Cutting Through Ignorance
Artist statements on Manjushri & a lifelong practice
Reading time: About 4 Minutes
The Bodhisattva Manjushri has been a thread in my practice since I first encountered them in a guidebook to the Bodhisattvas back in 2012. At that time I didn’t yet understand thangka art as tools of spiritual technology. I was wary of cultural appropriation and only just starting to unlearn the white, Christian-centric lens that influences the convert Buddhist communities with which I’ve practiced. I was making my way through the guide, finding it all very academic, when I turned the page and saw an image of Manjushri for the first time.
The feeling was electric.
The sublime, gender ambiguous figure drew me in instantly. I examined the details of the image—the delicately held sword enveloped in flame, their serene and calm(ing) expression, the elegant shape of the cloth entwining their limbs. As I read on, I came to understand something about Bodhisattvas that I hadn’t really understood until that moment: Bodhisattvas are a representation of qualities and capacities we all have.
Manjushri is the embodiment of wisdom—not knowledge, but understanding. They are the fullest view of a situation, free from ignorance in any form. They are depicted as yellow or gold, akin to the brightness of the sun, unobscured and illuminating everything it touches. In one hand they hold aloft a flaming sword, with which they cut through ignorance again, and again. In the other hand is a copy of the Prajnaparamita sutra, a symbol of Manjushri’s profound realization of the interconnectedness and boundlessness of all things.
Manjushri is not arrogance. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, when the Buddha asks a whole host of great practitioners if they will go comfort Vimalakirti when he is ill, they all balk and make excuses. Each and every one of them has a story of being schooled by the great sage, and declines to visit lest he take them to task once again. All of them, that is, but Manjushri. After dozens have made their excuses, Manjushri says that he will gladly go see Vimalakirti, so willing is he to have the veils of ignorance stripped away.1
Manjushri is present when we recognize our interconnectedness, when we have a clear understanding of what will serve, and when we speak truth to willful ignorance.
Manjushri is in the calls for Truth and Reconciliation, in which Truth must be uplifted if we are going to reconcile and finally disrupt the ongoing impact of colonial genocide.2
They are present when we see that a concentration camp is a concentration camp, and that the internment camps of today are hardly removed from any other form of internment camp throughout history.
They are our capacity to recognize that imperialist invasion and political disruption leads to displacement leads to othering leads to internment leads to invasion leads to political disruption leads to displacement leads to othering leads to internment and so on and on and on and on.4
Manjushri is there when we make the connection between oppressive systems and the way they function to divide and separate us so we are more easily exploited and manipulated in service of Capitalists and colonialist agendas.
In my practice, I hold many different Bodhisattvas and Buddhas dear, but Manjushri remains at the centre of my intention for liberation, as I commit to illuminating ignorance both without and within. To that end, I wrote this as a way to connect deeply with the practice Manjushri invites us to engage with:
May we cut through the propaganda of being raised in a colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist culture.
May we cut through the idea that we are separate from nature and instead recognise how we are part of it.
May we cut through the concept of land ownership and instead have a relationship of land stewardship.
May we cut through the idea that systems of supremacy are broken and instead see how they function exactly as they were built to function, and that we need new systems.
May we cut through the scarcity mentality of ‘zero-sum’ thinking and instead honour the abundance available to us when we collaborate and build systems based on mutual aid and community care.
May this be of benefit.
The Vimalkirti Sutra is one fo my favourite sutras, not just for Manjushri’s role in it, but also because this ancient text has a whole scene pointing out the absurdity of gender and that sex and gender are constructs. Bob Thurman is one of the foremost North American teachers on this sutra, and a good place to start if you want to learn more.
An excellent resource for education and incorporating a reconciliation practice into your organization, community or personal life: https://reconciliationcanada.ca/
Canadians, please follow this link to sign the petition for a ceasefire in Gaza: https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Sign/e-4649
Please also look up your local MP and write to them or call them. You can write to the office of the Prime Minister as well.
I know that what is happening in Palestine is already a lot, but this is also worth being aware of and seeing if there is any action you can take: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/conflict-uproots-record-69-million-people-congo-iom-2023-10-30/