Earth Store Bodhisattva
The Origin of Earth Store Bodhisattva
“Until the hells are empty. I vow not to become a Buddha. Only after all living beings are saved, will I myself attain Bodhi.” (Earth Store Bodhisattva)
The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva is one of the most popular amongst Asian Buddhists. Earth Store Bodhisattva (Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit and Di Zhang Wang Pusa is Chinese) is so called, according to Venerable Master Hsuan Hua:
"Why the name "Earth Store"? Earth nurtures the growth of all things, and "Store" refers to treasure troves—all the treasure troves are in the ground. "Store" can also mean "to keep hidden", i.e., "to keep from view." All the treasure troves are hidden from view underground. The earth can grow the myriad things; it can also keep the myriad things hidden—buried underground.
Like the great earth, this Bodhisattva is able to make the myriad things grow. Like the great earth, he has endless, boundless treasure troves in the ground for people to uncover. Those who believe in this Bodhisattva are entitled to the treasures within."
The Sutra tells the story of how in different lives Earth Store Bodhisattva continued to make vows to help beings escape from suffering the consequences of their misdeeds.
In one of the lives Ksitigarbha was a Brahmin girl who was distressed after her mother died because her mother had been very critical of the Buddhist teachings. Immediately we see two of the main themes of this sutra, filial piety and the unwholesome results of breaking the rules of Buddhist living. After making offerings to a statue of the Buddha of that time, the girl heard a voice telling her to go home and chant the Buddha’s name, after which she would discover her mother’s fate. The daughter did this and after a while was transported to a hell realm where she discovered her mother had been, but had been reborn in a heaven realm due to the daughters’ devout offerings to the Buddha on her behalf. This is another key theme of the sutra, that offerings can be made on behalf of relatives to benefit them in their afterlife. The girl was filled with gratitude and vowed to help beings escape suffering in her future lives. She eventually became Earth Store Bodhisattva through the power of this and other vows.
Although this is the most well known of the previous life stories of Earth Store Bodhisattva, it is not the first one in the sutra.
The first inspiration was when the son of a ‘great elder’ was inspired by meeting the Buddha of his time. Asking the Buddha how he cultivated such an inspiring appearance the son was told that to do the same he would have to spend lifetimes liberating beings undergoing suffering. This caused the elder’s son to make a vow to help all beings throughout time.
The third story is of two kings who wanted to help the people they ruled. One vowed to become a Buddha and the other took the Earth Store Bodhisattva vow, not to become a Buddha until all beings are liberated. The final story is again of a girl who having made an offering to an Arhat was guided to make offerings to the Buddha so that her mother would be rescued from her plight in hell. Out of compassion for her mother, the girl made a vow to save all beings in order to transfer merit to her mother.
The sutra gives graphic descriptions of the hells and the punishments in them for the harm done during life. Of course the descriptions reflect the technology of the day, but are none the less powerful to a modern reader. The punishments of hell are not whimsical, but the consequences of doing harmful deeds during life.
Much of the later part f the sutra details the benefits of making offerings to Earth Store Bodhisattva. At one point Earth Store Bodhisattva says it is much easier for him to help beings that have made an effort to help themselves through making meritorious offerings.
Not all the meritorious actions are as simple as offering some flowers and incense at a shrine. The sutra speaks of chanting Earth Store Bodhisattva’s name a thousand times a day for a thousand days. That is no small undertaking!
One of the most popular elements of the sutra is the belief that relatives can help their deceased family member by making offerings and chanting the Bodhisattva’s name in the presence of the dead body. It is also a very comforting sutra for those who know they have done wrong in their lives and have come to regret it. It transforms the unrelenting law of karma by allowing the mediation of merit, and especially merit gained through compassionate offerings and deeds.
All in all, I find the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva and inspiring text to read and contemplate. It exemplifies the central tenet of Pure Land Buddhism which is to combine our vows, faith and action with the grace of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.