Showing posts with label Arapacana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arapacana. Show all posts

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.

realityjissōsarva-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).

24 April 2009

From the Beginning Nothing Arises.

Syllable āṃḥSome time back I wrote a blog post on a quote from the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT): The Essence of all Mantras. Recently I was reflecting on the idea that the syllable 'a' is the essence of all mantras in light of my studies of Sanskrit.

In the MAT the phrase is, in Stephen Hodge's translation:
"I declare that A is the essence of all mantras, and from it arise mantras without number; and it produces in entirety the Awareness which stills all conceptual proliferations".[1]
Previous explanations of this phrase are based on two ideas: first that unmodified consonants in the Sanskrit alphabet assume the vowel 'a'; or second, that 'a' added to any adjective or noun causes it to mean the opposite. These don't seem explain the claim that 'a' is the essence of all mantras. The syllable 'a' is not involved either phonetically or graphically in the other vowels sounds, and added to a verb usually indicates the past imperfect tense. I have put forward the theory that this idea makes more sense in an environment in which the Gāndhārī [2] language and Kharoṣṭhī script were used: where the character for 'a' is modified by diacritic marks to indicate other vowels.

Here I want to explore a link to the Perfection of Wisdom tradition by examining one of the phrases which make up the alphabetic acrostic of the Arapacana poem as found in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra - the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the 25kPP). The first five lines go like this:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
repho mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ rajo 'pagatatvāt
pakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ paramārtha nirdeśāt
cakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ cyavanopapattyanupalabdhitvāt
nakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ nāmāpagatatvāt
Clearly there is a pattern here. Akāro, repho, pakāro etc are the names of the syllables in Sanskrit (r being irregular). Sarvadharmāṇām is a compound of sarva + dharma in the genitive plural case - roughly 'of all dharmas'. Conze's translation into English remains the only accessible one and he translated the first phrase as: "The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning".

Conze has not just translated the words, he has interpreted them - there is nothing to correspond to "the insight that" in the Sanskrit. The grammatical relationship suggests that the letters are indeed the 'mukhaḥ' of all dharmas, but here we need to tread carefully. Firstly my regular readers will know that dharma is a very ambiguous term that can be translated rather differently under different circumstances. I have pointed out that in many cases that dharmas (plural) should be taken to be what arises in dependence on causes (the primary focus of the Buddha's insights and teaching), and further that it is better to think of dharmas in this sense as the units of conscious experience - they are the building bricks of our subjective 'world'. I think that this definition might apply here also, but before I go into this we need to explore this word 'mukha'.

Mukha is almost a slippery as dharma. Since we know that the language of the Wisdom alphabet was originally a Prakrit rather than Classical Sanskrit we need to consult more widely than Sanskrit dictionaries in defining this word. I have consulted Monier-Williams' Sanskrit Dictionary, Edgerton's Buddhist-Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary and the Pāli-English Dictionary (PED). Definitions largely overlap except for one specific case. The PED provides the most useful summary of the meanings:
  1. mouth
  2. face, or of the face
  3. opening, metaphorically a means of income
  4. cause, ways, means, reason
  5. front, top, head (and hence:)
  6. pinnacle, best part, foremost, top most.
Conze has chosen to render mukha as 'door' and the reason for this may be that in the 25kPP mukha occurs with another term which suggests that they might be synonyms: "akṣaramukham akṣarapraveśaḥ" (25kPP 21.2.08). Akṣara is 'syllable' in both cases. Praveśa can mean "entering, entrance, penetration or intrusion into". It is quite common in Pāli texts to use two synonyms like this for emphasis - although often commentators feel compelled to make hair splitting differences between the two. However 'Door' is not the most obvious translation of mukha even under these circumstances. Salomon translates it 'head' in one of his papers on the Arapacana Alphabet for instance, although I do not think this is right either.

Let's step back for a minute and explore the context which in this case is meditation. The words of the acrostic are an aide de memoire for meditation. This is brought our quite clearly in a later passage (420 pages later in Conze's translation!). Here the text makes it clear that the reader should be meditating "on the 42 letters" [3]. If one reads through all of the lines it becomes clear that this is a meditation on emptiness: or to be quite specific it is a meditation designed to reveal that dharmas are empty of svabhāva or independent existence. This is not different from my own approach to dhammas relying on Pāli texts. Because dharmas are the subjective aspects of experience and nothing substantial arises in the process of having an experience, nothing is defiled, nothing is beyond this, nothing ceases, there is nothing to pin a label on (these are rough translations of the first five lines of the Arapacana). That is to say the subject for contemplation is not the nature of Reality, but the nature of experience.

