Showing posts with label Manjughosa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Manjughosa. Show all posts

30 May 2008

Mañjuśrī's Sword

Mañjuśrī is an archetypal Bodhisattva associated with Prajñāpāramitā or the Perfection of Wisdom. Recently I became interested in his sword because it doesn't quite seem right for a Mahāyāna figure, nor for a peaceful deity, to be holding an implement that is more typical of wrathful figures.

Bodhisattvas as objects of separate cults emerge relatively late in comparison to their appearances in texts. So for instance Mañjuśrī appears in early texts like the Viṃalakirtinirdeśa Sūtra (1st or 2nd century CE) but there are no representations of Mañjuśrī in Indian Buddhist art until the 6th century. Although I can't confirm this, it seems to me that the appearance of (large scale) iconographic representations of Bodhisattvas other than Maitreya appear to coincide with the early period of Tantric Buddhism. It also seems likely to me that individual Bodhisattvas were not worshipped widely in India until that time. In China a cult of Mañjuśrī appears a century or two earlier, but it takes a different form to that in India and is centred around Mount Wu Tai.

The earliest representations of Mañjuśrī, whether Indian or Chinese, do not show him with a sword. The earliest Indian iconography shows him with right hand in the varada mūdra, left hand holding an utpala lotus; his hair is braided, and he wears a tiger's class necklace. (see image left) The last item is a protective amulet worn by children. In early Chinese images however he is shown teaching and holding an iron staff. This staff, which broadens at the top, is a Confucian implement symbolising religious discourse. The Viṃalakirtinirdeśa, which features Mañjuśrī in a discussion with Vimalakirti, was a key influence on Chinese iconography.

Rob Linrothe's study of wrathful images, Ruthless Compassion, provides a clue to what might have happened. Although Mañjuśrī himself is not shown with a sword, he and other Bodhisattvas such as Vajrapaṇi are frequently accompanied a smaller companion figure who does. The dwarf-like figures seem to derive from Śaiva images of the dwarf Vamana. In particular Mañjuśrī is accompanied by a figure called Yamāntaka. Yamāntaka, of course, goes on to become a distinct figure and plays a very important role in Tibetan Buddhism. However at first he is very much linked to the peaceful form of the Bodhisattva and seems to represent the "power" of the Bodhisattva. Importantly Yamāntaka is depicted as wielding a sword in these images.

In Linrothe's account of the development of Tantric iconography, this kind of Bodhisattva plus attendant image persisted even when new developments occurred, so that the various layers all co-existed. This mirrors the situation for the development of texts which Buddhists were loath to repudiate completely even when a new text proclaimed, as they inevitably do, that what has come before was merely provisional or meant for people of lesser ability. The next phase after the Bodhisattva/Dwarf companions is that the wrathful figures become independent. So for instance in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (ca mid 7th century) Trailokyavijaya, Acala, and Hayagrīva are independent wrathful figures whose function is the protection of sacred spaces (i.e. mandalas) and the destruction of obstacles. Images of Yamāntaka

In the case of Mañjuśrī I suggest that he got his sword from Yamāntaka, but only after they had gone their separate ways which was evident by about the 10th century. But why would a peaceful Bodhisattva take up a sword, even a so-called sword of wisdom? The sword culturally speaking represents the polar opposite of Buddhist values - it is an implement of killing, designed in fact for the single purpose of killing humans.

A possible answer is provided by Adalbert Gail in his paper "Mañjuśrī and his sword" (see below). He suggests that the cult of Mañjuśrī began in China, which explains why images of Mañjuśrī appeared there centuries before they did in India. We know that in some cases, the Heart Sūtra being a classic example, that Chinese Buddhism had an influence on Indian Buddhism. In ths case Gail surmises that the iron discussion staff was an implement unfamiliar to Indian Buddhists, and so when they met it, probably via Chinese pilgrims in India, they may have assumed that it was a sword. By this time wrathful images, such as Yamāntaka had already appeared so a Buddhist figure holding a sword may not have seemed so unusual. Later images of Mañjuśrī holding a sword were taken to China where they became popular.

Much of this argument is speculative and will likely remain so, but it seems a plausible account given what we do know. The story of Mañjuśrī's sword is a good example of how iconographic, non-textual information, all too often overlooked by Buddhists and Buddhologists, contributes to our understanding of Buddhist history.

  • Gail, Adalbert. "Mañjuśrī and his sword," in Kooij, K.R. Van and Veere, H. van der (eds.) Function and meaning in Buddhist art : proceedings of a seminar held at Leiden University 21-24 October 1991. Groningen: Egbert Forstan, 1995
  • Linrothe, Rob. Ruthless compassion : wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist art. London : Serindia Publications, 1996.
image: Mañjuśrī accompanied by Yamāntaka (with sword), ca 8th century, Nalanda in Linrothe, p.68.

16 June 2008
NOTE: In writing this essay I missed an obvious reference to Mañjuśrī's sword in a
Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra called the Suṣṭhitamati-paripṛcchā. A little more research would be required to see if the date of the text has been established - the Ratnakūṭa (or Jewel Heap) texts are a collection which span a period time but begin to be translated into Chinese about the 2nd century. In this text Mañjuśrī moves as if to kill the Buddha with his sword! He is stopped by a discourse on the emptiness of beings.

If I were to rewrite this essay in light of that passage it would probably look entirely different. I wonder why neither Linrothe nor Gail mention it as it has direct bearing on what they write about, perhaps like me they simply over looked it?

