Of all the Buddhist meditational deities — and, of all the Bodhisattvas we meet in the sutras — the overwhelming feeling with Manjushri is “gentle wisdom” and “gentle friend.”
We feel warm, comforted, and supported in the youthful arms of Manjushri. More importantly, we receive the gentle wisdom we need to progress on the path. Manjushri is the favorite practice of scholars, debaters, teachers, writers, scientists and thinkers — but he is approachable for all beings.
“Wonderfully auspicious” Manjushri, the “gentle friend” of Buddhists, cuts through our ignorance, helping bring insights into the true nature of reality — Shunyata. As a manifestation of “prajna” or insight (wisdom), his name describes who he is. His other important name — also symbolic of ultimate wisdom and Dharma — is Arapachana, which is also his mantra: standing in for the entire Sanskrit syllabary (more on this later.)
He is an important presence in Mahayana sutra, especially the Prajnaparamita sutras (Perfection of Wisdom sutras, see a commentary on Heart Sutra here>>), Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra. He is attributed with bringing the insight that leads many sentient beings to Enlightenment. In all of Mahayana Buddhism, he is considered the Bodhisattva of Wisdom; in Vajrayana, he is a completely enlightened Buddha. (This is not a contradiction, but rather, a path: the Bodhisattva path leads to Buddha Enlightenment.)
He is also one of the three “great” Bodhisattvas, along with Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. Broadly speaking, they represent three critical concepts, or the three virtues of the Buddha:
- Manjushri: wisdom and insight (prajna)
- Avalokiteshvara: compassion and love (metta)
- Vajrapani: power and strength and protection.
Manjushri practice and devotion is suitable for all beings. He is not a lofty, scary, wrathful, stern, unapproachable deity; quite the opposite. He is down to earth (earthy, golden colour), kind, smiling, welcoming, youthful, and beautiful.
No labels for Manjushri?
Even though labels are, in many ways, the antithesis of ultimate (or transcendental) wisdom — since imputed labels are one of the incorrect perceptions of sentient beings — nevertheless, Manjushri’s name describes his essence; his name translates as “gentle glory” or, variously, “wonderfully auspicious” or “sweetly glorious” or “gentle friend” (from the Tibetan).
His perfect Pure Land is Vimala, in the East, and he is associated with Vairochana (Tibetan, nangpar nangdze, English Buddha Resplendent.) His other names include Vakishvara (Lord of Speech.) As an emanation of Vairochana — who vowed to emanate throughout the universe as a youthful Bodhisattva of Wisdom — he represents the “beginnings” of wisdom and our own ability to achieve it. Manjushri does not give us the answers; he grants us the process to find our own wisdom. The beginnings of wisdom, and that first all-important insight. He especially helps us see through the delusions of duality.
Symbols: the language of insight
In the same way, we must use labels to imperfectly describe the perfect, the language of symbols is especially important for those who seek insight from glorious gentle friend Manjushri. In many representations, he holds aloft the flaming sword of wisdom: the blade cuts through the incorrect perceptions of reality, bringing us sharp insight into Shunyata, or Emptiness. The sharp edge cuts through delusions.
The sword, in Sanskrit, is called a Khadga. Not only is Manjushri’s sword a symbol of discriminating wisdom, but it also helps us cut through delusions, aversions, attachments, and all the things that trap us in our dualistic world of Samsara and suffering.
In his other hand is the Prajnaparamita Sutra or text — the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, usually on a sacred lotus.
The symbols and iconography can vary depending on culture. In Tibetan symbolism, he is normally crowned with Bodhisattva crawn and appears youthful, a young man often described in visualizations as 16-years old. Chinese Wenshu sometimes has different iconography: holding a ruyi sceptre and riding on a snow lion, for example. But the symbols always focus on wisdom.
There are also specialized forms of Manjushri: Black, Orange, Four-armed Namsangiti, wrathful Yamantaka, and many others. For instance, as Namsangiti, he is yellow with one face and four hands and holds in the first right hand a blue sword of wisdom licked with flame, and in the left at his heart, he holds a pink utpala flower; then, the blossom at ear-level supports the Prajnaparamita sutra. In the lower two arms are a bow and arrow.
