How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Figure 1: Maṇi on a hill near Tau with a subscribed a-chung.

A while ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of giant hillside renditions of oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and mythical patron of all things Tibetan. This mantra, known simply as the maṇi, is one of the most pervasive practices of Tibetan Buddhism, being inscribed on stones, rendered across hillsides and recited by millions of Tibetans daily. One early Jesuit missionary, ignorant of Buddhism but struck by the pervasiveness of the maṇi mantra, reported that the Tibetans worshiped the god ‘Manipe’.[1] Despite the pervasive presence of the maṇi in Tibetan religiosity, however, there does not seem to be consensus on how it should be spelled.

Figure 2: A pool table converted to a maṇi plaque near Katok Monastery. No a-chung.

An observant reader may have noticed that the hillside maṇi pictured in my earlier post has a small a-chung (འ) underneath the oṃ (ཨཱོཾ; see figure 1). Most renditions of the maṇi that you see around Tibet, however, lack this subscribed a-chung (ཨོཾ; see figure 2). This tells us a couple of things. First off, the fact that all of those hillside maṇis I saw last summer uniformly included the same quirky spelling probably means they are all the work of one industrious person or group. Secondly, either that person or group is just plain wrong, or there are multiple traditions floating around for how to spell one of Tibet’s most important cultural touchstones. And that’s kind of neat, and definitely worth looking into.

Given that the maṇi is a Sanskrit phrase rendered in Tibetan script, the obvious first stop for someone trying to resolve this riddle is to figure out how the syllable should be written in Sanskrit. While I, unfortunately, don’t read Sanskrit, I do know several people who do, and I’ve spent the last few weeks grilling them about how one should properly write the syllable oṃ in the language of the gods. (the next bit is kind of technical, and I’ve probably got it wrong anyway, so if you’re in a rush feel free to skip to the conclusion) When rendering Sanskrit in Tibetan script, a subscribed a-chung like the ones we see here is used to turn a short vowel into a long vowel. So, for instance, the short ‘a’ (ཨ; अ in Devanagari, the most common Sanskrit srcipt) becomes the long ‘ā’ (ཨཱ; आ) with the addition of a subscribed a-chung. Sanskrit, however, does not have a short ‘o’, so an a-chung is not needed to create the long syllable ‘ō’ (ཨོ; ओ). Instead, adding the a-chung to ‘o’ gives us ‘au’ (ཨཱོ; औ). So, without the a-chung, we have the syllable ‘oṃ’ (ཨོཾ; ओं) and with the a-chung we have the syllable ‘auṃ’ (ཨཱོཾ; औं). As for which is the correct spelling, I am told that in general practice the syllable is usually rendered ‘oṃ’. This is the familiar glyph ॐ, and would seem to favor those versions of the maṇi that lack the subscribed a-chung. On the other hand, the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, an early Indian scripture that deals entirely with this sacred syllable, is less straightforward. In its opening line, the syllable is spelled ‘oṃ’, but a few lines later the constituent phonemes are identified as ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ṃ’.[2] Finally, Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge, spells it ‘auṃ’. So, even in the Sanskrit, we have multiple ways of spelling the syllable oṃ. Or is it auṃ?

Figure 3. Three maṇis in an old manuscript of the Maṇi Kabum. No a-chungs.

Another way to look at this would be to consider historical and contemporary instances of the maṇi and see what percentage of them have an a-chung. Here, the balance clearly seems to tip in favor of oṃs without a-chungs. Sitting around on my computer, I have two scans of a Tibetan text known as the Maṇi Kabum.[4] As its name implies, this text is one of the most important Tibetan works on the maṇi ever composed (its title can be loosely translated as Collected Works on the Maṇi), so it seems like a good place to look. No a-chungs in either copy (See figure 3). Additionally, a few months ago I remember seeing a 13th century funerary slab from Mongolia with the maṇi on it with no a-chung.[3] So this spelling is attested at least that far back. Further, the images produced by searching google for ‘maṇi stone’ almost invariably lack a subscribed a-chung, which goes someway towards showing how widespread this spelling is. The epigraphical record, however, does not entirely favor the no a-chung camp.  Browsing the Tibeto-Logic blog a while back, I came across these images of the syllable oṃ from texts preserved in the Dunhuang caves (see figure 4).[5] These ancient doodles, at least a thousand years old, have large, clear, unmistakable subscribed a-chungs. Whatever happened later, at least we know that oṃ could be written with a subscribed a-chung a long time ago.

Figure 4. Oṃs from Dunhuang, with subscribed a-chungs.

We started out with a quandary: should the first syllable in the ever-present mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūm have an a-chung? We looked at the Sanskrit, and concluded that in general use the Sanskrit does not require an a-chung, but that there were notable instances indicating it should be there. Then we checked the epigraphical evidence, which overwhelmingly favored the anti a-chung element, except for that pesky Dunhuang scribble, which just happens to be the oldest version of the syllable I’ve seen. (No, I haven’t combed through the rest of the Dunhuang documents. Anyone interested in doing so can look through most of them at the International Dunhuang Project. Let me know what you find.) If it seems like we’re no closer to an answer than we were at the beginning, that’s probably correct. But, at least now we have some idea why we don’t know anything.

Thanks to Karen Lang, Kurtis Schaeffer, Dominic DiZinno, Ben McClintic and Eva Natanya for their sanskritic insights.

