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.
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.