Study Guide to the Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows

Lecture given by Master Sheng Chang Hwang at Dong Shan Institute of Buddhism

In the Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows, all the dharma transmitted by Buddha and various Bodhisattvas are exquisitely profound and hard to believe, not to mention difficult to comprehend. After years of Buddhist practice, my fellow practitioners and I have come to the realization that these minds of ours are petty, dull, and of little faith, and we are too limited to absorb and hold many grand dharma being transmitted. However, please allow me to share the points of emphasis that my petty mind finds relevant.

1. This sutra is addressed to you and me.

The assembly in Trayastrimsas Heaven1 was originally gathered for the sake of Lady Maya, mother of Prince Siddhartha. When Bodhisattva2 Ksitigarbha3 appeared, the nature of that assembly was changed to address all the beings in the period of declining dharma4 (this era) in south Jambudvipa (this earth) because the teachings are exactly what we need to hear. Therefore, this assembly is set for you and me, and this sutra is most indispensable for all of us. During the assembly, Buddha, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, other Bodhisattvas and many ghost kings gave us – the sentient beings of this time and this earth – this name: “the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings”, because they have observed that we possess the following characteristics: (1) all actions and thoughts are flawed with ill-deeds and sin, (2) occasionally a good thought is generated but it fades away very fast; even when benefits are gained, the original kindness recesses rapidly, and if unfortunate conditions arise, the evil deeds will appear one after another, and (3) although Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha came to our rescue we continue to be in and out of desperate situations repeatedly.

For the above three reasons, we all possess the characteristics of “the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings”; therefore we become the primary audience to be enlightened by this sutra, and we are the prime targets for Ksitigarbha’s salvation and illumination.

2. Making connections with the Three Jewels and Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha by knowing the dharma of “what suffering is and what is happiness”.

This sutra has made very clear from the very beginning that the sentient beings of this era and this earth are obstinate and hard to tame, therefore we fail to make close connection with the Three Jewels5.

In order to make close connection with the Three Jewels, the sequence is: (1) start from knowing and truly agreeing to the dharma on “suffering and happiness” according to Buddha’s view point. Once we do that, we have made a primary connection with the Three Jewels. (2) We can advance further to know the dharma of “virtues and evils”. (3) If we can further step up to know the dharma of “truth-false and right-wicked”, then we are having a tighter connection with the Three Jewels.

Unfortunately, as “obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings”, we are indifferent to “what is happiness and what is suffering” as Buddha taught it, therefore, we are unable to differentiate what is truly beneficial and what is truly evil, not to mention knowing the truth-false and right-wicked. Consequently, we are unable to take homage in the Three Jewels, thus forever live in a state of delusion, upside-down-ness, slumberous, ignorance and stupidity that wisdom is unable to elicit. This is a very important message provided by the Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow.

3. From knowing the dharma of “suffering and happiness” to learning the Four Noble Truths6.

Once we learned the dharma of “suffering and happiness”, we need to reflect on why we suffered in the past. Why are we suffering now? What will be the suffering in the future? Why do all sentient beings suffer? After we have a truthful understanding of “suffering”, we are connected with the Truth of Suffering of the Four Noble Truths.

If we can further ask the question: Why do all these sentient beings and I magnetize these sufferings? What have we done to bring about these sufferings? How do we suffer these sufferings? How do we react to these sufferings? Thus we find out the causes of sufferings, and that is the beginning of learning the dharma of differentiating “virtue and evil”. Once we have a correct and revived cognition about suffering, we are entering the Truth of Magnetization.

When we comprehend the truth of suffering and stop the magnetization, then all the causes of suffering and the bitter fruit of suffering will cease. This is the Truth of Cessation.