[1] Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999. p 117. If you read latin and prefer the original, check out pages 72 and 73 of Kircher, Athanasius. China Monumentis: Qua Sacris Quà Profanis Nec Non Variis Naturae [et] Artis Spectaculis Aliarumque Rerum Memorabilium Argumentis Illustrata. Meurs: Jacobum, 1667.

[2] Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 473-477.

[3] This was on loan to the UVA Art Museum, but the docent yelled at me for trying to take a picture, so I can’t produce any photographic evidence.

[4] Those with access to TBRC can download the Punaka edition of the Maṇi Kabum, reference W19225.

[5] These images are from Pelliot Tibetain 1230

10 thoughts on “How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

  1. BTW, Another point you may wish to address, is that with these phoneme-oriented scripts, the critical matter rests on the pronunciation. If there are two distinct pronunciations, this would in turn validate two distinct writings. But one does wonder if one preceded the other. even the om-kara (the familiar sanskrit symbol) is a “shorthand” that obscures precisely what might have been the intended pronunciation (i.e., it lacks flags, the traditional marker of distinction between o and au). om/aum are both recognizable variations of a transliteration, and while om is the most common, it too is a product of vowel coalescence, a fact brought out by the a-u-m version.

    What is most important to understand is that, in sanskrit, there is a phonetic rule: “O” = “A” + “U” (if you say a-u really quick, it starts to sound like ‘o’). Thus, it is really just a matter of whether you want to articulate all the different phonetic ‘bits’, and different groups may choose either/or for variant didactic reasons.

  2. Rangjung Oṃ, from Yerpa, northeast of Lhasa

    Thanks for the fun and stimulating blog! I just want to add that nature herself at times seems to support the subscribed ‘a in the om. I’ve noticed it in naturally formed (or self-produced; rang-byung) om-s that appear as white crystals emerging from black rock at Yerpa in Tibet. The only published example of this I know about right off the bat is on the cover of the program for the 7th IATS (Int’l Assoc. for Tibetan Studies) meeting at Schloss Seggau (near Graz), Austria (a photo taken by Ernst Steinkellner at Yerpa). I just dug up the program, and I have to say that its form is very much like the ‘flying om-s’ of Dunhuang (only without the wing thing going on). Veeery eeeenteresting! Keep up the good blogging!

  3. While the a-chung is not needed from a ortographic point of view, it may be necessary for the purposes of Tantric ritual– a syllable is used not only to represent a sound, but its graphic form is utilized in visualizations, etc. According to the biography of Chokgyur Lingpa, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo argued that the presence of a-chung is required “for the five wisdoms to be complete”. Without it, the syllable would have only four elements.
    So it could be that the divergent spellings have something to do with whether this aspect of the syllable is relevant in a given ritual tradition or not.

    1. Many thanks for the comments and reference (for those who are interested, it’s on page 19 of Chokgyur Lingpa’s biography, which can be downloaded from the above link in Ratna’s comment). Its good to know that others, more erudite than myself, have had this debate as well!

  4. If you look at the engraving in the Kircher book (the same page you linked to in your footnote 1), you see something very curious. Of course, it helps to know that European engravers worked mainly from verbal descriptions, but also from travellers’ sketches and the like. But look what happened to the 11-headed (actually 11-faced is a more accurate translation) Chenrezi (divine form of compassion). Those 11 heads are stacked up just as if they were cannon balls. (Do an experiment, and you’ll see that even though you only see 6 of the heads there would have to be at least 4 more for them to stack up. Would that be 10 plus the one you see still attached to a torso, totalling 11? Not sure how much difference this makes in the general scheme of things…)

    Very effective as a kind of propaganda. The 11 faces are said to have split apart after seeing the suffering in the world (shattered out of compassion…) has turned into something barbaric in the extreme.

    1. Taken from a 1749 work, Histoire des Voyages, but based on the images found in Kircher, which were in turn based on descriptions by the Jesuit missionary Johann Grueber.

      Good observation. Other illustrations from this volume might seem a little more sympathetic, however. One of my favorites is where the Dalai Lama examines a child (presumably about Tulku status?) Here, the Dalai Lama has a strong Roman nose, flowing robes and walks genially under a palm tree (I’ve tried, but failed, to find palm trees in Lhasa). To my eyes, he resembles little more than a Roman senator; hardly a negative image for seventeenth century scholars. So who knows what kind of message these guys were trying to send out – Tibetans whose deities are stacks of heads, or Tibetans who were the heirs of roman rationalism. Come to think of it, that’s the same dichotomy we still find in western depictions of Tibet. (Click here to check out some of my other posts on the representation of Tibet in western culture)

  5. Great that this topic is being discussed, it is a point i have mused over many times and good to see some investigation taking place.

    Jayarava of ‘visible mantra’ had something to say about how the mani mantra should be spelt in ‘English’.. shown here:

    on another subject… I also made a linked reference to your blog from my blog here:

    all the best


  6. Dear G., Just a heads up. I have it by very good authority that the Lost Yak will soon be awarded with a Liebster Award for blogging. Congratulations. You earned it. Your D.

    1. Many thanks, Dan. This Liebster thing has a slightly odd ring to it, but whatever. This is the internet, after all, the whole thing is kind of odd. In any case, I definitely appreciate the vote of confidence, and have passed the honor along to Robert and Cathy over at kīlī kīlaya and Sam at Early Tibet. Both far more worthy of actually having anybody read their work than I am!


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