The Wisdom Alphabet (aka the Arapacana Alphabet) is the foundation of a Buddhist meditation practice on the nature of experience. It is expounded in a number of sūtras but the locus classicus is the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (PPS)- translated into English by Edward Conze [ 1 ]. Page references below are to Conze's translation. It's now well established that the Wisdom Alphabet is in fact the alphabet of the Gandhārī Prakrit language, see below for further information and resources on this subject.
The Wisdom Alphabet occurs in a chapter of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā which begins by spelling out the thirty-seven bodhipakṣyā dharmā (wings to awakening) in a slightly expanded form. The two lists often appear together though it is not clear what the relationship is.It begins:
"And again, Subhuti, the dhāraṇī-doors are the great vehicle of the Bodhisattva, the great being. Which are they? The sameness of all letters and syllables, the sameness of all spoken words, the syllable-doors, the syllables-entrances. What then are the syllable-doors, the syllable-entrances?" (PPS I 9,15, p.160)
I'll list the letters of the Wisdom Alphabet at the end, but in the text they appear here. Having listed the letters the texts says:
"No letters or syllables are in conventional use except the foregoing. And why? For no word that is not composed of them is used when anything is conventionally expressed, talked about pointed out, written about, made manifest or recited. Simply like space whould one pursue all dharmas. This, Subhuti, is called te entrance into the door of the dhāraṇīs, the entrance into the exposition of the letters A, etc, Any Bodhisattva who cognizes this skill in letters A, etc, will not be tied down by any sounds, he will accomplish everything through the sameness of all dharmas, and he will acquire the skill in the cognition of sounds." (PPS I 9,15, p.162)
In other words all of these reflections are aimed at realising the same thing about experience, it is śunya or empty. The text then spells out a large number of benefits of doing the meditation - al of the usual things you'd expect of a Mahāyana Buddhist practise taking in personal protection, acquisition of a number of skills both mundane and magical, and of course Awakening.
Curiously the rest of the commentary on the practice is at the end of the sūtra. This may be because the two bits were composed at separate times, or that they were split up for some reason - inept editing, or to obscure the practice from the uniniated. We don't know. But we have to jump ahead 400 pages in Conze's translation where we find, immediately after a list of the 32 major, and 80 minor marks of the Buddha:
"Moreover, Subhuti, the Bodhisattva, who courses in perfect wisdom, admonishes the Bodhisattvas as follow: 'Sons of good family, may you become skilled in the consumation of the letters! May you become skilled in one letter, in two letters, etc. to: in forty-two letters! May you through these forty-two letters come to a state which has moved away from everything. May you meditate on the 42 letters as contained in one letter, and may you meditate on one single letter as contained in 42 letters!" (PPS VIII 5.3; p.587) [ 2 ]
This is what tells us that the Widsom Alphabet is a meditation practice, and gives us an idea of how one might have meditated on the letters. I have attempted a reconstruction of the meditation which you can read about on my blog. It's not always clear from the text what is intended, but with a background in Buddhist ideas and practices it is possible to make some sense of it. One uses the alphabet as a mnemonic to remember the list of keywords. The keywords tell you what you are reflecting on, but they are all some aspect of the śunya nature of experience. Having memorised the list, and learned the meditation in linear fashion, the practice culminates in reflecting on the sameness of each of the reflections. Everything is pointing towards śunyata, and by reflecting that all of the keywords mean the same thing in this sense, one gets a glimpse of the way things are. It may be related to the levels of śunayata, but I'd need to follow this up to confirm it. In this way the practictioner, the Bodhisattva, masters the practice.
"Just as the Tathāgata, skilled in dharmas, skilled in letters demonstrates Dharma, and demonstrates with letters a Dharma which is without them. And yet that Dharma is not quite free from the mode(?) of letters." (PPS VIII 5.3; p.587).
Which is to say that we use the concepts represented by the letters to get to the gnosis which is beyond concepts. The experience of Awakening is beyond words. However the experience of having had that experience is communicable, as are the various methods for having that experience oneself.Twenty advantages will come to the Bodhisattva who masters this teaching, including: being mindful, clever, intelligent, steadfast, not being assailed by doubts etc. This teaching is called, like the other teachings in the sutra, a great vehicle (i.e. Mahāyāna) of the Bodhisattva. Sameness in this context is a synonym for Sunyata or emptiness, i.e. all things are the same because they are empty of any essential nature. The sutra, then, seems to be saying that the way to realise the sameness of all sounds, is to contemplate the sounds of the letters as being linked to aspects of the Dharma
The Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā appears to me to consider this meditation one of many which one can employ to experience Awakening. It is found appended to discussions of the thirty-seven (or more) bodhipakṣyā dharmā and the list of major and minor marks (related to the buddhanusmṛti, a meditation practice involving recollection of the Buddha). However two things make me think it might not have originated in this text. Firstly the instructions which are tacked onto the beginning of section VIII.5.3. The previous section is a repeat of the expanded bodhipakṣyā dharmā list, and it although it would have made some sense at the end of that section is it at the beginning of a section where it does not fit the context. After the paragraph quoted above the text goes off in an entirely different direction and does not mention the letters again. However we need to take into account that the published editions are based on a redaction of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā which has been rearranged to fit the catergories of the Abhisamayālaṅkārakārikā (Dutt 1934: 5) and this may have broken up the bits we are interested in order to make the text fit. However if this process did break up our practice, then it suggests that the redactor was unaware of the significance of the passages, that is they were unaware of the meditation practice.
