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Photo by Marek Hosek. 

Pha Dampa Sangye and the Alphabet Goddess

By Sarah Harding

A preliminary study of the sources of the Zhije tradition

(A fuller version was delivered at the 14th IATS conference in Bergen, Norway 6/12/16)


What peaked my curiosity concerning the use of sound in the ancient Zhije tradition of Tibet occurred during the conferral by Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche of the relevant transmissions of the tradition from Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions in Kathmandu, November 2014. Large portions of the empowerment involved the Sanskrit alphabet, with master and recipients repeating it again and again—forwards, backwards, by columns, by rows, every fifth letter, just the vowels, just the consonants, and other seemingly random combinations. The monks at Benchen Gonpa were incredibly adept in getting it all up on the big screens as fast as the Rinpoche could read.

Nothing in the Zhije histories had alerted me to this pervasive use of syllabary. Except—and how did I miss the one obvious hint everywhere alluded to—that the source text of Zhije is something called Ālikāli Inconceivable Secret Great River Tantra, where āli-kāli refers to the vowels and consonants of Sanskrit! The other source mentioned, called Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, has been previously misidentified by me and everyone else. That was easy to do, since there are dozens of texts with similar titles—nine just in the first volume of the Zhije collection from the recently printed 13 Dingri Langkor Volumes. However, based on positive identification of quotations attributed to “Mahāmudrā Symbol” in other Zhije texts, I have located it in the collected works of Bodong Chokle Namgyal, volume 92, and in no other place. The full title is Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs.[i] I will mainly be looking for the influences of those two tantras in the Zhije praxis .

In a discussion of whether the teachings that were passed to Dampa’s primary disciple Kunga in the last transmission should be considered as sutra or tantra, Gö Lotsawa in the Deb gter ngon po concludes that they are sutra “because it is like the explanation of the doors of the 42-syllable dhāraṇī in the Perfection of Wisdom sutra itself.[ii]Dhāraṇī (Tib. bzung) refers to a kind of mantra, usually quite long.

In the Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines, we find the 42-syllable a ra pa cha na alphabet, so-called because those are the first five syllables of the Kharoṣṭhi script of Gandhāra[iii] and possibly the earliest use of dhāraṇī. (You may also recognize it as part of Mañjuśrī’s mantra.) Each syllable or phoneme is used to indicate a phrase beginning with that syllable that embodies an idea relevant to the perfection of wisdom, and hence the designation of dhāraṇī as a door or entrance:

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 syllable-entrances. What then are the syllable-doors, the syllable entrances?

The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādy-anutpannatvād). RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dust (rajas).[iv]

And so forth, through that alphabet. Thus it could be seen as a mnemonic device, to help in memorizing the alphabet itself and those concepts. My favorite example using instead the Sanskrit alphabet in a similar way is in the old Lalitavistara Sutra (Ch. 10), where the bodhisattva Śākyamuni attends his first day of school. Here’s what happened:

Through the bodhisattva’s power, the schoolmaster taught the children:

When he said the letter a, out came the statement: ”Every composite phenomenon is impermanent (anitya sarvasaskāra). When he said the letter ā, out came the statement: “Beneficial to self and others” (ātmaparahita). When he said the letter i, out came the statement: “The vast development of the senses (indriyavaipulya).[v]

And so forth. In this way, “32,000 children gave rise to thoughts aimed at unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening.”

We are, of course, are familiar with this technique in English:

 A you’re adorable, B you’re so beautiful, C you’re so cute and full of charm.

 Or, from the 18th century:

 A was an apple-pie; B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it…(and so on).

 By the way, the title of that one—which could rival any Sanskrit or Tibetan title—is: “The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pye Who was Cut in Pieces and Eaten by Twenty-Five Gentlemen with whom All Little People Ought to be Very Well Acquainted.” Compare that to the 32,000 children who engendered bodhichitta.

Sarah Harding and Amelia Hall in Bergen Norway, the 14th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. This is the day of the summer solstice June 21, 2016 on top of Mount Ulriken.Sarah Harding and Amelia Hall in Bergen, Norway, the 14th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. This is the day of the summer solstice, June 21, 2016, on top of Mount Ulriken.

