The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva

--Translated by Bhiksu Heng Ching
-Continued from issue 39


    “Manjusri, unspeakably many aeons ago, during the time of a Buddha named lion Spring Complete in the Ten Thousand Practices, Thus Come One, Earth Store Bodhisattva was the son of an elder. On seeing that Buddha adorned with a thousand blessings, the elder’s son asked what practices and vows had enabled him to achieve such an appearance. The Thus Come One said, ‘If you wish to perfect such a body, throughout long aeons you must liberate living beings who are undergoing suffering.”

    “Manjusri, the elder’s son then made this vow, ‘Throughout immeasurable aeons until the very boundaries of the future, I will establish many expedient devices for the sake of suffering and criminal beings in the six paths. When they have all been liberated I myself will perfect the Buddha Way.’ From the time he made this vow in the presence of that Buddha until the present, unspeakably many hundreds of thousands of nayutas of aeons have passed, and still he is a Bodhisattva.


    The five precepts are included in the cultivation of the ten wholesome deeds. Thus there are fifty merits at the start of cultivation, and fifty at the completion, making a total of one hundred merits. In each of these one hundred there are still the ten wholesome deeds, leading to a thousand blessings. When one thousand of these blessings are accumulated one is said to have completed one superior blessing. The accumulation of one thousand of these superior blessings is what is meant by adorned with a thousand blessings. On hearing the announcement that such a retribution was cultivated through rescuing suffering living beings throughout the six paths, the son of the elder, who is the Bodhisattva Earth Store, decided upon his great and far-reaching vows.


    Moreover, unthinkable asamkhyeva kalpas ago there was a Buddha named Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient Kind Thus Come One. That Buddha's lifespan was four hundred thousand million asemkhyeya kalpas.


In this Buddha's name the term Enlightenment-Flower represents a cause, and Self-Sufficient King a result; Enlightenment Flower is a root, and Self-Sufficient King a branch. While still on the causal ground, while still cultivating towards Buddhahood, this Buddha planted the cause of the Enlightenment Flower and then used Samadhi to cultivate the result and become Self-Sufficient King. In this case samadhi is both the cause with which he cultivated and the effect which was attained through cultivation.

The lifespan of the Buddha may be explained in several ways, and it is important to realize that in Chinese the concept "lifespan" is made up of two terms, one of which corresponds to duration, or longevity, and the other to the continuity of the life itself.

In the Dharma Blossom Sutra, it is said that the Dharma body of the Buddha is not separate from dharmas, and this co-existence with all dharmas constitutes its longevity. The fundamental principle of Suchness constitutes the life of the Dharma body.

The lifespan of the retribution body is based on reality-mark wisdom and the interactive response of wisdom and its objects. In these terms the states which are known are identical with the wisdom which knows. Thus all states are instantly and fully understood. Although wisdom and its states are originally a duality, they function as a single entity, which constitutes the longevity of the retribution body. The lifespan of the retribution body is made up of wisdom alone.

The third of the Buddha's three bodies is the response, or transformation body. The longevity of this body is the hundred-year duration of a human lifespan. This body's life is determined by causal conditions and circumstances.

The lifespan of the Buddha may also be explained in terms of the Sutra of the Sixteen Contemplations. According to this explanation it is not necessary to break down the term lifespan into its constituents. The transformation body is said to have a lifespan, which shows a beginning and an end, the Buddha's birth and entry into Nirvana. The retribution body displays a beginning but no end, since once it is obtained it is everlasting.  The Dharma body shows neither a beginning nor end, it is not long-lived nor is it short. The lifespan of four hundred thousand million asamkhyeya kalpas discussed here is the lifespan of this Buddha's transformation body.


During the Dharma Semblance Age there was a Brahman woman who had much merit from former lives and who was respected by everyone. In walking, standing, sitting, and lying down she was surrounded and protected by gods. Her mother however, had improper belief and often slighted the Triple Jewel.


