The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva

Continued from issue #56
Commentary by the Venerable Master Hua




      At that time the World Honored One extended his gold-colored arm and again rubbed Earth Store Bodhisattva, Mahasattva’s crown as he said, "Earth Store, Earth Store, your spiritual powers, compassion, wisdom and eloquence are inconceivable. Even if all the Buddhas of the ten directions were to praise your inconceivable qualities, they could not finish in thousands of tens of thousands of aeons."



The Buddha calls Earth Store Bodhisattva's name twice in order to show the depths of his compassion and loving care for him.  Earth Store's spiritual power is said to be inconceivable since all the beings in the hells receive its benefit, enabling even those who fundamentally should not be able to leave their sufferings to do so.  His compassion is also said to be inconceivable since there are none to whom he is not compassionate.

There are three major types of compassion: compassion to beings, with whom one has conditions, compassion grounded in the Buddhadharma, and compassion to even those living beings with whom one has no conditions.  The latter is particularly wonderful and beyond thought.  The power of Earth Store Bodhisattva's compassion is unusually great, a strength which even most other Bodhisattvas cannot match: he alone has made the vow to go to the hells and rescue beings.  Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra have great vows, yet they teach beings in the world; only Earth Store Bodhisattva does not fear the suffering of the hells, goes there to teach beings.  Thus he is known as the Teaching Host in the Dark Regions.

A demonstration of his inconceivable eloquence can be found in his ability to teach hungry ghosts to turn from evil to good.  If his eloquence were not completely unobstructed and beyond thought, he would certainly be unable to effect such changes.  Even if you wish to investigate the inconceivability of Earth Store Bodhisattva's various states, you will be unable to do so, since they are completely beyond all thought.  This being the case, what is there to investigate?


    "Earth Store, Earth Store, remember that now, in the Trayastrimsa heaven in this great assembly of hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of ineffable Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, dragons and eight-fold divisions of spirits, I entrust to you the men and gods of the future who have not yet left the burning house of the triple world.  Do not allow those beings to fall into the evil paths for the space of even a single day and night, much less fall into the uninterrupted hell of the five offenses and the Avici hell where they would have to pass through thousands of tens of thousands of millions of aeons without being able to leave.

    "Earth Store, the beings of Jambudvipa have irresolute wills and nature, and they habitually do many evil deeds.  Even if they resolve their thoughts on good, they quickly turn back on that resolve, and if they encounter evil conditions they tend to become increasingly involved in them.  For this reason I divide hundreds of thousands of millions of transformation bodies to cross them over in accord with their respective natures."


The irresolute nature of living beings can be seen in those who want to study one day and then decide not to the next, want to do good for a moment and then decide to do evil. In one moment you resolve to cultivate and accomplish the pure Dharma-body, and then the resolve changes to a wish for the retribution body.  Only a moment later you may decide that having a hundred thousand million transformation bodies is the most interesting goal and switch to that, and so there is nothing fixed about your will or resolve.  These are examples of irresolute will in good terms, the bodies of the Buddha.

On the other hand, irresolute will can also be seen in the desire to cultivate the ten good deeds and attain rebirth in the heavens one day, followed by a burst of activity in the ten evils the next; one's resolve is set for the heavens, but the next day he thinks that being an animal wouldn't be bad.  An unfixed nature very commonly shows up in the resolve to stop smoking, drinking, or taking drugs; one's resolutions often last for only a moment.  What is particularly bad about this kind of unfixed behavior is that people who act this way always end up rationalizing their way out by saying things like, "Since all the world is a stage, what difference does it make how we play our parts?"

When people with an irresolute nature meet a teacher who tells them to learn or do something, and stresses its importance, they may try to do it but lack the resolve to complete the project.  If someone tells them to misbehave, on the other hand, they don't even need any instructions, but learn how to do it spontaneously.  Gamblers are an excellent example of this trait; no one needs to teach them how to place bets; they see it done once and remember all the details of how to do it themselves in the future.

While it does happen that living beings may decide to do good deeds, contribute to building a temple, printing sutras, or making images, for example, they may quickly turn back on their initial resolve.  They give, but along with the gift comes the thought, "What's in it for me?"  A first rate historical example of such a person is the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, who built temples, aided the sangha, and propagated Buddhism, but who still had to ask Patriarch Bodhidharma how much merit he had accrued.

When living beings tend to retreat from good, they surge forward into evil, anything which is conducive to falling into evil paths.  Foremost among these causes are greed for sex and wealth; hatred, which leads to murder, arson and other antisocial acts; and stupidity, which drives one to constantly try to get what he cannot attain.


