breath, the symbol of all life"; while R is "the sound of fire", and I is "the vowel of high intensity and stands for the highest spiritual activity and differentiation".[1]

Later Govinda describes hrīḥ as the "inner voice, the moral law within us, the voice of conscience, of inner knowledge" which suggests that he is linking it with the Vedic word hrī (Pali hiri). The form hrīḥ would be the nominative singular, i.e. hrī as subject. Hrī is defined as "modesty" and occurs in the list of 51 positive mental events in the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma. Modesty is mentioned in the Mahāvairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra (MAT):
A son or daughter of good family who has modesty will quickly achieve two factors in this very world: they will not do what should not be done and they will be praised by the Holy Ones. There are a further two: the will realize what they have not yet realized and they will gain companionship with the Bodhisattva's and Buddhas. There are a further two: they will abide in moral discipline and they will attain birth as humans and gods.[2]
I'm not sure of the link with the qualities of compassion or with Amitābha or Avalokiteśvara. However hrīḥ, like Amitābha, also according to Govinda, involves solar symbolism. He links this with what he calls the emotional principle of goodness, compassion and sympathy, as well as with the illuminating aspects of the sun: light, making things visible, the faculty of perception, of direct vision. In a flight of poetic imagination, and forgetting that he has omitted the visarga (), he describes hrīḥ as "a mantric solar symbol, a luminous, elevating, upwards moving sound composed of the pranic aspirate [ie the visarga], the fiery R... " and the high vowel which he says "expresses upwards-movement, intensity", etc.[3]

Unfortunately Govinda offers no source for this. The association for ra, or raṃ, is an Vedantic one, but the others may well be Govinda's own interpretation. What he writes about 'i' sounds as if it is influenced by 20th century Phonetics which describes the long ī as the "unrounded-high-front vowel".

This kind of analysis is possible in esoteric Buddhism. According to the MAT, 'H' is hetu or cause in the sense of original cause, and 'R' is raja or defilement - the point being that dharmas lack either. The MAT doesn't do vowels and doesn't have anything to say about the visarga. But Kūkai treats the alphabet more comprehensively: H is cause, R is taint, I is senses, and Visarga is release. [4] This kind of analysis has its roots in the Prajñāpāramitā or Perfection of Wisdom tradition and is found in the larger texts like the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines. Before that there are links back to the Abhidharma tradition.

Amitābha being incredibly popular in the wake of Pure Land Buddhism, his seed syllable can be found everywhere in Japan - including rather ironically decorating samurai swords and other war gear.


  1. Govinda, Lama. 1959. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. (London : Rider). p.183, note 1.
  2. Hodge, Stephen. 2003. The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. (London : RoutledgeCurzon). p.168. (=MAT vi.9)
  3. Govinda, ibid p.231.
  4. Abe, Ryuchi. 1999. The Weaving of Mantra. (New York : Columbia University Press). p.291-2

Some of my calligraphy of hṛīḥ

My calligraphy website has more examples of hrīḥ

06 July 2007

The Four Noble Truths

"The ancient world, if the choice had been placed before it, would no doubt have preferred bad philology with good doctrine to bad doctrine (sometimes no doctrine at all) and good philology. The modern world plumps for good philology regardless of consequences."

It was with Sangharakshita's words in mind that I approached K. R. Norman's series of lectures published as A Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2] I have to confess that in large part Norman's thesis is either beyond me, or outside my areas of interest. However I was struck by what he had to say on what philology can tells us about the Four Noble Truths. Norman is concerned not merely with what words mean, but why they mean it. With regard to the Four Noble Truths he makes two points. Firstly the Pali compound which we translate as Noble Truth is ariya-sacca. "Noble Truth" he tells us is a "perfectly acceptable" translation. However it is not the only possible translation, and of all the possible translations, it seems to be the least likely one! Norman tells us that the commentarial traditions were sensitive to this, and suggests:
"It can mean "truth of the noble one", "truth of the noble ones", "truth for a noble one", i.e. truth that will make one noble, as well as the translation "noble truth" so familiar to us. This last possibility [the commentators] put at the bottom of the list, if they mention it at all." [3] (my italics)
While acknowledging that multiple meanings were often intended in Indian texts, Norman concludes that first option, "the truth of the noble one (the Buddha)", is most likely to be the correct meaning. This seems to be a case of bad philology and good doctrine, in that the specific reading is incorrect but the general import is correct, but it occurs to me that the bad philology does seem to obscure something in the doctrine.

