31 December 2010

Blog for Corrections to Nāmapada

I'm keen to keep track of user generated corrections, and new names which require new entries in a future edition. So I've created a blog for this purpose: namapada.blogspot.com.

29 December 2010

Visible Mantra Press

I've now published a second book under the Visible Mantra Press imprint via the Lulu print on demand service. My two books are

Nāmapada : A Guide to Names in the Triratna Buddhist Order.

Pilgrimage Diary (a first person account of being on pilgrimage in India)

My third book will be the book of this website. It is taking longer than I expected - my proofreader has taken several months already - it's a complex task involving multiple languages and scripts. However work is continuing on it. With the biennial Triratna Order Convention coming up in August 2011 I'm hoping to have the Visible Mantra Book finished by then.

25 December 2010

Mantra Quote

"The mantras, however, are mysterious and each word is profound in meaning. When they are transliterated into Chinese, the original meanings are modified and the long and short vowels are confused. In the end we can get roughly similar sounds but not precisely the same ones. Unless we use Sanskrit, it is hardly possible to differentiate the long and short sounds. The purpose of retaining the source materials, indeed, lies here."

- Kūkai. Shōrai mokuroku in Hakeda. Kūkai: Major Works, p.144

28 November 2010

Capitalising Mantras

The use of capital letters for mantras is puzzling a times. Take the mantra oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ. It's not uncommon to see this written Om Mani Padme Hum, or Even Om Ma Ni Pa Dme Hum etc. Wikipedia is full of this kind of idiosyncratic capitalisation and very resistant to change! Scholars often resort to all-caps: OM MANIPADME HUM. (Note that maṇipadme is one word, not two.)

No Indic script, including Tibetan as far as I know, has capital letters. They just write the sounds, though of course Tibetan includes a number of decorative characters but these are often used to mark the beginning of sentences or texts as a whole and aren't specific to mantras. But let me concentrate on what I know well which is Indic.

Capitals are supposed to be used for proper nouns, for the beginning of a sentence, and for the words in the title of a publication. But of course they are also, less conventionally, used for emphasis in things like advertising slogans and newspaper headlines. All-caps are OK though they don't look so good with Diacritics, and with longer mantras are difficult to read. In this age of email and SMS they appear to SHOUT! Capitalising every word looks a bit vulgar to me, like a slogan. Capitalising every syllable is ridiculous. Some of habits of capitalising religious words date back to the King James authorised version of the Bible which capitalises anything to do with God "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1.1). It's almost as though by using capitals we are seeking to assert the special status of written mantras, an assertion that Indians felt no need to make. If we think a mantra is special then it is only piety to insist on it, and makes us look insecure in our belief. Capitals add nothing to the mantra really - after all the mantra is in the sounds, not the letters themselves, especially not the Roman script letters.

Over many years of contemplating mantras, especially in their written forms I've come to the conclusion that what marks the mantra out is usually the oṃ. Oṃ in Buddhism doesn't have the same kind of mystic symbolism as in Hinduism. Mainly what is says is "what follows is a mantra."

I've long just used lower-case for mantras, along with the academic convention of italics for foreign words. I think mantras are easier to read this way, and the diacritics are easy to see (for those who use them, and everyone should). It also seems a less strident, less ostentatiously pious, more confident way of writing mantras. On the whole we know the significance of a mantra if we are writing it and there's no need for a song and dance routine. Of course there is room for calligraphy and for decorative writing, but if we are representing the sounds then I advocate just using standard English conventions for capitalisation.

The correct way to write the mantra is: oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ.

13 November 2010


I was interviewed by Ted of The Secular Buddhist. We talked about lots of stuff but especially karma, rebirth, and my brand of pragmatic Buddhism. www.thesecularbuddhist.com.

09 November 2010

A Real Buddhist Tattoo

So. I'm still regularly asked for tattoo designs, for advice about tattoos. I still regularly get people who want tattoos of glib slogans, in scripts that they can't read, and in languages they don't speak. Often they can't distinguish between a script and a language. And in any case the tattoo is destined for some place they can't see. I'm seldom thanked for my responses because I'm honest about being bemused by the idea of tattooing something incomprehensible on one's body as a reminder of anything. I ask why someone would do such a thing, why they would spend money on it. Often a lot of money.

So I was giving some though to a really appropriate Buddhist Tattoo. I think the ideal would be to have this tattooed in English somewhere prominent that you can see:


This seems to me to contain the essential thing that most people need to be reminded of, and doesn't pander to cosy New Age nonsense or soft-peddle the Buddha's message. This is really something that will make you stop and think about what you are doing and why. In view of the fact that you could die any time without notice are you fully prepared, is what you are doing right now the most important thing for you?

Of course there will die-hards who believe in the magical power of Sanskrit and Asian writing systems. So I have translated this in Sanskrit:


Here it is in Siddhaṃ script:

Here it is in Tibetan script and orthography (but still in the Sanskrit language).

Please feel free to use these images for tattoos. Send me pictures!

