The Sutra of the Past Vows of
Earth Store Bodhisattva

Translated by Disciple Bhiksu Heng Ching

Sponsored by the Buddhist Text Translation Society


      Thus I have heard, at one time the Buddha dwelt in the Trayastrimsa Heaven speaking Dharma for his mother. At that time an indescribable number of Buddhas as well as great Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas from limitless worlds in the ten directions all assembled together to praise Sakyamuni Buddha’s ability to manifest the power of indescribable great wisdom and spiritual penetrations in the evil world of the five turbidities, as well as his ability to regulate and subdue obstinate living beings so that they might come to know the dharmas of suffering and bliss. Each of these, accompanied by his attendants, greeted the World Honored One.


      Beginning the Sutra with the word “Thus” shows that it has been verified as being credible and authentic, and that its use accords with the instructions given by the Buddha to the Venerable Ananda.

When the Buddha was just about to enter Nirvana, the Venerable Ananda was distraught with grief, wept and became disheveled. The Venerable Aniruddha who, although blind, was foremost in the powers of the heavenly eye and who could see all of the world systems of a billion worlds as if they were an apple in his palm, noticed Ananda's condition, and being a bit more levelheaded under the circumstances, suggested to Ananda that he not cry but instead take care of some important matters while there was still time. He then suggested that Ananda put the following four questions to the Buddha:

(1) "When the Sutras are compiled how shall we begin them in order to show that they are the Buddha's words?" The Buddha answered this question by instructing that Sutras should begin with the phrase, 'Thus have I heard.'

(2) "When the Buddha was in the world, we dwelt with him. Now that he will be gone where should we live?" The Buddha instructed his disciples to dwell in the four stations of mindfulness; contemplation of the body as impure, contemplation of feelings as suffering, contemplation of thoughts as impermanent, and contemplation of dharmas as devoid of a self.

(3) "Now that the Buddha will not be in the world who shall we revere as our teacher?" The Bhiksus were told to take the Pratimoksa, the precepts, as their master.

(4) "How shall we deal with evil-natured monks?" The Buddha said that such persons should be silently ignored.

When the Sutras were being compiled, Ananda was excluded from the meeting, which gathered behind closed doors. As he stood outside the assembly he suddenly realized the state of Arhatship and was able to enter the meeting even though no one came to open the entranceway for him. Although he was the most junior Arhat, he had a better memory than any of the others, and in addition had been the attendant not only to Sakyamuni Buddha but to all the Buddhas of the past. Sakyamuni Buddha, furthermore, had said that his attendant was to compile and edit the Sutras, and so it came to pass that Ananda presided over that assembly.

When he ascended the Dharma seat to compile the canon, Ananda's appearance suddenly changed and took on that of the Buddha with the exception that he was three inches shorter. Consequently a number of doubts occurred among the assembly. Some thought that perhaps Sakyamuni Buddha had not entered Nirvana and was still in the world, others thought that a Buddha from another world system had come, while still others thought Ananda himself had become a Buddha.

When he began his speeches with "Thus I have heard," Ananda did so to cut off the doubts about who was speaking, to honor the Buddha's instruction, to put an end to the arguments which might have come about if some of the senior members of the assembly were to accuse him of having made the texts up himself, and to distinguish Buddhist from non-Buddhist Sutras, since all of the latter begin with some variant of the words "existence" or "non-existence".

Why did Ananda say "I", rather than say "my ear", heard? The word "I" is used to represent the entire person whereas the term ear would be partial.

In order for a Sutra to be spoken there are a certain number of conditions, which must be fulfilled. These are called the Six Establishments.  They are the establishments of credibility, a hearer, a time, a host, a place, and an assembly. The initial word of the text, "Thus", establishes the first of these, the credibility of the Sutra. The first sentence establishes the second, the hearer.

Question: Why doesn't the text state a particular time and date so that we could know exactly when it was that the Buddha spoke this Dharma?

Answer: Calendars of different cultures differ, with the year beginning at different times. What some calendars reckon as the first month is the fourth or fifth in others. If specific dates were mentioned, not only would there be no way to determine exactly when they were, but some people, archeologists and the like, would feel compelled to do vast amounts of research and waste huge amounts of time and energy in an effort to solve an unsolvable problem. To avoid such complications the Sutras merely say " one time", thus fulfilling the third of the Six Establishments, that of time.

      The Buddha fulfills the fourth, establishment of a host.

The Travastrimsa Heaven fulfills the establishment of a place, the fifth of the Six Establishments.

