This article was originally published in Feng Shui Times on 29 March 2001. One of my favourite Bodhisattvas.
A friend told me her story: She was sleeping on her bed when she felt something sit on her chest. The thing was heavy and she found it difficult to breathe. It was as if she was paralyzed, for she could not move her limbs or scream for help. Thus she recited this mantra : “Namo Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva” over and over again in her heart. When the thing withdrew itself a little, she recited it verbally and after a while, it disappeared. She described the thing as a ‘shadowish shade of gray darting into the darkness’.
This phenomenon is not unusual for the religious. Most orthodox religions believe that there are other beings in this universe other than humans (and we are not talking about the possibility of Martians). These beings are known as spirits, ghosts, souls – beings that most people have never seen and will never see.
Or could be sleep paralysis, but for the sake of this, let’s go with the ‘thing’.
It is generally believed that these beings have not crossed over to other worlds because of attachment, revenge or for other reasons. Some of these beings enter the human body and cause much suffering and discomfort to the person. Perhaps the most well-known case of exorcism is depicted in ‘The Exorcist’. William Peter Blatty was a student at Washington’s Georgetown University when the local papers published the story of the exorcism of a 13 year old boy. He took an interest in the case and wrote ‘The Exorcist’, which later became a cult film of the same name. In the real life case, the boy had been possessed by a very strong spirit that could not be exorcised by Jesuit priests. In the end, it was said that the Archangel Michael saved the boy.
Such incidents were also recorded in the Bible, where it stated that Jesus performed exorcism on countless of distressed people. After His rise to heaven, His disciples carried on His work. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many deities who are said to be able to help rid the body of disturbing spirits.
So how are these stories related to the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva?
If you experience any incidents caused by spirits, think of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and recite His name repeatedly. He is a comforter of the poor, sick, depressed, hungry and those troubled by nightmares and spirits. His vow of Bodhisattva is so strong and powerful that all beings respect and are in awe of him.
Origins of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva
During the time of Buddha Lion Power (one of the 5 Buddhas of our kalpa), there was a young lad, son of a respectable elder who saw the divine appearance of the Buddha. He wanted to emulate the Buddha and asked His advice. The Buddha guided him well and the lad made a vow, “I now determine to relieve the sufferings of beings in the six realms of suffering and sorrow, skillfully leading them to Salvation through innumerable kalpas, before I myself attain Buddhahood.”(sic) Thus Ksitigarbha has remained in the Bodhisattva stage for endless kalpas, selflessly freeing other beings from suffering.
In another life, Kstigarbha was reborn as a Brahman girl who respected and paid homage to the Buddha everyday. However her mother was prejudiced against the Buddha and His Teachings. She indulged in idle and slanderous talks against the Triple Gems (the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).
When she died, her daughter knew that her mother would suffer in hell because of her evil deeds. She gave all her worldly belongings to charity and prayed at the temple everyday. She asked for the Buddha’s guidance to tell her where her mother was reborn. The Buddha allowed her to go to Hell in search of her mother. She met the king of sea-devils who told her about hell and the infinite number of suffering beings. The king also told her that her mother had been reborn in a deep hell, but had gone to heaven because of the girl’s sacrifices and filial devotion. The girl, moved by the pain and suffering she saw, made a vow to the Buddha, “I shall exercise my best to relieve people of their sufferings forever in my live of kalpas to come.” She became Ksitigarbha and the king of sea-devils became the Bodhisattva of Wealth.
According to the ‘Sutras of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva’ – one of the most popular Buddhist sutras, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva renewed his vows 3 times in front of Gautama Buddha. In Chapter One, the Buddha was preaching to countless of Bodhisattvas and gods in Tavatimsa Heaven. He then praised Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and revealed His great and compassionate vows. Majusri Bodhisattva asked the Buddha of the number of beings that stood before them. The Buddha told Majusri that He himself did not know the exact number of the beings. They were beings that had been saved by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva through countless kalpas.
In the final chapter of the sutra, Gautama Buddha preached the following to humankind and other realms in the wheel of life:
“Listen to me carefully and I shall tell you in detail. If virtuous ones of the future see the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva’s image, hear the Ksitigarbha Sutra, chant this Sutra, make offerings to Ksitigarbha, pay homage to him, they will receive these benefits:
1. They will be protected by devas and dragons.
2. Their ability to do good will be increased.
3. Opportunities for doing good will increase.
4. They will strive to attain Buddhahood.
5. They will enjoy sufficiency of food and clothing.
6. They will be free from diseases.
7. Floods and fire will not affect them.
8. Robbers will not trouble them.
9. They will be respected and admired by people.
10. Spirits and devas will protect and assist them.
11. Females shall be reborn as males.
12. The females will become daughters of noble and exalted families.
13. They will be reborn with good complexion.
14. They will be reborn in the heavens for many lives.
15. They will be reborn as kings and rulers of countries.
16. They will have wisdom to recollect their past lives.
17. They will be successful in al their aspirations.
18. They will enjoy happy family relationships.
19. Disasters will not affect them.
20. Their bad karma will be removed.
21. Wherever they go, they are safe.
22. They will always have peaceful dreams.
23. Their deceased relatives will be free from suffering.
24. They will be reborn with happiness.
25. They will be intelligent and skillful.
26. They will have compassion for others.
27. They will finally attain Buddhahood.”
The embodiment of benevolence, Ksitigarbha is the only Bodhisattva depicted in a monk’s attire. He has a kind and compassionate look, carries a staff and is seated with a ‘five-leave’ crown on his head. He also holds a precious pearl in his hand, said to contain vast magical powers beyond description. In the Chinese Buddhist Pantheon, Ksitigarbha is seated just below the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is often confused with Tripitaka of the infamous Journey To The West (Tripitaka was a monk from the Tang Dynasty who made a dangerous journey to obtain the Buddhist scriptures). This is because they both wear monks’ robes with a crown on their heads. Some say that Ksitigarbha is also King Yama, the Lord of Hell. However, Ksitigarbha is a Bodhisattva (the next thing to being a Buddha) and not a mere king of the 5th level of Hell.
The Sanskrit version of the mantra, as mentioned earlier is “Namo Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva” and the Chinese is “Namo Di Zhang Wang Pu’sa”.