The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva

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--Translated by Disciple Bhiksu Heng Ching

--Sponsored by the Buddhist Text Translation Society





      “After emitting more indescribable clouds of light, he also emitted a great many wonderfully subtle sounds such as the Danaparamita sound, the Silaparamita sound, the Ksantiparamita sound, the Viryaparamita sound, the Dhyana paramita sound, and the Prajnaparamita sound.”


      Although the Buddha speaks with a single sound, each living being hears it differently and in his own tongue, be he Japanese, English, French or an inhabitant of any other realm. There is no need for translation, because the sound of the Buddha is totally inconceivable.

            In Chinese the word 'sound' may be defined with a homonym which means to drink, since living beings receive the Buddha's sound just as a thirsty man receives water. It is sometimes explained by another homonym, which means hidden, because while his sound is often large, at other times it is only a still small voice.

Question. How far does the Buddha's sound carry?

Answer. Mahamaudgalyayana, the disciple foremost in spiritual penetrations, once traveled to the east in search of the answer to this question, and passed through as many world systems as there are sand grains in the Ganges. No matter how far he went, the sound of the Buddha's voice was equally strong, as if the Buddha were speaking directly into his ear.

The Danaparamita sound. Dana, giving, is of three kinds: giving of wealth, of Dharma, and of self—-confidence. How should one give? Giving, in order to be true giving, should be done in such a way that the substance of the Three Wheels is seen as empty. The Three Wheels are the giver, the gift and the recipient. If the thought of any of these occurs in the transaction, and an idea that one is giving arises, his giving becomes a kind of stinginess. When giving takes place with the Three Wheels seen as empty no attachment to giving arises, and not even a remembrance of giving remains. Thoughts of giving cancel out the good retribution, which might have come from that act. Then at best the giving merely rates a heavenly reward. Such giving cannot bring one to the state of being without outflows.

Paramita, gone to the other shore, is a Sanskrit term which simply means the completion of anything which is being done, reaching any goal for which one has set out. When we begin a Dharma lecture we are at this shore; a couple of hours later, at its conclusion, we have reached the other shore. Crossing from the opening phrase, "Thus I have hearer", to the conclusion, "The entire assembly made respectful obeisance, placed their palms together and withdrew", is also a paramita. If the goal is the extinction of birth and death, then birth and death are this shore. After the intervening current of afflictions has been crossed, the other shore. Nirvana is reached, much as one reaches Oakland after crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge. In one case this shore is represented by San Francisco, and the other shore by Oakland; in another case, this shore is the world in which we live and the other shore is the Buddha's Permanent Still Land of Light. In either case, once the goal has been determined, it is still necessary to set out on the journey and travel the way, which leads to the destination.

This shore is the state of being a foolish common person, the other shore is reaching the level of the sages. This shore is not understanding Buddhadharma, the other shore is complete understanding. There are different kinds of shores, however, and some are ultimate while others are not.

Question. What is the difference between ultimate and non-ultimate shores?

Answer. To pass from the stage of a common person to the first fruit of the path, the stage of a Stream Winner, is to have arrived at another shore, but not an ultimate one, for there is still the second fruit of the path, the Once Returner, to be reached. When that has been attained, there still remains the third and fourth fruits of the path, and so it cannot be called an ultimate shore either. After the fourth fruit of Arhatship has been reached, the ultimate shore is still far off, since the shore of the Bodhisattva has not been attained. Those who land on the Bodhisattvas' shore have yet to realize the knowledge and vision of the Buddha, and so their shore, too, is a non-ultimate one. Achieving Buddhahood, anuttarasamyaksambodhi, the utmost right and equal enlightenment, is" to arrive at the ultimate shore. The principles contained in this term are many, but this explanation will serve as sufficient introduction for you to infer the remainder, so that from hearing one principle, you come to understand ten.

Silaparamita sound. Sila, cool refreshment, no annoyance, or to repel', may be summed up in the English word--morality. The morality, which repels all evil, is described in the proverb,

"Do no evil, do only good."

A great layman once asked an eminent master for instruction and said, "Venerable Sir, what is the Buddhadharma?"

"Avoid all evil and do only good," came the reply.

"Sir," said the layman, "I requested Buddhadharma. What you say can be understood by any three year old child, how is that Dharma?"

"A three year old child can understand it," he answered, "but a hoary gray beard of eighty cannot do it."

