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​A Basic Introduction to the Ksitigarbha Sutra

Regarded as the "Buddhist scripture of filial piety," the Ksitigarbha Sutra is the Dharma talk that the Buddha imparted to his mother in the Trayastriṃsa Heaven to repay her kindness before his nirvana. At the beginning of the sutra, the Buddha took the initiative to praise Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's vows and practices, introducing his great aspiration that states "Only when all sentient beings are delivered, will I attain Bodhi; if the hells are not empty yet, then I will not attain Buddhahood."

The Ksitigarbha Sutra contains a rich elucidation on the concept of karmic causality, through the interactive question-and-answer dialogues among participants in the Trayastriṃsa Heaven. It begins with the concept of filial piety, which later develops into the altruistic Mahayana spirit. It also enumerates the names and the various scenes of hells, as well as showing the care towards and the deliverance of those who are near death and those who have fallen into the evil destinies. In the end, it introduces Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Dharma approach, which emphasizes the methods of practice such as giving and merit transfer, paying homage to images of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and reciting the Buddha's name, in the hopes that sentient beings can attain Buddhahood through this approach. Written in plain language without abstruse theories, and well-structured with each chapter having a clear theme, the sutra is easy to read and comprehend.

The Chinese edition of the Ksitigarbha Sutra has around 17,000 words. The currently circulating edition is divided into three sections, containing thirteen chapters as follows:
Chapter 1: Displaying Divine Power at the Palace of Trayastriṃsa Heaven;
Chapter 2: The Assembly of the Emanations of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva; 
Chapter 3: Observation of Karmic Retribution of Sentient Beings; 
Chapter 4: Karmic Causes and Conditions of Sentient Beings in Jambudvipa; 
Chapter 5: The Names of Various Hells; 
Chapter 6: Praises from Tathagata; 
Chapter 7: Benefitting the Living and the Dead; 
Chapter 8: Appreciation from Yamarāja and His Crowd; 
Chapter 9: Chanting the Buddhas' Names; 
Chapter 10: Comparing the Merit of Giving; 
Chapter 11: Earth Deities Protecting the Dharma; 
Chapter 12: The Benefits of Admiring and Hearing Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva;
Chapter 13: Entrusting the Task of Delivering Humans and Deities

Before we read the sutra, let us first get to know the meaning of "Ksitigarbha," the Bodhisattva's former vows (pūṛva-praṇidhāna), and the numerous attendees who had asked for the Dharma and were listening to this Dharma talk, to help us better comprehend the essence of the sutra, thereby gaining a basic understanding of it and emulating the Bodhisattva's spirit and practices. 

What does "Ksitigarbha" mean?

A: "Kṣitigarbha" is the Bodhisattva's name in Sanskrit, with Kṣiti meaning "earth" or "abiding," while garbha meaning "embryo," "store," or an "inner chamber"—that is, like an embryo in the womb, or the treasure in a hidden trove. While the earth can nurture, bear, and conceal, it is also the basis upon which everything in the world grows and thrives. The vast earth contains everything that all the beings can take and consume without depletion. 

In his work Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Great Vow and Dharma Approach, Master Sheng Yen further explained that the word "kṣitigarbha" indicates "bearing" and "abiding;" while "bearing" connotes "being able to" or "being capable of," and "abiding" implies "stability" and "security." Kṣiti can also be explained as dwelling, or as the Mother Earth that bears and nurtures all the creatures in the world. 

As stated in the first chapter Preface of the Dasacakra Ksitigarbha Sutra translated by Master Xuan Zang, "[Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is] patient and unmoving like the vast earth; meditating in deep contemplation like a secret store." This illustrates Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's capacity to endure, as well as his great aspiration which is capable of carrying and undertaking everything, leaving no beings behind, and shouldering the tremendously challenging work of delivering all sentient beings. With his adamant compassionate aspiration as forbearing and tolerant as the earth, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has achieved a multitude of merits.

