The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva 

With Commentary from the collected lectures of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua 


Translated by Bhiksu Heng Ching



      "Moreover Universally Expansive, in the future evil men, spirits or ghosts may see good men or women respectfully making offerings, praising, beholding and worshiping Earth Store Bodhisattva’s image. These evil beings may wrongly give rise to ridicule, and malign the acts of worship as profitless affairs devoid of meritorious qualities. They may bare their teeth in laughter, slander behind their backs, and exhort others to do likewise. When the thousand Buddhas of Auspicious aeon have entered extinction, beings who have had even a single thought of slander will fall into the Avici Hells where they will undergo the utmost misery as retribution for their calumny. After that kalpa they will be reborn among the hungry ghosts where they will pass a thousand aeons before they will again attain a human body, but it will be poor and lowly, with incomplete organs, and their many evil deeds will bind up their minds. Before long they will fall into the evil paths again. Universally Expansive, such are the retributions, which will be undergone by those who ridicule and slander others’ offerings. How much worse will it be if they have other evil and harmful views."


      Evil spirits are inveterate troublemakers. Some of them go to temples, impersonate the presiding deity and receive offerings. In the temples of Kuan Kung for example, it is not always the case that Kuan Kung is present at all times. While he is gone, the evil spirits may come and cause people to make flesh and blood offerings.

Evil ghosts are primarily Kumbhandas, although there are others. The Kumbh5ndas are large melon-shaped beings who are also known as nightmare ghosts, because they enjoy sitting on sleeping persons who wake up terrified and unable to move.

In addition to these, there are other small evil ghosts who lodge in plants and trees where they manifest their powers and cause people to believe in them. If people are sick they might go to such a tree and offer incense in hope of a cure; if they have lost things they might ask a certain tree to help retrieve them. When the response, which they sought, occurs, people think that the tree had brought about a miraculous intervention on the part of some Bodhisattva, and will often sacrifice chickens, pigs or other animals as offerings to the tree, not knowing it is inhabited by an evil ghost. The tree at Nan Hua temple, which took refuge and received the precepts from the Venerable Master Hsu Yun was an example of such a phenomenon.

There are a great many strange events which occur in this world. For those who do not understand Buddhadharma it is very easy to think that a miraculous response has been obtained from a Buddha or Bodhisattva, but those who are clear about these matters realize that not every response is a sign of the Buddha's aid, and are not taken in by evil ghosts and spirits.

They may bare their teeth in laughter, slander them behind their backs and exhort others to do likewise. Laughing is done to the face, while slander is done behind the backs of people who cultivate. For example, some people may say, "I've been up to the Sino-American Buddhist Association and I've seen them put on robes and precept sashes and then knock their heads on the ground before the Buddha image, get up and do it again. All day long they bow and recite sutras. What a bother. All that useless ceremony. Why don't they take a nap?"

When they exhort others to do likewise, they say things like, "There is no point in reciting sutras, no benefit is derived from listening to lectures on Dharma, and there is no interest at all in reciting mantras. Don't bother with that; just take a little bit of this fine drug and you'll end up in the Land of Ultimate Bliss." These rationalizations are common in the world and it is not rare even within Buddhism. Since a person who behaves like this can't break the rules of proper conduct himself and get away with it, he gets others to join in with him for support. Thus when called on their behavior, they claim that they are not alone, and that everyone else does the same thing.

The aeon in which we live is called Auspicious because it has one thousand Buddhas of whom Sakyamuni is the fourth. As can be imagined, the time required for the remaining nine hundred and ninety-six Buddhas to come into the world and enter extinction is long indeed. For those who will receive the retribution for slander in the Avici hell, one of our days and nights constitutes sixty small aeons. As was discussed above, fifty of our years make one day and night in the Heaven of the Four Kings' and one hundred of our years make a day and night in the Trayastrimsa Heaven. The reason for these differences is that when one is undergoing happiness, he feels time passing quickly, but when he is suffering or unhappy, minutes seem like hours and hours like days. Because the sufferings in the hells are so: intense, time passes extremely slowly.

After aeons of suffering in +he evil paths, those who have slandered are born into poverty. Poverty is not caused by conditions in this life alone, but is retribution for deeds done long ago. The solution to this problem lies not in putting people on a welfare dole, but in teaching them to do good and to cease doing the kind of deeds which get them into such a destitute position in the first place. Merely doling out money will not correct the essential cause of poverty. True welfare lies in teaching people to respect the Buddha and to refrain from slandering the Triple Jewel.

When the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are in the world, there is the opportunity to plant, merit and avert the causes of poverty. No matter what the conditions are, something bad always occurs to those who have slighted the Triple Jewel. If they are not without food, then they have no clothes or shelter, and before long they commit offenses and fall back into the states of woe. Earlier the Sutra mentioned a person who was reborn with a lifespan of only thirteen years, after which he was to have fallen into the states of woe again. This is an example of what is being discussed here.

