The Sutra of the Past Vows 
Earth Store Bodhisattva

Translated by Disciple Bhiksu
Heng Ching

Sponsored by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

Continued from issue 44


      Living beings who pretend to be Sramanas but whose hearts are not those of Sramanas, who make destructive use of the permanently dwelling, who take advantage of the white robed, and who turn their backs on the precepts, doing all manner of evil acts, will fall into the uninterrupted hells, and for thousands of ten thousands of myriads of kalpas seek escape in vain.


There are four kinds of Sramana:

1. The sagely Way Sramana,

2. The Sramana who speak of the Way,

3. The Sramana who lives the Way, and

4. The Sramana who defiles the Way.

The first of these refers to the Buddha and great Bodhisattvas. The second applies to those who explain sutras and preach Dharma, particularly to greatly virtuous monks and Arhats who have born testimony to the fruit of the Way and who spend their lives expounding it. The third kind, the Sramana who lives the Way, takes cultivation of the Way as his very life. The fourth kind, who are discussed here, are Sramanas; who defile the Way.

Although the word Sramana has four meanings, it can also be explained with three meanings, which are not three at all but are really two, and these two, in turn are really just one, which is to say, Sramana. Ah, how subtle this Buddhadharma is. The one meaning is simply Sramana, and that means energetic and put to rest.

Energetic refers to Sramana who are not lazy, and put to rest refers to those who are. So you see, Sramana has two meanings; one points to laziness, the other to vigor. The lazy one says to the energetic, "Don't bother about working, relax and lay back a little."

The energetic one replies, "Don't be so lazy; follow me and cultivate the Way." Since there are two sides, there is a battle to see which one will win.

I said that this word also had three meanings. "Energetic" and "put to rest" both have three aspects. The threefold aspect of the former is the energetic cultivation of morality samadhi and wisdom. The threefold aspect of the latter is the putting to rest of greed, hatred and stupidity.

Morality is abstinence from evil, planting good causes and improving your conduct. It means turning one's back on all his own errors, and leaving them behind.

The guides to morality are the precepts. How many moral precepts are there? There are the Five Precepts, abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicants. In addition to these there are the Eight Laymen's Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Precepts which consist of ten major and forty-eight minor ones. There are also the Ten Precepts of a Sramanera, the Two Hundred and Fifty Precepts of the Bhiksu, and the Three Hundred and Forty-Eight Precepts of the Bhiksuni. Some people say that Bhiksunis have five hundred precepts, but in fact they have three hundred and forty-eight.

Samadhi is developed by meditation. If you cultivate you can attain proficiency with it. When you first begin to meditate, you have no samadhi, and your thoughts run off to the heavens and the hells, to the Buddha and to the Bodhisattvas; in fact, your mind wanders ail over the Six Paths. In order to keep thought concentrated, and our minds from running all over, we must cultivate samadhi.

Someone is thinking, "Why bother cultivating concentration? Compare it to dancing: you prance and leap about, and it's much more interesting than just sitting there, like a dead and dumb stick of wood. What are the advantages of samadhi anyway?"

Basically it has no advantages. "Then why bother with it?" you ask. If you wish to reveal your inherent wisdom, you must first of ail cultivate samadhi, for if you don't have any concentration, your thoughts will be scattered about hither and yon and you will never manifest any wisdom. Wisdom comes from samadhi; if you want to be released from stupidity, cultivate samadhi.

One of my disciples recently said that when meditating he felt as if he were on the edge of a great precipice, on the edge of a very deep abyss, and was frightened. This is a sign of the beginning stages of samadhi. Here one must be particularly fearless, if you are meditating and feel that there is a great piece of iron suspended above your head on the verge of breaking loose, or if you feel a bomb about to go off, don't be turned by it, because if you are, it will be quite easy to enter the realm of the demons. If you become attached to marks, the atomic bomb you feel over your head may very well go off. If you pay no attention to it, on the other hand, demons cannot come near you and in fact, they will have to run away.

The mental state in which a huge crevasse appears while in medication represents the karmic obstacles that are heavier and deeper than a ten thousand-foot abyss. It is a sign, which shows you the urgency of cultivation.

Sometimes when you are meditating, you may feel a blissfully happy, self-contained freedom which is so joyful that you forget everything else. This is a taste of dhyana, the most blissful experience in the world of form, which far surpasses connubial pleasures. In fact, it is something to which inhabitants of the realm of form can become decidedly attached. It is said that only the one who drinks water knows whether it is cold or hot, the same is true of the flavor of dhyana. If you have experienced this state, you know what it is like, and if you have not, you don't.

My disciple, for example, is about to attain the state of "Being Apart from Production and obtaining Bliss," one of the Four Dhyanas. This is not a major Matter but is quite common and can occur to anyone who cultivates. This stage marks the beginning of

What is the function of wisdom? One who has wisdom cannot go down a wrong road. You are confused because you turn your back on enlightenment and unite with the dust. Mistaking suffering for happiness, you confuse the realms of enlightenment and dust. Why do you do all of this? Simply because you do not have any wisdom.

