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.