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Home » Manjusri, 1 of the most Prolific BODHISATTVA of Zen

Manjusri, 1 of the most Prolific BODHISATTVA of Zen

Mahayana Buddhism expounds that all beings are potential Buddhas and Bodhisattva. In the Zen school, which is a branch of the Mahayana, adherents strive to realize Buddhahood or live as a Bodhisattva in this lifetime as Zen claims to be both the historical descendent school of Venerable Sakyamuni Buddha and vehicle to Prajna Wisdom in this lifetime, freeing the devotee of Zen from ignorance. Therefore, Manjusri  Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, may be seen as a tutelary example of how Zen Buddhists should strive in their training to open the Dharma’s eye. In the West, Zen is often portrayed as people in black sitting doing zazen in white rooms and not much more. Often in the West, Zen Buddhism is portrayed in the popular as an Eastern form of Stoicism, which it shares near principles with. Or it is sometimes imagined as a Protestant Buddhism’, simple and without symbolism.

Zen Buddhism

Thousands of books are now in publication in Western Countries in English, French, German and other languages, and it’s been estimated in the United States that more than 60% of Buddhists are practising Zen, but this is not the complete picture of Zen Buddhism. Undoubtedly, this has contributed to the spread of Zen Buddhism in the West, and how this came about is a complex of causes derived in part from the background of Westerners who travelled to Asian countries like Japan and Korea and then returned to their countries. A prime example of this is the famous book Zen and Archery by Eugen Herrigel, published in the 1930s, which laid considerable groundwork for the idealized expectations of Europeans. Zen and the Art of Archery, like many books like it, only told the partial practice of Zen Buddhism, perhaps because lay authors like Herrigel did not have time to delve deeply while they stayed in Asia or because they filtered what they wanted.

Many early Zen people in the West were from secular Protestant Christian backgrounds and little interested in ritual and legend. When Asian teachers arrived in Western countries, they, too, were faced with predominantly lay students who were equally disinterested in anything they deemed superfluous to Zen. Of course, the nature of Zen is to emphasise reductive simplicity to get to the Fundamental point of things, to emphasise ‘Prajna’ insight. And this continues even today in Western Zen centres. This, in contrast to the next largest lineage of Buddhism, is  Vajrayana, or ‘Tibetan’ Buddhism as it’s colloquially often referred to in the West.  We associate Vajrayana Buddhism in the popular consciousness with Bodhisattva, Guardians and Devas, and subsequent rituals to invoke the superstitious power of such beings to help and guide.

However, ritual is not limited to the Vajrayana lineages and is found in Zen Buddhism as well.  Zen Buddhism is part of the Mahayana movement, which can be described as a federation of lineages that spread out of India. Zen is traditionally considered to have arrived in China around the 7th Century C.E., making it a historical latecomer to the Chinese Buddhist dysphoria. Zen Buddhism is an outlier in the Mahayana movement, having strong characteristics that would be more likely to be matched with Theravada Buddhism that spread to and survived in Southern India as part of Southern Buddhism. Zen and Theravada lineages, for the most part, put emphasis on meditation, Vipasanna for Theravada, and Dyanna, a method of meditation derived from Samatha and Vipasanna, and critical scriptural studies and dialogues. However, Theravada spread further south, eventually into what are now Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Laos predominately, while Zen Buddhism spread into China [1].

As a Mahayana school, Zen, therefore, inherited the Legendary traditions of Mahayana while still adhering to historicity and rationalism. Hence, in the Zen school, Venerable Sakyamuni is the ‘Historical Buddha’ while not denying his previous births. The historical Buddha remained paramount in Zen, with Venerable Mahakashyapa as the first  Indian Ancestor and Zen revering 26 subsequent Indian Ancestors, including Venerable Nargajuna. The lineage of Zen is another deep subject, however, only touched on here. As part of the Mahayana, Zen inherited the teaching that multiple births led to the birth of Venerable Sakyamuni, his teaching and his Parinirvana supported by the various guardians, Bodhisattva, Devas, generals messengers and others.

In China, the Sacred Mountain of Wu-tai, historically associated with the golden age of Zen Buddhism, is considered the mythic earthly home of Manjusri Bodhisattva.

Manjusri In Art

In Buddharupa images, the Bodhisattva Manjusri is depicted with a sword in their right hand, typically to cut the bonds of ignorance away, representing Wisdom and freedom or sometimes a White Lotus representing the purity of the teachings. Manjusri Bodhisattva may appear in Indian or Chinese forms, resembling other Bodhisattvas. Additionally, in Chinese and subsequent Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese lineages of Zen and Mahayana Art, as riding a Celestial dog or, less commonly, an elephant as in the original Indian depiction. The Celestial Animal represents the Cannon of the Teachings, the Tripitaka.

Manjusri Bodhisattva Image
Bodhisattva Manjusri

Manjusri Buddha rupa are traditionally sculpted in stone, bronze or wood; stone Buddharupa typically will be set in the temple’s precinct, while wooden and bronze are set in the Buddha Hall. Line and coloured paintings are also made on paper or on wood panels. In paintings, associations with Manjusri Bodhisattva not only take the form of illustrating the Bodhisattva but also the aforementioned Wu-tai mountain and scenes from the sutras depicting the Layman Vimalakirti and others as he debates with the Bodhisattva. Famous and easily seen examples of statuary Buddharupa in the Rinzai Zen school are the Great Buddha Halls or Dai Hondo at Kenninji, Tofukuji and Nanzenji in Kyoto, Japan, where you will find large wooden Buddharupa settings.