Secondly, as I have discussed in several places now (summarising the research of Richard Salomon) is that although the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā is written in Sanskrit, the alphabet is that of the Gandhārī Prakrit. It is also called the Arapacana Alphabet after the first five letters (a ra pa ca na). Conze remarks on the various surviving manuscripts and translations (spanding 200 CE - 90 CE) and mentions shifts in the associations (ie the keywords) with the letters, but apart from some minor variations easily explained by absorption into a Sanskrit milieu the letters themselves are stable. Other texts which have an Arapacana alphabet also have different associations. The letters themselves retained the Gandhārī alphabet despite being used in a Sanskrit text, and clearly at some point before the composition of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā the knowledge that this was the Gandhārī alphabet was lost by Buddhists along with the significance on this fact. One version of the Lalitavisatara, and the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra both use a Sanskrit alphabet, although in the latter text in one at least one case it retains the use of only the 'a' vowel. The people of Gandhāra tended to use Gandhārī for Buddhist texts in the first few centuries common era. A number of caches of these texts have been found and some have been published by Salomon and others (see my bibliography of published material).
The Wisdom alphabet devloped along several lines, most of which were dead ends. For instance there is a Wisdom alphabet in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra but the keywords have become (phonetically) disconnected from the letters of the alphabet. The line develops positively in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT) an early esoteric scripture (mid 7th century CE). In the PPS the letters are abstract symbols of abstract and abstruse concepts. In the MAT there is another level of abstraction. As well as a meditation similar to the PPS, the MAT takes the letters and places them around the body while visualising oneself as a Buddha - the object being to literally transform yourself. The letters on the their own are transformative. The practices associated with the letters in the MAT are mainly associated with the master conducting the abhiṣeka as he prepares to give the intiation. A full discussion of the way the Wisdom Alphabet is used in the MAT is beyond both the scope of this webpage. However we can say hat the fact of the loss of the knowledge that this was simply the Gandhārī alphabet most likely contributed, along with the adoption of ideas from Brahminical linguistic philosophy (both Mīmāṃaā and Grammarian), to treating the alphabet as having an intrinsic significance - hence Dr Conze could refer to it as a "mystical alphabet" - because it continued to be used in mediation practices as a mnemonic, but its mundane origins were already obscure.
Wisdom Alphabet in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā sūtra
The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādy-anutpannatvād).
See also my calligraphy of this phrase.
RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas).
PA is a door to the insight that all dharmas have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha).
CA is a door to the insight that the decease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dharma cannot be apprehended, because all dharmas do no decease, nor are they reborn.
NA is a door to the insight that the names of all dharmas have vanished; the essential nature behind names cannot be gained or lost
The syllable LA indicates that all dharmas have transcended the world (loka); because the causes and conditions of the creeping plant (latā) of craving have been utterly destroyed.
