Green Koans 45: The Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter

Clark Strand

Green Koans 45

CASE #45:    The Perfection of Wisdom in One Letter

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom!

Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord dwelt at Rājagriha, on Vulture Peak, together with a large congregation of 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 wellbeing and happiness of all beings, this perfection of wisdom in the letter A.”

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.


Perfection of Wisdom     The Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom canon, or Prajnaparamita, forms the basis for Mahayana Buddhism. At 100,000 lines, the encyclopedic Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, which is usually attributed to Nagarjuna, is the longest. The shortest, cited above in its entirety, is preserved only in Tibetan, and represents the lower limit of compression in Prajnaparamita thought, perhaps continuing a tradition which began with the Diamond and Heart Sutras, which were likewise attempts to get to the essence of this complex and important tradition of Mahayana Buddhist teaching.

The letter A     Refers to the Sanskrit and Pāli short a or "schwa" vowel. Used as a prefix, it negates the meaning of the word which follows it—for instance, changing the word svabhāva, “with essence,” to asvabhāva, “without essence.” It is the first letter of all Indic alphabets and is often said to form the most neutral and basic sound of human speech. It is the first of the three sounds comprising the universal mantra AUM. In Tibetan Buddhism, the visualization of this “One Letter A” is an important part of Dzogchen meditation.

NOTE: Edward Conze explains this shortest sutra of the Prajnaparamita canon as follows:

The idea behind it is the doctrine of the Mahasanghika school who maintained that the Buddha has taught everything by emitting just one single sound. The auditors [those listening to the sutra] hear it each one according to their own needs and in this way the one syllable A is transmitted in the mind of the people into all the sermons on Prajnaparamita, and on spiritual topics in general over all the world.

It is worth noting that in Jewish mystical tradition, the question is asked, “Why does the Torah begin with the letter Bet (i.e., with the word Bereishit, “In the beginning”) instead of Alef? The answer commonly offered is that the Alef is the origin of all created things, but in itself remains uncreated. Paradoxically, it cannot be contained in the Torah, even though it is the origin of the Torah. The Sanskrit letter A is the analogous teaching in Mahayana Buddhism, and in itself may have originated with Jewish tradition, though it is also possible that both traditions borrowed from the earlier Hindu teachings on the mantra AUM.

What are the limits of the written word? Humanity keeps pushing them in one direction, but not the other. Each day the outer limit expands exponentially. The written word, and the world it engenders and maintains, hangs before the real world like a thick drape that lets through only the faintest glimmer of light. “That’s clear!” we say, when someone has offered an explanation of some weighty matter. But it isn’t clear at all. It’s the words we are looking at, not the world.

To see the world clearly we must walk in the opposite direction. The patriarchs and matriarchs of every spiritual tradition lie backwards, not forwards. They’ve pitched their camp close to the origin of things. Whether it’s A or AUM or Alef hardly matters once you get that close. It’s like Moses standing before the burning bush asking, “How is it that it burns, but is not consumed?”

There aren’t any words
To describe the Buddha Way.
Even one letter
Is too much, but word-drunk beings
Have to have someplace to start.

Read all the Green Koans here.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
wtompepper's picture

Re: “It’s the words we are looking at, not the world.”

I think the error consists of thinking that words are a screen between us and the “real” world. Words don’t even always refer to the external world—they are a tool for doing things, and may be skillful or unskillful. Like any tool, we can hang it up and look at it like art, but it isn’t much use that way.

It seems that the Zen resistance to language may be a response to the Japanese transition from orality to literacy, a resistance to the alienated subjectivity that transition produces. Galen Amstutz has written a really good article on the Shin response to this transition. Since Shin and Zen arose in Japan at the same time, I’m curious if anyone knows of any work on Zen and the transition to literacy?

I never saw this sutra before, but it seems that it may be a response to a similar transition. Where and when is it believed to originate?

Dominic Gomez's picture

My ideas about zen were similar. I first thought zen was a way of rejecting intellectual over-analysis of something (i.e. life) that is actually quite simple. So simple that even the least educated among us would "get it" in an instant even without knowing how to read and write.
Zen's origin, the Flower Sermon, describes a silent exchange of understanding between Shakyamuni and Mahakasyapa. If it is as you suggest, that dhyana/chan/zen is a "resistance to language (academicism?)", then even during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha there developed among his followers this tendency to over-intellectualize his simple message.

wtompepper's picture

I don't think it is so much a resistance to language, used properly, as a tool. Rather, it is a resistance to the tendency, once language is written and printed and reproduced in book form, for language to control us. This tendency can be resisted or subverted or avoided in many ways, and I think Zen is one of them. Zen isn't opposed to thought, which always takes place in language (whether we are aware of that or not); koans and sutras are important uses of thought and language. The popular "zen of everything" craze has just mistaken the resistance to the alienating tendencies of literate culture for a rejection of all thought. Thought has become the thing our culture is most terrified of, and pop-Buddhism is a reassurance that deeply emotional ignorance is really wisdom.

I do think that in the time that the sutras were being written down and preserved (but perhaps not in the Buddha's lifetime), there was a tendency toward what you call "academicism," and what a lot of Buddhist scholars call "scholasticism." The danger was not in over-analyzing something (it can only be thoroughly analyzed, and then actual analysis is done--everything else is just "academic"), the danger is in letting the printed word take control, and create our minds, instead of the other way around.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has this sense about Zen.

ClarkStrand's picture

I'm not convinced about the literacy angle, Tom. There are older versions of the same teaching in Jewish and Hindu tradition that probably have nothing to do with literacy. And the Ch'an tradition, which was founded on a "mind to mind transmission not relying in any way on written scripture" was already many hundreds of years old when it was exported to Japan.

As for the age and origin of this sutra, Conze lists the Sanskrit version as "lost," which means he seems to think there originally was one. I'm not so sure myself. It's a tantric scripture and therefore almost certainly of a later vintage than those non-tantric sutras in the Prajnaparamita canon, but it's hard to say whether or not it originated as a Vajrayana scripture. The Chinese and Tibetans liked to create their own sutras, then give them Sanskrit names in order to establish their legitimacy. That could be what has happened here.

Of course, that doesn't delegitimize it as a teaching. In Buddhism there are any number of very dubious teachings from the early days and many wise teachings from much later on. That seems to be the case with many religions. We like to think that everything is very pure in the beginning and gets degraded as time goes on. But that isn't always so.

wtompepper's picture

"the Ch'an tradition, which was founded on a "mind to mind transmission not relying in any way on written scripture" was already many hundreds of years old when it was exported to Japan"

That's kind of why it seems to me it was a reaction to literacy--that is, it was imported to Japan as a Japanese response to (resistance to?) the transition. Not that that is why Ch'an originated--I don't know anything about that time period.

If this sutra is from after the Prajanaparamita sutras, then as you say the literacy issue is probably not involved.

Thanks for the information. Do you know when the Hindu version of the teaching is from? I would really like to take a look at it.

I enjoy these "green koans." Thanks.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Tom. The Hindu version is older by as much as a thousand years (perhaps much older in oral tradition), or as little as three hundred, depending on how you measure it. Look for it in the Upanishads. I think the best example is found in the Mandukya, which is sometimes said to lie at the very borderline of Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism (follow this link and you'll see why--it's a very short read: I discovered it in my research on Green Meditation, because it describes the syllable AUM as a diagram of human consciousness with four parts, the three letters of the syllable, plus a state that includes all three referred to simply as Turiya, "the fourth." Glad you're enjoying this series.

wtompepper's picture

Thanks for all the info. This stuff is really interesting.

wonderwheel's picture

Here's a bit from Hakuin Ekaku's "Letter to an Aged Nun of the Hokke." Hakuin is describing how he views the Hokke school's practice of recitation and rememberance of "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo." The Shingon school is the Japanese branch of the Vajrayana and Hakuin refers to the Shingon teaching on the Letter A as synonymous with Zen's "Original Face."

"This One Mind, derived from the two characters Myoho mentioned above, when spread out includes all the Dharma worlds of the ten directions, and when contracted returns to the no-thought and no-mind of the self-nature. Therefore such things as 'outside the mind no thing exists,' 'in the three worlds there is One Mind alone,' and 'the true appearance of all things,' have been preached. Reaching this ultimate place is called the 'Lotus Sutra,' or the 'Buddha of Infinite Light;' in Zen it is called the 'Original Face,' in Shingon the 'Sun Disc of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A,' in Ritsu [Vinaya] the 'Basic, Intangible Form of the Precepts.' Everyone must realize that these are all different names for the One Mind."

Hakuin's view is that of the One Vehilcle (Ekayana) which is all inclusive and therefore eccumenical in that it recognizes that the One Mind it inherent in all people, therefore the ultimate goal of the spiritual practice of all people is the same because there can be no other ultimate goal than realizing the One Mind. Any thing other than realizing the One Mind is only a penultimate goal at best.

Further on in Hakuin's letter he reiterates and makes explicit that the Buddha's One Vehicle includes even non-Buddhist religions:

"The true place to which the sages of all three religions have attained is, to a large measure, the same. Although the degrees of efficacy are based on the depth and the quality of the perseverance in practice, the content of the first step is the same. The Confucians call this place the 'Ultimate Good,' the 'Undeveloped Mean.' Taoists call it 'Nothingness' or 'Nature.' Among Shintoists it is known as 'Takamagahara.' The Tendai school calls it 'the Great Matter of Cessation and Insight (i.e., samatha and vipassana) on the three thousand worlds in one instant of thought.' In Shingon it is called 'the contemplation of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A.'"

ClarkStrand's picture

Wonderful, wonder. That broad, even sensibility is what I've always loved about Hakuin. That, and his art...and the Yasen Kana. I'll never forget my Japanese Zen teacher dragging us all into the meeting hall one night to read us the story of Hakuin's encounter with the mysterious mountain immortal who gave him the recipe for the "duck butter egg."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Similar to the common understanding that "Alef" is the origin of all created things, but in itself remains uncreated is "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)
It's only logical. Everything had to start somewhere, somehow. In astrophysics, the proposition is that in the beginning was the Big Bang and the Big Bang was (eventually) made flesh. But what of that which precedes the "Big Bang", or "Alef", or "The Word". What do we make of that which is, yet is un-created?

ClarkStrand's picture

I wonder what Hawking has to say about this. Does anybody know? I've thought of reading his new book.

Jim Spencer's picture

I am drinking a cup of coffee while I read this article. It is a-coffee the entire time that I am drinking it, yet it is coffee as soon as I conceptualize "coffee" in my mind, though it never looses it's a-coffee-ness.

One of the most difficult things that I try to do each day is to stay in that non-conceptualizing mindset. Don't name it, just be it, staying with the breath. The teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu that are found here on the Tricycle site are fantastic tools for this breath awareness practice, I thought.