A twilight language (Sanskrit:sandha-bhasa, Tibetan:gongpe-ke) is a polysemic language and communication system associated with tantric traditions in Buddhism and Hinduism. It includes visual communication, verbal communication and nonverbal communication. Tantric texts are often written in a form of the 'twilight language' that is incomprehensible to the uninitiated reader. As part of an esoteric tradition of initiation, the texts are not to be employed by those without an experienced guide and the use of the 'twilight language' ensures that the uninitiated do not easily gain access to the knowledge contained in these works. According to Judith Simmer-Brown:

As has often been said, tantric texts are written in "twilight language" (sandha-bhasa, gongpe-ke), which, as the Hevajra-tantra states, is a "secret language, that great convention of the yoginis, which the shravakas and others cannot unriddle". This means that the texts of Buddhist tantra cannot be understood without the specific oral commentary by authorized Vajrayana teachers[1]

A book by two westerners

The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism is a 1986 book by Roderick Bucknell and Martin Stuart-Fox. The authors explore the existence of a "Twilight language" (Sanskrit saṃdhyā-bhāṣā) employed in the exegesis of sacred texts and communication systems within dharmic traditions. This 'twilight language' is employed to simultaneously evoke a spectrum of sub rosa meanings and concealment of esoteric truths through intentionally opaque language, metaphor, gesture, codes and signs.

To provide a cypher of the code of saṃdhyā-bhāṣā, the authors drew upon: semiotics, symbolism, iconography, Asian religions, Asian Philosophy, Indian religions, Indian philosophy, Buddhist symbolism, temple architecture, cosmology, mathematical notations, Zen Buddhism, Japanese Art, meditation, personal sadhana, tantra, macrocosm-microcosm parallelism, dialogue with many teachers including Anagarika Govinda and senior members of the Krishnamurti community. (1986: p.vii-xiii)

Classifications and numerology

Numbers, numerology and the spirituality of numerals is key to the twilight language and endemic to Vajrayana as it is throughout Indian religions. Numbers that are particularly frequent in classification are three, five and nine. As Bucknell, et al. (1986: p.110) state:

The fivefold classification presented in the tantras is remarkably comprehensive, embracing objects of every conceivable type; it includes the infamous set of 'five Ms' (fish, meat, wine, mudrā, sexual intercourse) and even a set of five 'body fluids' faeces, urine, blood, semen, flesh.[2] In addition it includes sets of doctrinal principles, such as the five skandhas (factors of existence), the four kāyas (Buddha-bodies) and the triad prajña, upāya, bodhicitta (wisdom, means, enlightenment-mind). For example, prajña, upāya, and bodhicitta are identified with the triads female/male/union, Amitābha/Akṣobhya/Vairocana, and so on, and are thus implicitly assigned to the water, fire, and space groups respectively.[3]

Pali Canon

Although 'twilight language' is primarily a feature of esoteric traditions such as the Vajrayana, Bucknell, et al. (1986: p.vii) cite the Thai bhikku Buddhadasa as having explored "the importance of symbolic language in the Pali a number of lectures and publications."[4]. Twilight language is a more highly codified form of the symbolic language that is prevalent in much religious and spiritual literature.

Vajrayana Tradition

As Bucknell, et al. (1986: p.vii) concisely state in implying a dichotomy between Indian Vajrayana and Himalayan Vajrayana:

In the Vajrayana tradition, now preserved mainly in Tibetan sects, it has long been recognized that certain important teachings are expressed in a form of secret symbolic language known as saṃdhyā-bhāṣā, 'Twilight Language'. Mudrās and mantras, maṇḍalas and cakras, those mysterious devices and diagrams that were so much in vogue in the pseudo-Buddhist hippie culture of the 1960s, were all examples of Twilight Language [...] [5]

In Tantric Practice

As well as providing a means of protecting the secrecy of esoteric teachings, 'twilight language' is also, in itself, a means of instruction. According to Layne Little:

Tantrism plays with language much like it plays with the social conventions and the ethical structures which it subverts. It employs an enigmatic language which is said to project the yogin into the "paradoxical situation" which is "indispensable to his training."[6]

See also


  1. Simmer-Brown, Judith (2002). Dakini's Warm Breath:The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications Inc.. pp. p.169. ISBN 1-57062-920-X. 
  2. On the 'five Ms', see Benjamin Walker, The Hindu World, vol. I (New York: Praeger, 1968), p.221; on the five 'body-fluids' see Elder, 'Problems of Language in Buddhist Tantra', pp.241 - 2.
  3. See Wayman, 'Female Energy and Symbolism', pp. 89-90; also Snellgrove, The Hevajra Tantra vol. I, p.27.
  4. Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4
  5. Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4.
  6. Little, Layne. "Writing at Twilight:"O' Shariputra, the sandhaa-bhashya of the Tathaagatas is very difficult."". Retrieved 2008-07-08. 

Further reading

  • Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4
  • Nordstrom, L. (1989). Philosophy East and West. Pp: 104-106. (A detractory review of Bucknell et al.'s The Twilight Language.)
  • Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin, Response to Lou Nordstrom's Review of "The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism", Philosophy East and West (1989).

External links

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