Veneration Practice and Devotion According to the Ksitigarbha Sutra: Why Devotion is Not Superstition
Editor: In a special feature, author Eddie Sobenes explores The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, emphasizing the differences between the meritorious karma activity of “devotion” versus “superstition.”
In the Chinese Buddhist Canon, there are three Ksitigarbha Sutras. In this essay, I will discuss the one known as The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and is the most widespread of the three.
There are many practices mentioned in this sutra. If we undertake the practices mentioned therein, we are promised very specific benefits. I omit most of the details regarding the specific benefits of Ksitigarbha worship in this short essay and attempt to categorize some of these convenient practices. The practices herein allow us to make progress on our path, benefit others, and eventually achieve liberation. Ksitigarbha worship is an orthodox Dharma-gate (or sect of Buddhism) with a long and glorious history.
Special Feature by Eddie Sobenes
[Author Bio at bottom of feature]
Who should venerate Ksitigarbha and why?
Anyone with faith in Mahayana Buddhism can worship this great bodhisattva; followers of Pure Land, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhist schools can supplicate to Ksitigarbha with confidence. Ksitigarbha has been associated with King Yama (death) and the Ksitigarbha Sutra provides instructions for funeral rituals that may be performed for the benefit of a deceased relative. Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists grieving the loss of a loved one should read this sutra. Many of the rituals described therein are still practiced today in Taiwan by both Buddhists and Taoists. Ksitigarbha is also seen as a guardian of the souls of prematurely deceased children. Many bereaved parents pray to Ksitigarbha for the safe-keeping of their children who were lost during pregnancy or infancy. Ksitigarbha has also been associated with the hell realms. Since Ksitigarbha, in a previous incarnation, had met the keeper of the hell realm known as Avici, anyone who is fearful of where he/she will go upon death should read this sutra.
Two Types of Practice: Meditational and Devotional
Although many Buddhists practice both meditation and devotion, I have noticed that there are basically two types of emphasis in Buddhist practice attitudes:
- those who primarily believe in liberating themselves and others by their own actions and meditations, and
- those with great faith, who are humble in nature and prone to venerate deity or great saints.
In my opinion, most Ksitigarbha worshipers fall under the second category; they believe in and rely on the holy power of the deity for salvation.
We can rely on the power of the vows of this great bodhisattva as a means of achieving spiritual salvation. The Buddha himself tells us,
“If a sentient being approaching the end of his life hears the name of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, he/she will never experience the suffering of the three evil paths”.
Statue of Kshitigarbha in White Deer Temple. White Deer Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Yiyang, Hunan, China.
Kshitigarbha and Faith
In some ways, Ksitigarbha practice is analogous to Pure Land Buddhism, in that by faith in the vows of a higher being, we are liberated.
I have organized the basic practices mentioned in this sutra into six categories, which incorporate all the “senses” and activities (karma):
- offering (activity of generating merit through generosity)
- image (eye sense)
- recitation (sound / mouth)
- hearing (ears)
- avoidance (karma activities)
- music (ears and karma).
Offering: Generating Merit
There are many kinds of offerings in Ksitigarbha worship. In this sutra, the Buddha said that a supplicant can make offerings of incense, flowers, food, fabric, money, or jewels. These objects can be offered before an image of Ksitigarbha. One may also donate labor in lieu of material things. If one comes across a dilapidated temple, the supplicant can help to restore it, or hire others to do so. If one sees sutras with loose or torn pages, the practitioner can mend them. A practitioner can donate vegetarian meals to a monastery and offer flowers or incense to a Ksitigarbha shrine.
Specific instructions are given for making an offering of pure water to Ksitigarbha: “..[a supplicate can] place pure water before an image of Ksitigarbha for one day and one night, then drink it facing the south. After drinking the water they should abstain from the five pungent plants, alcohol, meat, illicit sexual conduct, false speech, and all killing for one to three periods of seven days.”
Images and Visualization
Image and visualization of deities in Buddhism have little to do with the Western concept of “image” worship. Bowing to an image of the deity is the “remedy” for pride and ego, an important concept in Buddhism, and about generating positive karmic merit.