Are the periods of time mentioned in this passage definitely fixed; that is, will such persons really have to spend a thousand aeons as hungry ghosts and as many among the, animals? These various retributions were made clear by Sakyamuni Buddha and are certain. There are, however, mitigating circumstances. A hungry ghost who resolves his thoughts on compassion and acts as a protector for someone who is cultivating is an example. Ghosts may also see someone cultivating and decide to undertake the practice of bowing to the Buddhas. Because such ghosts plant good roots while they are still suffering for their offenses, they may escape some time in the realm of ghosts, and be reborn as animals or even as humans.

Animals who live near cultivators, those who live on temple grounds, for example, may gradually become permeated with Buddhism and come to have faith in the Buddha, thus lightening their karmic obstacles. When the Venerable Master Hsu Yun was at Nan Hua temple, a chicken followed along with the monks as they circumambulated the Buddha. After three years of such practice it stood before the Buddha and went off to rebirth. Although these states of retribution are undergone for fixed periods of time, there are always special circumstances, which may alter the normal course of retribution.

People who come to realize that their poverty, low stature, and handicaps are a result of not having respected Earth Store Bodhisattva and of having slandered the Triple Jewel may change their ways; they may undertake the practice of vegetarianism and recitation of the Buddha's name, or they may even leave home to become Bhiksus. Such people will not necessarily have to return to the states of woe. Although the Buddhadharma contains principles, it is totally alive, not fixed and dead; therefore, it is necessary to look at each particular case to see what special conditions there may be. If someone guilty of offenses repents and reforms his conduct, it is not certain that he will have to fail into the states of woe.

In the chapter on the Vows and Conduct of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, the final chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra it is said that if karmic obstacles had form and substance, one person's would fill the entirety of empty space.  Although they don't have form, they should not be taken lightly. Doing a little more evil here or there is certainly dangerous, especially when one understands the principles involved. The ability to repent eradicates offenses, and so it is said, "Bowing before the Buddhas wipes away offenses as many as sands of the Ganges; giving support increases blessings without limit."


      "Moreover, Universally Expansive, in the future men or women may be bedridden with a long illness and in spite of their wishes can neither get well nor die. At night they may dream of evil ghosts, of family and relatives, or of wandering in dangerous ways; in numerous nightmares they roam with ghosts and spirits. As these continue over a period of days, months and years, they may weaken and waste away, cry out in fitful sleep and be depressed and melancholy day by day. All of this is due to an unresolved degree of severity of their karmic paths which makes it difficult for them to die and difficult to be cured. The eyes of common men and women cannot distinguish such things."


      This passage is not talking of ordinary illnesses, but of chronic and crippling diseases, primarily of a disease in which one symptom is an inability to pass water. The source of this crippling disease is excessive sexual desire. Since the legs are under the rule of the genito-urinary system, if this system is overworked, they will fail to function properly. The majority of people who have problems with their legs do so because of sexual activity, and not as a result of accidents or similar causes. The prevalence of this disease is particularly high in the United States as a result of people not being aware of the disadvantages resulting from such excessive behavior. Those who are handicapped by such a sickness may wish to die and be relieved of their suffering, but cannot do so; they may wish to be cured and restored to a healthy life, but that too does not occur.

      In their dreams such people may consort with evil ghosts and practice a variety of unclean and evil deeds. The more numerous these are, the worse the illness becomes. What is more, they may see their deceased relatives in dreams, an inauspicious sign. At the door of every household there are protective spirits who will allow those under their protection to enter the home. When evil ghosts wish to molest the living, they are unable to get past the guardians of the door and so they tag along with a dead member of that family and thus sneak into the household. Seeing dead relatives in dreams is not an auspicious sign because even though the relatives themselves are not coming to do the living any harm, they are followed by their friends, among whom may be some very malevolent ghosts.

They may also dream of walking high in the mountains in an area given to sudden landslides, or on a road infested with wolves, tigers, and monsters. They may be attacked by Kumbhanda ghosts who render them incapable of movement or sound so that they just lie paralyzed and terrified as if entranced in some demonic samadhi. These attacks may occur several times in a single night. The victims may even know that they are dealing with ghosts, yet in their dreams they may roam about and play with them, because in dreams they frequently do not know ghosts are to be feared.

Those who have this illness may become emaciated, consumptive, racked with pain, with spasms, and be always on' the verge, of tears. All of this is because the offenses, which they have committed, are numerous, and although they are not yet dead, their retributions are being determined in the hells.


