Manjusri, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom

The Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Manjusri Tibetan
Tibetan Thangka painting of Manjusri. © Ling Cui / Getty Images

In Mahayana Buddhism, Manjusri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and is one of the most important iconic figures in Mahayana art and literature. He represents the wisdom of prajna, which is not confined by knowledge or concepts. Images of Manjusri, as with images of other bodhisattvas, are used for meditation, contemplation, and supplication by Mahayana Buddhists. In Theravada Buddhism, neither Manjusri nor other bodhisattva beings are recognized or represented.

 ​​Manjusri in Sanskrit means "He Who Is Noble and Gentle." He is often portrayed as a young man holding a sword in his right hand and the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra in or near his left hand. Sometimes he rides a lion, which highlights his princely and fearless nature. Sometimes, instead of a sword and a sutra, he is pictured with a lotus, a jewel, or a scepter. His youthfulness indicates that wisdom arises from him naturally and effortlessly.​​

The word bodhisattva means "enlightenment being." Very simply, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who work for the enlightenment of all beings. They vow not to enter Nirvana until all beings achieve enlightenment and can experience Nirvana together. The iconic bodhisattvas of Mahayana art and literature are each associated with a different aspect or activity of enlightenment.

Prajna Paramita: Perfection of Wisdom

Prajna is most closely associated with the Madhyamika School of Buddhism, which was founded by the Indian sage Nagarjuna (ca.

2nd century CE). Nagarjuna taught that wisdom is the realization of shunyata, or "emptiness."

To explain shunyata, Nagarjuna said that phenomena have no intrinsic existence in themselves. Because all phenomena come into being by means of conditions created by other phenomena, they have no existence of their own and are therefore empty of an independent, permanent self.

Thus, he said, there is neither reality nor not-reality; only relativity.

It is important to understand that "emptiness" in Buddhism does not mean nonexistence—a point often misunderstood by Westerners who initially find the principle nihilistic or discouraging. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said,

"'Emptiness' means 'empty of intrinsic existence.' It does not mean that nothing exists, but only that things do not possess the intrinsic reality we naively thought they did. So we must ask, in what way do phenomena exist? ... Nagarjuna argues that the existential status of phenomena can only be understood in terms of dependent origination" (Essence of the Heart Sutra, p. 111).

Zen teacher Taigen Daniel Leighton said,

"Manjusri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and insight, penetrating into the fundamental emptiness, universal sameness, and true nature of all things. Manjusri, whose name means 'noble, gentle one,' sees into the essence of each phenomenal event. This essential nature is that not a thing has any fixed existence separate in itself, independent from the whole world around it. The work of wisdom is to see through the illusory self-other dichotomy, our imagined estrangement from our world. Studying the self in this light, Manjusri's flashing awareness realizes the deeper, vast quality of self, liberated from all our commonly unquestioned, fabricated characteristics" (Bodhisattva Archetypes, p. 93).

The Vajra Sword of Discriminating Insight

Manjusri's most dynamic attribute is his sword, the vajra sword of discriminating wisdom or insight. The sword cuts through ignorance and the entanglements of conceptual views. It cuts away ego and self-created obstacles. Sometimes the sword is in flames, which can represent light or transformation. It can cut things in two, but it can also cut into one, by cutting the self/other dualism. It is said the sword can both give and take life.

Judy Lief wrote in "The Sharp Sword of Prajna" (Shambhala Sun, May 2002):

"The sword of prajna has two sharp sides, not just one. It’s a double-bladed sword, sharp on both sides, so when you make a stroke of prajna it cuts two ways. When you cut through deception, you are also cutting through the ego's taking credit for that. You're left nowhere, more or less."

Origins of Manjusri

Manjusri first appears in Buddhist literature in Mahayana sutras, in particular the Lotus Sutra, the Flower Ornament Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra as as well as the Prajna Paramamita Sutra. (The Prajna Paramitata is actually a large collection of sutras that includes the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra) He was popular in India by no later than the 4th century, and by the 5th or 6th century he had become one of the major figures of Mahayana iconography.

Although Manjusri does not appear in the Pali Canon, some scholars associate him with Pancasikha, a heavenly musician who appears in the Digha-nikaya of the Pali Canon.

Manjusri's likeness is often found in Zen meditation halls, and he is an important deity in Tibetan tantra. Along with wisdom, Manjusri is associated with poetry, oratory and writing. He is said to have an especially melodious voice.