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.