Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom
(Detail from a thangka painting by Greg Smith)
As mentioned in the last post, according to Buddhist thought, the awakened mind has three qualities. The first is compassion. The second quality, wisdom, is the topic of today’s post.
When it comes to what it really means to be wise, it’s easy to posit all sorts of definitions: from really, really smart to deeply insightful to maybe simply being old and thus knowledgeable from experience.
Buddhism certainly has many definitions of wisdom and one of them is this: the ability to see beyond concept to the way things really are. Moment by moment, perception by perception, we let go of our judgments, opinions, and projections. Which seems impossible, I know. Still, we have each had moments where we have been able to grasp the clear, empty, luminous, still, vast space that lies beyond our conventional minds.
One such glimpse came to me after I first moved to Manhattan some years ago. I moved to NYC for a job and found a totally cute and very tiny apartment near Union Square. I loved my job, loved, loved, loved NYC, and my apartment felt snug and safe. One problem: I couldn’t sleep. Every time I lay myself down, I tuned into the constant buzz that is almost inescapable in Manhattan: the hum of traffic, the blare of sirens, the beep-beep-beep of trash trucks, and on and on. I tossed. I turned. I wondered how anyone could possibly sleep through this. Friends assured me that you get used to it, but after 7 or 8 nearly sleepless nights, I was pretty doubtful. One night, totally exhausted, I lay in bed, restless and teary. As anyone with insomnia knows, sleep doesn’t come from pleading and freaking out. I tried to lie still. Instead of attempting to block out the sound, I just gave up and let it wash over me. In that moment, I noticed that there was something going on besides noise and that was silence. Underlying the noise was an unchanging bed of silence. In my bed in NYC, I trained my ear on the silence rather than the noise—and fell asleep.
Now, I don’t know much about absolute wisdom, but my hunch is that it has something to do with tuning into the space and silence around your thoughts and concepts rather than perfecting your thoughts and concepts. Something to think about, anyway.
Wisdom and compassion are inseparable. They are actually twin manifestations of the same thing. On a relative level, this means that wisdom is not wisdom when compassion is not also present (it is simply moralism) and compassion is not compassion when wisdom is not also present (it is some kind of foolishness). On an absolute level, the union of wisdom and compassion is nothing more or less than our true nature, the silence that gives rise to all sound and the space that exists between all thought.
Of course our meditation practice is the way we cultivate a connection to this profound wisdom. As we sit, we practice letting go, over and over, thought by thought. When we space out, something comes from somewhere, completely fresh and utterly spontaneous, to say, “hey, come back.”
We can trust our practice, implicitly and completely. Wisdom is as omnipresent as space itself. To see it, all we have to do is relax.
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As an indication of how much I love Manjushri, allow me to share with you my badass tattoo which is Manjushri’s seed syllable, “DHIH”: