Manjushri Bodhisattva

Arts & Culture

Manjushri Bodhisattva: The Mentor of Seven Buddhas and His Bodhimanda of Mount Wutai

Text by Jeanne H. Tuan

The "Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art" exhibition at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum presents a captivating journey into the past. In Gallery 1, visitors are drawn to the vivid paintings that depict Mogao Grotto 195, a creation from the Tubo Kingdom's rule in the 8th Century. This era, a significant period in Dunhuang art history, was marked by the cultural and artistic flourishing of the Tubo Kingdom, also known as the Tibetan Empire (618 - 842 CE.)

The paintings on display beautifully reflect the unique artistic influence of Tibetan culture. The artists used mineral pigments to create intricate scenes with radiant colors on cave walls, a testament to their creativity and skill. These artworks offer insights into religious narratives, depictions of deities, and daily life, providing a rich tapestry of Tibetan culture.

One particularly striking painting features a central figure, seated cross-legged atop a blue lion, with two Kunlun Nu (literally Negrito Slaves) leading the lion and holding an offering vessel (see Picture 1). The scene is populated by attendants, Eight Legions of Devas and Nagas, Indra (the ruler of the heavens), and Apsaras playing celestial music in the air. This captivating tableau, with its exotic aura, invites viewers to ponder the figure's identity and the story it tells. As the narrative unfolds, it reveals Manjushri Bodhisattva escorting Vairocana Buddha alongside Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, adding depth and intrigue to the artwork.  This sacred trio is revered as The Three Worthies of Huayan, embodying penetrating significance within Buddhist iconography.

Picture 1: Illustration of Manjushri Bodhisattva.  West Wall of Mogao Cave 159, Middle Tang Dynasty (766-835 CE.)

Manjushri, known for wisdom, is depicted riding a blue lion and wielding a precious sword or vajra, symbolizing diligence and sharpness.  He holds a revered position and is referred to as the mentor of the seven Buddhas across infinite eons, including Dipankara Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and Maitreya Buddha.  As he is regarded as the embodiment of wisdom and the essence of the Buddha's teachings (Dharma), Manjushri is also nicknamed, “Dharma Prince.”  According to the Avatamsaka Sutra (or Sutra of A Multitude of Buddhas), translated in the late seventh century by the Khotanese monk Siksanada (652-710 CE.), Manjushri Bodhisattva and his ten thousand bodhisattvas retinue reside a place in the northeast called Mount Clear-and-Cool, continuously preaching the Dharma on the mount.  Mount Wutai, situated in China's Shanxi Province, was formerly known as Mount Clear-and-Cool and has long been revered as the sacred dwelling of Manjushri Bodhisattva. Hence, the depiction of Manjushri riding a lion atop Mount Wutai goes beyond mere artwork; it represents unmatched historical and religious significance. Currently, a replica of the ritual Banner of Manjushri Bodhisattva Riding a Lion atop Mount Wutai, discovered in Cave 17 and now housed in the Guimet Museum, is another focal point at the Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition in the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. The banner, dating back to the 11th Century, likely from the early West Xia period, portrays Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, with a distinctive crown, seated in a half-lotus posture on a lion, surrounded by attendants floating on clouds (see Picture 2).  This artwork showcases Mount Wutai's sanctity and emphasizes its insightful spiritual importance, closely linking it with Manjushri Bodhisattva. Furthermore, the painting incorporates elements of esoteric Buddhism, featuring ritualistic imagery and symbolism associated with tantric practices. The intricate designs and vibrant colors demonstrate artistic excellence and reflect the increasing influence of esoteric Buddhism on the Dunhuang caves art during the reign of the West Xia era or the Tangut Empire (1038 to 1227 CE.)

Picture 2: Banner of Manjushri Bodhisattva Riding a Lion atop Mount Wutai.  Mogao Grotto 17, ca. 10th Century.  Ink, color, and gold on silk.  Housed in the Guimet Museum, France.

