Showing posts with label Sound Symbolism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sound Symbolism. Show all posts

11 March 2011

A Theory of Language Evolution (with a footnote about mantra)

I HAVE BEEN READING The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger. It is a book with some flaws, which I'm not going to dwell on, but on the whole Metzinger presents a fascinating theory of consciousness, selfhood, and self-consciousness. Metzinger is a philosopher, so is concerned to give an overview and to create a coherent narrative of consciousness, but his source materials are the findings of neuroscience, along with his own out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams. The combination is intriguing because though he fits in with a scientific, even materialistic, world-view, he seeks a theory of consciousness which takes his unusual experiences seriously and explains them. This may make him unique in the field.

His opening sentence declares that he is setting out to convince us that there is no such thing as a self. In this he follows in the footsteps of Antonio Damasio whose book The Feeling Of What Happens I highly recommend. I want to come back to Metzinger's theory of consciousness in subsequent blog posts, but here to talk about a point he makes in passing in his chapter the 'Empathetic Ego'.

Recently neuroscientists discovered two related facts about the link between behaviour and the brain. When we see an object, groups of neurons associated with motor activity are active. These are called canonical neurons. When we perceive objects part of us is relating to them by imagining potential physical interactions, by how we might manipulate them. I'm reminded here of George Lakoff & Mark Johnson's theory of metaphor. They say that the metaphors which underlie our abstract language and thought are related to our physical interactions with the world. Hence we can say that we grasp an idea meaning that we understand the concept. (See Metaphors We Live By).

On the other hand we know that some neurons associated with motor activity -- called mirror neurons -- light up whether we are doing the action ourselves, or whether we are observing someone else doing it. In particular these mirror neurons seem to be active when we witness emotional states in other people and feel empathy with them. It seems that mirror neurons are involved in modelling the posture, gesture and facial expression we see in others, in order to understand the kinds of feelings we associate with that physical arrangement. This ability to sense emotions in others is quite accurate, and important for us social primates.

Metzinger speculates that these two types of neurons might have been associated with the development of communication and I want to run with this idea, and sketch out an idea about how language might have evolved.

Once we move beyond the very simple forms of animal life - the single celled organisms - and look at the way animals communicate there are clearly hierarchies. We all release chemical messengers, e.g. hormones, and these are sensed with the mouth and nose, or have a physical effect on us. The other form of communication shared by all animals is posture - and posture is one of the basic activators for the canonical and mirror neurons. Posture can communicate attitude - aggression, receptivity (for mating), submission or dominance. But not much beyond this. Think of reptiles.

Subtlety begins to emerge when we employ three other forms of communication. Over posture we note that reptiles will sometimes reinforce posture with sound, although reptilian sounds don't add much to the message. Birds developed elaborate postural displays, and added more complex sounds to the mix. These sounds mainly seem to transmit the the message conveyed by posture -- e.g. territorial displays, or receptivity to mating -- but over a broader area. In other words, birds can broadcast their posture. Mammals, however, are capable of producing more sophisticated sounds, though these are still related to fairly basic 'emotions' like fear, contentment, receptivity, and aggression.

Some mammals added gesture, a more subtle form of posture, to the mix. Gesture allows for more nuanced communication. Then primates in particular added facial expression to this mix. With these one can communicate a wider range of emotions. Scholars have come up with many lists of basic emotions which overlap but do not converge. However, any list would contain some common items, for instance: anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, desire. All of these, and many variations can be accurately communicated without any words through posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression.

With posture, non-language verbal sounds, gesture, and facial expression we can communicate the full range of human emotions. However there is not much scope for abstraction, no possibility of communicating outside the immediate present. And in fact we share this level of communication with other primates. We do know that chimps are capable passing on knowledge of tool use, of planning, and getting others to cooperate in group actions that require forward thinking - war and hunting. So this level of communication is quite sophisticated, but language is orders of magnitude more sophisticated again.

Language sits on top of all of this. You would be forgiven for thinking that language existed apart from all of this because linguists seldom make reference to non-linguistic communication, and are often focussed on just the words involved in language, or even just written language. As I mentioned, Lakoff & Johnson have argued that the metaphors which underlie the our abstract though are based in our physical interactions with the world. So native English speakers know the metaphor that up is good (on the whole) and down is bad: e.g. a good mood is up; optimists feel things are looking up etc. (Similar metaphors are found in Sanskrit btw.). Similarly, in discussions we employ the argument is war metaphor: we take sides and defend positions against opponents; a vigorous exchange involves cut and thrust; we line points up and shoot them down; and we win if our points are on target or we exploit a weakness, or lose when our argument is undermined or demolished; we love to drop bombshells, and overturn paradigms, but hate to capitulate and back down. This suggests that language doesn't jut sit on top of the under-layers of physical, emotional communication, but is deeply rooted in them, and perhaps emerges out of them. We can't really consider language separately from gesture for instance, or from posture, or tone of voice.

Further support for this idea comes from research on the Brocas area of the brain. This region is intimately connected with language, but is also part of the system that controls motor function in the mouth and hands. V. S. Ramacandran (in his 2003 Reith Lectures) speculated that cross-activation in this area is responsible for the tongue poking out during intense concentration on manual tasks for instance, and that this is related to the evolution of language. Gestures, mouth movements and language are obviously connected. People can communicate complex abstract language with only their hands.

Vocal sounds are, at least some of the time, used symbolically and the study of this phenomenon is called Sound Symbolism or Phonosemantics. The roots of sound symbolism may be in pre-language sounds which communicate emotions, and in mouth movements which either directly interact with an object, or imitate an interaction. In which case we would expect that both canonical and mirror neurons would be involved in the language as well - I'm not sure if anyone has looked at this.