In every Buddha's Dharma there are Three Ages, an Age of Proper Dharma, a Dharma Semblance Age, and a Dharma Ending Age. In the first of these, bhiksus, bhiksunis upasakas and upasikas study and cultivate with great sincerity, and many of them attain the fruits of the path. During the Dharma Semblance Age there is less practice, and effort is applied to externals. Such a period is strong in the construction of temples, stupas, and pagodas while people seek for blessings but do not seek for wisdom. In the final period, the Dharma Ending Age, people are strong in fighting and strife. The Proper Dharma Age lasts for one thousand years, as does the Dharma Semblance Age. The Dharma Ending Age, in which we now live, lasts for ten thousand years.

After the nirvana of Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One, there was a woman who lived during the Dharma Semblance Age who was of the Brahma, "pure," class. The pure practices of Brahman cultivators include vegetarianism and celibacy, conditions without which there cannot be purity. Although the Brahmans cultivate purity, they cultivate haphazardly, a little in one direction then a bit in another, so that they never do attain an ultimate principle. This ancient religion of India still exists today; we recognize it in yoga, which is one of its practices. If the word "Brahman" were to be applied to Chinese civilization, it would be said to refer to the Taoists who cultivate similar practices.

The Brahman woman in question was well regarded by everyone, and because she had done many meritorious deeds in the past, her physiognomy was full. It is possible to fell from a person's appearance whether or not he has any merit, for one whose merit is complete will have full and harmonious features while those without merit will be ugly. The Buddha's wonderful appearance, for example, is a result of countless meritorious acts.

The term "thousand blessings," which has been previously discussed, may also be explained as the one thousand good deeds which constitute one blessing. Consequently a million good deeds make a thousand blessings which, once perfected, lead to the thirty-two marks and eighty minor characteristics.

When the Sutra text says that her mother had improper belief, it does not mean that she merely believed in improper teachings; it means that she only half-heartedly believed. For example, she may have believed in the Buddha one day, and then had doubts about him the next: "I have never seen a Buddha, and although there are sutras, there doesn't seem to be much special about the Dharma. The Sangha is just composed of common people as far as I can see. Why should I respect them?"

This is the brand of thought, which is called "improper belief." If one does not have a proper heart, he has an improper one.

Another amusing example of improper belief concerns the externalist way, which offers to set people up as emperor for cash, say a million dollars. Fools with improper belief fail prey to such charlatans and lose their wealth. How could the imperial position be so easily bought? Nowadays, in democratic countries, such a swindle would be even easier since people think they can buy the presidency. The argument might run, for example, "The only reason you have not become president is that you are a woman. For a mere million I guarantee that in the next life you will be president." People with improper belief may fail for such schemes, but when the next life comes around, whether they are president or not, they won't find any million dollars.

Of course, it one could give a million and when become president in that very same life, it would not be a case of improper belief, since there would have been some principle in the initial belief. There is however, no principle at all in improper belief. Some people cheat women by telling them that for an offering of a hundred, a thousand, or whatever, they can be assured of a male body in their next life. Thinking she has a good deal, she pays; thus no small number of externalist teachers are kept in wine, women, and song. None of these offers hold any guarantee, none of them demand proper belief. In addition to these there are a great many other methods used to defraud those who have improper belief.

Among such frauds are those who traipse around saying things like, "Why believe in the Buddha? You can be a Buddha right now. Just fork over sixty-five dollars for this genuine authentic Dharma transmission. That's all there is to it." Although money can be used to do good deeds and cultivate merit, Buddhahood cannot be bought. Even when merit is accomplished, there must still be cultivation; meditation must be perfected. If the position of Buddhahood were negotiable, Sakyamuni Buddha could have purchased it. There would have been no need for his six years of austerities in the Himalayas, no need for him to sit beneath the Bodhi tree, see the stars at midnight, and understand the Way. As a prince he could have bought anything, but Buddhahood is not bought with money.


That sagely woman worked many skillful plans to entice her mother to hold right views, yet the mother did not totally believe. Before long her life ended and her spirit fell into the uninterrupted hell.


     The Brahman woman often used skillful means and spoke provisional teachings which met her mother's needs and which she could accept. She told her mother of the benefits of Buddhadharma, teaching her much as one would entice a child with candy. Although her mother sometimes felt that there was some interest in all this talk of Dharma, she was never concerned, and only half believed. Before long she died.

