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....
At that time, from inside the Iron Wall Mountain Lord Yama and his followers, an immeasurable number of ghost kings entered Trāyastriṃśa Heaven before the Buddha. There was Evil Poison Ghost King, Many Evils Ghost King, Great Quarrel Ghost King, White Tiger Ghost King, Blood Tiger Ghost King, Scarlet Tiger Ghost King, Spreading Calamities Ghost King, Flying Body Ghost King, Lightening Ghost King, Wolf Fang Ghost King, Thousand Eye Ghost King, Feeding Beast Ghost King, Bearing Rocks Ghost King, Lord of Waste Ghost King, Lord of Disasters Ghost King, Lord of Food Ghost King, Lord of Wealth Ghost King, Lord of Domesticated Animals Ghost King, Lord of Birds Ghost King, Lord of Beasts Ghost King, Lord of Magic Ghost King, Lord of Birth Ghost King, Lord of Fate Ghost King, Lord of Disease Ghost King, Lord of Danger Ghost King, Three Eyes Ghost King, Four Eyes Ghost King, Five Eyes Ghost King, Vast Loss of Wealth Ghost King, Great Loss of Wealth Ghost King, Vast Wealth Division Ghost King, Great Wealth Division Ghost King, Anato Ghost King, and Great Anato Ghost King. Such were the great ghost kings, each with hundreds of thousands of lesser ghost kings all living in Jambudvīpa and presiding over a certain domain.
The Lord Yama and all the ghost kings, using the spiritual power of the Buddha and the strength of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, all assembled at Trāyastriṃśa Heaven and stood together. At that time, Lord Yama kneeled, joined his palms, and said to the World Honored One, “Today, the ghost kings and I, using the spiritual power of the Buddha and the strength of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, have come to assemble here at Trāyastriṃśa Heaven from which we gain great joy and benefit. I have a small doubt that I dare to ask the World Honored One and I only hope that you would have the compassion to explain to us.”
The Buddha said to Lord Yama, “I will answer any question that you ask.”
Then Lord Yama bowed to the World Honored One and looked back at Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, I see that Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva uses a hundred thousand skillful means in the Six Realms to save sentient beings from suffering never tiring. He is a great bodhisattva and so we have this due to his inconceivable spiritual powers. Thus numerous sentient beings escape from the retribution that they deserve but before long they degenerate back into an evil rebirth. World Honored One, if Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva has such inconceivable divine powers, why do the sentient beings not rely on him to follow a virtuous path and be liberated for all time? I only wish that the World Honored One would explain that.”
Buddha told the Lord Yama, “The sentient beings in Jambudvīpa have stubborn natures that are difficult to tame and difficult to subdue. The great bodhisattva has spent hundreds of thousands of kalpas to save these sentient beings leading them to liberation quickly. For those beings that carry karmic retribution and even will experience a very evil rebirth, the bodhisattva uses skillful power to break their karmic connections and help them understand the conditions of their former lives. Because sentient beings in Jambudvīpa are tied to their own vices they keep revolving in and out of the paths but the bodhisattva toils over long kalpas to rescue them.
“For example, like somebody lost and unable to find their home who takes a dangerous road. On this dangerous road there are many yaksas, tigers, wolves, lions, poisonous snakes, and scorpions. So the lost person on the dangerous path will very easily be harmed. But if he meets someone that can guide him to the main road then he can avoid harm, even from yaksas and other vicious beings. Suddenly, by chance, the lost person desiring to travel the dangerous road meets the guide who says to him, 'Hey! You! What purpose brings you to this road? What special skills do you have to overcome these dangers?'
“The lost person suddenly wakes up upon hearing this realizing that he is on a dangerous road and turns around looking for a way out. The Dharma friend will lead the person by the hand, away from the dangerous road to avoid harm. They will lead the lost person to the good road so that the lost person can attain peace and happiness saying, “Hey! Lost person! Don't go back to that road after today. Very few people travel that road and it is difficult. It cause you harm or cost you your life.'
“The lost person feels a deep gratitude. When they part the acquaintance says again, 'If you see close acquaintances or a passers-by, either male or female, please tell them that this road is very dangerous and that travelling along it could cost them their lives. Do not let them bring about their own deaths.'
“Consequently, Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva has great compassion, rescuing those beings that suffer because of their own wrongdoing, enabling them to be born in the human and heavenly realms where they can receive great joy. Once the sinners understand the suffering of the path that they were on and they acheive liberation from it they will never return to experience it again. Like the lost person, who has mistakenly taken the dangerous road meets a Dharma friend will lead him out never to take the dangerous road again. When he meets other people he will also advise them not to take the road, saying 'I took that road because I was lost but know I escaped and I will not take it again.' If the person was to walk the road again then he would still get lost and unconsciously fall into the same old evil as before or, otherwise, loose his life, as if falling to an evil rebirth. Thus Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva uses the power of skillful means to lead people and gods to liberation. But if they turn away and enter another path, such as creating karmic conditions with serious consequences, then they may reside in Hell forever with no chance of escape.”
