Updated: Jan 16
Mañjuśrī is a bodhisattva associated with prajñā (insight) in Mahāyāna Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is also a yidam. His name means "Gentle Glory” in Sanskrit. Mañjuśrī is also known by the fuller name of Mañjuśrīkumārabhūta, literally "Mañjuśrī, Still a Youth" or, less literally, "Prince Mañjuśrī". Another deity name of Mañjuśrī is Mañjughoṣa.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism
Scholars have identified Mañjuśrī as the oldest and most significant bodhisattva in Mahāyāna literature. Mañjuśrī is first referred to in early Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and through this association, very early in the tradition he came to symbolize the embodiment of prajñā (transcendent wisdom). The Lotus Sutra assigns him a pure land called Vimala, which according to the Avatamsaka Sutra is located in the East. His pure land is predicted to be one of the two best pure lands in all of existence in all the past, present, and future. When he attains Buddhahood his name will be Universal Sight. In the Lotus Sūtra, Mañjuśrī also leads the Nagaraja's daughter to enlightenment. He also figures in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra in a debate with Vimalakīrti where he is presented as an Arhat who represents the wisdom of the Hīnayāna.
An example of a wisdom teaching of Mañjuśrī can be found in the Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Taishō Tripiṭaka 232). This sūtra contains a dialogue between Mañjuśrī and the Buddha on the One Samādhi (Skt. Ekavyūha Samādhi). Sheng-yen renders the following teaching of Mañjuśrī, for entering samādhi naturally through transcendent wisdom:
Contemplate the five skandhas as originally empty and quiescent, non-arising, non-perishing, equal, without differentiation. Constantly thus practicing, day or night, whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down, finally one reaches an inconceivable state without any obstruction or form. This is the Samadhi of One Act (yixing sanmei, 一行三昧).
Within Vajrayāna Buddhism, Mañjuśrī is a meditational deity and considered a fully enlightened Buddha. In Shingon Buddhism, he is one of the Thirteen Buddhas to whom disciples devote themselves. He figures extensively in many esoteric texts such as the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and the Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti. His consort in some traditions is Saraswati.
The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyātantra, states that mantras taught in the Śaiva, Garuḍa, and Vaiṣṇava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Mañjuśrī.
Mañjuśrī is depicted as a male bodhisattva wielding a flaming sword in his right hand, representing the realization of transcendent wisdom which cuts down ignorance and duality. The scripture supported by the padma (lotus) held in his left hand is a Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, representing his attainment of ultimate realization from the blossoming of wisdom. Mañjuśrī is often depicted as riding on a blue lion or sitting on the skin of a lion. This represents the use of wisdom to tame the mind, which is compared to riding or subduing a ferocious lion.
In Chinese and Japanese Buddhist art, Mañjuśrī's sword is sometimes replaced with a ruyi scepter, especially in representations of his Vimalakirti Sutra discussion with the layman Vimalakirti. According to Berthold Laufer, the first Chinese representation of a ruyi was in an 8th-century Mañjuśrī painting by Wu Daozi, showing it held in his right hand taking the place of the usual sword. In subsequent Chinese and Japanese paintings of Buddhas, a ruyi was occasionally represented as a Padma with a long stem curved like a ruyi.
He is one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas of Chinese Buddhism, the other three being Kṣitigarbha, Avalokiteśvara, and Samantabhadra. In China, he is often paired with Samantabhadra.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Mañjuśrī is sometimes depicted in a trinity with Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapāṇi.
A mantra commonly associated with Mañjuśrī is the following:
Oṃ arapacana dhīḥ
The Arapacana is a syllabary consisting of forty-two letters, and is named after the first five letters: a, ra, pa, ca, na. This syllabary was most widely used for the Gāndhārī language with the Kharoṣṭhī script but also appears in some Sanskrit texts. The syllabary features in Mahāyāna texts such as the longer Prajñāpāramitā texts, the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. In some of these texts, the Arapacana syllabary serves as a mnemonic for important Mahāyāna concepts. Due to its association with him, Arapacana may even serve as an alternate name for Mañjuśrī.
The Sutra on Perfect Wisdom (Conze, 1975) defines the significance of each syllable thus:
A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādya-anutpannatvād).
RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas).
PA is a door to the insight that all dharmas have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha).
CA is a door to the insight that the decrease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dharma cannot be apprehended, because all dharmas do not decrease, nor are they reborn.
NA is a door to the insight that the names (i.e. nāma) of all dharmas have vanished; the essential nature behind names cannot be gained or lost.
Tibetan pronunciation is slightly different and so the Tibetan characters read: oṃ a ra pa tsa na dhīḥ.
In Tibetan tradition, this mantra is believed to enhance wisdom and improve one's skills in debating, memory, writing, and other literary abilities. "Dhīḥ" is the seed syllable of the mantra and is chanted with greater emphasis and also repeated a number of times as a decrescendo.
In Buddhist cultures
Mañjuśrī is known in China as Wenshu. Mount Wutai in Shanxi, one of the four Sacred Mountains of China, is considered by Chinese Buddhists to be his bodhimaṇḍa. He was said to bestow spectacular visionary experiences to those on selected mountain peaks and caves there. In Mount Wutai's Foguang Temple, the Manjusri Hall to the right of its main hall was recognized to have been built in 1137 during the Jin dynasty. The hall was thoroughly studied, mapped and first photographed by early twentieth-century Chinese architects Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin. These made it a popular place of pilgrimage, but patriarchs including Linji Yixuan and Yunmen Wenyan declared the mountain off limits.
Mount Wutai was also associated with the East Mountain Teaching. Mañjuśrī has been associated with Mount Wutai since ancient times. Paul Williams writes:
Apparently the association of Mañjuśrī with Wutai (Wu-t'ai) Shan in north China was known in classical times in India itself, identified by Chinese scholars with the mountain in the 'north-east' (when seen from India or Central Asia) referred to as the abode of Mañjuśrī in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. There are said to have been pilgrimages from India and other Asian countries to Wutai Shan by the seventh century.
According to official histories from the Qing dynasty, Nurhaci, a military leader of the Jurchens of Northeast China and founder of what became the Qing dynasty, named his tribe after Mañjuśrī as the Manchus. The true origin of the name Manchu is disputed.
Monk Hanshan is widely considered to be a metaphorical manifestation of Mañjuśrī. He is known for having co-written the following famous poem about reincarnation with monk Shide:
Drumming your grandpa in the shrine, Cooking your aunts in the pot, Marrying your grandma in the past, Should I laugh or not?
In Tibetan Buddhism, Mañjuśrī manifests in a number of different Tantric forms. Yamāntaka (meaning 'terminator of Yama i.e. Death') is the wrathful manifestation of Mañjuśrī, popular within the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Other variations upon his traditional form as Mañjuśrī include Namasangiti, Arapacana Manjushri, etc.
According to Swayambhu Purana, the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake. It is believed that Mañjuśrī came on a pilgrimage from his earthly abode-Wutaishan (five-peaked mountain) in China. He saw a lotus flower in the center of the lake, which emitted brilliant radiance. He cut a gorge at Chovar with his flaming sword to allow the lake to drain. The place where the lotus flower settled became the great Swayambhunath Stupa and the valley thus became habitable.
In eighth century Java during the Medang Kingdom, Mañjuśrī was a prominent deity revered by the Sailendra dynasty, patrons of Mahayana Buddhism. The Kelurak inscription (782) and Manjusrigrha inscription (792) mentioned about the construction of a grand Prasada named Vajrāsana Mañjuśrīgṛha (Vajra House of Mañjuśrī) identified today as Sewu temple, located just 800 meters north of the Prambanan. Sewu is the second largest Buddhist temple in Central Java after Borobudur. The depiction of Mañjuśrī in Sailendra art is similar to those of the Pala Empire style of Nalanda, Bihar. Mañjuśrī was portrayed as a youthful handsome man with the palm of his hands tattooed with the image of a flower. His right hand is facing down with an open palm while his left-hand holds an utpala (blue lotus). He also uses the necklace made of tiger canine teeth.
Manjushri is a Bodhisattva who represents wisdom. Along with Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, he is one of a trinity of family protectors. The family that Manjushri protects is known as the Tathagata family, which includes the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, as well as Vairochana, the central figure in the Five Buddha Mandala.
“Tathagata,” the name of Manjushri’s family, means “The one thus gone [to Nirvana]” or (because of the ambiguities in Sanskrit) “The one thus come [to this world]” and is an epithet of the historical Buddha.
Of all the Bodhisattvas, Manjushri has perhaps the closest association with the Buddha, and could be said to represent his genius (in the sense of his attendant deity) or daimon (attending spirit or inspiring force).
