A Garland of Letters

 Scripts and Symbols of the Merigar Gönpa 

Giorgio Dallorto 

The main entrance, the east portico. All photos in this article are from the original photos taken in 2013.

To Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, who is different from but identical to the divine architect Vishwakarma. 

Outwardly it is called the Gönpa, dgon pa, a Tibetan word that means ‘a silent place’ or ‘place where people meet to practice’. 

Inwardly it is called the Temple of Great Liberation Through Seeing, ‘du khang mthong grol chen mo. 

Ultimately it is known as the Temple of the Great Contemplation, ‘du khang ting nge ‘dzin chen mo. 

The purpose of this article is to make known and to deepen knowledge of the beauty and wisdom represented by the writing and symbols in different calligraphy within and without the Gönpa. This wonderful structure was designed and created in all its finest details – each with its own precise meaning – from the mind of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.

 The uniqueness of the Gönpa at Merigar lies in its octagonal form, which distinguishes it from the traditional rectangular form of Tibetan meditation halls. From the eight petalled lotus flower ornamenting the center of the ceiling, eight great beams or rays spread out delineating the points of the octagon and representing the four cardinal and four intermediate points. The glass pinnacle, rising above the lotus, represents the zenith, while the lotus flower inlaid in the floor below, indicates the nadir. Altogether they make up the ten directions that indicate the entire universe in Buddhism. 

Our description of the Gönpa, which starts from the broad stone stairway in the east, follows a precise route and makes an outer khora (circumambulation) in clockwise direction around the outer Mandala, an inner khora within the inner Mandala, and finally enters the center of the Mandala, the main inner hall. 

The Outer Mandala 

Arriving at the Temple we climb up the ‘Stairway to Liberation’ leading to the main portico facing east, the direction in which Lord Buddha was gazing when he reached enlightenment. Adorning the crossbeam at the top᷃ of the stairs we can observe the letters of self-liberation of the six lokas in Lentsa script, an ancient Indian decorative writing called Rañjana᷃. This written form derives from Guptan Bra᷃hmi᷃ script, which evolved in Kashmir in the eighth century and was diffused among the Newars during the eleventh century. According to Jamgon Kongtrul there are sixty-four types of traditional ancient scripts, among which the Rañjana᷃ and the Vartula are supreme. Rañjana᷃ is still utilized for the inscription of Sanskrit texts, particularly in Nepal and Tibet. 

At this point it is important to point out that in describing the scripts and symbols in the Gönpa we will consider them from the view of the observer. Hence, the six letters of self-liberation start on the left of the observer: the first letter ‘A is white and represents the perfectly pure space of the divinities. The second letter A, turquoise green, symbolizes the perfectly pure space of the asuras. The third letter HA is sapphire blue and corresponds to the perfectly pure space of human beings. These three represent the higher realms of existence and are separated from the three lower by the symbolic letter of the luminous clarity of the universe. This symbol, called the ‘unique golden syllable’ and commonly known as the Longsal letter, is similar to a BAM joined on the right and left by letters similar to a CA and a reversed CA. It symbolizes the absolute condition and represents the essence of the heart of the dakinis, the Rigdzin of the direct, symbolic and oral transmission, the Master of the whole Dzogchen Community.

The six syllables with Longsal at the center and Gakyil above.

Then the letters of the three lower realms of existence start with a vermilion red SHA representing the perfectly pure space of animals, SA in a white transparent color like a crystal symbolizing the perfectly pure space of the pretas or hungry ghosts, and finally MA in brown, corresponding to the perfectly pure space of hell beings. Each of these letters, as well as the symbolic letter at the center, is portrayed inside a five-colored thigle. 

Below the six letters in shining gold we find the Ushnishavijaya Dharani mantra, OM PADMOŞŅĪŞA VIMA LE HUM PHAT (tsug tor nampar gyalma) written in Sanskrit Lentsa characters. This is the mantra that we can place above a doorway in order to receive a blessing and for protection, and by walking under it even a single time, we purify the negativity of the obstacles that have accumulated over a thousand eons. Above each and every entrance to this Temple we will see this mantra.

