Hui Jian (慧剑) – the Sword that Clears the Mind

Wisdom Sword
Wisdom Sword

Within Mahayana Buddhism in general, and the Ch’an School in particular, one term that regularly appears is that of ‘prajna sword’, or ‘wisdom sword’. This is taken from the Mahayana sutras (such as the Vimalakirti, Prajnaparamita, and Lotus Sutras, as well as the all-important Surangama Sutras – the latter of which Manjushri turns the organ of ‘hearing’ back to its empty essence to realise enlightenment) and refers to the Bodhisattva Manjushri’s ‘wisdom sword’ which possesses the power to cleanly ‘cut-through’ all delusion in the mind (klesa), and in so doing immediately reveal the empty mind ground, so that ‘emptiness’ can be fully integrate with all phenomena without exception, contradiction or hindrance. In the Chinese written language, the characters for ‘hui jian’ (wisdom sword) are written as:

1) 慧 (hui4) = wisdom

2) 剑 (jian4) = sword

The ‘hui’ (慧) character is found within the Seal Characters developed during the latter half of the Zhou Dynasty, and is used to refer to the notion of ‘wisdom’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘cleverness’. The left-hand particle is the character ‘hui’ and is comprised of ‘心’ (xin1) – a depiction of the human heart -which refers to ‘mind’, ‘heart’, ‘moral nature’, ‘conscience’, ‘intention’, ‘ambition’, ‘centre’, and ‘’design’, etc.; whilst the right-hand (phonetic) particle of the character ‘hui’ is represented by ‘彗’ (hui4) which denotes a right-hand ‘彐’ (a contraction of ‘又’ – you4) at its base, with two branches situated above ‘丰’ (feng1) it. The imagery suggests that the right-hand uses the two branches like a broom to clear a space by sweeping away the dirt from the surface of the floor. Taken together, these two particles form the character ‘慧’ (hui4) which is used to convey the meaning of a bright and advanced understanding that has been acquired through a sustained effort of training that clears the mind through the use of a specific method – or set of methods.

The ‘jian’ (剑) character is found within the Seal Characters developed during the latter half of the Zhou Dynasty, and is used to refer to a long, doubled-edged sword from around the 7th century BCE onwards. The jian character is comprised of the left-hand (phonetic) particle ‘僉’ (qian1), which can mean ‘all’, or ‘unanimous’ – but in this context probably ‘comprehensive’. This particle is structured using two regular ‘mouths’ (只 – zhi3) situated under an ‘inverted mouth’ (亼 – ji1). This symbolism denotes gathering together to thoroughly discuss a subject – as an ‘inverted mouth’ refers to ‘many’. The right-hand particle of the jian character is the contraction ‘刂’ – which represents ‘刀’ (dao1) and denotes the ancient blade of a knife or sword. Taken together these two particles combine to form the character ‘jian’ (剑) which signifies a long-bladed, double-edged sword that was originally made from bronze, but which progressed to steel as knowledge of metallurgy developed. As construction materials and methods developed and strengthened the over-all design of the jian, the length of the blade was increased, and the jian came to be considered the weapon of choice of the refined scholar, and the spiritually advanced adept. Such was the respect ascribed to this weapon that Confucius (孔夫子 – Kong Fu Zi) used the character for ‘warrior’ (士 – shi) to refer to a ‘scholar’ – considering the mastery of the sword in combat as synonymous with the academic mastery of the classic books.

Therefore the characters ‘慧剑’ (hui jian) represent a distinctly ‘Buddhist’ method of clearing the mind that is as decisive as a blow from a sharp sword used in scholarly self-defence. Despite its obvious Buddhist origin and undertones – the ‘sword’ is a clear concession to the Confucian establishment as it strove to integrate foreign Indian Buddhist thought, with that of Chinese indigenous understanding and belief. By the time that Buddhism arrived in China around 100 BCE – 100 CE – the long sword was already centuries old. Although used on the battlefield, its use as an implement of self-development and mastery was also well-known and widely utilised – particularly within the scholarly class and the nobility. Its incorporation into Buddhist thought (and iconology) is both logical and predictable because if the original ‘prajna sword’ happened to be an unfamiliar Indian weapon, the use of the imagery of the Chinese long-sword is yet another example of how scholars in China cleverly entwined Buddhist thought with Confucian ethics and paved the ideological path for the full importation of Buddhism into China with minimal resistance.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.

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