Mañjuśrī (“Gentle Glory”) is one of the oldest and most significant bodhisattvas of the Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist pantheon. Mañjuśrī is the personification of the Mahāyāna notion of prajñā (wisdom): discriminating insight into the nature of reality, and the hallmark philosophical insight that distinguished the Mahāyāna movement from earlier Buddhist schools (Nikāya) of thought. Like discriminating insight, Mañjuśrī is ever new. He is typically portrayed as a golden-complexioned, sixteen-year-old crown prince holding in one hand a flaming sword that cuts through ignorance, and a Perfection of Prajñā book (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) in the other. In Mahāyāna sutras, Mañjuśrī is often cast as the interlocutor whose pointed questions to the buddha elicit the teachings their audience needs to finally understand the subtlest points of doctrine. His earliest known appearance is in the corpus of early Mahāyāna works translated into Chinese by the Indo-Scythian monk Lokakṣema (b. 147 ce). In these, the vivid contrast between Mañjuśrī as wonder-working bodhisattva and the slower-witted Nikāya monks implicitly legitimates the early emerging Mahāyāna movement; clearly, Mañjuśrī’s insight into reality is superior even to that of the disciples who sat at Śākyamuni Buddha’s feet and heard him teach. This rhetorical strategy was developed in subsequent Indian Buddhist sūtras and commentaries, especially those that promulgated new or controversial teachings. Scholars from all of its schools claimed direct visions of the bodhisattva of wisdom; “to see Mañjuśrī” denoted the subject’s unmistaken insight into the buddha’s teaching. Mañjuśrī worship entered esoteric Buddhism (Tantra) in the 7th-century Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa—one of the earliest extant Indian Tantras—and reached its zenith in the early 8th-century Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti, a liturgical text praising Mañjuśrī in all his forms. Its close association with the 10th-century Kālacakra Tantra, perhaps the last Tantric text to be composed in India, underscores how thoroughly Mañjuśrī pervaded esoteric Buddhism in South Asia. As a figure of cult worship, Mañjuśrī was most prominent outside of India. By the 5th century, the Chinese Wutai shan (“Five Terrace Mountain”) was understood to be his earthly residence, and a magnet for pilgrims who sought a vision of the crown prince. Mañjuśrī became identified as the patron deity of China during the Tang dynasty, thereby setting a pattern for subsequent rulers of China, who often linked their own legitimacy to Mañjuśrī, and visibly promoted his worship at Wutai shan. This practice crystallized during the long reign of the Manchus (1611–1912), who not only portrayed their rulers as emanations of the crown prince, but fostered the folk etymology of their ethnonym as deriving from Mañjuśrī. Tibetan Buddhism was at its apex there, and Mañjuśrī and his mountain home become important to Tibetans, Nepalese, Khotanese, and Mongols.
