Sūtra of the Great Vow of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva

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The Sūtra of the Great Vow of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva (Kṣitigarbha Sūtra) is a story about the Buddha teaching to his mother in the Palace of Trāyastriṃśa Heaven about the merits of Kṣitigarbha. It was translated into Chinese, assumedly from Sanskrit, by the monk Śiksānanda from Khotan circa 700....



 The Sūtra of the Great Vow of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva (Kṣitigarbha Sūtra) is a story about the Buddha teaching to his mother in the Palace of Trāyastriṃśa Heaven about the merits of Kṣitigarbha. It was translated into Chinese, assumedly from Sanskrit, by the monk Śiksānanda from Khotan circa 700. Some details of Śiksānanda's life are given in Scroll 2 of the Song Biographies of Eminent Monks (Taisho Tripiṭaka Vol. 50, No. 2061). The Chinese and English text is shown below. The brief biography of Śiksānanda shows that Empress Wu Ze Tian was an important influence on Buddhist translations at the time that this work was translated. Śiksānanda is best known for leading the translation of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, a monumental translation work commissioned by the empress.

This sutra is one of the main sources of knowledge about Kṣitigarbha. Kṣitigarbha is known as the bodhisattva of the great vow and in this sūtra we find out what that great vow is. He is described as a bodhisattva that has unimaginable spiritual power to save people and as a role model, who helps people over countless kalpas in the remote past without any thought of the cost to himself. The great vow is to save all sentient beings before Kṣitigarbha becomes a Buddha. Since sentient beings keep committing wrongdoings that lead them back into evil paths Kṣitigarbha has to keep re-saving them and has been doing so for countless eons. Most of the beings that he saves are responsible for their own suffering through poor conduct in the present or previous lives, which shows that Kṣitigarbha is a great being with infinite compassion.

The main figures in the sūtra are Śākyamuni Buddha, his mother Queen Māyā, Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, and Yama. It is a Mahāyāna sutra.

Chapter 1 gives the setting for the sūtra in Trāyastriṃśa Heaven, including a detailed description of the beings in the assembly. Mañjuśrī asks the Buddha to tell the assembly about Kṣitigarbha and his vows.

In Chapter 2 the innumerable division bodies (Chinese: 分身) of Kṣitigarbha gather in the palace. Kṣitigarbha uses Śākyamuni Buddha's power to create many division bodies to save as many sentient beings as possible. The concept of karmic retribution (Sanskrit: karmaphala, Chinese: 業報) or karmic cause and effect is introduced. This chapter explains that Kṣitigarbha saves people by teaching and transforming (Sanskrit: avavāda, Chinese: 教化). Beings need teaching to understand the principle of karma and its result and transformation to overcome their bad habits.

In Chapter 3 Queen Māyā asks Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva to talk about the karmic conditions of beings. Kṣitigarbha talks about karma, as requested, and also tells about the terrors of Avīci Hell and the tortures that sinners suffer there. Avīci Hell (Chinese: 無間地獄) is characterized by uninterupted torment.

In Chapter 4 the Buddha tells a story about a girls filial piety and describes Buddhist practices that can help prevent her mother from being reborn in an evil realm. The term karmic results (Sanskrit: vipāka, Chinese 果報) is first used in this chapter. Karmic results can be positive or negative. In Chapter 4 the girls mother suffers negative karmic results from the killing and slandering that she practiced in a previous life and says that she repeatedly fell into a great hell as a result of this. Her daugther helps her escape from this cycle by making offerings to Pure Lotus Eyes Tathāgata. Negative karmic results are often described using the term retribution (Sanskrit: aniṣṭo-vipāka, Chinese: 罪報) from the Sanskrit aniṣṭa meaning bad or leading to hell.

In Chapter 5 Samantabhadra Bodhisattva asks Kṣitigarbha to explain the suffering that sentient beings may have to endure for committing unwholesome acts and to name the different hells.

In Chapter 6 the Buddha praises Kṣitigarbha for his conduct in saving sentient beings over countless kalpas using many skillful means (Sanskrit: upāya, Chinese: 方便). It describes the practices of copying sutras and making sculptures of Buddhas as generating positive karmic results (Sanskrit: vipāka, Chinese 果报).

In Chapter 7 Kṣitigarbha explains practices that people should perform, especially those nearing death or those people who have family members nearing death. They should especially be careful to not harm or kill other living beings. He explains how some (one seventh) of the merit from good actions by the family members can be transferred to the dying person although most of the merit will be retained by those performing the virtuous deeds.

Chapter 8 narrates the praise of Yama and his followers for Kṣitigarbha. Yama (Chinese: 閻羅王) is a Hindu and Buddhist lord of death. Yama is presented as a benevolent figure in a similar way to the Upanishads. It is people's own karmic conditions that lead them to be reborn in evil realms rather than Yama's wish to send them there.

Chapter 9 describes the merit and blessings obtained from reciting or hearing a Buddha's name. The Sanskrit puṇya (Chinese: 福), which may be translated as virtue or merit is the central concept of this chapter. This refers to conduct that can lead to spiritual liberation, such as giving and honoring Buddhas and bodhisattvas by reciting their names and making offerings.

Chapter 10 discusses the practice of dāna (giving) and the merit attained from it. Kṣitigarbha asks the Buddha why some beings practice little dāna and some practice a lot. The Buddha explains the comparative merit gained from practicing dāna and from transferring merit (Sanskrit: pariṇāmanā, Chinese in the text is 迴向 but a more common written form is 回向). The chapter says that if a person practices dāna by making offerings, repairing stūpas and temples, or preserving sūtras and they transfer the transfer [dedicate] the merits to the Dhárma Realm [the entire world] for these benevolent actions then the merit [puṇya] will be such that they will enjoy supreme and wonderful bliss for a hundred thousand lifetimes. However, if the merit is only transferred to their immediate family dependents or only for their own benefit then the karmic results will only result in three lifetimes of bliss. For giving up one they will gain a ten-thousand-fold reward. This is one of the key points of the sūtra and of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

In Chapter 11 the Earth Goddess Prthivī describes the ten benefits obtained by people who make offerings, worship, and praise Kṣitigarbha. These include protection from having a premature death and living in peace.

Chapter 12 describes the trillions of light rays emitted from the ūrṇā in the Buddha's forehead. An ūrṇā is one of the thirty two marks of excellence of a Buddha, which is a tuft of white hair in between his eyebrows. The Buddha converses with Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, describing practices for obtaining merit, including one where Kṣitigarbha will bless disciples with holy water (Chinese: 授灌頂水).

In Chapter 13 the Buddha entrusts the care of all sentient beings in the Three Realms to Kṣitigarbha. He summarizes the twenty eight benefits of following the practices described in the sūtra.

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