In Practice

In Zen temples, the Bodhisattva Manjusri is often enshrined in the main hall of the Buddhas and Bodhisattva, where commemorative rituals are carried out. Usually in a grouping called Shaka sanzon, opposite the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (O-Fugen-sama), the Bodhisattva of training. Another type of grouping found in some Buddha halls is the Four Great Bodhisattva of Compassion or Shi Dai Bosatsu in Japanese, commonly including Avalokitêśvara Bodhisattva (Kanzeon Bosatsu) of boundless compassion, Manjusri Bodhisattva – (Monju Bosatsu) of wisdom, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva – (Fugen Bosatsu) of training), and Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (Jizō Bosatsu) of vast patience and salvation from suffering. Also, in the Great Gate of large Rinzai Zen temples such as Tofukuji or Nanzenji and others, there are large groupings of Bodhisattva and celestial beings.

Manjusri Bodhisattva takes precedence in the hall at the beginning of each year, ritually extolling in the monks and nuns the vigour they will need for the coming year in ritual. This may take the form of reciting the Prajna Paramita Sutra (Hannya Shingyo) in which Venerable Shakyamuni Buddha instructs Śāriputra, who is considered to correspond to the Bodhisattva Manjushri. While in the meditation hall, also known as the Zendo, the Bodhisattva Manjushri usually takes precedence, enshrined at the head of the hall though typically out of sight because it is forbidden to love or worship the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas according to the Indian tradition. Rituals in the Great Halls ( Dai Hondo) or the Great Gate (Dai Sanmon) are often for monks only.

On a more daily basis in the Meditation hall (Zendo) of a Temple, when zazen periods begin, the head monk or nun will offer intense and make full bows before the Bodhisattva on behalf of the training community, and following that, the Awakening stick or Kaisaku as it’s called in Japan, which represents Manjusri Bodhisattva’s sword of freedom is walked around the hall. It’s use in guiding the trainees is the very presence of the Bodhisattva. And will symbolically cut through the veil of delusion in the spirit of Venerable Sakyamuni. Indeed, the Kaishaku is used to wake up drowsy or distracted monks with forceful blows to their shoulders, making a terrific snapping sound and breaking the silence of the hall. Helping them to inherit Venerable Sakyamuni’s eyebrows, as Zen emphasizes personal experiential Awakening, not just vicarious learning by the sutras.

When not in use, the Kaishaku is typically laid in front of the Bodhisattva. The attendant monk in the meditation hall is called the Jikijitsu, and he attends the trainees, maintaining the energy and coherence of the hall and attending to the Bodhisattva, making sure flowers and incense are appropriately dedicated daily. Further in the sanzen room, when the trainees meet the Venerable master, they meet the living manifestation of the Bodhisattva, who spares nothing from them in guidance. It’s not that Zen Buddhists ask the Bodhisattva for help; Buddhism does not rely on ‘other’, but instead that Zen teaches awareness of the interconnection of life, and Manjushri Bodhisattva represents the power of self-reliance to bring about Awakening. In this sense, the Bodhisattva Manjushri is central to Zen Buddhism, and Shugyo or training insight is central to the tradition. Beginning with the Historical Buddha who embarked upon his quest to understand and overcome the nature of suffering, or perhaps we could say to understand the fragmented nature of the mind. We call any activity in Zen that contributes to this Shugyo. The Historical Buddha undertook to sit under the Bodhi tree after years of attempting asceticism, and Shugyo is the training that prepared his mind for insight.

In Literature

The Bodhisattva appears in the Vimalakirti sutra, an important and central scripture to the Zen school, in which the Layman Yuina engages in a dialogue with the Bodhisattva Manjushri. The Vimalakirti sutra is both studied in the Zen school and recited in dedication to the Bodhisattva. Of the Vimalakirti Sutra, DT Susuki says, ‘It is in fact a philosophic-dramatic discourse in which the Mahayana doctrines are presented in the way characteristic of the Hindu psychology in contrast to the Chinese’.[2] The Bodhisattva also appears in the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, widely known in the West as the Lotus Sutra. We mentioned the Prajna Paramita Sutra, in which the Buddha gives his teaching to the disciple Venerable Sariputra, considered to be the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, for the purpose of the dialogue. The Bodhisattva also appears in a number of Koan cases in various contexts, some of which include, for example, Case 42 of the Mumonkan Case 35 of the Hekiganroku Koan collections.

 Bodhisattva appears in the Vimalakirti sutra
Bodhisattva appears in the Vimalakirti sutra

Manjusri  मञ्जुश्री sometimes spelt as Monjushri, also called O-Monju-sama in Japan.

[1] Tradition holds that the Indian Master Bodhidharma travelled from Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka, to Southern China and later to the north; however, modern scholarship increasingly disputes this legend, asserting a high probability the Bodhidharma is a legendary figure and composite of multiple unknown monks. Many Indian monks travelled the Northern Silk Road as missionaries, as Zen Buddhism developed principally in Northern China Wuhan region, it seems a likely explanation.

[2] page 410 Zen and Japanese Culture, DT. Suzuki

Further reading

Mujyo Zen
Article by

Mujyo Williams

Trained as a Zen monk at Tofukuji Rinzai Daihozan Senmondojo, Kyoto, Japan, and is Kiedo Fukushima’s disciple in the Zenkei Shibayama lineage.
He is the head of the Australian Zen Studies Institute.

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