Mount Wutai became the main ashram for Manjusri, attracting monks from various regions for worship. As a result, sketches of Mount Wutai became popular motifs in the murals of Dunhuang Caves.  Among the paintings of Mount Wutai, the mural depicting the stories of Manjushri Bodhisattva, exhibited in Gallery 1, stands out conspicuously on the western wall of Mogao Grotto 61. This immense artwork, measuring 3.42 meters in height and 13.4 meters in width, created during the rule of the Chao family (907 – 960 CE.), overwhelms viewers with its grandeur and presence.  The viewers imagine themselves standing in wonder before this painting replica, displayed at the Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition. Like an enticing maze, the mural (Picture 3) comprises three parts, each with its charm, and best exemplifies the six realms of the beings within Buddhist cosmology.

Picture 3.  Mural Painting of Mount Wutai Panorama, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

The top part shows ten thousand buddhas, bodhisattvas, heavenly beings, and arhats gracefully riding on clouds, sparking the spectator’s imagination (see Picture 4). These marvelous phenomena include the iconic 'lion emerging from the clouds,' the revered 'golden bridge manifestation,' the sacred 'Buddha's hand emerging from the clouds,' the enigmatic 'blue clouds of thunder manifestation,' the transcendent 'radiant body manifestation,' the symbolic 'spirit bird manifestation,' the auspicious' white crane manifestation,' and more. These spiritual marvels have been chronicled in literature spanning centuries, since the Tang Dynasty, a manifestation to the enduring reverence they command.

Picture 4.  Top Part of Mural Painting of Mount Wutai Panorama, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

The middle part is a tapestry of temples and monasteries, each telling its own story, like pages in a big book of stories (Picture 5). The top 10 famous temples recorded on Mount Wutai are: (1) Temple of Great Coolness (Dà Qīngliáng zhī Sì); (2) Temple of Great Opening (Dà Jīnkāi zhī Sì); (3) Temple of Great Prince (Dà Wángzǐ zhī Sì); (4) Temple of Great Virtue (Dà Xián zhī Sì); (5) Temple of Great Peace (Dà Jiàn'ān zhī Sì); (6) Temple of Great Bamboo Grove (Dà Zhúlín zhī Sì); (7) Temple of Great Blessings (Dà Fúlǐ zhī Sì); (8) Temple of Great Buddha Light (Dà Fóguāng zhī Sì); (9) Temple of Great Huayan (Dà Huáyán zhī Sì); (10) Temple of Great Lotus Sutra (Dà Fǎhuá zhī Sì).

Picture 5.  Middle Part of Mural Painting of Mount Wutai Panorama, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

The lower section depicts a landscape crisscrossed by rivers, roads, and pathways, dotted with settlements (see Picture 6). It showcases a variety of Buddhist narratives, sacred sites, miraculous occurrences, encounters with celestial beings, monk teachings, pilgrimages, and everyday activities. The onlookers witness scenes of trade, agriculture, and transportation, offering a glimpse into daily life during that era. Picture 6b captures the vibrant essence of this bustling life. Outside the "Xinrong Inn," a figure greets arriving guests with folded hands, while attendants stand by, holding utensils and water bottles. Four travelers, labeled as "Silla Envoy Offering Tribute," approach. The envoy rides a dark red tall horse, adorned with a horned headdress, clad in a blue robe, white skirt, and boots. They hold the reins in their left hand and a whip in their right. Accompanying them are attendants, leading two donkeys carrying luggage. A rear attendant urges them on with a whip. The envoy enters the inn, their back to Mount Wutai, likely returning from a tribute offering mission to the mountain. The picture, inspired by historical records, unveils Silla's participation in the tribute tradition of the Tang Dynasty. It serves as a window into the diplomatic customs of the time, Silla's aspirations, and the strategic factors that guided its choices. While it may not be a highly detailed work of art, the mural is a rich source of historical and geographical knowledge. Notably, it includes sections of China's earliest and most extensive topographical map.