Manjushri is depicted as a beautiful young prince, usually said to be sixteen years old. His freshness and beauty represent the fresh way that the awakened mind sees the world. While the unelightened mind typically sees life as being ordinary, to those who are awakened life is magic, extraordinary, and full of potential.
The name Manjushri means “Gently Auspicious One.” He is also known as Manjughosha, or “Gentle Voiced One.”
Like most Bodhisattva figures, he is seated on a lotus flower. Because the lotus grows from mud in often foul water, and yet remains unstained, it is considered to represent the purity of wisdom, which can exist in the midst of delusion without being affected by it.
Manjushri’s most distinctive emblem is the flaming sword that he holds aloft in his right hand. The sword symbolizes his mind’s ability to cut through the fetters that bind beings to the cycle of delusion and suffering.
The flames suggest that the sword is not a literal one, and flames in Buddhist iconography invariably represent transformation; Manjughosa’s wisdom does not destroy ignorance in the conventional sense, but transforms it into Wisdom.
In Manjushri’s left hand is his other characteristic emblem: the stem of a lotus, which bears a book. This book is the Perfection of Wisdom, which is both the source of his realization and a concrete symbol of it. In the Manjughosa form the book is held to the heart.
There are numerous other variations of Manjushri, some of which go by different names. For example he is sometimes seen riding a lion, or holding a bow and arrow.
Manjushri features prominently in many Perfection of Wisdom texts. He makes a late appearance in the Lotus Sutra, and is particularly prominent in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa. Both of these are early Mahayana sutras. However he is most often found in the later Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, where he is, in effect, the Buddha’s spokesman. In some of these sutras, the dialogues that Manjushri has with the Buddha are so intimate that we can get a sense that we are hearing the Buddha thinking out loud.
Manjushri is associated with ordinary intelligence and mental acuity as well as transcendent Wisdom, and his mantra Om A Ra Pa Ca Na Dhih is said to confer intelligence. Shantideva, the author of the great Bodhicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”) is said to have gained his wisdom by communing with Manjushri by night, while appearing by day as a slovenly and lazy scholar-monk.
Some scholars believe that Manjushri has his origins in a Ghandharva (celestial musician) called Pancashikha, who is found in some early Pali texts. The name Pancashikha means five-crests, and has a correspondence with Manjushri’s epithet, Pancaciraka, “Possessing Five [Hair]-Braids.”
Being a musician, Pancashikha is also “gentle voiced” and is praised by the Buddha for the quality of his singing. Both figures are also involved in question-and-answer sessions with the Buddha, and both are generally depicted as eternally young, although this is so common a quality that it’s not in itself persuasive.
Manjushri is often known as Kumarabhuta (“Youthful Being”), although he does also manifest in some texts as an elderly man. His quality of having eternal youth (sometimes despite appearances to the contrary) symbolizes the eternal freshness and spontaneity with which the enlightened mind approaches life.
Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The sword in the hand of Manjushri is called the Prajna khadga or the Sword of Wisdom, which is believed to destroy the darkness of ignorance by the luminous rays issuing out of it.
Manjushri, the full name of Manjushri, is a transliteration of the Brahman, which translates into a wonderful virtue, a wonderful head, and wonderful auspiciousness. Manjushri is a representative of prajna wisdom, often appearing in the classics of Prajna, and is the top of the Huazang world with Puxian Bodhisattva.
The classics often say that Manjushri is the master of the Seven Buddhas and the mother of the Buddhas. This is to say that Prajna Wisdom is the teacher and mother of the Buddhas.
If all the beings are not able to achieve Buddhism, the Buddha’s non-intelligence cannot appear in the world. However, prajna wisdom is invisible and invisible, and it cannot be touched. If it is often described as “speaking words and breaking words, it is difficult to express words,” it is difficult to express it in words.
Therefore, it is represented by Manjushri, and it is a metaphor for wisdom. And understand the importance of prajna in Dharma.
The Buddha once said that in the past, Manjushri had taught him Dharma. Therefore, Manjushri was also called the “Three Worlds.” In many classics, Manjusri is promoted as the teacher of the Buddhas.
In fact, Manjushri has long been a Buddha in the past, such as “The Buddha in the Dragon”, in the “Shouyan Sanjing”, “Pu Ming Buddha” in “The Eighty-eight Buddhas” Both refer to Manjushri.
Meaning of Manjushri
The word Manju means “charming, beautiful, and pleasing” and Shri means “glory, brilliance”. The Bodhisattva is regarded as the crown prince of Buddhist teachings, or the one who can best explain the Buddhist wisdom, that is able to extinguish afflictions and bring about enlightenment.
Manjushri has this title because eons ago, he was the instructor for seven different Buddhas, the last being Sakyamuni Buddha.
Iconography of Manjushri
Manjushri is often depicted with his right hand holding a double-edged flaming sword and his left hand holding a lotus flower on which rests the Prajnaparamita (Great Wisdom) Sutra. He is often seen riding a lion. The Prajnaparamita Sutra on the lotus flower symbolizes wisdom as pure as a lotus. The sword represents the sharpness of wisdom that to cut through illusion. The lion is called the king of a hundred animals, and this symbolizes the stern majesty of wisdom.
Belief and Worship
There is no doubt that the place assigned to Manjushri in the Buddhist pantheon is one of the very highest. The MahSyanists consider him to be one of the greatest Bodhisattvas.
They believe that the worship of Manjushri can confer upon them wisdom, a retentive memory, intelligence and eloquence, and enables them to master many sacred scriptures.
It is no wonder, therefore, that his worship became widely prevalent amongst the Buddhists of the North. They conceived him in various forms and worshipped him with various mantras.
Those who could not form any conception of him according to Tantric rites attained perfection only by muttering his numerous mantras.
Existence of Manjushri
It is difficult to fix the exact time when Manjushri entered the pantheon of the Northern Buddhists. His images are not found in the Gandhara and Mathura schools of sculpture, and Asvaghosa, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva do not mention him in their works.
His name occurs for the first time in the Aryamanjushrimulakolpa which is obviously a pre’Guhyasamaja work, and then in the Guhyasamaja Tantra which is dated circa 300 A.D. In this work, there are at least four references to Manjushri and three to Manjuvajra.
His name also occurs in the Sukhavati Vyuha or the Amitayus Sutra in its smaller recension 8 which was translated into Chinese between A.D. 384 and 417.
Subsequent Buddhist works, however, give many references to Manjushri, and in the accounts of foreign travelers also finds mention of Manjushri.
His images are to be found in the sculptures of Sarnath, Magadha, Bengal, Nepal and other places. Many details about Manjushri are to be found in the Swayambhu Purana, dealing with the glories of the Swyambhu kshetra in Nepal.
The Adibuddha manifested himself here in the shape of a flame of fire, and so it is called the Swyambhu kshetra (place of the Self-Born). This place is consecrated with a temple of Adibuddha, and close to it is the Manjushri Hill now known as the Sarasvatisthana.
The information about Manjushri as gleaned from the Svayambhu Purana is given below in brief.
Swayambhu Purana and Manjushri
It is said there in that Manjushri hailed from China, where he was living on the mountain. He was a great saint with many disciples and followers, including Dharmakara, the king of the country.
Receiving divine intimation one day that the self-born Lord Adi Buddha, has manifested himself as a flame of fire on a lotus on the waters of Lake Kalihrada in Nepal, he forthwith set out for that country along with a large number of his disciples, his two wives and king Dharmakara, with the intention of paying homage to the deity.
When he came to the lake, however, he found a great expanse of water surrounding the god rendering him quite inaccessible, and it was with immense difficulty that he could approach the flame and offer his obeisance. Having at last succeeded in doing so, however, he cast about in his mind for some means of making the god accessible to all and he began a circuit of the lake.
When he reached the southern barrier of hills, he lifted his sword and clove it asunder. The hill was split into two, and the water rushed through that opening, leaving behind a vast stretch of dry land, which is now known as the as the Nepal Valley.
The waters of the Bagmati flow down even to this day through that opening, which is still called “sword-cut”.
Creation and Transformation of Manjupattana
After that Manjushri created a temple over the flame of fire and on a hillock nearby he made his own abode, and also a Vihara (or monastery) still known as the Manjupattana, for his disciples.
Manjushree is supposed to have built the town Manjupattana, probably around Balaju area. Later kings shifted from Manjupatana to Sankasya on the Banks of Ikshumati (Tukucha). This same town as per Hindu chronicle is supposed to be Nandisala, credited to Lichchavi kings.
Dharmakara the King of Nepal
Lastly, he made Dharmakara the King of Nepal. These and many other pious deeds are ascribed to Manjushri in the Swayambhu Purana.