So the letter 'a' reminds us of the word anutpanna (non-arisen) which expands to the line akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt, and the overall idea is to contemplate the notion that within experience nothing substantial or independent arises. Conze's suggestion, then, that the syllable 'a' is a door, even a door to insight, is not completely implausible. However praveśa suggests not simply an entrance, but a penetration into something - ie an insight - into the meaning of the words. The syllable 'a' certainly provides a reminder, and perhaps we could see it as providing a way into insight. Perhaps then mukha is being used in the sense of 'means' or 'opportunity'? Another possibility comes from the BHS dictionary where Edgerton suggests that another way of reading the word is 'introduction' or 'ingress'. It could be that the meditation practice is seen as having two phases - introduction to the concept, and penetration to the consequences of it.

Conze says that "all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning", but I don't think this is quite what was intended. Let's take apart this complex compound ādyanutpannatvāt and see what it says: ādi + an + ud + panna + tva + āt. The prefix ādi means 'beginning or commencement'. An + utpanna is just the opposite of utpanna, and utpanna is ud + panna (d changes to t before p) which is 'rising up' or 'arising'. So anutpana is 'not rising up'. Now -tva is a suffix used to form abstract nouns: if god is the noun, then divinity is the abstract noun. You could also translate -tva as -ness. If a stone is hard then it exhibits hardness. And -āt is an ablative suffix - it can express the English 'from' or 'because of'. So putting things back together: anutpannatva means 'having the quality of not arising'. Adding ādi gives us Conze's "from the very beginning".

I would translate the whole phrase:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
the syllable a is an opening because of the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.
This is not so different to Conze. There is an ambiguity: sarvadharmāṇāṃ is a genitive plural "of all dharmas" and it could mean the 'opening of all dharmas...' or 'the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.' Conze chose the former, but it occurs to me that the latter needs to be considered as a possibility, and works better in my opinion - I'm a beginner and Conze was a very experienced linguist and translator, but, even so.

It is interesting to note that the text has effectively become esoteric - i.e. it cannot be understood as it stands. One needs a little Sanskrit, and to have studied the text with a view to the Arapacana meditation. It does yield up it's secrets to study, but not to the casual reader. I have examined all of the published occurrences of the Arapacana. I don't have access to the many unpublished manuscripts. The manuscript from Bajaur which will no doubt provide more insights when published as it is the oldest known Arapacana. In my opinion the incorporation of a working Arapacana meditation in the 25kpp links it to the Gandhāra area - recall that no other alphabetical lists are known in ancient Indian texts.

My view is that this tradition represents a continuous line of development from early Buddhism which preserves the essential elements of the original. The crucial notions are that dharmas are units of experience, and that the important thing is to the workings of experience from the subjective pole (as opposed to trying to describe 'reality'). But the particular tradition withers and, I think, dies. Traces of the Arapacana tradition survive for hundreds of years, but are increasingly abstract. Between the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (ca mid 7th century) and the next major Tantric text, the Sarvatathāgata-Tatvasaṃgraha Tantra (ca late 7th - early 8th century), the whole alphabet gets paired down to just the syllable 'a'. In the 25kPP the meditation is on all of the syllables of the Gāndhārī alphabet - it is a complex task to remember the 42 (or 43 or 44) lines. And the 25kPP itself says that all of these reflections point to the same truth. So the whole thing got pared down to: akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt. As I have remarked elsewhere the line later became embedded in bījas and was turned into a mantra: oṃ akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt āḥ hūṃ phaṭ svāhā. This form crops up in contexts which appear completely dissociated from its origins in Gandhāra.

[1] Note that the purpose is to still proliferations. I don't have space to link this with last week's essay on proliferation, but the connection is an interesting one.
[2]My spelling of Gandhāra and Gāndhārī have been somewhat erratic in the past - I think I have it right in this essay and will endeavour to correct it in past essays as time permits.
[2] The text does indeed say 42, although most versions of the Arapacana have 43 or 44, and the one in this text has 44. It's not clear why this discrepancy exists.

Note: A complete and reliable edited Sanskrit text of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra is not yet available, and access to manuscripts is out of the question for someone like me. Dutt's edition is complete but unreliable - for instance the Arapacana has two duplications of syllables. Another edition is in the process of being edited by Takayasu Kimura, but the volume which contains the Arapacana is not yet published, although the other related passages are available in Kimura (I haven't had a chance to compare them yet).

image: Seed-syllable āṃḥ - combines the syllables a, ā, aṃ, aḥ which represent the four stages of the path in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, and therefore symbolises their culmination and apotheosis as embodied by Mahāvairocana.