Jampal Tsanju is another emanation of Manjushri with one head and four hands holding a sword, the Prajnaparamita sutra and a bow and arrow. He is pink or white with one face and four hands. There is also a three-faced form.
The youthful beauty of Manjushri: the beginnings of insight
Why is Manjushri always visualized as a beautiful youth of sixteen, in the prime or beginning of his manhood? This important symbol reminds us that Manjushri is the beginning of insight. Within his practice is also the ultimate completion of practice, as represented by the “Perfection of Wisdom” text in his hand. But, the youth symbolism is vital, since most suffering humans, even the most advanced among us, could be said to be just at the “beginning” of understanding and insight.
He encourages us, with his smiling, gentle, face — the “gentle friend”, as he is called by many — and his simple symbolism. Unlike other Buddhist deities, his symbolism is ultimately simple. Just as the Heart Sutra (part of the Prajnaparamita sutras‚ is short and simple — clear and concise “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” — at the same time his elegant simplicity is also ultimate complexity and deep, profound wisdom. Just as Heart Sutra expresses the vastly profound in a few hundred words, Manjushri’s symbolism of sword, text and youth likewise deliver a concise, yet vastly profound message.
Simplicity and essence: even in his mantra
Manjushri’s image and symbolism conveys the essence and simplicity of insight; likewise, his mantra is ultimately “essence and profound simplicity.” Each lof the seven syllables of his short mantra is deeply profound — conveying within in it the essence of all other mantras. Even the way we chant his mantra is unique:
OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHIH
(Tsa sounds like, and is sometimes spelled as “cha”.)
Tibetan-style mantra chanting Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi Dhi Dhi (with receding reverb on Dhi, Dhi, Dhi…) video with Deva Premal & The Gyuto Monks Of Tibet:
Arapacana: the forty-two letters
The most wholesome way to think of the “meaning” of the Manjushri mantra is to understand it’s root. Taken together, after the OM is ARAPACHANA (Arapatzana, Arapacana) — which literally is the syllabary of forty-two letters in the Gandari language (Sanskrit, Pali, etc). In some texts, Arapachana is another name for Manjushri. Clearly, this is very unique. Manjushri, then, in one way, can be said to be the wisdom of all the Dharma, expressed as the forty-two letters. Either way, when we recite Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhih, we are basically reciting all forty-two syllables of the ancient syllabary, plus Dhi, which has a unique meaning.
Uniqueness of Dhi
Why unique? Unlike other mantras, that often finish with Soha (Svaha in Sanskrit) — Manjushri’s mantra not only ends in the mysterious syllable “Dhih”, but we are instructed to repeat the Dhih as much as we can at the end of our recitation — as if our voices are merging with the Oneness of the Universe, or the Emptiness of Shunyata. We chant this “decrescendo” — with each breath softer and softer and softer, as if we are merging with Emptiness. We visualize our breath emanating countless Dhih’s golden like Manjushri himself, going out and blessing the universe, and purifying all negative karmas, energies and defilements — most of which arise from ignorance.
Dhih, then, is an antidote for ignorance.
Unlike other mantras, Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na are Sanskrit syllables not necessarily assigned “meaning.” While we can translate Om Mani Padme Hum (for instance, Padme is lotus), and other mantras, Manjushri’s mantra is the wisdom of Dharma, represented by sound and speech — here symbolized by syllables.
In commentaries, however, Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi takes on many layers of meaning.
Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: meaning of the mantra
In the Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, the Arapachana syllables of the mantra — despite not having the literal meaning — are described as:
A — the insight that all Dharmas and all “things” are unproduced
RA — the insight that all Dharmas are without stain or dirt (rajas) — free of defilements
PA — the insight that all Dharmas are ultimate (paramartha)
CA (CHA, TZA) — the insight that all things cannot be apprhended because there is no “arising” and no “ceasing.”
NA — the insight that the essential nature of names and labels cannot be gained or lost.
Anyone can benefit from chanting the wisdom mantra of Manjushri:
A Commentary on the Arapachana Mantra
Khenchen Pracchimba Dorjee Rinpoche delivered a wonderful commentary on the essence of the mantra from a Tantric Buddhist point-of-view:
OM — represents the enlightened form of body, speech and mind embodied in Manjushri’s three kayas. First, the Manjushri mind is equal to the wisdom mind of all Buddhas – the dharmakaya. You may ask how to practice the dharmakaya? If you experientially understand Buddha nature and rest in the Buddha nature in your meditation you are practicing dharmakaya. Second, the Manjushri mantra Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi represents the enlightened speech of all the Buddhas. If you recite this mantra more and more your usual worldly perceptions will transform into perceptions of Buddhas in Buddha fields. This is how enlightened speech of Manjushri manifests in the sambhokaya form. Finally, if you focus in your meditation on the body of Manjushri as depicted in thankas – in orange color and with all the ornaments – you are engaging in a nirmanakaya practice. This is a practice focusing solely on the visualization without reciting the mantra and without resting in Buddha nature…
AH — stands for the direct understanding of the nature of phenomena. This realization develops as we examine everything. That means that we ask questions such as: What does my body and mind consist of? What do all the things around me consist of? As a result of repeated inquiry and contemplation, the realization of emptiness as the true nature of our mind as well as all external phenomena arises. Understanding of the emptiness of everything is the wisdom path.
RA — The syllable RA represents understanding of emptiness from the Hinayana point of view. This approach emphasizes the emptiness of the self but believes that at the deepest level everything consists of very small subatomic particles. Similar views are held by scientists these days. These teachings of the ‘Hinayana’ emptiness are suitable for those practitioners that have difficulty in understanding emptiness in its ultimate nature.
PA — stands for meditation. There are two basic types of meditation: the conceptual (thinking) and the non-conceptual (without thinking) meditation. In the conceptual meditation we rely on thinking about various concepts such as impermanence, suffering or karma. This is actually not considered a meditation in the strict sense. The ‘real’ meditation is non-conceptual and means that we see the nature of phenomena directly. In our practice we usually first combine the conceptual and the non-conceptual meditation until we are able to rest in the nature of mind completely without thinking. For example, if you have to ask yourself whether your meditation is conceptual or non-conceptual you are practicing conceptual (thinking) meditation. If you engage in a true non-conceptual meditation you don’t have to check whether your meditation is conceptual or non-conceptual – your feeling of resting in the nature of mind is so reassuring that there are no questions to be asked.
TSA — symbolizes the importance of samsara and nirvana. The exact nature of both nirvana and samsara is emptiness. But if we don’t understand the exact nature of samsara, it manifests to us in the form of three sufferings. The three sufferings are: the suffering of change, the suffering upon suffering and the suffering of everything composite. If we exactly experientially understand the real nature of samsara it will instead appear to us in the form of three kinds of peace: arhat peace, bodhisattva peace and Buddha peace…
NA — stands for karma. In short, it means that all the suffering we experience is the result of our previous non-virtuous actions and all our happiness results from our previous virtuous deeds. There are two basic kinds of karma: the individual karma and the collective karma. As the name says our individual karma is related to our personal deeds and their results… We need to understand that with each action of our body, speech and mind we are sewing the seeds of our future experience…
DHI — represents the wisdom path teachings. It is the fruition of all the practices represented by the previous syllables. We can imagine that our samsara mind is like a block of ice flowing in the water of nirvana wisdom. The syllable DHI represents the fruition of our practice that melts the ice of our samsaric mind into water — its real Buddha nature. This is the Dzogchen view.
Anyone can benefit from chanting the mantra of Manjushri. No empowerment is need:
Other manifestations of Manjushri
As with most of the Bodhisattvas, Manjushri has emanated as a human — a wise teacher — to help all sentient beings. His most famous “emanation” is Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition in Tibetan Buddhism.
Other emanations include: Mahasiddha Virupa, Mahsiddha Naropa, Emperor Trisong Detsen, Translator Lotsawa Loden Sherab, Father of the Tibetan Language-Thonmi Sambhuta, Yogi Ra Lotsawa, Scholar Sakya Pandita, Buton Rinchen Drub, Panchen Sonam Srkpa, Duldzin Drakpa Gyaltsen, and Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen.
Manjushri also has several specialized emanations and forms, including the most famous of Tibetan deities, great Yamantaka, the Foe Destroyer, Opponent of Death. (Story on Yamantaka here>>) He also emanates as Black Manjushri. (Story on Black Manjushri here>>)
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.