Ksitigarbha: The Bodhisattva of Great Vow

Speaker: Venerable Zhi Guan

Fo Guang Shan France

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to all Dharma friends around the world. This is Zhi Guan from Fo Guang Shan France. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of English Dharma Service. 

Today is the last day of Lunar July, which is also the celebration of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s birthday. We know Ksitigarbha as one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas. He is also known as the bodhisattva of Great Vow. For this week’s episode, I would like to share about Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and how we can learn from his practice.

II. What does it mean to be a Bodhisattva?

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is one of the Four Great Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, which include Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Manjusri Bodhisattva, and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. Each of the four bodhisattva embodies a virtue:

  • Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva embodies great compassion,
  • Manjusri Bodhisattva embodies great wisdom,
  • Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva embodies great vow, and
  • Samantabhadra Bodhisattva embodies great practice.

A bodhisattva is someone who first realizes that life is suffering as well as impermanent. Because of this realization, they vow to practice the Dharma to attain enlightenment and be liberated from all sufferings. However, they do not stop at personal liberation. They look at the people and sentient beings around them and vow to liberate them as well. Hence, anyone who has given rise to the vow of liberating and benefiting both self and others can be called a bodhisattva.

For Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, she compassionately vows to liberate any suffering being who calls upon her name and bestows fearlessness upon them. Manjusri Bodhisattva is skillful in expounding the Dharma and resolves people’s difficulties with his great wisdom. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva guides us the ways of Buddhist cultivation through his great practice. As for Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, he places the enlightenment and liberation of all sentient beings before himself, which is why he is known as bodhisattva of great vow. 

The four great bodhisattvas are the examples we can follow as Buddhist practitioners. They are mentioned in many sutras, sometimes as part of the audience, and sometimes to teach the Dharma. Through these records, we learn about the origin of their vow and the ways they help sentient beings.

III. Who is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva?

We can learn about Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva from the Original Vow of the Ksitigarbha Sutra, often simply called the Ksitigarbha Sutra. We know that Sakyamuni Buddha’s birth mother, Queen Maya, passed away seven days after giving birth to the Buddha. She was reborn in Trayastrimsa Heaven as a heavenly being. To repay the kindness of his mother, Sakyamuni Buddha once traveled to the Trayastrimsa Heaven and taught the Dharma to Queen Maya for three months. The content of the Buddha’s teaching is recorded in the Ksitigarbha Sutra. This is why Ksitigarbha Sutra is known as the sutra of filial piety and widely chanted during Lunar July.

In the beginning of Ksitigarbha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha asked Manjusri Bodhisattva, “Look at all the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, devas, nagas, ghosts, and spirits from this and other worlds, from this and other lands-those who come and assemble in the Trayastrimsa Heaven now. Do you know their number?” 

Manjusri replied, “Oh Buddha, even if I were to measure and fathom with the power of my spiritual penetration for a thousand kalpas, I would not be able to know it.”

The Buddha said, “As I see them through the Buddha eye, their number still cannot be counted fully. All these are beings who have been guided across, are being guided across, will be guided 

across to the other shore, have been brought to attainment, are being brought to attainment, or will be brought to attainment by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva throughout many long kalpas.”

From this introduction, we can see that Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has already helped countless number of sentient beings, and will continue to do so for future immeasurable time. But wh at inspires him to make such a profound vow? We can find some clues in the sutra.

III. Past Lives of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva

In the sutra, four instances of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s past lives were recorded. These accounts detail the situation which inspires him to give rise to great vow. The first two instances are recorded in the first chapter. The next two instances are found in Chapter Four.

A Man Inspired By the Buddha

In the first record, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was the son of a great elder. At that time he encountered a Buddha. The Buddha’s body was adorned with many majestic signs of excellence, and Ksitigarbha felt profound reverence for him. Wishing to attain the same remarkable features as the Buddha, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed that, throughout incalculable future kalpas, he would guide all wrong-doing suffering beings who reside in the six realms of existence to liberation.