06 March 2009

Words in mantras that end in -e

Anyone familiar with Buddhist mantras will be familiar with the number of words that end in -e. They constitute something of a mystery as they don't make sense grammatically or semantically, and explanations of them are obviously ad hoc (i.e. made up on the spot). For instance the Heart Sūtra mantra:
gate gate paragate parasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
Compare to this to the dhāraṇī offered by the Medicine King Bodhisattva in the White Lotus Sūtra:
anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samitā viśānte mukte muktatame same aviṣame samasame jaye kṣaye akṣaye akṣiṇe śānte samite dhāraṇi ālokabhāṣe pratyavekṣaṇi nidhiru abhyantaraniviṣṭe abhyantarapāriśuddhimutkule araḍe paraḍe sukāṅkṣi asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣite saṃghanirghoṣaṇi nirghoṇi bhayābhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣayate rute rutakauśalye akṣaye akṣayavanatāye vakkule valoḍra amanyanatāye svāhā ||
(Vaidya 1960 : 233)
Note how many of these words have the -e ending. Kern, the first person to translate the Lotus into English, in 1884, links many of these names to the Great Mother Goddess.
“All of these words are, or ought to be, feminine words in the vocative. I take them to be epithets of the Great Mother, Nature or Earth, differently called Aditi, Prajñā, Māyā, Bhavānī, Durgā. Anyā may be identified with the Vedic anyā, inexhaustible, and synonymous with aditi. More of the other terms may be explained as synonymous with prajñā (eg pratyaveksaṭi), with nature (kṣāye akṣāye), with earth
(dhāraṇī).” (Kern p.371, note 3)
For the uninitiated perhaps a brief explanation about inflected languages is in order. Where in English we use prepositions such as "of, for, to, by, with, on, in, from" etc. to indicate the relationship between words in a sentence, inflected languages add different endings to the words. The easiest way will be to show. Let's take a word that has a stem in -a: buddha. (It's actually a past-participle meaning awoken or understood). So somewhat simplistically we could show the endings and their 'meaning':
  • buddhaḥ - nominative - the Buddha.
  • buddhaṃ - accusative - the Buddha as the patient of a verb: e.g. I saw the Buddha.
  • buddhena - instrumental - by means of, or with the Buddha.
  • buddhāya - dative - to or for the Buddha. e.g. namo Buddhāya - homage to the Buddha.
  • buddhāt - ablative - from the Buddha
  • buddhasya - genitive - of the Buddha; the Buddha's... (possessive)
  • buddhe - locative - in or on the Buddha
  • buddha - vocative - O Buddha. (address or invocation)
There are many paradigms like this in Sanskrit. Each noun has dual forms in addition to singular and plural. Masculine, feminine and neuter nouns vary slightly, and stems can end in any monophthong vowel or certain consonants - meaning that there are very many different forms to remember! The -e ending is typically associated with three grammatical forms. In the case of the word 'gata', which is a part-participle and declined like a noun, the possibilities are:
  • feminine vocative
  • masculine locative (see above) or vocative
Gaté therefore most likely means something like "O she who is gone", i.e. it is in the vocative case. This is what Edward Conze thought. The other possibilities are open, but the subject of the Heart Sūtra is Prajñāpāramitā - who is feminine both in gender and grammatically. But when all the words in a mantra, as above, are in the feminine vocative the string of words is not grammatically sensible - they do not make a sentence. The usual explanation is some variation on the idea that these are strings of invocations to deities or qualities. Kern obviously thought something like this and expected feminine vocatives - but note that he is expecting Hindu goddesses in a Buddhist text. To some extent they do appear, but he may not, in 1884, had a very clear idea of the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism

An unspoken assumption here is that the mantras are written in Classical Sanskrit. This is the language which was formalised and polished (ie 'saṃskṛta' - literally "made complete") in about the 4th century BCE, and became the standard language for literary and religious compositions in India. Given that some of the texts, the Heart Sūtra for one, are written in Classical Sanskrit this seems at first glance a reasonable assumption. However we know that Buddhists before the Gupta Empire (4th - 6th centuries CE) wrote in a Sanskritised version of the Prakrit, or spoken dialect, locally spoken. This literary language which is now known as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit actually shows massive variations over time and place. The name Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS) was coined by Frank Edgerton who wrote a grammar and dictionary for it. Many well known sūtras were written in BHS including the Mahāvastu, Lotus, Golden Light, Gaṇḍhavyūha, laṅkkāvatātra, Sukhāvatīvyūha (larger and smaller), the Large Perfection of Wisdom, and the Diamond. Śantideva's Śikṣāsamuccaya which is made up of quotes from many Mahāyāna sūtras is almost entirely in BHS. In addition, notably, Buddhists reverted to BHS during the Tantric period after the 6th century.

BHS is full of irregularities particularly in the grammatical endings. In Classical Sanskrit for nouns with stems ending in -a the nominative singular is -aḥ (e.g. devaḥ, the god, or the king), whereas is Pāli the ending is -o, (e.g. devo), while in Māgadhī the nom sg. was -e (deve). The variety of BHS nom sg. endings for nouns with -a stems found in extant manuscripts includes: -o, -u, -ū, -a, -ā, -aṃ, and -e. The -e ending is also used for the vocative singular as in Sanskrit. In the case of the Gāndhārī Prakrit, at least in written form, the variety of nom. sg case endings has been described as "bewildering", and it seems as though final vowels may have been de-emphasised to the point of almost disappearing in speech, which caused confusion amongst scribes (Salomon p.130-131)

So if the mantras were written in Prakrit or perhaps BHS then we might suspect that they were simply words in the nominative singular. It might better explain the long lists of words such as the Lotus Sūtra example quoted above, although the Heart Sūtra mantra might still best be seen as an invocation. If one is stringing together words then the most basic form is usually the nominative singular.

But why would Sanskrit texts preserve a form that is aberrant from the point of view of Classical Sanskrit grammar? To answer this I cite the example of a Prakrit feature that is preserved in many Sanskrit texts, over quite a long period of time and including in indirect borrowings.

The Arapacana alphabet is the alphabet of the Gāndhārī prakrit. We know that at least from the first couple of centuries of the common era it was used as a mnemonic device, where each letter stands for a key word that is used in a line of verse of a poem. Most extant examples are either obviously a practical reminder about a meditation practice, or derive from one of these. Having been composed in Gāndhārī, perhaps as a stand alone poem*, it was imported into Sanskrit texts such as the Lalitavistara Sūtra and the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra**. In the case of the Lalitavistara a version exists which was fully Sanskritised, but there is also a version in Chinese translation which retains the Gāndhārī order (see Brough 1977). In the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra all known versions retain the Gāndhārī order. In the Gaṇḍhavyūha Sūtra the Gāndhārī order is retained but the phonetic connection between the alphabet and the keywords is lost. In the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT) the alphabet is Sanskrit, but the vowels except 'a' are left off in imitation of the Gāndhārī alphabet (which only uses one sign for initial vowels, which is then modified by diacritics to make all the other vowels). It's reasonably obvious that the source for the alphabet in the MAT is the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra, which means that it is twice removed from Gāndhārī, a language not spoken in India for several centuries by the time the MAT was composed! Perhaps not surprisingly there was a streak of conservatism by Buddhists when composing texts, especially with regard to mantra.

So there is a possibility here: if the mantras were in fact composed in Māgadhī or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, or some other dialect where a nom sg. in -e was used, then it is likely that the original form of the mantra would have been retained even as the text itself was Sanskritised. It might even have stayed in that form when borrowed by other texts. This means that the form in the mantras could be nominative and strings of words in nom sg., or at least intended to be. Perhaps a closer examination of the words, without the assumption of Classical Sanskrit might lead to a better understanding. For the moment the puzzle remains, and my conjecture though plausible is not a final answer to the problem - if anything I may have muddied the waters!

* we're still waiting for a full translation and analysis of a fragment of manuscript containing the earliest known version of the Arapacana. See the publications page of the Bajaur Collection of Buddhist Kharoṣṭhī Manuscripts for a preliminary report.

** The Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra has versions in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines which are distinguished chiefly by the number of repetitions and the thoroughness of spelling out variations on a theme. The chief feature of the version in 100,000 lines is the lack of the use of "etc" or "and so on". Conze has published an English translation largely based on the 25,000 line version, but which draws freely on the others due to the "execrable state" of the manuscripts.

