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Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store [Ksitigarbha] Bodhisattva

[Translated (into Chinese) by Tripitaka Master Shikshananda of Udyana in the Tang Dynasty (ca. A.D. 700)] with commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.

[Translated from Chinese into English by Buddhist Text Translation Society]

The Arisal of Conditions Leading to the Lecturing of the Sutra

At this point, to us every place is a Bodhimanda. Every place is a place for Dharma assemblies. Any time and any place are suitable for lectures on the Sutras and the Dharma. All times and all places are right for working on our cultivation and for plying our efforts.

That is why when it comes to cultivation, location or distance makes no difference. Any place we travel to is just the same as the place we started from. Make no distinctions among places, or between the good and bad Dharma assemblies. We should be able to lecture on the Sutras and the Dharma, and study the Buddhadharma wherever we happen to be. Only then will we be able to achieve wholeness and harmony in our skill. Make a habit of studying the Buddhadharma anywhere we travel. That is most important!

What is the key to studying the Buddhadharma? It is to refrain from false thinking! Gather in your body and mind—collect them together—and keep your thoughts from wandering off in all directions into the past, present, or future. Simply focus your mind totally on studying the Buddhadharma. Do that and you will not have many afflictions or worries.

Why do you have afflictions? It is just because you cannot see through and let go of things. You feel some matters are important and yet some other matters are all the more important. This feeling of importance leads to (a kind of) attachment. Once there is attachment, afflictions arise. Therefore, as students of the Buddhadharma, we should be free of attachments—that is, any and all attachments.

Today marks the first time the (Earth Store) Sutra is being lectured here. From now on, we'll try to fit in as many seats as possible. Move the first row back [a bit], and add another row in the front. Stagger the seats from row to row, so those in the front will not block the view of those in the back and everyone will have a clear line of sight. That will be the seating arrangement. As for the standing arrangement, two people will stand in a row, and leave enough room between the rows for bowing.

Earlier, we were reciting the Six Syllables Great Bright Mantra. Earth Store Bodhisattva likes for people to recite this mantra. If you are able to recite it, he will grant your wishes to your heart's content. He will help you with whatever you wish for. Words come short when describing Earth Store Bodhisattva's [many] efficacious responses—they will be covered in the Sutra lectures [later]. We should recite the Six Syllables Great Bright Mantra often. It is an excellent mantra and its functions are also quite inconceivable.

There are some very important causes and conditions leading to the Earth Store Sutra lectures. I was renting this place for the summer and was planning to terminate the lease at the end of the summer vacation. In that case, quite a few people would have a tough time looking for new rentals since they were hard to come by. So I took a big chance and renewed the lease on this place and invited these people to stay. I also invited Earth Store Bodhisattva to stay here with us. This way, everyday we get to bow to the Bodhisattva, to plant good roots and cultivate blessings!

However, Americans are unfamiliar with Bodhisattvas. They were never introduced to one before, let alone having to live with one right now! Some people are delighted, yet others are frightened by the human-like image of the Bodhisattva. Therefore, I will now introduce you to this Bodhisattva's life stories. When you wish to make a new friend, you first would probably want to know the kind of person he or she is. So let us now get acquainted with Earth Store Bodhisattva. Given these circumstances, I will lecture on the Earth Store Sutra for everybody.

The Earth Store Sutra is a Buddhist scripture on filial piety. Earth Store Bodhisattva is a Bodhisattva who practices filial conduct and is most filial to his parents. By giving my lectures on the Sutra, I hope to inspire everyone to follow Earth Store Bodhisattva's example on filial piety.

Now first, The Reasons for the Arising of the Teaching refers to the circumstances that gave rise to this Sutra.

Second, The Divisions and Vehicles in Which It Is Contained: "Divisions" refers to the Tripitaka, and "Vehicles" refers to the Great Vehicle [the Mahayana] and the Small Vehicle [the Hinayaha]. Or, in terms of the Five Vehicles, there are the Vehicle of Humans, the Vehicle of Gods, the Vehicle of Sound Hearers [Shravakas], the Vehicle of Those Enlightened to Conditions [Prateyka-buddhas], and the Vehicle of Bodhisattvas. "The Divisions and Vehicles in Which It Is Contained" therefore refers to the type of text in the Tripitaka and the vehicle among the Five Vehicles to which the Sutra belongs.

Third, Determining Its Aim and Purport: We will explain its tenet.

Fourth, An Explanation of the Title: The title of the Sutra will be explained.

Fifth, Its Transmission and Translators: The individuals responsible for its transmission and translation need to be identified.

Sixth, Discerning and Explaining the Meaning of the Text : We will especially clarify the meanings in the Sutra text proper.

First, what does the Causes and Conditions for the Arising of the Teaching mean? "Teaching" is the [body of] language used by the Sages to transform living beings, as in the [Chinese] phrase: The language [that] the Sagely One administers to his charges.