In this story, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is inspired to help all beings upon encountering a Buddha. As recorded in the sutras, the Buddha was endowed with thirty-two marks of excellence and eighty notable characteristics. These marks are the karmic result of countless eons of effort on the path of spiritual perfection. For example, buddhas have soft and gentle hands and feet. This is a result of taking care of their parents, teachers, and elders when they were ill. By loo king at the causes that lead to a buddha’s majestic appearance, we can see the amount of effort that they have put in over lifetime after lifetime of cultivation. This can be an inspiration for us on how to cultivate like a buddha. 

The Lady Who Vows To Save Her Mother

The second and third accounts are quite similar and I will share the third account. If you would like to hear about the second story, you can tune in to last week’s episode, “The Strength of Vow.” These two stories are about a daughter saving her mother. 

An unimaginable long time ago, there arose in the world a Buddha named Pure Lotus Eyes Buddha. During that time, there was an arhat who guided living beings across by means of merit, teaching and transforming them in sequence.

He came upon a woman named Bright Eyes who made a food offering to him. 

The arhat asked her, “What is your wish?”

Bright Eyes replied, “In the days after my mother’s death, I performed meritorious deeds for her rescue, but I do not know in what realm my mother has been reborn.”

Out of compassion for her, the arhat entered into meditative concentration and saw that Bright Eyes’ mother had fallen into a lower realm and was undergoing extremely great suffering. 

The arhat asked Bright Eyes, “What actions did your mother do while she was alive? She is now undergoing extremely great suffering in a lower realm.”

Bright Eyes replied, “My mother had a habit of only liking to eat fish, turtles, and the like. Of the fish and turtles that she had eaten, she had most often consumed their eggs, fried or boiled, and she would indulge in eating them. I would reckon the number of all these lives to be thousands of myriads and many times over. O Venerable One, please take pity. How can she be saved?”

Out of compassion for them, the arhat used a skillful means. He advised Bright Eyes, “You may, with sincere resolve, recollect Pure Lotus Eyes Tathagata. Also, sculpt and paint his image. Both the living and the deceased will reap the results.”

After hearing this, Bright Eyes immediately gave up everything she loved to have an image of that Buddha painted right away. She then made offerings to his image, and furthermore, with a reverent mind, she wept sorrowfully, gazed up at, and prostrated to him. 

That night, in her dream, she suddenly saw the Buddha. He said to Bright Eyes, “Before long your mother will be reborn in your household. She will speak as soon as she can feel hunger and cold.”

Shortly thereafter, a maid in her household bore a child who spoke within three days of birth. The infant, prostrating and weeping sorrowfully, told Bright Eyes,

“In the cycle of birth and death through karmic conditions, one undergoes the results of one’s actions oneself. I am your mother. I have long dwelled in darkness. Since parting from you, again and again I agonized in the great hells. It was through the strength of your merit that I was finally able to be reborn as a person of the lower class, and my lifespan will be short. At the end of thirteen years, I am to fall into a lower realm. Do you have any way to help relieve me of these sufferings?”

When Bright Eyes heard what was said, she knew without a doubt that this infant was her mother. Sobbing and crying sadly, she said to the maid’s child, “Since you are my mother, you should know your own past wrongdoing. What actions did you do that caused you to fall into a lower realm?”

The maid’s child replied, ‘Killing and reviling. I was undergoing the ripened effects of these two actions. If it were not for the merit that you have cultivated to deliver me from difficulties, my karma would be such that I still could not have been released.”

Upon hearing this, Bright Eyes cried. She said toward the sky, “May my mother be forever released from the hells. At the end of thirteen years, may she be finished with her heavy offenses and not go through the lower realms again. O Buddhas of the ten directions, kindly take pity upon me. Please hear the far-reaching vow that I am making for the sake of my mother. If she can forever leave the three lower realms, the low and mean, then, in front of the image of Pure Lotus Eyes Buddha, I vow that from this day forth to immeasurable future where  there are hells, where there are the three lower realms, I will rescue all wrongdoing suffering beings, causing them to leave the lower realms of hells, animals, and hungry ghosts. Only when the beings who undergo the ripened effects of wrongdoing have all become Buddhas will I myself attain perfect awakening.”

