The Sutra of the Past Vows 
of Earth Store 

With Commentary from 
the collected lectures of 
Tripitaka Master
Hsuan Hua

Translated by Bhiksu Heng Ching

Continued from issue 48


Chapter 5


      At that time Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, Mahasattva, said to Earth Store Bodhisattva, "Humane One, for the sake of the gods, dragons, and the four-fold assembly, as well as for all living beings of the present and future, please speak about the names of the hells and describe the retributions for evil undergone by living beings of Jambudvipa in the Saha world."

      Earth Store Bodhisattva replied, "Humane One, receiving the Buddha’s awesome spirit as well as your strength, I shall speak in general terms of the names of the hells, and of the retributions for offenses and evil.

      "Humane One, east of Jambudvipa there is a mountain called Iron Ring, which is totally black and has neither sun nor moonlight. There is a great hell there called Ultimately Uninterrupted, and another called the Great Avici. There is also a hell called Four Pointed, a hell called Flying Knives, a hell called Flying Arrows, and a hell called Squeezing Mountains; a hell called Piercing Spears, a hell called Iron Carts, a hell called Iron Beds, and a hell called Iron Ox; a hell called Iron Clothing, a hell called Thousand Blades, a hell called Iron Asses, and a hell called Molten Brass; a hell called Embracing Pilar, a hell called Flowing Fire, a hell called Plowing Tongues, and a hell called Head Chopping; a hell called Burning Feet, a hell called Eye Pecking, a hell called Iron Pellets, and a hell called Quarreling; a hell called Iron Ax, and a hell called Much Hatred."

      Earth Store Bodhisattva said, "Humane One, such are unlimited number of hells within the Iron Ring. In addition there is a hell of Crying Out, the hell of Pulling Tongues, the hell of Dung and Urine, and the hell of Brazen Locks; the hell of Fire Elephants, the hell of Fire Dogs, the hell of Fire Horses, and the hell of Fire Oxen’ the hell of Fire Mountains, the hell of Fire Stones, the hell of Fire Beds, and the hell of Fire Beams; the hell of Fire Eagles, the hell of Sawing Teeth, the hell of Flaying Skin, and the hell of Blood Drinking; the hell of Burning Hands, the hell of Burning Feet, the hell of Hanging Thorns and the hell of Fire Houses; the hell of Iron Rooms, and the hell of Fire Wolves.

      Such are the hells, and within each of them there are one, two, three, four or as many as hundreds of thousands of smaller hells, each with its own name.

      Earth Store Bodhisattva told the Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, “Humane One, such are the karmic responses of the living beings of Jambudvipa who do evil. The power of karma is extremely great, and can rival Mt. Sumeru; it can be as deep as the great sea and can obstruct the sagely way. For this reason, living beings should not slight small evils and consider them as being no offense, for after death retribution is undergone in the most exact detail. Fathers and sons may be close, but their roads diverge and each goes his own way, and even if they should meet, neither would consent to undergo suffering in the other’s place. Now based on the awesome spiritual power of the Buddha, I shall speak of the events of hellish retribution for offenses. Please, Humane One, hear these words."

      Universal Worthy replied, "I have long known of the retributions of the three evil ways. I hope that the Humane One will discuss them so that living beings who do evil in the future time of the Dharma Ending Age may hear the Humane One’s words and return to the Buddha."

      Earth Store replied, "Humane One, these are the phenomena of retribution in the hells for offenses. There is a hell in which the offender’s tongue is stretched out and plowed through by cattle; there is a hell in which the offender’s heart is pulled out and eaten by yaksas; there is a hell in which the offender’s body is fried in cauldrons of seething broth; there is a hell in which the offender is made to embrace a red hot bronze pillar; there is a hell in which the offender is followed everywhere by fires; there is a hell in which there is cold and ice; there is a hell in which there is limitless dung and urine; there is a hell in which there are flying maces; there is a hell in which there are many firey spears; there is a hell in which there is constant beating at the chest and back; there is a hell in which the hands and feet are burned; there is a hell in which the offender is wrapped and bound by iron serpents; there is a hell in which there are running iron dogs; and there is a hell in which the offender is yoked between iron donkeys.

      Humane One, such are the retributions. In each hell there are a hundred thousand kinds of utensils of karma, and all are made of copper, iron, stone or fire, the four materials which are summoned by the manifold karmas. If I were to explain the hellish retributions for offenses in detail, any single hell would have hundreds of thousands of kinds of acute suffering. How much more numerous would the sufferings in the many hells be. Now, based upon the awesome spirit of the Buddha, I have replied tot he Humane One’s question. It has been a general discussion, for if I were to speak in detail, I could not finish in a kalpa.