Then we can step up with another question: Is there any way all the sentient beings and I can depart from all the suffering? And can we forever stop attracting such suffering? Does such a wonderful possibility truly exist? What kind of “ways” will bring us to that superb state? Since we know there are the Ways of Ten Beneficial Deeds and the Ways of Cultivation via the Three Vehicles7, how can we correctly walk onto these ways? If we can make a vow to cultivate these ways, then we are engaging in the Truth of the Way, which is the way to depart from suffering and gain happiness.

The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow will swiftly guide us from knowing the dharma of “suffering and happiness” into the Four Noble Truths. With that understanding, we are helped to take homage in Bodhisattva-Mahasattva8 Ksitigarbha and the Three Jewels.

4. Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Ksitigarbha is the prime representative of the dharma on the Power of Vow.

Because we are the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings, without the help from Buddha we will not understand the dharma of “suffering and happiness”, so we could never get to know the dharma of The Four Noble Truths. Consequently, we are under the influence of the Power of Karma forever.

In the Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow, we learn about the four past lives of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, which teaches us that even Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha had to rely on the Power of Vow as the only way and means to overcome the Power of Karma. As long as we are willing, our future can be guided by the Power of Vow and be free from the controlling force of Karma; in addition, we can forever leave the karma track to gain true freedom and true deliverance.

The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow tells us that Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha is the prime representative of the Vows9 of all Bodhisattvas and Buddhas in the ten directions10 of the past, present and future; Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha also represents “the original wish” of all sentient beings in the six realms11, and the wish is to make our subjective and objective world permanent, happy, meaningful, and clean. Besides, the wish is to avoid any ill-fortune and to gain fortune; to depart from suffering and to gain happiness. Therefore, all sentient beings need to take homage in Ksitigarbha to synchronize their vows with his grand vow.

5. To know the Invisible World.

This Sutra informs us that the dominant forces from the invisible world are far greater than the forces in the visible world, and the destiny of all beings in the visible world is dominated by this invisible world.

What is the “invisible world”?

Any existences that cannot be recognized by our six senses – the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind – are present in the invisible world.

For sentient beings like us whose mind are petty, dull and of little faith, the invisible world includes all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pratyeka-buddhas12, Arhats13, ghost, gods, fairies, demons, and the majority of sentient beings in the lower three realms14. It also includes places that we haven’t traveled to, things we haven’t experienced, people whom we don’t know, including ourselves, and our past, forgotten sufferings. They are all pushed back into the invisible world by us.

Why do we say that all humans, and we ourselves, are in the invisible world?

Just think about this “mind” of ours: it has no appearance, no shape, no smell, no flavor, but is very elusive. Doesn’t that belong to the realm of the invisible? How about the “three poisonous fires of the mind15”? How about our past and future, don’t they belong to the invisible world? Are we aware of the presence of all sentient beings? What has happened to the past and the future of our loved ones? Do we know their thoughts? Aren’t those all in the realm of the invisible?

The world of the invisible is extremely vast and profound. It is the source of all energies and controls the destinies of all of the sentient beings in the visible world; only we are ignorant, unaware and insensitive to such existence!

The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow helps us to comprehend and experience that the invisible world is very powerful, while the visible world that we consider powerful is actually quite impotent!

6. The “ten virtues and ten evils16” is the link from the visible world to the invisible world.

Since we can materialize suffering and happiness, the dharma of suffering and happiness exists mostly in the visible world. Nevertheless, if we try to cover up and forget about the suffering, the suffering is pushed into the invisible world, such as after delivering a baby, a mother forgets about the excruciating pain of labor.

The Dharma of Virtue and Evil exists mostly in the invisible world, especially the three poison fires of the mind and the deeds of the mind. When sentient beings commit the ten evil deeds, they suffer the eight sufferings17. If we depart from the ten evils, we can depart from all sufferings and gain happiness. Therefore, if we want to reach into the invisible world, we need to contemplate the bitter or sweet fruits that we have received as the consequences of ten evils or ten virtues in the visible world. That is the linkage.

As we try to depart from the path of ten evils, The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow provides us with many convenient methods to make the connection from visible world into invisible world possible.