A translation of the passage can be found in Chang, G. C. C. 1983. A treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras : selections from the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtras. Pennsylvania : Buddhist Association of the US, p.68. See Also Sangharakshita. 1985. The Eternal Legacy : an introduction to the Canonical Literature of Buddhism. London : Tharpa. p.186.

05 April 2007

The Mystical ARAPACANA Alphabet

Manjughosa and his twin Manjusri are well known Mayahana figures. Both are youths of 16, the colour of a tiger's eye, brandishing a flaming sword, and holding a book - the Pefection of Wisdom in 8000 lines. Their mantra is pretty common in the FWBO as it's one of the nine chanted at the end of seven-fold pujas: oṃ a ra pa ca na dhiḥ. Om is a sacred Indian sound symbol which is at once very simple, but very difficult to write about without becoming trite. Dhih is a seed syllable which is associated with perfect wisdom. Again I find it difficult to write much about dhih. It seems to me that the om and dhih simply indicate that arapacana found a home in the generalised Mahayana cult of the dharani (about which more another time). However I recently turned up something interesting about arapacana that I would like to share.

arapacana is made up of the first five syllables of an alphabet which occurs in the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines - translated by Edward Conze as The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. I need to clarify 'alphabet' a bit. Actually Sanskrit is a syllabic language, which means that a consonant is almost always associated with a vowel. The most basic, unmarked, form assumes the short 'a' vowel sound which you hear in the English word but. That's why the 'alphabet' is not written in roman characters as arpcn! So this alphabet is spelt out in the Sutra, and each syllable is associated with some aspect of perfect wisdom. A, for instance, stands for anutpada - unarisen - and refers to the idea that no actual 'things' ultimately exist, that there are just conglomerations of conditions which are constantly changing. One of the most important conditions being our perception and the associated mental processes.

The alert amongst you will already have clocked that the Sanskrit alphabet does not begin a ra pa ca na - it begins with the vowels a, i, u, e, o, etc, in their short and long forms. Even the consonants start with ka, kha, ga, gha, nga, etc. So this is not the Sanskrit alphabet. Some scholars have postulated a Gandhari origin, or that it relates to the Karoshthi alphabet.* The earlier Lalitavistara Sutra also has an alphabet of Wisdom - this one is Sanskrit.

But why? What is special about the alphabet? The answer lies, I suggest, not in Buddhism at all but in one branch of Vedic exegesis known as Mimamsa (miimaa.msaa) which has origins almost as old as the Vedas themselves, although the first systematic account was Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutra probably written about 200 BCE - about a century before the Lalitavistara Sutra.

The central concern of the Mimamsa School was the status of the Vedas as divine revelation - and as such they parallel the Christian philosophers who sought to "prove" the divine status of the Christian Bible. The Indian problem was that the words used in the Vedas were (more or less ) the same words that ordinary people use in their banal conversations. What is so holy about them? A contemporary school, the Sphotavada, worked along the lines that the words were special because of the order that they were in - that it was the sentences of the Vedas that made them holy. The Mimamsa went in the other direction. The meaning of a sentence depends on the sum of the parts that make it up. The smallest units are what are true or real (both translations of satya) and in the case of Sanskrit this is the syllable. To quote Shabara, a mid-1st century BCE Mimamsa scholar:
"The word gauh (cow) is nothing more that the three phonemes which are found in it, namely g, au, and h... It is also these very phonemes which cause the understanding of the meaning of the word".
Contemporary scholar Guy Beck adds:
"The human process of comprehension is therein said to result from the mysterious accumulation of individual letter potencies (shakti), each of which leaves an impression or trace (samskara), which carries over onto the next letter or syllable".**
The early Upanishads contain several little treatises on the associations of syllables with esoteric meaning - Chandogya 1.3.6 for instance. But Shabara has taken this to it's logical conclusion and given significance to all of the syllables. This doesn't entirely solve the problem of logically establishing the revealed nature of the Vedas, but that need not distract us at present since that is not our project.

Shabara wrote in the time immediately preceding, or even slightly over-lapping, the rise of the Mahayana. We know that Buddhists, in accordance with the general Indian approach, were apt to incorporate any practice or idea which could be adapted to their use. It seems to me that in this case the Vedic linguistic speculations were adopted, and developed. The apotheosis of this occurs in the Mahavairocana Abhisambodhi Tantra where visualisation of the Sanskrit alphabet is recommended as a meditation practice.

It is interesting to note that this ancient India interest in the significance of words or syllables prefigures much of modern linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure himself had held a professorship in Sanskrit before giving his lectures on general linguistics in 1910-11 that have set the agenda of linguistics ever since. Another interest contemporary parallel is in the research of Margaret Magnus. Magnus's doctoral thesis explored the way that phonemes (the smallest unit of articulate vocal sounds) bear meaning. Standard linguistic theory tells us that phonemes have an arbitrary relationship to meaning - that the sounds we use to indicate things or concepts are arbitrary and conventional. I don't have space in this post to go into the details of Magnus's findings, but I have repeated many of her experiments and I believe that phonemes are not entirely arbitrary.

The arapacana mantra, then, stands as an embodiment of a principle, put forward by the Mimamsa school on the basis of Upanishadic speculation, but taken up by Buddhists around the time of the rise of the Mahayana: that each and every articulate vocal sound has significance.

* see for instance: Richard Salomon. New Evidence for a Gandhari Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Apr - Jun, 1990), pp. 255-273
** Guy L. Beck. Sonic Theology. (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1995, 1993), pp.61.

Sound files from my evening on the Arapacana Alphabet at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 1 Nov 2007.

15/3/08. I've just added a page to which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.