Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “forty-two letters of the arapacana alphabet” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 3 - The forty-two letters of the Arapacana alphabet

Note: This appendix is extract from Chapter XLIII part 4.1 (gates of remembrance; 3. the dhāraṇī of penetrating the phonemes):

“Furthermore, there is a dhāraṇī that, by using the forty-two phonemes (dvācatvāriṃśad akṣara), includes (saṃgṛhṇāti) all words (vacana) and names (nāman). What are these forty-two phonemes? A, LO, PO, TCHÖ, NA (A, RA, PA, CA, NA), etc.”

Dhāraṇī based on the Arapacana alphabet of which the forty-two letters are supposed to represent all the phonemes of the spoken language. It notes some sounds that are not of Indian origin but belong rightly to Iranian languages; it was a matter of a Scythian alphabet introduced into India by the Śaka about the time of the Christian era (cf. Mémorial Sylvain Lévi, Ysa, Paris, p. 355–363).

In the viewpoint of the Prajñāpāramitā, the forty-two phonemes noted in this alphabet are not yet of magical worth; they are simply mnemotechniques (dhāraṇīmukha) recalling the essential points of the Buddhadharma. They appear in turn at the beginning of a phrase used to define the true nature of dharmas.

This very simple catechesis is reproduced fully in the various versions of the large Prajñāpāramitāsūtras:

a. Pañcaviṃśati, ed. Dutt, p. 212–214; T 221, k. 4, p. 26b–27a; T 222, k. 7, p. 195c–196b; T 223, k. 5, p. 226a–b; T 220, vol. VII, k. 415, p. 81c–82b.

– Passage commented on in the Traité, T 1509, k. 48, p. 408b–409b.

b. Aṣṭāsaśasāharikā, T 220, vol. VII, k. 490, p. 489b–490a.

c. Śatasāhasrikā, ed. Ghosa, p.1450–1453; T 220, vol. V, k. 53, p. 302b –303a.

Here are translations of several extracts from the original Sanskrit restored according to the editions of N. Dutt and P. Ghosa:

Punar aparaṃ Subhute bodhisattvasya mahāsattvasya mahāyānaṃ yaduta dhāraṇīmukhāni |katamāni dhāraṇaīmukhāni |akṣarasamatā bhāṣyasamatā …. tasya viṃśatir anuśaṃsāḥ pratikāṅkṣaitavyāḥ … |

Transl. –

Furthermore, O Subhūti, the Great Vehicle of the bodhisattva-mahāsattva is the gates of dhāraṇī. What are these gates of dhāraṇī? The similarity of phonemes, the similarity of utterances, the gate of entry into the phonemes. What is this gate of entry into the phonemes? The letter A is gate because all dharmas are, from the beginning, without birth (an-utpanna). The letter RA is gate because all dharmas are rid of dust (ra-jas). The latter PA is gate because all dharmas are signs of the absolute (pa-ramārtha). The letter CA is gate because all dhrmas are free of death (cya-vana) and birth. The letter NA is gate because all dharmas are without name (nā-man). [And so on for the other 37 letters of the alphabet].

Apart from these [forty-two letters], there is no other usage of phonemes. Why? Because there is no other name that can be used thanks to which it could be expressed, designated, characterized, perceived. All dharmas, O Subhūti, should be understood to be like space. This is called the entry into the gates of dhāraṇī, the entry into the phonemes, beginning with the letter A.

Every bodhisattva-mahāsattva who manifests this skill in the phonemes beginning with the letter A will not fail in any of his utterances…

Every bodhisattva-mahāsattva who will hear this seal of the phonemes beginning with the latter A and having heard it, will study it, retain it, recite it and teach it to others, can attain twenty benefits…

– In the Avataṃsaka, a young scholar named Viśvāmitra informs Sudhana that by pronouncing the phonemes listed in the Arapacana alphabet, he broke through each of the forty-two gates (mukha) of the Prajñāpāramitā in turn. See the section of the Gaṇdavyūha, ed. Suzuki, p. 448, l. 21 – 450, l. 21, and the various Chinese translations, complete or partial (T 278, k. 57, p. 765b–766a; T 279, k. 76, p. 418a–c; T 293, k. 31, p. 804a–805a; T 295, p. 876c–877b; T 1019, p. 707c–709a; T 1020, p. 709b–c.

– The Mahāyānists were not alone in using the alphabet in question. The Dharmaguptakas, a Hīnayānist sect, recited it as well but we do not know what meaning they attributed to it. It was forbidden for the monks to pronounce the phonemes at the same time, similar to the brāhmaṇas; the phoneme intoned by the leader of the ritual was to be repeated in chorus by the monks. This, at least, seems to be what the sixth pāyantika of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya says, T 1428, k. 11, p. 638c21–639a28.

– The Arapacana formula was called on to play an important part in the cabbala of tantric Buddhism. On this subject, see Hōbōgirin, s.v. Arahashana, p. 34; Ceylon Encyclopedia, II, p. 67–70.