One of the central dictates of modern linguistics is that "the sign is arbitrary". This is usually qualified by saying that it is arbitrary but not random, since clearly conventions of sounds are seen. Sound symbolism takes this further by saying that the conventions are so pervasive and they represent such a high a level of organisation that they cannot be arbitrary. Indeed it would be surprising if verbal sounds were arbitrary in relation to the concept being conveyed because they would exist outside the structure of language itself. Lakoff & Johnson say that abstractions are not arbitrary, but rooted in how we physically interact with the world. Sound symbolism tells us that there is a relationship between a word and it's meaning which is not arbitrary, but related to how verbal sounds function as symbols.

So Metzinger's theory is interesting because we can construct a plausible narrative about the evolution of communication around it, and it links up with other interesting ideas about the brain, the mind, and the evolution of language. It can incorporate many different observations, and it dovetails with other theories of embodied awareness and communication. It certainly seems to tie together many of my own interests. Though I note that one reviewer of The Ego Tunnel complained that "Grandiose philosophy is so 19th-century". [1] So perhaps Metzinger and I, with our interest in such "grandiose philosophy", are out of step with contemporary philosophy - but there have been few ages when being out of step with contemporary philosophers has been a bad thing. Personally I think Metzinger is ahead of his time.

This is not idle speculation on my part, nor only a side line. This idea has been bubbling away in my Buddhist brain because I am fascinated by Buddhist mantra. Mantras are said to be sound symbols, and I'm interested in how verbal sounds function as symbols. I believe that this sketch of a theory, or something very like it, might begin to explain the effectiveness of Buddhist mantras both as a collective, devotional practice, and in individual meditative practice -- without resort to the supernatural.


  1. Flanagan, O. (2009). Review: The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger. New Scientist, 201(2700), 44.

image: Rhetorical gestures. Wikimedia.

27 August 2010

A Pāli Pun

In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27.22) we find some interesting material on the Buddhist attitude to class prejudice. [1] We need to be clear that this not an objective historical record; it is a document which is meant to convince us of a particular view, or perhaps persuade against one. However, the fact that the Pāli texts recall the kinds of insults that Brahmins aimed at Buddhists suggests that there is some veracity in the texts, since they would probably not make up insults for themselves, nor preserve them. Some Brahmins saw the samaṇa as having taken on the status of śudra - the lowest of the four classes, though not the lowest level of Indian society, since one could be outcast. Note that 'Brahmin' is an Anglicisation of the Sanskrit brāhmaṇa usually adopted to avoid confusion with the texts of the same name. Here a former Brahmin called Vāseṭṭha who has converted to Buddhism recounts the kinds of insults he receives from Brahmins:

brāhmaṇova seṭṭho vaṇṇo, hīno añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇova sukko vaṇṇo, kaṇho añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇāva sujjhanti, no abrāhmaṇā. Brāhmaṇāva brahmuno puttā orasā mukhato jātā brahmajā brahmanimmitā brahmadāyādā. Te tumhe seṭṭhaṃ vaṇṇaṃ hitvā hīnamattha vaṇṇaṃ ajjhupagatā, yadidaṃ muṇḍake samaṇake ibbhe kaṇhe bandhupādāpacce.

Brahmins are the best class, the other class is defective (hīna). Brahmins are the pure [white] class, the other is impure [black]. Brahmins are the offspring of Brahmā's mouth, born from Brahmā, created by Brahmā, the kin of Brahmā. Having deserted the best class you have accepted the class that fails to measure up, with these baldy, petit-ascetic, menials, blacks, offspring of Brahmā’s feet! [DN 27.3, D iii.81]
Note the use of hīna in this context to describe the śudra class, and then hīnamattha which I've rendered 'fails to measure up' and does literally mean 'lacking a full measure'. The word for both 'pure' and 'white' is sukka; while the word for 'impure' and 'black' is kaṇha. The insults muṇḍaka 'bald' and samaṇaka 'ascetic' are in a diminutive form that is hard to capture in English - elsewhere they have been rendered "shaveling little ascetics". The last three terms (which can also be read as "menial, black offspring...") are often used of śudras. Indeed, the reference to "Brahmā's feet" is an allusion to Ṛgveda 10.90 The Puruṣa Sūkta. [2] However, I think the idea would have been a cliché (or, indeed, an insult) by the Buddha's day, so it doesn't necessarily suggest familiarity with the Ṛgveda, itself. These are insults that only a Brahmin could use. In looking for contemporary parallels I suggest that the language of white racist abuse is on a par with the passage above. However, projecting contemporary attitudes and understandings backward onto the texts is an uncertain enterprise, at best.

The Buddhist response in the Aggañña Sutta is a lengthy satire on Brahmanical cosmogony and views on the origins of the four classes that employs a series of puns. The funniest one is at DN 27.22 where the Buddha remarks that: ‘They don’t meditate’ (ajhāyaka) is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’ (ajjhāyaka).

However, I want now to focus on the first of the puns in this section. It is less obvious, less amusing, but offers some interesting reflections on the history of Budddhism.
Pāpake akusale dhamme bāhentīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘brāhmaṇā, brāhmaṇā’ tveva paṭhamaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ. [D iii.93-4]
They ward off evil unwholesome things, Vāseṭṭha, [hence] they are ‘Brahmins’. This is the first pun produced.
The word akkharaṃ literally means 'constant', but also 'letter, sound'. Hence, it is used as the name of the Vedic science of phonology - the sounds of the letters being the constants of language and having a greater significance, even at an early date, than we assign to our letters. It is only a guess, but I think that it suggests 'pun' here - a play on words based on similar sounds. This makes more sense in view of the following discussion.