Speaking Dharma for the sake of his mother is the sixth establishment. The Buddha's mother, the Lady Maya, "great illusion", ascended to the Trayastrimsa Heaven seven days after her son's birth. The Lady Maya has been the mother of all the Buddha's and will also be the mother of future Buddhas, each of whom must go to the Trayastrimsa Heaven to speak Dharma for her. All of this is done the way actors perform in plays. Those who understand the world know that it is just like a theater piece in which people come together, are separated and undergo all manners of both comic and tragic experiences. Although the theatergoers experience emotional reactions of pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate, desire, and so forth at the theater, those who understand know that it is all just a play, a dream, an illusion and a shadow. The Diamond Sutra says:

"As a dream, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
            A mock show, dewdrops or a bubble,
            So should one view what is conditioned."

The Buddha, dwelling in the Playful Samadhi teaches living beings as if nothing were going on, quite unlike ordinary folk who are attached in every which way. "East", they insist, "is east and west is west and that's all there is to that." This sort of view is what keeps living beings from seeing the total interpenetration and non-obstructed fusion of all things. Because they do not understand that there is nothing, which is not false and empty, living beings bind themselves. In the Playful Samadhi the Buddha, at the request of his father, the wheel—turning king, or in some cases at the request of Brahma, speaks Dharma for his mother in the heavens. At this assembly he spoke the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva.

At that time does not have the meaning it did in the phrase, "THUS I have heard at one time...” Here it can be explained in the following five ways:

(1) At the time when he wished to speak, the time the Buddha desired to speak the dharma of filial piety;

(2) At the time when he wished to destroy externalists;

(3) At the time of planting seeds. After seeds are planted, there is a period during which the roots grow, then they sprout and are harvested. The Buddha teaches those who have not planted good roots to plant the seeds which will give birth to them, and then tells them how to nurture and cultivate those roots. Once the seeds have grown they must be harvested or else they are useless. Once good roots have been planted there still must be cultivation so that the fruit is ripened and the harvest of liberation is attained.

(4) At the time of a true teacher. In order to study Buddhadharma there must be a master who understands a true teaching, and a desire to study.  Without the desire for true study, both the teacher and the teaching are useless. If you have a true teaching and a desire to study, but no true teacher, there is no way to attain the goal.

(5) At that time also means at the time when the Buddha likes to speak Dharma and when living beings like to hear it. Both the speaking and the hearing of Dharma are on one level since the teaching and the taught are interlinked. There is no high or low in this so that when the Buddha likes to speak Dharma living beings like to listen.

Although this Sutra was spoken for the Buddha's mother, the twelve hundred fifty Bhiksus who followed the Buddha, as well as Sakra and numerous other gods were all present. Therefore the establishment of the assembly is made by the phrase "...for the sake of his mother..." for it includes the great assembly, thus completing the Six Establishments.

Sakyamuni is a specific name of a particular Buddha; Buddha is the name common to all Buddhas. Sakya, "capable of humaneness", is a family name which indicates the humaneness with which this Buddha crosses all living beings from suffering to, bliss. Muni, "still and silent"— the Confucians say, "...arrived, ended, nothing further to add." "Still and silent” refers to samadhi; "capable of humaneness" represents the aspect of immutability.  Although the Buddha accords with particular conditions he does not change; as he is still and unmoving in samadhi he can respond to the thoughts of living beings. Since he is "still and silent" he can know everything; since he is "capable of humaneness" he can see everything. Thus it is said, "The thoughts of all living beings are known and seen by the Thus Come One." Because of this, cultivators of the Way receive a response, which corresponds exactly with their own sincerity. Those whose thoughts contain one degree of sincerity receive one degree of response, those who show tenfold sincerity receive a tenfold response, and those who have a millionfold sincere thoughts receive that great a response. From the original, enlightened, still and unmoving ground, Sakyamuni Buddha can move to reach out and aid living beings.

Buddha, "the enlightened one", is so called because he has perfected the three enlightenments, inherent, initial, and ultimate, as well as the ten thousand virtues. Everyone who cultivates in accordance with the principles of Buddhadharma can attain the position/of an enlightened Buddha. Upon becoming enlightened Sakyamuni Buddha said:

All living beings have the Thus Come One's knowledge and vision, and only are kept from actualizing it due to their attachments and false thoughts.

