Showing posts with label Bija. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bija. Show all posts

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.)

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 June 2007

The Seed Syllable of Perfect Wisdom

Siddham Script

The seed syllable dhīḥ (धीः) shown left in the Siddham script, turns up in a number of mantras such as those of Mañjughoṣa and Prajñāpāramitā. There doesn't seem to be much written about dhīḥ so I thought I'd summarise what I know here. It is frequently said that mantras, especially seed syllables (bīja) are untranslatable, and this is often true. In the case of dhīḥ however we find that it is a regular word. Monier-Williams gives several definitions for dhī:
1. to perceive , think , reflect
2. f. thought , (esp.) religious thought , reflection , meditation , devotion , prayer (pl. Holy Thoughts personified); understanding , intelligence , wisdom (personified as the wife of Rudra-manyu ) , knowledge , science , art; mind , disposition , intention , design; notion , opinion , the taking for (comp.)
Dhīḥ is singular of either the nominative or the vocative form of the noun - ie it is either a name or attribute; or form of address as in Oh (she) who perceives. The word occurs rarely in the Ṛgveda where it's usually translated as intelligence or prayer, though clearly the connotations are much broader. Antonio T. De Nicolas translates it as vision in his essay Religious Experience and Religious Languages. Monier-Williams definition 2. is clearly interesting territory for Buddhists and covers much the same religious territory as the wisdom dieties mentioned below.

So dhīḥ, not surprisingly became the seed syllable - the sonic quintessence - of the goddess of wisdom in Buddhism, Prajñāpāramitā, who names means "perfection of wisdom". It occurs, unusually in the middle of her mantra: oṃ āḥ dhīḥ hūṃ svāhā.

And with the connection between her and Mañjuśrī which becomes apparent in tantric literature it should be no surprise that it is also his seed syllable. In the case of his mantra is it tacked onto the end of the Alphabet of Wisdom, om arapacana dhīḥ

Geshe Rabten describes the formal debating procedure of Tibetan monks at the beginning of which they yell dhīḥ - invoking Mañjuśrī. They pose some problem for an opponent, and yell dhīḥ as they clap their hands together leaving the opponent to answer as best they can. He says:

Tibetan Uchen Script
"Then you draw the right hand back, and at the same time put the left hand forward. This motion of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the three lower states of rebirth; drawing back the right hand symbolizes one’s wish to bring all sentient beings to liberation. But to fulfil this wish is not easy. You must have great knowledge and wisdom; and for this you recite ‘dhīḥ’, asking Mañjuśrī to pour down a torrent of wisdom upon you."
But the word also has an effect on Mañjuśrī he "blesses us with wisdom and understanding". These two aspects of the use of mantra go back to Vedic times when the sacrifice provided 'food' for the gods, who responded with 'food' for the worshippers - the food in both cases being metaphorical rather than literal.

Edie Farwell and Anne Hubbell Maiden, in The Wisdom Of Tibetan Childbirth tell us that Tibetans paint dhīḥ on the tongue of newborns using saffron so that they will be articulate and wise.

So dhīḥ is the syllabic, even sonic, representation of perfect wisdom - the wisdom that sees everything just as it is, without adding or subtracting anything, and is applied in ways which both evoke and invoke the qualities of perfect wisdom as embodied by Mañjuśrī and Prajñāpāramitā.