Golden Dharani

Directly ahead at the main entrance to the Gönpa, we find once again the six letters with the central symbolic letter. On each of the supporting pillars to the left and right, there is a stack of protective talismans made up of protective seals and diagrams, including symbols such as the phurba, parasols, jewels and treasure vases. These symbolic diagrams of the sipaho (srid pa ho) have the function of harmonizing aspects linked to the year, the month, the day and the hour and liberating from adverse conditions. 

Turning in a clockwise direction around the Gönpa, we come to the south-east side of the building where, once again, we find the same Dharani mantra in Lentsa script that is depicted on the beam over the top of the stairway. On the right of the mantra there is also the black and white letter RU in Lentsa script because this cardinal point – south-east – represents a class of beings called Rukşi or Tsen (btsan) that are linked to the fire element and the fire divinity Agni (me lha). On the left is the complete Longsal symbol. 

Continuing around the Temple in the same direction we come to the south side where we find the Dharani mantra repeated on the beam over the entrance, with the blue syllable YA in Lentsa, representing the class of Yama or Shin je (gshin je), on the right and the complete Longsal symbol on the left. 

After this we come to the south-west entrance with the usual Dharani mantra, the letter SHA, in a dark red color, symbolizing the class of Rakşasa (srin po) or Shaksha, on the right and the Longsal symbol on the left.

On the west side, the mantra on the main beam is no longer the Dharani but that of the vital essence of all the wisdom dakinis, the fourteen syllable mantra of Simhamukha, written in Sanskrit Lentsa script, in vermilion red. On the right of the main mantra there is a blue letter NA, in Lentsa script, representing the class of Naga (klu), the gods of the water element. The Longsal symbol is on the left. 

On the north-west side we find the Dharani mantra once again, with a dark blue MA, corresponding to the class of Mamo, on the right. This side is the direction of the deity of the wind, Vāyu (rlung lha). The Longsal symbol is on the left.

Kalachakra monogram

On the north side, in the center of the panel, we find the astrological diagram of the Wheel of Temporal Existence containing the twelve animals in the outer circle, the eight parkha in the middle circle and the nine mewa in the center. On the right there is the monogram, OM Ā HŪM, painted in gold in Lentsa script while on the left there are the All-Powerful Ten syllables of the Kalachakra monogram. 

Then on the north-east side we find the Dharani mantra with the red letter TSA, in Lentsa, corresponding to the class of the Tzati and the Jungpo (‘byung po) on the right and the Longsal syllable on the left. As we have seen, six of the eight sides of the Gönpa have the Dharani mantra because they are main entrances through which people pass. 

The letter TSA in Lentsa representing the class of the Tzati.

With this we conclude the description of the calligraphy and symbolic signs on the external Mandala of the Gönpa and return back to the main entrance in the east at the top of the stairway from where we began. 

The Inner Mandala 

Since the construction of the Temple in 1991, the building has been enlarged while maintaining its original octagonal form, and so we find that the same mantras and syllables that were painted on the external part of the original structure were repeated on the corresponding external sides when the building was enlarged. 

Passing through the sliding glass doors of the main entrance in the east, on the beam directly in front of us we find the by now familiar Dharani mantra in golden letters, with the syllable A, the first syllable of the eight classes of the universe representing the vital essence of the devas, in shining silver in Lentsa script on the right, and the Longsal symbol in gold on the left. We are in the inner Mandala of the Gönpa, in the east section, and facing left, on the cross beam, we can observe three symbols, each inside a five colored thigle: in the center the symbol of the Longsal, on the left a symbol resembling the Tibetan letter CA or the Latin number 3 in bright silver that represents the essence of all the aspects of method, the pawo or male principle, while on the right the same symbol as if in a reflection in vermilion red, symbolizing the intimate aspects of energy, the pamo or female principle. 

The Unique Golden Syllable more commonly known as the Longsal letter at the center.

