SUTRAS MAY BE INTRODUCED in a number of ways, all of which help bring out the basic meaning of the text. In studying this sutra we shall approach the text through the investigation of the following six items:
I. The reasons for the arising of the teaching
II. The division and vehicle to which the sutra belongs
III. A determination of the sutra’s principle
IV. A full explanation of the title
V. A history of the translation
VI. A detailed explanation of the sutra
I. THE REASONS FOR THE ARISING OF THE TEACHING
Shortly after Sakyamuni’s birth from his mother’s side, his mother died and ascended to the heavens. After he had become a Buddha and had spoken Dharma for forty-nine years at over three hundred assemblies, he went to the Trayastrimsa Heaven to teach her. This occurred between the speaking of The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra and The Nirvana Sutra. He stayed in that heaven for three months and spoke this sutra of filial piety, The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva.
II. THE DIVISION AND VEHICLE TO WHICH THE SUTRA BELONGS
Division refers to the three divisions of the canon, the Sutras, the Sastras, and the Vinaya. The Sutras encompass the study of Samadhi, the Sastras, the study of wisdom, and the Vinaya, the study of moral precepts. Since this sutra discusses morality it belongs to both the Sutra and Vinaya stores.
Vehicle refers to the Five Vehicles. Although some people say that there are only three – the Vehicles of the Sound-hearers, of Those Enlightened to Causation, and of Bodhisattvas – the Vehicles of Men and Gods can be added to these to make five. This sutra deals with the Vehicles of Men, Gods, and Bodhisattvas.
III. A DETERMINATION OF THE SUTRA’S PRINCIPLE
The foundations of this sutra are principles contained in eight terms grouped in four headings:
1. The practice of filial piety
2. The crossing over of living beings
3. The rescuing of sufferers
4. The repaying of kindness
1. To practice filial piety means to be “filial” to one’s parents and thus to be a dazzling light over the entire world. Both heaven and earth are greatly pleased by filial piety and so it is said, “Heaven and earth deem filial piety essential; filial piety is foremost. With one filial son, an entire family is peaceful.” If you are filial to your parents, your children will be filial to you; if you are not filial to your parents, your children will treat you in the same manner.
One may think, “What is the point of being human? Isn’t it merely to try to get by as well as possible?”
It certainly is not! The first duty of human beings is to be filial to their parents. Father and mother are heaven and earth, father and mother are all the elders, and father and mother are all the Buddhas. If you had no parents you would have no body, and if you had no body, you could not become a Buddha. If you want to become a Buddha, you must start out by being filial to your parents.
2. The crossing over of living beings. To cross means to go from one shore to another, from affliction to Bodhi; the Six Paramitas are also known as the six crossings-over. To cross beings over does not mean to cross over merely one, two, three, or four, but to cross all the ten kinds of living beings, so that they reach Buddhahood.
3. The rescuing of sufferers. This sutra is able to pull living beings out of their sufferings.
4. The repaying of kindness. This means to repay the kindness of parents.
I have mentioned only the essential points of these four phrases and will leave it to you to make further investigation of them.
At the mention of the first of these headings, the practice of filial piety, some people will immediately think of rushing home to be filial to their parents. This in itself is an excellent wish and is quite commendable. It is extremely important, however, that those who return home to care for their parents not forget everything they have learned and find themselves slipping back into their old habits. The way to practice ultimate filial piety is to learn how to be a model for and a benefit to the world; the very best way to do that is to study and practice the Buddhadharma.
There are four basic kinds of filial piety: limited, extensive, contemporary, and classic. Limited filial piety is to be filial within your own family but to be unable to “treat others’ elders as your own, treat others’ children as your own.” With extensive filial piety you reach throughout the world and take all fathers and mothers in the world as your own. Although this filial piety is large, it is by no means ultimate.
What then is ultimate filial piety? It is far beyond the scope of the four mentioned above. Sakyamuni Buddha’s father locked him in the palace and he stole away to cultivate a life of austerity in theHimalayasfor six years, after which he finally realized Buddhahood beneath the Bodhi tree. After he had become a Buddha, he ascended to the heavens to speak Dharma for his mother. This ultimate filial piety.
