Mañjuśrī (Ch. Wenshu; Jpn. Monju; Tib. ‘Jam-dpal) is one of the oldest and most significant bodhisattvas of the Indian Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. The personification of the Mahayana notion of insight or wisdom (prajñā), Mañjuśrī or “Gentle Glory,” often functions in Mahayana texts as interlocutor: his pointed questions to the Buddha elicit the teachings his audience needs in order to grasp even the subtlest points of doctrine. Like insight, Mañjuśrī is ever new; he is often portrayed as a golden-complexioned, sixteen-year-old “Crown Prince” holding aloft the sword of wisdom in one hand, and a Perfection of Wisdom book (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) in the other. Although Mañjuśrī’s origins remain a point of lively scholarly debate, his importance to early Indian Mahayana is clear. The bodhisattva appears in the earliest datable literary evidence of Mahayana works available in any language, the Chinese translations prepared during 168–189 CE by the Indo-Scythian scholar Lokakṣema and his team of translators. Over the next centuries, Mañjuśrī featured in Mahayana literature of virtually every genre, from sutras and commentaries to esoteric (tantric) meditation manuals and litanies. As the bodhisattva of intellectual excellence, Mañjuśrī was especially popular among Indian Buddhist monastics. From the 6th century CE, his images were becoming a mainstay of Buddhist monasteries and temples. By the 8th century CE, we find the Crown Prince represented as a multiarmed and multiheaded tantric figure, and in a proliferation of Mañjuśrī-centered mandalas. The popularity of the Crown Prince was not limited to South Asia. Mañjuśrī worship developed into one of the most important Buddhist cults of T’ang China, where he became closely identified with a mountain complex called Wutaishan (see Bibliographies). In Japan, Mañjuśrī-related practices became associated with the Saidaiji order and esoteric Buddhist master Eison (b. 1201–d. 1290), who promoted Mañjuśrī worship among social outcasts (hinin). The Crown Prince was renowned in Nepal as the creator of the Kathmandu Valley; the Svayambhūpurāņa reports that Mañjuśrī split a mountain in two with his sword to drain the waters of the Kālīhrada and open the space. Mañjuśrī was an especially prominent feature of the Tibetan Buddhist landscape. Scholars from all of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism claimed direct visions of the bodhisattva of wisdom; to see Mañjuśrī denoted a subject’s perfect insight into the Buddha’s teaching. To this day, scholars of all backgrounds routinely invoke Mañjuśrī at the start of their own writings.
Overviews of Mañjuśrī run the gamut from in-depth scholarly to simple and concise. Among the former, Lamotte 1960, a classic study, explores Mañjuśrī in multiple cultural contexts. Tribe 1997 does an excellent job of expanding on Lamotte to unpack the bodhisattva’s possible origins. On the lighter side, Birnbaum 2005 is especially strong on Mañjuśrī’s place in Chinese Buddhism, Harrington 2004 emphasizes his place in Indian Buddhist literature, and Suzuki 1921 touches on his Japanese incarnations. Mañjuśrī’s portrayals in the earliest Mahayana literature are skillfully analyzed by Harrison 2000, and Hirakawa 1983 explores his broader significance to the nascent Mahayana movement. For a solid general introduction to the bodhisattva’s philosophical undergirding and status as a devotional figure, Williams 2009 is an excellent starting point.
Birnbaum, Raoul. “Mañjuśrī.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 8. Edited by Lindsey Jones, 5675. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
Concise, well-written sketch, particularly useful for a thumbnail on Mañjuśrī worship in China.
Harrington, Laura. “Mañjuśrī.” In Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. Edited by Phyllis Jestice, 539–540. Los Angeles: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Brief summary of the bodhisattva’s literary and material manifestations, with emphasis on Mañjuśrī’s literary functions in Indian Buddhist sutra literature.
Harrison, Paul M. “Mañjuśrī and the Cult of the Celestial Bodhisattvas.” Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 13.2 (2000): 157–193.
The author discusses a selection of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī’s appearances in the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts of the Chinese canon. Based on this analysis, he problematizes some widely held presumptions about the existence of a “bodhisattva cult” in early Mahayana Buddhism.
Hirakawa, Akira. “Mañjuśrī and the Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism.” Journal of Asian Studies (Madras) 1.1 (1983): 12–33.
Describes the portrayals of Mañjuśrī in the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts found in the Chinese canon, and speculates on his significance to early Mahayana Buddhists. Readers may find it useful to follow up with Harrison 2000.
Lamotte, Etienne. “Mañjuśrī.” T’oung Pao 48.1–3 (1960): 1–96.
Most comprehensive scholarly work on the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī of the last century. Lamotte’s magnum opus analyzes the textual history of Mañjuśrī in India, Khotan, Nepal, and China, paying particular attention to the bodhisattva’s renowned identification with the mountain complex at Wutaishan.
Suzuki, Beatrice. “The Bodhisattvas.” Eastern Buddhist 1–2.2 (1921): 131–139.
An eloquent if somewhat dated exploration of the bodhisattva ideal, using Mañjuśrī as an exemplar, with an emphasis on Japanese texts and traditions.
Tribe, Anthony. Manjusri: Origins, Role and Significance. Parts I & II: The Cult of Mañjuśrī. Western Buddhist Review 2 (1997).
A scholarly yet accessible examination of Mañjuśrī’s origins and his portrayals in nontantric Mahayana literature. The author emphasizes the influence of the Hindu god Brahma on the development of Mañjuśrī’s iconography and literary associations.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge, 2009.
A useful overview of Mañjuśrī’s textual history and significance that touches on the relationship of particular texts to Mañjuśrī’s cult status (pp. 226–229). Readers seeking information about the broader philosophical underpinnings of Mañjuśrī’s wisdom (prajñā) will also be well served by other sections of this work.
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