The Sutra of the Past Vows 
Earth Store Bodhisattva


Continued from issue 47

Translated by Disciple 
Bhiksu Heng Ching

Sponsored by the Buddhist 
Text Translation Society


At that time the Four Heavenly Kings arose from their seats, put their palms together respectfully, and said to the Buddha," World Honored One, Earth Store Bodhisattva has made such extensive vows for kalpas, why, then has he not yet completed his crossing over of beings. Why does he continue to practice inch vast vows? Please World Honored One, explain this for us."

The Buddha told the Four Heavenly Kings, "Excellent, excellent. For your benefit as well as for the benefit of men and gods of the future, I will speak of Earth Store Bodhisattva's works in the paths of birth and death in Jambudvipa in the Saha world. I shall speak of his expedient devices, and of his compassion and pity in rescuing, saving, crossing over, and liberating, beings who are suffering for their offenses."

The Four Kings replied, "Yes, World Honored One, we would like to hear about his work."

The Buddha told the Four Kings, "From kalpas long ago until the present. Earth Store Bodhisattva has crossed over and liberated living beings, yet out of compassionate pity for those beings still suffering in the world; he has not yet completed his vows. Moreover, he sees that their causes for limitless kalpas in the future are like uncut tendrils and vines, and because of this, he makes his major vows. Thus, in the continent of Jambudvipa, in he Saha world, this Bodhisattva teaches and transforms beings by means of thousands of tens of thousands of myriads of expedient devices.

"Kings, to killers Earth Store Bodhi saliva speaks of a retribution of a short life span; to robbers he speaks of a retribution of poverty and acute suffering; to practicers of sexual misconduct, he speaks of the retribution of pigeons, mandarin drakes and ducks; to the foul-mouthed he speaks of the retribution of quarreling hordes.

"To slanderers he speaks of the retribution of a tongueless and cankerous mouth; to the hateful he steaks of an ugly and crippled retribution; to the stingy he speaks of frustrated desires; to immoderate gluttons he speaks of the retribution of sickness, hunger, and thirst; to those who enjoy hunting he speaks of the retribution of a frightening insanity and disastrous doom.

      "To those who are cruel to parents or step parents he steaks of the retribution of being flogged in future lives; to those who net and trap young animals, he speaks of the retribution of separation of flesh from bone; to those who slander the Triple Jewel, he speaks of the retribution of being blind, deaf, or mute, to those who slight the Dharma and regard the teachings with arrogance, he speaks of seeing in the evil paths forever; to those who recklessly use the things of the permanently dwelling, he speaks of the retribution of revolving in the hells for myriads of kalpas; to those who defile the pure conduct of others and purposely slander the sangha, he speaks of an eternity in the animal realm; to those who scald, burn, behead, cut or otherwise harm animals, he speaks of repayment in kind.

"To those who violate precepts and pure eating, he speaks of the retribution of hunger and thirst among the birds and beasts; to those who make unprincipled and destructive use of things, he speaks of the retribution of never obtaining what they seek to those who are arrogant and haughty, he speaks of a retribution of being servile and of low class; to those whose double tongued behavior causes dissention and disorder, he speaks of a retribution of tonguelessness and speech impediments: to those of biased views, he speaks of rebirth in the frontier regions.

"This is a general description of the hundreds of thousands of differing responses resulting from the habitual bad deeds of body, mouth, and mind committed by the living beings of Jambudvipa. Since they have such differing responses, Earth Store Bodhisattva uses hundreds of thousands of expedient means to teach them. The living beings who commit offenses must first undergo retributions such as these, and then fall into the hells where they pass through kalpas with no moment of escape. You should, therefore, protect people and protect their countries. Do not allow living beings to be confused by these manifold deeds."

On hearing this the Four Heavenly Kings wept sorrowfully, placed their palms together, and withdrew.


      The Four Heavenly Kings of the four directions live halfway up Mt. Sumeru in palaces forty two thousand yojanas high made of the seven precious things, gold, silver, lapis, lazuli, crystal, mother of pearl, red pearls and carnelian. Their palaces are adorned with tiers of railings, seven layers of netting, and seven rows of trees.

      The king of the east, Dhrtarastra, "he who upholds his country," has ninety-nine sons, all of whom are named Indra. He commands two groups of ghosts and spirits, fragrant spirits and stinking spirits.

The fragrant spirits are gandharvas; musicians who are also called doubtful spirits because although they look like humans, they have a single horn in their forehead. When people see them, they are unsure about whether or not the spirits are human or not. Gandharvas are extremely fond of incense, and will flock to places where it is burned. The Jade Emperor, the chief of the Indras, has a very rare and wonderful sandalwood which he burns to attract them. When they arrive, he has them play music for him since he is still caught up in the realm of defiling objects and enjoys hearing music.

The stinking ghosts, Buddha, are called Pu Ta No in the Surangama Mantra. Wherever they go they are followed by a putrid stench. Both of these groups of ghosts and spirits are under the jurisdiction of the king of the east.

The king of the south is called Virudhaka "increasing and growing," because he is able to lengthen and increase the good roots of living beings.  He too has ninety-nine sons, all of whom are named Indra. In fact, each of the four kings has ninety-nine sons, all with the same name, so that there are three hundred and ninety six Indras in all.

Virudhaka also watches over two groups of ghosts and spirits, one the Kumbhandas, and the other the Pretas.  The Kumbhandas, called "distant" ghosts because they like to stay far away from people, are also known as barrel ghosts or melon ghosts because of their shape. Pretas are called "near" ghosts because they like to be near people, and in fact, they establish themselves as ancestral spirits at the memorial plaques which people set up for their deceased relatives.

The king of the west is named Virupaksa "many languages" because he can speak the tongues of all countries; he is also called Broad Eyes. He, like the other kings, is responsible for two groups of ghosts and spirits, the Pisaci, and poison dragons. The Pisaci, called Pi Sha She in the Surangama Mantra, are also called madness ghosts because they can give people an incurable insanity. They subsist on essential energies, particularly those of humans, and always flock to places where sexual activities are producing these substances. The other group under jurisdiction of this king is the poison dragons, whose poison may be contracted by seeing, hearing, smelling, or even just being near them.

The king of the north, Vaisravana "widely learned," is the leader of the Four Heavenly Kings. It is in his palace that their meetings are convened. The two groups of ghosts and spirits under his command are the Yaksas and the Raksas. There are several categories of Yaksas, those who live on the ground, in space, and in the heavens. Because Yaksas travel at more or less the speed of light, they are called speedy ghosts. Raksas "fearsome ghosts" are so called because of their terrifying appearance.

The Buddha told the Four Heavenly Kings that Earth Store Bodhisattva sees all the causes and conditions of living beings. The power of the deeds we do are like the tendrils that grow on plants and grasses, getting longer year after year. We commit deeds in one life and then in the next life we commit more, piling up the karma. This continues life after life and the offense karma becomes heavier, and the merit we have acquired becomes more and more light. With only slight meritorious virtue, you cannot become a Buddha, but if your karmic obstacles are extremely heavy, you can become a ghost.

People who don't understand much say that there are no such things as ghosts. Their argumentation is not up to the level of a child's. Children, at least, will usually believe an explanation that is principled whereas people who oppose belief in ghosts and spirits usually do so without paying any attention to the principles involved. If there were no ghosts, there could be no Buddhas, since the difference between the two is just a turn. If the turn is made, you are a Buddha; if not, you are a ghost. Humans are-in the midst of the turning, and consequently if their karma gets any heavier, it is very easy for them to fail into the realm of the ghosts.

In this passage of text the Buddha describes the expedient devices used by Earth Store Bodhisattva for the Four Heavenly Kings.

To robbers he speaks of a retribution of poverty and suffering.  Stealing not only includes actual theft, but also includes using people's property without their knowledge or permission. When Earth Store Bodhisattva meets people who commit this kind of offense, he tells them of the retribution of poverty. The reason there are so many poor people in the world is that there have been many who have stolen in past lives who are now undergoing the appropriate retribution. The more one steals, the poorer he will be, and the more he will have cause to fear one of the most bitter of all kinds of suffering, that of poverty.