And so, one must be both energetic and resting. Energetically listen to the explanations of sutras, and energetically cultivate morality, samadhi and wisdom. Most important, you must cultivate yourself and do so vigorously in accord with the instructions of your teacher. To do this you must put greed, hatred, and stupidity to rest. Give your tempers away. To whom will you give your temper? You can give it to me, your teacher, so that I increase my fire and make my disciples afraid of me. Now you see that your teacher is as soft as cotton, and so you do not cultivate and are lazy. Vigorously cultivating morality, samadhi and wisdom puts greed, hatred and stupidity to rest.

There are some people who pretend to be Sramanas. Although they have the name, they do not have the hearts of Sramana and do not cultivate morality, samadhi and wisdom. Not only do they not put greed, hatred, and stupidity to rest, they think that the more of these traits one has, the better it is. They totally forget about morality, samadhi and wisdom, yet they claim to be Sramanas while their practice lacks compassion and patience. They do not practice the Six Perfections and the Ten Thousand Practices.

There are others who make destructive use of the permanently dwelling. Items belonging to the Triple Jewel, even small ones, cannot be used casually or thrown away. This goes for as small a thing as a sheet of paper. The reason there are so many reams of paper is that one sheet accumulates after another. If you waste things, you make destructive use of the goods of the permanently dwelling.

There is a saying, "To use a blade of grass or a splinter of wood not given is to steal." To use other people's things without their permission is a violation of the precept against stealing.                    

Nothing that belongs to a temple may be offhandedly used or given away. If as simple a thing as a needle and thread is given as an offering, it may not be used carelessly, and most certainly may not be given away. If you give away a sheet of paper, a piece of thread, or even a grain of rice for your own personal reasons, particularly if you do so in order to gain favor with people so that they will feel obliged to aid and support you, you are violating the precept against stealing.

Of course, if you want to give away your personal belongings, that is another matter, since they are not public property. This is something to which those who have left home should pay particular attention. You should not use the goods of the permanently dwelling in such a way as to give laymen cause to have particularly good feelings about you, or to feel a sense of obligation toward you, for this is to take advantage of the white robed, the laymen, as well as to steal from the Triple Jewel.


      Living beings who steal the wealth and property of the permanently dwelling, its grains, food and drink, clothing, or anything which should not be taken, will fall into the uninterrupted hells where they will seek escape for thousands of tens of thousands of myriads of years in vain.

      Earth Store Bodhisattva continued speaking to the holy mother, "If living beings commit such offenses, they will fall into the uninterrupted hells, and though they seek for their suffering to stop, it will not do so, not even for the space of a thought."

      The Lady Maya asked, "Why are they called uninterrupted hells?"

      Earth Store replied, “Holy Mother, the hells are all within the great Iron Ring Mountain. There are eighteen great hells, and five hundred secondary ones, their names all different. In addition, there are another hundred thousand, with distinct names. The wall surrounding the uninterrupted hell is over 80,000 yojanas in circumference, made entirely of iron, and topped by an unbroken mass of fire. Within tat city of hells are many interconnected hells; their names, however, differ. There is just one hell, which is properly called uninterrupted. Its circumference is eighteen thousand yojanas, and its solid iron wall is a thousand yojanas high, surmounted by a fire, which plunges toward the base and is met by a fire at the bottom, which leaps upward. Iron snakes and dogs vomiting fire gallop back and forth atop that wall.


This hell is called Avici in Sanskrit and is named uninterrupted because the sufferings there are incessant. The souls of those who have committed offenses meriting this hell fall into it at the appropriate time, and there the fires burn them to death or knives chop them up. You might think that once they die they pass beyond all pain and suffering, but that is not the case. When people die in the hells, they are instantly reborn, only to die again.

How are people reborn again and again in the hells? There are two winds, one putrid and the other fragrant, known as The Clever Breezes, which blow and revive the dead. Those resurrected by the putrid wind, like the asuras whose seven orifices are all bunched together, are reborn ugly, and those revived by the fragrant wind are beautiful. Those born in the hells are revived by the putrid wind, and those destined for the heavens by the fragrant one. Rebirth by the putrid wind occurs instantly, and there is not the slightest interruption in the sufferings.

Because the wall of that hell is one thousand yojanas high, all sunlight is blocked, but fires cast enough light to see by. The fires are the fires of karma, which roast and sear the skin, burning people to death. Think about it. Would you like to go there? What would you do if you found yourself in such a place, bound, confined and totally unfree? It is all so painful, without the least little bit of freedom. There is nothing but the thought of sorrow, no seeking after fame and profit, nor anything else, only untold suffering. Solid iron represents the hardness and strength of the karmic obstacles, which send us to the hells.

Atop each corner in the hell are eight hundred yojana tall dogs with eight heads, each of which has six horns, making a total of forty-eight horns. As the heads turn about the horns become wheels of fire and knives, so that wherever one goes he is sliced and burned. What do you think of these animals? Terrible? Go ahead and take a look if you wish, but let me tell you, going there is not like going to the movies. When you go to the movies you can always walk out, but when you go to hell, there is no such freedom. The fiery bodies of these monstrous dogs and snakes belch out noxious fires and a stench so putrid that the offenders vomit their very guts. You don't have to go there I just think about it and you'll feel a little nauseous.


