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Aug 30
Dharma Teachings
Casting Spells: the Magic of Letters

letter eCOLUMN: Dharma Teachings

by Russell Rodgers, Nelson, B.C.

Consider for a moment the letters on this page. On one level, letters have been familiar since we were four years old. You might feel impatient: “no big deal, let’s move on. I know all about letters.”

However, as a meditator, you could do better. Meditate on the letter “A” below. Meditate on it for at least a minute. On one level, it is only a set of black marks on white background. That’s all it is. Just black marks. On the other hand, it has a sound. It comes alive in your mind.


Now, pick out a word in this sentence and stare at it for a minute, noticing how the letters announce a sound. Not only that, but collectively, the letters create an image, a meaning. It does that even though it’s only a collection a collection of black squiggles on a page or on a screen.

Now look at a whole sentence. You are now experiencing someone else’s thoughts. You might have some sense of objective separation, having awareness of what is happening to you. But if you reflect back on your experience of reading things in the past, you will likely recall that often this self awareness fades and you come under the spell of language. I would call this a “spell” because it alters your reality.

If you think back to the meaning of the word “spell”, it could mean “to spell something out with letters”. But in this case we are talking about something closer to a “magical” spell, like the ones created by secret rituals to produce a desired effect. Here, the ritual of the “spell” is produced by making black marks on a page.

Sometimes the spell is cast by words on a page. Sometimes it comes from what you hear rather than what you see. After all, spoken words are just sound vibrations, like the markings on a page. In themselves, they have no meaning. Even so, they create an alternate reality.

One such alternate reality is samsara. It’s a social spell, involving many people and re-enforced by our mutual agreement that it’s the real reality. However, the power of the black marks is changed if you are aware of what is happening, as it’s happening. Maybe you experienced an alternation when you looked at the marks: the mental sound coming into existence and then fading back into non-existence. It is like a thought recognized in meditation: transparent, like ripples on the water of mind. In a certain way, the power of the letter is even more vivid when we hold it in pure awareness.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or so the Bible says in the Book of John. When we do vajrayana practice, out of emptiness arises a seed syllable, and from that syllable, a deity and a pure land. While we are doing the practice, the deity dwells in emptiness. When we are finished, it dissolves into the seed syllable and then again into emptiness.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Russell Rodgers~~
Russell Rodgers has been wondering about this kind of topic for the 37 years that he has been practicing. He resides in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, in the town of Nelson, and is supporting the Dharma Teachings column on the Shambhala Times with occasional articles.

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6 responses to “ Casting Spells: the Magic of Letters ”
  1. Marshall McLuhan titled one of his chapters in “Understanding Meda” An Eye for an Ear. He was referring to the nature of the phonetic alphabet, which underpins Western literate society. He also points out that it engendered, unlike Chinese characters as pictograms, habits of linear thought, regularity and repetition. These habits of mind become engrained and influence the ways we conceptualize the world as regular and repetitive, as if life moves from left to right in a predictable way. Of course, this is illusory, despite the power of it. It has been a remarkable way to order the inconceiveable complexity of existence, what we call chaos, to lessen and organize a “reality” we can “control.” The Diamond Sutra speaks to this “nominal” reality of words directly, and I recommend it to all who find the subject of language itself of interest.

  2. Nealy Zimmermann
    Sep 7, 2013

    I agree, very interesting. Along the same line, I once noticed how the movement of our mouth and face when we say certain words resonates with the meaning of the word. Some examples: dead, alive; happy, sad; big, small, tiny; teeth; mouth; eyes, nose, and so on…

  3. Louise Phillips
    Sep 4, 2013

    Yes, interesting.

    I never think of an “A” or an “E” in print or on the computer screen as having sound. I see visual symbols for sounds. The name of the letter is often not the same as when it becomes part of a spoken word. And what about the silent letters found in many words? OK, I agree, no sound is a kind of sound!

    Some say we learn to spell correctly by learning the shape of a word. After awhile, we know what looks right. Would you add that we know what sounds right?

    What if you had shown “i” and “I” instead? How would that change our stare and the spell?

  4. Thanks, Russell. Excellent article. So glad you are continuing to put your fine mind to these sorts of questions!

  5. Russell – Yes indeed I fully concur. In fact had had similar thoughts myself recently.
    Thanks for posting the wisdom. It was nice to see you – albeit at a distance – at DDL this summer.

  6. Robert W French
    Aug 30, 2013

    Very interesting article. Thanks

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