"Arising" refers to the fact that what did not exist previously now exists, having arisen and come forth.

"Causes" are the factors and "conditions" refers to the reasons. So what causes and conditions brought forth this teaching?

After he had attained Buddhahood, Skakyamuni Buddha spoke the Dharma for forty-nine years in over three hundred assemblies, yet all along, never once did he get a chance to take his mother across [to the other shore of nirvana]. Shakyamuni Buddha was born from his mother's left ribcage, and his mother passed away after giving birth. When he became a Buddha, he learned that his mother, Lady Maya, had ascended to the heavens. After he had spoken the Dharma Flower Sutra and before starting the Nirvana Sutra, he thought of his mother and ascended to the Palace of Trayastrimsha Heaven. He stayed there for three months to expound the Dharma for his mother. And what was that Dharma? It was the Earth Store Sutra, the sutra on filial piety.

For the sake of crossing over his dear mother, Shakyamuni Buddha spoke the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva in the Palace of Trayastrimsha Heaven—those are the causal conditions leading up to this Sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha speaking the Dharma for his mother—[do you agree] that this is a very important Sutra? That sums up the Causes and Conditions for the Arising of the Teaching.

Next, the Divisions and Vehicles in Which It Is Contained: "Contained" refers to the categories to which it belongs, i.e., the "divisions" of the tripitaka of Sutras, Vinaya and Shastras. Sutras fall within the study of samadhi, Vinaya the study of precepts, and Shastras the study of wisdom. Sutras, Vinaya and Shastras are simply precepts, samadhi and wisdom.

This Sutra is contained within the divisions of Sutras and Vinaya because they discuss the precepts as well. "Vehicles" refers to either the Five Vehicles or the Three Vehicles. The Three Vehicles are those of the Shravakas, the Pratyeka-buddhas, and the Bodhisattvas. Adding to these three the Vehicles of Humans and Gods completes the Five Vehicles.

Just as one human being is unique and different from one another in millions of ways, so are the celestial beings, the Shravakas and Pratyeka-buddhas. Likewise, there are—not just one—but many Bodhisattvas. The Earth Store Sutra is contained within the Vehicles of Humans, Celestial Beings, and Bodhisattvas. This is the Divisions and Vehicles in Which It Is Contained.

The third is Determining Its Aim and Purport. So what does the Sutra take as its aim and purport? Eight words: Filial piety, delivering beings [to the shore of liberation], uprooting suffering, and repaying kindness. What does it all come down to? It all comes down to being well versed in filial piety—the principle of being filial to one's parents. One who can be filial to one's parents is heaven and earth’s light of glory. What gladdens heaven and earth is for people to be filial to their parents, hence the verse:

Heaven and Earth values filiality—filiality comes first: Filiality is of utmost importance.

One word—filiality—brings peace upon all in the home: Through the workings of filiality—just [this] one word—the entire family may enjoy peace.

Filiality begets filial offspring: If you are filial to your parents, your children will be filial to you, and vice versa.

Why be a person, and what is the point in that? Do not just resign yourself to being born a person muddled and confused. That is not the way to go. Being a person, you have a moral obligation to be filial to your parents because they are the heaven and earth; they are your elders and teachers; they are—simply—the Buddhas.

If [it were] not for your parents, you would not have this body of yours; without this body of yours, you would have no way of becoming a Buddha. Therefore, if you wish to become a Buddha, first you need to be filial to your parents, hence filial piety is foremost.

The second tenet of this Sutra is "delivering beings." What does "delivering" mean? It means to embark from this shore to arrive at the other shore, likewise from birth and death to nirvana, and also from afflictions to bodhi.

Here, "ferrying beings" means to take [sentient] beings across. To take across one [sentient] being, two [sentient] beings, or three, or five does not qualify as taking [sentient] beings across. The term refers to resolving on teaching and transforming all the 12 categories of [sentient] beings, thus quickly leading them to Buddhahood—that qualifies as taking beings across.

The third: Uprooting suffering. This Sutra aims at putting an end to beings' sufferings.

The fourth, Repaying kindness, is to reciprocate the kindness of one's parents.

Filial piety, delivering beings, uprooting suffering, and repaying kindness—these eight words make up the aim and purport of the Earth Store Sutra. It would be too much for us to go into detail. I went over the important points so you would get the gist of it.

At the mention of [the practice of] filial piety, the thought, "I've got to get home to be filial to my parents" popped into some people's minds. Once they get home and see their parents, they may forget all about it. While here, they meant to be filial to their parents, but once back home, they forget all about filiality. Why? It is because they did not truly understand the meaning of being filial [to their parents].

True filiality is in investigating the Buddhadharma. You are being filial [to your parents] while investigating the Buddhadharma here—not necessarily [waiting] to be filial after you get home, in which case you only forget all about filiality anyway. By investigating the Buddhadharma here and becoming the best person in the world, you will benefit the world. Benefiting the world is being filial to your parents.

Therefore, filiality can be classified into four types: lesser, greater, abiding, and recent. What is "lesser filiality"? It refers to filiality in one's family, toward one's own parents. It falls short of "extending the filiality for one's elders to others' elders"—of achieving vast and great filiality.

What is vast and great filiality? It is the "greater filiality" that attends to all under the sky, considering everyone's parents as one's own parents. That is "extending filiality for one's elders to others' elders”. Its scope is expansive and not narrow.

Yet this greater filiality falls short of being true filiality. What is true filiality? True filiality is when you become a Buddha; it is beyond the scope of the four types of filiality. It is genuine and true filiality.

Take the example of Shakyamuni Buddha. Although his father forbade him from venturing forth into monastic life and locked him up in the palace, yet he stole away to cultivate [the Path] as a monastic. After six years of hardship on Snow Mountain, he sat under the bodhi tree and, upon seeing the shining [bright] stars in the night sky, became enlightened to the Path and attained Buddhahood. That is true filiality. Thereafter he became a Buddha. He later ascended to the celestial palace to instruct on the Dharma for his mother. Wouldn't you agree that that is true filiality?

What is "recent filiality"? It is to pattern one's filiality on latter-day role models.

Abiding filiality: emulated for all time;

Recent filiality: emulated in the present.

"Recent filiality" is comparable to "lesser filiality," with some exceptions.

Abiding filiality, for example, is found in China's Twenty-four Paragons of Filiality. They are models for all times. The august virtue they exemplified endures through all ages.

[The Story of Dongyong]

One of China's twenty-four paragons of filiality was Dongyong, also known as Dongan, a very filial person. One of his neighbors, Wangji, was the richest man, while he himself was the poorest. Dongan's mom, because of her son's filial devotion, was well-nourished and plump. Though advanced in years, she felt happy day and night.

On the other hand, Wangji's mom was made of money and ate only the finest delicacies—poultry, seafood, assorted meats—but she was thin as a rail. She was unhappy and worried all the time.

One day, when both sons were away, the skinny mom inquired of the plump mom, "Your family lives hand to mouth and can't put anything nice on the dinner table, yet you're all chubby and round. How is it that you get so plumpish in your old age?"

Dongan's mom said to the skinny mom, "My son is very filial. He stays out of trouble, behaves himself, and works hard at his job. I've got absolutely no worries and I'm very happy. As the saying goes, when the heart is carefree, the body plumps out. I'm happy at heart, so I plump out."

She went on to ask the skinny mom, "You live the good life and there are plenty of nice things to eat in your house. Yet why are you all skin and bones? Is there something wrong with you?"

The skinny mom replied, "Sure I've got money and eat well, except my son is a roughneck. He gets in trouble with the law day in and day out. He's either wanted by the police for questioning, or there'd be some warrants to appear in court. I worry about him all the time. No matter how well I eat, I don't feel happy. I'm stressed out. I get skinnier by the day because there's no way I can put on weight when I'm all worried."

While the two moms—one skinny, one chubby—were chatting up a storm about their sons—one filial, one disobedient, the disobedient one returned and overheard their conversation. After the moms had said their goodbyes and went home, Wangji went to Dongan's house and roughed up the chubby mom good. "You blabbermouth! Why did you feed my mom all that crap?" he yelled.

When Dongan came home and saw his mom upset, he asked why. She told her son, "Wangji was here and beat me up. He accused me of speaking ill of him to his mom."

Dongan did not say anything to that but simply comforted his mom, "Please don't be mad. That's just how he is. Don't mind him."

However, after his mom got beat up and called down by that hooligan, she got sick and died.

Upon his mom's death, Dongan blew his top, "When my mom was alive, I shied away from fights with you to keep her from worrying. Now you've done her in."

So he picked up a knife and killed Wangji. The skinny mom had always worried that her son might get himself killed one day, and sure enough, he got killed. Afterwards, with Wangji's head in hand, Dongan went to his mom's grave and set the head on [an altar] table. He lit incense, bowed, and said, "Mom, please don't be mad [anymore]. So he beat you up, right? Now I have avenged you. I killed him to offer his head to you."

When he finished with the rite [of offerings]—guess what happened next? He took the head with him and turned himself in, confessing, "My mom died after the beating. So I killed him and made offering of his head to my mom. Do what you will with me. I'll accept the court's verdict, and won't dodge the law."

The county prefect handed down a life sentence and he was put in jail. It just so happened that the emperor then issued an imperial pardon which exempted all criminals of their past crimes, and he was freed. After his release, he was later appointed to high offices in the government. That was the story of Dongyong, a filial son.