      "In this instance this Sutra should be read through once in a loud voice before the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and possessions which the sick one loves such as clothing, jewels, gardens or houses should be offered, saying in a voice before the sick person, "I, so and so, before this Sutra and image, give all these items on behalf of this sick person." Making offerings to the Sutra and images, making images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, constructing temples and monasteries, lighting oil lamps, or giving to the permanently dwelling may be undertaken in a like manner.

      "The sick person should be told three times of the offerings which are being made so that he may hear and know of them. If his consciousnesses are separated and scattered, and his breath exhausted, then for one, two, three, four, and on through seven days, this Sutra should be read aloud in a clear voice. When that person’s life is gone he will achieve eternal liberation from all the heavy and disastrous offenses committed in his life, even the five offenses which receive uninterrupted retribution. He will always be born in a place where he will know his past lives, much greater will the beneficial retributions be if a good man or woman writes this Sutra out himself, teaches others to do so, carves or paints images himself, or teaches others to do so."


All of the properties mentioned in the Sutra may be sold and the proceeds used to construct images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, acts productive of extremely great merit. When the announcement of the offerings is made, those who are performing them on behalf of the sick person should insert their names where the text says, "I, so and so." The announcement is to be made three times so that the sick person knows what is being done. The reference at the end of the passage to teaching others to do so means to solicit funds for the sake of making images.


      "Therefore, Universally Expansive, if you see a person reading and reciting this Sutra or having a single thought of praise and respect for it, you should employ hundreds of thousands of expedients to exhort him to be energetic and not retreat. Both in the present and future he will be able to obtain thousands of tens of thousands of millions of inconceivable meritorious virtues.

      "Moreover, Universally Expansive, when dreaming of dozing, living beings in the future may see ghosts, spirits and other forms which are either sad, weeping, or worried, fearful or terrified. These are all past fathers, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and relatives from one, ten, a hundred or a thousand lives, who have not yet been able to leave the evil paths. They have no place from which to hope for the power of blessings to rescue them, and so they plead with their flesh and blood descendants to establish expedient devices for them so that they might leave the evil paths. Universally Expansive, using your spiritual power, you should cause all of these descendents to recite this Sutra with sincerity before the images of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or to request others to recite it, either three or seven times. When the Sutra has been sounded the proper number of times, relatives in the evil paths will obtain liberation and never again be seen while dreaming or dozing."


The term dozing here refers to the state between ordinary wakefulness and sleep, just on the verge of sleep. The term dreaming refers to a number of classes of dreams: those which come from ignorant habits, those which contain prognostications of good or evil, those which are caused by an imbalance of the four elements, and those which are remembrances of things past.

The first of these is caused by confused and murky habits. Because they are unclear, they are not remembered upon awakening. The second are those in which some foreknowledge is attained and warnings of impending events, either good or bad, are given. The Venerable Hsu Yun's dream in which the Sixth Patriarch said, "Come back, return, there is yet work to do," is an example of such a dream; in fact, it turned out to be a dream calling him back to Nan Hua Monastery to restore the temple. Sometimes warnings are found in people's dreams, warnings to avoid doing certain things lest they encounter accidents; because they ignore such warnings they end up getting hurt.

The third class of dreams arises from an imbalance of the four elements. According to Chinese medical study, there are four hundred forty kinds of diseases and eight hundred eight cures. In Buddhism it is said that there are eighty-four thousand dharmas which are prescriptions to cure as many illnesses. If any one of the four elements becomes predominant, a corresponding illness arises, and in connection with the illness there may be dreams.

The fourth class of dreams is that which is abased in remembrance of things past. During the dream the dreamer sees old friends and old places, but when he awakes it all seems to have been unreal and a dream.

There are many kinds of ghosts which may occur in dreams: some with flaming red hair, protruding teeth, and elephant tusks; some weeping and wailing with running eyes-and dripping noses; some in the form of friends and relatives who seem distraught and worried; and other forms as well. Some ghosts are parents and relatives from past lives and for this reason all living beings should be regarded as one's past parents and as future Buddhas.  One who regards all beings in this way will never bother to trouble a single being, for he sees them all as his own parents.

Ghosts who are seen in dreams such as the ones mentioned above have done bad deeds, fallen into the states of woe, and have no one to help them by reciting sutras or doing other similar meritorious acts. It is for this reason that there exists the Buddhist custom of reciting sutras for the benefit of either the living or the dead. As a result, those for whose sake the act is being done receive merit and can be freed from the, states of woe.

If a descendant of ghosts wishes to read this Sutra for them, but is unable to do so for some reason, he may hire others to do the reading for him. In any case, the S5tra should be recited three or seven times. These are odd numbers and belong to the yang, where even numbers are yin. Thus the reading of the Sutra a yang number of times signals the breaking up of karmic obstacles in the hells.

to be continued


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The Pure Land and Ch’an Dharma Talks 

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A General Explanation of the Amitabha Sutra

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            by Dhyana Master Hua