Turning to the right, on the crossbeam there are three thigles with a larger one in the center containing the letter HŪM in Sanskrit Lentsa, bright blue like a sapphire, symbolizing the vajra of the Mind of all victorious Rigdzin (rig ‘dzin). In the thigle on the left we see the syllable OM in Sanskrit Lentsa, bright silvery white in color, symbolizing the vajra of the Body of the victorious Rigdzin. In the thigle on the right is the syllable Ā, vermilion red in Lentsa script, symbolizing the vajra of the Voice of all the victorious Rigdzin. 

The syllable Ā in Lentsa script symbolizing the Voice.

Continuing in a clockwise direction around the inner Mandala of the Gönpa, looking up at that part of the ceiling that was once the roof of the original Temple, we see the shining golden letters that resemble the Tibetan CA, the mirror image of the CA and a letter that is similar to the Tibetan BAM, resembling a drop of water, with a crescent moon ornament on top repeated many times and scattered on a blue background that is luminous like the sky. 

The mantras, syllables and symbols that we find on the different beams around the inner Mandala correspond respectively to those in the same cardinal directions on the outer Mandala described above, that is, the multicolored RU in the south-east, the blue YA in the south, the red SHA in the south-west, the blue NA in the west and the dark blue MA in the north-west.

When we enter the vestibule in the north with the stairway that goes to the lower floor, we find four panels, one in each direction, decorated in different ways. On the cross panel in the north-west, there are three thigles, with the blue HŪM in the center, the white OM on the left and the red Ā on the right in Lentsa. Opposite, on the cross panel in the north-east, within three thigles we find the complete Longsal symbol in gold in the center, the symbol resembling a CA in silvery white on the left and the reversed CA in red on the right. 

On the panel in the south, over the stairs, on the left we see the Longsal symbol in bright gold within a thigle, and in the middle of the panel the mantra of the vital essence of millions of wisdom dakinis written in fourteen syllables in Sanskrit Lentsa characters in bright vermilion red on a blue background. On the right is the letter DU in black which represents the vital essence of the Rudra or düd demons, support of the dominion of the Yaksha, in a thigle. 

The letter DU represents the vital essence of the Rudra or düd.

Opposite in the north direction, in the inner part of the panel, the mantra of ‘total liberation through seeing’ that the glorious Vajrasattva transmitted directly through a vision to the great terton (treasure finder) Mingyur Dorje when he was twelve years old is depicted in symbolic script in twenty-four syllables painted in gold. The mantra is taken from the supplementary text of the Yoga of the Peaceful and Wrathful Manifestations (shitro) of the Namchö teaching of Mingyur Dorje. 

Symbolic script can be expressed in a variety of languages such as Sanskrit, Tibetan and Dakini symbolic language, and consists of a symbolic coded form which clearly awakens the mind of the terton who will understand it suddenly and spontaneously while it remains incomprehensible to an ordinary person. 

24 golden syllables in symbolic script from the shitro of Mingyur Dorje.

We conclude the circuit of the inner Mandala on the north-east side where on the east side of the cross beam enclosing the north vestibule we find the six letters of self-liberation of the six lokas in Lentsa script. On the main beam the Dharani mantra in golden letters is repeated just as on the external corresponding beam, with the Longsal symbol on the left and the letter TSA in vermilion red on the right in Lentsa. On the cross beam just before the east entrance we find the six letters of self-liberation repeated once again.

At this point we have returned to the east cardinal axis where we see the Longsal symbol and the six letters of self-liberation with a three colored Gakyil in blue, yellow and red, painted on the glass window high above the entrance. The three colors of the Gakyil symbolize the ‘three doors ‘of body, voice and mind of those who are on the path, of the three Vajras of body, voice and mind of realized beings as well as those of the three dimensions of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya. 

The Center of the Mandala 

Entering the center of the Mandala, the main hall of the Temple, within the pinnacle or zenith, the central axis of the Gönpa, we find once again the eight syllables – ‘A RU YA SHA NA MA DU TSA – in Lentsa script, corresponding to the eight classes, inside eight perimetral panels. At the base of the pinnacle, there is a multi-colored eight petalled lotus, four petals of which point in the cardinal directions while the other four point in the intermediate directions. Each petal displays a syllable in gold in Lentsa script – the blue petal in the east depicts the syllable E, the red petal in the west MA, the yellow petal in the south WAM, and the green petal in the north YA. The colors of these four petals correspond to the directions and colors of the four Buddha families while the syllables are associated with the perfection or completion stage of the practice of Ngöndzog Gyalpo. 