    "Earth Store, I now carefully entrust the multitudes of men and gods of the future to you. If in the future gods or men plant good roots in the Buddhadharma, be they as little as a hair, dust-mote, grain of sand, or a drop of water, you should use your spiritual powers and virtues to protect them so that they gradually cultivate the unsurpassed way and do not retreat from it.

   "Moreover, Earth Store, if in the future men and women who ought to fall into the evil paths in accord with the retribution of their deeds, who are on the verge of falling into these paths, or who are already at the very gates of these paths, recite the name of one Buddha, Bodhisattva or a single manifest a limitless body, smash the hells, and cause them to be born in the heavens and receive supremely wonderful bliss."

    The World Honored One then spoke in verse, saying:
        Men and gods of the future, as well as those now living,
        All I entrust to you.
        Use your penetrations
        To rescue them all.
        With your expedient skill in means
        Do not allow them to fall into the evil paths."


It should be realized that those who are studying this Sutra must be included in the group of good men and women, for if they were not, they would have given up the study long ago. Evil men and women who take up this study feel like they are sitting on needles, put it aside, and run off as soon as possible. Good men and women who take it up feel ever-increasing joy in study. Furthermore, this passage reassures us that although we beings are of irresolute nature and mind, there is no need to be frightened, since Sakyamuni Buddha and Earth Store Bodhisattva have made this pact. All that is required is to have done good works in the Buddha dharma.

It may be objected by some that he has done well, but has never seen Earth Store Bodhisattva come to protect him. Think it over a moment.  Although his protection may not have been visible, were you ever in an accident in which you might have been injured or killed, but from which you escaped unharmed? That is an example of Earth Store Bodhisattva, protecting you.

If you insist on objecting at this point that you have never been in an accident, and that consequently you have not been protected by Earth Store Bodhisattva, then you should continue to reflect. Have you ever had a serious illness from which you recovered? If you have not had such occurrences, then have you ever been on a boat in rough waters and avoided capsizing? That is due to the protection of Earth Store Bodhisattva. Have you ever been on an airplane, which made an entire trip without any incident? That too is through the protection of Earth Store Bodhisattva. In fact, if you've ever felt apprehensive about undertaking some voyage or other and then managed to overcome your fear, that too is an example of Earth Store Bodhisattva giving you a little added courage. The situations in which he responds are uncountable and varied. Because of the agreement made in the palace of the Trayastrimsa Heaven, living beings ought to have faith in him.


      At that time Earth Store Bodhisattva, Mahasattva, knelt, placed his palm together, and said to the Buddha, "World Honored One, please don’t be concerned. If good men and women in the future have a single thought of respect toward the Buddhadharma, I shall use hundreds of thousands of expedient devices to cross them over so that they quickly attain liberation from birth and death. Those who have heard of good undertakings and cultivate in accord with them will also be able to attain spontaneous irreversibility from the unsurpassed Way."


It is important to consider the reasons for having been born a person.  Is it the case that we are humans merely to live in confusion and die a muddled death? Is the point of our lives merely to eat our fill and go to sleep, only to wake to eat again? Are we in the world only in order to work at a job and get enough money for a couple of meals a day and a suit of clothes? If all we are here for is to eat and sleep, sleep and eat again, while waiting to die, then it would be better to hurry up and die a little sooner, for such a life would be utterly meaningless. The troubles and difficulties far surpass the ease and pleasure, and death would be preferable.

But if we come to human life for the purpose of establishing merit and benefiting those who come after us, then there is meaning. It is for those who come first to teach those who come later, for those who understand to reach those who do not. If everyone understood the principle of cultivation, there would be much less sorrow in the world. In whatever you do, see to it that you are helping others, not trying to be helped by them. Emulate the behavior of Sakyamuni Buddha, of the Bodhisattvas, of the great Patriarchs of old, all of whom worked exclusively for the benefit of beings. Do not just get involved in "intellectual zen" and only chatter about Dharma.

If you hear of someone doing a meritorious deed, printing sutras, or constructing temples, for example, support those endeavors; if you are unable to do so with money, give your labor. In general, make sure that your every action is for the purpose of aiding beings.


      When this was said, a Bodhisattva named Empty Space Store arose from the midst of that assembly and spoke to the Buddha, “World Honored One, I have come to the Trayastrimsa Heaven and heard the Thus Come One speak of the inconceivable power of Earth Store Bodhisattva’s awesome spiritual strength. If in the future good men or good women as well as gods and dragons hear this Sutra and the name of Earth Store Bodhisattva, or if they gaze at and worship his image, how many kinds of advantages and blessings will they attain? Please, World Honored One, speak about this for the sake of those living beings in the present and in the future."

