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Manjushri sadhana overview

Manjushri sadhana overview

Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Description of the sadhana1
  • Benefits of the Manjushri practice
  • Explanation of the visualizations
  • Advice for doing the practice

Manjushri Retreat 01: Deity meditation (download)

Homage to Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom

Obeisance to my guru and protector, Manjushri,
Who holds to his heart scriptural text symbolic of his seeing all things as they are,
Whose intelligence shines forth like the sun unclouded by the two obscurations,
Who teaches in 60 ways, with the loving compassion of a parent for his only child, all wanderers caught in the prison of samsara, confused in the darkness of their ignorance, overwhelmed by their suffering.
You whose dragon-thunder-like proclamation of Dharma arouses us from the stupor of our afflictions and frees us from the iron chains of our karma;
Who wields the sword of wisdom hewing down suffering wherever its sprouts appear, clearing away the darkness of ignorance;
You, whose princely body is adorned with the one hundred and twelve marks of a Buddha,
Who has completed the stages achieving the highest perfection of a bodhisattva,
Who has been pure from the beginning,
I bow down to you, O Manjushri;
With the brilliance of your wisdom, O compassionate one,
Illuminate the darkness enclosing my mind,
Enlighten my intelligence and wisdom
So that I may gain insight into the Buddha’s words and the texts that explain them.


Let’s set our motivation, realizing just as the Homage says that we are caught in the prison of samsara, confused in the darkness of ignorance. We’re overwhelmed by our suffering, so overwhelmed by our ignorance that much of the time we don’t even recognize our suffering as suffering. It’s only when the dial turns up high enough to actually feel some gross level pain that we connect with that. And yet our situation is such that the unsatisfactory nature of our condition is a constant in our lives. And we spend every day, every moment trying to adjust things so that pain dial doesn’t get turned up high enough to make us too uncomfortable. It’s true for us and it’s true for every single being. And so by a myriad of conditions, that we can’t even trace, so many things have brought us together. Here we are with the opportunity to spend a month deepening our wisdom, deepening our compassion, learning to understand this suffering, the darkness of the ignorance that causes it, using this opportunity to develop our faith and our confidence in our capacity to overcome this.

As we spend our time today exploring the sadhana a little bit, the framework in which we’ll do this study, this reflection, let’s never forget the reality of our own situation and that every being around us is in the same state. Engaging in our practice with great enthusiasm and joy, seizing this opportunity for all it is worth, using it to attain our own spiritual liberation and ultimate enlightenment so that we can lead all other living beings to that same state.

Introduction to the Manjushri sadhana

Now sometime in the last hour I got really, really excited that I am going to spend the month with Manjushri and it’s interesting that it’s this time of year [winter], this thing about the darkness of our ignorance and what a source of pain and suffering it is, is getting clearer and clearer to me. And so here we are in the dark of winter and we’re about to spend time with this beautiful, golden, sunlight-colored manifestation of the enlightened mind, Manjushri, and to use that color to brighten and enlighten our understanding of our situation and the nature of reality itself, to brighten and enlighten our understanding of compassion and how to get there. And so, Venerable Chodron always talks about taking a vacation with this particular deity, taking a tropical vacation with Manjushri, really moving into the sunlight of Manjushri.

So I want to talk a little bit about Manjushri and about the sadhana, and then about our retreat, so we’ll get through all that today. I’ve been listening to Venerable’s teachings on this in various forms and reading and studying it, so in my own mind thinking now how much can I share from my own experience and how much am I quoting from my teacher. So I don’t know what the ratio of that is, but I do know this is a beautiful sadhana. That, I know from experience and it’s a wonderful, wonderful practice for brightening our minds and bringing clarity to our minds.

Manjushri is a manifestation of the wisdom from all the buddhas, and this practice is especially effective for eliminating confusion, generating wisdom, enhancing love and compassion. It is also done for enhancing memory, for getting all the wisdoms we pray for, for having skill in debate, skill in writing and in clarifying the teachings and so forth. But the motivation, of course, is to deepen our understanding of the nature of reality so that we can progress along the path and develop our bodhicitta. This practice helps us overcome our self-centeredness and our ignorance, and it helps us open our hearts to others in a joyful way not a sappy way, but in a way that actually can help strengthen our capacity to benefit people, even right now.

The practice comes from Lama Tsongkhapa, who had a direct relationship with Manjushri. Apparently he could talk to Manjushri and get direct guidance and that’s how his clarification around the understanding of emptiness is so brilliant, so amazing. It’s that he was getting it directly from the source.

The purpose of doing deity practices

So the whole purpose of doing these deity practices comes from the fact that the Buddha’s mind emanates in many different ways and the buddhas appear in these various forms to actually communicate with us. If we can imagine a mind (I can’t, I try), but if you can imagine a mind completely unobstructed by any shred of affliction, any shred of ignorance, any taint of karma, any anything, completely unobstructed by any of those things and therefore one thought after another is of nothing but infinite love, infinite compassion, constant meditative equipoise on the nature of reality; at the same time seeing all the multiplicity of phenomena, able to hold all that, a mind that is limitless, that has no place in time or space. We can’t even imagine that! And yet that’s the extent of a buddha’s mind. And out of their great compassion the buddhas manifest in these kinds of shapes and forms that we can relate to, because we’re so sense-oriented, we’re all about touch, color and sound and stuff. So by manifesting in these ways we can really relate to these different aspects or qualities of the Buddha’s mind, and in relating to them we can begin to aspire to those in ourselves. We can find the place in ourselves where we have some Manjushri wisdom. And we can use that, as an example, to help us aspire to even more, to help us grow. So that’s the tremendous value of doing deity practices all together.

And this particular one really bangs at our grasping at an inherently existent self and at our poor-quality view. I realized I’d forgotten this aspect of the practice because I am so attached to my own poor-quality view. But as I was going back through the teachings, seeing how imagining these qualities of Manjushri and using them as an inspiration for something to inspire to, seeing how this really helps. We have to let go of our idea that we’re ordinary, that we’re stupid, that we’re always making mistakes, that nobody loves us, that we’re never going to get anywhere on the path, that we’re too old, that we’re too young, that we’re whatever. Whatever our things are about how we aren’t good enough in any way, shape or form. As we let this golden, orangey sunlight of Manjushri rain down on us, and the wisdoms come into us, it’s required really to do the sadhana, to let go of our self-conceptions that are so negative. So it’s one of the great values of this practice.

The sadhana has a lot going on, things appear, things disappear, things dissolve, they reabsorb back into something, and something else arises and all of this is intentionally there to help us let go so that we’re not grasping on to a fixed solid anything.

So as we do the sadhana over the next month, if there are parts we don’t understand that’s really okay. If there are parts that don’t get clear or parts that do get clear, all of that is okay. The fact is that we do it and do it, and through familiarization things will get clearer. The point is really to make a deep relationship with Manjushri, to make a deep relationship with this manifestation or appearance of the Buddha’s deep wisdom. That’s the main thing, and then to let ourselves be protected and held by this quality of wisdom.

Now what does that even mean? When Geshe Dorji Damdul was here, we got quite some wonderful teachings on emptiness, and he talked a lot about how understanding the nature of reality is your best protection, your best refuge. So to think about how developing this relationship with Manjushri is the manifestation of that wisdom, that would be something to think about, what does that mean? So to feel as we’re practicing that our wisdom grows over the course of this time, and to feel that sense of protection, would be great.

Manjushri’s appearance

So about the deity himself, his physical appearance represents the internal qualities of the fully enlightened mind. There’s a black Manjushri, a white Manjushri, and we’re doing this red and yellow Manjushri. I don’t know anything about the other two. So the color, the sadhana we had before said red-yellow. I think orange is reasonable, but in most of the representations you see it’s more golden, like our Manjushri up here. And in the praises in various places, it says, shines forth like the sun. Even our sadhana talks about a hundred, thousand suns, so it’s not a pumpkin orange unless that color really speaks to you, but there’s a lot of this quality of golden light in the picture of Manjushri. Venerable had a beautiful line, she said: “The sun enlightens the world.” So Manjushri’s color indicates the wisdom that illuminates how things exist conventionally and how things exist ultimately. So like the sun enlightens the world, Manjushri illuminates how things exist, conventionally and ultimately.

He is beautiful. They say he has a 16-year-old body, at its peak, in perfect form. He’s holding in his right hand this double-edged sword. The two edges of the sword represent conventional truth and ultimate truth, conventional truth being the functional world, the multiplicity of phenomena, the ultimate truth being the ultimate nature of things existing differently than they appear and completely empty of the inherent existence, they appear to have. The sword cuts the wrong conceptions about both of these truths, and the sword is flaming. The flame of that sword burns our karma and our afflictions and leaves no trace, not even any ash. So it’s an incinerating sword of truth.

In his left hand, his ring finger and thumb come together. These two fingers are representing the two truths also and then the three fingers that are remaining represent the refuges, the Three Jewels. Right here in the space between the thumb and the forefinger there is the stem of an utpala lotus that curls around and blooms by his ear. The utpala is a blue lotus, I believe, that’s very rare. And then in the blossom of this big bloom rests the Prajanparamita text, the Heart of Wisdom teachings. There because, how do we become like Manjushri? By realizing the heart of wisdom, or realizing what the texts teach. So it’s through that path that we become like Manjushri.

The jewels we talked about in the description are about his six perfections: perfection of generosity, perfection of ethics, perfection of patience, perfection of joyous effort, concentration and wisdom.

His hair is tied up in five knots—the five knots represent the five dhayani Buddha families, so the five wisdoms are there.

And it is very important to remember and to always hold that his body is made of light, completely different from a body made of flesh, bone, blood, etc. And it’s a nice contrast, this is also something else to think about. Venerable says this over and over and it’s so hard to get, that samsara is this body and mind. This body of flesh and blood was taken not by choice but on the basis of our karma and afflictions. The basis of our ignorance that grasps that inherent existence, that grasps at wanting a body, that propels us into yet another form, another body again and again and again. So this very body is of the nature of suffering and with it we continue to create the causes for suffering. As His Holiness said this summer, that stuck with me so clearly, “the body itself is a vessel of suffering.” This is what we experience suffering in, this body. So this body of this flesh and blood is really very, very much what our samsara is, that and our mind that is out of control from our karma and afflictions. So by contrast, this body of light is an emanation of the mind of the Buddha and you get quite a different feeling of what that is. So you don’t get a body of light without a mind of wisdom, so cultivating that mind of wisdom is our path to attaining that body of light.

Why retreat?

Venerable says (and I think Lama Zopa Rinpoche says this too), that when we’re in retreat, we need to think about what are we retreating from. We’re trying to retreat from the eight worldly concerns and the things that drive us. So as much as we can, carrying this feeling of Manjushri at our hearts into the break times, will really help us also be aware of that and to keep compassion for others in our minds and hearts.

Questions and answers

Okay, are there any questions?

Audience: Frequently when I apply lamrim meditations to my own life I get completely lost in verbalization in my mind, in telling myself the story. You know how you are to apply this to your own life? So then I think about it, then I think some more about it and it feels like so many words. I’ve been focusing on visualization and reciting mantra and stuff like that and then all these words just take me out of my right brain into the left brain into just that verbal part of me that’s such a strong part. I feel sometimes frustrated with that, it’s like “Oh, shut up. I have to listen to this all the time. Why am I intentionally bringing it this wordiness into a meditation session?”

Venerable Thubten Chonyi (VTCh): So then what would you do differently? I’m not quite sure I understand. I mean I get the feeling of what you’re saying, but I’m not quite sure … talk to us more.

Audience: I don’t know how to figure out how to apply the lamrim topics to my life without getting so wordy in my mind.

Audience: Maybe you can just try to visualize it, try seeing it without words. See it as a movie, the actions … like a silent movie.

VTCh: Can you give me an example?

Audience: Sure. This morning I just started at the beginning of the lamrim because I had no idea where I left off and the very first question in it was to remember a disturbing situation in your life, recall what you were thinking and feeling. And so I can do that. But then it asks you to notice the way you describe the situation to yourself and how that influences how you experience it. And, just as if you would have asked me that question out loud, I can just go “Blah, blah-la-la-la-la-la-lah.” With words, right? And so then I go into the next question it’s like on and on. And I don’t know if it’s because of doing counseling, I mean like working doing counseling—that it’s like a whole word thing instead of being a meditation thing.

VTCh: I got you. So here’s a suggestion. And I have this feeling that this is an issue with many of us a lot with our lamrim because we’re always trying to fit these long meditations into a space about seven minutes. Just do one question at a time. We have the luxury of time here to do that. And if you only get through the first three meditations, but you have time to think about what you were thinking and feeling, that’s fine. What was I thinking and feeling? No, not what am I saying about it, what was I actually feeling? Bring yourself back to that question. What was I feeling? What was I thinking? Not what was I telling myself about it, what was I feeling? So there’s a memory, right? Yeah, so if you can go here, one question at a time and make yourself stop the commentary.

Audience: Yeah, I guess that’s part of what I’m looking for. How do I stop … how do I do this?

VTCh: Just practice. Just try it one question at a time. Don’t breeze through them, and then see when you catch yourself with too many words, if you can say, “Stop that part. What was I feeling? How did it feel in my body?”

Audience: Right.

VTCh: See if it works. See if it helps.

Audience: Okay.

VTCh: And really go slow with these points of the lamrim meditation. Really take your time to just go inside. Ask yourself what is the point of that question? It’s not for me to tell a story quickly, it’s for me to get a sense of what was really going on inside of me and how I can see the situation differently from the way I already did, from the way I habitually do, from the way I have always done.

Audience: From the story that I’m so familiar with.

VTCh: Yeah, we’re trying to get a different view from that.

Audience: Thank you. But it’s okay if it’s a little wordy. Because I evoke some memory and think about how I’m feeling, but I also need part of myself to do a little bit of discussion to try and bring those feelings up.

VTCh: Yeah, I mean if that works for your mind, that’s really fine too. It’s not that being wordy is not okay.

Audience: I guess I do a combination of both. I do find that I tell a story to sort of analyze what was I feeling. And that does feel like more of a conversation with my self, but at the same time I try to remember those feelings and feel these feelings.

Audience: What was that number again? The recommended mantra count?

VTCh: 777,777.

Audience: I was having a bit of difficulty on the flow of the mantra recitation. So we’ve got the visualization and we’re saying, this is a dumb question, but when you’re saying the mantra, we’re talking about the om ah ra pa tsa nah dhih.

VTCh: Yeah.

Audience: I guess I was doing the visualization then all of the sudden I’m skipping two pages and I’m back here. So I don’t quite understand the flow because we have the visualization on the mantra recitation and the mantra, and then the seven wisdom visualizations and then the concluding visualization. I don’t quite get the flow with the mantra.

VTCh: Okay. The initial visualization of the light goes out and hooks back all the wisdoms and brings them back. That’s an opening visualization that you’ll always do that one. Then, the seven wisdoms are an option that you can add as you’re getting more comfortable with the visualization. You can pick one or two or all seven; however you want to do it; it’s up to you. But the mantra continues through all of those. And then whether you just do the simple visualization or you invoke the various wisdoms, you always conclude your mantra recitation with the visualization of the DHIH on the back of the throat, bringing in light, sending it out etc. And that’s the concluding visualization each time.

Audience: I thought you were saying that Venerable was suggesting that we first get the basic visualization on our mind first, before we introduce the mantra. So then I can mix it up how I want to, once I get the basic visualization, I can focus on that first, add the mantra and then maybe try and add the extended visualization right?

VTCh: Yes, you want to get the mantra and visualization going together at the same time. And get that going pretty solidly before you get too experimental. But that’s what you’re wanting, is to able to bring the visualization and the mantra together at the same time.

Audience: Good.

VTCh: Any other questions?

Audience: I have one about the self-generation.2 So I’ve done the analytical mediation on emptiness, and everything’s empty, then all of the sudden there’s a me with a mind at the “heart in the shape of an egg”—that’s just arising out of emptiness in the ordinary form? It says “at MY heart.”

VTCh: Your ordinary form is gone. So where your heart was, your mind now appears as that egg.

Audience: But the sadhana says there’s a me there and that’s confusing…

VTCh: Later we’re going to listen to teachings on the self-generation practice.

Audience: And that’s okay?

VTCh: Yeah.

Audience: She makes differences between the two: if you’re doing the front-generation or the self-generation.

VTCh: Yeah, it’s quite open.

Audience: So everything’s empty—“rest in emptiness.” Then there’s a me and at my heart is my mind in the shape of an egg, and then it says later that your ordinary appearance vanishes. So I’m trying to figure out how that ordinary me comes in from the emptiness

VTCh: I didn’t study the self-generation as much in preparing for this talk, but this is what I remember by listening to these teachings recently and from before, that it’s really important that no trace of our self grasping exists by the time that we’ve meditated on emptiness. And then it is our mind appearing in the space where your heart was, your mind appears in this wisdom form of the DHIH. So it’s not your ordinary mind.

Audience: I think the words invoke some sense of me for me.

VTCh: Yeah, so strike out “my, me etc”.

Audience: You mean, “At the heart is the mind in the shape of an egg,” then it would be more clear. But it says, “my, my, and me” like right there, like three times and it’s like ho?! How did that person come back? So anyway, I’ve gotten an answer though.

VTCh: From the time the person dissolves it’s gone.

Audience: “At the heart is the mind”—that’s very helpful. Thank you.

VTCh: Okay, so let’s talk about this difference of self-generation. If people have received the Manjushri empowerment and also have either the two-day Chenrezig or some other highest class tantra, like Kalachakra, then they can do the self-generation practice. If you only have the Manjushri empowerment, then I believe we clarified this with Geshe Wangdu Khensur Rinpoche, it’s not okay to do the self-generation. Is anybody unclear?

Audience: … the empowerment for Manjushri isn’t enough by itself?

VTCh: By itself … that’s a jenang. So unless you have another initiation, that’s the wang.

VTCh: Now, Venerable did a series of really beautiful teachings on the Manjushri practice before the 2000 Manjushri retreat, which some of you probably have listened to. But as a group we’re going to listen to those teachings during our study time, for the first number of days. In it she’s primarily teaching self-generation practice. So there will be places that will not apply to the people who are doing the front generation. Sometimes she indicates that and sometimes she doesn’t. Some questions may come up around that, but if you have questions about self-generation they will get answered in those teachings, probably more.

Audience: I have this little issue … if you have a watch, don’t use your watch. Venerable has really discouraged us from keeping time, other than the person who’s leading. So that means to pace yourself to get what you need in the context of the session. It seems very clear not to look at your watch and you kind of have to pace yourself through what you’re doing whether you’re doing lamrim or …

VTCh: Actually I’ve raised the question with her about that, I’ve said I like to know that the end of the session is going to come, so that I can make sure everything’s in there and she said if that’s why you’re using the clock fine. Her thing about the clock is she doesn’t want people watching the clock so that they’re checking when they are getting out of the hall. “Oh, gosh, I have 15 more minutes, now I have 10 more minutes, now I have 6.” So I think it’s not as black and white as that [not using a watch at all].

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into either a highest yoga tantra practice or the 1000-Armed Chenrezig practice). Otherwise, please do the front-generation sadhana

  2. Please see Note 1 above. 

Venerable Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She lives and trains at the Abbey, where she received novice ordination in 2008. She took full ordination at Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan in 2011. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and, occasionally, in other locations as well.