Once at a meeting of numerous bodhisattvas at the house of Vimalakirti, the lay disciple of Buddha, a debate developed on the meaning of nonduality, an essential precept of Buddhist thought. After many bodhisattvas had finely expressed their opinions on the subject and their success at understanding its essence, it came to Manjushri's turn. He got up and announced that all the previous speeches were themselves conditioned by linguistic limitations and were subtly dualistic. When Manjushri turned to Vimalakirti and asked for his views, Vimalakirti just maintained silence, thus demonstrating the truth of Manjushri's statement.
This story is a beautiful reflection on the irony of scholarship attempting to express itself through a medium (speech/language), which contains within itself a contradiction of the very fundamental ideals which it proposes to expound. In this particular case Manjushri identifies this sublime and intrinsic inconsistency. An exalted individual may wax eloquent upon the virtues of non-duality and his grasp of this abstract concept, but the very language used to expresses these views is inherently dual as it is composed of word and it's meaning, two exclusive entities. This subtle, nonetheless significant gradation brings home a profound truth taking the wind out of any sense of achievement derived out of purported scholarship. Verily thus Manjushri carries in his two hands a book and a sword.
This sword is there to cut of fetters born not out of ignorance but those which arise through knowledge, signified by the book. This is not a negation of bookish knowledge, but only an assertion of the realization that unless we gain it we cannot know the futility of it in the quest towards ultimate spiritual truths. Manjushri appropriately suggests not the path of renunciation but that of righteous karma. A Zen story illuminates this aspect:
Once the chief cook of a temple on Mount Wutai (the favorite mountain of Manjushri), was busy making lunch. Manjushri repeatedly appeared sitting above the rice pot. This chief cook, who later became a noted Zen master, finally hit Manjushri with his stirring spoon and drove him away, saying, "Even if old man Shakyamuni came, I would also hit him" In Zen temples the position of chief cook is highly esteemed. This story denotes the priority of taking care of everyday life, beyond attention to high-flowing rhetoric. Caring for the details of daily life is sometimes seen as more important than spending time in studying sutras or in concentration in the meditation halls, and indeed many monks perhaps including this chief cook, have been encouraged to abandon any preference for meditation over ordinary work.
Reconciling Manjushri's actions with his status as a bodhisattva we realize that here we see a rare but distinctly significant affirmation in Buddhist thought of an existence composed of normal and 'ordinary' family life rather than that of denial. The carrying out of one's duties is as spiritually fulfilling an activity as any other 'bodhisattvic' deed. Consider for example the activity of cooking. The Bhagvad Gita says that one who cooks for others acquires the highest merit, while that who selfishly cooks food only for his own consumption commits a sin. Likewise the temple cook was engaged in an effort of the highest merit. Indeed for contemporary times this is an ultimate tribute to those women of the house who diligently provide us with sustenance which fulfills not only our physical needs, but also nourishes us spiritually.
Of Related Interest:
Five forms of Manjushri (Tibetan Thangka Painting)
Japanese Manjushri (Copper Sculpture)
Manjushri (Sterling Silver Pendant)
Manjushri (Sterling Silver Ring)