The petals in the intermediate directions display the syllable ‘A in the south-east, HO in the southwest, HA in the north-west, and YE in the north-east, which represent the ultimate principle of the four Da of the Longde teaching. 

Phagpa script on the octagonal ceiling of the Gönpa.

The ceiling of the entire Gönpa is beautifully ornamented in Phagpa script, also known as Horyig, which takes its name from Chögyal Phagpa (1235–1280 AD), the nephew of the famous Sakya Pandita. After the death of the latter, Phagpa took his place at the court of the Emperor Khubilai Khan as his spiritual advisor. The Emperor wished to create a new script that could be utilized throughout his Empire and ordered Phagpa to create one, issuing an edict to this end in 1269. Phagpa set about the task immediately. Since he was Tibetan, he turned to the script that he knew best and on the basis of the form of the Tibetan letters and the Yuguri script he devised what has been variously known as the ‘square’ script or Phagpa. He changed the form of the Tibetan graphemes to a square box-like shape and adjusted the script to be written from top to bottom and from left to right. Phagpa script was used officially for a hundred years during the Yuan dynasty. 

The ceiling can be divided into three sections: the upper, the middle and the ceilings of the two main vestibules in the north and east. On a background of three colors, white, turquoise and red, symbolizing the three active elements of water, air and fire, the mantra of the Song of the Vajra winds around the upper section of the ceiling. The mantra, in the version used by the Venerable Adzom Drugpa, starts in the west at the panel of the twelve Primordial Masters and is written from top to bottom, left to right, in a counter clockwise direction to cover the entire upper section of the ceiling. After completing the round of the upper section, it continues from the same point in the middle section in the west to finish in the center of the middle section in the north-east. In other words, the mantra starts from the figure of Samantabhadra in the panel of the Primordial Masters and ends over the figure of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo in the Sakyapa panel. 

Where the Song of the Vajra finishes, the Phagpa script continues with the first mantra of the Thos-grol terma of the twenty-five thigles that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu received from his root master Changchub Dorje. The other twenty-four mantras that liberate through seeing are depicted on the remaining part of the middle section in the main hall and continue on the ceilings of the two vestibules, concluding with the twenty-fifth mantra and the OM Ā HŪM in the outer vestibule of the east entrance. 

In the outer vestibule in the north with the stairway going to the lower floor, we find the mantra of the Six Spaces of Samantabhadra – ‘A A HA SHA SA MA – and the mantras for reversing the conditions of the beings of the Six Lokas – the divinities, the asuras, human beings, animals, the pretas and the hell beings. The Phagpa script ends with the mantra AŌM, the essence of the seed syllable that is linked to the master Ngöndzog Gyalpo, concluding with the symbolic syllable PHAT, known as the syllable of instantaneous liberation. At this point we conclude our description of the Phagpa script. 

Up to here we have seen many mantras and syllables in Lentsa, the Namchös Mingyur Dorje terma in symbolic script, and the Phagpa square script covering the ceilings. Finally we come to the most important and most used form of writing used in the Tibetan world: Uchen or Tibetan capital letters. 

The Tibetan Uchen script is aesthetically one of the most pleasing of the Indic scripts. The graphs are called Uchen, ‘with a head’, referring to the horizontal line at the top of many of them. This system of writing was created at the time of Tsongtsen Gampo (617–699 AD) by his minister, Thonmi Sambhota, who went to Kashmir to study Sanskrit and Buddhist literature. Thonmi learned the Lentsa and Wartula Gupta scripts from the master Devavidyasimha and when he returned to his homeland, he devised a Tibetan alphabet consisting of 30 consonants, 4 vowels and 6 extra letters for writing the translated Buddhist texts. He also composed a grammar text based on Sanskrit grammar in order to make the vast and deep teaching of the Buddha accessible in Tibetan, since the pre-existing written form was difficult to employ and its grammar was inadequate. Uchen is mainly used for book script for Buddhist texts, often carved in wood for printing. 