For example, we had always learned to pay attention to concrete people, events and things with fixed concepts as a result of our petty and limited mind, which was far from being broad-minded and wise. Therefore, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha suggests that we create statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva, to whom we will offer tribute and provisions along with participating in various activities related to the Three Jewels, and chanting Buddhas’ and Bodhisattvas’ names as convenient ways to help us contemplate their merits, virtuous deeds, and blessings, to lead us from the visible presence into the invisible world. The statues are there to remind us of the process, which is the best way to expand and elevate our mind.

Also, the purpose of repentance through honestly and bravely revealing the cause of the evils will not only quickly bring us out of the state of cowardice, fear, stress and impotence; it will also elicit our wisdom and strength. Again, this very act will lead us from the visible world – out of our evil deeds (consequences), to the invisible world – a state of relief, freedom and wisdom.

Without following the teaching of this Sutra, it is very difficult to get into the invisible world.

On the other hand, although unconscious, we are not immune to the invisible world. When we committed the ten evil deeds, our mentalities turned out very much like that of animals and hell beings. Therefore, we often entered the invisible world without knowing how we traveled the path until we suffered severe pain and agony, then realized that we had already fallen into the lower three realms.

Our mind often falls to the low level of the invisible world without realizing the path. That is a dangerous matter. The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow gives us severe warning about the presence of the invisible world that we need to acknowledge promptly, but have failed to do so.

7. Advice at the times of birth and death.

Since we fail to know that we frequently travel to the invisible world, especially at the times of birth and death, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha and the Ghost Kings clearly provide us with very practical advice.

They tell us not to indulge ourselves either in mourning or celebrating, neither to worship ghosts and gods nor to offend them. The only thing that we can do is to forsake beloved objects and monetary belongings to provide for Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha and all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as supporting Buddhist activities. This is the best and most positive communication with the invisible world during the times of birth and death.

8. The Principle of Giving – the nobilities should care for the public while commoners make offering to the Three Jewels.

For kings, high ranking officers, nobilities, and worldly leaders, the Sutra says if those people can humbly give alms to the suffering and indigent people, their merits will be much greater than if they make provision to the Three Jewels. For commoners who have little wealth and power, provisions to the Three Jewels carry greater merits than almsgiving.

9. Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Ksitigarbha is the prime representative of all the inconceivable powers. At the assembly in Trayastrimsas Heaven, not only does Sakyamuni Buddha entrust Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha with the mission to rescue the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings like us, but all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in ten directions also jointly deputize Him with the mission. Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha repeatedly responded with solemn vows to ease their concern.

Here we must clearly acknowledge the merits of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha to comprehend the reason why he alone, of all the Bodhisattvas, was entrusted by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

First of all, his profound grand vow is inconceivable; secondly, he has inconceivable miraculous power, inconceivable compassion, inconceivable wisdom, inconceivable eloquence, and inconceivable convenient ways. With these infinite merits, Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha is our sole rescuer – the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings in the Jambudvipa world during the “Dharma Declining Period.” We must firmly keep this point in mind.

10. The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow is the most important sutra for all the sentient beings of this earth and this era to be connected with Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.

Each Buddha and Bodhisattva has his own special cultivation method that calls for specific prerequisites, and most cultivation methods are designed for virtuous men and virtuous women18 who have made the vow of Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi19. Right now we are unable to pull ourselves out of the path of ten harmful deeds and the eight sufferings; therefore, all these exquisite cultivation methods are beyond our reach. The cultivation methods provided by Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha are the most lenient, and do not ask for any qualification other than acknowledging the fact that we are the obstinate, hard to tame, habitual evil-doing, sinful-suffering beings who lack merits and are short of virtues. Once we make correct connection with Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, we will be strengthened by His miraculous power so we can cultivate various superb methods of Ksitigarbha that are specially designed for us. After practicing these methods, we can easily get connected with all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and their various cultivation methods. Nonetheless, being familiar with The Sutra of Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vow is the first step.