Turbidity is a condition which occurs when substances become confused in one another as when dirt is put into clear water. The original qualities of both are lost in the turbid mixture that results. Earth is fundamentally obstructive and can support objects placed on it; water is basically clean and flows freely. When the two are mixed the resultant mud can neither support any weight or flow freely, and the clear attributes of the constituent elements are lost in the murky mess.

The five turbidities follow:

(1) Time is turbid because it cannot be distinguished clearly. There is no such thing as time, only the arbitrary, and none too clear, divisions established by beings.

(2) Views are turbid since they cannot be seen clearly. Everyone has his own views; if an attempt is made to separate the substance of one person's views from those of another, it is found to be impossible.

(3) Afflictions are turbid because everyone has his own, yet individuals can still set one another's afflictions off. If one person's were truly his alone there would be no way for him to annoy or trouble other people. It is just because they cannot be clearly demarcated that afflictions are turbid.

(4) Living beings are turbid because a human in one life may suddenly become a dog, cat, or even a worm in his next life. Living beings blend together in a great corporate entity and their positions switch hither and yon in a confused jumble. Those who aren't being sold are being bought, and in the final analysis there is no way to discern just what any particular being is.

(5) The lifespan is turbid since there is nothing fixed about it. Some beings are long-lived and some die at birth, so that there is no way to know for certain what the life of living beings will be.

Sakyamuni Buddha teaches beings by regulating and subduing and harmonizing them, much as the five flavors, sour, hot, sweet, bitter, and salt, are harmonized and blended in cooking so that a balanced and harmonious dish is produced. Some beings, for example, like the teachings of Confucius, some those of Lao Tzu, some those of the Buddha, some Christ, and some Mohammud. As a result, there are the five great religions of the world.  These five are, in fact, one. All dharmas are the Buddha's own and special dharmas and 'all dharmas' include the dharmas of all religions. Christian, Confucian, Taoist, Moslem, or anything else for that matter. There is not a single religion, which can say that it does not have a dharma so that it falls outside 'all dharmas'. All dharmas are the Buddhadharma and all dharmas are unobtainable; there is not a single dharma, which exists. Frankly speaking, I will not tell you that I have some dharma, some delicious morsel with which I can cheat you. I do not. I do not have anything at all, for fundamentally there is nothing at all to have. As the Sixth Patriarch said,

"Fundamentally Bodhi has no tree,
            The bright mirror has no stand,
            Fundamentally there is not one thing,
            Where can the dust alight?"

As long as there is something, there is a place for dust to settle, but when there is nothing, there is no way for it to do so, and no way for defilement to take place. Although all dharmas are the Buddhadharma, among them there are right and wrong dharmas, provisional and actual dharmas, good and evil dharmas, and so forth. Those who cultivate should make sure that they are cultivating an ultimate, not a non-ultimate dharma. Non-ultimate dharma cultivation is like trying to get from America to the other side of Australia by foot, a long slow process by boat followed by a hard and wearying hike before the goal is reached. Cultivation of ultimate dharmas is like setting out for a goal by airplane, quick and efficient. Non-ultimate dharmas are dharmas of external paths, which although they do have some good points, are slow and roundabout. Ultimate dharmas refer to the Buddhadharma.  Sakyamuni Buddha regulates and subdues beings by saying to beings with large tempers, for example, that temper is not bad, that afflictions are identical with Bodhi, and that birth and death are identical with Nirvana. When such persons hear these principles, they are led to put their large temper to work for the sake of great Bodhi, and their tempers diminish as their afflictions slowly change. This very changing is Bodhi.

To beings who are so timid that they almost faint at the bark of a dog, the Buddha extends a protective and consoling attitude. When they see such a manifestation, living beings feel that at last they have found someone whom they can trust. As they study Buddhadharma their courage grows. In Hong Kong I had a disciple who was so terrified of ghosts and spirits that he would not set foot out of his house after dark, even if accompanied. After he took refuge with the Triple Jewel, he discovered that he no longer had this fear, even though nothing in particular had been done to rid him of it. This manner of teaching is extended to accord with the various propensities of beings, all of whom tend to gravitate to one extreme or another. When they are led to attain the middle way they are regulated and subdued.

      Because of their basic obstinancy, living beings are quite careless about matters of suffering and bliss and boast that they are not going to bother with such questions. Sakyamuni Buddha is able to lead such persons to understand what suffering and bliss really are, that suffering is falling into the lower paths, and that bliss is attaining the fruit of Arhatship.  Falling among the hells, hungry ghosts, or animals is suffering; opening enlightenment is bliss. Although there are manifold kinds of both suffering and bliss, the general tenor of each can be inferred.