02 November 2010

British Library Lotus Sūtra Lectures

Free Talks at the British Library on 23rd November

In order to mark the recent publication of the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra Manuscript from the British Library (Or. 2204): Facsimile Edition, the IOP-UK and SGI in association with the British Library are presenting two talks on the Lotus Sutra. Jamie Cresswell, Director of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy - UK, will host an evening of lectures by international experts on the transmission and uses of the Lotus Sutra in different cultural contexts. Lectures by
  • Dr Sam Van Schaik (British Library) ‘The Lotus Sutra on the Silk Road and in China,
  • Dr Lucia Dolce (SOAS) ‘Practices of the Lotus Sutra in Japan’

23rd November 2010 from 6.30 pm to 9.00pm.
At the British Library Conference Centre
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB.

All are welcome to this event and tickets must be booked in advance: Book Tickets here.

18 October 2010

Rigpa Mantras

I'm a fan of the Rigpa Wiki website. I've just found that they have quite a few mantras, with some of them written out in dbu-can script. Overall I find it a handy reference for Tibetan iconography and have used it recently for the proper Tibetan spelling of names for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

16 October 2010


From my book on Buddhist names:

śraddhā (f.)
m. (in compounds only) śraddha. (Pāli saddhā) “faith, trust, confidence, loyalty” < śrad + dhā ‘to put or place’. Sanskrit śrad is believed to be from the PIE root *√kerd > Latin cred, and so probably allied to Latin credo (cred + do) and English creed, though śrad does not survive as an independent word, except perhaps in the form √hṛd, e.g. hṛdaya 'heart'. The literal meaning, then, is ‘to put one’s heart on’.
I was thinking about how to explain the meaning in Sanskrit:

The text reads: śraddha tatra hṛdaya mama dadhāmi. Faith: there I place my heart. Or perhaps it should be where yatra.

10 October 2010

Book Progress

Visible Mantra: Visualising and Writing Buddhist Mantras (the book of this website) is making progress. I have given it to a proof reader (for the English parts). I've mentioned to my friend who can read Sanskrit in various scripts, as well as Tibetan and Chinese that I'm hoping he'll proof read the mantras for me. And finally I've commissioned an artist friend, who has often done work which incorporated syllables and mantras, to design the cover.

I have some difficult decisions regarding copyright material. I use quotes on the website, and though I'm always careful to cite my sources and link to them, this is not sufficient for a book I intend to sell. I will either need to pay for the use of copyright material, and I'm uncertain of the cost; or I will have to find a way of getting that information across that is not an obvious breach of the law (mainly to ensue that I'm not sued!).

Work always progresses more slowly than I imagine it might, but I want to have the book definitely finished for the Triratna Buddhist Order Convention in August, 2011. I plan to have a book stall at the convention with three books for sale.

My other publishing project - Nāmapada: a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist Order - is going through another fiddly proofing/editing cycle, but should be finished by the end of October.

06 October 2010

Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra

My article the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra has been published in the Western Buddhist Review, Vol.5. This article draws together some of the ideas which can be found on the Visible Mantra Vajrasattva page, but goes further to consider why the received version in the Tibetan tradition is different from the Sanskrit version in the Triratna Community Pūja Book, and to consider issues of authority in Buddhism.

My Teacher Sangharakshita received the mantra from Dudjom Rinpoche and part of the reason for writing the article was a brief dialogue we had about the version of the mantra to chant. Sangharakshita was very keen that we pronounce the mantra as he received it.

The Sanskrit version was an intriguing reconstruction created by Dr Andrew Skilton in 1990 (who was at the time a member of the Order). From a mantra which seemed like the usual collect of mantra words, arranged with no regard for grammar he managed to find a series of well-formed Sanskrit sentences. His main procedure was to place word breaks differently.

Far too late to affect the article I discovered the mantra in the Sarvatathāgata-Tattvasaṃgraha and with my friend Maitiu O'Ceileachair established that it was the earliest version of the mantra in the Chinese Canon, which makes it likely to be the earliest version full stop. We compared the Chinese versions, with two Tibetan, and two Sanskrit manuscripts, and realised that Skilton's reconstructed version was largely accurate. So I have identified a problem of authority. Clearly for many Buddhists it is more important to recite a mantra as it was given by a teacher; while for others it is important to recite it as it originally appears in the texts. A third group are concerned with having accurate Sanskrit above other conditions, and are happy to correct both teachers and texts where obvious errors exist. The Hundred Syllable Mantra offers scope for all three groups.

In addition I make some observations about the types of changes that can be observed in the Tibetan. I was somewhat surprised to realise that the most plausible explanation was that at some point a Tibetan misread a Sanskrit manuscript, as opposed to mishearing, or simply mispronouncing the mantra. This point is related to how Sanskrit is written and in particular how sandhi affects word breaks. I recognised the mistakes as one's that I often make as a neophyte Sanskritist.

I avoid coming to any firm conclusion regards authority - rather than trying to prescribe, I am trying to describe the present situation and set out the arguments for both sides. I do have an opinion, but I wanted mainly to make clear what the issues are as a way to stimulate discussion within the Triratna Order.