    The Buddha told Empty Space Store Bodhisattva, "Listen attentively, listen attentively, I shall enumerate and describe them to you. If there are good men and women in the future who see Earth Store’s image, or who hear this Sutra, read or recite it; who use incense, flowers, food and drink, clothing or gems as offerings; or if they praise behold and worship him, they shall attain twenty-eight kinds of advantages:
    1. They will be remembered and protected by gods and dragons.
       2. Their good roots will increase daily.
        3. They will accumulate superior causes for sagehood.
        4. They will not retreat from Bodhi.
        5. Their food and drink will be abundant.
        6. Epidemics will avoid them.
        7. They will not encounter disasters of fire and water.
        8. They will not be troubled by thieves.
        9. They will be respected by all who see them.
       10. They will be aided by ghosts and spirits.
       11. Women will be reborn as men.
       12. If born as women, they will be daughters of kings and ministers.
       13. They will have upright and proper appearances.
       14. They will often be born in the heavens.
       15. They may be emperors or kings.
       16. They will know their past lives.
       17. They will attain whatever they seek.
       18. Their families will be happy.
      19. All disasters will be eradicated.
       20. They will eternally be apart from the paths of karma.
       21. They will always arrive at their destination.
       22. At night their dreams will be peaceful and happy.
       23. Their deceased relatives will leave suffering.
       24. They will receive the blessings from their past lives.
       25. They will be praised by the sages.
       26. They will be intelligent and their roots will be keen.
      27. They will have magnanimous, kind, and sympathetic hearts.
       28. They will ultimately attain Buddhahood."


      Empty Space Store Bodhisattva, who comes from a world thousands of millions of world systems away, has a jewel in his topknot from which anything one wishes for will come. Should you ever happen to encounter a Bodhisattva with a wishing gem atop his head, you should recognize him, for if you do, you will be able to have some of the treasures, which he has in empty space, and you will never be poor.

When the text refers to those who see Earth Store Bodhisattva's image, it indicates the sincerity of the eye.  Hearing the Sutra refers to the sincerity of the ear; recitation as well as offerings of food and drink are the sincerity of the tongue; while offerings of incense and flowers reveal the sincerity of the nose.  The use of clothing and gems show the sincerity of the body.  When all six organs are sincere, twenty-eight kinds of benefit may be derived.  Since many of them are self-explanatory, only a few will be mentioned in this commentary.

They will accumulate superior causes of sage-hood.  The causes of sage-hood include listening to sutra explanations and hearing Dharma spoken, things which most ordinary people in society do not become involved in.

Their food and drink will be abundant.  Everyone ought to look at himself at this point and ask why it is that he may not have sufficient food and clothing in this life.  It is just a result of not having planted good roots in the past, of not having worshipped Earth Store Bodhisattva's image, and not having recited this Sutra.

Epidemics will avoid them.  I recall that once, when I was in Manchuria, there was an epidemic, and in one household of eleven people, thirteen died.  One of the two added to make the full compliment was a servant in the house, and the other a visiting relative. This is what is meant by an epidemic.  At that time I said to four of my young disciples, "Let's go rescue people."

"How?" they asked.

"We'll just recite the Great Compassion Mantra, and recite this epidemic away."  We then went to all the villages in which the disease was raging and circled each one three times while reciting the Great Compassion Mantra, after which the sickness abated.  The Great Compassion Mantra, a dharma which is cultivated by many of those listening to this lecture, is truly miraculous.  But until you've had this sort of experience you don't know it.

      They will be respected by all who see them.  It will not be necessary to hang out a sign and advertise oneself, there will be no need to work to get people to respect one, for respect will come naturally.  If there is virtue, the respect comes naturally; if there is no virtue, no matter now hard a wind you blow, you'll never be able to stir up respect.  It is definitely not a good thing to go about saying what a great protector of the Buddhadharma you are, or how you are a member of this and that benevolent association.  It is pseudo virtue that constantly tries to sell itself, and the result of such activity is that while those without eyes may be cheated, people who can see things clearly will know you for the pitiful thing you are.

Women will be reborn as men.  As was mentioned earlier in the Sutra, women have five obstacles and cannot hold certain positions.  It is important to understand that this passage is not saying that a woman can turn into a man in this life. If she dislikes the body of a woman, she may be reborn as male in the next life.  If there are women who do not mind being women, however, they will be reborn in royal households.