DA is a door to all dharmas because tamed and taming (dāntadamatha) have been circumscribed
BA indicates that the Bonds have departed from all dharmas
ḌA that the tumult (ḍamara) of all dharmas has vanished
ṢA that no attachment (ṣanga) in any dharma is apprehended’ they are neither attached nor bound
VA is a door to all dharmas because the sound of the paths of speeck (vākpathaghoṣa) has been cut off
TA because all dharmas do not depart from suchness (tathatā)
YA because of the non-apprehension of any fact (yathāvad)
ṢṬA because of the nonapprehension of a support (ṣṭambha)
KA because of the nonapprehension of an agent
SA is a door to all dharmas because of nonapprehension of sameness (samatā); they never stray away from sameness
MA because of nonapprehension of mine-making (mamakāra)
GA because of that motion (gamana)
STHA because of subsistence (sthāna)
JA because of that of birth (jāti)
ŚVA is a door to all dharmas because of the nonapprehension of a principle of life (śvāsa)
DHA because of the realm of Dharma (dharmadhātu)
ŚA because of that of calming down (śamatha)
KHA because of that of the sameness of space (kha)
KṢA because of that of extinction (kṣaya)
STA is a door to all dharmas because each dharma is fixed (stabdha?) in its place and never leaves it
JÑA because cognition (jñāna) cannot be apprehended
RTA because mortality (ārtya) cannot be apprehended
HA because a root cause (hetu)
BHA because breaking-up (bhaṅga) cannot be apprehended
The syllable CHA is a door to all dharmas because glamour (chaver apy)
SMA because remembrance (smaraṇa)
HVA because true appellations (āhvāna)
TSA because will-power (utsāha) cannot be apprehended
BHA because things and persons are not apprehended each one as one solid mass (ghana)
ṬHA is a door to all dharmas because of the nonapprehension of fabricated appearances (viṭhapana)
ṆA because strife (raṇa) has departed, no one goes or comes, stands, sits or lies down, or makes any discriminations of this kind
PHA because no fruit (phala) is apprehended
SKA because no skandhas are apprehended
YSA because no decay (ysara = jarā) is apprehended
ṬA because of the nonapprehension of the other shore (ṭalo?)
ḌHA because of the nonapprehension of unsteadiness
Notes to the translated text
 We should also note that though the main part of the text is from the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Conze has been rather free with his use of alternative passages from related sutras to fill in unreadable passages in what he refers to as “often unbelievably careless and corrupt late Nepalese manuscripts”. In the case of the dhāraṇī chapter I am quoting above he has used a parallel chapter from a Gilgit manuscript of the Sanskrit Aṣṭādaśasahāsrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (the 18000 line version) with reference to Chinese and Tibetan versions of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā to reconstruct the original. (Conze p.160 n.6).
Return to text
 The text does apparently say 42 syllables, even though 43 syllables are given in the earlier section. Is this an artifact of using different versions of the text at different places?
Return to text
Verses in Sanskrit
|1||akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt||अकारो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां आद्यनुत्पनत्वात्|
|2||repho mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ rajo'pagatavāt||रेफो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां रजो'पगतत्वात्|
|3||pakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ paramārthanirdeśāt||पकारो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां परमार्थनिर्देशात्|
|4||cakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ cyavanopapattyanupalabdhivāt||चकारो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां च्यवनोपपत्त्यनुलब्धित्वात्|
|5||nakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ nāmāpagatatvāt||नकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां नामापगतत्वात्|
|6||lakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ lokotīrṇtvāt tṇṣṇālatāhetuptatyayasamud ghahātitvāt||लकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां लोकोतीर्ण्त्वात् तृष्णालताहेतुप्तत्ययसमुद् घहातित्वात्|
|7||dakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ dāntadabhaparicchinnatvāt||दकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां दान्तदभपरिच्छिन्नत्वात्|
|8||bakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ bandhanavimuktatvāt||बकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां बन्धनविमुक्तत्वात्|
|9||ḍakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ḍamarāpagatatvāt||डकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां डमरापगतत्वात्|
|10||sakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ saḍgāṇupalabdhitvāt||सकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः सड्गानुपलब्धितः|
|11||vakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ bāk pathagheṣaṣamuchchhiṇṇatvāt||वकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां बाक् पथघेषसमुच्छिन्नत्वात्|
|12||takaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ tathatā calitatvāt||तकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां तथता चलितत्वात्|
|13||yakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ yathāvadaṇut pādatvāt||यकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां यथावदनुत् पादत्वात्|
|14||stakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ stammāṇupalabdhitvāt *||स्तकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां स्तम्मानुपलब्धित्वात्|
|15||kakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ kārokāṇupalabdhitvāt||ककरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां कारोकानुपलब्धित्वात्|
|16||ṣakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ṣamatāṇupalabdhitvāt||सकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां समतानुपलब्धित्वात्|
|17||makaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ mamakārāṇupaladhitvāt||मकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां ममकारानुपलधित्वात्|
|18||gakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ gagaṇāṇupalabdhitvāt||गकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां गगनानुपलब्धितः|
|19||sthakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ sthāṇāṇupalabdhitvaḥ||स्थकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां स्थानानुपलब्धितः|