04 October 2010


Originally uploaded by jayarava
The anusvāra or 'after-sound' is ordinarily added to an Indic syllable to indicate the vowel is nasalised. In Roman script it is written ṃ or ṁ (either is correct). The sound is similar to the French nasal vowels so that oṃ ought to rhyme with bon.

This form, the candra-bindu (moon & drop), also called anunāsika 'from the nose', is added to Devanāgarī semivowels - ya ra la va - when they are nasalised: यँ रँ लँ वँ. However in practice only lṃ is found in Sanskrit.

Hindi employs the candra-bindu routinely unless the letter has a vowel marker which extends above the line: हँ हाँ हिं हीं हुँ हूँ हृँ हें हैं हों हौं. Hindi also has the candra on its own हॉ.

However the sign has esoteric connotations, and is routinely added to seed-syllables (bījākṣara). The anusvāra is called kūten (空点)*, the ‘void point’ in Japanese esoteric Buddhism (Chinese 空點). (空) here meaning śūnyatā or emptiness (i.e. the quality of lacking svabhāva or own-being). Ten (点) just means mark, point or dot.

Adding anusvāra to a syllable indicates that the syllable never quite ends, but fades into a nasal hum, and by analogy the concept conveyed by the syllable merges into emptiness.

* Adrian Snodgrass has the spelling kūden in his book on the Diamond and Matrix maṇḍalas. Thanks to Maitiu O'Ceileachair for pointing out an error with the Kanji!

03 October 2010


Watching Tashi's video (see below) I was inspired to create a seal design for my name. This uses the script known as phags-pha. The Bablestone website tells us that this is an old Uighur script. The Uighers are a Turkic speaking people who live in the steps north of China, especially in the Xinjiang province.

The geometric forms of the letters makes them suitable for inscriptions (carved in stone for instance) and seals (which are in fact often carved in soft stone.

Here is ja ya ra va surmounted by anunāsika or the more elaborate form of the anusvāra with chanda/bindu.

Short Film on Tashi Mannox

Tashi Mannox - Tibetan Calligrapher from Planetary Productions on Vimeo.

02 October 2010

Magic Tattoos

Today's Independent has a feature on Cambodian 'magic' tattoos:

The Girl with the Magic Tattoo.
Even with Angelina Jolie's approval, Cambodia's mystical body artists are struggling to survive.

These tattoos often feature texts in Pāli, written in the Cambodian script (aka Khmer) which itself ultimately derives from the Indian Brahmī script.

This is the one Buddhist culture I know of which has a tradition of tattoo. Although the story suggests that the art is dying out in Cambodia, it is alive and well in the rest of the world - as an internet search will reveal - partly because of celebrities getting this kind of tattoo.

27 September 2010

Hūṃ on bodhi leaf.

Originally uploaded by jayarava
I have been mucking about with a Chinese calligraphy brush lately. This is a hūṃ in the Tibetan dbu-can (Uchen) script. It is painted on a bodhi tree leaf, from my own bodhi tree which I grew from a seed collected in Bodhgaya under The Bodhi Tree.

17 September 2010

Article on the Origins of Alphabet

Rollston, Christopher. The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet: Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus. American Schools of Oriental research (ASOR) Blog, featured article.

16 September 2010


My block of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) numbers arrived today. The publisher prefix for Visible Mantra Press is: 978-0-9566929. This is a global unique identifier and means that Visible Mantra Press has been registered internationally as a publisher. Another milestone for the creation of my publishing empire!

Our first book will be Nāmapada: a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist Order (ISBN 978-0-9566929-0-0 ) which I am working on in parallel to Visible Mantra (the book) while I wait for my proof copy to arrive and then my proof readers to finish their work. Visible Mantra will be second, and then I'll be considering what to do next. I have a lot of mantra material, but would also love to write something about Kūkai. I would also like to produce an edition of Plato's Cratylus with an introductory essay on sound symbolism (or phonosemantics as it is sometimes called) and the relationship to mantra. There are one or two people I'd like to contact about producing paperback editions of hard to find, or expensive books as well. I need to look into distribution deals and the like, but only once I have something to show people.

While I'm not quite ready to accept submissions, I hope to solicit manuscripts once my own major projects are in print - realistically this will be in 2012.

15 September 2010


Stumbled on an excellent webpage for the Cundi mantra today while answering a question for the Omniglot blog. Lots of background info and links to other info.

Cundi is a form of Avalokiteśvara. The Cundi site thinks she may be a Buddhist form of the goddess Caṇḍī, a non-vedic tribal goddess from Bengal. There are other non-vedic goddesses as well particularly (Pāli) Siri, (Sanskrit) Śrī, who becomes Lakṣmī - a goddess of luck.

10 September 2010

Book Progress

I have just completed rebuilding the book and sent it off to get a proof copy printed. This is such a relief as I was at this stage almost a year ago when the Word file I was working with broke. There will still be quite a lot of proof reading to do - and because of the plethora of scripts this is no mean feat. So far we have: Siddhaṃ, Lantsa/Ranjana, dbu-can, dbu-med, Devanāgarī, Kanji/Hanzi, and Sinhala. Also minor use of Kharoṣṭhī and Brahmī. In addition there are the fun mantras in Klingon and Elvish. In terms of languages there are words in English, Sanskrit, Pāli, Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan. And to think the Triratna in-house publisher Windhorse Publications turned down this book! Fortunately I have a friend who can read all of the above and I think I can induce him to check everything for me.

