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.
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A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members