Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is an unpredictable figure. In many depictions, he holds a sword raised and looks like he’s about to strike; in others, he is in meditation, perfectly calm. He is often seed astride a lion (a blue one!), but sometimes it’s just a lion skin, and sometimes he just sits on a chair like a normal person. He can be perfectly bald or have hair or wear a huge crown. In full robes or practically naked. He’s hard to pin down.
As the bodhisattva of wisdom, he is the personification of wisdom. He is wisdom. So however you find him, whatever he looks like today, that’s what wisdom looks like. When he’s being super calm, that may work for you. When he has that look in his eye like he might attack at any second, that may be more of a challenge.
The sword is there to cut through delusion. That’s important. It’s all too easy to imagine that wisdom is a state of knowing, that being wise means there’s a process that’s been completed. But real wisdom isn’t like that. If anything, it’s a kind of alertness to the seductive pull of kidding yourself, a willingness to let go of something that feels good or easy if it carries any hint of a lie. For years, I saw Manjushri holding that sword and thought he was ready to cut through my delusion, that he loomed there like a threat. Now I see him poised, ready to slice, and I think, no, the delusion he’s ready for—maybe it’s primarily his own.
The lion is something wild, beyond our control; Manjushri riding it effortlessly shows the power of wisdom to tame the mind. When I hear a reference to taming lions, I immediately think of the circus and whips and cages, but no matter what painting or sculpture you look at, when Manjushri rides that lion, there is no suggestion of domination or control. Manjushri—wisdom—has made friends with the mind. The distinction between them isn’t important. From this angle it looks like lion, from this angle like Manjushri with a sword; from one angle there’s something we call mind, and from another there’s something we call wisdom. One is the nature of the other.
Because wisdom is so linked to meditation (or vice versa), a statue of Manjushri is often the centerpiece of a meditation hall or space. Before you sit on the cushion, the one we offer incense to is Manjushri. During meals, we offer him food. When meditation is finished, he’s the one we bow to. In this way, honor, nourish, and respect wisdom. We submit ourselves to that sword. It’s powerful.
I quite like the intense image of the sword, the lion, the crown. I feel like something is happening, or about to happen. It presents wisdom as a state of vigilance, of alertness, of readiness. Sometimes I need that.
But in Japanese monasteries, the Manjushri in the meditation hall was completely different. He was just a monk, in monk’s robes, doing meditation on a chair. This version of him is called Shōsō Monju, and if you didn’t know it was Manjushri, there would be no way to tell. He sits there on the altar in the middle of the hall, back straight, hands arranged in the cosmic mudra, a permanent fixture, a constant reminder of what diligent practice looks like. He is forever in meditation—just a vigilant as if he was holding a sword, but perfectly at ease, unmoving.
The point of all of this, of any bodhisattva, is to see them in us and to see ourselves in them. What is your relationship to your own mind? If you can answer the question, then who are you, and what is mind? Are you the lion? Are you riding it? Are you trying to whip it into shape?
In the movements of your own mind, in the thoughts you’re experiencing and observing right now, what are you looking for? Will you know it when you see it?
Are you ready? Part of you is. Whether on a blue lion, on a meditation cushion, or wherever you are right now as you read this, part of you is ready to cut through, straight to the center.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.