Contemporary filial piety is to model oneself on present-day methods of filial piety and to study their methods of behavior.
Classic filial piety is to be filial to all the myriad things, in the same way as the Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Virtue inChina. But even classic filial piety is not ultimate. If you want to practice ultimate filial piety you should investigate and practice the Buddhadharma; learn to be a good person and a positive force in the world. The practice of acts that benefit society is being genuinely filial to your parents.
IV. A FULL EXPLANATION OF THE TITLE
The name of this sutra is the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, and among the seven classifications of sutra titles it belongs to those made up of a person and a dharma. Earth Store Bodhisattva is the person and past vows a dharma. Past vows can also be said to represent karma, since they are deeds that he performed in the past.
Earth Store Bodhisattva is named after the earth, which not only gives birth to things and makes them grow but can store a great many things within itself as well. Because this Bodhisattva is like the earth, he can produce the myriad things and make them grow. Anyone who believes in him may obtain the treasures stored in the ground: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, mother-of-pearl, red pearls, and carnelian.
Bodhisattva is composed of two words: Bodhi, which means “enlightenment,” and sattva, which means “being.” A Bodhisattva can be said to be either one who enlightens living beings or an enlightened living being.
Past Vows also mean fundamental vows, vows that were made aeons ago. Long ago in the distant past Earth Store Bodhisattva vowed, “If the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha; when living beings have all been saved, I will attain to Bodhi.”
The hells cannot cease to exist until the karma and the afflictions of living beings have come to an end, and that can never happen because of the nature of living beings. Viewed in the light of modern science and philosophy, isn’t Earth Store Bodhisattva’s behavior irrational? Doesn’t it mean that Earth Store Bodhisattva will never have the opportunity to become a Buddha?
No, it does not mean that he cannot become a Buddha, and his vow is by no means irrational. In fact, his behavior is a manifestation of great compassion.
Question: What is Earth Store Bodhisattva’s Sanskrit name?
Answer: His Sanskrit name is Ksitigarbha, “Earth Store.” There are ten aspects of the earth: it is wide and extensive, it supports all living beings, it is impartial, it receives the great rain, it produces grass and trees, it holds all planted seeds, it holds many treasures, it produces medicines, it is not moved by the blowing wind, and it does not tremble at the lion’s roar.
Question: Isn’t the reason for the earth’s impartiality, its immobility in great wind, and its other characteristics, simply that the earth is an inanimate object without any feelings at all?
Answer: The feelings of the earth are not those that we humans feel, but it does have feeling. The earth is also sentient being.
Past Vows renders the Sanskrit term Pranidhana; the full title of the sutra may be reconstructed as the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Pranidhana Sutra. The vows that this Bodhisattva has made throughout the aeons have all been for the sake of the practice of filial piety.
Sutra has, among others, the following meanings:
1. To traverse. There are many roads that can be traveled, but if you wish to become a Buddha you must follow the road that leads to the goal, i.e., the road indicated by the sutras.
2. Guideline. Sutras are like the mark left by a carpenter’s chalk line; they show a clear and straight path that marks the most direct way to the goal.
3. Garland. Sutras string together manifold principles like flowers in a chain.
4. Thread. Sutras string principles together as a thread links beads in a strand.
5. To attract. Sutras are like lodestones, which attract iron filings. People are attracted to sutras as iron is attracted to a magnet, and those of you who are now studying this sutra have been attracted to it in this way. The force, of course, cannot be seen, but its effect can, and if it is a great force it will attract more people than will a small one.
6. Permanent. No meaning can be added to or subtracted from sutras, for to do so is to merit the hells.
7. Law. The law is honored in the past, present, and future; it is a constant model by which beings may conduct themselves.
8. Tally. In ancient times, contracts were written out and divided between the concerned parties. When the terms of an agreement were fulfilled, or whenever identity related to the contract had to be established, the two pieces were brought together to see whether or not they matched. Sutras are much like this in that they tally with or correspond to the principles of all Buddhas above and with the capacity of beings below.
Earlier I said that the earth receives the great rain and the plants grow on it. In these explanations there are often interconnected relationships that you should be alert for. Grasses and trees represent the potential capacity of living beings, and sutras are the Dharma rain that falls on them. Each plant absorbs the amount of moisture proper to it – more in the case of great trees and less in the case of grasses. Each receives an appropriate share of the total rainfall. This analogy holds for the relationship which people have with sutras. Study of this sutra, for example, will lead the wise to understand the principles appropriate to their own abilities. Everyone who has good roots planted in the Buddhadharma will obtain the advantage proper to him; those who do not have good roots will be led to plant good roots. Because Earth Store Bodhisattva practiced filial conduct in every life, this sutra is known as a Buddhist classic of filial piety. This is an extremely important principle, for if people are not filial to their parents, they have not fulfilled the fundamental responsibility of human beings. It is essential that people repay the enormous kindness shown them by their parents.
Confucius discusses this topic at length, and his statements may be found in the Classic of Filial Piety, where it is said,
Chung Ni sat at ease and Tseng Tzu attended upon him. The Master said, “The Kings of old ruled the empire by means of perfect virtue and the essentials of the Way. The people were in harmony so that between high and low there was no quarreling. Did you know that?”
Tseng Tzu arose from his seat and said, “Shen is foolish, how could he have known?”
The Master said, “Filial piety is the root of all virtue and the origin of teaching. Be seated, and I shall tell you about it. The person, body, hair, and skin are given by the parents; one dare not harm them. This is the beginning of filial piety.”
In the very opening of this discourse Chung Ni, Confucius, discusses filial piety in terms of all elders, and not just one’s own parents. Since Tseng Tzu was Confucius’ disciple, he waited on his teacher with filial piety. When Confucius said that “the person, body, hair, and skin, are given by the parents; one dare not harm them,” he was not speaking as many contemporary young people do, to justify their straggly, dirty hair and unwashed condition. Such people claim that haircuts and baths would harm the natural state of their bodies. Such a position is quite untenable, for what is meant by harming the body is not the superficial acts of maintaining and grooming it; these things, particularly the matter of haircuts, are merely elements of social convention. When Confucius said not to harm the body, he meant not to destroy it. Strangely enough, in our day and age there are rebellious young people who, although aware that Confucius proclaimed this principle, nevertheless take all manner of bizarre and poisonous chemicals and drugs. At the same time they refuse to wash or cut their hair because to do so would be “unnatural.” They put their parents a thousand miles behind them and, indeed, often forget their parents’ very names. In the midst of their “natural” filial piety, they often run afoul of the law and get into serious trouble. Such behavior is a sign of anything but filial piety and must be rectified.
Now that I am living in this country I certainly hope that its citizens will be orderly and law-abiding and that everyone will consider his actions and do only what is beneficial for the country and for all humanity. I hope that all the wrongs that are found throughout human society will be rights. Such actions are manifestations of true filial piety.
A HISTORY OF THE TRANSLATION
The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva was translated in the T’ang Dynasty by Tripitaka Master Sramana Siksananda of Khotan.
Although some editions of this sutra attribute the translation to Dharma Master Fa Teng of the Ch’en Dynasty, most credit it to Tripitaka Master Siksananda of Khotan, a central Asian country, the name of which means “Earth Milk”. An early king of that country, who was without an heir, prayed to the god of a local temple for a son. From the image’s head came a child who would drink neither human nor cow’s milk, but only a particular milky fluid that appeared on the earth. As a result of this mysterious happening the country was given its rather unusual name.
Sramana is a Sanskrit word which means both “energetic” and “resting,” because a sramana energetically cultivates morality, samadhi, and wisdom and puts greed, hatred, and stupidity to rest.
Siksananda, “delight in study”, was so named because of his joy in learning Buddhadharma.
VI. DETAILED EXPLANATION OF THE BODY OF THE SUTRA
Having explained the previous subjects, we will now begin a discussion of the sutra text proper.