Putting everything in proper order, Manjushri returned home and soon attained the divine form of a Bodhisattva, leaving his mundane body behind.
Civilization to Nepal from China and Manjushri
From above it appears that Manjushri was a great man who brought civilization to Nepal from China. He had apparently extraordinary engineering skill and was a great architect.
It is not definitely known when he came down to Nepal from China, but there is no doubt that in 300 A. D, he was well-known as a Bodhisattva.
He wielded great influence on the minds of the Buddhists and the Mahayanists worshipped him in various forms and in various ways. He is known in almost all the countries in the continent of Asia where Buddhism had its way.
Manjushri is worshipped in all Buddhist countries and has a variety of forms. Manjushri has several names such as Manjuvajra, Manjughosa, Dharmadhatuvagisvara and so forth. As one of the sixteen Bodhisattvas Manjushri is taken as second in the group headed by Maitreya.
In the Manju vajra, Mandala Manjushri comes as a Bodhisattva in the third circle of deities surrounding the principal god Manjuvajra who is represented along with his Prajna or female counterpart.
Tsongkhapa and Manjushri
The Tibetan King in the eleventh century, the Tsongkhapa, also the founder of Ge-lug-pa School of Tibetan Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama have been head of the sect, was believed as the manifestation of Manjushri.
Tsongkhapa, after engaging in an intensive 4-year retreat in a cave, was able to see Manjushri and also receive teachings directly from him.
Sometimes, Manjushri is depicted riding on a lion, the king of the beasts, symbolizing that Manjushri teaches the Dharma without fear or favor.
Manjushri belongs to the group of eight Dhyani-Boddhisattva and is therefore represented like a prince with all the Boddhisattva ornaments.
Emanation of Manjushri
Manjushri has emanated in many forms, orange, green, blue, white, four-armed or sitting on a lion. Manjushri has also emanated as wrathful protectors like Yamantaka, Kalarupa, 4-Faced Mahakala and Black Manjushri, Manju ghosa, Vajraraga, etc.
Manjushri as one of the eight Bodhisattvas is recognized by the favorite name of Manju ghosa (soft voice) and under this name, he is described in the Lokanatha sadhana of the Sadhanamala.
Manju ghosa is of golden color and he holds in his two hands the sword and the book.
Vajraraga Manjushri is also known by the two names of Vak and Amitabha Manjushri showing his allegiance to the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha of red color.
Vajraraga is one-faced and two-armed. His two hands are joined on his lap forming what is called the Samadhi or the Dhyana mudra. Vajaraga is white in color and he is seen in Samadhi Mudra with Vajraparyahka Asana.
“Manjushri” is a Sanskrit word that is translated as “wonderfully auspicious.” He was the teacher of the past seven Buddhas. In the Sutra of Dwelling in the Womb, he says, “I was the teacher of ’Able to Be Humane’ in the past, and I am presently that Buddha’s disciple. Since two Honored Ones cannot appear in the world at the same time, I now manifest as a Bodhisattva.” Riding on the power of his past vows, he came to help the Buddha propagate the Dharma and teach living beings. Ten auspicious signs occurred at his birth: Bright light filled the room.
There was a rain of sweet dew.
The seven precious things welled up from the earth.
The treasures in the earth were revealed.
Chickens gave birth to phoenixes.
Pigs gave birth to dragons.
Horses gave birth to unicorns.
Cows gave birth to white zai (an auspicious kind of animal).
The grain in the granaries turned to gold.
Elephants with six tusks appeared.
For these reasons he was named Wonderfully Auspicious. He rides upon a blue lion, which represents awesome strength; and holds a jeweled sword, which represents wisdom. He emphasizes All-Prajna and is foremost in wisdom. He is the Buddha’s left hand attendant and is one of the Three Sages of the Flower Adornment Assembly. He inspired the Youth Good Wealth (Sudhana) to travel south in search of Good and Wise Advisors, taught the Dragon Girl to become a Buddha when she was eight years old, and guided the Venerable Ananda in the compilation of the Great Vehicle Sutras at Iron Ring Mountain.
During the reign of Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty, the two sagely monks Kashyapa-Matanga and Gobharana came to China. The Emperor asked them, “Are there sages dwelling and teaching beings in this land?” They replied, “The Great Knight Manjushri dwells on Qingliang (Pure and Cool) Mountain.” The Emperor built a monastery at that place so the monks could live there and teach beings. There is a wisdom lamp on the central peak of the range, and miracles can happen if people bow to it sincerely.
Today we will talk about Manjushri Bodhisattva. “Manjushri” is Sanskrit. There are several Chinese transliterations for it. It is translated as “wonderfully auspicious.” In Buddhism, this Bodhisattva is foremost in wisdom. His Way-place is on Wutai (Five Peaks) Mountain in China. Guanyin Bodhisattva’s Way-place is on Putuo (Potola) Mountain. Universal Worthy Bodhisattva’s Way-place is on Emei Mountain, and Earth Store Bodhisattva’s Way-place is on Jiuhua (Nine Flowers) Mountain.
These Four Great Bodhisattvas dwell on China’s four most famous mountains. They visit each other, too. Sometimes Guanyin Bodhisattva, Earth Store Bodhisattva, and Universal Worthy Bodhisattva join Manjushri Bodhisattva on Wutai Mountain and hear him speak the Dharma. At other times, Manjushri Bodhisattva visits these three Bodhisattvas at their Way-places.
The potentials for Mahayana Buddhism are especially deep and rich in China, and so when Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world, the First Patriarch Mahakashyapa appeared in China as the philosopher Laozi and spoke the five-thousand-character Book of the Way and Virtue (Dao De Jing). The Youth Water-Moon also manifested in China as Confucius. What about the Youth Bright-Like-the-Moon? He manifested as Yanhui (Yanzi). These three pioneers went to China to prepare China for the advent of Buddhism. If Taoism and Confucianism hadn’t paved the way, the Chinese people might not have been receptive to Buddhism. These two religions influenced the Chinese in such a way that they were able to accept Buddhism when it spread to China.
I often compare Confucianism to elementary school, while other religions such as Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism can be considered high school. Buddhism is analogous to college. It encompasses everything, leaving nothing out. Therefore, the coming of Buddhism is not a simple matter. That’s why the Youth Bright-Like-the-Moon, the Youth Water-Moon, and the Venerable Mahakashyapa manifested in China as Yanzi, Confucius, and Laozi.
Manjushri Bodhisattva, along with the Bodhisattvas Universal Worthy, Earth Store, and Guanyin, have been teaching and transforming living beings in China for a long time. There’s a Chinese saying,
Guanyin is found in every household; Amitabha is recited at every door.
Most Chinese people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, worship Guanyin Bodhisattva and recite Amitabha Buddha’s name on occasion. But they do it without knowing the meaning behind it. Very few of them understand what Buddhism is all about. In fact, most people think of Buddhism as superstitious, abstruse, and unrelated to daily life, and so they ignore it altogether.
Actually, if you don’t understand Buddhism, then you don’t know what it means to be a person. And if you don’t know how to be a person, you won’t understand Buddhism, either. Only when you truly understand Buddhism will you know how to be a person and how to do things properly.
“Well, what about all those left-home people who seem to know nothing about worldly matters?” you ask. If a left-home person truly understands the Buddhadharma, he will also understand worldly matters. Conversely, it takes someone who truly understands worldly affairs to understand the Buddhadharma.
For example, a certain professor of mechanics believes in Buddhism, but he hasn’t understood the Buddhadharma. He claims he’s not out for fame or profit, but he’s always debating and arguing with people. He harbors the misguided view that Buddhism is included within the scope of science. I told him, “Buddhism includes science, but science cannot include Buddhism.” I debated this with him many times in Malaysia, but I don’t know if he really understands.
Why do I say that Buddhism includes science? It’s because the Buddha has a basic wisdom; his omniscient wisdom encompasses all of science and philosophy, including the field of mathematics.
Wise people understand everything, while those who lack wisdom don’t understand anything. That’s why I’ve given Buddhism a new name; I call it the “Teaching of Wisdom.” Buddhism is the study not of how to achieve spiritual powers, but of wisdom. With wisdom, problems are solved right away and everything is understood without having to be learned. Without wisdom, you may study all you want, but your learning will not be ultimate. Why do I call Buddhism the “Teaching of Wisdom”? Because the Buddha is greatly enlightened, and his great enlightenment is simply wisdom. Since no one wishes to remain stupid, no one will have any objection to wisdom. The wisdom I’m talking about encompasses every kind of knowledge.
Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom, is foremost in wisdom. The Sanskrit word Bodhisattva means both “one who enlightens sentient beings” and “an enlightened sentient being.” He is an enlightened being who possesses great wisdom, and he enables all living beings to become enlightened. The Chinese use the abbreviated “pusa” instead of the full transliteration pu-ti-sa-duo.
Manjushri translates as “wonderfully auspicious.” Wonderful means inconceivable, and auspicious means everything goes just the way one wishes.
Manjushri Bodhisattva, in past lives during past kalpas (eons), was the teacher of the seven Buddhas: Vipashyin Buddha, Shikhin Buddha, Vishvabhu Buddha, Krakucchanda Buddha, Kanakamuni Buddha, Kashyapa Buddha, and Shakyamuni Buddha. These seven Buddhas were all born in Hangzhou, China, in past kalpas, hence Hangzhou was a Buddhist holy site.
In the Sutra of Dwelling in the Womb, he says, “I was the teacher of ‘Able to Be Humane’ in the past.” “Able to Be Humane” [neng ren is the Chinese interpretation of “Shakyamuni] refers to all Buddhas, not only to Shakyamuni Buddha. This Bodhisattva taught many past Buddhas. “And I am presently that Buddha’s disciple. Since two Honored Ones cannot appear in the world at the same time, I now manifest as a Bodhisattva.” Two Buddhas will not manifest in the world during the same period. It is said, “When one Buddha is born in the world, a thousand Buddhas come to support him.”
Now, isn’t this just like coming to the world to put on a play?
“How can you speak of the Buddhadharma as a play?” you ask. Is there anything in the world that isn’t a play? Everything is going through the four stages of formation, dwelling, decay, and emptiness, just like scenes in a movie flashing on the screen. What is real? What is ultimate? There’s a saying, “The Great Wall is still here, but has anyone seen Emperor Shi of the Qin dynasty (the emperor who built the Great Wall) around?” We get caught up in our busy activities, but in the end, all our efforts are in vain. Everything is empty, ultimately, so why do we still do it?
The Buddhas put on plays in order to cause living beings to wake up. When living beings stage plays, they just become more and more confused and their offenses get heavier and heavier. A saying goes,
The superior person aims high, While the petty person sinks low.
A superior person strives to ascend, but a petty person follows the downward trend.
When the Buddhas come to the world, they put on plays to cause living beings to become enlightened by what they see and hear. They speak of cause and effect, retribution, and transmigration, warning us not to become attached to the world. If we contemplate matters with proper awareness, we can transcend the world; if we are confused by what happen, we will fall. The Buddhas put on plays just as ordinary people do, but they do so with a different purpose.
In this life Manjushri Bodhisattva appears as the Buddha’s disciple, although he was the Buddha’s teacher in the past. He says “he now manifests as a Bodhisattva.” He does so in order to help the Buddha propagate the Dharma. He came to the world again based on the power of his former vows.
Ten auspicious signs occurred at his birth:
1. Bright light filled the room in which he was born.
2. There was a rain of sweet dew. The rain falling outside was very pure and clean and as sweet as sweet dew.
3. The seven precious things welled up from the earth. The earth was probably soaked and softened by the rain of sweet dew, enabling the seven precious things to come forth. The seven precious things are gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, mother-of-pearl, red pearls, and carnelian.
4. The treasures in the earth were revealed. By means of a divine power, the treasures that people had buried in the ground in the past were now revealed.
5. Chickens gave birth to phoenixes. Hens are supposed to hatch chicks, but in this case they hatched phoenixes. This is a very strange and rare sign.
6. Pigs gave birth to dragons. The offspring of the pigs resembled dragons instead of piglets. That was also a rare and auspicious portent.
7. Horses gave birth to unicorns (Qilin). Unicorns are not the same as giraffes, as someone wrongly said. People just like to talk casually and act as if they know everything. The unicorn (qilin) is an auspicious creature. Confucius once said [when a unicorn was spotted]:
During the reigns of Tang and Yu, Unicorns and phoenixes freely roamed. This is not the time; why have you come? Unicorn, O Unicorn, how I worry for you!
From this verse, we know that they aren’t giraffes, because giraffes have always been around, not only in the time of Tang and Yu. So Confucius said, “Now is not the right time for you to appear; why have you come? Unicorn, unicorn, I’m worried about you!” Ignorant people thought the unicorn was a giraffe, but they were mistaken.
Not only horses, but cows can give birth to unicorns. But since there hasn’t been such a case, people don’t consider this possibility. Horses can also give birth to white zai. We must apply what we learn in a flexible manner. If horses can give birth to unicorns, why shouldn’t cows or pigs be able to? It’s all the same.
8. Cows gave birth to white zai (a divine animal). This kind of creature understands human language. It can know what people are thinking and understand their thoughts. That’s why it’s a divine animal, a creature with an inconceivable state of being.
9. The grain in the granaries turned to gold. This is another auspicious portent.
10. Elephants with six tusks appeared. Elephants ordinarily have only two tusks. Six tusks represents the perfection of the Six Perfections. Universal Worthy Bodhisattva rides an elephant with six tusks. Manjushri Bodhisattva rides a lion and manifests an appearance of awesome strength. The jeweled sword in his hand represents great wisdom. It can cut through all ignorance, afflictions, emotions, and desires. The ability to cut through these things is wisdom. People without wisdom lack the determined resolve to cut off desire and emotional love. Wise people definitely cut these things off.
Manjushri Bodhisattva instructed the Youth Sudhana (Good Wealth) to travel south in search of Good and Wise Advisors. Sudhana went to over a hundred cities and visited fifty-three teachers. Manjushri also taught and transformed the Dragon Girl. The Dragon Girl offered her precious pearl to the Buddha and then became a Buddha herself. That’s how fast she attained Buddhahood. Manjushri Bodhisattva also guided Ananda in compiling the Sutras at the Iron Ring Mountain.
During the reign of Emperor Ming in the Han Dynasty, the two Venerables Kashyapa-Matanga and Gobharana went to China, carrying Sutras on a white horse. Later the White Horse Monastery was built in Loyang in memory of these two monks. Their graves are still existent in Henan Province. China is a place where sages and common people dwell together.
At that time, Emperor Ming asked the two Venerables, “Are there any sages teaching and transforming living beings in China?”
They replied, “Manjushri Bodhisattva is teaching and transforming beings at Qingliang (Clear and Cool) Mountain.” Wutai (Five Peaks) Mountain in Wutai County, Shanxi Province, is also known as Qingliang Mountain. After the two monks revealed the presence of Manjushri Bodhisattva, the Emperor built a monastery at Wutai Mountain and it became a Buddhist holy site.
The efficacious responses manifested by Manjushri Bodhisattva are too many to be told. Since he emphasizes Prajna wisdom above all else, he is the Bodhisattva foremost in wisdom.
A verse in praise says:
Manjushri’s great wisdom, Prajna’s blazing furnace, Forged all the Buddhas And the generations of patriarchs. Limitless sages in the Sangha All came from this place. Pure, cooling, wonderful medicine Cleanses away the confusion.
And the generations of patriarchs. Manjushri Bodhisattva’s wisdom is compared to a great furnace in which the Buddhas and patriarchs are forged. He taught and transformed them all.
This Prajna wisdom gave rise to countless numbers of Sangha members who became enlightened, certified sages possessed of great spiritual powers.
The pure and refreshing medicinal ointment and water washes away the confusion. Confusion is just ignorance. Ignorance makes people muddled. Without ignorance, we would be wise. Ignorance is also afflictions. At a coarser level, we speak of afflictions. In a finer sense, we speak of ignorance, which is an obstacle to wisdom. If we don’t wish to be muddled, we must wash the confusion away with the water of prajna-wisdom.
Another verse says:
An ancient Buddha, riding past vows, came to save the Saha world. Manjushri, the Greatly Wise, proclaims the Mahayana. On Five Peaks, he guides beings in number like the Ganges’ sands. At Nine Flowers, he teaches multitudes as numerous as grains and sesame seeds. Through over a hundred cities traveled the Youth Good Wealth. A thousand auspicious clouds gathered when the Dragon Girl became a Buddha. Wonderful Virtue universally manifests his lion’s roar.
In the Flower Adornment Assembly, he constantly speaks the ineffable.
An ancient Buddha, riding past vows, came to save the Saha world. Saha, a Sanskrit word, means “able to be endured.” It describes how human beings are able to endure the great suffering in this World of the Five Turbidities.
The first turbidity is the Turbidity of Time. This time is a very messy, chaotic one. For instance, wouldn’t you say the Cultural Revolution in China was a mess? So many lives were lost and so much property was damaged. The mixing up of black and white, of right and wrong, of straight and crooked, is typical of the time (kalpa) turbidity.