|20||jakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ jātyaāṇupalabdhitvaḥ||जकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां जात्यआनुपलब्धितः|
|21||śvakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ śvāṣāṇupalabdhitvaḥ||श्वकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां श्वासानुपलब्धितः|
|22||dhakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ dharmadhātvaṇupalabdhitaḥ||धकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां धर्मधात्वनुपलब्धितः|
|23||śakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ śamathāṇupalabdhitaḥ||शकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां शमथानुपलब्धितः|
|24||khakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ khaṣamapāṇupalabdhitaḥ||खकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां खसमपानुपलब्धितः|
|25||kṣakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ kṣyāṇupalabdhitaḥ||क्षकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माणां क्ष्यानुपलब्धितः|
|26||takaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ tacchāṇupalabdhitaḥ **||तकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः तच्चानुपलब्धितः|
|27||jñakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ ṣarvajñāṇāṇupalabdhitaḥ||ज्ञकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः सर्वज्ञानानुपलब्धितः|
|28||hakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ hetoraṇupalabdhitaḥ||हकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः हेतोरनुपलब्धितः|
|29||cchhakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ chaverapyaṇupalabdhitaḥ||च्छकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः छवेरप्यनुपलब्धितः|
|30||smakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ smaraṇāṇupalabdhitaḥ||स्मकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः स्मरणानुपलब्धितः|
|31||ddhakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ āddhāṇāgatatvāt||द्धकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः आद्धानागतत्वात्|
|32||sakaro mukhaḥ ṣarvadharmāṃ utsāhāṇupalabdhitaḥ||सकरो मुखः सर्वधर्मां उत्साहानुपलब्धितः|
|33||ghakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ ghaṇāṇupalabdhitaḥ||घकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः घनानुपलब्धितः|
|34||ṭhakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ viṭhapaṇāṇupalabdhitaḥ||ठकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः विठपनानुपलब्धितः|
|35||ṇakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ raṇavigatatvāt||णकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः रणविगतत्वात्|
|36||phakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ phalāṇupalabdhitaḥ||फकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः फलानुपलब्धितः|
|37||skakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ skaṇdhāṇupalabdhitaḥ||स्ककरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः स्कन्धानुपलब्धितः|
|38||jakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ jarāṇupalabdhitaḥ||जकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः जरानुपलब्धितः|
|39||cakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ caraṇāṇupalabdhitaḥ||चकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः चरणानुपलब्धितः|
|40||ṭakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ ṭaṃkārāṇupalabdhitaḥ||टकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः टंकारानुपलब्धितः|
|41||ḍhakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāḥ ḍhṃrārāṇupalabdhitaḥ||ढकरो मुखः सर्वधर्माः ढंरारानुपलब्धितः|
Notes to the Sanskrit text
There are a number of differences between the list that Dutt has settled on after examining four manuscripts of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā, and Conze's edition which relies more on the Gilgit manuscript of the Aṣṭādaśasahāsrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (see note 1 of the translated text above). There is another Sanskrit edition of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā by Takayasu KIMURA however is it coming out in installments and the required section is not yet published.
There are only 41 letters here compared with 43 in Conze. There are also duplications of ta (12 ans 26) and sa (10 and 32). Conze has made a much better effort to reconstruct the text, but his sanskrit text is not available to me.
* Dutt has "sta" where Conze has "ṣṭa".
** Dutt notes that manuscript has "sta" with the keyword "tacca". Conze follows mss.
- Conze, Edward.(trans.) 1975. The large sutra on perfect wisdom : with the divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.
- Dutt, N. Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra : edited with critical notes and introduction. London, Luzac & Co, 1934.
- Salomon, R. 1990. "New evidence for a Gāndhārī origin of the arapacana syllabary", Journal of the American Oriental Society. Apr-Jun, vol.110 (2), p.255-273.
See also my bibliography of all things Arapacana
Fragment five of the Bajaur Collection of birch bark manuscripts contains a series of verses in the order of the wisdom alphabet. This manuscript is still under study by Dr Ingo Strauch of the Free University of Berlin. A tantalising glimpse at the contents of this manuscript, probably dating from the first or second century, can be read in Dr Strauch's report: "The Bajaur collection: A new collection of Kharoṣṭhī manuscripts. A preliminary catalogue and survey (in progress)" - available on the Bajaur Collection Website
Other Resources Related to the Wisdom Alphabet
Elsewhere on visiblemantra.org
- Mañjuśrī and the Arapacana - calligraphy of the Arapacana mantra.
- The mantra akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt - ie the first line of the Buddhist Wisdom Alphabet verse.
- The Buddhist Wisdom Alphabet - includes a bibliography of English language sources on the Wisdom Alphabet.
- The Mystical ARAPACANA Alphabet introduction to the Arapacana mantra, plus some speculation about the influence on Indian linguistic thought on the mantra tradition
- Meditating on Arapacana - a written description of the led meditation
- Talk on the Arapacana Alphabet, Nov 2007. - mp3 via the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website
- A led meditation on the first five letters of the Arapacana Alphabet, Nov 2007. - mp3 via the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website