DIRECTLY PRIOR TO THE END of the Buddha’s appearance in this world, he and his following of bhiksus journeyed to the Trayastrimsa Heaven so that the Buddha might repay the kindness of his mother by speaking Dharma on her behalf. The Dharma which he spoke on that occasion still exists to this day and is known as the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva. This sutra deals with filial piety – not only that which pertains to the relationship between oneself and one’s parents but rather a universal code of duty for all living beings. A skyscraper is not built from the top down, however, and as an initial step toward embodying one’s universal duty, one begins with duty to one’s immediate family and friends, of which parents are foremost in importance. Hence, when the Buddha answers the Bodhisattva Manjusri’s question concerning the past vows of the Bodhisattva Earth Store in the first chapter of this sutra, he begins by telling him of the Bodhisattva’s filial duty to his parents, which led to his illimitable vows to save all living beings.
The Bodhisattva Earth Store, drawing upon the infinite power of his unwavering resolve, appears throughout the ten directions in an innumerable number of bodies in order to lead even the most obstinate and confused living beings to step from the sea of suffering onto theshoreofNirvana. Although his vows are infinite in their scope, they still do not go beyond the simple relationship called filial piety; the only difference is one of magnitude. Whereas an ordinary person considers even the most perfunctory duty to his parents to be sufficient, the Bodhisattva Earth Store, realizing that at some time during the countless aeons of the past all living beings have been his father and mother, includes all living beings within the scope of his filial duty, a duty which can only be ultimately fulfilled by leading all beings to gain eternal bliss. Since living beings are unlimited in number, it naturally follows that the Bodhisattva’s vows are infinite in magnitude.
In order for us to take the first step out of the sea of suffering, it is necessary for us to become aware of the danger which results from allowing our actions to be affected by the confused emotions which lie so heavily upon us. To this end the Bodhisattva elucidates cause and effect, the realm of karma, informing us of the sufferings of the hells and the actions which lead to such retributions, as well as of the pleasures of the heavens and the actions which they reward. It is not the Bodhisattva’s intention, however, that we turn away in revulsion from the former and grasp at the latter, but rather that we understand the sphere of cause and effect – that simple law which says that one reaps what one sows – and that we learn to avoid planting causes for either the heavens or the hells. Furthermore, in order that we plant the seed for future contact with the Dharma, the Bodhisattva wishes to impress upon us the benefits obtained from engaging in wholesome actions, as opposed to unwholesome ones, so that we will be induced to establish a strong affinity with the Triple Jewel. Although many of the practices mentioned in this sutra are not the direct cause of Buddhahood, the seed of Buddhahood is nurtured by wholesome conduct and cultivation of the Way. These auxiliary causes lead to the direct cause, and for that reason the Bodhisattva encourages us to embody them in our practice.
This sutra is extremely practical, and it is because of this that Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua wished it to be one of the first sutras to be translated into English. With the additional enlightening aid of his lectures, even those most unfamiliar with the Dharma are enabled to grasp the essence of the teaching. The lectures were given in 1968-69 and were at that time orally translated from the Master’s Chinese into English by Dharma Master Heng Ching, who has also bestowed upon us the present translation of the sutra text and the Master’s commentary.
It is through the efforts of Dharma Master Heng Ching that this sutra can now be studied by students of Dharma in the West, with the knowledge that it agrees with the original principles of Buddhism as they were elucidated by the Buddha. When I say efforts, I do not refer merely to the work of translation; for although it was a task which required many months of diligent attention, it rests upon years of study of the Chinese language and actual cultivation of the principles of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Dharma Master Heng Ching has studied the Chinese language for more than ten years, and he spent the last five of those years under the expert tutelage of the Dhyana Master, who is not only an embodiment of the very heart of Buddhism but also an extremely erudite scholar. Thus Dharma Master Heng Ching has become intimately acquainted with both the doctrinal and practical aspects of the Dharma in a manner that is shared by few people. Under the Master’s guidance he has studied and helped give oral translations of literally thousands of lectures on sutras such as the Surangama Sutra, the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Avatamsaka Sutra, among others. He has also personally delivered lectures on this sutra, the Surangama Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Divination of Good and Evil Karmic Retribution Sutra.
In addition to Dharma Master Heng Ching’s daily practice, he has attended many Buddha Recitation Sessions, Mantra Recitation Sessions, and Meditation Sessions, one of which lasted for ninety-eight days, with twenty-one hours of practice each day. What is most important, however, is not that he attended so many lectures and participated in so many sessions, but that he has actually made a good deal of progress in his cultivation. This puts him far above ordinary scholars, not to speak of those people who have reduced the Dharma to a pathetic exchange of witty remarks based on nothing but sheer confusion. Thus, it is with pleasure that I introduce this sutra to other students of the Dharma.
American Bhiksu Heng Ch’ien
Buddhist Lecture Hall, Hong Kong
Earth Store Bodhisattva’s Birthday,