The second turbidity is the Turbidity of Views. Our views are unclean. We delight in deviant matters and pay no attention to proper matters. Third, there is the Turbidity of Afflictions. Afflictions are also messy. Fourth, the Turbidity of Living Beings: Human beings and animals are all very filthy. The fifth is the Turbidity of Life. Our lives are unclean. Planting impure causes, we receive impure results. Our birth as human beings is the impure result of the impure causes we planted. And so we continue being muddled.
Manjushri, the Greatly Wise, proclaims the Mahayana. Mahayana refers to Great Vehicle Buddhism. Manjushri Bodhisattva proclaims the Buddhadharma of the Great Vehicle.
On Five Peaks, he guides beings in number like the Ganges’ sands. Every year, countless pilgrims travel to Wutai (Five Peaks) Mountain to pay homage to Manjushri Bodhisattva, and there they bring forth the resolve for Bodhi.
At Nine Flowers, he teaches multitudes as numerous as grains and sesame seeds. Manjushri Bodhisattva often goes to Jiuhua (Nine Flowers) Mountain to help Earth Store Bodhisattva teach and transform living beings.
Forty years ago, a thirteen-year-old boy saw a man herding a flock of ducks some one hundred miles away from Jiuhua Mountain.
“Where are you going with this flock of ducks?” he asked.
“I’m headed for Jiuhua Mountain,” the man replied.
“Jiuhua Mountain? Aw, too bad I can’t go. I’d like to go and pay homage to Earth Store Bodhisattva, too."
“You want to go? I can take you there,” said the man.
“But I don’t have any money,” said the boy.
“That’s okay. Just climb on my back. I’ll carry you there."
So the boy climbed on the man’s back. Then the man said, “Close your eyes, and don’t open them till I tell you.” The boy obediently closed his eyes, and the sound of the wind blowing past his ears made him feel as if he were flying through the clouds. Soon the man said, “You can open your eyes now.” The boy did so and saw that they were surrounded by great mountains.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“This is Jiuhua Mountain,” said the man.
“What should I do? I don’t have any money,” said the boy.
The man gave him some money and said, “You’ll need this to pay for food and lodging on the mountain. When you have used up all the money, you can go home.”
The man who carried the child on his back was in fact Manjushri Bodhisattva. Manjushri Bodhisattva, in practicing the Bodhisattva path, manifested as a man in order to take the boy to worship Earth Store Bodhisattva. After the boy had paid homage to Earth Store Bodhisattva and had spent all the money, he set out for his home, begging for food along the way.
After he got home, he reflected on his unusual experience and decided to go to Yunju (Cloud Abode) Mountain in Jiangxi province, where he left the home-life under the Venerable Master Hsu Yun. After he left home, Venerable Master Hsu Yun asked him to study the Shurangama Sutra. He memorized all ten rolls of the Sutra in just twenty-one days. This shows how intelligent he was. Later, however, it seems that he was forced by the difficult circumstances to return to lay life. Despite his sharp faculties and keen intelligence, he was unable to pass the test. He couldn’t take the hardship.
Through over a hundred cities traveled the Youth Good Wealth. The Youth Sudhana went to over a hundred cities and visited fifty-three teachers. Because he was so sincere, he later certified to the fruition of sagehood. A thousand auspicious clouds gathered when the Dragon Girl became a Buddha. Manjushri crossed the Dragon Girl over, so that she was able to realize Buddhahood at the age of eight. These are inconceivable events.
Wonderful Virtue universally manifests his lion’s roar. He manifests the lion’s roar everywhere to teach and transform living beings. In the Flower Adornment Assembly, he constantly speaks the ineffable. Originally, there is nothing that can be spoken in the Avatamsaka Sutra; there’s not a single dharma which can be discussed. Nevertheless, he still manifests and speaks the Dharma in order to teach and transform living beings. That’s because a Bodhisattva’s heart is most compassionate. His every thought is directed toward helping living beings to leave suffering, attain bliss, and quickly realize Buddhahood.
Manjushri is one of the most important iconic figures in Mahayana Buddhism and is known as the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom. He is worshipped as the “Meditational Deity” in Esoteric Buddhism. The Sanskrit name of Manjushri is “Prajna” which means “gentle glory”, “He who is noble and gentle”, “soft glory”, “Wondrous Auspiciousness” and so on. The meditation halls, libraries, and studies room of Buddhist monasteries often consists of image of Manjushri Bodhisattva. Manjushri is one of the famous Bodhisattva who has been respected greatly in Chinese, Esoteric, and Tibetan Buddhism and so on.
“Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and insight, penetrating into the fundamental emptiness, universal sameness, and true nature of all things. Manjushri, whose name means 'noble, gentle one,' sees into the essence of each phenomenal event.” – Zen Teacher Taigen Daniel Leighton
Manjushri is represented as a male Bodhisattva with this right hand wielding a flaming sword “Vajra Sword of Discriminating Light” that represents the sharpness of Prajna, and his left hand wielding beautiful blue lotus flower in full bloom. The Vajra Sword of Discriminating Light or Wisdom is believed to cut through ignorance and entanglements of conceptual views. This sword also represents light of transformation when the sword is in flames. The magnificent Lotus flower is believed to hold the Prajnaparamita Sutra (Great Wisdom Sutra) and contains the essence of the great Wisdom of Lord Buddha.
Manjushri in Different Buddhism
Manjushri is identified as the oldest and most significant Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism literature. In early Mahayana texts called “Prajnaparamita Sutra”, referred Manjushri as the embodiment of transcendent wisdom. Vimala, a pure land assigned to him by Lotus Sutra, is considered as the one of two best pure lands existed in the past, present, and future. Manjushri is considered as a fully enlightened Bodhisattva and is greatly respected and worshipped as a “Meditational Deity”.
In Chinese Buddhism, Manjushri is respected as one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas and is paired with Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. The other three Great Bodhisattvas are Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In Tibetan Buddhism, Manjushri is worshipped as great trinity Bodhisattva with Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani.
Manjushri in Different Countries
In China, Manjushri is popularly known as Wenshu. Mount Wutai Shan in Shanxi is believed by many Chinese Buddhists monks as Manjushri Bodhimanda (position of awakening) and is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China. The other three Sacred Mountains are Mount Putuo (Avalokiteshvara Bodhimanda), Mount Emei (Samantabhadra Bodhimanda), and Mount Jiuhua (Ksitigarbha Bodhimanda). It is written in Sutra that Lord Buddha in Final Nirvana predicted that Manjushri Bodhisattva would reside on Wutai Mountain in China and would start teaching Dharma in Mount Wutai. Foguang Temple in Wutai Shan is one of the famous temples which are dedicated to Manjushri Bodhisattva.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Manjushri is believed to manifests many different tantric forms. Some of the famously manifested forms of Manjushri are Yamantaka, Guhya-Manjushri, Guhya-Manjuvajra, and Manjuswari and so on. Yamantaka is popular within the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered as the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri. Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso is considered as the human manifestation of Manjushri.
Manjushri holds magnificent tale in Nepal. Kathmandu Valley was believed to be a lake and hold a beautiful and magnificent lotus flower in the middle of the lake according to Swayambhu Purana. And it is said that Manjushri cut the gorge at the Chovar and allow the lake to drain. And the lotus flower was believed to reside on the top of a mountain and the mountain became Swayambhunath Stupa and the valley became habitable.
Manjusri, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom
In Mahayana Buddhism, Manjusri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and is one of the most important iconic figures in Mahayana art and literature. He represents the wisdom of prajna, which is not confined by knowledge or concepts. Images of Manjusri, as with images of other bodhisattvas, are used for meditation, contemplation, and supplication by Mahayana Buddhists. In Theravada Buddhism, neither Manjusri nor other bodhisattva beings are recognized or represented. Manjusri in Sanskrit means "He Who Is Noble and Gentle." He is often portrayed as a young man holding a sword in his right hand and the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra in or near his left hand. Sometimes he rides a lion, which highlights his princely and fearless nature. Sometimes, instead of a sword and a sutra, he is pictured with a lotus, a jewel, or a scepter. His youthfulness indicates that wisdom arises from him naturally and effortlessly.
The word bodhisattva means "enlightenment being." Very simply, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who work for the enlightenment of all beings. They vow not to enter Nirvana until all beings achieve enlightenment and can experience Nirvana together. The iconic bodhisattvas of Mahayana art and literature are each associated with a different aspect or activity of enlightenment.
Prajna Paramita: Perfection of Wisdom
Prajna is most closely associated with the Madhyamika School of Buddhism, which was founded by the Indian sage Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd century CE). Nagarjuna taught that wisdom is the realization of shunyata, or "emptiness."
To explain shunyata, Nagarjuna said that phenomena have no intrinsic existence in themselves. Because all phenomena come into being by means of conditions created by other phenomena, they have no existence of their own and are therefore empty of an independent, permanent self. Thus, he said, there is neither reality nor not-reality; only relativity.
It is important to understand that "emptiness" in Buddhism does not mean nonexistence—a point often misunderstood by Westerners who initially find the principle nihilistic or discouraging. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said,
"'Emptiness' means 'empty of intrinsic existence.' It does not mean that nothing exists, but only that things do not possess the intrinsic reality we naively thought they did. So we must ask, in what way do phenomena exist? ... Nagarjuna argues that the existential status of phenomena can only be understood in terms of dependent origination" (Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 111).
Zen teacher Taigen Daniel Leighton said,
"Manjusri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and insight, penetrating into the fundamental emptiness, universal sameness, and true nature of all things. Manjusri, whose name means 'noble, gentle one,' sees into the essence of each phenomenal event. This essential nature is that not a thing has any fixed existence separate in itself, independent from the whole world around it. The work of wisdom is to see through the illusory self-other dichotomy, our imagined estrangement from our world. Studying the self in this light, Manjusri's flashing awareness realizes the deeper, vast quality of self, liberated from all our commonly unquestioned, fabricated characteristics" (Bodhisattva Archetypes, p. 93).
The Vajra Sword of Discriminating Insight
Manjusri's most dynamic attribute is his sword, the vajra sword of discriminating wisdom or insight. The sword cuts through ignorance and the entanglements of conceptual views. It cuts away ego and self-created obstacles. Sometimes the sword is in flames, which can represent light or transformation. It can cut things in two, but it can also cut into one, by cutting the self/other dualism. It is said the sword can both give and take life.
Judy Lief wrote in "The Sharp Sword of Prajna" (Shambhala Sun, May 2002):
"The sword of prajna has two sharp sides, not just one. It’s a double-bladed sword, sharp on both sides, so when you make a stroke of prajna it cuts two ways. When you cut through deception, you are also cutting through the ego's taking credit for that. You're left nowhere, more or less."
Origins of Manjusri
Manjusri first appears in Buddhist literature in Mahayana sutras, in particular, the Lotus Sutra, the Flower Ornament Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra as well as the Prajna Paramamita Sutra. (The Prajna Paramitata is actually a large collection of sutras that includes the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra) He was popular in India by no later than the 4th century, and by the 5th or 6th century he had become one of the major figures of Mahayana iconography.
Although Manjusri does not appear in the Pali Canon, some scholars associate him with Pancasikha, a heavenly musician who appears in the Digha-nikaya of the Pali Canon.
Manjusri's likeness is often found in Zen meditation halls, and he is an important deity in Tibetan Tantra. Along with wisdom, Manjusri is associated with poetry, oratory, and writing. He is said to have an especially melodious voice.
Youthful Manjushri: the beginning and flowering of wisdom; the gentle friend who cuts through ignorance with his flaming sword; Arapachana, the great essence mantra
Of all the Buddhist meditational deities — and, of all the Bodhisattvas we meet in the sutras — the overwhelming feeling with Manjushri is “gentle wisdom” and “gentle friend.”
We feel warm, comforted, and supported in the youthful arms of Manjushri. More importantly, we receive the gentle wisdom we need to progress on the path. Manjushri is the favorite practice of scholars, debaters, teachers, writers, scientists and thinkers — but he is approachable for all beings.
“Wonderfully auspicious” Manjushri, the “gentle friend” of Buddhists, cuts through our ignorance, helping bring insights into the true nature of reality — Shunyata. As a manifestation of “prajna” or insight (wisdom), his name describes who he is. His other important name — also symbolic of ultimate wisdom and Dharma — is Arapachana, which is also his mantra: standing in for the entire Sanskrit syllabary.
He is an important presence in Mahayana sutra, especially the Prajnaparamita sutras, Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra. He is attributed with bringing the insight that leads many sentient beings to Enlightenment. In all of Mahayana Buddhism, he is considered the Bodhisattva of Wisdom; in Vajrayana, he is a completely enlightened Buddha. (This is not a contradiction, but rather, a path: the Bodhisattva path leads to Buddha Enlightenment.)
He is also one of the three “great” Bodhisattvas, along with Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. Broadly speaking, they represent three critical concepts, or the three virtues of the Buddha:
Manjushri: wisdom and insight (prajna)
Avalokiteshvara: compassion and love (metta)
Vajrapani: power and strength and protection.
Manjushri practice and devotion is suitable for all beings. He is not a lofty, scary, wrathful, stern, unapproachable deity; quite the opposite. He is down to earth (earthy, golden colour), kind, smiling, welcoming, youthful, and beautiful.
No labels for Manjushri?
Even though labels are, in many ways, the antithesis of ultimate (or transcendental) wisdom — since imputed labels are one of the incorrect perceptions of sentient beings — nevertheless, Manjushri’s name describes his essence; his name translates as “gentle glory” or, variously, “wonderfully auspicious” or “sweetly glorious” or “gentle friend” (from the Tibetan).
His perfect Pure Land is Vimala, in the East, and he is associated with Vairochana (Tibetan, nangpar nangdze, English Buddha Resplendent.) His other names include Vakishvara (Lord of Speech.) As an emanation of Vairochana — who vowed to emanate throughout the universe as a youthful Bodhisattva of Wisdom — he represents the “beginnings” of wisdom and our own ability to achieve it. Manjushri does not give us the answers; he grants us the process to find our own wisdom. The beginnings of wisdom, and that first all-important insight. He especially helps us see through the delusions of duality.
Symbols: the language of insight
In the same way, we must use labels to imperfectly describe the perfect, the language of symbols is especially important for those who seek insight from glorious gentle friend Manjushri. In many representations, he holds aloft the flaming sword of wisdom: the blade cuts through the incorrect perceptions of reality, bringing us sharp insight into Shunyata, or Emptiness. The sharp edge cuts through delusions.
The sword, in Sanskrit, is called a Khadga. Not only is Manjushri’s sword a symbol of discriminating wisdom, but it also helps us cut through delusions, aversions, attachments, and all the things that trap us in our dualistic world of Samsara and suffering.
In his other hand is the Prajnaparamita Sutra or text — the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, usually on a sacred lotus.
The symbols and iconography can vary depending on culture. In Tibetan symbolism, he is normally crowned with Bodhisattva crawn and appears youthful, a young man often described in visualizations as 16-years old. Chinese Wenshu sometimes has different iconography: holding a ruyi sceptre and riding on a snow lion, for example. But the symbols always focus on wisdom.
There are also specialized forms of Manjushri: Black, Orange, Four-armed Namsangiti, wrathful Yamantaka, and many others. For instance, as Namsangiti, he is yellow with one face and four hands and holds in the first right hand a blue sword of wisdom licked with flame, and in the left at his heart, he holds a pink utpala flower; then, the blossom at ear-level supports the Prajnaparamita sutra. In the lower two arms are a bow and arrow.
Jampal Tsanju is another emanation of Manjushri with one head and four hands holding a sword, the Prajnaparamita sutra and a bow and arrow. He is pink or white with one face and four hands. There is also a three-faced form.
The youthful beauty of Manjushri: the beginnings of insight
Why is Manjushri always visualized as a beautiful youth of sixteen, in the prime or beginning of his manhood? This important symbol reminds us that Manjushri is the beginning of insight. Within his practice is also the ultimate completion of practice, as represented by the “Perfection of Wisdom” text in his hand. But, the youth symbolism is vital, since most suffering humans, even the most advanced among us, could be said to be just at the “beginning” of understanding and insight.
He encourages us, with his smiling, gentle, face — the “gentle friend”, as he is called by many — and his simple symbolism. Unlike other Buddhist deities, his symbolism is ultimately simple. Just as the Heart Sutra (part of the Prajnaparamita sutras‚ is short and simple — clear and concise “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” — at the same time his elegant simplicity is also ultimate complexity and deep, profound wisdom. Just as Heart Sutra expresses the vastly profound in a few hundred words, Manjushri’s symbolism of sword, text and youth likewise deliver a concise, yet vastly profound message.
Simplicity and essence: even in his mantra
Manjushri’s image and symbolism conveys the essence and simplicity of insight; likewise, his mantra is ultimately “essence and profound simplicity.” Each lof the seven syllables of his short mantra is deeply profound — conveying within in it the essence of all other mantras. Even the way we chant his mantra is unique:
OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHIH
(Tsa sounds like, and is sometimes spelled as “cha”.)
