Mañjuśrī Teaches Prajñāpāramitā


Perhaps more than any other Celestial Bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī best captures the epitome of Wisdom. Mañjuśrī is undoubtedly synonymous with and the very embodiment of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā). He is the ever-present guide and interlocutor in countless sutras; perhaps best well-known for his role in the Vimalakirti Sutra where he is the only fearless Bodhisattva present who dare go and visit the apparently ailing-lay bodhisattva, the mysterious and Noble Vimalakirti, and whose subsequent dialog with him becomes the very cornerstone of that sutra. He is also a prominent feature in the Lotus Sutra where he becomes privy to what the Buddha is about to reveal, even before the majestic Maitreya. Less well known is his pivotal role in a sutra from the Mahāratnakūṭa corpus, Mañjuśrī’s Discourse of the Pāramitā of Wisdom. Yet, this little gem packs a powerful punch in the spirit of the Diamond Sutra, and could actually be considered its sister text. It expounds a very High-Gnosis, not based on the relative truth of the mundane, but instead the Ultimate Truth of the Unborn and Absolute. Before venturing-forth in this new series, it is appropriate to begin with an exposé on the nature of its shining star—Mañjuśrī, the Maha-Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom, whose name Man-ju (charming, beautiful and pleasant), and Shri (meaning a shining glory) encapsulates the very essence of the Prajñāpāramitā literature.

The best, all-inclusive, resource on the nature of Mañjuśrī is Anthony Tribe’s (Dharmachari Anandajyoti), Manjusri: Origins, Role And Significance. We now borrow freely from its marvelous outline.

Mañjuśrī’s appearance: He is often depicted as a beautiful youth, in keeping with the notion of the sense of freshness and newness of such liberating awareness, and is seated cross-legged on a lotus-flower throne, attired in princely silks and ornaments. In his right hand, raised above his head, he wields the symbol most distinctively his, a flaming sword of wisdom that cuts through the ignorance which binds sentient beings to a cycle of suffering and unhappiness. In his left hand, at his heart, he holds a book, a volume of the Perfection of Wisdom, representing both the source and embodiment of his awakened understanding.


Mañjuśrī’s Role in Mahayana Literature: Along with his role in the Vimalakirti and Lotus Sutras, he further enhances his task of converting sentient beings to the Buddhadharma. A further and more dramatic instance of this is seen in the Manjusri-parinirvana Sutra, a sutra that, apparently at least, is not about Mañjuśrī’s actual parinirvana but one ‘performed’ by him out of compassion for living beings. At the opening of the sutra the Buddha emits a ray of light that illuminates and transforms Mañjuśrī’s dwelling place. Mañjuśrī then appears in the assembly of the Buddha, attended by the spontaneous appearance of golden lotus flowers from the fingers and palms of his hands as he joins them in salutation. Mañjuśrī throws the flowers towards the Buddha and they transform into a huge jewel-parasol within which appear innumerable Buddhas and bodhisattvas from throughout the different regions of space. The bodhisattva Bhadrapala asks the Buddha about Mañjuśrī:

“Fortunate One, this Manjusri, Prince of the Dharma, has already served hundreds of thousands of Buddhas and here, in the Saha world, he does the work of the Buddha and manifests his miraculous power in the ten regions. After how many aeons will he enter Parinirvana?”

The Buddha replied to Bhadrapala, “Manjusri has great friendliness and great compassion… He dwells in the meditation (samadhi) of the Heroic Progress (‘surangama) and by the power of this meditation he manifests at will, in the ten regions, the birth, going forth, enlightenment, final enlightenment and leaving of relics [of a Buddha]. All this is [performed] for the good of living beings. This worthy man stays for a long time in the [meditation called] Heroic Progress.

Four hundred and fifty years after the awakening of the Buddha he will go to Mount Himavat where he will preach to five hundred hermits, expounding the twelve kinds of sacred text. He will convert and ripen these five hundred hermits as a result of which they will become irreversible bodhisattvas… [Then] he will return to the country of his birth, flying through the air.

There, in a wild marsh, seated under a Banyan tree with his legs crossed, he enters the Heroic Progress meditation and all the pores of his skin emit rays of golden light as a result of the strength of his samadhi. This light illuminates beings susceptible to being converted in the worlds of the ten directions. Each of the five hundred hermits sees fire being emitted from the pores of their skin.

Manjusri’s body then becomes like a mountain of gold. His height is six arm-spans; he is adorned with an aureole of light, surrounding him equally. Within this aureole can be seen five hundred [magically] created Buddhas, each with an entourage of five [magically] created bodhisattvas. Manjusri’s head-dress is adorned with the precious jewel called ‘Sakrabhilagna, which has five hundred different colours. In each of these colours there appears the sun and moon, the stars, the palaces of the gods and naga’s and all the marvels of the world. Between his eye-brows is a white tuft of hair that turns to the right. [Magically] created Buddhas appear [from this] and enter the net of light.

All of their bodies shine and they are surrounded with flames; within each of these flames are five precious jewels [and] each of these precious jewels is flaming and many-coloured.

Within these colours appear [magically] created Buddhas and bodhisattvas, impossible to describe; in their left hands they hold alms-bowls; in their right hands they raise Mahayana scriptures.”

As Spiritual Friend ( {I like this attribute most of all}. The following are passages from the Gaṇḍavyūha-sūtra, also known as the last section of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, Entry into the Realm of Reality:  

Then Manjushri, gazing like an elephant, said to Sudhana, “It is good that you follow spiritual benefactors, having set your mind on supreme enlightenment, that you think you should inquire into the practice of enlightening beings, wishing to fulfill the path of enlightening beings.