      In the midst of that hell is a bed which extends for ten thousand yojanas. When one person undergoes punishment, he sees his own body extended across and completely filling the bed, and yet each of a thousand ten thousands of people see his own body doing the same. Such are the responses to various deeds.

      Moreover, offenders undergo many sufferings. A hundred thousand yaksas, as well as evil ghosts with sword-like teeth and eyes like lightening, drag and pull at them with brass clawed hands. Moreover there are yaksas who brandish great iron halberds, which they pass through the offenders’ bodies, either through their mouths and noses or through their bellies and backs. They toss them into space, turn them over and pull them back or else they place them on the bed. There are also iron eagles, which peck at the offenders’ eyes, and iron serpents, which encircle their necks. Long nails are driven into all their joints; their tongues are pulled out and plowed throughout; their guts are pulled out, sawed and chopped in two. Molted brass is poured into their mouths and their bodies are bound in hot iron. Such are their karmic responses throughout ten thousand deaths and as many births.


Yaksas are speedy ghosts, and fundamentally evil, but the ghosts known as evil ghosts are a class of yaksas, which travels on the ground. Their mouths are like caverns of blood, their teeth like blades. These ghosts pick you up and toss you about with their enormous strength, throwing you perhaps several yards, perhaps a hundred. Perhaps they place you on the iron bed. Don't get this wrong, this bed is not for sleeping, once you are on it they stick you with their halberds. Perhaps iron eagles peck at your eyes and head, and crack open your skull to eat your brains. Perhaps your tongue is pulled out and plowed through. This is retribution for various deeds of the mouth. Don't lie, don't speak of other's good or bad points, for if you do you will enter this hell and your tongue will be plowed through like a field.  You will undergo ten thousand deaths and as many births in a single day.


      When this world decays, the offender is born in another world, and when that world is annihilated, he revolves in turn through others. When those worlds, too, fall and decay, he returns again. Such is the phenomenon of uninterrupted retribution for offenses.

      Moreover, this hell is given the name uninterrupted for five reasons. What are they? 1) Punishment is undergone day and night throughout kalpas, yet there is no time of respite. Therefore it is called uninterrupted. 2) One person fills it, yet many people also fill it. Therefore it is called uninterrupted. 3) The implements of punishment are forks, clubs, eagles, serpents, wolves, and dogs, which pound, grind, saw, drill, chisel, cut and chop; boiling liquids, iron nets, iron ropes, iron asses and iron horses which flay alive, bind the head in rawhide, and anoint with hot iron; meals of iron pellets and drinks of iron fluids. Throughout many nayutas of kalpas such suffering continues without any intermission. Therefore it is called uninterrupted. 4) Regardless of whether man, woman, a barbarian, old or young, honorable or lowly, a dragon or a spirit, a god or ghost, everyone must undergo retribution for the offenses he has committed. Therefore it is called uninterrupted. 5) From the time of entry, one undergoes ten thousand deaths and as many births each day and night throughout a hundred thousand kalpas. He may seek release for but the space of a thought, but even such temporary stopping cannot be obtained. Only when one’s karma is exhausted can he attain rebirth. Because of this continuity, it is called uninterrupted.


      This world in which we live has its times of becoming, enduring, decaying and emptiness. Every century the human lifespan decreases by one year, and man's height diminishes by an inch, so that nowadays the average lifespan is a bit over sixty. This, of course, is just a mean which does not consider the exceptions, those who live to be a hundred, or those who die at the age of one or two. It is an average, which works out over a long span of time.

When Sakyamuni Buddha was in the world, the lifespan was seventy to eighty years, now it is from sixty to seventy. When the lifespan decreases to ten years, it will turn and again begin to increase until it reaches eighty-four thousand years. The period during which the lifespan diminishes is called a decreasing; the period in which it lengthens is called an increasing. One increase and one decrease is called a kalpa, and one thousand of these constitutes a small kalpa. Twenty small kalpas make a middle kalpa, and four middle kalpas constitute one great kalpa. Each of the four middle: kalpas is one of the periods of becoming, abiding, decaying and emptiness, each of which lasts for twenty small kalpas.

Every world decays; places that were dry land several thousand years ago are now submerged and no longer exist. Earthquakes eradicate entire villages, districts, or even a country. This is what is meant by decay.

It is not the case that when this world ends, one's karma in the hells is exhausted. Far from it! One simply moves to hells in another world, where the deeds done with the body find retribution with the body as the tool of karma.


      Earth Store Bodhisattva said to the holy mother, "This is a general description of the uninterrupted hell. If I were to speak extensively about all the names of the implements of punishment in the hells, and all the sufferings there, I could not finish speaking in an entire kalpa."

      After hearing this the Lady Maya placed her palms together sorrowfully, made obeisance and withdrew.

To be continued

Read the stories of the Buddha’s great disciples in the next installment of the Amitabha Sutra.