Likening Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's mental capacity to the earth implies that all the merits for the benefit of self and others in the world are inspired by the Bodhisattva's great aspiration. As mentioned in Ratnagotravibhaga, everyone has the Buddha-nature, which contains infinite treasures that all sentient beings can benefit from endlessly. We can also emulate Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's spirit to explore and develop our infinite inner treasure. 

What are Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's former vows?

A: The full name of the Ksitigarbha Sutra is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra (The Sutra on the Former Vows of Earth Treasure Bodhisattva). In Chapter Six of the Sutra, entitled "Praises from Tathagata", the Buddha said: "This sutra has three names: one is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Former Vows; another is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Practices; and the other is the Power of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Oaths, for this bodhisattva has since countless kalpas made a profound great vow to benefit all beings." This clearly shows that the sutra is specifically dedicated to expounding the power of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's vows. 

According to the Ksitigarbha Sutra, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has four concrete vows, all generated with the intention to benefit sentient beings.

The first vow was made at the time of the Buddha named Lion Sprint Complete in the Ten Thousand Practices Thus Come One, when Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was the son of a respected elder. Impressed by the majestic appearance of the Buddha, he asked: "By practicing what deeds, and by making what vows, can one attain such a dignified appearance?" The Buddha replied: "[One can attain it] by making great vows and persistently delivering the suffering beings throughout all kalpas." The son of a respected elder thus made a vow in front of the Buddha: "From now on, for an incalculable measure of time span in the future, I shall, by extensively designing whatever possible skillful and expedient means, enable all the suffering beings in the six destinies of existence to attain liberation. I will not attain Buddhahood until all the beings are delivered." This is the fundamental cause behind Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's vow "Only when all sentient beings are delivered, will I attain Bodhi."

The second vow was made at the time of the Buddha named Realization Flower Meditation At Ease King Tathagata, when Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was a filial Brahmin girl, whose mother not only rejected the Buddha's teaching, but also despised the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha). The Brahmin girl tried every possible way to persuade her to believe in the Three Jewels and adopt right views, but her mother was not convinced due to her heavy karmic obstacles. Before long, her mother passed away, and descended to the Unremitting Hell (avīci naraka). Knowing that, according to the principle of karmic causality, her mother's disbelief in the law of cause and effect and her misconduct would bring her to an evil path after death, the Brahmin girl, in order to rescue her mother, sold properties to make offerings at the temple dedicated to Realization Flower Meditation At Ease King Tathagata, and recited the Buddha's name intensively. Thanks to the merit gained from the Brahmin girl's offerings and practices, not only her mother but also all the beings suffering karmic retribution in the hell were delivered on the same day. She thus made the great vow in front of the Buddha's image: "Throughout the future kalpas to come, I shall extensively deliver all the suffering beings due to their evil karma by designing every possible expedient means for their liberation." This was the vow that developed from personal filial piety to the aspiration of delivering all beings. 

The third vow was made during the time when the later All-Knowledge-Accomplished Tathagata was still a king, before living the household life to become a Buddhist renunciant and eventually attaining Buddhahood. He was friends with the king of a neighboring country. At the time, the king made a vow: "I wish to attain Buddhahood soon so that I can deliver all the evil-committing beings in my country." Meanwhile, the king of the neighboring country vowed: "I pledge not to attain Buddhahood before all the misguided suffering beings are delivered." The then neighboring king was Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. Because of this great aspiration, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva has not yet attained Buddhahood for the sake of delivering all the strayed beings.

The fourth vow was made in the time of the Buddha named Pure Lotus Eye Tathagata, when Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva was a filial daughter named Bright Eyes. In order to rescue her mother who was in the evil destiny of existence, she turned her face towards the sky and made a vow to the Buddha: "I vow to forever deliver all beings in the three evil destinies of existence; I will not attain Buddhahood until all beings do." This is the well-known vow: "Only when all sentient beings are delivered, will I attain Bodhi; if the hells are not emptied yet, I will not attain Buddhahood."