Alphabet practices are found in tantras, such as the early Mahāvairocana Tantra[vi] with its placement of the alphabet around the letter a which “itself abides as the inherent nature of the array of various forms. It also reveals by its own nature that all phenomena are unborn..” etc. And the ritual of the mantra of the hundred letters based on the letter a “the hundred-door essence” rather than a. The mnemonic correspondence seems not be a factor here, where each syllable has taken on its own inherent profound meaning and correspondences that don’t indicate a Sanskrit word. Rather, that sound is itself an entryway into an absolute truth. Unfortunately, those inherent syllable meanings vary widely from text to text and page to page.

Later tantras show alphabet and syllable usages as well, such as Chakrasaṃvara with its placement of letters on the practitioner cum deity and the encrypted use of the alphabet in a “mantra puzzle” to discover the secret essence mantras.[vii] Now, of course, it is no big surprise to find a lot of mantras in the Secret Mantra vehicle. I don’t intend to try to explain the tremendous power that was invested in sounds and letters. Mostly, however, mantras are words that carry lexical meaning, and my interest here is in the non-lexical syllables.

The two source tantras of Zhije are chock full of sounds, syllables, dhāraṇī, and mantra. The ĀlikāliTantra is presented in 24 chapters in the form of questions and answers between Vajrapāṇi and the Buddha. The 24th chapter and an interlinear note reveal that Dampa Sangye reconstituted three somewhat disparate sections of this “tantra” that were previously divided according to the following story: After the Buddha entrusts the tantra to various protectors he departs for Kushinigar.

 Then the assembly went off to the king’s palace and divided the tantra into three parts. The first in eight chapters were written on leaves of a wishfulfilling tree, then encased it in a precious crystal vase. The gods summoned it and it rests inside a gandhola on the peak of Supreme Mountain. The middle section of eight chapters was written on the inner bark of a wishfulfilling tree and encased in a precious silver amulet box. The demigods and yakṣas summoned it and it rests in a copper house of blazing weapons midway up Supreme Mountain. The last section of eight chapters was written on blue water silk and encased in a golden box. The nāgas summoned it and it rests in the storehouse of the nāga at the base of Supreme Mountain. Later these three treasure teachings that were divided were brought together into one and written on the skin of a demoness (srin mo) and put into the skin bag of a white lioness. It rests in the endless knot of the secret treasury in the charnel ground of glorious Uḍḍiyāna. 

The tantra may have been composed by Dampa himself, which is especially suggested by the use of the term “treasure teachings” (gter bka’). Yet it is consistent with other tantras in its contents. It answers such questions as “What is the Book” (glegs bam): the codex or volume that is used to confer the empowerments of Zhije, rather than the usual mandala or vase. The Buddha answers in verses such as:

In the teaching of the victorious sugatas of the three times

the sounds of great earth, water, fire, wind, and space,

[as] plants, forests, earth, stone, mountains, cliffs,

and all sentient beings, are saying the sounds of the teaching. (Ch. 4, p. 25) 

And answering “What is the essence?”:

All phenomena are Ālikāli.

If the wise do not know that fact

they are obscured as to meaning and enter the path of the womb.

One must know that method and wisdom are not two. 

And: “If all phenomena are ālikāli, what is the essence?”

Essence is wisdom in the shape of the letter a.

Intrinsic nature unimpeded appearing in the form of o.

The characteristic is nonduality, the perception door of dhāraī

From the perception door of wisdom a and o

the emanation of unimpeded methods arise as kāli.

The guru of this emanated fifty

turns infinite unimaginable dharma wheels.

Repeating aloud the meaning of text, you retain it.

The drawing is the ālikāli of form.

Then the ālikāli of amazing substance

and the ālikāli of realized meaning

and the ālikāli of illustrative words

and the ālikāli of concordant examples.

These five I have explained as the secret essence. (Ch. 5, p.27) 

Then the Buddha goes on to explain each of those. In chapter 6, first the Buddha pronounces the Sanskrit alphabet straight through and then other buddhas intone the various sets of letters from it. And in Chapter 7 we find:

The root of all phenomena is one’s own mind.

The nature of mind is power from concepts

Concepts depend on channels and winds.

The entity of channels and winds abides in the form of letters.

Therefore all phenomena are the clear form of letters.

The fifty come from a.

It is explained as the seed of all phenomena. (p.35)

In response to this question of the letters’ essence, the Buddha says, “I am the essence,” but continues with correspondences such as: ka kha ga nga are wind letters, blue, are ten, abiding in the lungs and so forth for each set. Other sets of syllables purify the afflictions, and so on endlessly, back and forth between non-lexical phonemes and regular lexical mantras that bestow power and efficacy. All this is interspersed with explanations of practices that are indeed reflected in the Zhije corpus.

Now the Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs contains in its 21 chapters similar teachings but in quite a different manner. For one thing, it is spoken not by the Buddha or Vajradhara, but the Bhagavatī, mistress of the realm, surrounded by goddesses and ḍākinīs. She appears but doesn’t, and says “a a a” without saying anything. And the interlocutor is none other than a certain “Kamalaśrī,” (Dampa Sangye) who relates the story in first person. The Sanskrit alphabet makes its first appearance in chapter three “from the vajra Body, Speech, and Mind of the emanated goddess.” This gives rise to the yab-yum in union and the mantras of empowerment, producing a stream of bodhicitta that matures all beings. Many mantras ensue, some familiar from the Ālikāli Tantra, as well as the distinctive five-fold path of Zhije. Three whole chapters (7–9) are given over to the explanation of the suchness of letters (yi ge’i de kho na nyid). And there is also an apparent “mantra puzzle” here, but I just can’t figure it out! It is tenuous to identify the mantras with those in the Ālikāli Tantra since the Tibetan phonetics for the Sanskrit of this text in particular seem quite corrupt. But, alas, this is a problem with most Tibetan phonetic reproductions where Devanāgarī is unavailable. And if the Sanskrit syllables really are doors to the vast absolute truth, this is extremely worrisome if not disastrous for the Tibetan practices based on alphabet and mantra!

The last chapter and the colophon, however, are surprisingly clear, giving an exact date, writing medium, and location. Spoken in a Pig Year, this would be 1107, if Dampa did die in 1117.[viii] The tantra was “given to the ḍākinī herself where it remains as the secret treasure of the heart.” The colophon mentions Dampa’s monastery of Dingri Langkor by name, and that it was translated by “the Indian Khenpo Kamalaśrī and Tibetan translator Zhwa ma Ton pa seng ge gyal po,” who was known as Zhama Lotsāwa, Dampa’s regular translator.

Though these two tantras may well be apocryphal, the material in both is generally concordant with Buddhist tantra, yet specific to the Zhije practices. However, the specificity involves the doctrines that appear in the practice and commentarial tradition, particularly the five-fold path mentioned above, and not particularly in the syllable or mantra usage. Why is that? I propose that over time the magic of sound was less compelling to Tibetans than it had been to Indian tantrikas, and may have also generated some anxiety due to the problems of transliteration and pronunciation. The many lineages of Zhije have therefore privileged meditations such as mahāmudrā or tantric visualizations. Indicative of this, when Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo was extracting “the essence” of the Ālikāli Tantra for inclusion in Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions, he chose only three chapters[ix] which had minimal mantra and no non-lexical syllabary.

Or, when later commentators present the teachings that were passed to Bodhisattva Kunga, they expound only on the Red Guide, and yet the Black Guide (nag khrid) is where the alphabet teachings are found. Have those been lost? I have so far only found a few scraps regarding this practice, and then in a seemingly negative light. For example, in a question and answer session with Kunga in one text, a disciple asks about the Black Guide and the stains that will arise from it. The short and remarkable answer is:

What the Black Guide does is illuminate the letters of forgetfulness tokens as imprints on white paper, as it’s called. [When] the instructions of the hearing lineage have been written down as letter drawings it is a shame. It is like the king degenerating into a commoner.[x]

The possible downfalls of the practice are numerous, including getting hung up on the letters because, of course, “there are no letters for the genuine meaning.” And “Fixating on the excellence of understanding the progression of words (tshig ‘dros), [one] does not look elsewhere, and that is a stain.” And so forth.

In conclusion, it has been very challenging to find the syllable practice in what’s left of the Zhije tradition, except in the empowerment conferral itself. No wonder it was a surprise as I was mumbling my way through coded phonemes of the empowerment. 


After delivering this paper at the IATS conference in Bergen, an attendee very graciously offered some information of the kind I was desperately seeking in my research. It particularly concerned an observed and still current Vedic ritual in which the meanings to be conveyed to disciples are disallowed as script in any form other than alphabetic syllables for the purpose of recollection. I was referred to the work of William Sax at U. of Heidelberg and also of Frits Staal, in books such as his Ritual and Mantras: Words Without Meaning, and Discovering the Vedas Origins, Mantras, Rituals, and Insights. A paragraph from a review of the latter by Annette van der Hoek illustrates how very illuminating this information would have been:

 “Part three explains, in quite some linguistic detail, that the syntactic structure of a mantra is, interestingly, often closer to birdsong than it is to natural language. this is demonstrated, for instance, in the use of sheer indefinite repetition – a,a,a,a,a –which is not a part of our everyday sentence construction and in the use of sequences – bha, bhu, bhi, bho – that again natural language wouldn’t feature except for maybe in a child’s play with words.”[xi]



[i]mKha’ ‘gro ma thams cad kyi thugs kyi gsang ba phyag chen brda’i rgyud in Bo dong Phyogs las rnam rgyal, De nyid ‘dus pa, the Collected Works published as Encyclopedia Tibetica, vol. 92, pp. 111–160.

[ii] Gö Lotsāwa: p 1134: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i mdo nyid nas yi ge bzhi bcu rtsa gnyis kyi gzung kyi sgo bshad pa dang ‘gra ba’i phyir ro/

[iii] Richard Solomon, “New Evidence for a Gāndhārī Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2, 1990; Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men, 2003, pp. 291–2, note 549. See also Jayarava, Visible Mantra: Visualizing and Writing Buddhist Mantras, 2011.

[iv] Edward Conze’s translation in The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, p. 160.

[v] 84,000 online translation, “The Play in Full” accessed 05/30/16

[vi] See Stephen Hodge, (trans.) The Mahā-Vairocana-abhisaṃbodhi Tantra with Buddhaguhya’s Commentary, pp. 216-232. (ch. 10). Said to be revealed around 640 CE.

[vii] David Gray, The Cakrasaṃvara Tantra, p. 133.

[viii] The Tshig mdzod chen mo (pp. 3218–19) states that “some say” Pha Dampa Sangs rgyas died in the fire fowl year of 1117. But it also gives his departure date to China as 1101 and returned to Dingri in 1113 for the last time. Most accounts agree that he spent 12 years in China. That would only give him four years at Dingri until his supposed death, with no intervening Pig Year, which wouldn’t be until 1119. The dating remains to be clarified.

[ix] Chapters 10 on the five paths, 17 on the empowerment and pledges, and 23 on view, meditation, conduct, and results. From his colophon: Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Essence of Precious Segments of the Inconceivable Secret Tantra Section, the Source Text of the Holy Dharma Pacification of Suffering. Dam chos sdug bsngal zhi byed kyi gzhung gsang ba bsam gyis mi khyab pa’i rgyud sde’i dum bu rin po che’i snying po. DNZ, vol. 13, p. 15.

[x]bDud rtsi zhun ma’i gdams pa, DV, ga, p. 97. Nag khrid bgyi ba brjed rdo’i yi ge’i gsal ‘debs / dkar shog la btabs pa la zer ba yin te / snyan khungs [b]rgyud pa’i gdams ngag yi ge’i ris su son bas lod de / rgyal po rmangs su babs pa lta bu yin / rgyal po rmangs (dmangs) su babs pa lta bu yin / Much thanks to Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche for clarifying this passage. Personal interview, 06/04/16.

[xi] “‘Meaningless’ mantras and birdsong?: discovering the Vedas” The Newsletter, No. 53, Spring 2010: