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.