Manjushri: Prince of Wisdom

By Taigen Dan Leighton


Manjushri is usually depicted as a young prince, about sixteen years old, reflecting purity and innocence. He is sometimes referred to as Manjushri Kumarabhuta; the latter name, meaning "to become youthful," has been interpreted as "chaste youth," and is also a term used for monastic bodhisattvas. The youthful aspect of the archetype signifies the fact that striking wisdom, and insight into the essential, often are seen in child prodigies. While still a child, Mozart was already composing and playing sublime music that still moves and inspires audiences. There are many cases of youthful brilliance, of children sparkling with insight into some particular realm of art or intellect.

Unusual child prodigies aside, many "ordinary" children often have refreshing clarity or express insight into familiar situations. As we all know, "Kids say the darnedest things." They can amuse or astonish us with their interpretations of the world's goings-on, while adults stagnate in their set perceptions. In Hans Christian Anderson's popular story, "The Emperor's New Clothes," the unaffected child is the only one who sees through the vanity and emptiness of the emperor's illusory garments to the naked truth. Moreover, the child is not timid about declaring what he sees. Similarly, the youthful Manjushri perceives and declaims the essential emptiness of all fashioned appearances and pretensions, no matter how fancy or hyped such fabrications may seem.

Manjushri's youth signifies that his wisdom is not acquired based on experience or long years of study, but is immanent and ever available. As we will see later, his archetypal youthfulness can also become a source of humor, as Manjushri has been mocked in some stories for his cocky cleverness, sometimes viewed as arrogance.

Manjushri as Sacred Monk of the Meditation Halls

Manjushri sits enshrined on the center altar of Zen meditation halls, encouraging deep introspection and the awakening of insight. Thus he represents a primary aspect of Buddhist meditation, penetrating into the essence and cutting off all distractions and delusions. Meditation can be the context in which insight comes forth, and Manjushri embodies the samadhi (concentration) that is not separate from arising wisdom. Strictly speaking, Buddhist meditation is not done in order to acquire wisdom as a goal. Rather, settling into the self and deepening awareness of physical and mental phenomena as they already are is itself an expression of this wisdom, and allows it to emerge and become more evident. . . .
Working with Language to Untangle Delusions

One of Manjushri's foremost roles is as bodhisattva of poetry, oratory, writing, and all the uses of language. Manjushri has an intricate relationship and involvement with language, one of the foremost catalysts of human ignorance and delusion. The patterns of our conventional thought processes are established and learned through our languages. Our sense of alienation is strengthened and inculcated through the syntax that separates subject and object. Mentally absorbing this subject-verb-object grammar, we come to see ourselves as agents acting on a dead world of objects, or we see ourselves as dead, powerless objects being acted upon and victimized by external, sovereign agents. We fail to recognize that the whole world is alive, vibrant, totally interconnected, informed and dancing with prajna. Manjushri works to reveal our enslavement by language, and to liberate language and use it to express the deeper realities.

Exemplars of the Manjushri Archetype

In looking for familiar exemplars of Manjushri, we can note central features of the archetype he presents. Manjushri exhibits penetrating brilliance or intellect, with insight into the essence of existence in general or insight into the heart of some particular mode of expression. One of his main tools is eloquence and the skillful use of language, although he may sometimes verge on verbosity. Always he shines with energetic, youthful brilliance. With his focus on the teaching of emptiness and the obstructions we face from holding on to fixed views or doctrines, Manjushri avoids being pinned down to any given form and takes on new shapes to dispel attachments. He readily covers his brilliance in humble appearances to guide and test beings.

Albert Einstein is a classic example of the Manjushri archetype. Perhaps all atomic physicists might be included here, seeing into the elemental nature of matter, but Einstein's theory of relativity is particularly resonant. The teaching of shunyata, or "emptiness," expounded by Manjushri has also been translated as "relativity." The emptiness or absence of any isolated, inherent, self-identity in all things may be expressed in terms of seeing into the fundamental interrelatedness, or relativity, of all things. Einstein's famous theory, and most of his central work showing the interrelation of matter and energy, was produced when he was young, further fitting the model of Manjushri's youthful insight.