Tibetan-style mantra chanting Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi Dhi Dhi (with receding reverb on Dhi, Dhi, Dhi…) video with Deva Premal & The Gyuto Monks Of Tibet:
Arapacana: the forty-two letters
The most wholesome way to think of the “meaning” of the Manjushri mantra is to understand its root. Taken together, after the OM is ARAPACHANA (Arapatzana, Arapacana) — which literally is the syllabary of forty-two letters in the Gandari language (Sanskrit, Pali, etc.). In some texts, Arapachana is another name for Manjushri. Clearly, this is very unique. Manjushri, then, in one way, can be said to be the wisdom of all the Dharma, expressed as the forty-two letters. Either way, when we recite Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhih, we are basically reciting all forty-two syllables of the ancient syllabary, plus Dhi, which has a unique meaning.
Uniqueness of Dhi
Why unique? Unlike other mantras, that often finish with Soha (Svaha in Sanskrit) — Manjushri’s mantra not only ends in the mysterious syllable “Dhih”, but we are instructed to repeat the Dhih as much as we can at the end of our recitation — as if our voices are merging with the Oneness of the Universe, or the Emptiness of Shunyata. We chant this “decrescendo” — with each breath softer and softer and softer, as if we are merging with Emptiness. We visualize our breath emanating countless Dhih’s golden like Manjushri himself, going out and blessing the universe, and purifying all negative karmas, energies and defilements — most of which arise from ignorance.
Dhih, then, is an antidote for ignorance.
Unlike other mantras, Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na are Sanskrit syllables not necessarily assigned “meaning.” While we can translate Om Mani Padme Hum (for instance, Padme is lotus), and other mantras, Manjushri’s mantra is the wisdom of Dharma, represented by sound and speech — here symbolized by syllables.
In commentaries, however, Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi takes on many layers of meaning.
Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: meaning of the mantra
In the Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, the Arapachana syllables of the mantra — despite not having the literal meaning — are described as:
A — the insight that all Dharmas and all “things” are unproduced RA — the insight that all Dharmas are without stain or dirt (rajas) — free of defilements PA — the insight that all Dharmas are ultimate (paramartha) CA (CHA, TZA) — the insight that all things cannot be apprehended because there is no “arising” and no “ceasing.” NA — the insight that the essential nature of names and labels cannot be gained or lost.
Anyone can benefit from chanting the wisdom mantra of Manjushri:
A Commentary on the Arapachana Mantra
Khenchen Pracchimba Dorjee Rinpoche delivered a wonderful commentary on the essence of the mantra from a Tantric Buddhist point-of-view:
OM — represents the enlightened form of body, speech and mind embodied in Manjushri’s three kayas. First, the Manjushri mind is equal to the wisdom mind of all Buddhas – the dharmakaya. You may ask how to practice the dharmakaya? If you experientially understand Buddha nature and rest in the Buddha nature in your meditation you are practicing dharmakaya. Second, the Manjushri mantra Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi represents the enlightened speech of all the Buddhas. If you recite this mantra more and more your usual worldly perceptions will transform into perceptions of Buddhas in Buddha fields. This is how enlightened speech of Manjushri manifests in the sambhokaya form. Finally, if you focus in your meditation on the body of Manjushri as depicted in thanks – in orange color and with all the ornaments – you are engaging in a nirmanakaya practice. This is a practice focusing solely on the visualization without reciting the mantra and without resting in Buddha nature…
AH — stands for the direct understanding of the nature of phenomena. This realization develops as we examine everything. That means that we ask questions such as: What does my body and mind consist of? What do all the things around me consist of? As a result of repeated inquiry and contemplation, the realization of emptiness as the true nature of our mind as well as all external phenomena arises. Understanding of the emptiness of everything is the wisdom path.
RA — the syllable RA represents understanding of emptiness from the Hinayana point of view. This approach emphasizes the emptiness of the self but believes that at the deepest level everything consists of very small subatomic particles. Similar views are held by scientists these days. These teachings of the ‘Hinayana’ emptiness are suitable for those practitioners that have difficulty in understanding emptiness in its ultimate nature.
PA — stands for meditation. There are two basic types of meditation: the conceptual (thinking) and the non-conceptual (without thinking) meditation. In the conceptual meditation we rely on thinking about various concepts such as impermanence, suffering or karma. This is actually not considered a meditation in the strict sense. The ‘real’ meditation is non-conceptual and means that we see the nature of phenomena directly. In our practice we usually first combine the conceptual and the non-conceptual meditation until we are able to rest in the nature of mind completely without thinking. For example, if you have to ask yourself whether your meditation is conceptual or non-conceptual you are practicing conceptual (thinking) meditation. If you engage in a true non-conceptual meditation you don’t have to check whether your meditation is conceptual or non-conceptual – your feeling of resting in the nature of mind is so reassuring that there are no questions to be asked.
TSA — symbolizes the importance of samsara and nirvana. The exact nature of both nirvana and samsara is emptiness. But if we don’t understand the exact nature of samsara, it manifests to us in the form of three sufferings. The three sufferings are: the suffering of change, the suffering upon suffering and the suffering of everything composite. If we exactly experientially understand the real nature of samsara it will instead appear to us in the form of three kinds of peace: arhat peace, bodhisattva peace and Buddha peace…
NA — stands for karma. In short, it means that all the suffering we experience is the result of our previous non-virtuous actions and all our happiness results from our previous virtuous deeds. There are two basic kinds of karma: the individual karma and the collective karma. As the name says our individual karma is related to our personal deeds and their results… We need to understand that with each action of our body, speech and mind we are sowing the seeds of our future experience…
DHI — represents the wisdom path teachings. It is the fruition of all the practices represented by the previous syllables. We can imagine that our samsara mind is like a block of ice flowing in the water of nirvana wisdom. The syllable DHI represents the fruition of our practice that melts the ice of our samsaric mind into water — its real Buddha nature. This is the Dzogchen view.
Anyone can benefit from chanting the mantra of Manjushri. No empowerment is need:
Other manifestations of Manjushri
As with most of the Bodhisattvas, Manjushri has emanated as a human — a wise teacher — to help all sentient beings. His most famous “emanation” is Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition in Tibetan Buddhism.
Other emanations include: Mahasiddha Virupa, Mahsiddha Naropa, Emperor Trisong Detsen, Translator Lotsawa Loden Sherab, Father of the Tibetan Language-Thonmi Sambhuta, Yogi Ra Lotsawa, Scholar Sakya Pandita, Buton Rinchen Drub, Panchen Sonam Srkpa, Duldzin Drakpa Gyaltsen, and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen.
Manjushri also has several specialized emanations and forms, including the most famous of Tibetan deities, great Yamantaka, the Foe Destroyer, Opponent of Death. He also emanates as Black Manjushri.
Angry Wisdom: Yamantaka, the Destroyer of Death; Vajrabhairava, the wrathful Dharamapala Heruka manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom.
“When the tantric wrathful deity is understood and related to skillfully, it has the necessary qualities to be a catalyst of transformation. One deity that embodies the power to transform the destructive, aggressive aspect of the Shadow is Yamantaka. Vajrabhairava, as he is also called is practiced to overcome emotional and karmic obstacles, in particular the violence of anger and hatred.” — The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece
No deity is more misunderstood than the buffalo-headed deity Yamantaka [Sanskrit Vajrabhairava], yet this is one of the main higher practices of the Gelug tradition and practiced extensively by other traditions.
Yamantaka is, perhaps, most famous in the West because of the intricate and elaborate sand mandalas of Yamantaka:
It is said that when President Nixon was considering aid for Tibet, he saw an image of Yamantaka, complete with horns, and judged that the Tibetan people were primitive demon-worshipers. Of course, modern understanding of the symbolism makes it clear that Yamantaka is a wrathful but compassionate Yidam, whose terrible power is turned against the obstacles to our practice, especially anger, hate, and death.
“Lama Tsongkhapa said, Yamantaka is the most powerful practice in terms of transforming the mind and purification.” explained H.E. Zasep Rinpoche during teachings at Nelson B.C. on Yamantaka. “It is a very powerful and important practice in this degeneration age.”
Not only is Yamantaka the most ferocious of the Tibetan meditational deities, everything about him is fierce and almost deliberately “over the top” in scope and scale:
His name “Bhairava” means “terrifier.”
In his name, Yamantaka, contains the name “Yama”, the Lord of Death — although when combined with “antaka” it actually means the “Destroyer of Death”.
He is visualized in an underworld, a charnel ground filled with demons, spirits, cannibals — but all of whom he brings under his power.
He is the “horned” god, and many Westerners see a resemblance to Satan’s horns — although they are more akin to the Greek Minotaur or the nature god Kernunos, or Pan.
He is brimming with invulnerable life-force, symbolized through his potently erect penis.
His “shock and awe” imagery is meant to convey unshakable power that cannot be resisted.
He has many arms, legs and faces (depending on which form), his arms holding many weapons, ripe with symbolism.
He stamps on bodies — not as a killer, but as a force that brings all things under his control.
He is surrounded by flames — but not hell-flames; these are the flames of wisdom — for he is none other than the Buddha of Wisdom, Manjushri, in his wrathful form.
The many faces of wisdom
Wrathful barely begins to describe Yamantaka. In one of his forms, he has nine heads (the central one being a “buffalo”), all with three eyes, fangs and ferocious expressions. In this form, he has thirty-four hands, each with symbolic weapons, and sixteen legs. He can also appear solitary, or in union with his consort Vajravetali. He can have two-arms or many. He is normally blue-black, symbolic of many things. Atop his crown, we normally visualize the head of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom.
To the uninitiated, seeing his ferocious image for the first time — just imagine, for example, the early Christian missionaries arriving in Tibet and seeing a near-demonic deity in the temples — he seems frightening, the stuff of nightmares. This is, as it should be. Yamantaka (Vajrabhairava in Sanskrit) is meant to be so fearsome that even the demons — whether you view them as metaphorical inner demons or external entities — tuck tail and run. Even Yama bows down (the ancient equivalent of Satan or Hades).
Ultimately, death itself is conquered by this towering, wrathful deity, Yamantaka. Conquering death, and the cycle of samsaric suffering, is at the very heart of Buddhism. As the “death destroyer” Yamantaka symbolizes this aspiration, and his meditational deity practice is designed to achieve that goal.
Yamantaka — overcoming anger and hatred
Yamantaka’s ultimate mission is “destroyer of death” (see below) — in the same way, for example, Medicine Buddha’s main mission is “healing” — but, as with all manifestations of the Enlightened, Yamantaka embodies all of the qualities of a Buddha. He does, however, have other well known “specialties.” His practice is famous for overcoming “emotional and karmic obstacles, in particular the violence of anger and hatred.”
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains: “What is it that is going to prevent us from attaining that state of a Buddha? Our own confusion, our own laziness, our own bad temper and anger, our own attachments. This is the real enemy – it’s all these disturbing emotions and negative attitudes in our own minds. So we really need some very, very strong force not to just give in and let ourselves be ruled by this confusion.”
He continues: “We need a combination of compassion – we want to help others – and force and strength that “I’m not going to let all this junk that’s going on in my mind prevent me from being able to help others,” like laziness: “I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t feel like going and helping somebody.” You have to cut through that.”
How does Vajrabhairava “destroy” death? By helping us to understand the true nature of reality.
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains why an assertive Yidam, such as Yamantaka, can help us break through: “In order to overcome that confusion and laziness, we need the full understanding of reality – in Buddhist terms, voidness – that things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our minds project. So with understanding, we want to cut through these grosser levels with all the confusion – with a lot of strength – and get down to the subtlest level.
As a Highest Yoga Tantra practice it includes generation and completion stage practices, which are the ultimate meditational practices for helping us see reality as it truly is. The assertive and complex imagery of the “destroyer of death” requires us to really concentrate on the task of “creating” (generating) the visualization. Where softer, gentler meditational deities might allow us to relax and coast, Yamantaka’s sheer ferocious complexity demands full attention. Then, just as we master this awesome and frightening imagery — suddenly, we are guided to deconstruct our hard work, to dissolve away the intensely real visualization.
In what way can this possibly “destroy death”? It has nothing to do with immortality, or staying young forever. Destroying death means to understand that we are already Empty of inherent existence, that our egos are a construct. When ego is stripped away, we are no more than part of the whole — but that, in itself, is an amazing truth and joy. And, that whole that we are a part of, Shunyata, is eternal and timeless. Understanding this concept is a deep and vast topic, not explainable in a book or a simple feature article. This is why we have great teachers to guide us.
We destroy death, in this case, by deconstructing the ego, the bringer of our pain and suffering. It is ego’s clinging to pleasure and aversion to pain that causes our suffering. The moment our parents put a label on us (as children) — we became that label. The ego naturally followed. In its extreme form, the narcissistic personality, ego is everything. In its subtlest form, that of a humble monk who has renounced most of the pleasures of so-called reality, the ego is very unimportant. Compassion for others takes precedence, taking us yet another step towards Enlightenment.
Highest Yoga Tantra — understanding Emptiness, overcoming death
Alexander Berzin explains Highest Yoga Tantra, such as Yamantaka practice, and how it helps us understand Emptiness (Voidness) and, with practice, ultimately overcome death, for the benefit of all beings:
“Now, normally we get down to that subtlest level when we die. During that period of death – what’s called the clear light of death – before the bardo (the in-between state) and rebirth, we are just experiencing that clear-light level. (Pardon the dualistic way of saying that – that we are experiencing it, as if there’s a separate me. There’s no separate me experiencing it.) In other words, our mental activity during that short period of death is just this subtlest, subtlest level. I think that’s a clearer way of saying it.
“But normally when we experience death, we’re totally unaware of what’s going on – we don’t recognize the potentials and abilities of that subtlest level of mind. We have all these habits of our confusion – all these habits of compulsive behavior based on confusion and disturbing emotions – and because of the momentum of so many lifetimes of being under the influence of these habits, what happens? New rebirth – samsaric rebirth – with another cluster or configuration of these habits being activated and generating the next samsaric life filled with the same types of compulsive behavior and confusion. That’s our ordinary type of death.
“So what we want to do is to be able to overcome that kind of death and instead be able, in our meditation, to get to that subtlest level of mental activity. And we’ve used great force to get down there. But now it’s with a totally calm understanding of reality that we can apply in meditation at this time of clear light in order to be able to get:
That clear-light state to have the understanding of voidness or reality
The subtlest energy of it to transform and appear in the form of a Buddha.
“If we do this often enough and strongly enough, we’re able to stay like that forever. So this is basically the tantra path of the highest class of tantra.”
Of course, as a Highest Yoga Tantra practice, Yamantaka requires huge dedication and commitment. It comes with practice commitments, Tantric commitments and Guru commitments. It’s not for dabblers. It takes daily practice for years to master — and it always requires a teacher, to answer those tough questions that will inevitably arise.
The benefits of Vajrabhairava practice
Yamantaka (Vajrabhairava) is treasured in the Gelug tradition because the great sage, Lama Tsongkhapa, himself an emanation of Manjushri, recommended the practice as “most important.”
Yamantaka is treasured, in part, because it’s a “container practice.” You can wrap other practices around Yamantaka practice. For instance, if you invite protectors, you first visualize yourself as Yamantaka. It incorporates Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara practices. Yamantaka practice incorporates both Father and Mother Tantra. Father tantra is the practice of the “illusory body” and Mother Tantra is the practice of “clear light.”
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains: “You remember I said that Vajrabhairava is the container within which you combine Guhyasamaja practices and Chakrasamvara practices in the Gelugpa way of practicing? He has thirty-four arms, right? The second of the five special features is that in two of his hands he holds intestines and a triangular fire stove. This represents two types of practices in Guhyasamaja: illusory body and clear light. So that means that he incorporates the Guhyasamaja type of practices.”
The main feature of Yamantaka practice is “overcoming the obstacles” or “defeating the maras.” Those include:
The mara of death: by understanding, with the clear-light mind, emptiness, you come close to experiencing death, without dying. As you understand the illusory nature of reality, and the reason for our suffering, you come closer to escaping samsara.
The mara of disturbing emotions: anger to fight anger, wrath to fight wrath, using the psychology of wrathful deities to suppress the mara of disturbing emotions.
The mara of aggregates: Once we learn how to transform the clear light of death into the Wisdom of Emptiness, the aggregates of samsara can no longer affect us.
The mara of the sons of gods: With the Wisdom of Emptiness we overcome doubt and incorrect views.
Gelek Rimpoche explains: “Yamantaka basically falls into the father tantra category, Heruka/Vajrayogini into the mother tantra. Heruka is known as the ‘jewel tip’. If you have the mandala you put the important jewel on the roof top and the queen of England does so with the crown jewels. In that sense Heruka male and female is the outstanding mother tantra, and likewise, in the Gelugpa tradition, the Guhyasamaja tantra is considered the outstanding father tantra.”
Even though it is considered primarily “Father Tantra”, the symbolism and attributes and practice do incorporate elements of Mot