Manjushri’s sword represents compassion, and the flower is wisdom. This sounded counterintuitive to me at first. Wisdom seems sharp, compassion is soft, right? Not always. Compassion is why Manjushri corrects our thinking, and they’re compassionate because they’re wise.


By Johnathon Lee

Manjushri is the oldest Bodhisattva, and they’re symbolized by the flower and sword.

Manjushri represents Prajna, transcendent wisdom. You can meet Manjushri, if you like—not in the flesh, but in the heart and mind as an archetype for understanding. You can visualize Manjushri while you’re meditating, chant their mantra or go on vision trips.

Is Manjushri real? Are they chilling in their Pure Land, popping into this dimension to lend us a hand when we need it? Me from 10 years ago would’ve said no, but I’m trying to not be an asshole anymore.

The fact is that this is all a trip anyway.

The sky isn’t blue, and these words are just photons. I don’t have the right to say how things are, only how they seem. I will say that, if you’re really into Manjushri visualization, it will start to seem real, and that’s really cool.

Manjushri’s sword represents compassion, and the flower is wisdom. This sounded counterintuitive to me at first. Wisdom seems sharp, compassion is soft, right? Not always. Compassion is why Manjushri corrects our thinking, and they’re compassionate because they’re wise.

When I was first taught that everything was empty, I thought, “So, why care?” That means we’re grasping the concept but not the application. Emptiness and compassion are the same thing. The sword is soft, and the flower cuts.

Well, maybe, but not in my case.

My first meditative vision of Manjushri was trippy as fuck. I was in some kind of library, and Manjushri was standing in the middle of the room. I walked up, and they were smiling. So warm. So gentle. I felt glad and giddy.

They held out the flower in an invitation. I reached out, and then Manjushri rapidly sliced me into pieces with their sword. Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt. My body collapsed in a bloodless pile, but “I” was still there, like space. Then Manjushri held out the flower again. Trippy, right? Your orthodox Zen teachers don’t recommend this type of meditation, but it can be incredibly helpful.

Anyway, five years past, and I found myself researching the Medicine Buddha.

I was chanting their mantra, and visualizing blue (the Medicine Buddha’s color) light. Then I thought, “This isn’t my Bodhisattva. Who is?” Suddenly, I was in an ancient hall lined with Buddhas. Actual Buddhas, not statues. I walked down the Hall and found myself in a huge temple, the same one I used to visualize during communion when I was a kid. There, in the center, was good ol’ Manjushri again. I approached, saw that smile and felt the same sense of giddy delight.

Manjushri offered me the flower. What did I do?

Nothing. I snapped out of it and went, “Huh. Well that’s interesting.” I pondered it, and a sense of deep gratitude washed through me because I realized that I’d been given a genuine koan.

Manjushri offers you a flower. If you take it, you’ll be sliced to bits. If you don’t take it, you’ll be stuck there forever. What do you do? Come on, what do ya do? Please ponder for a bit before reading on.

The flower might represent the world, particularly the good things in life. It’s love, pleasure, food, water, that new job, fulfillment, purpose and so on. The sword is impermanence, emptiness. When we grasp at the good things, change tears us to pieces, doesn’t it? Even good change can be painful.

The fact is that there’s always good and bad in the future.

Good comes, and good goes. Bad comes, and bad goes. If I cling onto the good, I make the bad worse. I add something extra to the equation: my grasping. Then sadness turns to grief, to misery, to loneliness and despair. Thoughts tumble from the agony and plunge us even deeper into it until, sometimes, it seems like life is nothing but pain.

Then even that passes, and we’re on our way to good vibes again. Better, probably, just to skip the misery. The truth is that we never grasp onto anything, we don’t get the flower. Since everything’s changing, there’s nothing to let go of.

Letting go and checking out of life is the opposite extreme. Standing there forever, eye to eye with the good life but unable to actualize it.

Peace comes, but it’s a dead peace, the opioid of nirvana. Ennui with a smile.

To solve the koan, we have to take the flower and not take it at the same time. Take it with your hands, but not with your self. Be like space. There’s no need for all this running around and pain. Experience what is, and let it be as it is: changing.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons



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