Attending and serving spiritual friends is the beginning, the logical course, for the accomplishment of omniscience. Therefore you should tirelessly attend spiritual benefactors.”  

Then Sudhana, passing more than one hundred and ten cities, went to Sumanamukha and stayed there thinking about Manjushri, wishing to see and meet with Manjushri. Then Manjushri extended his hand over a hundred and ten leagues and laid it on the head of Sudhana, who was standing in the city of Sumanamukha, and said, “Good, good! Those without the faculty of faith, those who are weary or sluggish in mind, those who have not accumulated efforts, those whose vigor recedes, those who are satisfied with meager virtues, those imbued with only one root of goodness, those unskilled in carrying out practical vows, those who are not in the care of spiritual benefactors, those who are not minded by the buddhas, cannot know this true nature, this principle, this sphere, this abode—they are unable to know, to fathom, to penetrate, to believe, to conceive, to know exactly, or to attain.”  

Having caused Sudhana to see by means of his spiritual talk, having directed him, inspired him, gladdened him, imbued him with countless facets of truth, illumined him with the great light of infinite knowledge, led him into the endless mental command, presence of mind, concentration, and superknowledge of enlightening beings, plunged him into the sphere of universally good practice, and established him in his own place, Manjushri left the presence of Sudhana.  

Then Sudhana, attending as many spiritual benefactors as atoms in a billionworld universe, his mind having accumulated the provisions for omniscience, acting on the instructions of all spiritual benefactors with correct understanding, his mind equally attentive to all spiritual friends, his intellect in harmony with all spiritual friends without emotion, following the ocean of principles of the advice and instruction of all spiritual friends…

On a fascinating note Mañjuśrī’s protégé here, Sudhana, eventually has an encounter with Maitreya who shows him the Great Tower of Vairocana:

To Sudhana’s wondering gaze, the interior of the Tower reveals itself as being as wide as the sky…Moreover within the tower there are hundreds of thousands of towers, each one as exquisitely adorned…and each one, while preserving its individual existence, at the same time offering no obstruction to all the rest…He sees Maitreya and other Bodhisattvas entering into samādhi [meditative absorption] and emitting from the pores of their skin multitudes of transformation bodies of various kinds. He also hears all the teachings of the Buddha melodiously issuing from every single pore of the skin of all the Bodhisattvas. He beholds all the Buddhas, together with their respective assemblies, and is the spectator of their different activities. In one particularly high, spacious, and exquisitely decorated tower, of incomparable beauty, he sees at one glance the entire trichiliocosm…and in each one of these worlds he sees Maitreya’s descent to earth, his nativity, and all the subsequent events of his final existence..He sees, moreover, pillars emitting multicoloured radiance…

Devotion to Mañjuśrī: Devotion to Manjusri, whether by meditating on his form and teaching or by repeating his name, leads to seeing him, possibly to receiving teachings and to the gaining of appropriate spiritual insight. At the very least, the devotee can be sure of Manjusri’s protection and freedom from a poor rebirth.

Let us conclude this intro to this most colorful Maha-Bodisattva by honoring him with his mantra:

O A Ra Pa Ca Na Dhī

(from ):

The individual syllables A RA PA CA and NA have no conceptual meaning, although they are seen as having symbolic connections with various spiritual qualities.

Here’s the schema laid out in the Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom (adapted from Conze):

A leads to the insight that the essence of all things is unproduced.

RA leads to the insight that all things are pure and free of defilements.

PA leads to the insight that all dharmas have been “expounded in the ultimate sense.”

CA leads to the insight that the arising and ceasing of things cannot be apprehended because in reality there is no arising or ceasing.

NA leads to the insight that although the names for things change the nature of things behind their names cannot be gained or lost.

These are all important concepts in the Perfection of Wisdom, although to say they are concepts is a bit limiting — really they’re attempts to describe the indescribable nature of reality.

Dhiih is defined as meaning:

thought , (especially) religious thought , reflection , meditation , devotion , prayer; understanding , intelligence , wisdom.

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4 Responses to Mañjuśrī Teaches Prajñāpāramitā

  1. n. yeti says:

    “There, in a wild marsh, seated under a Banyan tree with his legs crossed, he enters the Heroic Progress meditation and all the pores of his skin emit rays of golden light as a result of the strength of his samadhi.”

    This great Bodhisattva knew the value of spiritual practice in a swamp, which is itself a heroic proposition. I also bet that Manjusri, unlike many of Buddha’s disciples today, never became so bewildered as to confuse a Bodhi Tree with a Banyan Tree. A good thing too because they are completely different!

    • Vajragoni says:

      It’s what the translation said, smarty. So nice to see that your ever-erudite eye has gleamed the difference.

      • n. yeti says:

        I don’t have the source text handy but my guess is this is indeed a Banyan, a very sacred tree with unusual roots that likes water. Sometimes they get hollowed out, making a shelter for other beings, and they can grow all together from one vast interconnected network of roots( like Indra’s hairnet), which are very great beings. It is truly wonderful. Since Manjusri is sitting in a wetland area, it is likely a Banyan. Note that Buddha himself is recorded as telling a disciple he lived as a tree spirit in a previous lifetime. Trees are indeed exactly like a friend.

      • n. yeti says:

        (Which of course is no excuse for so many Buddhists going around thinking a Banyan is the same thing as a Bodhi Tree.)

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