The term hell represents a Chinese compound, which literally translates as "ground prison." Just as there are prisons made by governments to punish offenses in the human realm, so too are there prisons in the shadowy places within the ground. Those prisons, or hells, differ from those among humans in that they are not prepared by a governmental authority to await the arrival of criminals. The hells have no concrete form; only names. When a being is due to fall into one, however, it manifests as a result of that being's powerful karma.

He is certainly not made by ghosts. It is not made by anyone other than the very person who inhabits it.

There is a great hell called Ultimately Uninterrupted, and another called the Great Avici. Uninterrupted here has the same five meanings discussed previously. The Avici, "uninterrupted," Hell is distinguished here from the hell, which is, called Ultimately Uninterrupted.

The Four Pointed hell is foursquare with four horn-like prods whose points prick people. In the Flying Knives hell knives suddenly appear and fly at people who suffer fatal pain, but are instantly reborn to suffer again.

The doors in the east of the Squeezing Mountains hell open and the prisoner rushes out to escape. The first thing he sees is a pair of mountains towards which he runs to hide, but suddenly they come together and make a neat patty of him. It is not only through the eastern door that the prisoner meets this retribution; the doors in all the four directions lead to the same result. This is a karmic result of having oppressed others with worldly power when alive.

The prisoners in the hell of Iron Carts are run over by great iron carts. When Sakyamuni Buddha was still cultivating towards Buddhahood, he obtained the penetration of the heavenly eye and saw the sufferings in this hell. At this time he resolved his thought on compassion and vowed to save all offenders. This was his initial resolution of the great compassion.

In the Iron Bed hell, from under an iron bed on which the offender is forced to lie come red-hot iron knives. Those who take precepts but do not maintain them fall into the Iron Clothing hell where hooks, knives, and barbs strip them of their clothing. When the criminal is naked he sees an iron suit of clothes fly through the air and he calls out to it to come to him. This it does, but the iron becomes searing hot and burns him to death, whereupon he is revived by the Clever Breeze.

In the Thousand Blades hell, blades fall upon the prisoners like rain, but as soon as they are minced up and die, the Clever Breeze revives them.

As you remember, those who fall into the Embracing Pillar hell see the pillar as their favorite mate. When they rush to embrace the pillar, it becomes red hot and sears them to death, after which they are revived by the Clever Breeze. It is important to realize that love is not necessarily a good thing, for it can very easily cause one to travel an improper path and end up in the roasting hell. The next hell in the list, the hell of Flowing Fire, is also a result of the lustful deeds of beings.

He who slanders the Triple Jewel or commits others of the four evils of the mouth, falls into the hell of Plowing Tongues where his tongue is pulled out to the length of several thousand feet and is then furrowed with a plow.

Those who behead living beings, insects, birds, animals of all sorts, or even poison insects, which they see, fall into the Chopping Heads hell.

In the hell of Burning Feet, it is not the case that fire merely is applied to the feet; wherever the feet are set down, glazing fires spring up.

In the Eye Pecking hell, vultures gorge out the eyes of offenders, and then crack open their skulls and drink the brain fluids. Those who like to argue and make fights fall into the Quarrelling hell where they are constantly fermented and berated by myriads of ghosts.

In the hell where the offenders are coiled and bound by iron snakes, there are serpents whose entire bodies are covered with mouths from which they spit out small snakes. Each of these has twenty iron mouths. They drill into the offender’s eyes and emerge through his genitals. The pain of this retribution is unbearable and comes from lustful conduct.

Only a few of the innumerable hells are mentioned in the Sutra text.  For example, the hell of Crying Out is the fourth of the eight cold hells, which are counted among the eighteen major hells. There are also eight hot hells mentioned in that list.

Even children devoted to their parents cannot undergo retribution in the hells on their behalf. Although close relatives like that of father and son exist among people, in the hells relationships from earlier lives are known, and perhaps those who were recently father and son find out that they have been great enemies in past existences. In the hells, no one consents to undergo suffering for another.

To be continued


Dear Bhiksu Heng Ch'ien,

I must say that I am most impressed by your authoritative Buddhist periodical, the Vajra Bodhi Sea. I chanced to lay my hands on a copy from a kind friend. The result is that I wish to subscribe to your journal for one year and I hope to renew my subscription on a year to year basis whenever necessary. I also wish to send another $10.00 for you to help me secure some back issues, preferably in series, so that I may benefit from the wonderful ideas inside them. I do not wish to flatter you all too much but I personally think that your Vajra Bodhi Sea is one of the best Buddhist journals in the world. Congratulations for the high standard of translation and the manner in which the articles are presented!

I wish to thank you in advance for the cooperation and may the blessings of the TRIPLE WISDOM be upon you all at the Gold Mountain Monastery.

Sincerely yours in Dharma,

Choong Pooi Chee,
Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman,
Tiger Lane, Ipoh, Perak,
West Malaysia
9th May 1974.