Death is an extremely good thing! The dead know nothing, don't worry about eating, about clothing; the dead don't worry about working or sleeping, the dead do nothing at all.

Death is an extremely bad thing! The dead may fail to the realms of the hells, the dead may turn into hungry ghosts, they may find themselves reborn among the animals. Those who do good deeds will find themselves born in the Three Good Paths; those who do wrong will arrive in the state of woe.

Not long ago a group of military men visited us. I spoke to them about the responsibilities of the military; and told them that among soldiers there are both Bodhisattvas and asuras. Bodhisattvas appear to teach people to kill less; asuras in the military delude soldiers saying that all out slaughter is the highest action, one which leads to rank and status. Bodhisattvas, too, may attain rank and status, but theirs is derived from pacifying the world.   I told our visitors that they ought to model themselves on the Bodhisattvas and not the asuras, and then gave them an example. The general Kuan Yu of the Three Kingdoms period killed many people, yet after his death he became a Bodhisattva since he only killed evil men. General Tai Ch'i of the Ch'in dynasty also killed a great many people, and after his death he became in turn, a horse, a cow, a pig and other beasts because he had massacred two hundred thousand soldiers who had already surrendered to him by burying them alive in a huge pit.

After I had discussed this matter, a young officer asked if I really believed that people could become animals after their death. I replied, "If you believe that people can become animals, that is fine, and if you don't believe, that also is fine. If you ought to became an animal in your next life, and you believe that people can be reborn as animals, then you will end up as an animal; if you don't believe that you can become an animal, and you are due to become one, then, your disbelief notwithstanding, you will become an animal all the same. If you do the deeds of a Buddha, you will become a Buddha; if you do the deeds of a Bodhisattva, you will become a Bodhisattva; if you do the deeds of a human; you will be born among men; and if you do ghostly deeds you will end up among the ghosts. You are what you do. It is not a case that your belief makes a situation as one way, and your disbelief makes it go another. Believe it or not, you will be what you ought to be and you will certainly not be what you should not be." On hearing this discussion, a Chinese person who was present announced his intention to study the Buddhadharma.

At this point everyone should ask himself, "When am I going to die?   The Sutra says that the Brahman woman's mother's life ended before long.  When will mine end? Will I, like sue, fall into the hells?" When studying sutras the important point is to reverse one's illumination; in other words, study yourself a little. To simply study the books and let it go at that is useless.

Everyone, without exception, is going to die. Don't worry whether death is a good thing or not; if you do good, your death will be good, and if you do bad, your death will be horrible. If you plant good deeds you will reap good fruits; if you plant bad deeds you will reap bad fruits. An ancient author said,

When I see another's death, my heart burns like fire;
It burns, but not for him; for death rolls on toward me.

If you do not fear death, then die right now. Why can't you? Death is not a matter of fear or lack of it; it is a question of good and bad.  Accidental deaths, such as those caused by natural disasters, airplane crashes, train derailments and the like are bad deaths; good death is dying when you wish. If you wish to avoid death, cultivate. Cultivators can attain independence over life and death and live if they wish, or, if they do not wish to continue life, they can sit in meditation and leave, enter Nirvana.  In order to do this, of course, they must have some skill in cultivation. Those who have such skill hold power over their own life and death, and can die when they wish to, or, if they wish to live, they can live forever. The time may come when such a cultivator desires to leave the evil world of the Five Turbidities because it is too unclean. When he wishes to do this, one who has cultivation can die at will.

When the text says that her spirit fell into the uninterrupted hell, it refers to her eighth consciousness. The uninterrupted hell is so named because there is no interruption in time, in life, and in body. When one person occupies it, it is full, yet it can also be full of many people. This hell will be described later on; now let it suffice to say that suffering is undergone endlessly and as soon as death occurs there is an instantaneous rebirth into the same continually tormented body.

—To be continued


—The Venerable Master Hua's DHARMA TALKS during the 1972 Winter Cultivation
—Record of the Master's Dharma Talks upon the occasion of receiving offerings in the East.