Their families will be happy.  In spite of the intimacy between father and son, it sometimes happens that this relationship is strained.  Children often look on their parents as having addled or petrified brains totally incapable of understanding the way the modern trend of things is going.  They often feel that their parents have no idea what it means to be a father or mother, and that they are totally misguided and confused.  Parents, on their part, may sometimes realize that their children are up to no good, but because of the deep compassion and love they have for them, they are willing to overlook any of their children's faults.

The same kind of problem may even arise between husbands and wives.  Before the marriage everything is fine and there is never a quarrel, but after the wedding they begin to display their tempers to one another.  As a result of worshipping Earth Store, none of these problems appear.

At night their dreams will be peaceful and happy.  They may dream of making offerings to the Buddha, of bowing, reciting sutras, of holding mantras, of chanting the Buddha's name, or of other practices.

Their deceased relatives will leave suffering.  Not only does this refer to relatives from this life, but to ancestors and parents of aeons of past lives.


    "Moreover, Empty Space Store Bodhisattva, if gods, dragons, or spirits of the present or future hear Earth Store Bodhisattva’s name, bow to his image or merely hear of his past vows and conduct, and then praise him, gaze at and worship him, they will attain seven kinds of beneficial advantages.
            1. They will quickly step over to the sagely ground.
            2. Their evil karma will be eradicated.
            3. All the Buddhas will protect and be near them.
            4. They will not retreat from Bodhi.
            5. Their fundamental powers will increase.
            6. They will know their past lives.
            7. They will ultimately realize Buddhahood.


As above, most of these benefits are self-explanatory and only a few will be noted here.

Irreversibility from Bodhi simply refers to setting out to become a Buddha, and continuing on until that goal is reached. You start out by holding the five precepts, leaving home, cultivating to become a great monk, a patriarch, and then, after you practice the Bodhisattva way, you end up a Buddha. Of course, you have to go right on with the practice and not turn back; you cannot say that you will cultivate the five precepts one day, and then the very next moment hesitate about taking them. Don't think that if you receive the precepts and then break them it will be a great loss of face, too embarrassing a position, and consequently put off receiving them. Don't on the one hand think about leaving home, and then on the other start doubting the merits of doing so.

When the text says their fundamental powers will increase it means that their inherent ability to become Buddhas will grow daily. In addition to these benefits they will attain the penetration of their past lives, and know, for example, "Once I was a tiny ant and now I have obtained the enormous body of a human. I went from an ant to a butterfly, from a butterfly to a songbird; the songbird became an eagle, a vegetarian eagle, and so blessings and wisdom ware cultivated for accomplishing Bodhi. Along that road I ha/e now ended up a human." When you obtain the penetration of your past lives you will know all of this, for behind one body there follows along limitless numbers of differing bodies.


      At that time all those who had come from the ten directions, unspeakable numbers of Buddhas, Thus Come Ones, as well as the great Bodhisattvas, gods, dragons and the remainder of the eight-fold divisions who heard. Sakyamuni Buddha's praise of Earth Store Bodhisattva's great inconceivable spiritual powers, exclaimed that there had never been anything like this before.

     At that time incense, flowers, heavenly garments and gems rained down in the Trayastrimsa Heaven as offerings to Sakyamuni Buddha and Earth Store Bodhisattva. When this was finished, the entire assembly again gazed, made obeisance, placed their palms together, and withdrew.


The exegesis of the sutra text is now finished, but cultivation is not complete until Buddhahood has been achieved. Only then can it be said, "Done is what had to be done. The life of purity had been lead; there is be no further becoming."

Those who have been able to study this Sutra are people with good roots, for if they were not, there is no way they could have had this opportunity. In fact, even if they wanted to study it they would be unable to do so. Some who do not have good roots might even say that they don't want to become Buddha s, that they would just as soon go off to the hells and let Earth Store Bodhisattva use his great powers to release them so that they can go back to continue a life of wrongdoing. They neglect the fact that Earth Store Bodhisattva's great spiritual powers enable him to know full well what is in their, thoughts, and that when he sees such a plan he simply doesn't bother to open the gates of that offender's hell. Do not study the ways of such people. Go onward in cultivation, practice in accordance with the principles of this Sutra. Do so with energy; do not retreat. Go onward with vigor.

The end

The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva has been translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society of the Sino-American Buddhist Association and will be available in book form in the near future. This is the fourth Sutra to appear in Vajra Bodhi Sea in its entirety in English translation, the other three being the Heart Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra.