Bodhisattvas: Both Buddhas’ Precursors and Offspring

Other languages

Bodhisattvas are the offspring or children of the Triumphant Buddhas (rgyal-sras, Skt. jinaputra) in the sense that they are born from the Buddhas’ teachings. Manjushri, for example, is praised as “the enlightening discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajña), rolled into one, of all the Triumphant Buddhas of the three times.” At the same time, we learn that Buddhas are born from bodhisattvas. The question then arises: how could the child of a Buddha also be a Buddha’s parent? Isn’t that a contradiction to say that the result of something is also its cause? 

Chandrakirti raises and answers this objection in his Autocommentary to “Engaging in the Middle Way” (dBu-ma-la ʼjug-pa rang-ʼgrel, Skt. Madhyamakāvatāravṛtti) and Tsongkhapa elaborates on it in his Illuminating the Intent: An Explanation of (Chandrakirti’s) “Engaging in the Middle Way” (dBu-ma dgongs-pa rab-gsal).

According to their explanations, bodhisattvas are the causes of Buddhas from two points of view: although they have become bodhisattvas through the teachings of a Buddha, they can be the obtaining cause or the simultaneously acting condition for someone to become a Buddha.

  • An obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) is that from which one obtains an item as its successor and which ceases to exist when its successor arises, for instance a seed for a sprout. When a tenth-stage bodhisattva becomes a Buddha, he or she no longer exists as a tenth-stage bodhisattva.
  • A simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-rkyen) is something that exists prior to the arising of an item and which assists in making the arising happen, but which does not transform into what arises, for instance water for a sprout. When another bodhisattva teaches a tenth-stage bodhisattva, he or she helps that tenth-stage bodhisattva become a Buddha.

Chandrakirti and Tsongkhapa call this distinction causality from the point of view of one’s state and causality from the point of view of being the one that causes someone to take hold of something:

  • From the point of view of one’s state (gnas-skabsʼ, Skt. avasthāna), first someone is a bodhisattva and then, through further practice, they become a Buddha. In technical language, someone’s state of first being a bodhisattva – someone with unlabored bodhichitta and thus with a building-up pathway of mind (i.e. on the path of accumulation) – is the obtaining cause from which their attainment of the state of a Buddha arises as the result. In this case, being a bodhisattva and being a Buddha are two consecutive states in the mental continuum of one person.
  • From the point of view of being the one that causes someone to take hold of something (yang-dag-par-ʼdzin-du ʼjug-pa, Skt. samādāpaka), bodhisattvas are the simultaneously acting condition for someone to be able to take hold of bodhichitta, enabling them to become a Buddha. After all, it is said in a sutra that the bodhisattva Manjushri caused Shakyamuni and others, before they became Buddhas, to take hold of bodhichitta. In this case, the teacher bodhisattva and the bodhisattva he helps are of two different mental continuums. 

Examples of the later case are the bodhisattva Manjushris that appeared in visions to answer questions and give direct guidance to Tsongkhapa and his teacher, Rendawa, for their realizations of deepest bodhichitta, voidness. Such a bodhisattva teacher Manjushri may already be a Buddha as the embodiment of the discriminating awareness of all the Buddhas, or may be a bodhisattva on the way to becoming a Buddha. He could appear differently to each bodhisattva, reflecting that bodhisattva’s personality as was the case with the Manjushris that appeared to Tsongkhapa and Redawa. 

The tradition of calling upon Manjushri for guidance and teachings along the path goes back to India. Note the following verses at the end of the dedication prayer with which Shantideva concludes his Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-ʼjug, Skt. Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra). Here Shantideva refers to Manjushri with the variants of his name, Manjunatha and Manjughosha.

(X.53) Whenever I might wish to see or might wish to ask about any little thing, may I behold the Guardian, Manjunatha himself, without any impediment
(X.58) I prostrate to Manjughosha, through whose kindness my thought has become constructive; I prostrate as well to my spiritual teacher and friend, through whose kindness, I've been able to have it expand.

This is the sutra presentation. Within the context of anuttarayoga tantra, however, there is a debate concerning whether the teacher bodhisattva, as someone that causes someone to take hold of realizations, can be the embodiment of the deep awareness (ye-shes, Skt. jñāna) of that person’s own clear light mind. Such an embodiment would be a Manjushri and could appear in a pure vision once that person had attained, for instance, the actual clear light stage or, through dzogchen practice, rigpa (pure awareness) and thus a seeing pathway of mind (path of seeing). This is suggested by the descriptions of Manjushri in A Concert of Names of Manjushri (ʼJam-dpal mtshan-brjod, Skt. Mañjuśrī-nāmasaṃgīti):

(10) The embodied deep awareness (ye-shes sku, Skt. jñānamūrti) that is self-produced, the deep awareness being (ye-shes sems-dpa, Skt. jñānasattva), Manjushri.
(60) He’s the progenitor of all Buddhas, the superlative, supreme Buddhas’ spiritual son.
(79) He’s the formless one, with an excellent form, the foremost one, having varied forms, made from the mind.
(139) He’s the innermost stand of the minds of all limited beings, the one who’s passing as the equality of their minds; he’s the one bringing satisfaction to the minds of all limited beings, he’s the joy of the mind of all limited beings.

Further, before study or meditation, most Tibetan Buddhist practitioners make requests to Manjushri to give them clarity of mind, by reciting the Manjushri Prayer: Praise to the Intelligent One (Gang-blo-ma). When unable to understand something, they visualize and recite the Manjushri mantra. When composing or translating a work and unable to find the right word, they invoke Sarasvati (dByangs-can-ma), the female partner of Manjushri, with the verse and mantra:

Sarasvati, all white, daughter of Four-Faced Brahma, on a swan in a cluster of the lotuses of the (Four-)Faced One, come play forever in my mind.

The debate is whether that Manjushri or Sarasvati and the person receiving the pure vision are of the same or different mental continuums. There is no decisive answer. 

When invoking Manjushri or Sarasvati, however, we need always to keep voidness (emptiness) in mind. Manjushri or Sarasvati does not have truly established existence in our clear light minds, nor truly established non-existence. Their appearance does not arise from their truly established existence somewhere unmanifest in our clear light minds, nor does it arise from no cause at all. The stages for their arising also lack truly established existence. Further, Manjushri, Sarasvati, our conventional selves, our clear light minds and its deep awareness all lack self-established existence. They are all dependently arising phenomena. 

What is suggested by this discussion concerning Manjushri or Sarasvati and the deep awareness of our own clear light minds is that when we get a correct insight into some point of the Dharma, do we credit it to our own intelligence – which runs the danger of pride – or do we credit it to Manjushri or Sarasvati? It is worthwhile to ponder this point.