The Four Noble Truths are often treated as doctrine in a literal sense so that Buddhists will sometimes claim that "everything is suffering", and make it clear that they take this literally.[4] Non-Buddhists sometimes accuse Buddhists of pessimism because of this. I wonder if the designation of the truths as Noble, as opposed to being the truths of the noble one, has been unhelpful. Sangharakshita, for instance, has drawn out the methodological nature of the Four Noble Truths. He says:
"It cannot be too strongly emphasized that while the general formula of conditionality [i.e. praticca-samuppada] which constitutes the framework of the commonly accepted version of the Four Aryan Truths pertains to Doctrine their specific content pertains only to Method." [5]
In the Sammaditthi Sutta Sariputta gives a teaching on perfect view (sammaditthi). He uses the general formula which is familiar to us - phenomena, cause, cessation, path to cessation - but he applies it to a number of different phenomena. The first example is:
"When, friends, a noble disciple understands nutriment, the origin of nutriment, the cessation of nutriment, and the way leading to the cessation of nutriment, in that way he is of right view." [6]
As well as nutriment Sariputta applies the formula to suffering, aging and death, birth, being, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six sense bases, name and form, consciousness, formations, ignorance, and the taints. Notice that within this list are the 12 nidanas - the chain of causation. Recall that the first Dhamma that Sariputta ever heard was:
"Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathagata has told the cause." [7]
On hearing these two lines he became a stream-enterer. Sariputta is pointing out that all experiences arise (and cease) in dependence on causes. Sariputta is saying Right-view is not the perception of suffering per se, but the perception of dependent arising [i.e. praticca-samuppada]. This means, as Sangharakshita says, that the so-called Four Noble Truths are simply an application of the general principle of dependent arising to the phenomenon of suffering. Dependent arising is the most important truth of the Noble One. By using "Noble Truths", with capital letters, as a translation for ariya-sacca, we tend to obscure this. It leads to a overly literal interpretation. Sangharakshita is at pains to emphasize that the Buddha's position is not that every experience is painful, since it is obviously not the case. Suffering is a useful starting point for reflecting on the nature of reality because it is an experience rather than a concept, and it is one that everybody does have experience of.

Which brings me to Norman's second observation which is that translations of the formulaic versions of the Noble Truths are frequently "in complete disregard of the grammar and syntax" of the original. The philologists job, he says, is to analyse the relationship of the words, compare versions found in other languages, and to establish the syntax of each phrase. His considered opinion is that the Truths of the Noble one are:
"The noble truth that 'this is suffering', the noble truth that 'this is the cause of suffering' etc." [8]
Interestingly Norman seems to have reverted to a translation which he suggests is unlikely. Following his argument outlined above we would have expected: "The truth of the noble one that 'this is suffering', the truth of the noble one that 'this is the cause of suffering'" etc. In Norman's translation "this" can be any of Sariputta's list of things that are suffering, and presumably any other experience to which dependent-arising applies, which in Buddhist doctrine is every experience. It frees us from a literal view of the truths, and allows us to focus on the principle of dependent arising.

I think this is a case where some good philology has helped to explicate a doctrine clouded by a certain amount of confusion - not actually bad doctrine perhaps, but doctrine couched in terms that tend to obscure the fundamental insight it is trying to convey. Perhaps Sangharakshita was pessimistic about philologists because he was writing in the late 1950's and there were few Buddhist philologists at the time - Dr Conze is the only exception I can think of. These days more scholars are also practicing Buddhists, although K. R. Norman is not. However he does operate in an environment where the principles of Buddhism are more clear and established in our academies, and the scholar who "plumps for good philology regardless of consequences" is more likely to be rebuffed.

  1. Sangharakshita. 1987. A Survey of Buddhism. [rev ed.] Glasgow : Windhorse Publications. p.35
  2. Norman, K. R. 2006. Philological Approach to Buddhism. [2nd ed.] Pali Text Society.
  3. Norman ibid. p.21. This argument summarizes Norman's 1990 article "Why are the Four Noble Truths Called 'Noble'? in Ananda : Essays in Honour of Ananda W. P. Guruge, Columbo, pp.1-13.
  4. Googling "everything is suffering" reveals the extent of this error, although many of the 92,100 results debunk this interpretation of the first Noble Truth.
  5. Sangharakshita ibid. p.147.
  6. Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 9, in Bhikkhus Ñanamoli and Bodhi. 2001 The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. [2nd ed.] Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.133-4 (=PTS MN i.46 ff). See also Sammaditthi Sutta on Access to Insight.
  7. Quoted in Ñyanaponika and Hecker, H. 1997. Great Disciples of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications. p.7. The original is in the Vinaya, Mahavagga I.23.5
  8. Norman ibid. p.17.
image: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th Ed. 1995.
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