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a roundabout tribute to john lennon

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The other day, after evening meditation, we went around the room for introductions. Several people gave the meaning of their first names, from Yael for holy ram, Susan for lily, and Peter for rock. As a diminutive of Gertrud, said one woman, her name meant sword (strong spear, in fact). In my cleverness I commented that there’s a mystical bodhisattva in Buddhism — a being who undertakes the quest for enlightenment — named Manjushri, depicted as wielding a sword for cutting through illusion. In several Zen centres I’ve seen Manjushri figures –appearing as male or female, sometimes seated on a lion — displayed prominently in the meditation hall. Realizing how little I knew about this mystical representation, I turned to Taigen Dan Leighton‘s book:

Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom and insight, penetrating into the fundamental emptiness, universal sameness, and true nature of all things. … This essential nature is that not a thing has any fixed existence separate in itself, independent from the whole world around it. The work of wisdom is to see through the illusory self-other dichotomy, our imagined estrangement from our world. Studying the self in this light, Manjushri’s flashing awareness realizes the deeper, vast quality of self, liberated from all our commonly unquestioned, fabricated characteristics (p. 109).

Leighton cites several prominent people who personify the Manjushri archetype, including James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Bob Dylan, Margaret Mead, and Albert Einstein. About the latter he writes:

Perhaps all atomic physicists might be included here, seeing into the elemental nature of matter, but Einstein’s theory of relativity is particularly resonant. The teaching of shunyata, or “emptiness,” expounded by Manjushri has also been translated as “relativity.” The emptiness or absence of any isolated, inherent, self-identity in all things may be expressed in terms of seeing into the fundamental interrelatedness, or relativity, of all things (p. 128).

In my view, John Lennon was another Manjurshri type. His song “Imagine” speaks to what Leighton calls “our imagined estrangement from our world”: 

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No people below us, above it’s only sky
     Imagine all the people
     Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
No need to kill or die for and no religions too

Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger a brotherhood of man

text source: Leighton, T.D. (2003). Faces of compassion: classic Bodhisattva archetypes and their modern expressions. Boston: Wisdom Press; song lyricssong recording; image credit:


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