BIG LETTERS: A. Just A.

With this text the Undear Edi­to­r­i­al Office opens a sec­tion ded­i­cat­ed to the won­der­ful world of holy scrip­tures belong­ing to all kinds of reli­gious, eso­teric, and philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions.

The Undear Edi­to­r­i­al Office admits its ten­den­cy of beat­ing gums while miss­ing the essen­tial so we set to con­sid­er only the most lacon­ic out of impor­tant, and the most impor­tant out of lacon­ic texts – the quin­tes­sen­tial, the emblem­at­ic, the enig­mat­ic.

Our first lumpy pan­cake is THE MOST LACONIC of all the Bud­dhist sutras, Bha­ga­vati Pra­jñāpāramitā sar­va-Tathā­gatā-mātā ekākşarā, THE SUTRA OF TRIUMPHANT TRANSCENDENT WISDOM, THE MOTHER OF ALL WHO HAS COME AND GONE, IN A SINGLE LETTER.

Thus have I heard at one time. The Lord dwelt at Raja­grha, on the Vul­ture Peak, togeth­er with a large con­gre­ga­tion of monks, with 1,250 monks, and with many hun­dreds of thou­sands of niyu­tas of kotis of Bod­hisattvas. At that time the Lord addressed the Ven­er­a­ble Anan­da, and said: Anan­da, do receive, for the sake of the weal and hap­pi­ness of all beings, this per­fec­tion of wis­dom in one let­ter

А

Thus spoke the Lord. The Ven­er­a­ble Anan­da, the large con­gre­ga­tion of monks, the assem­bly of the bod­hisattvas, and the whole world with its gods, men, asur­as and gand­har­vas rejoiced at the teach­ing of the Lord.

Sanskrit "A" in Ranjana script

San­skrit «A» in Ran­jana script

Con­grat­u­la­tions!

You’ve just read the short­est ser­mon of Bud­dha Shakya­mu­ni (aka the Lord, aka the One Who Has Thus Come, aka the World-Hon­ored One, aka a pop­u­lar media char­ac­ter, aka a sym­bol of bliss­ful not-giv­ing-a-fuck of the mass­es in the West, aka the sub­ject of a rite-o-dox­i­cal cult of the mass­es in the East).

This ser­mon con­sist­ing of only a sin­gle let­ter is the quin­tes­sence, the con­cen­trate of the whole of Bud­dhism as a reli­gious, philo­soph­i­cal, and psy­cho-prac­ti­cal sys­tem – and like all con­cen­trates it is too potent to be con­sumed inter­nal­ly with­out due prepa­ra­tions. We won’t be pro­vid­ing you with a detailed guide for con­sum­ing such a strong agent but rather with a short anno­ta­tion. So:

A IS FOR THE ABSOLUTE

The true, absolute real­i­ty can­not be described or defined. It is by its very nature unsemi­otic and out of reach for the capa­bil­i­ties of lin­guis­tic expres­sion. Every­thing described is not real­i­ty and every­thing real can­not be expressed in lan­guage or rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

(E. Torchi­nov)

Pra­j­na­parami­ta-ekak­shara belongs to the Pra­j­na­parami­ta group of sutras (sutras of Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom). In the con­text of Bud­dhism the very word “sutra” usu­al­ly denotes a “text con­tain­ing a ser­mon of the his­tor­i­cal Bud­dha” but when it comes to the Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom one should keep in mind that the Pra­j­na­parami­ta sutras con­tain words that can be (and often are) chal­lenged by the adher­ents of South­ern Bud­dhism.

For those who are not that famil­iar with Bud­dhism it can come as a sur­prise that there is no sin­gle Bud­dhism, just like there is no sin­gle Abra­ham­ic reli­gion based on Semit­ic beliefs. We should rather speak of “Bud­dhist reli­gions”.

Arya Nagar­ju­na

The Pra­j­na­parami­ta sutras are the New Tes­ta­ment of Bud­dhism, com­posed some five cen­turies after the leg­endary founder of Bud­dhism left his abode. Con­tem­po­rary devo­tees of the South­ern Bud­dhist ortho­doxy – Ther­ava­da – con­sid­er these texts unknown apoc­rypha at best.

But for the adher­ents of Mahayana Bud­dhism (rep­re­sent­ed by every oth­er school, includ­ing the Himalayan Bud­dhism, as well as the Far East­ern ones – such as Zen and Shaolin) the Pra­j­na­parami­ta sutras are the heart of the whole Bud­dhist teach­ings.

So what’s so pecu­liar about these sutras?

Apart from the back­ground reformist social mes­sage of rock­ing the cler­i­cal boat, these texts con­tain a new philo­soph­i­cal vec­tor: all pre­vi­ous Buddha’s ser­mons are char­ac­ter­ized as hav­ing rel­a­tive mean­ing. The whole foun­da­tion of the Bud­dhist teach­ing – the Four Noble Truths, the Eight­fold Path, The Twelve Links of Depen­dent Orig­i­na­tion – all of these are now declared a mere out­line; a map that some­times makes it hard to see the ter­ri­to­ry.

The sutras of Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom are clar­i­fy­ing notes, pulling you out of the map, urg­ing you to look beyond its bor­ders (your world­view and rel­a­tive truth) and seek real­i­ty (absolute truth).

So how is it done?

Sanskrit "A" in Devanagari script

San­skrit «A» in Devana­gari script

A IS FOR THE APOPHATIC

The main method of point­ing out the truth In the Pra­j­na­parami­ta sutras is nega­tion.

The word “arrow” is not itself an arrow. The map is not the ter­ri­to­ry.

Both of the most cru­cial Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom sutras – the Heart Sutra and the Dia­mond Sutra – are based on this very prin­ci­ple. These texts have all of the con­cepts of the Bud­dhist teach­ing explained through nega­tion – and it is exact­ly this fea­ture that turns them into high­ly potent psy­cho-prac­ti­cal tools (although only for the peo­ple with the Bud­dhist world­view soft­ware).

“True real­i­ty is per­ceived by the means of yog­ic intu­ition, which is pra­j­na-parami­ta itself. pra­j­na-paramitic texts are meant to raise a cer­tain con­di­tion in its read­er.

There­fore, con­sid­er­ing the inex­press­ible nature of real­i­ty, a pra­j­na-paramitic sutra is a text negat­ing itself. This last point is of car­di­nal impor­tance – a pra­j­na-paramitic text is a text with psy­cho-prac­ti­cal func­tions.

As the research done by the Eston­ian bud­dhol­o­gist L. Mäll shows, pra­j­na-parami­ta rep­re­sents the reifi­ca­tion of the “awak­ened” state of con­scious­ness; in its turn such texts are capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing this state in a thought­ful read­er (state of con­scious­ness – text as reifi­ca­tion – state of con­scious­ness).

The nar­ra­tion in pra­j­na-paramitic texts is also far from any type of dis­cur­sive lin­ear­i­ty: numer­ous rep­e­ti­tions and over­whelm­ing para­dox­es specif­i­cal­ly intend­ed for active trans­for­ma­tion of the reader’s psy­che.

<…for exam­ple,> the para­dox of the Heart Sutra [of pra­j­na-parami­ta] is expressed by what would be con­sid­ered blas­phe­mous by a tra­di­tion­al hinayanist – the nega­tion of real­i­ty of the Four Noble Truths (“there is no suf­fer­ing, no cause of suf­fer­ing, no ces­sa­tion, or path”), the links of depen­dent orig­i­na­tion – all of these are “emp­ty”, “essence­less”, etc.

To com­pre­hend the shock val­ue of such sutra for a Bud­dhist liv­ing one and a half thou­sand years ago imag­ine a Chris­t­ian text where Christ declares there is nei­ther God nor Satan, nei­ther hell nor heav­en, nei­ther sin nor virtue, and so on.”

(E. Torchi­nov)

There is a firm rejec­tion of the self-exis­tence of dhar­mas – the only self­same and indi­vis­i­ble ele­ment-qual­i­ties com­pos­ing real­i­ty accord­ing to the more ortho­dox schools.

Thus not only the word “arrow” is not an arrow but the word “word” is also not a word.

