If you wish to understand the extremities of the Dharma realm, investigate their nature, and look into the causes that condition their existence, you must first find a reliable teaching upon which to base your studies. The Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra contains detailed descriptions of many heavens and hells, shows how men’s ignorance establishes them, and for those who genuinely wish to understand and practice, outlines and methods for their annihilation.

 The translation of this important Sutra, which begins in this issue of Vajra Bodhi Sea, is especially noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is accompanied by a commentary spoken by one whose mastery of the Way is undisputed.

The Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua’s lucid commentary delivered between the autumns of 1968 and 1969, makes even the most subtle principles remarkably clear.

      Second, it is translated by one who has been making an exhaustive study and diligent practice of the Buddhadharma for many years. Dharma Master Heng Ching is well qualified to understand the principles of the Sutra, and has made a reliable translation, which can be used for study and cultivation. He is a graduate of the University of Washington where he studied classical Chinese and pursued a course of Buddhist Studies with the eminent scholar Professor Edward Conze. He has been an outstanding disciple at the feet of the Venerable Master for many years, and his practice goes deep. He recently returned from a lecture tour to Hong Kong where he explained the Heart Sutra at the request of Buddhists there.

--Bhiksu Heng Kuan

The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva

Translated by Disciple Bhiksu Heng Ching


Sutras may be introduced, in a number of ways, all of which help bring out the basic meaning of the text. In studying this Sutra we shall approach the text through the investigation of the following six items:

1. the reasons for the arisal of the teaching;
            2. the division and vehicle to which the Sutra belongs;
            3. a determination of the Sutra's principle;
            4. a full explanation of the title;
            5. a history of the translation; and
            6. a detailed explanation of the body of the Sutra.

I. The reasons for the arisal of the teaching.

Shortly after he had been born from his mother's side, Sakyamuni's mother died and ascended to the heavens. After he had become a Buddha and had spoken Dharma for forty-nine years at ever three hundred assemblies, he went to the Trayastrimsa Heaven to teach her. This occurred between the speaking of The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra and The Nirvana Sutra. He stayed in that heaven for three months and spoke this Sutra of filial piety, The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva.

II. The division and vehicle to which the Sutra belongs.

Division refers to the three divisions of the canon, the Sutras, Sastras, and Vinaya. The division of the Sutras encompasses the study of samadhi, the Sastras discuss wisdom and the Vinaya deals with moral precepts.  Since this Sutra discusses morality it belongs to both the sutra and Vinaya stores.

Vehicle refers to the five vehicles. Although some people say that there are only three, those of the sound hearers, those enlightened to causation, and Bodhisattvas, the vehicles of men and gods can be added to these to make five. This Sutra deals with the vehicles of men, gods and Bodhisattvas.

III. Determining the principle of the Sutra.

The foundations of this Sutra are principles contained in eight terms grouped in four headings:

1. the practice of filial piety;
            2. the conversion of living beings;
            3. the rescuing of sufferers; and
            4. the repaying of kindness.

      1. To practice filial piety means to be filial to one's parents and thus to be a dazzling light over the entire world. Both heaven and earth are greatly pleased by filial piety and so it is said, "Heaven and earth deem filial piety essential; filial piety is foremost. With one filial son, an entire family is peaceful." If you are filial to your parents, your children will be filial to you; if you are not filial to your parents, your children will treat you in the same manner.

Someone is thinking, "What is the point of being human? Isn't it merely to try and muddle through?"

It is certainly not! The first duty of human beings is to be filial to their parents. Father and mother are heaven and earth, father and mother are all the elders, and father and mother are all the Buddhas. If you had no parents you would have no body, and if you had no body, you could not become a Buddha. If you want to become a Buddha, you must start out by being filial to your parents.

2. The conversion of living beings.

To convert simply means to cross over. Just as the Six Paramitas are also known as the six crossings over, to cross means to go from one shore to another, from affliction to Bodhi. To cross over beings does not mean to cross over a mere one, two, three, or four, but to cross over all of the ten kinds of living beings so that they reach Buddhahood.

3. Rescuing the sufferers.

This Sutra is able to pull living beings out of their sufferings.

4. The repaying of kindness.

This means to repay the kindness of parents.

I have only mentioned the essential points of these four phrases and will leave it to you to make further investigation of them.

At the mention of the first of these headings, the practice of filial piety, some people will immediately think of rushing home to be filial to their parents. This in itself is an excellent wish and is quite commendable.  It is extremely important, however, that those who return home to care for their parents do not forget everything they have learned and find themselves slipping back into their old habits. The way to practice ultimate filial piety is to learn how to be a model for and a benefit to the world; the very best way to do that is to study and practice the Buddhadharma.