Notes: 1 Trayastrimsas Heaven is also named the Thirty-three Heaven situated on top of Mt. Sumeru. When Lady Maya passed away seven days after giving birth to Prince Siddhartha, she was reborn in this heaven.

2 Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word. “Bodhi” means enlightenment, and “sattva” means a being with feelings.

3 Ksitigarbha means the hidden treasures of the visible world.

4 In Buddhist ideology, human civilization goes through four periods: the period of correct dharma, the period of similar dharma, the period of declining dharma, and the period of vanished dharma. The definition for the period of declining dharma is that the sutras are still available, but hardly anyone can comprehend them.

5 Three Jewels refers to Buddha, Dharma (teachings given by Buddha and Bodhisattvas), and Sangha (a group of Buddhist practitioners who can lead other beings to Buddha and dharma).

6 The Four Noble Truths was the first teaching to human kind given by Buddha after he realized his Buddhahood. They are: the Truth of Suffering, the Truth of Magnetizing, the Truth of Cessation, and the Truth of Way. It symbolizes that anyone who wishes to know Buddhism must learn the dharma of the Four Noble Truths as the foundation.

7 The Three Vehicles in Buddhist practice are: the Hinayana vehicle (the practice to realize the enlightenment as an Arhat), the middle vehicle (the practice to realize the enlightenment as a Pratyeka Buddha) and the Mahayana vehicle (the practice to realize the enlightenment as Bodhisattva and Buddha).

8 Bodhisattva-Mahasattva is a title for those highly accomplished Bodhisattvas. “Maha” means great and “sattva” means a sentient being.

9 The Vow of Ksitigarbha is that he will free all sentient beings from suffering forever and lead them to meet Buddha in order to be predestined as Buddhas (Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 4, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13) before he himself becomes a Buddha.

10 The ten directions are east, west, south, north, north-east, south-east, south-west, northwest, top and bottom. In other words, the number of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are infinite.

11 Six realms are the realms of celestial beings, humans, hungry ghosts, animals, hell beings, and asuras who are the powerful beings present in the realms of the rest of beings.

12 Pratyeka-Buddha is the one who has a breakthrough with complete understanding of the “Twelve Links of Cause and Consequence” through self-contemplation because he is born at the time when the Three Jewels are not available. The practice of Pratyeka-Buddha is also referred to as the Middle Vehicle.

13 Arhat is the highest status in Hinayana practice or Small Vehicle. The practitioner has to separate himself from total mundane living to follow Buddha in person. An Arhat realizes the seed of the mind and the essence of “no effort”.

14 The lower three realms of existence are to be avoided, as the sufferings are intense and the chance for enlightenment is extremely dim. They are: the realms of hungry ghosts, animals and hell beings.

15 The three poison fires of the mind are greed, hatred, and ignorance. They are also the deeds of the mind – greed/stinginess, hatred/jealousy, and arrogance with erroneous views.

16 The Ten Evil (Harmful) Deeds are: killing, stealing, wrongful sex (3 bodily actions); lies, alienating speech, harmful speech, frivolous speech (4 speeches); greed/stinginess, hatred/jealousy, arrogance with erroneous views (3 deeds of the mind). Once we depart from the evil deeds, all subsequent deeds are virtuous. Therefore, as long as we keep ourselves away from the evil deeds, we are doing good deeds, and there is no further need to perform any “good” deeds.

17 The Eight Sufferings are: sufferings of birth and living, aging, ailing, dying, parting from the loved, meeting with the hated, unable to have desires met, and living in constant irritation and pressure.

18 The definition for a virtuous man and a virtuous woman is one who fully upholds the ten virtuous deeds, away from the ten evils.

19 Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi refers to the specific vow where one wants to reach the highest and perfect enlightenment to become a Buddha. Such enlightenment includes the understanding of the mind process of all beings.

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