  • Boucher, Daniel. 1998. Gāndhārī and the early Chinese Buddhist translations reconsidered : the case of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Journal of the American Oriental Society., 118 (4), p.471-506.
  • 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.
  • Vaidya, P.L. 1960. Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 6). Darbhanga : The Mithila Institute. Online:
  • Conze, Edward. 1975. (trans.) The large sutra on perfect wisdom ; with the divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass : 1990)
  • Edgerton, Franklin. 1953. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. New Delhi : Munshiram Monoharlal, 2004.
  • Kern, H. 1884. The saddharma-pundarīka or the lotus of the true law. (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1980) (1st pub. 1884 Sacred books of the East Vol.21)
  • Nattier, Jan. 2005. A few good men : the Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). (University of Hawaii Press)
  • Salomon, Richard. 1999. Ancient Buddhist scrolls from Gandhāra : the British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments. London : The British Library.
See also my bibliography of publications on the Arapacana.

30 July 2010.
See also Some Additional Notes for a summary of: Cohen, Signe. "On the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit/Middle Indic Ending "-e" as a 'Magadhism'," Acta Orientalia Vol. 63 (2002), p.67-9.

13 Aug 2015

I was discussing the correct way of writing a Fudō mantra and realised something about the mantras in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. MAT is probably the first proper tantric text. The mantra in question is: namaḥ samantavajrāṇāṃ hāṃ. Most of the mantras begin with either this or namaḥ samantabuddhāṇāṃ.
The Sanskrit is slightly peculiar. Namaḥ means 'bow, pay homage, etc' (from namati 'he bows'). Samanta means 'universal, all, entire'. The slightly weird bit is the grammatical inflexion. Usually we bow *to* something as in namo buddhāya. The inflection is the dative singular case, "homage to the buddha". Here the inflection is the genitive plural. samantavajrāṇāṃ means 'of all the vajras'. So it looks like it says "homage of all the vajras". Really we want namaḥ samantavajrebhyaḥ "homage to all the vajras". So this is in fact a very interesting thing. Because in Prakrit (like Pāḷi), unlike Sanskrit, the dative merged with the genitive. So this proves that the mantras in the MAT were composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. And this bolsters the argument here that we should consider the -e ending to be Prakrit, or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, rather than Pāṇinian Sanskrit.

20 June 2008

Persian Influences on Indian Buddhism

Some people will be aware that when Buddhism flowed out of India it went West as well as East. The huge Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan are a result of this, as are, apparently the Arabian Nights stories which are based to some extent on the Jataka tales. But few people will know that there was some traffic in the other direction.

It should come as no surprise really. The Khyber Pass continues to be the main route into and out of Pakistan in the North-west. But the evidence for this inflowing of traffic is all rather sketchy. I want to discuss two main items here: the presence of Babylonian Omens in the Dīgha Nikāya; and aspects of the Arapacana Alphabet.

Some years ago now the late Professor David Pingree noticed that the first sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, the Brahmajāla Sutta, contained a list of omens. The context is that the Buddha is spelling out to the bhikkhus that he considers divination and the interpreting of omens as wrong livelihood for a bhikkhu. The reasons for this are not clear but I suspect that it was one of many ways in which the Buddhist sangha tried to make itself distinctive from a. laymen, and b. ascetics from other traditions. The interesting feature of this list is that in both form and content it very closely resembles a Babylonian omen manual preserved in cuneiform writing in what is now Iran. Professor Pingree closely compares the items on the two lists and the order in which they appear and concludes that they are practically identical. Now we know the date of the cuneiform writing since it is pushed into clay and it very definitely pre-dates Buddhism in India. It's widely known amongst historians, and largely overlooked by Buddhists, that the Achaemanid Empire was in control of much of what is now Pakistan at the time of the Buddha (even allowing for the disputes over his dates). Interestingly the Pāli commentaries tell us that kings of Magadha used to send their sons to Taxila to be educated in administration and other disciplines, and Taxila at the time was a Persian enclave. At some point one or other of these young nobles must have either returned with the knowledge of these omens, or with someone else possessed it. Another scholar speculates that the Buddha's father employed Chaldean (ie Persian) magicians though I think this is not supported by the evidence.

The Achaemanids were defeated and their empire destroyed by Alexander the Great whose own empire did not outlive it's creator by very long. It took a few generations for the Persians to regroup. By the time the Sassanian Persians were starting to make their presence felt, Gāndhāra had become one of the most important centres for Buddhist innovation and inspiration. The Persians by this time had abandoned the elaborate cuneiform script and begun to use a form of Aramaic. It is this Aramaic script which forms the basis for the earliest known Indian script: Kharoṣṭhī. Kharoṣṭhī is written right to left, and it has several characters in common (and with the same phonetic value) as Aramaic. It also only has one sign for initial vowels which is modified using diacritic marks to produce the full range of Indian vowels. This is because the Semitic Languages which employ Aramaic scripts do not allow words to begin with a vowel. The vowel sign in Kharoṣṭhī is modelled on, and is used like, a consonant. This is interesting in itself since Gāndhāra is probably the place where writing was first used in India, and it is one of the places where Buddhists first began to write down sutras.