At first glance there is no pun in the passage quoted. However, brāhmaṇa is a Sanskrit form. In Pāli, consonant clusters like 'br' get resolved in various ways; e.g., the Sanskrit term śramaṇa becomes samaṇa in Pāli. This suggests that the form of our word should be bāhmaṇa and, indeed, Richard Gombrich notes that this form is found in some of Asoka's edicts. [3]

In his work An Outline of Meters in the Pāḷi Canon Ānandajoti notes that the conjunct br in brāhmaṇa regularly fails to “make position”; i.e., it fails to cause the preceding syllable to be metrically heavy. However, it does regularly make position medially. This suggests that brā was frequently treated as , at least for the purposes of meter.

If bāhmaṇa (possibly bāhmana) was the form, then we do have a pun with bāhenti, 'they ward off'. [4] This kind of sound alike etymology is called nirutti (S. nirukti) and relies on verbal roots having phonetic similarity. [6] The verb bāheti is said by PED to be a causative from bahati or a denominative perhaps related to Sanskrit bahis 'outward', which is also the opinion of Edgerton in BHSD. The root of which is obscure. Though John Brough thinks it unlikely [5], the root may be √vah 'carry' - there is a regular confusion of 'b' and 'v' in Indic languages [see note 4]. This idea that Brahmins have avoided or warded off evil is consistent with Brahmins claiming to be sukka - pure/white - but it also reflects the Buddhist notion that a Brahmin is a Brahmin because of their conduct, not because of their birth.

There are a number of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit and Gāndhārī which make use of this same pun - I'll highlight the key terms in italics, and add hyphens to compounds to help clarify the connection. At MN 39.24 (M i.280) we find:
Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu brāhmaṇo hoti? Bāhitāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā...
And how is a bhikkhu a brāhmaṇa? They have warded off evil unskilful mental states…
Again, in the Dhammapada, verse 388:
bāhita-pāpo’ti brāhmaṇo, samacariyā samaṇo’ti vuccati
pabbājaya attano malaṃ, tasmā pabbajito’ti vuccati.

Brahmin means ‘evil put aside’, we call the calmly living ‘samaṇa’.
Putting aside his own impurity, he is called ‘gone forth’.
We have several versions of the Dhammapada. In the Gāndhārī language version of the Dharmapada [7] the parallel verse (DhpG 1.16) runs:

brahetva pavaṇi brammaṇo
samaïrya śramaṇo di vucadi
I refrain from attempting to translate, but these words are not so different from the Pāli (pavaṇi = pāpa). The 'r' in brahetva is probably an anomaly, since it is not found in either the Pāli or Sanskrit versions. John Brough (who edited the GDhp) notes that it may have been "artificially introduced to buttress the pseudo-etymology of brāhmaṇa, if this arose originally in a dialect which assimilated br- of the latter word"; but, overall, he is doubtful about deriving P. bāheti from √bah or √vah and links it to √brah or √barh. [8] However, if we derive the verb from the same root as brahmaṇa (actually √bṛh) then the verb means 'to strengthen' and the sentence means the opposite of the parallels - i.e., that the Brahmin is one who strengthens evil. So we can probably conclude that the Gandhāran composer understood that this was a pun, and because in their dialect brāhmaṇa is spelt brammaṃa, introduced an 'r' into the verb to preserve the pun. Though it is strange that they should do this and obscure the meaning. Gāndhārī baheti is also listed as equal to P. bāhetvā in Stefan Baums and Andrew Glass (preliminary) Gāndhārī Dictionary, so we know that the 'r' is not required in that dialect.

Another version of the Dhammapada survives in a Sanskrit text which is called Udānavarga (UV 11.15)
brāhmaṇo vāhitaiḥ pāpaiḥ
śramaṇaḥ śamitāśubhaḥ
Note that UV has vāhita like the variant Pāli, and consistent with Sanskrit usage of the verb. In turn, this leads us to two parallels from the Pāli Udāna:
Yo brāhmaṇo bāhita pāpadhammo (Ud 1.5)

He is a Brahmin who avoids evil states

Bāhitvā pāpake dhamme, ye caranti sadā satā;
Khīṇasaṃyojanā buddhā, te ve lokasmi brāhmaṇā 'ti (Ud 1.6)

Having avoided evil states, they always behave mindfully;
With fetters destroyed and awake, they are called brahmins in the world.
Max Müller (in his Dhp translation) notes another occurrence of our phrase in the (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit) Lalitavistara:
…trailokya-brāhmaṇaṃ bāhita-pāpakarmāṇaṃ bhikṣuṃ

...the three-worlds' Brahmin with evil deeds cast aside is a bhikṣu [LV 22.5]
Note that LV follows the Pāli in using bāhita. I've made no attempt at an exhaustive search; these are just the examples that come easily to hand. But still we have a number of passages which work together to show that at some point this pun on bāhenti/bāhmana must have been reasonably common, and have made sense - i.e., that the two words bāhetva/bāhita and bāhmaṇa shared the syllable bāh. We would have expected Pāli to preserve the pun, since bāhmana is the natural form of that word in Pāli. Since it did not, we have something of a mystery.

One possible conclusion is that the spelling was deliberately changed - and that this change affected not only the Pāli, but also the Buddhist Sanskrit usage. In turn, this suggests that LV emerged in a milieu that spoke a dialect closely allied to Pāli, though UV did not, since it uses the form vāhita. The change from bā > brā involves a Sanskritisation which suggests a Brahmin influence, since at the time Sanskrit was the sole preserve of the Brahmins, and yet it occurs precisely in the context of satires on Brahmanical beliefs. Madhav Deshpande has pointed to passages in the Lalitavistara Sūtra that indicate the "increasing prominence of Brahmanical elements within Buddhist traditions". [9] Perhaps Brahmin converts were able to live with the canonical criticisms of their former faith/culture and. in any case. could not erase them because it would be noticed; but they retained enough pride in their heritage to correct the spelling of their former social class across the whole canon?