James B. Apple
The Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament for clear realization) is an instructional treatise on the Prajñāpāramitā, or Perfect Wisdom, whose authorship is traditionally attributed to Maitreyanātha (c. 350 ce). As a technical treatise, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra outlines within its 273 verses the instructions, practices, paths, and stages of realization to omniscient buddhahood mentioned in Prajñāpāramitā scriptures. In its abridged description, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra furnishes a detailed summary of the path that is regarded as bringing out the “concealed meaning” (sbas don, garbhyārtha) of Prajñāpāramitā. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra contains eight chapters of subject matter, with a summary of them as the ninth chapter. The eight subjects (padārtha) of the eight chapters (adhikāra) correspond to eight clear realizations (abhisamaya) that represent the knowledges, practices, and result of Prajñāpāramitā. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra’s eight clear realizations are types of knowledge and practices for bodhisattvas (“buddhas-in-training”) to achieve buddhahood set forth within the system of the five paths (lam lnga, *pañcamārga) common to Indian abhidharma and Yogācāra literature. The first three clear realizations are types of knowledge that comprise Perfect Wisdom. Total Omniscience, or the wisdom of all aspects (sarvākārajñatā, rnam pa thams cad mkhyen pa nyid), is regarded as the fundamental wisdom and the central concept of Prajñāpāramitā. Total Omniscience is direct, unmediated knowledge that exactly understands the manner of reality to its fullest possible extent in all its aspects. Path-omniscience (mārgajñatā, lam shes nyid) comprises the Buddhist path systems of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas mastered by bodhisattvas. Empirical Omniscience (vastujñāna, gzhi shes) cognizes empirical objects in conditioned existence that are to be abandoned. It correlates to knowledge that is comprehended by śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. The path to buddhahood itself and the detailed means of its application are covered in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra by the fourth through seventh clear realizations. The fourth chapter is devoted to the realization of wisdom of all aspects (sarvākārābhisaṃbodha, rnam rdzogs sbyor ba), a yogic practice that enables a bodhisattva to gain a cognition of all the aspects of the three types of omniscience. The fifth realization is the summit of full understanding (mūrdhābhisamaya, rtse sbyor), whereby yogic practices reach the culmination of cognizing emptiness. The sixth chapter defines the gradual full understanding (anupūrvābhisamaya, mthar gyis sbyor ba) of the three forms of omniscience. The seventh abhisamaya clarifies the “instantaneous realization” (ekakṣaṇābhisamaya) that occurs at the final moment right before buddhahood. Abhisamayas four through seven are known as “the four methods of realization” of the three types of knowledge. The eighth realization, and last subject in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, is the realization of the dharma body (dharmakāyābhisamaya). In this way, the first three realizations describe the cognitive attainments of buddhas, the middle four realizations discuss the methods that take the cognitive attainments as their object, and the eighth realization describes the qualities and attainments of the dharma body, the resultant body of buddhas. The treatise was extensively commented upon in Indian Buddhism and has been widely studied in Tibetan forms of Buddhism up to the present day.
Avalokiteśvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The worship of bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment) is one of the most distinctive features of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Whereas early or mainstream Buddhism recognizes only two bodhisattvas—the Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the future Buddha—there are a number of bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna to whom one can appeal for help and guidance. Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia.
Carl L. Bankston III
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have historically been nations with large Buddhist populations. While Mahāyāna Buddhism predominates in Vietnam, most people in Cambodia and Laos have been dedicated to Theravāda Buddhism. In 1975, these three countries came under the domination of Communist governments, which had earlier been in conflict with factions militarily supported by the United States. This led to the beginnings of the massive movement of refugees from Southeast Asia to North America. An especially radical regime had taken power in Cambodia, and after war broke out between Cambodia and Vietnam the flow of refugees became a flood. All of the new governments of these countries were hostile to independent religious organizations and practices. The Khmer Rouge in power in Cambodia took its antagonism to religion to an extreme, attempting to violently eradicate traditional Buddhist practices and institutions. As refugees settled in ever-greater numbers in North America and other locations, they established Buddhist temples and other organizations in the new homelands. In consequence, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao communities in the United States and Canada have also become sites for the rapid growth of North American Buddhism. Southeast Asian Buddhism has become a part of a pluralistic religious environment, adding new rites, celebrations, and cultural activities to American society. Buddhism has also played a central part in maintaining ethnic identity among refugee populations and their descendants, as well as in helping Buddhists adapt to life under changing circumstances.
