Bodhisattva Manjusri

by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna

The Bodhisattva Principle

The word Bodhisattva literally means "Enlightenment being" and refers to a being who undertakes the quest for enlightenment.

To the early Buddhists and the present day Theravadans the term refers to the historical Buddha Sakyamuni in his previous existences described in the Jataka Tales, as well as to Prince Siddhartha Gautama during the years preceding his enlightenment. However, with the development of the Mahayana or Greater Vehicle form of Buddhism, the word Bodhisattva was reinterpreted to refer not only to his career, but in a greatly expanded conception to describe beings who seek Buddhahood and make progress toward that goal through the unstinting practice of the perfect virtues or paramitas and at the point where they have earned the right to pass into complete Nirvana they renounce that right and joined the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas until through their tireless efforts they have managed to save all other beings.

A Bodhisattva in the Mahayana sense is so permeated with compassion supported by highest insight and wisdom that he becomes, for all practical purposes, a divine instrument of salvation who helps the supreme Buddha Maha Vairocana and his principle emanation responsible for this world system, Amitabha Buddha, carry out the great program of universal salvation and eventual Buddhahood for all sentient beings. Thus, in Mahayana Buddhism as it developed and flourished in India, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the goal towards which the practitioners strive is not individual Arhantship and freedom from the necessity of future rebirth, but instead, the transformation of oneself into an all compassionate, all wise Bodhisattva who would gladly accept rebirth on earth in order to help other beings make progress toward enlightenment - universal salvation - and eventual Buddhahood, therefore became the inexorable destiny of all beings toward which the adherents of Mahayana Buddhism direct all their efforts.

As the Mahayana form of Buddhism developed, a special class of Bodhisattva was acknowledged. These comprise the so-called great Bodhisattvas, such as Kwan Yin, Manjusri, Samantabhadra and Ksitigarbha, beings who had lived and attained Enlightenment in such a remote past that with nothing actually known about their earthly lives, they were considered for all practical purposes to have existed in their transcendent state from an age infinitely remote from the present. In the Mahayana form of Buddhism these Bodhisattvas became objects of intense devotion and worship by monks and lay devotees. To quote Sangharakshita, they were thought of as "bright effluences of the essence uncreate of the Absolute - eternally existent outpourings of the compassion which is wisdom and the wisdom which is compassion - the everlasting saviors of mankind."

The Trikaya Doctrine

Another important doctrine which came to include the new type of Bodhisattvas as one of its distinctive features was the Trikaya Doctrine, about which I spoke of at length in a previous Dharma talk.

This doctrine developed during the centuries following the Mahaparinirvana of the Lord Sakyamuni Buddha, as Buddhist scholars wrestled with the difficult problem of what was the nature of Buddhahood. Early Buddhists, as well as present day monks belonging to the Theravada tradition, consider Sakyamuni Buddha to have been an ordinary man with a physical body like ours, which was subject to illness, decay and ultimate death. The Mahayanists, on the other hand after centuries of discussion, meditation and study, produced a completely transcendental conception of the Buddha: The Trikaya Doctrine of the Three Bodies of the Buddhas. Around year 300 of the common era, the members of the powerful Yogacara sect produced the fully perfected Trikaya Doctrine.

First of all, there is at the top of the hierarchy the primordial, supreme body--the Dharmakaya or Body of Law. This is the ultimate Absolute Reality. The all pervasive essence which includes everything material and immaterial within it. All types of phenomena, all beings, everything seen and unseen, can be considered to be emanations of this Divine Ultimate Source.

The Dharmakaya Buddha essence, often personified as Mahavairocana, resided in the Arupadhatu or formless realm. Emanating from the Dharmakaya is the second Realm of Forms, in which reside numerous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, plus celestial musicians and attendants. This second state or condition of the Buddha is called the Sambhogakaya. The Buddha in charge of this world system is Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light, who has established a Western Paradise, in which those who die with deep faith in his saving grace are reborn to wake up in a land of bliss, where suffering is unknown and all circumstances and conditions are conducive to the gaining of Enlightenment.

While the celestial Buddhas and their attendants dwell in the realm of forms or Rupadhatu, there is also the earthly or Kamadhatu realm of passions, desire and suffering. Here periodically a third body of the Buddha is born. It is called the Nirmanakaya Body of Transformation. The Nirmanakaya Buddha of our own period of world history was, of course, Sakyamuni Buddha, and while considered mortal and human in every respect by the early Buddhists and present day Theravadans, he is considered by those who subscribe to the Pure Land teachings as an apparition of Amitabha on earth.


Manjusri, which means Gentle Glory or Sweet Splendor, the personification of Transcendent Wisdom, and one of the two most important Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, is the first Bodhisattva mentioned in the Mahayana scriptures. In fact, his name occurs frequently in various sutras, and in the Lotus Sutra it is stated that he has trained and disciplined many Bodhisattvas.

According to Chinese tradition, in order to bring Manjusri into manifestation the Buddha caused a golden ray to emanate from his forehead This ray pierced a jambu tree which grew from the foundation of the most sacred Buddhist mountain in China, now called Wu Tai Shan. A lotus sprang from the tree and from the interior of the flower was born the prince of sages, also called the Prince Royal of the Buddha's realm. He was born without father and mother and was thus free from the pollution of the common world. In his right hand he brandishes the flaming sword, which cleaves asunder the clouds of ignorance. In his left hand he holds a lotus, on the top of which rests the Prajnaparamita, the Treatise on Transcendent Wisdom. The sword also symbolizes his perfect wisdom and his intellect which penetrates to the deepest recesses of Buddhist thought, dispelling doubts which otherwise cannot be dispelled.

He is also sometimes called Manjugosha, the "Gentle Voiced One." Manju meaning soft indicates that his continuum of life has become softened by his wisdom which cuts through distress-causing hindrances to liberation from samsara to be cut and removes the obstructions barring the way to infinite knowledge or omniscience. Gosha means "chanting" or "intonation" and refers to Manjusri's perfect vocalization and creative communication ability. By writing or intoning the mantra Namo Guru Manjugoshaya the monks in Tibet have hailed him as the "Lamp of Wisdom and Supernatural Power" who destroys falsehood and ignorance and removes them from the minds of all beings.

According to tradition in China the first day of the year is dedicated to Manjusri, who is considered by some to be the god of agriculture, by others the celestial architect who is believed to have inspired with his divine intelligence those who have been active in propagating the Buddha-Dharma.

Some devotees consider him the god of science and believe when he preaches the Law that every demon is subjugated and every error that might deceive humankind is dissipated. It is considered that Padma Sambhava, the eighth century founder of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect, were manifestations of this great Bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism wisdom and compassion are regarded as equally important, but in the early years greater emphasis was placed on wisdom. Therefore, in early Mahayana the hand of wisdom was considered to be the foremost Bodhisattva.

It was only later with the rise of the devotional sects which placed more stress on compassion that Kwan Yin emerged as the universally accepted Great Bodhisattva. Alice Getty, in her book The Gods of Northern India lists 14 different forms of Manjusri. In Tibet, besides being the embodiment of wisdom is worshipped in a form called Yaantaka, a wrathful deity with nine heads, 34 arms, and 16 legs, who conquers Yama, the God of Death.

Now let us return to a consideration of Manjusri seated on a lion. Often in such depictions the lion is green in color. This symbolizes the wild mind which can only be transformed by meditation. Thus the practice of meditation is mandatory for all who are strongly motivated to develop a calm and subdued mind, and Manjusri is the deity who can help them to overcome all obstacles as they pursue this Dharma practice.

The special day dedicated to Manjusri or Wen Shu Pusa, as he is called in China, falls on the fourth day of the fourth moon, according to the lunar calendar, so this day should have special significance for Ch'an or Zen practitioners who are following the Wisdom Path.


We have discussed the legends and the symbolism of the iconography connected with the Bodhisattva Manjusri. I think that to Zen practitioners he is the patron who guides and inspires them as they pursue the quest for transcendental wisdom. It is logical to assume that Manjusri has in like manner guided and inspired the monks, teachers and masters in the past as they developed and perfected the philosophy and practice of Buddhism that has been bequeathed to us. Such illustrious acaryas as Nagarjuna, Maitreyanatha, Asanga and Vasubandhu have written voluminous works in which they have sought to interpret, reorganize, clarify and sift out material they considered in error. All this prodigious effort was focused on one goal: the helping of sincere practitioners to attain higher levels of wisdom.

Nagarjuna promulgated the Prajnaparamita teachings, emphasizing that the underlying reality behind all phenomena is emptiness, and also indicated that many of our cherished beliefs are only relative, not absolute truth. In his writings he used a system of logic surpassing even that of Socrates, and in the process exposed the absolute bankruptcy of purely intellectual reasoning.

In this way by revealing the contradictions inherent in the Buddhist doctrine themselves when taken literally, he reminded his followers of the important fact that these doctrines constituting the conceptual formulations of Wisdom possessed not absolute, but relative reality, and were not ends in themselves but only means to an end.

The followers of the Madhyamika sect founded by Nagarjuna, though practicing the three stages of the Way to Enlightenment, namely morality, meditation and wisdom, had shown a marked partiality for the pursuit of wisdom and did not place much emphasis on the practice of meditation. This situation was remedied at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. by Maitreyanatha, founder of the Yogacara sect, and his disciple Vasubandhu, who placed great emphasis on the practice of meditation and the actual experience gained during states of superconsciousness. Thus, Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika sect provided the philosophical basis of Mahayana, while the great masters of Yogacara complemented the philosophy with the means of gaining wisdom that is beyond the mere intellectual faculty through actual meditation practice. Transcendental wisdom, then, is acquired only after much study, effort, continuous meditation and constitutes the culminating phase of a progressive series of preliminary spiritual endeavors.

It is perhaps revealing that the two most important figures associated with Tibetan Buddhism are both thought of as incarnations of Manjusri. Bearing this in mind, it is not difficult for us to consider Nagarjuna, Maitreyantha, Asanga and Vasubandhu and all the great masters of the past, and especially our founder Dr. Thien-An, with his unique ability to simplify and clarify the most difficult concepts, as manifestations of the Great Bodhisattva Manjusri, who I believe is forever active, guiding and inspiring his proteges as they strive toward the attainment of wisdom and enlightenment.

I would like to repeat the mantra which expresses homage and veneration of Manjusri. It is recited as frequently by the people of Tibet as Om manipadme hum. The mantra praising Manjusri is Om arapachana Dhih.