Another possibility is that though the original dialect used bāhmaṇa, Pāli had brahmaṇa as a loan word directly from Sanskrit by the time the texts were translated into Pāli. The Gandhāran translator must have had (or heard) a text in the original dialect to see the pun, and make the unusual change they did. There is some linguistic evidence to suggest more than one wave of Indo-European speaking people moving into India, and that those who wrote the Vedas and built the Brahmanical culture may not have been directly connected to the earlier (or perhaps later) wave that moved much further east more quickly. This might allow for brāhmaṇa to be a new word to those in the East. But that is a complex argument, and this is now a long post. However, one important point to follow up would be to locate the Asoka use of bāhmaṇa geographically, and compare this to the most recent deliberations on the comparison of Pāli and the Asokan dialects.

~~| This is Rave no. 200 |~~

  1. There are some structural features which suggest that the text is not in its original form, especially the sudden transition between verse 9 and v.10. My guess is that a verse has which should introduce this part of the text has been lost. However, some have seen it as two separate texts. It is true that the narrative that stops at v.8 (v.9 is standalone and may not have originally been in this position) and is resumed at v.27. However, v.23 references v.4 linking the two. A verse which introduced the cosmogonic story would have been expected (cf other similar texts such as D.3, D.26 where the change is signalled). It is not hard to skip a verse when copying a text. This sort of thing is impossible to prove, however.
  2. The Puruṣa Sūkta mentions the Sāmaveda and Yajurveda written 500-600 years after the probable date of the Ṛgveda ca 1500-1200 BCE, so it must have been added to the Ṛgveda after this time. This is still well before the Buddha's days. For a discussion on sūkta/sūtra/sutta see: Philological Odds & Ends I.
  3. What the Buddha Thought, p.224, n.8. The earliest reference I have found to this theory is Müller, F. Max. The Dhammapada : A collection of verses being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Translated from pāli By F. Max müller . Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1881], p.liv (online text). However, Müller himself cites a German ethnographical study published in several volumes from 1866-68 so it may go back a few more years. (Note the Pali Text Society was founded in 1881.)
  4. In the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana edition of the canon the verb is spelt vāhenti rather than bāhenti. This confusion between ba and va is widespread and partly due to phonetics, and partly because the characters have always been similar in Indic writing: cf Devanāgarī: ब व. The two verbs unusually have slightly different senses in Pāli, and the va spelling further obscures the pun.
  5. Brough, J. The Gāndhārī Dharmapada. P. 178, n. 1.
  6. For which see my Yāska and his Nirukta, and Yāska, Plato and Sound Symbolism. For sound symbolism generally see Magnus, Margaret: What's in a Word? Studies in Phonosemantics. Unpublished PhD Dissertation; and her popular website Magical Letter Page. Magnus has shown that words which share an initial phoneme are indeed more likely to have overlapping semantic fields than words which do not. A growing body of evidence is challenging the Saussurian dictum that the "sign is arbitrary" which is the paradigm from which mainstream linguists see Yāska, and dismiss the value of nirukti etymologies as "fanciful".
  7. Gandhāra was in the Northwest of India - what is now the Taliban stronghold in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several caches of texts from that region date from the first couple of centuries common era in a language which has been called by modern scholars after the region. This and the next passage are from: Ānandajoti Bhikkhu . A Comparative Edition of the Dhammapada with parallels from Sanskritised Prakrit edited together with A Study of the Dhammapada Collection. (2nd revised edition July, 2007 - 2551). Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  8. Brough, as for note 5.
  9. Deshpande, Madhav. Sanskrit & Prakrit, sociolinguistic issues. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993, p.9.
  10. See, for instance, Deshpande, Madhav. 'Genesis of Ṛgvedic Retroflexion: a Historical and Sociolinguistic Investigation.' in Deshpande, Madhav M and Hook, Peter Edwin (ed.s) Aryan and Non-aryan in India. The University of Michigan, 1979. esp p.261ff.
image: Brahmin from

05 December 2008

Yāska and his 'Nirukta'

In an earlier post on sound symbolism I made reference to the Indian grammarian Yāska, and I thought it would be a good idea to flesh out the picture of his method and why it should still be of interest to those interested in mantra.

Despite his subsequent influence, we do not know very much about Yāska. His dates are uncertain but most scholars place him between 700 - 300 BCE. His single surviving work is the Nirukta. The early grammarians were responding to a particular problem which was that the spoken language of the day had drifted substantially away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language of the sacred Vedas. This meant that passages of the sacred Vedas had become obscure or even unintelligible. Many passages in the Ṛgveda remain obscure. This is a natural consequence of language change and I have previously noted the example of the noun vahatu which occurs in the first verse of the Dhammapada, but whose meaning was apparently obscure to the commentators, and does not appear in traditional dictionaries. The response of the ancient Indians was to study and systematise their language - the contemporary studies of phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology owe much to the Sanskrit grammarians. The result was Classical Sanskrit - saṃskṛta means something like "crafted". Yāska was particularly interested in some of the words that had become obscure and systematised a set of principles for determining what they might mean.

The Nirukta, following an existing tradition, treats all words as deriving from verbal roots - these are the notional abstracts which underlie words. So from the root √budh, we get via a regular process the verb bodhati (to know). Similarly the past-participle buddha (one who knows), and nouns buddhi (intelligence) and bodhi (awakening) are treated analytically as deriving from the verbal root through a series of logical transformations. For instance in first class verbs the vowel in the root undergoes guṇa or "strengthening" with √budh become bodh; active present tense stems are formed by adding the vowel 'a', and then suffixes indicate person and number: 1st person singular bodhāmi, 3rd person plural bodhanti. the verbal noun. Historically the process must have worked the other way - through analysing a group of related word. An entire language was subjected to a detailed analysis without the aid of writing! It is a work of collective genius.