There are four kinds of filial piety: limited, extensive, contemporary, and classic. Limited filial piety is to be filial within your own family, but to be unable to "treat others' elders as your own, treat others' children as your own." With extensive filial piety you reach throughout the world and take all fathers and mothers in the world as your own. Although this filial piety is large, it by no means can be called ultimate filial piety.

Question: What, then, is ultimate filial piety?

Answer: It is far beyond the scope of these four. Sakyamuni Buddha's father locked him in the palace and he stole away to cultivate austerities in the Himalayas for six years after which he finally realized Buddhahood beneath the Bodhi tree. After he had become a Buddha he ascended to the heavens to speak Dharma for his mother. This is ultimate filial piety.

Contemporary filial piety is to model oneself on present day examples of filial piety and study their methods of behavior.

Classic filial piety is to be filial to all the myriad things, in the same way as the twenty-four paragons of filial virtue in China. But even classic filial piety is not ultimate. If you want to practice ultimate filiality you should investigate and practice the Buddhadharma, learn to be a good person and an aid to the world. The practice of acts, which benefit society, is being genuinely filial to your parents.

IV. A full explanation of the title.


The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva.


The name of this sutra is The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, and among the Seven Classifications of Sutra Titles it belongs to those made up of a person and a dharma. Earth Store Bodhisattva is the person and past vows a dharma. Past vows can also be said to represent karma since they are deeds, which he performed in the past.

Earth Store Bodhisattva is named after the earth, which not only gives birth to things and makes them grow, but which can store a great many things within it as well. Because this Bodhisattva is like the earth, he can produce the myriad things and make them grow. Anyone who believes in him may obtain the treasures stored in the ground: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, mother of pearl, red pearls, and carnelian.

Bodhisattva is composed of two words, Bodhi, which means "enlightenment", and sattva, which means "being". A Bodhisattva can be said to be either one who enlightens living beings or an enlightened living being.

Past vows also means fundamental vows, vows which were made aeons ago. Long ago in the distant past he vowed, "If the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha; when living beings have all been saved, I will attain to Bodhi."

The hells cannot cease to exist until the Dharma and the afflictions of living beings have come to an end, and that can never happen due to the nature of living beings. Viewed in the light of modern science and philosophy, isn't Earth Store Bodhisattva's behavior remarkably stupid?  Doesn't it mean that Earth Store Bodhisattva's will never have an opportunity to become a Buddha?

No, it does not mean that he cannot become a Buddha, and his vow is by no means stupid. In fact, his behavior is a manifestation of great compassion.

Question: Just who is Earth Store Bodhisattva and what does his name mean?

Answer: He is Mahamaudgalyayana, the Buddha's disciple who saw his mother in the hells and implored the Buddha to rescue her. Since he follows the filial way with no discrimination, he recalled the principle that all elders should be treated as ones own, and all the young in the world looked upon as ones own children. Realizing that just as his own mother was suffering so too might all the mothers in the world be tormented, he became a Bodhisattva in the hells. His Sanskrit name is Ksitigarbha, "Earth Store".  There are ten aspects of the earthy it is wide and extensive; it supports all living beings; it is impartial; it receives the great rain; it produces grass and trees; it holds all planted seeds; it holds many treasures; it produces medicines; it is not moved by the blowing wind; and it does not tremble at the lion's roar.

Question: Isn't the reason that it is impartial and doesn't react to the great wind, etc., simply that the earth is an inanimate object without any feelings at all?

Answer: The feelings of the earth are not those, which we perceive, but it, too, has feeling. The earth is also a sentient being.

Past vows renders the Sanskrit term Pranidhana; the full title of the Sutra may be reconstructed as The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Pranidhana sutra. The vows, which he has made throughout the aeons, have all been for the sake of the practice of filial piety.

Sutra has, among others, the following meanings

1. To traverse. There are many roads, which can be traveled, but if you want to become a Buddha you must go down the road that leads to the goal, i.e., down the road pointed out by the Sutras.

2. A guideline. Sutras are like the mark left by a carpenter's chalkline; they show a clear and straight path which marks the most direct way to the goal.

3. A garland. Sutras string together manifold principles like flowers in a chain.

4. Thread. Sutras string principles together as a thread links beads in a strand.

5. Attract. Sutras are like lodestones, which attract iron filings.  People are attracted to Sutras just like iron to a magnet, and those of you who are now studying this Sutra have been attracted to it in this way. The force, of course, cannot be seen, but its result can, and if it is a great force it will attract more people than will a small one.