After making this vow, she clearly heard Pure Lotus Eyes Tathagata saying to her, “Bright Eyes, you have great kindness and compassion. It is excellent that you can make such a great vow for your mother. I see that after your mother passes on from the present ripened effect at thirteen years of age, she will be reborn as a Brahman with a lifespan of a hundred years. After that ripened effect is over, she will be reborn in the Land of No Sorrow with a lifespan of incalculable kalpas. Later she will attain Buddhahood, and far and wide she will guide humans and devas as numerous as the sand grains in the Ganges River to the other shore.”

Sakyamuni Buddha told the assembly, “The arhat who guided Bright Eyes across by means of merit then is now Aksayamati Bodhisattva. Bright Eyes’ mother is now Liberation Bodhisattva; and the woman Bright Eyes is now Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.”

In the beginning, Bright Eyes only wanted to save her mother. But after hearing the description of the sufferings of hell, Bright Eyes expanded her vow to liberate all beings that are also suffering in hell. Helping others is a universal virtue. But sometimes we find it easier to help people that are connected to us. For example, our family and friends. It takes a big heart to help people who are not connected to us, such as a stranger we meet on the street, and an even bigger heart to help the people that we dislike.

Furthermore, this account also continues with the theme of the law of cause and effect as we have found in the first account. Bright Eyes’ mother is reborn in the Hell Realm due to her unwholesome actions of killing animals to fulfill her desire for taste. Unwholesome actions will undoubtedly lead to unwholesome consequences, the sutra teaches us that we should act wisely so that we will not bring suffering upon ourselves in the future.

The King Who Delayed His Enlightenment for His People

The other account related to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s past lives is about a king who delayed his enlightenment for his people.

An unimaginable long time ago, there was a Buddha named All Wisdom Accomplished Buddha. The lifespan of that Buddha was sixty thousand kalpas. Before he renounced the household life, he was the king of a small country and friends with the king of a neighboring country. They both practiced the ten wholesome actions and benefited living beings. However, in the neighboring country most people did many evil acts. The two kings conferred with each other and planned to employ many skillful means for them. 

One king vowed, “I will attain Buddhahood early and guide all these people across without exception.”

The other king vowed, “If I do not first guide all wrongdoing suffering beings across, causing them to attain peace and happiness and enabling them to achieve bodhi, I shall not become a Buddha.”

The king who vowed to become a Buddha early is All Wisdom Accomplished Buddha. The king who vowed to always guide wrongdoing suffering beings across and not to become a Buddha yet is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.

From this record, we can also find similar themes as the previous stories. The two kings are virtuous and righteous in their actions. But when they observe their people committing unwholesome deeds, they wish to help guide them to be better, instead of just punishing them or abandoning them. They are not only concerned about their own good, but also that of their people. 

When a ship is sinking, the good captain would ensure that everyone onboard has safely evacuated from the ship before abandoning ship. Similarly, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva would not seek shelter until he is sure that all beings have safely reached the shore of liberation.

IV. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Great Vow

From these stories, we see the origin of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s great vow: “If the hells are not emptied, then I vow not to become a Buddha. Only when sentient beings have all been liberated, will I attain awakening.” 

Throughout many long kalpas past, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has been so kind and compassionate that he has made as many vows as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River to guide living beings far and wide to the other shore. His boundless compassion, profound wisdom, and mighty perseverance are virtues that we can learn from. 

We can begin from ourselves, just like Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. We can make small vows for self-improvements. Then, as we grow in compassion, wisdom, and strength, we can expand our vows to include the people around us, and slowly, to everyone in our society, nation, and even the world. There are many Ksitigarbha Bodhisattvas that we can see in daily life. For example, the volunteers in our neighborhood, the heroes who clean the oceans and combat climate change. If we pay attention to the people around us, we might be touched by the bodhisattvas around us. Perhaps we, too, can also vow to be a bodhisattva and in turn extend a gentle, helping hand to a person in need.

Thank you for listening to this episode of English Dharma Services. If you would like to read the Ksitigarbha Sutra translated by the Fo Guang Shan International Translation Center, the link is provided in the description box below. May you find strength in reading the sutra, joy and inspiration in the Dharma, and compassion and wisdom in your cultivation. Omitofo.