"Avoid all evil," means, of course, not to do any one of the myriad evils, which can be done. Although the word "all" here means one, it clearly says “all,” and so I say that “all is one" and explain this phrase as meaning not to do one single evil. If you do one bad act you win soon do a second and a third, and before long there win be hundreds of thousands of millions of evils all of which have sprung from one. I explain the word mountain in the same fashion. Mountains seem big yet they are composed of accumulated motes of fine dust. Because the number of such particles, which go to make up a mountain, is incomprehensible, it is better to say 'one' because anyone can understand it. In the same way, "avoid all evil" means not to do a single bad thing. If it were explained as meaning 'all evil', people would feel that only a great amount of evil, that which is totally bad, was to be avoided, and that the single small evil which they wanted to do could be allowed. Consequently, "avoid all evil" may be explained as "do not do a single evil.”

"Do only good," means to do as many good deeds as there are pores in the body. Only good means all good, and so it is not permissible to say that you can do one good deed and avoid another. Regardless of whether a good deed is large or small, it should be done. Although the principle of avoiding all evil and doing only good can be understood by a three year old child, the eighty year old master admitted that even at his age he could not do it perfectly.

While other people explain all as everything, I differ in that I turn it around. Since I can't calculate sums and don't know which is which when the figures get too high, I return it all to one. This is much like being in a race on a circular track in which you fall so far behind that eventually the front of the race comes up from behind and you end up ahead of them all. My explanations of sutras are like this. I can't count very high. How much does talk about millions of millions of millions boil down to? It is just one. When explanations are made in this way, not only can I understand, but even little children can too.

Sila also means moral precepts. As was mentioned above, when the Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, the Venerable Ananda asked four questions, one of which was who should be the teacher of the disciples after the Buddha left them. The Buddha replied that the Pratimoksa, the moral precepts, were to be taken as the master. Precepts teach the principle of avoiding all evil and doing only good, and are of the utmost importance in cultivation. In cultivation, giving, too, is foremost, but the precepts have an equal priority. For that matter, in speaking Dharma, there is nothing, which occupies a second place, everything is foremost. Any Dharma at all is, foremost and when asked which of the eighty—four thousand teachings is first, I reply that they all are.

The eighty-four thousand Dharma doors are established as medicine to cure the eighty-four thousand illnesses of living beings. Each person has his own particular sickness, and whatever cures it is the foremost of medicines as far as he is concerned. How can a first place among all of these be determined?

Some medicines cure headaches, some toothaches, some cure eye infections while others cure internal illnesses. It would be an error to say that any one of them is foremost among medicines. For those with headaches, headache medicines are best; for those with broken legs, quite another remedy is the superior one.

This principle holds true for greed, hatred and stupidity, the three grave illnesses of living beings. For those whose greed is cured by understanding Buddhadharma, the methods, which cure greed, are best; for those, whose hatred is cured, the methods, which counteract hatred, are superior. In order to cure the eighty-four thousand habits and illnesses of beings, the Buddha spoke as many Dharma doors. The Diamond Sutra says, "This Dharma is equal and has no high or low." Consequently all of the eighty-four thousand methods are foremost.

When discussing precepts, the name of Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan, a renouned cultivator of the precepts who wrote commentaries to the Vinaya, should be mentioned. He maintained the precepts so purely and the power of his morality was so great, that the gods brought him offerings and he did not eat the food of common men. To say that he was pure in his maintenance of the Vinaya means that he was pure in the appearance, dharma, and substance of morality which encompass the three thousand awesome demeanors and the eighty-four thousand fine practices.

The three thousand awesome conducts are derived from the four deportments, walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. It is said,

Walk like the wind; stand like a pine;

Sit like a bell and lie like a bow.

Walking like the wind does not mean imitating a tornado, nor even the kind of half jog that many people use to get from one place to another. The wind, which should serve as a model for walking, is the gentle zephyr, which does not even ripple the surface of a still pond.

To stand like a pine is to stand up straight, not slumped over as if totally devoid of energy. The head should not hang as if looking only at the ground; the gaze should be regulated and should not dart furtively back and forth like that of a thief.

To sit like a bell is to be erect and solid yet quite natural and spontaneous. In lying down, the legs should be drawn up slightly like a bow.

When one maintains the two hundred and fifty precepts in each of these four deportments, he has the one thousand awesome demeanors which, when multiplied by the past, present and future, yield three thousand.

