MAÑJUŚRĪ , an important figure in the Mahāyāna Buddhist pantheon, is a bodhisattva, one of a number of celestial heroes whose compassion has led them to postpone the bliss of final enlightenment until all other beings are freed of suffering. Especially associated with wisdom, Mañjuśrī is a key figure in numerous Mahāyāna scriptures, and he has been the focus of significant cultic activity throughout Mahāyāna Buddhist countries. His name means "gentle glory." Many of his alternate names and epithets refer to his relation to speech (Vāgīśvara, "lord of speech") and to his youth (Kumārabhūta, "in the form of a youth" or "having become the crown prince"). Because he is destined soon to become a Buddha, Mañjuśrī is often called "prince of the teachings"; for his role as master of the wisdom teachings (prajñāpāramitā ) he is frequently described as "progenitor of the Buddhas."
Mañjuśrī's role in Mahāyāna scriptures is often that of interlocutor; as a senior bodhisattva at teaching assemblies, he frequently questions Śākyamuni Buddha and requests teachings of him. Although he is not highlighted in the early Mahāyāna texts on the perfection of insight, Mañjuśrī came to be known for his profound wisdom, and is associated with this textual tradition as its patron lord. The most common artistic representations and literary descriptions of Mañjuśrī (including scriptures, ritual texts, and meditation manuals) depict him as a golden-complexioned sixteen-year-old prince wearing a five-peaked crown. In his right hand he wields the sword of discriminating insight, which cuts through all ignorance and illusion, penetrating to the truth. In his left hand he grasps a book, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Scripture on the perfection of insight), whose teachings he has mastered and upholds. He sits upon a lion, which represents the roar of sovereign truth.
Mañjuśrī has been the focus of significant cultic activity. Perhaps the most extraordinary site for this has been a mountain complex in northern China named Wutai Shan, Five Terrace Mountain, where—until the mid-twentieth century—pilgrims from all over Asia have traveled in quests for visions of the bodhisattva. Beginning as a local mountain cult, the numinous precincts of this region eventually were identified as the special earthly domain of Mañjuśrī, and by the mid-eighth century it had become a thriving international Buddhist center, with seventy-two notable monasteries and temples, as well as numerous retreat huts.
Mañjuśrī traditionally is believed to be a celestial bodhisattva of the tenth stage (bhūmi), the highest level prior to attaining buddhahood. He dwells continually in a meditative trance known as "heroic valor" (sūraṃgamasamādhi), and is thus able to manifest himself at will throughout the universe, including Mount Wutai, in order to aid all beings. Wutai Shan was identified as Mañjuśrī's principal seat of manifestation through two means: time and again notable persons had visions of the bodhisattva there; and these visions received scriptural legitimation in the form of prophecies in a series of texts. The most significant of these texts is the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Flower garland scripture), in which Śākyamuni declared that in a future age Mañjuśrī would dwell on a five-peaked mountain in northern China. According to pilgrims' accounts of these visions, the bodhisattva manifests himself on the mountain in several forms, most typically as a sphere of glowing light, as a five-colored cloud, as a lion-riding youth, or as an old man. Further mountain sites in the Himalayas and central Asia, including Mount Gośṛṅga in Khotan, were identified as sacred to the bodhisattva, but, unlike Mount Wutai, they never gained international recognition and acceptance. As a further element in the mountain theme, Mañjuśrī popularly plays a role in the founding tales of Nepal: with his sword, he cut an opening in the mountains to drain a great lake, thus creating the Kathmandu Valley.
Mañjuśrī has been especially venerated in the Chan and Zen traditions of East Asia for his uncompromising quest for insight. He is also linked closely to the teachings of the Tantric schools, both as lord of profound knowledge and as a potent protector and guide of those on this path. While Mañjuśrī's special role within the Buddhist pantheon is to protect and uphold the wisdom teachings and to inspire students of these teachings, a wide range of scriptures, ritual texts, and popular traditions makes clear the multifaceted nature of his cult, which was extended far beyond Buddhist scholastic circles.
The standard cross-cultural monograph on Mañjuśrī, containing much information organized in a systematic way, is Étienne Lamotte's "Mañjuśrī" (in French), Tʾoung pao 48 (1960): 1–96. Intensive analysis of a group of East Asian paintings of Mañjuśrī, emphasizing religious dimensions and including a chapter on the Wu-tʿai Shan cult in T'ang China, may be found in my Studies on the Mysteries of Mañjuśrī, Society for the Study of Chinese Religions Monograph No. 2 (Boulder, 1983). The translation of an important Tantric text in praise of Mañjuśrī, the Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti Sūtra, has been made by Alex Wayman, Chanting the Names of Mañjuśrī (Boston, 1985).
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Raoul Birnbaum (1987)