Richard Salomon has shown with some certainty that the Arapacana alphabet is simply the Gāndhāri alphabet. He has hinted (to me in an email) that he knows why it is in the order that it is, which is different from other Indian alphabets, but as yet has not published his thoughts on this. One of the things about the Arapacana alphabet is that it is frequently associated with a series of verses in which a keyword starting with each letter of the alphabet either begins the line, or features prominently in it. Although the Indians did impose meter on their writings very commonly, and although collections of verses, such as the Vedas or the suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, are arranged numerically, I am not aware of any other alphabetical list. But there are a number of Manichean hymns and Hebrew Psalms which are. So it seems as though the Arapacana was influenced by Semitic ideas via the Persians. What is more Jan Nattier has observed that the Arapacana verses are the earliest verses associated with the word "dhāraṇī", and could in fact be the original dhāraṇī. It is obvious that the alphabetical verses were a mnemonic aid, and so this accords with what is said about dhāraṇīs later. Actually it is interesting to note that most dhāraṇīs serve no obvious mnemonic function, and the association with memory is just a conceptual legacy. The conclusion here is that Persian influences were behind the creation and adoption of dhāraṇīs by Buddhists in Gāndhāra. I cannot prove this, but it is one explanation which fits the known facts.

The contact between India and the West, especially via the Khyber Pass is underplayed I think. More research might turn up more evidence of the cultural exchanges that took place and the way they shaped Buddhism over the years. It will reinforce the nascent realisation that Buddhism was not so different from other Indian religions in it's assimilation of ideas, concepts, and practices from the others.

Further Reading

Nattier, J. 2000. A few good men. (University of Hawaii Press)

Pingree, David.
  • 1963. Astronomy and Astrology in India and Iran. Isis. vol.54 (2), p.229-246.
  • 1998. Legacies in astronomy and celestial omens in The Legacy of Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press,) p.125-137
  • 1991. Mesopotamian omens in Sanskrit paper presented at La Circulation des biens, des personnes et des idées dans le proche-oriet ancien. Actes de la XXXVIIIe Recontre Assyriologique Internationale. Paris, 8-10 juillet. (Paper is in English)
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 additoinal note on arapacana. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol.113 (2), p.275-6.
  • 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. [many thanks to Dr Salomon for sending me a copy of this paper]

19.10.2012 Eisel Mazard recently wrote a blog post about a story that occurs in both the Jātakas and Herodotus. The latter attributes the story to the Persian king Darius, which may indicate that it is originally a Persian story. The link is a bit tenuous, but if a Persian story also ends up in a Jātaka then it is another thread connecting Persia and Buddhist India.

01 February 2008

Meditating on Arapacana

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 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

01 November 2007

The Essence of all Mantras

I declare that A
is the essence of all mantras,
and from it arise mantras without number;
and it produces in entirety the Awareness
which stills all conceptual proliferations.

The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra
translated by Stephen Hodge (XVIII.3, p.326-7)

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Richard Salomon recently. He heads up the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project which is based around Kharoṣṭhī script manuscripts from Gāndhāra and in the Gāndhāri language. These texts which are held in the British Library are very old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century common era. Gāndhāra is a very interesting area, having been the entry point to India for immigrants, traders, and invaders for many centuries. So it was a very rich and diverse culture. Kharoṣṭhī was the first script used to write India languages, and that it was derived from the version of the Aramaic script used by various Persian conquerors. In Kharoṣṭhī there is one sign for an initial vowel - the short a. To indicate other vowels one uses diacritic marks, in the same was that medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks on consonant signs. Kharoṣṭhī was later displaced by Brahmī from which all modern Indian scripts (as well as most South-east Asian scripts, and the various forms of Tibetan writing)

Regular readers will be aware that I've been interested in the Arapacana alphabet for a while. One of the features of the Arapacana is that is has only one initial vowel sign. Professor Salomon has shown that this is almost certainly because it was the alphabet of the Gāndhāri language which was written in Kharoṣṭhī. It seems that this is a related to the absence of initial vowels in the Aramaic script - they are not used in Semitic languages. When designing a script to write Buddhist texts one needs to be able to write initial vowels, for instance: evam mayā śutam (Thus have I heard which begins all Buddhist sūtras). Brahmī scripts use a different sign for each vowel (although long vowels are indicated with diacritics marks in most cases).