Sexual misconduct refers to adultery and all manner of extra-marital affairs. One should not misconstrue this, however, and say that since he is married there is no problem and he can be totally unrestrained in his sexual activity with his wife. Even married couples had best decrease this activity because it leads to stupidity. The more one is involved in sexual matters, the less light he has. One has light and manifests wisdom if he does not engage in sex.

The pigeon is doubtless the most lustful bird of all and can raise an amazing number of fledglings every year. Most animals and birds mate with the male above and the female below, but the pigeon is so lustful that he reverses these positions.

The emotional attachment of mandarin drakes and ducks with their mates is extremely heavy, and they are absolutely inseparable, not only in the water and on land, but even in the air. Although birds may seem to have independence of a sort, they are by no means free, and theirs is certainly not a good state to be in. For those who engage in sexual misconduct, the retribution of the bird realm is a likely one, and so Earth Store Bodhisattva speaks of it to such people.

He tells those who scold, slander, lie and speak falsely and harshly that they will always be surrounded by strife and never know peace. Those who like to prattle and talk confusedly, who slander the Triple Jewel, will be mutes or stutterers in the future. This is also the reason why people sometimes develop incurable canker sores in their mouths.

To the hateful he speaks of an ugly and crippled retribution. This retribution is spoken to those whose natures are like asuras, who flare up with temper at the slightest provocation. When people get angry their faces turn purple and their eyes bulge, their veins stand out, and they become quite repulsive. Just wait. If you like to get angry now, you face the retribution of ugliness.

The term, which refers to the retribution of being crippled in Chinese, actually refers to a peculiar inability to pass water. If you always get angry, in future lives you will not only be ugly, you will also be plagued by a myriad illnesses.

There are some people who eat and drink non-stop from morning until night. After they eat they nap, and then wake to eat again in a routine that never varies. They know no regulation or moderation, and are totally uncontrolled. Earth Store Bodhisattva tells such people that in the future they will never be able to get their fill, and that their throats will be so diseased and swollen that they will be unable to swallow even water.

Hunters are people who take pleasure in the chase. Having killed the animal they are filled with pride, strength, and joy. To those who are totally given to such activities, Earth Store Bodhisattva speaks of the retribution of insanity and disastrous doom. He might say, for example, "In your next life you will quite probably go mad and have an untimely death. "  This refers to accidental deaths like those in automobile collisions, airplane explosions, or falling in front of a speeding train, all unexpected, violent, and premature deaths. As a result of hearing such predictions, people may be led to stop hunting.

Now that we are studying this sutra and have come to know these retributions, you too can explain them to people on the appropriate occasions. You and Earth Store Bodhisattva can open up a partnership in this work.

Confucius' disciple Min Tzu Ch'ien had a stepmother who, partial to her own son, did not like him at all. In the winter when padded garments are made for warmth she made a double lined and quilted robe for her own child, but a single layered robe stuffed with rushes for Min Tzu Ch'ien. While her own son was warm and cozy, Min Tzu Ch'ien quietly endured the cold.

One day his father was riding with Min Tzu Ch'ien in a chariot and saw that the boy was trembling. Chiding the lad for shivering on what was not a very cold day, the father lashed out with his crop and ripped his son's coat.  When he saw the single layer of cloth and rushes, the father wept, felt ashamed at how badly he had treated his son, and vowed to get rid of his new wife immediately.

Min Tzu Ch'ien knelt before his father and pleaded on his stepmother's behalf saying, "When the mother is here, one son has a simple garment, but if the mother leaves, two sons will freeze." When his father confronted Min Tzu Ch'ien's stepmother with the facts, she felt shame and realized what a good stepson she had. Thereafter she treated both boys equally.

      In China there were often adopted children in a family. These children were often very poorly treated by their stepparents. The result of such treatment of step children-is flogging in future lives.

Separation of flesh from bone, is a retribution incurred by those who trap animals, particularly very young ones. The term "flesh from bone" refers to one's family; as a retribution for this type of deed, one's family is dispersed and its members cannot see one another.

People who are blind, deaf or mute have slandered the Triple Jewel, and have fallen into the hells where they spent countless kalpas. After their term they worked their way up to becoming animals, and once they managed to escape the animal realm, they obtained human birth. This birth was into poor or impoverished circumstances, or births as mutes or blind people.