Still. Progress is steady now and I expect to see the book through to completion by early 2011.

My while waiting for the proof of Visible Mantra to arrive I plan to put the finishing touches on another little book called 'Nāmapada: a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist Order' which is a glossary of terms used in our names, with etymologies and cognates from other European languages, and a brief guide to constructing Sanskrit compounds. This is aimed at the Triratna movement obviously.

I finished my Pilgrimage Diary some time back. So Visible Mantra Press is now airworthy and getting ready to fly. If you have a book length project related to mantra and would like to get it published I would be interested to take on such work in the future - I'd like to build up a catalogue of niche publications on mantra, utilising print-on-demand to get around the problem of the smallness of the market.

09 September 2010

Photography Exhibition

Cheryl includes images of Tibetan calligraphy (some from Visible Mantra) in her art work. If you are in New York, Oct 7-29 do check it out at the Pratt Manhatten CCPS Gallery! Also see her website www.stockshotstudio.com.

29 August 2010

Book Progress

I've started posting images of Lansta script mantras on the Visible Mantra Facebook page as I create them for the book. As I am using a font for them I feel they are not proprietary and I'm happy to just give them away. The book follows the order of the website Mantras page which will give you an idea of where I'm up to.

24 August 2010


I've finally figured out that the CBETA Lantsa font is what has been causing technical difficulties with turning visiblemantra.org into a book. For some reason it breaks the pdf creator and leaves me unable to create the files I need to publish. So I'm now in the process of turning all those mantras and bījas into images.

It's been two years since I made the decision to create the book. Each mantra will have four scripts: Siddhaṃ, Tibetan, Lantsa, and Devanāgarī. I had been using fonts for Lantsa as the calligraphy is too difficult for me. I have created all new calligraphy for it, of much higher quality than what is on the website.

It will take a few months to create all the new images and reconfigure the book. But this is the first progress I've made for some time. There is now a good prospect of getting the book out next year. Once the book is finished I will need to bring the website up to the same standard though I imagine it will be a long process.

In the meantime if you are interested my Pilgrimage Diary is available via Lulu.com.

Missing Websites

The Mật Tông Vietnamese Esoteric Buddhism - website (mattong.wordpress.com) seems to have disappeared which is a shame. Although the main language was Vietnamese there were some very fine examples of Siddhaṃ and Lantsa caligraphy on the site.

Also the SiddhaṃKey site seems to have shrunk to almost nothing as well with only the front page and an image of the word Siddhaṃ left. I never used their Siddhaṃ keyboard as I don't like the CBETA font, but I did find the Lantsa keyboard useful.

I've been in touch with Khai who created both of these sites and he just says he removed them "for personal reasons". There is a possibility of having new sites so, hopefully

I've uploaded the CBETA Siddham font to my site. You can download it from there. It has some limitations and I don't personally use it, but it would be a shame if it disappeared completely. I note it has been used extensively on the Wikipedia Siddhaṃ page.

30 July 2010

Jayarava Inteviewed for Buddhist Geeks

A while back I was approached to do an email interview on the subject of Buddhist Calligraphy for the Buddhist Geeks blog. The interview, entitled Mantra, Tantra and the Art of Beautiful Writing has now appeared on the Buddhist Geeks website, which I suppose confirms my status as a Buddhist geek! Hopefully more people will give some thought to taking up this fascinating and beautiful art.

05 July 2010

The Master at Work

Tashi Mannox has just posted another YouTube video of himself doing some calligraphy of the letters ཡག་གཟུགས་དམ་པ - yag gzugsa dma pa meaning 'sacred calligraphy'. It's great to be able to watch a really skilled calligrapher at work.

Sacred calligraphy in Sanskrit would be āryakalyāṇalekhā (आर्यकल्याणलेखा) - ārya 'noble, sacred'; kalyāṇa 'beautiful, excellent, noble, auspicious' is cognate with the Greek καλλι (calli-) 'beautiful'; and writing is lekhā, from √likh 'to scratch'.

01 July 2010

Uṣnīṣa-vijaya Dhāraṇī

I recently found the online "Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University" and have been working through some of the articles. One which might interest readers of this blog is:
Akira Yuyama 'An Uṣṇīṣa-Vijayā Dhāraṇī Text from Nepal' ARIRIAB. (pdf) p.165-175
As the author points out the manuscript was very poorly copied, but he does reconstruct the text and this gives a complete dhāraṇī which is rather too long to quote here (plus the pdf is an image and not text)

30 June 2010

New Book

My copy of 梵字必携―書写と解読 has just arrived. I bought it off Ebay which is the first success I've had with that website! (though the cover is much plainer than this Amazon image) The Google translation of the title is: "Sanskrit manual - inscription and decryption". Having seen the monumental Bonji Taikan ( 梵字大鑑) one can see that this is simply a cut down version of that book - more or less identical but less elaborate. This makes it perfect for me as I don't read Japanese anyway and I'm more interested in the pictures of Siddhaṃ characters.

I'd recommend this to the serious student - it has a complete syllabary, lots of conjuncts, some complex bīja, mantras, and a complete Heart Sūtra with a calligraphic commentary showing alternate letter forms.

24 June 2010

Aother Siddhaṃ Manuscript of the Heart Sūtra

Vinod alerted me to another Siddhaṃ manuscript of the Heart Sūtra on Wikimedia (a sister site to Wikipedia for uploading out of copyright images). He thinks it may be Sogdian. We don't know much about it as the source simply uploaded it and cannot say much about it's provenance.

The hand is quite rough and inconsistent - not very beautiful. There is a great deal of variability between letters. I'm not sure whether to criticise the wavey lines as they may have been induced by the medium - birchbark does this I think. Reading through the text there are a number of corruptions and omissions. But we should not be surprised by this as it is common. And given that the scribe was a sloppy writer it is not a stretch to think they were a sloppy copyist as well. There is what looks like an explanation of the mantra (perhaps pronunciation instructions?) in another script which I cannot identify at the end.

One of the features of the writing is that the pen is held close to vertical. This gives the syllables a 'blocky' feel with heavy horizontal lines. Another distinctive feature is that words are separated by a dot - this is not quite like the Tibetan tsheg which separates syllables, but not an Indian practice either.

The akṣara heads are simply a horizontal line which is typical of manuscript Siddhaṃ - the elaborate wavy lines on Japanese Siddhaṃ appear to be an Asian innovation.

A long ā diacritic moves diagonally up and and away from the head, rather than either vertically or curving downwards. (see image right)

If you are used to contemporary Asian Siddhaṃ then some of the letter forms might appear unusual. I've cut out some of the interesting akṣara and labelled them. The ca is similar to Tibetan forms (which are more closely related to their progenitors than either Siddhaṃ or Devanāgarī). The ṇa is like nothing I've seen before and I only know it from the context. Ta (here with the ā diacritic) is more like a modern bha, whereas the bha is closer to the Lantsa bha (again I think this is an earlier form preserved). Note that sa and śa are very similar. In fact sa looks like a Devanāgarī bha and śa like a Devanāgarī sa.

I think this text demonstrates how difficult it can be to move from the clean lines and tidy arrangement of contemporary Siddhaṃ calligraphy to the manuscript tradition. I can more or less read this text as long as I have a Sanskrit Heart Sūtra handy to fill in the gaps. But I have seen a lot worse than this!

If anyone has more information about this manuscript - such as where and when it is from then I would love to hear from you.

Note 29.11.12. I have reason to believe that this ms. is the one referred to by Edward Conze in the notes to his critical edition of the Heart Sutra: Conze (1948: 49), and Conze (1967: 154) Ms. Nm/Cg.
Bibliothèque Nationale [de France] 62 no.139. Pelliot Sogdien. 
The text is the same as that published in Benveniste, Émile. Textes sogdiens. 1940; the image file name includes the text "Pel.sogd". I can't find the image or the record for it on the BNF site, so I've written to them for confirmation, but I'm fairly certain.

The ms. dates from ca. 1800, and is written in the Sogdiana form of Siddhaṃ. It was found in Dunhuang by French Sinologist Paul Pelliot in 1910.</

17 June 2010

Green Tārā Mantra

I've been recording the Tārā mantra for someone recently and took this screen shot. The original is on my Flickr page.

13 June 2010

Korean Siddhaṃ

Someone sent in this inscription transcribed from a Korean bell - (14-15th C?) at the Jogye-sa Temple, Seoul. The bell also had It also had 'namo Amitabha' in Chinese on it.

The question is what do these lines say? They are clearly a Brahmi derived script - related to Siddhaṃ or Ranjana. I've come across one or two other similar Korean inscriptions but have yet to find a definitive guide to help me read them.

One useful source is found in: Tatsuon Maruyama. Sanskrit-Japanese dictionary of dharanis: The Darani-jiten (Sata-pitaka series : Indo-Asian literatures) International Academy of Indian Culture, 1981. This has a Korean syllabary (P.48 f) but it is not identical to the kinds of inscriptions I've seen. So I cannot confidently read this inscription. I'll give my guesses but I would very much like to here from anyone who can read this!

The first character in both lines is oṃ. Actually I think this is the only example I have seen of auṃ in a Buddhist inscription. The other characters all look to be single syllables rather than conjuncts which makes it easier.

So line 1 character 1 (1.1) is oṃ. 1.2-4 are repeated at 2.6-8. 1.2 looks most like bha, but I would hold open the possibility of ha. 1.3 looks like ta. 1.4 could be ka, but I think it is na. In some early forms of Siddhaṃ one sees this style of na which was the template for the Tibetan na. This gives us oṃ bha ta na, or ha ta na (with bha ta ka as an outside possibility). My correspondent (who is very familiar with Sanskrit) thought the marks on the top left of some characters are 'e' diacritics. It's a bit inconsistent to be sure. The obviously problem with this reading is that none of the possibilities are Sanskrit or anything like Sanskrit. So I've got it completely wrong, or this is not Sanskrit. Certainly Siddhaṃ is used to write Japanese in contemporary Japan, but usually only as a novelty item.