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva made the vow to innumerable Buddhas. As a result of the power of his unwavering vows, he is able to manifest in trillions of emanations to deliver suffering beings over night or even in the short time span of a meal. As Elderly Ven. Master Dong Chu mentioned in his Brief Introduction of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra, much as Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara (Guanyin Bodhisattva) and Maitreya Bodhisattva are able to manifest in trillions of emanations to deliver all beings in the six realms. However, the power of their vows can one day become exhausted; only the power of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's vows to enlighten all beings in the six realms, since various kalpas ago, is as infinite as the immeasurable sands of the Ganges. The great aspiration of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is therefore admired by all Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Who came to ask for the Dharma and listen to the Dharma talk?

A: The Ksitigarbha Sutra was spoken by the Buddha when he sought to repay his mother's kindness and show filial piety by teaching her the Dharma during his stay at the Palace of Trayastriṃsa Heaven for three months prior to his nirvana. However, while the sutra contains dialogues between Maya the mother of the Buddha and Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, why is the Dharma talk specifically for his mother nowhere to be found? As Ven. Dao Yuan explained in his Commentary on Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra, after ascending the Trayastriṃsa Heaven to teach his mother the Dharma, the Buddha then spoke the Ksitigarbha Sutra, entrusting Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva with the task of delivering all the suffering beings for the future 567 million years, a time when no Buddha appears in the world.

This shows that the Buddha's act of repaying his mother's kindness by taking the initiative to impart this sutra resonates with Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's filial piety and compassion throughout the kalpas, thereby prompting Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva to also show up for the Dharma talk. Meanwhile, the participants gathering in the Trayastriṃsa Heaven included innumerable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas along with their attendants, as well as countless heavenly beings, dragons, spirits, and gods; deities from the Sahā world; and ghost kings from everywhere.

In the sutra, the Buddha first asked Manjushri Bodhisattva if he knew how many beings were present for the Dharma assembly. The number of participants was so tremendous that not only was Manjushri Bodhisattva unable to figure out with his divine power, but even the Buddha's eye (buddha-cakkhu) could not observe its immeasurable size. The Buddha indicated that the participants volunteered to join the assembly to show their gratitude towards Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva for his great vow and cause.They represented all those who had been delivered, were to be delivered, or had yet to be delivered by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, as well as those who had been enlightened, were to be enlightened, and who had yet to be enlightened by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. Manjushri Bodhisattva therefore first asked the Buddha about Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's practice in the causal ground.

By answering Manjushri Bodhisattva's question, the Buddha introduced Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's former vows and Dharma approach to everyone. During the Dharma talk, the Buddha had multiple conversations with Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, and they both took turns to answer the inquirers' questions. Among those who came requesting the Dharma were Maya, the mother of the Buddha; Samantabhadra Bodhisattva; Samadhisvararaja Bodhisattva; Akasagarbha Bodhisattva; Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and even the four heavenly kings; Yama, Son of Heaven; spirits and gods; and reverend elders. This signifies the prevalence of beings who had been helped and delivered by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva since countless kalpas ago, throughout the six destinies of existence.

Resource: Practices and Vows of Bodhisattva by Master Sheng Yen; Brief Introduction of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra by Elderly Ven. Master Dong Chu; Lectures on Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra by Ven. Chuk Mor; Commentary on Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra by Ven. Dao Yuan

Related articles:

Buddhist Scripture of Filial Piety: Ksitigarbha Sutra

​A Basic Introduction to the Ksitigarbha Sutra

​The Foundation of Attaining Buddhahood — Altruism

​Practicing Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Method

​Common Questions on the Practice of Ksitigarbha Sutra

Resource: Issue 372 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Sinag-ling Li (李祥苓)
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-Cheng Chang (張家誠)