Though there are Abiding Filiality, Recent Filiality, Greater Filiality and Lesser Filiality, true filiality is cultivating the Path and accomplishing Buddhahood in the future. As right now you are investigating the Buddhadharma—without having to return to your homes—that is True Filiality. To truly be able to investigate the Buddhadharma, and to be able to practice and uphold the Buddhadharma, is to be truly filial to your parents.

An Explanation of the Title

Fourth, an Explanation of the Title. xiao as in ["to extinguish"]. What does the word xiao mean? It means to explain clearly the meaning of the text. Therefore—an explanation of the title of the Sutra: Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store [Ksitigarbha] Bodhisattva.

The Sutra incorporates Earth Store Bodhisattva's name in its title, which refers to a person, and "Past Vows" denotes dharma—therefore, in the Seven Categories of Sutra Titles, this Sutra belongs to the category of "Titles Consisting of Person and Dharma." "Dharma" is just a kind of karma; "Past Vows" refers to his fundamental activity karma — deeds and karma created in his past lives.

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. Anything [you can think of] can be found in these treasure troves, and there is something to suit everyone's fancy: all the precious diamonds, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, mother-of-pearl, to name a few.

If, say, you come into possession of a big, three-hundred-pound diamond, that should make you the world's richest person. I made some people laugh when I said "three-hundred-pound." They thought that was way too big. In fact, that is still "way too small"—the smallest of all, because the one that is "way too big" is practically too heavy for you to [even] pick up.

This Bodhisattva is replete with all these gracious virtues, thus the name "Earth Store."

The word Bodhisattva is Sanskrit, translated into Chinese means "an enlightened sentient being"—an enlightened one among [sentient] beings. It can also be translated "to enlighten beings"—leading others to enlightenment with the principles that oneself has become enlightened to.

In other words, it is "the enlightened [one] enlightening others"—oneself has become enlightened and wishes for all [sentient] beings to become enlightened. Put another way, it is "the benefited [one] benefiting others"—oneself has attained to great wisdom, and wishes for all [sentient] beings to attain to great wisdom. With great wisdom, there will be no more upside down thinking.

"Past Vows" refers not to vows made in the present but the ones he had made since the origin. Since the origin—when was that? It was countless eons ago when he made those vows. The power of vows from lives past is called "past vows." Similar to the Events of the Past Lives—one of the Twelve Divisions of Sutras—which are accounts of events in lives past, here, the past vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva are the vows he made in his past lives—not at the present, because by now he has already fulfilled his vows.

What were the vows he made? He vowed:

Until the hells are empty I vow to forgo Buddhahood;

When all beings are saved will I then certify to bodhi.

"Hells" refers to all the hells. Anytime the hells are not [yet] empty, he will hold off on becoming a Buddha; only when the hells are completely empty will he become a Buddha. Now, think about that. How great is that vow-power?

Earth Bodhisattva says, "I will be in the hells to receive and guide all the hungry ghosts. For each day that they have not been lead from suffering to bliss, for one more day I will hold off on Buddhahood. The hungry ghosts in the hells must completely gain deliverance, leave suffering, and attain bliss, and then I will become a Buddha.

Let's think that over. The karma [sentient] beings create is endless, so are [their] afflictions. Then how could the hells ever come to an end? Only when [sentient] beings' afflictions were ended and their karmic obstruction cleared would the hells then be empty. Yet, as we [sentient] beings’ karmic obstruction cannot be eradicated or their afflictions ended, how will the hells ever be empty?

From the standpoint of contemporary scientists and philosophers, wouldn't the vows which Earth Store Bodhisattva made—the power of his vows—be considered the silliest of conduct and notions? Why do I say "the silliest of conduct and notions"? He [first] had the notions which he put into action and which manifested in his conduct. However, isn't this kind of conduct and notions [way] too foolish? Why? The bottom line is: It cannot be done. Since fundamentally, the hells can never be empty, does it follow that fundamentally, Earth Store Bodhisattva stands no chance to ever become a Buddha?

No. It is not the silliest kind of conduct and notions. It is the kindest, most compassionate type of conduct and notions—and also the most filial. Why do I say that?

Earth Store Bodhisattva perceived in his contemplation that his mother had fallen into the hells where she was undergoing great sufferings, and he asked the Buddha to [help] take his mother across. Who is Earth Store Bodhisattva, really? He is the Venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, and he serves as a Bodhisattva in the hells. Why would he want to do that? He felt the pain which his mother underwent in the hells, and reflected on the issue of "extending filiality for one's elders to others' elders." "If my mom went through such sufferings, others' moms could also be put through the same sufferings," he thought.

Therefore, with a filiality that is equal, level and indiscriminating, he sought to rescue all hell beings and guide them from suffering to bliss. That is what Earth Store Bodhisattva's vows are about. No amount of words can fully describe the extent of his vow-power.

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