On line two we begin with oṃ again. 2.2 I read 'na' (as above). 2.3 seems very likely to be va or ba. 2.4 looks like ca. 2.5 offers some possibilities. Ya might be an obvious guess, but going by the Dictionary of Dhāraṇīs I would expect the ya to be more like the Ranjana ya - less rounded. From the same source both pa and gha appear similar. 2.6-8 as I say are as above. Again this is either completely wrong or not Sanskrit.

oṃ bha ta ne
oṃ na va ca pa bha ta na

If anyone can do better than this I would be delighted to hear from you!

My friend Maitiu has written to me about this:
My first thought was that it looked like the Bhujimol script of Nepal. I thought the second syllable (1.2) was a da (if you look at the related modern Bengali script you can see the similarity) but I'm not sure the mantra makes any sense if you do that. The 1.3 looks like a Bhujimol ra and 1.4 looks like an unusual ka. 2.3 looks like a va or ba but 2.4 is ca which suggests vaca. If 2.2 is ka that would give kavaca, armour, war-drum, amulet, especially a charm inscribed with a bīja. Kavaca is a classic piece of Tantric terminology.

2.5 could be a pa or a ya, they're hard to tell apart in Bhujimol, but it looks more like a ya and that would probably make more sense. Going back to 1.2 it doesn't look exactly like a Bhujimol bha but it's close enough to be possible. I'm assuming that the mark on the head bar of this syllable is an e diacritic and then 1.2-3 would give bhera, a kettle-drum, from the root bhī. Bheraka isn't in the dictionary but bhīraka, bhīruka meaning fearful, formidable derived from the same root. Anyway that's my best guess at trying to decipher the mantra. It's a shame we can't see the original. The script doesn't seem to be exactly Siddhaṃ or Bhujimol but another intermediate form of the Eastern Devanagari script.
I've noticed in looking Siddhaṃ mantras in the Taisho Tripitaka that vowels can be shifted inadvertently - perhaps a shift from bhī > bhe may be understandable (I've seen speculation that this might be due to the accents of some of the intermediaries). So the mantras here might also be:

oṃ bheraka
oṃ kavaca bheraka

This is certainly more plausible, though I can't find this mantra or a mantra of which this is a fragment.


My informant tells me that there are similar inscriptions on the Yonboksa Bell.

The last Indian Acārya to visit Korea was Chikong (Dhyānabhadra). He arrived in Korea in the 1340s and established the Juniper Rock Monastery on the pattern of the Nalanda University. Its foundations can be seen near Seoul. He wrote Sanskrit dhāraṇī-mantras on the gigantic Yonboksa Bell for the liberation and peace of the Korean People from Mongol dominatio [Lokesh Chandra. 'Interface of India with other Asian Lands.' Dialogue July - September, 2003 , Volume 5 No. - online www.asthabharati.org]

Also in: Robinson, David M. Empire's Twilight: Northeast Asia Under the Mongols (p.122)

Google Books.


11 June 2010

Siddhaṃ Manuscript

I was looking at the Siddhaṃ article on Wikipedia tonight and noticed some new edits including a picture of a manuscript described as "A replica of siddhaṃ manuscript on palm-leaf in 609 CE." I was casually looking at it and saw the Heart Sūtra mantra - gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā - and then sure enough the entire Heart Sūtra, followed by the beginning of another text I have yet to identify. I've emailed the uploader (who seems to have copied it from a book) but as yet know nothing more about it.

The original manuscript was published in Buddhist Texts from Japan. (Anecdota Oxoniensia, Aryan series), 1881. (now out of copy-right), online: www.archive.org ; and reproduced in 'Buddhist Mantras of Sanskrit Siddhaṃ': www.wisdombox.org [pdf]

The Sūtra starts at the beginning of the first page, and ends at the end of line one of the second page. I'll try to find the time to transcribe the whole thing, but in the mean time here is the mantra section which begins slightly to the right of halfway along the first line of the second page:

tadythā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā *

The Heart Sūtra is followed by the Uṣnīṣavijaya Dhāraṇī.

The last line is a syllabary. It begins with a flourish and then the word "siddhaṃ" then the Sanskrit alphabet in the usual order ending with "...llaṃ kṣa."

04 June 2010


Seems like it's time to restate my thinking on tattoos because too many people are getting offended by my response to requests for help with tattoos. When someone asks me for a tattoo design I look for some things:

Does the person understand the thing they want tattooed? If someone is saying "I want this Buddhist symbol (often a seed syllable) tattooed on me, what does it mean?" then I start to switch off. If you don't know what it means, why are you looking to get a tattoo of it?

Is the person a Buddhist practitioner? Some people just want something that looks good. End of discussion, I'm not interested.

Does the person have a context? Sometimes people who are Buddhists will find a mantra on the internet and have no idea of what it means or the context for it's application but they think it is cool. It isn't. If you have no one around to explain a practice, if you are relying on a book or (worse) the internet, then don't do the practice. I'd make an exception for doing an online meditation course like that offered by wildmind.org, but that is carefully thought out and provides a lot of support and guidance - you get contact with real people. I usually want to know what kind of Buddhism you practice and who your teacher is, if only for interest's sake. If you say "so and so gave me this mantra and I'm looking for help visualising it" then I will do what I can to help.