At that time, Evil Poison Ghost King joined palms, bowed. and said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, all the ghost kings, including myself, uncountable in number, either help or harm people in Jambudvīpa, each in a different way. Thus, according to karmic retribution, my dependents and I travel the world doing more harm and less good. When passing people's houses, city dwellings, or country villas if there are either men or women who have cultivated as little as a hair of benevolent deeds, even hanging a single scroll or erecting a single canopy, using a little incense or a few flowers to make offerings to Buddha and bodhisattva images, or mindfully reciting a verse or a sentence of the sutras, or burning incense as an offering, then the ghost kings will respect those people as we would the past, present, or future Buddhas. I instruct smaller ghosts, each with great strength and their own territory to protect those people. To keep them away from accidental deaths, death from disease, even unexpected deaths near to their residences, not to mention entering their home.”
The Buddha praised the Ghost King, “Excellent! Excellent! You and Yama thus support virtuous men and women. I also tell Brahmā and Śakra to protect you.”
After this was said a ghost king in the assembly called Master of Life said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, my own karmic conditions, as Master of Life in Jambudvīpa, I determine when people are born and when people will die. My own vows are based on a great desire to benefit them but sentient beings misunderstand me, which leads them through life and death in distress.
“What is the reason for this? At the time when women in Jambudvīpa give birth, whether to a boy or a girl, or at the time that they want to give birth, then practicing benevolent actions will benefit the household. This will bring immeasurable joy to the community, supporting the mother and son and bring great peace and happiness and benefit to the family. Or, after the birth, do not kill to provide fresh meat for the mother that has just given birth. Also, do not gather the extended family to drink alchohol and eat meat or to enjoy singing, dancing, or music, which will not bring peace and happiness to the mother and son. Why is this? Giving birth is a difficult time. There are innumerable demons and also goblins and phantoms desiring to drink the meat. I quickly order the house and local district spririts to support and protect the mother and son, leading them to peace and happiness and other benefits. When people like this see the receive peace and happiness they should perform virtuous deeds to show their appreciation for the local earth spirit. On the other hand, if they assemble family dependents then they will bear the resulting calamities themselves and the mother and son will also be harmed.
“When people in Jambudvīpa are about to die, whether virtuous or evil, I want to help them from falling into an an evil rebirth afterwards. That is much easier for me to do if people cultivate themselves to develop virtuous roots. When those people in Jambudvīpa who practice good deeds are approaching the ends of their lives hundreds of thousands of spirits from evil realms appear as either their parents or as other family members leading the dying people to evil rebirths. How much worse will it be for those people that committed unwholesome deeds?
“World Honored One, thus at the time when a man and woman of Jambudvīpa is about to die their soul will be confused in the darkness. They cannot differentiate good from evil and their eyes and ears will not work. At that time all of the dying person's family members should make great offerings, continually recite sutras, and chant the names of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Thus good karma can lead the dying person to stay away from the evil realms and the many devils and spirits will retreat and disperse.
“World Honored One, if any sentient being hears a Buddha's name or a bodhisattva's name when they are approaching death, or hear one sentence or one verse from a Mahayana sutra I understand that such a person, if he or she has committed minor unwholesome acts that would lead them to an evil rebirth, will be liberated. The exception to this is an act of killing that would lead the person to be reborn in Fivefold Avici Hell.”
The Buddha said to Master of Life Ghost King, “You have great compassion in taking such a great vow to protect many beings in birth and death. If in a future life a man or a woman at the time of birth or death you will not regress from this vow but, instead, lead them to liberation and you will always be peaceful and happy.”
The ghost king said to the Buddha, “Please rest assured that, until the end of my life I will remember to support the sentient beings of Jambudvīpa at the times of birth and death so that they all attain peace and happiness. I only wish that all sentient beings at the times of birth and death believe what I tell them so that they can be liberated and receive great benefits.”
At that time, the Buddha said to Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, “The Great Ghost King Master of Life has already lived a hundred thousand lifetimes as a great ghost king protecting sentient beings in birth and death. He is a great being because of his compassionate vow. Although he has the body of a great ghost king at present, he is not truly a ghost. After a hundred and seventy kalpas have passed he will become a Buddha called Animitta Tathāgata. His kalpa will be called Peace and Happiness and the name of his world will be Pure Dwelling. The Buddha's lifetime will be too many kalpas to measure. Kṣitigarbha, the Great Ghost King has saved an inconceivable number of people and devas that cannot be counted.