Just the right number of cooks?

(Sannin yoreba Monju no chie;
“If three people gather, the wisdom of Manjusri”)


Two (or more!) heads are better than one. When ordinary people consider an issue together as a group, they can produce more great ideas than one person alone, even a genius. Human minds work best by bouncing ideas off of each other. This is a Buddhist phrase that invokes the transcendent enlightenment of the bodhisattva Manjusri, known in Japan as Monju.


We begin – from the left, today – with the number-noun combination 三人 (san-nin), “three people.” As is often the case, one could add the subject-marker particle (ga), but it’s elided here. The verb that the three people perform is 寄る (yoru), “to approach” or “to gather,” in subjunctive form.

The above noun and verb form a subordinate clause that points to a noun phrase comprising the nouns 文殊 (Monju), the Bodhisattva’s Japanese name, and 知恵 (chie), “knowledge” or “wisdom,” joined by the associative particle (no), here taking on a possessive meaning. This one isn’t quite a full sentence, although all it needs to fulfill modern sensibilities is a verb or copula of some form at the end.


Its’ probably best not to use this saying in reference to people who are considered above average or to whom you want to show respect. Keep in mind the nuance that gathering together raises the quality of the thoughts of ordinary people.

Bodhisattvas are people near Buddhahood, who aspire to helping others escape the illusory material world that we live in… in super-simplified terms, “Buddhist saints.” Manjusri is a bodhisattva associated with “transcendent wisdom” – out of the reach of someone struggling on their own, but possible to achieve, this saying claims, by discussing issues with others.

This kotowaza is to a degree antonymical to the warning against too many navigators. The conflict can be reconciled two ways, I think. First, one can take them together as arguing for a moderate number of collaborators – not so few that one person’s limits become the project’s limits, but not so many that consensus becomes impossible. Or second, one could stress the difference between knowledge or understanding in its ability to benefit from multiple inputs, and leadership’s ability to benefit from consistency.

Finally, note the misogynistic counterpart 女三人寄れば姦しい (Onna sannin yoreba kashimashii), “If three women gather together, it gets noisy.”

Example sentence:


(Sannin yoreba Monju no chie to iu no de, mazu guruupu wo atsumete bureinsutoomingu wo shitai to omotteimasu.”)

[“Like they say, three heads are better than one, so I think first I’d like to get the group together and do some brainstorming.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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