Ksitigarbha, the Earth Store Bodhisattva

The Bodhisattva of the Great Vow


The next Bodhisattva is Ksitigarbha, which means "Earth Store" or "Womb of the Earth" Bodhisattva. His Chinese name, Ti Tsang (Dizang), carries the same meaning; he is often called "Ti Tsang Wang" because some consider him to be the King of Hell.

This idea is a popularization of his true role. Here at Hsi Lai, we call Ksitigarbha the "Bodhisattva of Great Vow." This is because, although all Bodhisattvas make Vows, his is one of the most astonishing: He has vowed that he will stay in hell until hell itself is emptied! For this reason his popularity is second only to Avalokitesvara's in countries influenced by the Confucian ideal of filial piety. After all, some of my ancestors may be in hell, and Ksitigarbha will get them out!

In The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra we learn something of his motivations. In several of his previous incarnations, he was deeply concerned about his mother's fate after death.

In one version, Ksitigarbha was a woman named Kuang Mu. An Arhat to whom she made an offering granted her one wish. She asked to know where her mother had gone after death. Entering into meditation, the Arhat learned that Kuang Mu's mother was undergoing punishment in hell. The Arhat asked Kuang Mu why her mother should suffer so much. Kuang Mu said that her mother had often enjoyed eating young tortoises. The Arhat assigned Kuang Mu some practices to alleviate her mother's suffering; after performing them, she had a dream in which the Buddha told her that her mother would soon be born in her home. Subsequently, one of Kuang Mu's maids had a daughter who began talking when only three days old! She told Kuang Mu that she was indeed Kuang Mu's mother, who had been rescued from hell by Kuang Mu's diligence. Sadly, she added that she would die at age thirteen, and fall into hell again. Kuang Mu then resolved to dedicate herself to rescue all beings from hell--a promise carried out when she became Ksitigarbha Bodhiattva.

A second such legend portrays Ksitigarbha as a Brahmin maiden named "Sacred Girl." Her mother had often spoken ill of the Triple Gem (the Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha), so, when her mother died, Sacred Girl was concerned for her fate. Sacred Girl then sold all that she had, and used the money to make offerings to the Buddha on her mother's behalf. One day as she was again requesting the Buddha's help at the temple, she heard the Buddha speaking to her, telling her to go home and meditate. The Buddha would then reveal to her the fate of her mother. She did, and was transported to the hell realm, where she learned that her mother had already ascended to heaven through her efforts. However, the sight of all those remaining in hell led her to vow to save them. And so she later, after many more lives, became the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.

In yet another tale, the Bodhisattva descended to hell to comfort his own mother, where he learned that she had already been reborn as a dog. He found and adopted this dog, and for that reason Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is often portrayed with a dog as his companion.

He is also portrayed--as here--bearing a staff with six rings. These signify the six hell-realms, one for each realm of beings (celestial beings, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings). Such staffs were often carried by monks as they traveled so that the jangling of the rings could warn small creatures and insects out of their path. For this reason it is sometimes called an "alarm staff."

He is often seen seated on a Lotus throne, wearing a crown. This, as mentioned above, is because of his attribution as Yama, the "King of Hell"--an association that many Buddhists reject. He is not there to judge beings, but to release them! He is also portrayed as a monk, which has caused some to confuse him with the Tang Dynasty Tripitaka master Hsuan Tsang. In Japan statues of Ksitigarbha, there called "Jizo," are often seen standing at a crossroads; many times there are six such statues, again one for each realm.


In front of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva:

O Ksitigarbha, Bodhisattva of the Great Vow!

I ask you to help me gain control over my will and destroy all unwholesome intentions.

Through your great promise to save all sentient beings from the six hells, you have demonstrated extraordinary willpower, and you have delayed your own Buddhahood until all afflicted beings are free.

Through this great act of will, you have shown us how much merit the intentions of one person can create.

Let me also, by cultivating my will, attain this excellence.

Help me to conquer wrong intentions.

Help me to practice right decision-making, right speech, and right action,

that I may dedicate further merit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

O great Earth Store, hear my prayer!

O great Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, hear my prayer!

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