And here we can final­ly jump to the very con­tent of the Sutra of Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom in a Sin­gle Let­ter. The text hasn’t sur­vived in its orig­i­nal San­skrit ver­sion (it was destroyed dur­ing the Mus­lim inva­sion in India) but it was saved in the Tibetan canon as well as in the Viet­namese and the Far East­ern ones.

A notable con­tem­po­rary adher­ent of the Far East­ern school of Chan, Hsuan Hua has iden­ti­fied the Pra­j­na­parami­ta in a Sin­gle Let­ter as noth­ing less than “the essence of the whole Pra­j­na­parami­ta” and “the Heart of the Heart Sutra”.

There is great irony in the fact that there is no sur­viv­ing copy of the Pra­j­na­parmi­ta in a Sin­gle Let­ter in San­skrit, but it is very pop­u­lar in oth­er lan­guages of tra­di­tion­al Mahayana Bud­dhism.

THE THING IS, THE LETTER अ (A) THAT ESSENTIALLY IS THE PRAJNAPARAMITA IN A SINGLE LETTER IS NOT ONLY THE FIRST LETTER OF THE SANSKRIT ALPHABET BUT ALSO FUNCTIONS AS A NEGATIVE PREFIX TURNING EVERY WORD INTO ITS OPPOSITE JUST LIKE IN GREEK LOANWORDS: APATHY, ATHEISM, ETC.

This nuance is cru­cial for under­stand­ing the whole mean­ing of Pra­j­na­parami­ta in a Sin­gle Let­ter. The San­skrit let­ter «A» is there­fore the very Vajra Cut­ter of Illu­sions that is men­tioned in the name of anoth­er clas­si­cal Pra­j­na­paramitic text, the Dia­mond Sutra.

An exam­ple of such a para­dox could be pro­vid­ed by a small quote from the Dia­mond Sutra:

“Sub­huti, the Bud­dha teach­es that ‘pra­j­na parami­ta’ (per­fec­tion of wis­dom) is not pra­j­na parami­ta. There­fore it is called pra­j­na parami­ta. Sub­huti, what do you think? Does the Tatha­ga­ta have any Dhar­ma to teach?”

Sub­huti said to the Bud­dha, “World Hon­ored One, the Tatha­ga­ta has noth­ing to teach.”

“Sub­huti, what do you think? Are all the tiny par­ti­cles con­tained in this trichil­io­cosm great in num­ber?”

Sub­huti said, “Extreme­ly great, World Hon­ored One.”

“Sub­huti, the Tatha­ga­ta teach­es that tiny par­ti­cles are not tiny par­ti­cles. There­fore they are called tiny par­ti­cles. The Tatha­ga­ta teach­es that worlds are not worlds. There­fore they are called worlds. Sub­huti, what do you think? Can the Tatha­ga­ta be rec­og­nized by means of his thir­ty-two phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es?”

“No, he can­not, World Hon­ored One. One can­not rec­og­nize the Tatha­ga­ta by means of his thir­ty-two phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es. Why not? Because the Tatha­ga­ta teach­es that the thir­ty-two phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es are in fact not real attrib­ut­es. There­fore they are called the thir­ty-two phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es.”

This part of the dia­logue between the Bud­dha and his stu­dent Sub­huti (…) has a thought that runs though it: in our expe­ri­ence we are not deal­ing with the real­i­ty but rather with names giv­en to it, that is with men­tal con­structs (vikalpa, kalpana) that replace real­i­ty as is, and this true real­i­ty is unsemi­otic by its very nature, it is tran­scen­den­tal to its name.

(E. Torchi­nov)

Arya Nagar­ju­na reciev­ing Pra­j­na­parami­ta sutras from rep­tiloids. Sor­ry, we meant nagas.

The fur­ther devel­op­ment of this Bud­dhist apophat­ic prin­ci­ple brought us the Eight Nega­tions of the philoso­pher Nagar­ju­na (it is believed he intro­duced the hid­den sutras of Tran­scen­dent Wis­dom to the world).

Those Eight Nega­tions are the so-called “mid­dle” descrip­tion of the absolute and non-dual real­i­ty (and are formed, of course, by adding a neg­a­tive pre­fix to the key notions of Indi­an phi­los­o­phy: anirod­ham (unceas­ing) anut­pā­dam (but also unar­is­ing) anucchedam (unde­struc­table) aśāś­vataṃ (but also uneter­nal) anekārtham (not homoge­nous) anānārtham (but also not het­eroge­nous) anāga­mam (not increas­ing) anirga­maṃ (but also not decreas­ing).

And for this rea­son pre­cise­ly the let­ter अ and the cor­re­spond­ing sutra are seen as the sum­ma­ry of non-dual­i­ty in Tibetan Tantric Bud­dhism (the Tibetans call it yi ge gcig ma, a “Uni­syl­la­ble”) but also as a sym­bol of unborn nature of Empti­ness (the Bud­dhist notion of shun­ya, or “Empti­ness”, that is pret­ty hard to explain and even more hard to com­pre­hend – some­what resem­bling “rhi­zome” of post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy while also over­lap­ping with some of its mean­ing).

If we pro­ceed with our “map-ter­ri­to­ry” metaphor we can say that Pra­j­na­parami­ta in a Sin­gle Let­ter cuts a hole through the “map” in the form of a giant let­ter A, mak­ing a sten­cil out of the map (our per­cep­tion) while the land­scape (true real­i­ty) shines through the EMPTINESS in the shape of “A”.

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Sub­se­quent­ly, the apophat­ic approach and the very con­cept of non-dual­i­ty was adopt­ed from the Bud­dhists by their per­ma­nent adver­saries – the Hin­dus. As a result of this adop­tion there emerged a new school of Hin­duism known as Advai­ta Vedan­ta which had the apophat­ic cut­ting prin­ci­ple expressed lacon­i­cal­ly in the form of the “neti, neti” (not this, not that) mantra.

How­ev­er, for this mod­ern bor­row­ing from Mahayana (as well as for some oth­er ones) the founder of Advai­ta, Shankaracharya has often been called a “cryp­to­bud­dhist” by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the oth­er ortho­dox schools of Hin­duism.

A IS FOR ABSTRACTION

“The sym­bol A is not the coun­ter­part of any­thing in famil­iar life. To the child the let­ter A would seem hor­ri­bly abstract; so we give him a famil­iar con­cep­tion along with it. «A was an Archer who shot at a frog.» This tides over his imme­di­ate dif­fi­cul­ty; but he can­not make seri­ous progress with word-build­ing so long as Archers, Butch­ers, Cap­tains, dance round the let­ters. The let­ters are abstract, and soon­er or lat­er he has to realise it. In physics we have out­grown archer and apple-pie def­i­n­i­tions of the fun­da­men­tal sym­bols. To a request to explain what an elec­tron real­ly is sup­posed to be we can only answer, «It is part of the A B C of physics».

(A. Edding­ton)

There is a lot of inter­est­ing that has not made it to this text, dear read­er: A for Absurd, or A for Apophe­nia (which the Undear Edtio­r­i­al Office has a soft spot for), the par­al­lels between the nul­li­fy­ing Indi­an अ and oth­er sacred coun­ter­parts – the null of the Kab­bal­is­tic א and the Greek alpha – the source of all being.

There could’ve been some enter­tain­ing research here, that would touch on the sub­ject of the sound “a” becom­ing sacred in belief sys­tems of dif­fer­ent peo­ples by mere fact that it can be uttered with one’s last breath, as well as in with the first scream of a new­born.

We could’ve casu­al­ly men­tion cer­tain prac­tices asso­ci­at­ed with the “a” sym­bol (and with Pra­j­na­parami­ta in a Sin­gle Let­ter) in the Bud­dhist schools of Shin­gon and Dzogchen.

"A", Tibetan script, a symbol of Dzogchen

«A», Tibetan script, a sym­bol of Dzogchen

But there isn’t and we won’t. Part­ly, out of not want­i­ng to crowd the text con­cern­ing the Bud­dhist Occam’s guil­lo­tine with unnec­es­sary enti­ties; part­ly, out of our own lazi­ness; and part­ly, out of our wish to make you, dear read­ers, draw such amus­ing par­al­lels your­self.

a‑kāro mukhām sar­va dhar­mānām ādy anut­pan­natvāt!

Trans­la­tion: Her­man Weird

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