Mañjuśrī (“Gentle Glory”) is one of the oldest and most significant bodhisattvas of the Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist pantheon. Mañjuśrī is the personification of the Mahāyāna notion of prajñā (wisdom): discriminating insight into the nature of reality, and the hallmark philosophical insight that distinguished the Mahāyāna movement from earlier Buddhist schools (Nikāya) of thought. Like discriminating insight, Mañjuśrī is ever new. He is typically portrayed as a golden-complexioned, sixteen-year-old crown prince holding in one hand a flaming sword that cuts through ignorance, and a Perfection of Prajñā book (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) in the other.
In Mahāyāna sutras, Mañjuśrī is often cast as the interlocutor whose pointed questions to the buddha elicit the teachings their audience needs to finally understand the subtlest points of doctrine. His earliest known appearance is in the corpus of early Mahāyāna works translated into Chinese by the Indo-Scythian monk Lokakṣema (b. 147
This rhetorical strategy was developed in subsequent Indian Buddhist sūtras and commentaries, especially those that promulgated new or controversial teachings. Scholars from all of its schools claimed direct visions of the bodhisattva of wisdom; “to see Mañjuśrī” denoted the subject’s unmistaken insight into the buddha’s teaching. Mañjuśrī worship entered esoteric Buddhism (Tantra) in the 7th-century Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa—one of the earliest extant Indian Tantras—and reached its zenith in the early 8th-century Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti, a liturgical text praising Mañjuśrī in all his forms. Its close association with the 10th-century Kālacakra Tantra, perhaps the last Tantric text to be composed in India, underscores how thoroughly Mañjuśrī pervaded esoteric Buddhism in South Asia.
As a figure of cult worship, Mañjuśrī was most prominent outside of India. By the 5th century, the Chinese Wutai shan (“Five Terrace Mountain”) was understood to be his earthly residence, and a magnet for pilgrims who sought a vision of the crown prince. Mañjuśrī became identified as the patron deity of China during the Tang dynasty, thereby setting a pattern for subsequent rulers of China, who often linked their own legitimacy to Mañjuśrī, and visibly promoted his worship at Wutai shan. This practice crystallized during the long reign of the Manchus (1611–1912), who not only portrayed their rulers as emanations of the crown prince, but fostered the folk etymology of their ethnonym as deriving from Mañjuśrī. Tibetan Buddhism was at its apex there, and Mañjuśrī and his mountain home become important to Tibetans, Nepalese, Khotanese, and Mongols.
Solomon George FitzHerbert
In both eastern Tibet and in Mongolia, the Buddhist cult surrounding the figure of Ling Gesar (Gling ge sar) or Geser Khan in Mongolian versions is an outgrowth of Gesar’s standing as the eponymous hero of an elaborate oral epic tradition. Today, the epic and the Buddhist cult exist side by side in a relationship of symbiosis. Gesar’s sanctification as an enlightened being—as the combined manifestation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords and as an “emissary” or “manifestation” of Padmasambhava—whose tricksterism is enacted on behalf of the forces of goodness, justice, and the White Side in its perennial battle against the forces of evil, injustice, and the Dark Side—is both an outgrowth but also a source of nourishment for the epic tradition as it has continued to adapt and develop up to our own times.
The Gesar/Geser epic, in all the three main regions in which it survives (eastern Tibet and its neighboring regions, the Mongolic regions as far west as Kalmykia, and Ladakh and neighboring regions), is a living and mobile tradition of oral recitation and improvisation. The available textual corpus of this epic is very large, though none of it is very old (the oldest available epic texts in Tibetan are from the 17th century and in Mongolian are from 18th century). Thanks in part to sustained state patronage in the PRC, there are now over 200 published volumes of non-duplicating Gesar epic narrative and song, mostly from eastern Tibet. A lot of this material is of a directly oral provenance. Many modern volumes are the direct transcriptions (with some editing) of the oral repertoires of contemporary bards, some of which have been very lengthy. To take one example, the recorded repertoire of the bard Samdrup (Bsam grub) (1922–2011) was over 3,000 hours long, much of which has now been published. As for literary versions, the authors of Gesar epic texts often make explicit the debt that their tellings owe to oral renditions that they have heard. The mid-18th-century author of the famous Horling Yülgyé (Hor gling g.yul ’gyed), for example, mentions that he based his telling on the oral repertoires of “some twenty bards,” several of whom he cites by name. Due to the heterogeneity and sheer volume of this available textual corpus, it is hard to make categorical assertions about the relationship between Buddhism and the epic tradition, since that relationship varies from version to version. However, some general observations may be offered. In the ritual cult devoted to Gesar that evolved from the epic tradition, matters are somewhat clearer. In the ritual texts devoted to Gesar—which are mostly offering texts—the unruly polyphony of the epic (many bards, many characters, many perspectives) is replaced with a neater integrated vision, in which the hero is praised as a totalizing culture hero and enlightened lord—a hero in every register, both worldly and spiritual, both chivalric and shamanistic.
Emperor Tri Songdétsen (Khri Srong lde brtsan; 742–c.800
The basic contours of Tri Songdétsen’s life and work may be gleaned from contemporary administrative records and from the king’s own inscribed pillar edicts and their accompanying paper documents. These describe how he was enthroned as a fourteen-year-old boy after his father was assassinated in the course of a revolt. They also give Tri Songdétsen’s reasons for officCially supporting Buddhism, and mention some of the opposition that he faced. As accounts of the concerted introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Tri Songdétsen’s edicts constitute a clear forerunner to later Tibetan “histories of the Dharma” (chos ’byung) that would become a standard medium for Tibet’s Heilsgeschichte from the 11th century to the 21st. In this way, Tri Songdétsen also played a key role in the genesis of Tibet’s unique form of Buddhist historiography.
Ironically, the very historiographical traditions that Tri Songdétsen inaugurated in Tibet would in subsequent centuries come to express an ambivalent attitude toward the emperor’s central role in the establishment of Buddhism. Although he was lionized shortly after his death and in the century that followed, in Buddhist histories and hagiographies from the 12th century onward, Tri Songdétsen is eclipsed by the figure of the yogin Padmasambhava, who is credited as the real agent in the conversion of Tibet. Within this new narrative, the king is somewhat ineffectual in his commitment to Buddhism, such that his failure to follow Padmasambhava’s instructions eventually accounts for Padmasambhava’s departure from Tibet and for all sorts of future calamities that befall Tibet, its monarchy, and its people.
The subordination of Tri Songdétsen to Padmasambhava is part of a larger movement by which kings receded from Tibetans’ devotional emphasis and from their daily lives, and by which the figure of the lama ascended to cultural paramountcy. In particular, it reflects a shift in devotional emphasis across the 11th to 13th centuries from the cult of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong rtsan sgam po; c. 605–649), who was viewed as an emanation of Tibet’s protector bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, to that of the yogin Padmasambhava, revered as an emanation of the Buddha Amitābha. Tri Songdétsen became a supporting player in Padmasambhava’s hagiography and cult, as one of his twenty-five disciples, and was also refigured as an emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjusrī. It is in this guise that Tri Songdétsen is remembered within Tibetan cultural memory and within Tibetan Buddhism more generally from the 12th century to the 21st.