Kharoṣṭhī vowels
a i u e o ṛ aṃ
Kharoṣṭhī created a single vowel sign on the model of the consonant signs - it is simply 'a' if unadorned, but can become any vowel with diacritic marks.

The quote at the beginning of this post may not be familiar, but the sentiment might be. The letter a has this special place in Buddhist thought and practice. One explanation is that the letter a, when added to the beginning of most Sanskrit nouns, it turns them into their opposite: vidya is knowledge, while avidya, is ignorance. This allows us to use the letter a to stand for the Truth which cannot be fully comprehended by language: it is possible to negate any definite statement about the transcendental (including this one!).

However I don't think this alone accounts for the notion that the letter a is the source of all mantras, if only because the a- prefix for verbs usually indicates the imperfect past tense rather than any sense of negation. Another idea relates to the way that Indic alphabets attach an inherent short letter a to each consonant. So the Sanskrit consonants are written as syllables or phonemes - called akṣara - (e.g. ka kha ga gha ṅa); not simply letters (e.g. k kh g gh ṅ). As in Kharoṣṭhī, medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks. This is quite a good way of looking at it, but there is still a slight flaw which involves the vowels.

Sanskrit vowels in Siddhaṃ script
a ā i ī u ū e ai
o au aṃ aḥ ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ
अ आ इ ई ए ऐ
ओ औ अं अः ऋ ॠ ऌ ॡ
The vowels, except for ā, aṃ and aḥ , can't really be considered to derive from the letter a. All vowels are similar in that they are voiced similarly - differences in sound are due to shifts in the tongue and lips changing the resonant frequency of the vocal track, but it doesn't seem to be enough to consider, say, the letter ī to derive from the letter a. Graphically the vowels are mostly not related to the shape of the letter a either. This is all true of the Brahmī derived scripts. It is not quite true for Kharoṣṭhī however because of the single initial vowel.

My suggestion is that the special function of the letter a in Buddhism is a relic of the Gāndhāra area. It is only in Kharoṣṭhī that all signs for letters derive from, or contain, the short a.

One piece of supporting evidence comes from the Sūtra of Perfect Wisdom in 25,000 Lines. This sutra was probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century, and is preserved in a variety of Sanskrit originals, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translations. In the sūtra the alphabet is used as a mnemonic for a series of reflections on the nature of phenomena. Each letter is indicated by a keyword starting with that letter; and each word is the basis for a line of verse. Being a Sanskrit text one might expect the Sanskrit alphabet to be used, but it is not. The alphabet is a partially Sanskritised version of the Arapacana alphabet. Even in the fully Sanskritised version of this practice - present for example in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra - the vowels are sometimes left off so we have the Sanskrit consonants, but the letter a as the only vowel. The tradition is preserved and the trail seems to lead back to Gāndhāra, at least on Indian soil.

I say "on Indian soil" because the use of alphabetical verses, that is to say verses in which the first letter of the first word of each line are in alphabetical order (a kind of acrostic) is unknown in pre-Buddhist India. Verses were organised by length, and by numerical schemes, but not alphabetically. Verses were arranged alphabetically in Semitic cultures, so there are Old Testament psalms and Manichean hymns with verses in alphabetical order. Which brings us around in a circle to the Semitic origins of Kharoṣṭhī.

The letter a, then , is the source of all the other letters in the alphabet; and the alphabet is the source of all the mantras - hence the composer(s) of the Mahāvairocana abhisaṃbodhi Tantra could say that "from [a] arise mantras without number".

If you'd like to learn to write the letter a in the Siddhaṃ script then visit my other website:

image: Siddha letter a from AKARA : The Quest for Perfect Form
(although it looks identical to one in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy in the Eastempty img for amazon associates, p43.)

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.

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.


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 which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.

05 April 2007

The Mystical ARAPACANA Alphabet

Manjughosa and his twin Manjusri are well known Mayahana figures. Both are youths of 16, the colour of a tiger's eye, brandishing a flaming sword, and holding a book - the Pefection of Wisdom in 8000 lines. Their mantra is pretty common in the FWBO as it's one of the nine chanted at the end of seven-fold pujas: oṃ a ra pa ca na dhiḥ. Om is a sacred Indian sound symbol which is at once very simple, but very difficult to write about without becoming trite. Dhih is a seed syllable which is associated with perfect wisdom. Again I find it difficult to write much about dhih. It seems to me that the om and dhih simply indicate that arapacana found a home in the generalised Mahayana cult of the dharani (about which more another time). However I recently turned up something interesting about arapacana that I would like to share.

