Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna
The Bodhisattva Principle
word Bodhisattva literally means "Enlightenment being" and
refers to a being who undertakes the quest for enlightenment.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.