Paul B. Donnelly
Along with Yogācāra, Madhyamaka (Middle Way) is one of the two foundational doctrinal systems of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, which flourished from the 3rd century ce to the final disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 12th–13th centuries. Beginning in the 4th century, it spread to East Asia, where it became the foundation of an independent school of thought and influenced the other major Chinese Buddhist schools. It took root in Tibet beginning in the 7th century, where it served as the cornerstone of all the scholastically inclined Buddhist sects. Throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, Madhyamaka has occupied a foundational position in doctrinal formulations and practices. Madhyamaka has tended to be regarded as either the supreme formulation of Mahāyāna thought, as was often the case in Tibet, or as complementary to Yogācāra, which was more commonly held in China and Japan. The name “Middle Way” references a fundamental assumption in Buddhism that stakes a middle position between the idea that the self is an irreducible, enduring entity and one in which it is wholly reducible to the physical body and perishes after death. Though central Madhyamaka ideas, such as the doctrine of the Two Truths, Dependent Origination, and Emptiness, can be found in Nikāya Buddhism and in Mahāyāna sutras, it is in the treatises of Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries ce) that we have a fully formed and distinct system of thought that can be called Madhyamaka. In earlier canonical works, and more explicitly in the Abhidharma, this notion of middle way applied exclusively to the self (Skt ātman/Pali atta) and conceptually constructed phenomena. In Mahāyāna sutras and in Nāgārjuna works, the assertion is extended to the fundamental component parts of all existents, which are declared to be empty of intrinsic nature. In Abhidharma works, the self and other composite phenomena are said to be reducible to their fundamental parts, the dharmas (Pali dhamma), which, being irreducible, must have their own identifiable intrinsic mode of existence even if they exist dependently. According to Madhyamaka, a dharma cannot possess an intrinsic nature precisely because it exists dependently. Denying any intrinsic nature, Madhyamaka asserts that things exist only dependently, and this only in terms of conventional truth, and that ultimately, emptiness of intrinsic nature is the truth and reality of all things. Not surprisingly, such a position was contentious, and numerous interpreters attempted to elucidate this rather radical position. The question of which commentator or commentators are definitive has occupied many generations of Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue remains very much alive in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka. Though much of this scholarship has come from a philosophical perspective, the intent of Madhyamaka, like all Buddhist thought, is primarily soteriological in nature.
Theravāda Buddhism is a neologism denoting a variety of historically connected religious traditions. Today these traditions are predominantly spread in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam. More recent communities in other parts of the world (e. g., Europe, the United States, India, Nepal, Australia) are directly or indirectly connected to the traditions of these countries by migration or adaptation processes. These local varieties do not constitute a homogeneous entity. Nevertheless, the use of a common denominator is justified by their interconnected religious histories and a common stock of liturgical, ritual, exegetical, and narrative traditions. Prior to the 20th century theravāda (or theriya, theravaṃsa) was understood as a nikāya, an institutionalized monastic lineage primarily defined by a specific system of ritual and legal regulations for monks and nuns (the vinaya). This specific lineage became increasingly associated with Sri Lanka during the first millennium ce, while its Indian origins became obscure. Like many other nikāyas, the Theravādins were not uniform in their doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical orientations. The dynamics of local acculturation and active participation in the translocal networks of the ancient “Buddhist World” produced multiple religious expressions and attitudes within the Theravāda monastic lineage through the centuries. Doctrinally, these could range from an exclusive Pāli-based Śrāvakayāna (“Hīnayāna”) approach to the promotion of so-called Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts and practices. A series of royally enforced monastic reforms in the 11th and 12th centuries in Sri Lanka strengthened a certain “conservative” camp of the saṅgha and enforced an exclusivist vision of a Theravāda “orthodoxy,” purified from what this group deemed to be inauthentic adulterations of the Buddha’s teaching. This impulse yielded a powerful—though not unchallenged—impact on the further development of Buddhist monasticism in Sri Lanka and, somewhat later, in Southeast Asia. Ultimately they shaped much of the modern ideas about the characteristics of Theravāda Buddhism. During the first half of the 20th century the nikāya name Theravāda was detached from its technical monastic meaning and became reinterpreted as a type of Buddhism, idealizing the doctrinal content of the canonical scriptures of this lineage—the so-called Pāli Canon—as a binding belief system for all “Theravāda Buddhists,” monastic or lay. In anachronistic extension of this typology, the compound “Theravāda Buddhism” was further understood as the most ancient, or even “original,” form of the Buddhist “creed.” The adjective form of Theravāda is Theravādin, which can also be used as a noun to denote a follower of Theravāda.
The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.