This month we celebrate the birth of Kṣitigarbha. It is typically celebrated on the 30th of the seventh lunar month. The story of Kṣitigarbha was first described in the Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra one of the most popular Mahayana Sutras. In the Sutra, the Buddha states that in distant past eons, Kṣitigarbha was a maiden of the Brahmin caste by the name of Sacred Girl.
The maiden was deeply troubled upon her mother's death--who had often been slanderous towards the Three Jewels. She prayed fervently that her mother is spared the pains of hell. She appealed to the Buddha. The Buddha told her to go home and recite his name. She did as she was told and her consciousness was transported to the Hell realm. There, she was told, because of her prayers her mother accumulated much merit and had ascended to heaven. But the suffering that she had seen in the Hell realm touched her heart. She vowed to do her best to relieve the beings of their sufferings in her future lives for many kalpas*.
Unlike other bodhisattvas, Kṣitigarbha is usually depicted as a monk with a halo around his shaved head. He carries a staff to force open the gates of hell and a wish-fulfilling jewel to light up the darkness. There are six rings on the staff, one for each of the six realms**. The jingling of the rings is a reminder that we carry the six realms with us a all times.
His name may be translated as "Earth Treasury", "Earth Store", or "Earth Matrix". He is known for his vow to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds between the death of Guatama Buddha and the rise of Maitreya, the future Buddha, as well as his vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied.
He is therefore often regarded as the bodhisattva of hell-beings, as well as the guardian of children and patron deity of deceased children in Japanese culture where he is known as Jizō or Ojizō-sama.
We invoke your name Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva. We aspire to learn your way so as to be present where there is darkness, suffering, oppression, and despair, so that we may bring light, hope, relief, and liberation to those places.
Rev. Anwol Devadipa
* kalpa is a Sanskrit word for a particularly long measure of time. It can be thought of as another word for eon. In Hinduism, a kalpa equals 4.32 billion years. Buddhism is less specific for the amount of time a kalpa represents, deferring to analogies such as the time it takes for a bird to fly around the world, and with each circumambulation that bird's wing to brush against a gigantic rocky mountain and wear that mountain down dust.
** The six realms in Buddhist cosmology are the six realms of rebirth and existence: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells.
Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva is known for vowing to help all those experiencing hell. The hell referred to can mean another realm of suffering, a place called hell, but that is not entirely correct. The other meaning of hell can be thought of as the hell of suffering, which includes those suffering when transitioning from life on earth or suffering because of their situation here on earth.
Kṣitigarbha’s vow is to take responsibility for the awakening of all sentient beings throughout the six worlds from the time of the physical death of Shakyamuni Buddha and the arrival of Maitreya Buddha (the Future Buddha). With this vow comes the vow to not fully realize Buddhahood until all hells are emptied of suffering beings.
Kṣitigarbha, like Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, underwent a gender change, but whereas Avalokiteshvara transformed from male to female, Kṣitigarbha was female and became male.
How or why did this happen? It is not entirely clear if the origins of the Kṣitigarbha Sutra are Indian or Chinese, but since there has yet to be found a Sanskrit manuscript of the sutra, and given its popularity in East Asia, the sutra is suspected of having a Chinese origin. East Asian Buddhism took strongly to Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, probably due to the cultural emphasis on filial piety as espoused by Confucious. As Sacred Girl, Kṣitigarbha's devotion to her mother and the lengths that she would go to save her mother is a powerful example of filial piety to the highest expression.
When Sacred Girl's life came to an end she made good on her vow and refused parinirvana (the end of participating in the cycle of birth and death) and was reborn as a male monk. Some explain that she chose to be reborn as a man in order to accomplish what couldn't be accomplished as a woman in a culture that held women in low regard. Others indicate that Kṣitigarbha became a man because it was unfathomable for people at the time of drafting the sutra to envision a woman returning to hell over and over.
In contemporary practice, emphasis on the gender of Kṣitigarbha is not as important outside of Confucian filial beliefs. We can continue to envision Kṣitigarbha as a male monk or a female nun, or, as I prefer, a genderless monk embodying both male and feminine qualities. How you choose to visualize Kṣitigarbha is really up to you. As part of our practice, the vow made by Ksitigarbha to help women become reborn as a man, has been modified to offering strength and peace to those who suffer because of their gender or gender identity.
In practice, we can turn to Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva when we are going through a very difficult situation. Having an image of the bodhisattva to focus on and/or chanting the bodhisattva's mantra can help ease our minds and allow us to find our way through difficulty.
Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva is also popular with those who struggle with addiction or other compulsive behavior, as addictions and compulsions are a kind of hell realm.
Kṣitigarbha's mantra is OM PRA MANI DANI SOHA.
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members