Some words are more difficult to trace. The verb tiṣṭhati (to stand) for instance is thought to come from the root √sthā. Other strange examples are √gam > gacchati (to go) > gata (gone), √dṛś > paśyati (to see) > dṛṣṭi (a view). So it is possible to come across a word and find that identifying the underlying concept is quite difficult.

As described in Eivind Kahrs 1998 book Indian semantic analysis, the Nirukta proposes three levels of analysis. Firstly there are obvious examples like √budh where the root and it's transformations are known. Secondly there are examples where the meaning is not obvious but one can use grammatical paradigms to work out what sense of it is - such as √gam. Thirdly there are very obscure examples which defy logical analysis. It is in these extreme cases that one must apply what has become known as a nirukta or nirvacana analysis. (Sadly I don't have a definite example of one of these).

This kind of analysis has been liken to etymology - the contemporary study of the way a word changes its meaning over time. So the word "know" comes into modern English from Old English cnawan, and is related to Greek gno- (as in the word 'gnosis'); and the Sanskrit. jña- "know" and comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European base *gno- "to know". This approach has allowed scholars to speculate on the existence of a language which must underlie all Indo-European languages - which they call "Proto-Indo-European" - and to specify what some of it's features must have been in order to give rise to the variations we see.

Yāska's procedure was somewhat different. Where the root of a word could be determined and was still obscure in meaning, Yāska employed a system of sound symbolism. That is to say that he employed the knowledge that words which share phonemes, especially initial phonemes, have a much higher likelihood of overlapping in meaning, than two words which do not share phonemes. If one approaches this systematically then it is possible to make fairly accurate guesses as to what a word might mean. Having narrowed the field, one can then use context get closer to the meaning.

Contemporary linguists are loath to accept that a phoneme can carry meaning, but there is no a priori reason to think this, and there is evidence to suggest that it is true. Meaning is of course a vague term - what does meaning mean? It seems to me that there is always a level of ambiguity in verbal communication - the higher the level of structure the more clearly defined the meaning being conveyed. An idea might be conveyed with a word, but then words can be ambiguous, and individual words can related in different ways to themselves and to their referents. A sentence relieves some of this ambiguity, but a complex idea may take a paragraph to express, and a book or even a series of books to fully explicate. At the other end of the scale as we break down words into their component parts we lose clarity - prefixes, suffixes and roots for instance are less clear on their own. Individual phonemes then represent a level below this and carry information with considerable ambiguity, but are not absolutely arbitrary.

So there is every reason for Yāska to resort to this feature of language when other more sure methods have failed him. Remember that he was highly motivated to find the meaning of words because they occurred in the Vedas and had the status of revealed and eternal truths. The loss of meaning in this context is disastrous! Just leaving the meaning obscure was not an option.

Despite the fact that his Nirukta is the earliest surviving text of this type Yāska was not the originator of this method, he was a systematiser. Evidence for the method emerges in the Brāhmaṇa literature - beginning perhaps 1200-1000 BCE. Eivind Kahrs notes example from thr Ṛgveda: uṣā ucchati - "the dawn dawns", which indicates a perception of the underlying connection between the two words despite being spelled somewhat differently. This search for connections - bandhu - is characteristic of the Brāhmaṇa literature and of the Vedic religion generally (see my Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness). Perhaps given the central important of bandhu in the Vedic religion it is no surprise that it should have been the approach to revealing linguistic mysteries.

Johannes Bronkhorst has drawn attention to parallels between the Nirukta and Plato's Cratylus. The two may well have lived at the same time, although it seems unlikely that they could have known each other. The main parallel of course is that both Yāska and Plato consider that phonemes can and do carry meaning, and can given clues as to what a word means. I covered this in my Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism although there I illustrated Yāska's method with an example I found in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. I think now that Buddhaghosa is working at some remove to Yāska, although the sound symbolic aspect is still present and prominent. Buddhaghosa is of course applying the method to very familiar words which would have needed no explanation to Buddhaghosa's audience. Similarly T.P. Kasulis has drawn parallels between the Cratylus and Kūkai's Shōji jissō gi (The Meaning Sound, word reality - see Hakeda, Y. Major Works p. 234 f.).

The reason I think that Yāska is worth knowing about is that the ideas that he helped to systematise and popularise seem related to the way in which words have power in India. We say for instance that mantras are 'sound symbols'. This idea is underpinned by Yāska's theory. The use of sounds which have no apparent semantic content - such as oṃ or hūṃ - may make more sense when we recall that the milieu in which they were used was one in which a systematic study had been made of the way that words that sound alike are frequently related in meaning. I firmly believe that Buddhism is best understood against the background of Indian thought generally, and that to study the history of Buddhist ideas in isolation (which is typical) gives a false impression.

Note: 22 Dec
I didn't say this at the time, but in Yāska's day there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised. Coming upon an unfamiliar form one had very limited resources - probably only one's guru - to consult. It's important to keep this in mind when thinking about this subject.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2001. "Etymology and Magic: Yāska's Nirukta, Plato's Cratylus, and The Riddle of Semantic Etymologies." Numen, Volume 48, Number 2, 2001 , pp. 47-203(57)
  • Hakeda, Y. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
  • Kahrs, Eivind. 1998 Indian semantic analysis : the nirvacana tradition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online:

Next Week: brahmacarya - the spiritual life.

image: Vedic text from

10 October 2008

Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism

One interesting features of ancient Indian literature is the way they explain the meanings of words. There are two main methods: by giving series of synonyms, and by giving a series of words which appear to only be linked by using many of the same sounds. The latter method has been likened to the contemporary science of etymology, though usually it is seen as a rather debased or inferior version of etymology. In this essay I plan to give an example of an ancient etymology from the writing of Buddhaghosa, show that it has parallels in the Cratylus dialogue of Plato, and make some comments on these two with respect to sound symbolism especially the work of Margaret Magnus.