arapacana is made up of the first five syllables of an alphabet which occurs in the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines - translated by Edward Conze as The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. I need to clarify 'alphabet' a bit. Actually Sanskrit is a syllabic language, which means that a consonant is almost always associated with a vowel. The most basic, unmarked, form assumes the short 'a' vowel sound which you hear in the English word but. That's why the 'alphabet' is not written in roman characters as arpcn! So this alphabet is spelt out in the Sutra, and each syllable is associated with some aspect of perfect wisdom. A, for instance, stands for anutpada - unarisen - and refers to the idea that no actual 'things' ultimately exist, that there are just conglomerations of conditions which are constantly changing. One of the most important conditions being our perception and the associated mental processes.

The alert amongst you will already have clocked that the Sanskrit alphabet does not begin a ra pa ca na - it begins with the vowels a, i, u, e, o, etc, in their short and long forms. Even the consonants start with ka, kha, ga, gha, nga, etc. So this is not the Sanskrit alphabet. Some scholars have postulated a Gandhari origin, or that it relates to the Karoshthi alphabet.* The earlier Lalitavistara Sutra also has an alphabet of Wisdom - this one is Sanskrit.

But why? What is special about the alphabet? The answer lies, I suggest, not in Buddhism at all but in one branch of Vedic exegesis known as Mimamsa (miimaa.msaa) which has origins almost as old as the Vedas themselves, although the first systematic account was Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutra probably written about 200 BCE - about a century before the Lalitavistara Sutra.

The central concern of the Mimamsa School was the status of the Vedas as divine revelation - and as such they parallel the Christian philosophers who sought to "prove" the divine status of the Christian Bible. The Indian problem was that the words used in the Vedas were (more or less ) the same words that ordinary people use in their banal conversations. What is so holy about them? A contemporary school, the Sphotavada, worked along the lines that the words were special because of the order that they were in - that it was the sentences of the Vedas that made them holy. The Mimamsa went in the other direction. The meaning of a sentence depends on the sum of the parts that make it up. The smallest units are what are true or real (both translations of satya) and in the case of Sanskrit this is the syllable. To quote Shabara, a mid-1st century BCE Mimamsa scholar:
"The word gauh (cow) is nothing more that the three phonemes which are found in it, namely g, au, and h... It is also these very phonemes which cause the understanding of the meaning of the word".
Contemporary scholar Guy Beck adds:
"The human process of comprehension is therein said to result from the mysterious accumulation of individual letter potencies (shakti), each of which leaves an impression or trace (samskara), which carries over onto the next letter or syllable".**
The early Upanishads contain several little treatises on the associations of syllables with esoteric meaning - Chandogya 1.3.6 for instance. But Shabara has taken this to it's logical conclusion and given significance to all of the syllables. This doesn't entirely solve the problem of logically establishing the revealed nature of the Vedas, but that need not distract us at present since that is not our project.

Shabara wrote in the time immediately preceding, or even slightly over-lapping, the rise of the Mahayana. We know that Buddhists, in accordance with the general Indian approach, were apt to incorporate any practice or idea which could be adapted to their use. It seems to me that in this case the Vedic linguistic speculations were adopted, and developed. The apotheosis of this occurs in the Mahavairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra where visualisation of the Sanskrit alphabet is recommended as a meditation practice.

It is interesting to note that this ancient India interest in the significance of words or syllables prefigures much of modern linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure himself had held a professorship in Sanskrit before giving his lectures on general linguistics in 1910-11 that have set the agenda of linguistics ever since. Another interest contemporary parallel is in the research of Margaret Magnus. Magnus's doctoral thesis explored the way that phonemes (the smallest unit of articulate vocal sounds) bear meaning. Standard linguistic theory tells us that phonemes have an arbitrary relationship to meaning - that the sounds we use to indicate things or concepts are arbitrary and conventional. I don't have space in this post to go into the details of Magnus's findings, but I have repeated many of her experiments and I believe that phonemes are not entirely arbitrary.

The arapacana mantra, then, stands as an embodiment of a principle, put forward by the Mimamsa school on the basis of Upanishadic speculation, but taken up by Buddhists around the time of the rise of the Mahayana: that each and every articulate vocal sound has significance.

* see for instance: Richard Salomon. New Evidence for a Gandhari Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Apr - Jun, 1990), pp. 255-273
** Guy L. Beck. Sonic Theology. (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1995, 1993), pp.61.

Sound files from my evening on the Arapacana Alphabet at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 1 Nov 2007.

15/3/08. I've just added a page to which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.