6. Permanent. Not a meaning can be added or subtracted from Sutras for to do so is to merit the hells.

7. Law. The law is honored in the past, present, and future, if is a constant model by which beings may conduct themselves.

8. Tally. Anciently contracts were written out and divided between the concerned parties. When the terms of an agreement were fulfilled or whenever identity connected with the contract had to be established the two pieces were brought together and matched to see whether or not they tallied. Sutras are much like this in that they tally with the principles of all Buddhas above and with the capacity of beings below.

Earlier I said that the earth receives the great rain, and the plants grow on it. In these explanations there are often interconnected relationships which you should look out for. Grasses and trees represent the potential capacity of living beings, and Sutras are the Dharma rain, which falls on them. Each plant absorbs the amount of moisture proper to it, more in the case of great trees and less in the case of grasses. Each receives an appropriate share of the total rainfall. This analogy holds for the relationship which people have with Sutras. Studying this Sutra, for example, will lead the wise who study it to understand the principles appropriate to them, and will cause the dull to understand principles appropriate to their own needs. Everyone who has good roots planted in the Buddhadharma will obtain the advantage proper to him: those who have no good roots will be led to plant good roots. Because Earth Store Bodhisattva practiced filial conduct in every life, this Sutra is known as a Buddhist classic of filial piety. This is an extremely important principle, for if people are not filial to their parents, they have not fulfilled the fundamental responsibility of human beings. It is essential that people repay the enormous kindness shown them by their parents.

Confucius discusses this topic at length, and his statements may be found in the Classic of Filial Piety where it is said,

Chung Ni sat at ease and Tseng Tzu attended upon him. The Master said, "The kings of old regulated the empire by means of perfect virtue and the essentials of the Way. The people were in harmony so that between high and low there was no quarrelling. Did you know that?"

Tseng Tzu arose from his seat and said, "Shen is stupid, how could he have known?"

The Master said, "Filial piety is the root of all virtue and the origin of teaching. Sit down, I will tell you about it. The person, body, hair, and skin are given by the parents; one dare not harm them.

This is the beginning of filial piety."

In the very opening of this discourse Chung Ni, Confucius, discusses filial piety in terms of all elders, and not just one's own parents. Since Tseng Tzu was Confucius' disciple, he waited on his teacher with filiality. When Confucius said that "The person, body, hair, and skin, are given by the parents; one dare not harm them," he was not speaking as many contemporary young people do, to justify their scraggily dirty hair and unwashed condition. Such people claim that haircuts and baths would be harming the natural state of their bodies. Such a position is quite untenable, for what is meant by harming the body is not the superficial acts of maintaining and grooming it; these things, particularly the matter of haircuts, are mere matters of social convention. When Confucius said not to harm the body, he meant not to destroy it. Strangely enough there are hippies around these days who actually know that Confucius proclaimed this principle, yet they take all manner of bizarre poisonous chemicals and drugs, at the same time claiming that they will not wash or cut their hair because to do so would be unfilial.  They put their parents’ a thousand miles aside and indeed, often forget their parents' very names. In the midst of their 'natural' filiality they often run afoul of the law and occasionally even get shot. Such behavior is a sign of anything but filial piety and must be rectified.

Now that I am living in this country I certainly hope that its citizens will be law-abiding and orderly people, and that everyone will consider his actions and do only what is beneficial for the country and all humanity. I hope that all the wrongs, which are found throughout human society, will be righted. These are manifestations of true filial piety.

V. History of the translation.


      Translated in the T'ang Dynasty by Tripitaka Master Sramana Siksananda of Khotan.


Although some editions of this Sutra attribute the translation to Dharma Master Fa Teng of the Ch'en Dynasty, most credit it to Tripitaka Master Siksananda of Khotan, a central Asian country, the name of which means "Earth Milk". An early king of that country who was without an heir prayed to the god of a local temple for a son. From the image's head came a child who would drink neither human nor cow milk, but only a particular milky fluid, which appeared on the earth. As a result of this mysterious happening the country was given its rather unusual name.

Sramanera is a Sanskrit word which means both 'energetic' and 'resting', because a sramana energetically cultivates morality, samadhi, and wisdom and puts greed, hatred, and stupidity to rest.

Siksananda, "delight in study", was so named because of his joy in learning Buddhadharma.

— To be continued —