First a brief word about ancient epistemology. Foucault, in The Order of Things, points out that in Pre-renaissance Europe knowledge was based on resemblance, and that after the Renaissance knowledge came to be based on difference. In other words we now make sense of the world by looking for points of difference between 'things'. Information is meaningful to the extent that it represents something unique. We don't even think about this most of the time. However in the days of the Buddha and Plato people made sense of the world by looking for how 'things' were similar, looking for qualities in common. So for us a red pen, and a red vegetable are not related; but to the ancients the redness of the two meant that they could be seen to be related. This way of thinking is so foreign to us that we would say that the relationship is a false one. However it does mean that they tended to see the relationships between things, and to perceive everything as being interconnected; while we tend to atomise the world, and fail to understand inter-relatedness. The current crisis in the environment is an obvious consequence of this of this failure. The very way we polarise into right and wrong is influenced by this tendency to understand things in isolation.

In the Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa offers a variety of same sounding words in order to explain various words. This basic procedure is called nirukti (Pāli nirutti) etymology after the text Nirukta by Yāska, a grammarian from about the 6th or 5th century BCE. In chapter VII Buddhaghosa explains the name/title Bhagavā in a whole series of nirukti etymologies, but in particular with this little verse from the Niddesa (a commentary which is included in the canon):
bhagī bhajī bhāgī vibhattavā iti
Akāsi bhaggan ti garu bhāgyavā
Bahūhi ñayehi subhāvitattano
Bhagavantago so bhagavā ti vuccati

The reverend one (garu) has blessings (bhagī), is a frequenter (bhajī), a partaker
(bhāgī) a possessor of what has been analysed (vibhattavā)
He has caused abolishing (bhagga), he is fortunate (bhāgyavā)
He has fully developed himself (subhāvitattano) in many ways
He has gone to the end of becoming (Bhagavantago) thus he is called "Blessed"
He also suggests that bhagavā can be understood as:
bhāgyavā bhaggavā yutto bhagehu can vibhattavā
bhattavā vanta-gamano bhavesu: bhagavā tato

He is fortunate (bhāgyavā), posssessed of abolishment (bhaggavā), associated with
blessings (yutto bhagehu), and a possessor of what has been analysed
He has frequented (bhattavā), and he has rejected going in the kinds of becoming
(VAnata-GAmano BHAvesu), thus he is Blessed (BHAGAVA)

(Visuddhimagga VII, 56, 57, p.225-226)
One of the things which makes the scientific etymologist doubtful about this approach is the obvious fluidity. In the space of two pages Buddhaghosa has offered two quite different versions of what bhagavā means. Our ideal is to have one explanation for each word. To some extent this is a hang over from what Umberto Eco calls "the search for the perfect language". For centuries westerners believed that in the perfect language (initially conceived of as the language which God spoke to Adam) each word would have a single referent, and each thing would have only one name. What we try to do with language is pin down meaning. Many people are disturbed by the fluid multiplicitous nature of the relationship between words and the world, but actually this is what language is like.

If one is familiar with Sanskrit or Pāli one might recognise that some of these words stem from the same notional verbal root, or are different only in their grammatical relationships. bhāgyavā and bhagavā for instance are both concieved of as stemming from a root bhaga (Sanskrit bhaj). However bhagga is from a different root, bhañj. So a theory of verbal roots cannot account for the relationship. In fact there is no obvious relationship between all of these words except for the the initial sound combination: /bha/. (In phonetics sound units or phonemes are placed between forward slashes, which helps in cases such as the letter c which can ambiguously sound like /k/ or /s/.)

Under the current paradigms of linguistics there is no possible relationship between sounds and meaning - these are denied by definition. So for linguists in general the fact that all these words share an initial sound is irrelevant to what the words mean. This has not always been the case in Western thinking. Plato put forward a partial account of the meaning of words based on the sounds of their letters in his Cratylus dialogue. He says for instance:
"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion".
There are clears parallels with Yāska's Nirukti method. Here Plato is suggesting that the letter rho (i.e. /r/) lends a quality of energy to words. Most contemporary linguists subscribe to a version of the idea of Ferdinand de Saussure (whose own theories on language were in fact influenced by his study of Sanskrit) which says that the relationship between a word and its referent is arbitrary. So any theory which posits a non-arbitrary link is de facto wrong. Behind the scenes however is a growing list of academic papers which demonstrate that the paradigm itself is unable to account for some obvious non-arbitrary links.

Margaret Magnus has definitively shown, in her doctoral thesis, the initial phoneme of a word has a symbolic function in the word. If one examines all words (with no suffixes) that begin with the same phoneme they fall into a smallish number of areas of meaning. Different phonemes create different clusters of meaning, and these do not overlap very much between phonemes. Her more popular account of what she calls "phonosemantics" is quite fun so rather than quote her research I'll give an example from her book Gods of the Word (full details below) which was written for a general audience. In what follows Magnus is describing, poetically and associatively, the impact of having the phoneme /r/ in a word, especially in the initial position:
"/r/ is active directed force. It is red, rowdy, and roguish. Run! Run! Run! But it is also rational. It does not feel. It reasons and acts. And reacts. If it is headed in the same direction as its neighbours, it can be supportive as rock. But if not, it leads to wrack and ruin. And /r/ is linear. It thinks in terms of 'right' and 'wrong'..."
In order to understand what Magnus is getting at one would need to comb through the dictionary and see that many of the /r/ words fit this picture that she is painting. If you have a spare hour this is a fun thing to do. The relationship is not one to one, it is fuzzy, it is symbolic. One cannot predict what sound that any given language will use for a particular referent. The pattern only emerges when comparing large numbers of words - Magnus was involved in creating an electronic dictionary when the patterns began to appear to her.