In his later years, "pilgrims" often came to visit Einstein at Princeton. They often found the great man dressed shabbily, with tattered clothing, reminiscent of Manjushri as a beggar. He once received an award at a ceremony and was noticed to be wearing different colored socks. My father has a framed photograph on his study wall of Einstein wearing an old gray sweater, with a ribbon across the bottom corner of the picture. When framing the picture, the photographer had seen fit to use the ribbon to cover up a large hole visible in the sweater, considering it inappropriate for Einstein to be seen in a ragged garment.
Einstein was a deeply spiritual man, who saw "cosmic religious feeling" as "the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research." We may hear echoes of Manjushri's emptiness teaching in some of Einstein's perceptive writings about "cosmic" religion, which he considered the highest development of all religions: "The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole." Manjushri too looks for the underlying principle, and sees the illusion of isolated "individual existence" as the main obstruction to the experience of open, unified awareness.

Einstein's oft-quoted remark after the first use at Hiroshima of the atomic bomb that he helped create was that "Everything has changed except our way of thinking." It is precisely the changing of beings' ways of thinking that might be defined as the essence of Manjushri Bodhisattva's work, cutting through attachments to reified modes of thought about our lives and the world.

Bob Dylan, the rock singer/ songwriter/ poet has exhibited the brilliance and eloquence of Manjushri by writing powerful, penetrating lyrics expressing the problems of injustice in society, as well as the personal pains of love and loss in the human condition. He is especially known for his early work, the brilliant complex and evocative lyrics of his twenties, reminiscent of Manjushri's youthfulness. Dylan sang about staying "Forever Young," and in his mature and later work he has continued to produce brilliant songs, albeit less prolifically. The quantity of his masterpieces and the range of their content are awesome. Dylan's frequent radical shifts of style and subject matter show his unwillingness to be tied by audience or critics to any particular expectation or preconception of some limited "message," just as Manjushri cuts through all cherished views and doctrines in the Buddha's assembly.

Although Dylan may be considered a great poet, the poignancy of his work is oral as much as written. Despite his oft-caricatured, sometimes nasal voice, Dylan's brilliance is often keenest and most evocative in the phrasing and intonations with which he sings his lyrics. Similarly known for the verbal nature of his discourses and inquiries in the sutras, Manjushri is called the "melodiously voiced one."

Like Manjushri, Dylan often uses the rhetoric of negation to cut through psychological and social delusions. In an interview in 1965, one of his early periods of peak creativity, when asked about how one can live amid the madness and cruelty of the world, Dylan said, "I don't know what you do, but all I can do is cast aside all the things not to do. I don't know where it's at, all I know is where it's not at." Many of his songs employ this negating method, whether describing a failed relationship as in "It Ain't Me, Babe," or when portraying a successful relationship in "If Not for You," in which love negates and overcomes an assortment of anguishes. Even "All I Really Want to Do," a song about the friendship Dylan seeks with an ideal lover, is basically a catalogue of the exploitative interactions he does not want. "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" powerfully evokes the experience of awakening and letting go, leaving "stepping stones" behind, when Manjushri's flashing sword cuts through all assumptions about the world and the very sky is folding under you. Manjushri and other masters of emptiness teaching such as Nagarjuna warn about the extreme dangers of attachment to emptiness. So, too, does Dylan sing of the perils of excessive immersion in emptiness in his song "Too Much of Nothing."

Dylan's religious concerns have been continuously expressed in his use of Judeo-Christian symbolism in his work as well as in his personal Jewish and Christian practices, and clearly he has explored, and articulated in his songs, the profound depths of his own spiritual inquiries. Manjushri's concern with ethics is exemplified by Dylan in his many songs about contemporary injustices, whether of persons wrongfully imprisoned, or "masters of war" not held accountable for true crimes.
Dylan's intuitive understanding of fundamental spiritual dialectics, also elaborated in the Mahayana path that Manjushri expounds, may be gleaned in many lines from his songs. "The country music station plays soft, but there's nothing, really nothing, to turn off," is an incisive expression of the reality of every form as empty and open, with no fixed reality "to turn off" or avoid. The clear, open truth is ever present right in the background voices and laments. Forms need not be obliterated to find their emptiness. Another Dylan line, "Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?" is a haunting, Zen-like utterance, appropriately phrased as a question, penetrating the gossamery web of causation and mutual conditioning in which we are enmeshed, even while we hear the "chimes of freedom."

See Taigen's Ashoka online course on bodhisattva archetypes, Bodhisattvas of Compassion .