Manjushri: Prince of Wisdom

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Tales of Manjushri

We can learn much about Manjushri's importance from the stories about him.

Unexpected encounters

Mount Wutai (Five Terrace Mountain) in northern China is traditionally considered the mountain of Manjushri. One tradition is that Manjushri guides all pilgrims who come to Mount Wutai and many stories tell of pilgrims encountering Manjushri in quite unexpected forms.

Often he masquerades as a beggar to guide and test pilgrims. Only after proceeding up the mountain might the pilgrims realize that the ragged, unwashed homeless person they encountered on the trail was Manjushri in disguise. Depending on how they had treated such beggars, the pilgrims would perhaps be worthy of a vision of the bodhisattva in his glorious form. This is a reminder to us that any homeless beggar we see on the street might be Manjushri in masquerade. If we have audio we could include story of Xuyun...

Manjushri leaking

Manjushri is a central figure in a number of important Zen koans, including the first case in one of the major koan collections, The Book of Serenity, in which Manjushri seems to be acting as one of the ceremonial attendants in the lecture hall.

After pounding the gavel to signal the arrival of Shakyamuni Buddha at his lecture seat, Manjushri announced, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma [Shakyamuni]; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is Thus."

After that, there was nothing left for the Buddha to do but get down and leave.

Manjushri is pointing out the stark suchness of reality as it is, and the inadequacy of language to express and explain it. Just to witness the truth silently is enough.

The Chinese Zen master Tiantong Hongzhi wrote a commentary on this story:

The unique breeze of reality—do you see?
Continuously creation runs her loom and shuttle,
Weaving the ancient brocade, incorporating the forms of spring,
But nothing can be done about Manjushri's leaking.

Manjushri is said to be "leaking" because he is a bit of a smart-ass kid, who sometimes shows off and doesn't know when to shut up (although in Zen, criticism may be ironic praise, and vice versa).

And yet, Manjushri persists in spewing forth his eloquent words, challenging and inciting us to see for ourselves, insisting that we awaken. And nothing can be done to stop Manjushri's leaking.

Vimalakirti's silence

In another famous story Manjushri meets of numerous bodhisattvas at the great layman Vimalakirti's home (see Lesson 8). Vimalakirti asks that each participant describe their entry into the teaching of nonduality. After many fine expressions of the meaning of nonduality, Manjushri announces that all the previous speeches were conditioned by linguistic limitations and were subtly dualistic. When he turns to Vimalakirti and asks for his views, Vimalakirti remains silent, demonstrating the truth that Manjushri had been verbally declaiming. All of Manjushri's leakings are simply commentaries on silence. And he does not stop himself from verbally acclaiming Vimalakirti's thunderous silence.