Living With An Untamed Mind

It was a half hour or so past midnight and those of us gathered in the meditation hall at Sanshin Zen Temple had just completed six days of sitting zazen from 4:10 in the morning until 9:00 in the evening and an even longer seventh day meant to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment upon seeing the morning star. An offering to the Buddha had been made; the Bodhisattva Vows and the Heart Sutra had been chanted; rohatsu sesshin thus came to a close. A few of our number retired immediately, more in need of sleep than anything else. The remainder, perhaps feeling more wired than tired, gratefully accepted the Okumura’s offer of a nightcap of warm sake and fellowship upstairs in their private quarters. This had been “sesshin without toys,” after all, sesshin in the very rigorous and austere Antaiji-style instituted by Shohaku Okumura’s teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Relaxing in a chair sipping sake and enjoying free-flowing conversation after a week of fourteen or more periods of zazen per day was a luxury too fine to pass up!

I listened to the conversation bounce around the room for a time, content simply to look at and listen to those whom I’d not really seen or heard for an entire week, despite having spent hour after hour in their presence. Oh, yeah, and there was warm sake to sip also.

“I’m intrigued by the altar statue of the Buddha sitting upon a tiger,” I finally remarked to Shohaku-san. The tiger had been growling over my shoulder all week long as I sat zazen, and staring me down each time I approached it during kinhin.

“Actually, it is not a tiger, it is a lion,” Shohaku-san smiled, “and it is not the Buddha, it is the bodhisattva Manjusri.”

I smiled at my error, less concerned with the particulars than with the overall message being communicated. Besides, there was very little ego left in me to be embarrassed for not knowing about what I have since learned is a fairly common depiction of Manjusri, the bodhisattva who utilized wisdom in order to tame the lion of mind. My interest was born of the fact that it mirrored my own experience throughout (much of) the week – that of being a calm observer of those otherwise untamed aspects of mind.

The Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjusri) is usually depicted wielding a sword and a copy of the Prajnaparamita – the collection of sutras containing the well-known Heart Sutra (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 128, 219). Such images have fairly straightforward interpretations, i.e. wisdom being used to cut through delusion so that suffering may be transcended. However, images such as the one featured – that of Manjusri sitting atop a lion – invite numerous interpretations. Does the lion represent the strength and stamina of a mighty beast that may be put to noble use, such as providing a vehicle for the practice of the Dharma if only its power and wild urges could be controlled? Does the calm figure represent our so-called True Self and the lion those wild karmic forces that we might ride comfortably if only we would stop identifying with them? Ah, but if the lion is Manjusri’s mind, then what is he – and, likewise, what are we?

Perhaps we could view the image in a less overtly dualistic way and interpret the entire image as mind and the calm figure as that aspect of mind, bodhicitta, which aspires to awaken from the sleep of delusion. Actually, this interpretation fits nicely with a more modern psychological way of thinking about the mind. Modern psychology posits that we all possess something called an executive system which plays a coordinating and directive role with respect to the activities of body and mind. However, since the executive system coordinates and directs both healthy and unhealthy behavior, wise and unwise activity, we should not equate it with bodhicitta. Rather, bodhicitta would be more akin to a value that influences the executive system – informing it that this is a more suitable aspiration than that, awakening is a more suitable aspiration than remaining asleep (trapped within karma).
Can I have a treat, or maybe devour you?

So, back to this thing called sesshin… When we’re sitting facing a wall for nigh on twelve hours per day, all week long, we have plenty of time to watch the workings of the mind. There are times when the body is sitting comfortably and solidly, and the mind is alert and calm and ready to climb high above the tree-line to where any distinction between watcher and watched falls away like a stone tumbling down below into the valley of conceptualization. Ah, but there are also times when the pain (or boredom, for that matter) of so much sitting comes to the fore, and the mind, weak and worn out, seeks refuge amongst the forest of ideas. Headlong it races down below the tree-line and into the comforting embrace of delusion – for in delusion there is brief respite from that which seems so daunting. Yes, but there are other times when pain swirls like a raging storm, whether it be the physical pain of hour upon hour of sitting or the psychic pain of grief and loss and discontent, and yet the mind remains calm and alert – as if sitting upon a sunny overlook high above where any raging storm might reach, or perhaps like a peaceful bodhisattva riding on the back of a roaring lion.

Can we please go for a walk, or shall I just kill you?
In this regard, sitting sesshin is simply an intensified microcosm of everyday life. In everyday life we have moments of keen awareness and clarity of insight. We also have moments of dark delusion in which we become whatever wild animals our karma might direct us to be. In between, however, is the potential for us to pay watchful attention to body and mind and emotion, to sit calmly atop the lion of our existence – feeling each ripple coursing through it, sensing the beating of its heart, knowing its contentedness as well as its rage – without ever saying to ourselves: “this is me.”

At least part of the wisdom of Manjusri, then, is this ability simply to watch the arising and falling away of those phenomena that, whether considered in isolation or in aggregation, are routinely identified as “our” life. Joy and happiness, pain and sorrow, anxiety and depression, loneliness and boredom, contentment and fulfillment, anger and frustration – these are the many aspects of the lion’s purr and roar. They are merely phenomena that arise and pass away. When viewed as such they cease to be disturbing, even in their wildness; and when viewed as such they likewise cease to be so wild.     

A Manjusri and his Lion, it's a beautiful thing.



Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resource via:

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resources via:

Manusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resources via:

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resource via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Dig. I have done very little meditation but have become quite interested in Zen as of the last year, in particular. Such a long meditation sounds like a fruitful experience.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Derrick. It's rather funny that you were reading and thinking about this post. I was out at Sanshinji once again this past week and I was also thinking about it! I hope you find the opportunity to experience a meditation retreat of some sort soon. Hope to see you soon! Mark


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