This blog contribution is dedicated to Adele, a former student of mine, who inspired me to make a few thoughts on the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). Mahāyāna sources abound in names of bodhisattvas. The two of the most famous clusters of bodhisattvas seem to be what are known as the “Eight Great Close Spiritual Sons [of the Buddha]” (nye ba’i sras chen brgyad) and the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). The names of the eight have been listed, for example, in the Mahāvyutpatti (nos. 645–652). I do not know of any Western-language study or publication devoted exclusively to the eight figures as a group or to any individual figure. Among the traditional Tibetan works, however, the one that comes to my mind immediately is Mi-pham rNam-rgyal-rgya-mtsho’s (1846–1912) Byang chub sems dpa’ chen po nye ba’i sras brgyad kyi rtogs brjod nor bu’i phreng ba. What is remarkable is that in Tibetan Buddhism either the eight are revered collectively or the focus is placed on the “Lords of the Three Families” (rigs gsum mgon po). Iconographic depictions of these would be widespread. Unlike in East Asian Buddhism, Kṣitigarbha seems not to have played such an eminent position in Tibetan Buddhism. One wonders if the Chinese rendering of the name Kṣitigarbha and the role attributed to Kṣitigarbha coupled with the indigenous East Asian view of the yonder or (subterranean) world especially regarding the destiny of prematurely deceased children have contributed to the rise of Kṣitigarbha cult in a way that is not known in India or Tibet. By contrast, what are known as the Lords of the Triadic Families (rigs gsum mgon po), namely, Mañjuśrī (representing the Body family), Avalokiteśvara (representing the Speech family), and Vajrapāṇi (representing the Mind family) enjoy a prominent place. By the way, Maitreya, too, as a crown prince and regent of the Buddha and as the future Buddha, enjoys a special place in Tibetan Buddhism. In the case of Maitreya, it would be useful to study modern hypotheses of the provenance (e.g. Indo-Iranian origin) of the concept and figure Maitreya. At any rate, I do not know of any study devoted exclusively to the triadic group, or, for that matter, also to one of the three figures. I personally believe that each of the three figures would make an excellent topic of study, but one that would be tremendously challenging because a careful and comprehensive study that takes into account both its diachronic and synchronic perspectives must have both the breadth and depth of knowledge of Buddhist sources in many different sources languages and texts, and also the necessary methodic rigor. Scholars like myself who do not possess such prerequisites and expertise should not touch such topics lest we leave behind a huge mess and thereby hampering advancement of research in these areas.
As venues of exploration for a study of the triadic figures of Rigs-gsum-mgon-po in Tibetan cultural sphere, a few questions come to my mind. What would be earliest Indian sources where the three occur, if at all, as a group? What would be the Sanskrit (or other Indic term)? How probable is the Sanskrit word *trikulanātha (employed by Dan Martin in his Tibskrit) to reconstruct a work title? Can we take for granted that the term or concept of kulatraya is secured in Indian sources? What would be earliest textual or arte-factual sources that testify the three individual figures? Could it be possible that the concepts and cults of Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi had different and independent origins and milieu and latter they are brought together as a group? If so, what could have been factors or motives? Since the inception of these figures, how have they evolved in various non-Mantric and Mantric forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism within and without the Indic cultural sphere? What would be a possible relative chronology of the inception and evolution of these figures and cults? Can one perhaps assume that the concept of Vajrapāṇi (initially a yakṣa/yakkha) precedes the concepts of Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara? Can we find concepts/figures of Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara in pre/non-Mahāyāna sources? What roles were they initially and eventually attributed to? Is it not the case that Mahāyāna apologists have claimed that the Mahāyāna scriptures were codified by the triadic figures? What and where are the terrestrial and celestial abodes (kṣetra: zhing khams) of Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi supposed to be? What kinds of roles do they play in the Mahāyāna soteriology, ontology, gnoseology, epistemology, axiology, cosmology, iconology, eschatology, and so on? Most important of all, how are they relevant, it at all, to Mahāyāna soteriology? Because they have certainly not been conceived of as historical figures confined to a specific time and place, how do Mahāyāna traditions deal with these atemporal and ahistorical figures?
Conceivably, the Mahāyāna Buddhist perceptions of the triadic figures may fall into three groups. First, some may view Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi as historical figures in the same way we would view, for examples, Tsong-kha-pa, mKhas-grub-rje, and rGyal-tshab-rje. Second, possibly some may view the triadic figures to be complete fictional characters just like fictitious figures in a novel, and thus reject them as having anything to do with Buddhist soteriology. Third, some would neither accept them to be historical figures confined to a specific period and place nor would they reject them as complete nonsense. This group would recognize that although these figures cannot be treated strictly as historical in the same way the rJe-yab-sras-gsum are, but nonetheless, the idea of the triadic figures has its own history and that it has its own role in Mahāyāna soteriology just as the ideas of upāya and kāruṇā, and of the Buddhahoood and Bodhisattvahood are essential to Mahāyāna soteriology. I personally think that those who take the first and second stances would fall into extreme views of eternalism and nihilism, respectively, and the third position alone be consistent with the middle way. I personally do not subscribe myself to the former two views. The third view, in my view, is indispensable for understanding and appreciating Mahāyānic mentality and spirituality. If one is not interested in understanding Mahāyānic mentality and spirituality, it is, of course, a different matter. The attitude and approach of the third group, in my view, is crucial for those who pursue academic study of religions in general and for those who pursue academic study of Buddhism in particular. Otherwise, one would end up becoming a laughing stock of those who possess both science and conscience.
According to the third group, who are these figures known as Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi? In my view, these are the idealized and idolized bodhisattvas of the highest and best kind and order. They have been conceived of as the embodiments of the wisdom, compassion, and power or strength of all conceivable buddhas and bodhisattvas! This way of looking at Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi is not confined to individuals like myself. I recall mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs (1933–2004), from whom I have had the honor and privilege to receive teachings for two months, clearly stating that if we view Mañjuśrī as a person holding at all times a sword and uptala flower, we have not understood what or who Mañjuśrī is. Mañjuśrī is the representation of the knowing or gnostic mind of all buddhas (sangs rgyas thams cad kyi thug mkhyen pa’i ye shes)! Mañjuśrī is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the jñāna or prajñā of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. Avalokiteśvara is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the karuṇā of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. Vajrapāṇi is primarily an idealized and iconized representation of the balas of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. When one thinks of Mañjuśrī, one thinks of the wisdom and insight of the Buddha or a buddha. When one thinks of Avalokiteśvara, one thinks of the compassion of the Buddha or a buddha. When one thinks of Vajrapāṇi, one thinks of the strength and courage of the Buddha or a buddha. When one invokes the three, one tries to inculcate one’s wisdom, compassion, and strength or courage. Mañjuśrī is thus an icon of the best possible cognitive element. Avalokiteśvara is an icon of the best possible emotive element. Vajrapāṇi is the best possible conative element. Those of us who wish to explore the best kind of cognitive, emotive, and conative elements that are inherent in us, naturally look up to certain idols. Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi happen to be precisely those ahistorical and atemporal idols.
In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, we can find countless triadic historical figures, who have been identified and associated (arbitrarily or otherwise) with Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi. Consider Chos-rgyal-mos-dbon-rnam-gsum, Khu-rngog-’brom-gsum, and so on. Here, too, one can see a purpose, a sense. We just cannot brush such phenomena as nonsensical aside. Look at the current Dalai Lama. He is traditionally identified and associated with Avalokiteśvara. Unless one is psychically and intellectually blind or impervious, one cannot deny that he does represent Avalokiteśvara. He represents compassion. He stands for compassion. He promotes compassion. He breathes compassion. He is compassion. Regardless of whether he is indeed the rebirth of the previous Dalai Lamas or not, I personally think that it has been such a sheer luck that the search team discovered this A-mdo child. They made him Avalokiteśvara and he became Avalokiteśvara. He became compassion. He is now compassion.
On a personal note, I have had the fortune to receive many teachings from many Tibetan masters. Some are more prominent, some less prominent, but to whom I am nonetheless equally grateful. Among the prominent ones, we used to say, we have three masters who are Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi. mKhan-po ’Jigs-med-phun-tshogs is our Mañjuśrī master; the Dalai Lama our Avalokiteśvara master; and Pad-nor Rin-po-che (actually my main guru) our Vajrapāṇi master. I also have many teachers who are mkhan pos. Amongst the senior-most ones, mKhan-po rNam-grol is our Mañjuśrī mkhan po; mKhan-po Tshe-dbang-rgya-mtsho aka mKhan-po Guru our Avalokiteśvara mkhan po; mKhan-po Padma-shes-rab our Vajrapāṇi mkhan po. I do not know if they would like this distribution of the role and identity. While each of these masters and teachers is endowed with all three aspects of wisdom, compassion, and integrity, what seem their prominent traits have been used to characterize them in this way. I am sure each one of you are, in your daily life, actually surrounded by your own Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi masters, teachers, friends, and family members.
In short Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi stand for mkhyen brtse nus/dpal gsum. In order to explore and fully exploit the potentialities of one’s own mkhyen brtse nus/dpal gsum, we need some visions, some models. Therefore it makes much more sense to look up to Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāṇi as our models, and not up to those who pop up in the social and other media.