Manjusri, the Gentle Glory Bodhisattva

The Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom

Buddhism consistently promotes two virtues: Compassion and Wisdom. Avalokitesvara embodies Great Compassion; the last Bodhisattva on the right, Manjusri (Chinese Wen Shu) represents Great Wisdom.

An oft-told example illustrates the relationship of the two virtues of Wisdom and Compassion. Suppose you are approached by a homeless person asking for a handout. You give him some money-which he promptly spends on alcohol. You have been compassionate, but not wise. So the next time you are approached, you give nothing; now you have been wise, but not compassionate. What is the solution? Buy him some food. This is wise and compassionate. Compassion without wisdom is foolish; wisdom without compassion is harsh. As every good parent knows, the two must be used in balance.

Thus Manjusri maintains the balance of Wisdom amongst the Bodhisattvas. His name means "Gentle Glory," a good description of the main benefit of Wisdom. Often (though not here) shown holding a sword, Manjusri cuts through the ignorance of this world. He is also often shown holding sutra scrolls. Here we see him sitting on a lion; the roar of the lion represents the Buddha's teaching spreading through the world. (The Buddha is sometimes called "The Lion of the Shakyas," as his Shakya clan was associated with lions.)

How did Manjusri come to be associated with Wisdom? Simply, he was the teacher of seven successive Buddhas, the Sakyamuni Buddha being the last. One version of his story says that he himself was a Buddha in the distant past, and came back to teach the others. The Buddha said that in fact hundreds of Buddhas of the past became enlightened through Manjusri's teaching.

Central to his instruction was the idea that everything is "void," or "empty," an idea we will discuss further in a moment. When asked if he followed the Mahayana teachings, he replied, "As I see it, everything is void, so there is no such thing as Buddhist teachings. Then, how can there be any Mahayana teaching for me to follow?"

As radical as his teaching was his behavior. All monks in the Buddha's time were required to gather in monasteries for the rainy season. One year, Manjusri failed to show up. It was later discovered that he had spent the three months in the company of children and prostitutes, as well as the maids in the Sravasti Palace. Naturally, the other monks were outraged, none more than the venerable Kasyapa. He demanded that Manjusri be expelled from the assembly. The Buddha then revealed that during that one rainy season, Manjusri taught "five hundred women, five hundred boys and five hundred girls, who will never lose their determination to seek Enlightenment." Kasyapa asked him how he had accomplished such a feat, and Manjusri replied, "I used many methods to teach them. I used games, or I used money, or I applied good deeds, or I showed my magical powers, or I showed the appearances of various deities, or I showed the appearance of a Buddha, or I showed a horrible face, or I appeared in other forms. Why? People are different, so I had to preach to them in many ways."

A final story of Manjusri's power: Once five hundred monks were able to see their pasts, and discovered that they had all killed their own parents or committed other atrocities. They came to doubt that they would ever achieve Enlightenment. Sensing this, the Buddha called on Manjusri to instruct them. Manjusri instantly pulled out his sword and placed it at the Buddha's neck. The monks instantly grasped his point: the mind is illusory. There is no sword, no Buddha, no Manjusri--therefore there were no crimes, no criminals, no victims. With his sword of truth Manjusri cut through the illusion and showed them reality as it really is.


In front of Manjusri Bodhisattva:

O Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom!

I ask you to help me gain control over my mind and destroy all unwholesome thoughts.

Through your great wisdom, you have ensured that the Lion's Roar of the Buddha's teaching is heard throughout the world.

Through destroying ignorance you have shown us that we can overcome delusion.

Let me also, by cultivating my mind, attain this excellence.

Help me to conquer ignorance and delusion.

Help me to practice right view and right understanding, learning to see things as they truly are,

that I may dedicate further merit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

O great One of the Marvelous Gentle Power, hear my prayer!

O great Manjusri Bodhisattva, hear my prayer!

Return to Avalokitesvara ||| INDEX ||| Continue to the Diamond Sutra

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