We can note this Uchen elegantly written below each and every figure depicted in the panels dedicated to the main masters of the various Indo-Tibetan traditions. Therefore, under each of the masters of the different lineages and the Guardians connected with them, we find their names in Uchen followed by the classical expression of homage, la namo, which means ‘I pay homage to’. 

There are also very large Uchen letters on the sides of most of the eight main columns supporting the roof. Observing the columns from the center of the Gönpa and starting from the west near the throne in a clockwise direction, on the left side of the first column we can see the famous white A that we use in Guruyoga, on the left side of the second the red BAM, on the right side of the third the blue HŪM, on the left side of the fourth the red HRĪ, on the right side of the fifth the green TĀM, and on the left side of the seventh the five-colored syllable AŌM. Each of the seed letters is depicted within a thigle of five colors. 

On the same eight supporting columns, we can find the very diffused and famous Eight Auspicious Symbols: 

· the Parasol representing power, royal status and general protection from the elements; · the Golden Fishes that symbolise the two sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, as well as happiness and abundance; 

· the Wish-Fulfilling Vase, symbol of long life and prosperity; 

· the Lotus which stands for purity especially spiritual; 

· the Conch Shell spiralling to the right represents the Buddha’s teachings spreading in all directions; 

· the Endless Knot, a sign of the interconnectedness of all; 

· the Banner of Victory standing for victory over obstacles and disharmony; 

· the Wheel which represents the Buddha’s teaching. 

On the exquisitely carved gold painted throne from which the Master gives teaching, on the front panel are depicted the seven emblems of royalty: the precious golden wheel, the precious wish-fulfilling jewel, the precious queen, the precious minister, the precious elephant, the precious horse and the precious general as well as the eight auspicious symbols united in a single symbol. 

Finally on the right side of the figure of Samantabhadra on the west panel of primordial masters, a careful eye may notice the tiny dedication in the words of Nagajuna for increasing merit and wisdom, written in beautiful Khyuyig, a cursive ‘Umed’ or ‘quick writing’ used for notes, letters and general use, painted by Dugu Chögyal Rinpoche, the master artist who painted the panel dedicated to the twelve primordial masters. 

So to sum up, we can find several different scripts in the Gönpa, namely Lentsa used principally for the mantras, Uchen, used to identify and render homage to the Masters, and Phagpa square script over the ceiling for the Song of the Vajra, the Twenty-Five Thigles, the Six Spaces of Samantabhadra and the mantras for reversing the condition of the Six Lokas. In addition the mantra of ‘total liberation through seeing’ of Namchos Mingyur Dorje can be seen in symbolic terma script. 

To bring this article to its conclusion, we would like to recall all the Masters who have come to this precious Temple to give teaching, starting from our precious master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who inaugurated the Gönpa by giving the first teaching there, the Sangwai Gyachen (gSanga-ba rgya-chen) or ‘Great Secret’ from a collection of the 5th Dalai Lama. They were followed by many other masters from various lineages of the Tibetan tradition among whom we would like to remember in particular H.H. Sakya Trizin and the late H.H. Penor Rinpoche, heads of the Sakya and Nyingma schools respectively. 

May this Temple continue to be blessed by the Lotus Feet of the Masters and enriched in the present and in the future by the practice of innumerable yogis and yoginis of the whole Dzogchen Community.

 English translation and editing by Liz Granger

Originally published in The Mirror issue 122, May/June 2013

Editor’s note: All photos in this article are the photos taken in 2013 with the original paintings. You can read about the summer 2023 redecoration of the Merigar Gönpa by Dynamic Space of the Elements here.
In the recent restoration of the decorations of the exterior of the Gönpa, Dynamic Space of the Elements has added a border of the Tibetan letter A alternating with the Longsal letter along the upper perimeter of the main crossbeams all around the building. They have also added the Tibetan letter A in a thigle at the top of each of the external main pillars.

At the request of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, inside the gönpa his throne has been substituted by a more simple one. 

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