Those who purposely slander the sangha, for example, who spread rumors of cheating, drinking or killing about a monk who has not done anything wrong, will first fall into the hells and then spend an eternity among the animals.

To those who scald, burn, behead, cut or otherwise injure animals, he speaks of repayment in kind. If you use boiling water or fire to get rid of ants or an insect nest, for example, or if you slice or club animals to death, you will be repaid in kind.

      Violating precepts is doing that which you know quite clearly to be wrong. The offenses incurred by this class of wrongdoing are particularly heavy, much more so than when one unknowingly misbehaves. If you kill after taking the precept against killing; you are violating the precept. If you steal after receiving the precept, the same is true, and so forth for the precepts against sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicants.

All of these, however, are visible surface manifestations, which everyone can see. There is yet another kind of precept violation of which most people are unfamiliar, since it is invisible. There are two major kinds of precept violations: that which has form and can be seen; and that which has no form and is invisible. In the Buddhadharma the latter is considered a violation of precepts just as much as is the former, even though in most other religions this is not the case.

There are four kinds of violation, which have no form and cannot be seen. In the first of these, one is able to maintain the pure precepts and practice them superficially, but in his practice there remains a view of a self. "I hold the precepts; I maintain the precepts. I do this, and I do that." Although such a person may not have actually violated any precept per se, he has still not maintained the true precepts, for one who does so cannot possibly have a view that he is higher or better than others.

In the second type, one may be able to recite and quote all the sutras and regulations, yet never leave the view of a body. In the first type of violation there was always the thought of I; in this case, although there is no constant thought of I, there is continual attention paid to the body, which is never allowed to be in the least bit uncomfortable. If the body likes to be lazy and sloppy, and one complies and continues to pamper it, although such a person has not violated any specific precept, he has not truly maintained them.

The third category of violation is related to those who are able to practice the twelve dhuta, ascetic practices. Such practices are cultivated with great energy, vigor, and alertness. "I never sleep, yet I have great energy; instead of sleeping I just sit and meditate. Others like to fat, but I don't even drink water." Although one may practice austere practices, he may also retain the view that dharmas still exist, and may not have emptied the view of a self. One who cultivates such practices, but who has not yet seen through the emptiness of self and dharmas, may seem to be holding precepts, but in fact his cultivation is still far off the mark.

In the fourth category, one may practice and maintain a heart of great compassion toward all beings, yet be frightened or alarmed on hearing that dharmas are empty, neither produced nor destroyed. In this case, as in the three above, even though there has been no actual violation of precepts, the moral conduct is far from being perfected.

Pure eating not only refers to abstaining from meat, but also includes eating at prescribed times. If, for example, one has vowed not to eat after noon, and then-does so, he not only violates the precept regarding pure eating, he violates the precept against stealing as well. When asked whether or not he has eaten, such a person may reply that he has not, and thus violates the precept against lying as well. The one who supplies food to the violator also violates precepts in these cases, and the Buddha said of all such persons, "They are not my disciples." Such persons are like garbage-eating seabirds or dung-eating ghosts. They are extremely unfortunate, and Earth Store Bodhisattva warns them that they may suffer the retribution of becoming hungry birds and beasts.

Those who make unprincipled and destructive use of things will also undergo retribution. Take, for example, a teacup, which could have a long period of useful functioning. If, for no good reason, you decide to smash it and render it useless, you are committing the offense mentioned here. This principle- applies not only to teacups, but to anything which belongs to the permanently dwelling or to private individuals. In the future, those who commit this offense will be unable to obtain their wishes and will never obtain what they seek.

Biased views refers to those who absolutely refuse to comply with rules.

The habitual bad deeds of body, mouth and mind, the three evils, are ten in all. Three pertain to the body, killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. There are four evils of the mouth, idle speech, false speech, evil speech, and double tongued speech. There are three evils of the mind, greed, hatred, and stupidity. Taken together, these are called the ten evil deeds.

After hearing this the Four Heavenly Kings wept sorrowfully, placed their palms together and withdrew. They wept on one hand for those many beings who had to endure such sufferings, and on the other hand from shame that they had not fulfilled their responsibility to protect living beings.  They were greatly moved, placed their palms together, and withdrew.

                        to be continued