The Young Prince of Wisdom
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
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