BHAI, the Siddham letter that invokes the Buddha of Healing. Bhai, gold foil on 300-gram indigo paper

I’D BEEN SERVING as librarian at the San Francisco Zen Center only a short while in 1974 when I discovered a closet full of banana boxes, all seven of them containing what the poet Philip Whalen termed “dog paperbacks.” A library habitué, Whalen offered to escort me to trade in the books on one sluggish afternoon. His own parlous fortunes through the years had forced him to sell off parts of his personal library, and he knew the used bookstore scene well. Thus we arrived at Holmes Books on Third and Market and unloaded our goods. I waited at the intake counter while a dour clerk pawed through our messy piles. Whalen flitted through the two floors of the place—he could move lightly for a big man when he wished to, and books inspired him. He fetched single volumes to the counter for a while, and then he hit a mother lode: apparently a Harvard scholar had dropped his Buddhist library at Holmes, which contained many valuable reference books and other precious texts. Philip piled armfuls on the counter. Watching the grumpy sorting of our books against the gleeful piling up of theirbooks—those to be bought—it became clear we were going to be on the short end of things. Hard choices would have to be made.

I began to thumb through Robert van Gulik’s Siddham, about the vital role of the Northern Indian Siddham script in the development of East Asian Buddhism. I must have worn a dubious look, because Whalen waltzed over next to me and said, leaving no room for dissent, “Dave, you have got to get that book. That one’s all full of magic. You get that book and we can write our own ticket.”

He took it from my hand and placed it back on the counter as if to say, “That’s settled.”

Later at the library, he dropped in for a not uncharacteristic lecture, this time on the general position of Siddham calligraphy in Buddhist tradition. Whalen himself had studied calligraphy at Reed College in the late fifties and early sixties under the seminal teacher Lloyd Reynolds (as I had, twenty years later), and during Whalen’s years in Japan he’d been able to inspect a great many temples and shrines of all lineages. Particularly in Shingon and Tendai temples he’d seen complex diagrammatic mandalas executed completely in Siddham letters. These two schools—sometimes classified by outsiders as “esoteric” Buddhism (another way of saying they incorporate mantra and other Vajrayana or Tantric practice)—used Siddham letters extensively in their rituals. Zen masters brushed Siddham letters as well, but more informally, more for fun. On his way out of the library, Whalen concluded by saying that Zen folk had borrowed all the rituals they had from the Tantrics anyway.

Left alone with Mr. van Gulik’s elegant writing, illustrated with scores of plates, it became clear that this mystic script had played a crucial role in the delivery of Buddhism from India to China, and that it had, since the early eighth century, exerted real power in Japan as well. Arising in India from the extremely ancient root script Brahmi-lipi, Siddham became, together with Devanagari, one of the two leading hands in the classical Gupta period, which ran from the fourth through the seventh centuries C.E. These were the letters used to write down the Buddhist canon for the first time. These were the letters the first Chinese pilgrims saw when they arrived at Nalanda University and other centers of learning, and these were the letters—principally Siddham—they used to copy essential texts before walking back to China with them.

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