24 May 2011

Book Progress

I'm now in the last stages of the Visible Mantra book. The text is finalised (though errors keep leaping out at me rather alarmingly) and I'm more or less happy with all of the images. I need to check the indexing and bibliography for consistency today, but it's probably only a day's work. This evening I'll pick up the cover art from my artist friend (my first glimpse which I'm a bit nervous about - I hope I like it!). I need to have it scanned at hi resolution, and then create the cover itself.

Then I'm done... years, months, and weeks have telescoped into days.

My other project on reprinting Plato's Cratylus along with Kūkai's Shōji jissō gi ('Explaining Sound, word, reality') and Thomas Kasulis's article linking the two of them is going well. I have the permissions I need (at a price I can afford!) and I've commissioned Dr Margaret Magnus of Margo's Magical Letter Page to write an introduction to Plato and Sound Symbolism. I will write an introduction to Kūkai and some background on Shōji jissō gi. I'm thinking about soliciting a celebrity forward from someone. I'm excited about this bringing together of East and West. I don't expect to sell many copies, but it's a book I'd love to read!

Kūkai is much on my mind as the Visible Mantra project comes to fruition. I'm a non-fiction writer rather than a story teller, but I love the story of Kūkai's journey to China and it lacks a really good retelling in English. Yet another book I want to read, but may end up having to try to write!

23 May 2011

Brāhmī Script - causation formula in Pāli

ye dhammā hetuppabhāva
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha
tesaṃ ca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo

Of those experiences that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has said, 'this is their cause',
And this is their cessation.
Thus the Great Striver teaches.

22 May 2011

Yig mgo and shad

I noticed this image on Wikipedia this morning under Mongolian writing systems. I've straightened it, cropped it, and saturated the colours to highlight the text. The image combines a number of scripts and helps to illustrate something I've been researching for my book. There are two lines of vertical phags pa script at either end and five lines of horizontal text in the following scripts:
  1. Lantsa
  2. dbu can
  3. soyombo (A Mongolian script based on dbu can)
  4. dbu can
  5. Classical Mongolian
The top line reads : *|| la kṣiṃ ja nya su kha hī paṃ ||
The next line reads: **|| la kṣiṃ dza nya sukha hī paṃ ||

This is not a mantra I'm familiar with, but in any case I was mainly interested to draw attention the the marks I have transcribed as * and ||.

The sign transcribed by * I only know by its Tibetan name yig mgo pronounced 'yimgo'. It is followed by the vertical stroke । in Sanskrit is called daṇḍa 'rod, stick', and in Tibetan shad (pronounced shé), which here is doubled ॥ . In this case the Tibetan yig mgo combines both the standard yig gmo - - and the 'following' yig mgo - - to give ༄༅. This and even more ornate forms are often found at the head of texts. The Lantsa yig mgo adds what looks like the long ā diacritic which probably is the same idea.

The latter is simply the double daṇḍa or nyis shad in Tibetan. The daṇḍa is the only form of punctuation regularly used in Sanskrit. In poetry a single daṇḍa marks the end of a line, and a double daṇḍa marks the end of a stanza. In prose it is used more freely where in English we might use commas, semi-colons, dashes, colons, and full-stops.

I'm planning a longer article about these and similar marks for my blog in a couple of weeks, and have more detail in my forthcoming book.

19 May 2011

New Book Project

I'm pleased to announce that I have concluded negotiations with Columbia University Press, and can proceed with a project I have been thinking about for a long time. At the heart of it will be this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P. ‘Reference and Symbol in Plato’s Cratylus and Kūkai’s Shōjijissōgi’ Philosophy East & West, Vol. 32, 1982.
I will be reprint the article courtesy of the University of Hawai'i Press. It will be accompanied by translations of both the Cratylus dialogue (an out of copyright edition); and Kūkai's Shōji jissō gi (声字実相義), in Yoshito Hakeda's translation courtesy of CUP. I've asked Dr Margaret Magnus, author of Gods of the Word and The Magic Letter Page, to write an introduction to Plato and Sound Symbolism. I will write an introduction to Kūkai and the Shōji jissō gi.

This brings together several strands of interest for me, but especially helps to make the link between sound symbolism, especially Margaret's work on phonosemantics, and Buddhist mantra. I hope to publish this as the 4th offering from Visible Mantra Books sometime in late 2011.

I've approached another author about an existing unpublished manuscript on Buddhist mantra, and hope that it will be our 5th book sometime in 2012. I'm trying to encourage friends of mine to produce a book of audible mantras - i.e. to notate the tunes we use for mantras in the Triratna Community.

16 May 2011

arapacana alphabet in Siddhaṃ script

Book Progress

I have finished all of the corrections found by my proof readers (in English, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese!) for the Visible Mantra book. They won't, of course, be the last of the errors, if only because I've tinkered with the text since then. I need to do some restructuring, move things around to create a more logical order, and then light indexing, and tidy up a few cross references that now point to new pages. I'm seeing light at the end of this long tunnel.

11 May 2011

Siddhir astu

Since we have builders in the house and it's hard to concentrate here, I spent part of yesterday rummaging around the Cambridge University Library. I was looking for some articles on the symbols at the beginning of mantras. I plan a full scale blog post on that subject, but it's not ready yet. I did come across several references to this Sanskrit phrase: siddhir astu. Intriguingly when I began to look on the Internet I found it in several places, not only on Buddhist sites, but on Hindu sites as well where it is apparently a Ganeṣa mantra. The phrase, even when used as a mantra, is often incorrectly written as siddhi rastu.

Just to clarify there is no word rastu (in Sanskrit). The word is astu, which is the 3rd person singular imperative of the verb √as 'to be' and means 'may there be, may it be'. This leaves us with siddhir, which we can see is the word siddhiḥ (nominative singular) meaning 'accomplishment, perfection'. It is affected by the sandhi rule that -iḥ followed by a vowel becomes -ir: hence siddhir astu 'may there be perfection'. Note that when we transliterate Sanskrit in Roman script we break the word between the consonant and the vowel. However in Devanāgarī the situation is more confusing because the whole thing is written as one word - the r and a are combined into a single akṣara : सिद्धिरस्तु the syllables being सि द्धि र स्तु (si ddhi ra stu). This is one of the disadvantages of Indic scripts, and part of what makes learning Sanskrit difficult. To read it you have to know the suffixes and sandhi rules very well.

This kind of mistake is quite common amongst Buddhists, i.e. the mistake of seeing a familiar word like siddhi, and breaking there, even when it produces non-sense words like rastu. It seems to have happened in Tibetan readings of the Vajrasattva mantra from the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha as well - as I discuss in my Western Buddhist Review article on the mantra: The Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra. The best example is the phrase sarvakarmasu ca me cittaṃ sreya kuru' and, in all actions make my mind more excellent' being read as sarva karma suca me cittaṃ śreya kuru, thereby obliterating the sense of the words, leaving words without any grammatical relationships, and creating the nonsense word suca. Basically it's what happens when you have a tradition in a language you don't speak.

This does not explain the form found on page 33 of John Stevens' Sacred Calligraphy of the East: siddhāṃrastu (which I have commented on before). But at least we can now see where it comes from. What was written on ancient Sanskrit manuscripts was not siddhāṃastu, or even siddhamastu, but siddhir astu.


Roth, Gustav. (1986) 'Mangala-symbols in Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts and Inscriptions' in Bhattacharya, G (ed.) Deyadharma : Studies in Memory of Dr D. C. Sircar. Sri Satguru Pubs. Delhi, p. 239-250.

09 May 2011


After a long wait I have finally got hold of a reasonably priced copy of:
van Gulik, R.H. (1956) Siddham: An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan. New Delhi: Aditya (reprinted 2001).
It's part of Śata-piṭaka series produced by Lokesh Chandra and his illustrious father, Raghu Vira, who have been incredibly prolific in making this kind of material available. The book cost 1000 Rs in India and about 4x as much here in the UK, though I've seen copies advertised on Amazon for 4x as much again.

For anyone interested in the script and the history this is a very good book to own. Not only does it have the essay, but it contains examples of Siddhaṃ calligraphy from many eras of history stretching back to the mid 8th century. Many of the familiar images of Siddhaṃ calligraphy have been originally copied from this book I suspect.

04 May 2011

The Art of Calligraphy.

hūṃ Siddhaṃ analysis by jayarava
a photo by jayarava on Flickr.
This is a hūṃ I did recently. I've added lines to indicate the salient features of the form - to bring out the internal relationships.

Ideally the diagonal lines would all be parallel - note mine aren't! The bindu of the candra-bindu gives the smallest unit - the nib width. In western calligraphy the nib width is critical to understanding the design of a script. Here though we do find half-widths partly because the pen is always (supposed to be) at 45°.

Horizontally the body of the syllable is about 3 nibs wide - with some extension beyond in the outer details (the tail of the ha for instance). Vertically the main part of the ha is 4 nibs. The candra-bindu is about 2.5; while the ū is about 2. In an ideal world the ratios height to width of the ha, and the height of the candra-bindu to the height of the ha would approach the golden ratio ~ 1.618.

Without being perfect this figure points to where perfection lays. And there is a deep truth here that Buddhism taps into. There is a Mahāyāna sūtra which describes the whole world as a scroll, and all the dharmas, all the mental phenomena, as letters on that scroll. However the sūtra says that each letter contains the whole of the Buddhadharma. In other words each and every experience we have is pointing towards the same truth - that experience itself is insubstantial and unsatisfactory.

By a deep analysis of the flaws of my calligraphy I come to see where I might improve. I gain a deeper understanding of the way this script works, and with it a deeper understanding of my own experience of the world. Gradually I improve. I began, as all beginners do, copying the work of masters - my master was not present to correct me, but I could see his calligraphy, and I was able to correct myself. This is a slow way to make progress I may say. It is much better to have a teacher - but I am somewhat stubborn and Siddhaṃ calligraphy teachers are hard to come by. Even so after some years I have come to my own understanding of the form. I would not say that I have mastered the art, but I know good from bad calligraphy these days, and I am usually honest with myself about my own efforts. One needs to be critical without being harsh, which is a fine line sometimes.

Calligraphy is a fascinating art because each time one writes something, even after years of practice, there are variations. Training oneself to notice these variations is important. It is all part of Buddhist practice. We have to see clearly what has been done, comparing it with the intention, with the template one is trying to copy - whether it is the syllable executed by a master, or the internal model that develops with time - to see how we have deviated from our aim. We may even come to understand why we deviate.

Achieving perfection is definitely the goal, but in the meantime we focus on the striving for it - on the technique. Along the way one sometimes reaches a milestone in understanding and practice. It's good, in my opinion, to celebrate these milestones. I often post something on my blog or on Flickr that seems especially good. Then in a few months or years one can look back and see the imperfections and wonder at one's own superficiality and naivety! LOL! I look at the calligraphy on my own website and think that most of it is poor, some of it very poor. It was the best I could do at the time, but now I know I can do better.

When doing calligraphy it is good to be aware of your body, your breathing. Your whole body contributes to the process - not just the hand. One must have a firm base for instance. The hand and arm are connected to the trunk by many muscles and sinews. In order to have a free hand, one must have free shoulders, for instance. And of course in order for the body to be relaxed and free, the mind must be relaxed and free. The lack of calm and freedom is the main source of imperfection in calligraphy. This is perhaps why some of the greatest calligraphers of Japan -- Kūkai, Hakuin, Ryōkan -- have also been masters of meditation.

A single syllable can be a challenging practice. We tend to do the syllable again and again. Mantras of several syllables give a different challenge - each syllable in a mantra like oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ has it's own form and harmony. The intense focus of the bīja must broaden out to encompass the multiplicity of forms. A long mantra, like the 100 syllable Vajrasattva Mantra or some of the long dhāraṇīs are another challenge. When working with ink on paper, the slightest lapse in concentration results in an error. The paper is then ruined and one must start again. I once did calligraphy of the Heart Sutra which is almost 500 syllables. The effort was a great strain and I don't know if I could manage it again! 500 syllables without a significant error in writing. This took careful planning and study of the Sanskrit, and was certainly not achieved on the first attempt. It is the sort of thing best attempted whilst on a solitary retreat I think.

Clearly calligraphy is a good śamatha practice, but it has the potential to be a vipaśyanā practice as well. The close examination of the tiny differences, and the attention to what happens when we set off to write something, can allow us to see just how our mind works to create experience. The interconnectedness of mind and body, and the interplay of the two in calligraphy show us something about the interconnectedness of the phenomenal world.

Those who merely cut and paste, or who use fonts instead of spending years learning the script and putting in the 100s and the 1000s of hours required to become proficient, are really missing the point. Some people seem to think that calligraphy is just images to be consumed, owned or tattooed. But that is only the most superficial and naive response to the art. Perfection is something that we each, individually strive for. Without the striving there is no perfection. Simply copying the master is not enough, even if one does it by hand. Owning an image is truly worthless. On his funny, if coarse, blog "Shit my Dad says" Justin Halpern recalls showing off his newly acquired cellphone to his now infamously cantankerous father. Dad replies:

"Son, no one gives a shit about all the things your cell phone does. You didn't invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that."

My own favourite calligrapher (there aren't that many of us) is Tashi Mannox (website and blog). Tashi first trained as an artist, and then spent 17 years an a monastic scribe. It shows both in his art, and in his manner (I would say from our correspondence and one meeting ). Tashi makes amazing and inspiring works of calligraphic art, I would say he's a master calligrapher. But in some ways I prefer my own calligraphy, because it is the result of my own striving. I draw inspiration from Tashi's work, but I would never be content merely to own something he did (though I do have a few samples he kindly gave me when I visited him in London a couple of years ago). I learn so much more from keeping up my own practice. I hope that others are inspired to take up the art of calligraphy - it has been a very rewarding practice for me.