Because Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan was pure in maintaining the precepts, he did not talk idly, did not laugh ail the time, did not answer immediately when questioned, did not become angry, and did not burst with happiness. He always maintained his original appearance.

Question. Isn't such behavior extremely wooden and inhuman?

Answer. It is not the case that he was inhuman, merely that he was not turned by emotions. To be unmoved by emotional states is to maintain the middle way, something which those who maintain precepts do in every action and at all times.

Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan lived in Chung Nan Mountain in the same system of ranges that includes the Himalayas. There were a number of old cultivators who lived there, and the wild tigers and wolves of the area acted as their Dharma protectors. He lived in a single thatched hut and maintained the practice of eating only one meal a day before noon which was brought every day at the same time by a god named Lu Hsuan Ch'ang.

Contemporary with Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan, but living in another part of the country, was the national Master K'uei Chi, the Three Cart Patriarch, disciple of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Tsang, and expounder of the Consciousness Only School. When the Great Master Hsuan Tsang translated sutras aided by eight hundred bhiksus, K'uei Chi was the foremost among them, a fact, which in itself vouches for his intelligence.

One day Patriarch K'uei Chi recalled all the fine foods he had eaten during his life, both flesh and vegetarian delicacies, and realized that he had never before tasted the food of the gods. Having heard of Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan's diet, he decided to pay him a call, and set out for Chung Nan Mountain. He arrived early one morning. Since the Master Tao Hsuan only ate one meal a day, K'uei Chi had to wait all morning for food to be served. He waited until eleven, until noon, and then until well past noon. Finally when night fell and no one had shown up with any food, the two Dharma masters had gone hungry, an event unheard of and almost unbearable for K'uei Chi.

"Well," he said to Master Tao Hsuan, "you say the gods send you food.  Why is it that no one comes when I'm here? You wouldn't be lying, now, would you? Could you perhaps be out to cheat people?"

"Say what you will," replied Tao Hsuan, without argument, "say I deceive people if you like, but I myself know whether I am a fraud or not."

By this time it was too dark to begin the long descent down the mountain, and so K'uei Chi stayed overnight in: the thatched hut. Tao Hsuan, although he dined on divine food, was still a skinny man. K'uei Chi, on the other hand, who had only eaten the food of mortals but who was very concerned with the subject of food in all its details, was remarkably fat. That night K'uei Chi didn't bother to sit or practice meditation, he just lay down and was soon snoring like a cow. Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan sat to meditate, but K'uei Chi's snoring kept him from entering samadhi.

Many cultivators in mountain hermitages often had lice, and as Tao Hsuan sat he felt bug bites. Because he strictly maintained the precepts, he would not kill the little beasts, but he very slowly and carefully set them on the ground. The room was dark and the Dharma master K'uei Chi was snoring soundly.

In the morning Tao Hsuan asked, "Why don't you work at cultivation?  All night long you snored like thunder and kept me from entering samadhi. You really don't have any cultivation at all."

"You think," said K'uei Chi, "that I don't have any cultivation, but as I see the matter, it is quite the reverse. Last night, although you may have worked hard, you did not work well. One of-those lice you set down so gingerly and carefully to avoid killing it broke two legs, while the other died and went before King Yama to press charges against you. King Yama was about to send some ghosts out for you, but I managed to get in a few good words on your behalf. 'He's a cultivator,' I said, 'and besides, he really did try his best not to harm the lice.' My plea saved you quite a bit of trouble, and so while you think that I have no cultivation, I think the situation is quite the reverse."

Since the room had been totally dark when it occurred, Master Tao Hsuan certainly wondered how K'uei Chi could have come to know all this. He did not ask, however, because he was a cultivator of precepts and would not casually chat with people.

Shortly afterwards Master K'uei Chi left saying that Tao Hsuan could carry on with his work, but that he, K'uei Chi, was not about to wait around for lunch. Not long after his departure the god Lu Hsuan Ch'ang arrived, knelt before Tao Hsuan and apologized saying that he had come with food the day before as usual, but that for forty miles in every direction there was such a bright golden light that he could not even open his eyes. When he asked a local earth spirit the cause of this phenomenon, he was told that a Bodhisattva in the flesh was visiting Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan. Lu Hsuan Ch’ang begged forgiveness, telling Tao Hsuan that even though he had tried every possible avenue of approach, he had no way to come and make the customary offering. From that point on, Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan realized why K’uei Chi was a national master and held him in high esteem.