Picture 6.  Business Routes and Mundane Lives. Detail of Mural Painting of Mount Wutai Panorama, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

Suddenly, the spectators feel themselves whisked away by a magical force, transported directly into the mural itself. As the sun begins to set, casting a warm, golden glow over the majestic 'Monastery of Ten Thousand Bodhisattvas,' they are enveloped in a profound sense of peace. The towering timber structure of the monastery stands proudly against the backdrop of Mount Wutai, depicted in Picture 7. Inside, they envision themselves within the mural and saw a bustling courtyard and majestic halls. But their attention was drawn to a unique building where twelve bodhisattvas gathered for a sermon, led by Manjushri Bodhisattva.  Joining pilgrims in respect, the viewers seemingly climbed the mountain to the temple with hand pressed and devotion. Each step felt like a connection to ancient wisdom. As dusk fell, they heard the sacred mantra 'oṃ arapacana dhīḥ' chanted by the bodhisattvas, filling them with peace and spirituality.  Each syllable carried meaning, linking the chanters to Manjushri's endless wisdom.  The bodhisattvas begin with 'Om,' recognizing the energy in everything, bringing clarity. Then comes 'A,' reminding them of the natural world. 'Ra' brings thoughts of purity, while 'Pa' leads to understanding beyond words. 'Ca' acknowledges change, and 'Na' brings a sense of unity. Finally, 'Dhih' concludes their thoughts, showing that true understanding goes beyond words.

Picture 7.  Detail of Mount Wutai Mural Painting, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

With the hymn echoing in their mind, the onlookers immerse themselves into the Shrine of the ‘True Image of the Great Sage Manjusri.’ There, they saw Manjusri Bodhisattva, dignified and solemn on a walking lion, and Samantabhadra bodhisattva atop a six-tusked elephant, both honoring Buddha Vairocana.  Amazed at the sight, the onlookers joined their palms together in awe and reverence. It was a moment of deep connection with the spiritual essence of Mount Wutai.

Picture 8.  Manjushri (left), Buddha Vairocana (center) and Samantabhadra (right) in the Shrine of the True Image of the Great Sage Manjusri, Detail of Mount Wutai Mural Painting, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

In an instant, the spectators find themselves back to the year of 676 CE. and in the landscape of Mount Wutai, witnessing Buddhapāla's encounter with Manjushri Bodhisattva, who takes the form of an elderly white-robed man (see Picture 9). Buddhapāla, meaning "protector of awakening" or "Venerable Buddha Pāla," was a Brahmin monk from the kingdom of Magadha in northern India and a translator of Buddhist scriptures during the Tang Dynasty. As the viewers place themselves within the scenario, they learn that the old man, an incarnation of Manjushri Bodhisattva, implores Buddhapala to carry the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtra (Fódǐng Zūnshèng Tuóluóní Jīng 佛頂尊勝陀羅尼經), a sacred Mahāyāna Sūtra, from India to China. The manifestation of Manjushri Bodhisattva explains in fluent Sanskrit, with a resonant tone, that the situation in China is dire. Many sentient beings struggle with their sins, often violating moral precepts, even those who have renounced worldly life. He emphasizes that only the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtra has the power to eradicate these evils.

Picture 9.  Buddhapāla's encountering with Manjushri Bodhisattva, Detail of Mount Wutai Mural Painting, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

Picture 10 unfolds the story, depicting Buddhapala's journey back to India to acquire the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtras. After returning to Chang'an in 683 CE., he worked with Dipamkara Bodhisattva and Dharmakshema to translate this important scripture into Chinese. Later, he returned to Mount Wutai, where he came across the elderly white-robed man again, the incarnation of Manjushri Bodhisattva. This encounter, filled with awe and reverence, is a significant moment in the narrative. Notably, a figure behind him carries the revered scripture, the Uṣṇīṣa Vijaya Dhāraṇī Sūtras.  By listening to Manjushri's teachings, the viewers access the boundless benefits of practicing and reciting the Usnisa Vijaya Dharani, which helps alleviate karmic repercussions, liberate from hell, and increase in blessings and longevity. However, when they attempt to approach Manjushri Bodhisattva and Buddhapala for more information, those figures both vanish into the lush greenery.

Picture 10.  Buddhapāla's re-encountering with Manjushri Bodhisattva, Detail of Mount Wutai Mural Painting, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

With celestial melodies resounding through the air, the viewers unexpectedly find themselves at the 'Dao Yi Aranyakah Monastery' (see Picture 11). Here, an inspiring and insightful dialogue unfolds between two distinct figures. Manjushri Bodhisattva, a figure of wisdom and enlightenment, is seated in a lotus position on a pedestal, his right hand raised in a teaching gesture, while his left hand remains uplifted. Across from him, Vimalakirti, a lay practitioner known for his deep understanding of Buddhist teachings, is seated at a red square table, his left hand resting on his chest and his right hand raised. This scene draws inspiration from the Vimalakirti Sutra, showing a discussion about non-duality between these two characters. Vimalakirti explains wisdom as letting go of selfishness and attachment. He says, "Letting go means seeing things as connected, not getting caught up in what's outside or inside. When we see things as connected, there's no separation between us and the world. Without this separation, there's only pure awareness." Vimalakirti's teaching highlights the importance of not clinging to possessions or ego. This helps the beings break free from seeing things in a divided way and experience pure awareness and existence.

Picture 11.  Vimalakirti debating with Manjusri Bodhisattva.  Detail of Mount Wutai Mural Painting, West Wall of Mogao Cave 61, Five Dynasties (907 and 960 CE.)

As visitors conclude their tour of the "Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition" at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, they feel amazed and enlightened. The artworks offer insights into Tibetan culture, esoteric Buddhist influence, and the revered figure of Manjushri Bodhisattva, known for wisdom.  From the vibrant paintings of Mogao Grotto 195 to the captivating scenes of Manjushri Bodhisattva atop Mount Wutai, each piece tells a tale of devotion along the Silk Road.

Exploring the mural of Mount Wutai in Mogao Grotto 61, the visitors witness lively depictions of life and interactions between ordinary people and between revered figures, highlighting Manjushri Bodhisattva's importance in Buddhist teachings. Despite lacking detail and refined techniques, the artwork offers valuable historical and geographical insights. The exhibition encourages reflection on timeless truths, illustrating how Manjushri's wisdom connects diverse cultures.

When the visitors bid goodbye, they depart with a deeper appreciation for the enduring splendor of the Silk Road and the irreplaceable significance of Manjushri Bodhisattva in Buddhism.


Works Cited

Chen Qingxiang (陳清香), "Dunhuang Tufan shidai de Wenshu pusa tuxiang tantao," in Dunhuang Tufan tong- zhi shiqi shiku yu Zangchuan fojiao yishu yanjiu, ed. Fan Jinshi (Lanzhou: Gansu jiaoyu chubanshe), , 2012: 236-260.

Fan Jinshi (樊錦詩) & Zhao Shengliang (趙聲良). (Eds.) Duhuang Art Dictionary《敦煌藝術大辭典》,Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House 上海辭書出版社, 2020.

Fan Jinshi (樊錦詩) & Zhao Shengliang (趙聲良). (Eds.) Experiencing Chinese Archaeology: Radiant Dunhuang 《親歷中國考古:燦爛敦煌》, Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House 浙江文藝出版社, 2023.

Kahn, Paul.  “Rethinking Ancient Buddhist Art as Information Design,” Aug 23, 2017.

Lin Baoyao (林保堯) (Ed.) The Art Illustrative Records of Thungwang 《敦煌藝術圖典》, Taipei City: Artist臺北市:藝術家。1991.

Lin, Wei-Cheng, “Building a sacred mountain: the Buddhist architecture of China’s Mount Wutai,” Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.

Lin, Wei-Cheng. “Flying Mañjuśrī and Moving Mount Wutai Towards the Xi Xia Period: As Seen from Dunhuang Caves,” The Transnational Cult of Mount Wutai: Historical and Comparative Perspective, eds. Susan Andrews, et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 420-464.

Sandalwood Vihara (旃檀精舍). "Examining the Ingenious Techniques of Dunhuang Mural Painting from Mogao Cave 159 Depicting Manjushri and Samantabhadra's Gathering. <從莫高窟第159窟文殊、普賢赴會圖,看敦煌壁畫技法的精妙處>.  February. 3, 2020.

Tainan National University of Arts (國立台南藝術大學) (Eds.) From the Forgotten Deserts: Centuries of Dazzling Dunhuang Art 《敦煌藝術大展-荒漠傳奇.璀璨再現》  Tainan: Tainan National University of Arts 國立台南藝術大學出版,2005.

Zhang, Xinyue.  “The Dunhuang Caves: Showcasing the Artistic Development and Social Interactions of Chinese Buddhism between the 4th and the 14th Centuries,” Journal of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, 21: 266-279.