My feeling is that this contemporary research sheds light on the method of Buddhaghosa in defining words. It makes more sense when you know that initial phonemes do indeed effect what a word means.

I have long wondered whether this knowledge had any impact on the development of Buddhist mantra. While I have amassed a huge amount of information and many thousands of words of notes, I am still not in a position to assess it. I think it is suggestive that the Buddhist exegesis of mantra often focuses on individual syllables.

At the date of publication I am still largely responsible for the text of the Wikipedia article on sound symbolism or phonosemantics. This could change at any time of course. [Definitely changed 22.4.13] Another summary of sound symbolism can be found on

image: lipreading poster from

04 July 2008

Non-lexical utterances, stobhas, and mantra

In researching the background to Buddhist mantra I inevitably began to read about Vedic mantra. There is a lot more research on Vedic mantra and on the whole it is more interesting than research on Buddhist mantra, so far. Reading up on the Vedic tradition has given me an appreciation of the Vedic literature which is of surpassing beauty and profundity at times. I think we Buddhists tend to write off the other Indian scriptures but that is our loss. The Vedic tradition stands in relation to Indian culture rather like the Ancient Greeks do to Europe.

If you do read up on Vedic mantras you will find that mantra originally meant one of the hymns to the gods as exemplified and recorded in the Ṛgveda. The date of this text is disputed rather vigorously and sometimes hotly, but it seems likely that it was compiled around 1500-1200 BCE, probably out of an already existing oral literature. As the verses (or ṛk) began to be used ritually two things happened. Firstly an exegetic literature began to be composed to explain how, where, and when to use the verses in the rituals; and secondly the verses themselves were reframed. For my purpose today I want to draw attention to the Sāmaveda which reframes the Ṛgvedic verses by setting them to music. Verses sung or chanted to these rhythms and tunes as called sāman.

One of the key features of sāmans is the insertion of syllables to alter the metre of the original. These syllables are called stobha. Stobha can be one or two syllables. One list of stobha is:
ā (e)re hā-u is phat as hā hṃ iṭ pnya auhovā hahas ho-i kāhvau um bhā hai hum kit up dada hā-i hup mṛ vava (e)bṛ ham hvau nam vo-I (e)rā has ihi om (Staal Vedic Mantras p.61)
Recently I was revisiting some websites about the sounds that people make during conversations - which the researchers call "non-lexical utterances" or "conversational grunts". The interest in these sounds came out of research into human-computer interfaces. Here is a list of non-lexical utterances on one site:
ai hh-aaaah iiyeah okay nuuuuu ukay uam uumm yeahh am hhh m-hm okay-hh nyaa-haao um uh uun yeahuuh neeu ao hhh-uuuh mm ooa nyeah um-hm-uh-hm uh-hn uuuh yegh nuu aoo hhn mm-hm ookay o-w umm uh-hn-uh-hn uuuuuuu yeh-yeah ohh aum hmm mm-mm oooh oa ummum uh-huh wow yei yeah eah hmmmmm mmm ooooh oh unkay uh-mm yah-yeah yo ehh hn myeah oop-ep-oop oh-eh unununu uh-uh ye yyeah achh h-nmm hn-hn nn-hn u-kay oh-kay uu uh-uhmmm yeah ah haah huh nn-nnn u-uh oh-okay uuh uhh yeah-okay ahh hh i nu u-uun oh-yeah uum uhhh yeah-yeah (Reponsive Systems Project)
The list could be supplemented from popular music (think James Brown for instance!), or for that matter from serious vocal music, which also use non-lexical syllables to pad sentences or verses to fit a metre. These non-lexical sounds function as feedback to the speaker, and are uttered in concert with the speaker in order to let them know that they are being heard and understood. A lot (but not all) of the information conveyed by these non-lexical sounds is contained in the prosodic aspects of speech - tone of voice, inflection - along with non-verbal signals such as facial expression, hand gestures, and body posture. These can indicate the attitude of the listener to what is being said, and how they feel about it.

While we cannot confirm this, it seems reasonable to surmise that stobhas were drawn from non-lexical sounds amongst Vedic speakers at the time. This further suggests that stobhas not only help a verse to conform to a metre or rhythm, but may also have served another pragmatic function when chanted in sāmans. They may have been imitating prosodic elements of speakers of the time, incorporating information about responses to the sāman within it. It may be possible for a suitably qualified person to test this idea.

It is the conclusion of some researchers into mantra, Fritz Staal being the leading light, that because mantra contain non-lexical sounds, that they are "meaningless". We would have to agree that sounds like oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ do not have dictionary definitions, they do not refer to any "thing". However it's clear that Staal et al have been too narrowly focussed on semantics. Languistics may be focussed on words, but human communication involves very much more, and a great deal of communication may take place without any words at all. We can even make words mean the opposite of their dictionary meanin: I can say "I like your new haircut", while implying the exact opposite in an unequivocal way through the use of facial expression and vocal inflection for instance. (This is known technically as conversational implicature)

After the Ṛgvedic period mantras began to make more use of non-lexical sounds. Staal sees this as a persistence of primitive pre-linguistic sounds into the present: they are like bird song, animal noises, or the burbling of infants, and quite meaningless. They are the caveman grunts of popular imagination, retained by Indian religious leaders for ritual purposes. If we for a moment accept Staal's hypothesis his analysis of those kinds of sounds is grossly oversimplified since all three of these phenomena are far from meaningless if one knows how to listen. Worse still Staal appears to be making some unfortunate, rather "orientalist", implications about the subjects of his studies. This inelegant hypothesis is untestable, and does not open the way to further research. It certainly does not chime with the experience of mantra. Kūkai goes to the other extreme and counts every mantric syllable as being infinitely meaningful, and being the starting point for elucidating all knowledge and experience. In this he is adopting a world view which has its basis in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. A full explanation of Kūkai idea deserves it's own essay, and goes beyond what I am suggesting here. Not that I disagree, but I am looking for intermediate steps that make sense in a contemporary context.

Stobhas used in sāmans may well have been the model for the use of non-lexical syllables in mantra although this would be difficult to prove. They do bear a resemblance to non-lexical sounds used meaningfully in conversation by contemporary English speakers (and others). But even if they did not what it suggests to me is that we can look for meaning in ways that might not be obvious, and still not have to stray into metaphysics and mysticism. It may be that no explanation in these terms can fully comprehend mantra. That is not a problem. But in attempting such an explanation I think we can shed a lot more light on this subject, and make it more accessible in the process. The "mantras are meaningless" mantra is a dead end as far as research goes, and as far as elucidating the persistence of mantra over several millennia in Indian religious contexts.

image: The Reading Genie - "Say ah!"

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.


01 May 2007

What's in a name?

RoseIf a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, what would Shakespeare have made of roses with no smell at all? If the smell is the thing, then why not just call Turkish Delight "Rose". Does "rosey cheeks" refer to the way someone smells? The relationship of words to things is one of the most fascinating philosophical problems. Most people take up one of two extreme positions on this subject: firstly that names are natural to their object, and secondly that names are entirely conventional, the latter being the most common way of thinking about it at present. Plato explored both sides of the debate in his Cratylus dialogue but typically did not commit to either view. What follows is an attempt at a Buddhist perspective on the problem, heavily informed by the writing of George Lakoff.*

There is a fundamental error which has persisted almost throughout the history of thinking about this problem. The assumption has always been that there is a one to one relationship between a word and the thing it names, and that the 'things' are unitary. So dog is one 'thing' and rose is another 'thing', and the ideal language, a dream of scholars both biblical and secular, would have only one word for each thing. The things are assumed to be unitary for the purposes of naming, even though we know them to be a collection of attributes. All of this multiplicity of reference and meaning seems untidy somehow.

If, the argument goes, there was a natural relationship between words and things, then everyone would use the same word for a thing. Therefore because different languages use different names for things, there is no natural relationship - words are arbitrary. This is the current paradigm for thinking about the relationship between words and things. The hypothesis is made only slightly more sophisticated by an acknowledgement that our choice of words is not entirely free, but constrained by 'socially agreed rules' such as the phonetic pallet of a language. However this holds only if we first make the assumption that the thing being named is unitary and that it is viewed identically by everyone everywhere. Simple observation should be enough to tell us that things are not unitary they are complex, nor are people always agreed on what they perceive. And yet on this assumption rests most of contemporary linguistics!

Within any category of object there is a great deal of variation. A great-dane is a dog, as is a poodle or a corgi. But these creatures are really quite different in some ways as well. George Lakoff tells us that they fit the category dog because of their shared features, but that some will seem more typically like a dog to us, and some less. He refers to these typical category members as protoypes. This is crucial. When I say 'dog' I may have a different beast in mind than when you say 'dog', especially if we come from different cultures. Often we are quite atuned to such subtle differences. We have quite a few words in English: dog, canine, mutt, cur, hound, mongrel, spaniel, tyke, bitch, pup, pooch, 'man's best friend', plus as many as 200 breeds. And we probably know when each word fits. Sometimes I might even, if only ironically, dispute that the animal in question is a member of the category: "call that a dog?". Think about how we use dog in metaphors as refering to a subordinate position, or loyalty, or persistence, or a keen sense of smell. As well there are many ways to see a dog: as a working dog, a hunting dog, a lap dog, a guard dog, a circus dog, a food item, etc. We may change the word we use for the dog depending on whether the dog has shit on our carpet or not! "Dog" is not a simple unitary concept- it is, as we Buddhists say, compounded and has a subjective component. But because we have a tendency to focus unconsciously on prototypes, we come to believe that a dog is a dog is a dog.

If we have different images of the archetypal dog, and if perhaps we interact differently with dogs, and we actually do have a number of words to suit the occasion, then it makes perfect sense that someone from a another culture uses a different word to the one I use. This needn't lead to the conclusion that words are arbitrary, only to the conclusion that the relationship between words and things is complex, because we and things are complex.

What I'm arguing for is a more nuanced view of words, things, and the relationships between them - for a middle way. A Buddhist theory of naming, on the grounds of observation, must refuse to see things as either determined or random, these are extremes. Equally it would not see the complex as simple. It would refute the notion of "dogness" - an essence possessed by all dogs upon which the name hangs. Such an essence cannot be found. I've mainly address the question from the point of view of debunking the 'arbitrary' argument. Sometime I'd like to look at the other side of the equation - the 'naturalness argument.

Would it really have mattered if Juliet was a Montague? Well probably not, but it might have mattered if she had been a dog! Is this stuff important? Well I believe that the way we use words tells us a lot about the working of the mind, and to a Buddhist there is no more important subject!

* My thoughts on this are influenced in particular by:
George Lakoff (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Uni of Chicago Press
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By.
Uni of Chicago Press

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.