Has the person done their own research? Of course some things are secret or not much written about and so it can be difficult to find out about them. See the point above. But if someone wants the Medicine Buddha mantra then I expect them to have read and studied the relevant material, and to have developed a genuine connection with the mantra. This usually shows when a person writes to me. And again I will do what I can to help.

Finally, and this is me being a bit grumpy and capricious, Sanskrit is a language and not a script. If you don't know the difference then I'm less likely to help. I can write Sanskrit in several scripts - Devanāgarī, dbu-can, Siddhaṃ, Lantsa (a bit). Be clear about what you want, else you don't come across as serious.

Actually one more thing. I've studied this stuff for years, and worked on improving my skills. Doing calligraphy takes time and costs money. Be prepared to offer me something for my work up front, don't wait for me to ask. It need not be much, whatever you can afford - or maybe you have a skill you can trade with me (I need proof reading done for instance). But show me that you value my work. So many people fail to even say thanks when I've spent time doing calligraphy for them.

Don't expect me to get excited about tattoos. I don't see the point. I have a few friends with them, and I've done designs for some, but only when someone has ticked all the boxes above. My advice is don't get a tattoo: go on retreat, or do a meditation course, or go see your teacher, or start learning a relevant language, or learn calligraphy yourself. Calligraphy is a wonderful art that few people consider taking up - but if you can write then you can do calligraphy.

28 May 2010

A common question

āṃḥ Buddhist TattooI've lost count of the number of times I've been asked about one particular bīja or akṣara. In Roman it is: āṃḥ. It seems that one particular version of this has captured the imagination of people browsing the web (see left). I'm not clear where the original came from, but it may be attributable to tattoo artist Andy Shou.

In my opinion this letter is not particularly well done, the lines are somewhat skewed - it is probably a design rather than calligraphy and therefore lacks the proper proportions and the connectedness that comes from a practised hand.

I have some basic info on this figure on my letter 'a' page.

The story is that in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, one of two centrally important Tantric Texts for the Japanese Shingon School of Buddhism, the four basic variations on the letter a (ie a ā aṃ aḥ) are linked to the four stages of practice: bodhi, carya, saṃbodhi, nirvaṇa. The combined elements of all four letters give the figure in question and represent the culmination of Buddhist practice. It also stands for Mahāvairocana, the Dharmakāya Buddha as he appears in the Garbhadhātu Maṇḍala.

I've done a fresh calligraphy in my current style for this blog entry.

26 May 2010

Calligraphy Article

Smashing Magazine has published an article called "The Beauty Of Typography: Writing Systems And Calligraphy Of The World" that includes a section on Devanāgarī and Tibetan writing and uses an image from visiblemantra.org to illustrate the Tibetan script (it's actually the Tibetan Machine Uni font, but I laid it out, and typed it).

Thanks to Samudradaka of circular cube webdesign who alerted me to this. And to Vitaly at Smashing Magazine for creating a link to visiblemantra.org when I pointed out the image had been taken without permission or credit.

20 May 2010

Random Mantras on the Internet

I get a lot of questions about mantras. They fall into a few different categories. One is the person who wants a "translation" of a mantra so they can understand what it "means", with the implication that they want to take up, or have already taken up, the practice of chanting the mantra without a teacher or guide.
In my opinion a mantra on its own is not much good. A magic spell has 'power' whether you understand it or not. I don't think mantras are like this. Just finding a mantra on the internet and chanting it is of doubtful benefit. If you absolutely must do it, then go for something simple with lot's written about it by a range of well known and well qualified people. You are not so special, or in such a unique situation, that the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ mantra won't suit you fine.

If you don't feel you understand a mantra then don't use it. If there is no one you can ask about it, face to face, then it's probably not the practice for you. Translating a mantra often just trivialises it, and misses the point. Find a teacher. If there are no Buddhists in your area then try http://www.wildmind.org/.

My website is a resource for practitioners and I don't recommend using it as a sweet shop for collecting mantras, or for choosing mantras at random. I think all Buddhist practices require regular contact with more experienced practitioners.

Don't cheat yourself. 
Mantras are not magic spells. 
Find a teacher. 
This is my advice.

04 May 2010

The Om Team

I came across this report on the physics of oṃ in the Guardian, written by Mark Abrahams who is also the editor of the annals of improbable research. Apparently these guys are getting their papers into peer reviewed journals. The surprise goes further when one reads the paper and discovers that the editor allowed it through without correcting the English! I never get such an easy ride! Perhaps in computing they don't care so much about grammar? Having looked through their paper I think it is fair to conclude that several days practice chanting leads to more regular articulation of mantras. This is what their results show, though their conclusions go somewhat beyond this.

02 May 2010

Virtual Vinod

There are only a few people in the world able to spot the mistakes I make and Vinod is one of them! He regularly writes in to point out typos.

I have been using his script converter for a year or so now and find it incredibly useful. Vinod has just upgraded his website and added almost a dozen scripts to his converter. This means that we can input in any 19 Indic scripts (including several versions of Romanisation) and output any of the others.

In addition there are a wealth of other resources - essays, translations and calligraphy.

The main website is here: http://www.virtualvinodh.com/
The script converter is here: http://www.virtualvinodh.com/aksharamukha

28 April 2010


evaṃ bīja padaLast year Tashi Mannox featured the word evaṃ on his calligraphy blog. His calligraphy is always attractive and adept, but I was fascinated by this particular character. Buddhists will know that one of the identifying marks of a sutta/sūtra is that it begins: evaṃ me sutaṃ/evaṃ mayā śrutaṃ. Tantras also begin with this phrase. The word evaṃ means 'so, thus, in this way'. The phrase is a passive construction, literally "thus / by me / it was heard", and attempts by contemporary scholars to override the Victorian rendering "thus have I heard" have not yet succeeded in dislodging it from the English speaking Buddhist psyche.

evaṃ bījaHowever in the Hevajra Tantra (ca. late 8th century) this first word takes on esoteric significance. I think this is largely related to the shape of the Siddhaṃ script letter 'e' which is an inverted triangle which in the Hevajra becomes a yoni symbol - i.e. because it looks like the female pudenda it represents the feminine principle. To my eye vaṃ is not particularly phallic, but it comes to represent the masculine principle. Perhaps the most significant correspondence is that of wisdom and compassion. So evaṃ, by combining the two principles, symbolises the union of opposites which is one of the ways in which the Buddhist goal is conceived of in Tantric Buddhism. This is my understanding, though Tashi has more information on his website.

For some time I have pondered how to represent this in the Siddhaṃ script, and I think I have finally found a way of doing it which is aesthetically pleasing.

image top-left: from the top - evaṃ bīja; evaṃ in Siddhaṃ, Lantsa, Tibetan, Devanāgarī.
image right: evaṃ bīja

25 February 2010

Tibetan Cymbal Symbols

A friend recently wrote to me:
Please could you tell me what my cymbals say?

I've been taking these cymbals into prison for over 15 years, to ding meditation stages. Occasionally, someone asks me what the symbols mean. I confidently reply that it is the Avalokiteshvara mantra.

Only, last week a bright spark asked if it says "om mani padme hum" how come there are seven symbols rather than six?
The answer is quite simple. It is the Avalokiteśvara mantra written in a Tibetan script called dbu-can (pronounced uchen) - the main formal script they use for texts and printing. The extra symbol is a paragraph marker, known as a 'shed' in Tibetan. It's more often a simple vertical stroke, but sometimes a colon-like thing as you have here.

oṃ ma ṇi pad me hūṃ :

I've added the letters onto your image so you can see which is which. While we're on the subject there is no word break in maṇipadme - it is a single compound word meaning, most likely "in the jewelled lotus" (but clearly not "the jewel in the lotus" as Sanskrit grammar does not allow this meaning, despite it's popularity). I've written about this on my blog post "The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ".

Note the Tibetans write "pa dme" as "pad me" because it looks more Tibetan. In the image below the top line is what is on your bells, and the bottom line is the proper Sanskrit, but still using the same script.

One also sees the mantra on these kinds of bells written in the Lantsa script (below).

My compliments to the bright spark who spotted that there were seven symbols!

11 January 2010

Manuscript of Early Vajrasattva Mantra

stts-ms contract enhanced
Originally uploaded by jayarava
This is a page from the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṅgraha (STTS), a 7th century Buddhist text concerning Tantric rituals. The STTS is classed as a Yoga Tantra by Tibetan Buddhists. Here we have the verso of the 15th palm leaf in the mantra containing what became the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra. This is the oldest occurrence of the Vajrasattva Mantra (as far as the Chinese Canon is concerned).

This image is modified from the facsimile edition of a 10th century Nepalese palm-leaf manuscript using the Siddhaṃ script, published by Candra and Snellgrove. You will note that the Siddhaṃ script is significantly different from contemporary Siddhaṃ calligraphy (and much more difficult to read!)

If you want to have a go at reading it - note that you read from left to right right across the leaf (i.e. ignore the columns). The transliteration shows subtle differences from the well known 100 syllable mantra.
oṁ vajra sattvasamayamanupālaya vajrasattvatvenopatiṣṭha dṛḍho me bhava sutoṣyo me bhavānurakto me bhava supoṣyo me bhava sarvasiddhiñca me prayaccha sarvakarmasu ca me cittaśreyaḥ kuru hūṁ ha ha ha ha hoḥ bhagavan sarvatathāgatavajra mā me muṁca vajrībhava mahāsamayasatva āḥ||
To see where the mantra is look at the version with the mantra highlihghted
See the text inverted as well - this sometimes improves readability

08 January 2010

New Essay on oṃ

My Jayarava's Rave blog post this week is on oṃ: Mystical Grammar.

I try to sort out the oṃ/auṃ thing, and look at the process of oṃ becoming an esoteric symbol. A few comments on oṃ in Buddhism, but I still find very little say about it.