Many Westerners might feel uneasy about “worshiping” before an image. Most of us have been instructed since youth to “worship no false image,” and for those with a protestant upbringing, perhaps the only religious symbol you saw in a humble church was the Cross. Therefore, we may have reservations about worshiping images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
In Buddhism, we normally view deity images simply as the symbolic representation of ideas or archetypes. It has nothing to do with “idolatry.” Even the more conservative Western Buddhists shouldn’t hesitate to bow before an image of Ksitigarbha — out of respect, and as a remedy for our rampant ego. In doing so, he is expressing humility and veneration while generating merit.
Although there are a number of elaborate rituals and mantras, for the common practitioner, name recitation is perhaps the most simple and convenient. One can recite the name of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva nearly anywhere, at any time. One can even recite his name silently, to avoid disturbing others. By simply repeating the name of this great bodhisattva, the supplicant receives significant benefits.
This sutra also talks about the benefits of reciting the sutra aloud. This may seem strange and inconvenient to a Westerner. However, when one recites this sutra, he/she actively engages in reading it, word for word. In my opinion, the true benefit of sutra recitation comes from learning its contents. Therefore, whether one recites this sutra aloud or listens to a recording of it are both causes for great benefits.
Hearing and Reading
By listening to a monastic or a spiritual friend read and explain this sutra, we gain certain benefits. The Buddha urges us to listen to and recite this sutra, and I think the real benefits are gained from its study. By reading this sutra the practitioner gains both knowledge and merit. This practice can lead to our eventual salvation and benefit other sentient beings.
Moreover, by keeping Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in our minds, we are not as easily distracted by our own negative thoughts. By recalling Ksitigarbha and the power of his vows, we are more likely to remain calm and composed.
Avoidance and Morality
The sutra speaks of avoiding alcohol, meat, the five pungent vegetables, and non-virtuous activity. I have noticed that abstaining from alcohol can be challenging for many Westerners, particularly for those in the business classes. However, one can start in small steps, for example avoiding alcohol for one to three seven-day periods.
The sutra recommends that supplicants avoid the five pungent plants when undertaking Ksitigarbha practice. Although most Western vegetarians usually have no qualms about eating garlic or onions, since they are just plants, many serious meditators claim that eating pungent root vegetables adversely affects their meditation practice.
The sutra urges us to avoid the gathering of many people around a mother and her newborn child. In Ch. 8, it reads
“After the birth of a baby, …tell the family not to assemble many relatives to drink liquor or eat meat while singing and playing instruments. Such indulgences deprive the mother and child of peace and joy.”
Although avoiding singing and playing instruments after the birth of a baby may seem superstitious, one can imagine how it would disturb the peace of mother and child.
In the sutra, playing music or singing in front of an image of Ksitigarbha is seen as meritorious. In Chapter 6 it reads, “If one plays music or sings praises in front of Ksitigarbha’s image, such an one will have protection and guardianship of thousands of demons and deities.” However, the sutra does not specify what kind of music, and the author is not an expert on ancient Indian musics. Therefore, exercise discretion and moderation. In my humble opinion, Western Buddhists could learn from the sanctity of Gregorian Chant or the excellence of Beethoven’s Masses.
Conclusion: Many Dharma Gates
There are many Dharma-gates (pathways in Buddhism). Some practitioners feel an affinity towards a particular Buddha or bodhisattva. Ksitigarbha worship is sometimes practiced by those who are fearful of falling onto an evil path. The vows and deeds of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva are so numerous that even the Buddha said, “I cannot complete the counting of those beings already delivered, those not yet delivered, those still to be delivered, and those representing the work already accomplished and yet to be accomplished by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.” At the end of the sutra, it says that anyone who hears or recites this sutra, makes offerings, and praises Ksitigarbha will gain 28 kinds of benefits. We are promised mercy, abundance, the avoidance of evil paths, fortunate rebirths, and even enlightenment. The author would like to end with his favorite quote from the Ksitigarbha Sutra. In chapter 2, the Buddha says to the congregation:
“I manifest myself in the forms of a man or a woman, a deva or a naga, a god or a ghost, a grove, a river, a plain, a stream, a pond, a spring, or a well for the benefit of sentient beings so they may be liberated and delivered.”
Ksitigarbha is also known as Jizo Bosatsu, Earth Store or Earth Treasury Bodhisattva.
地藏菩薩本願經. For an English reference, please see Shih,Tao-tsi trans. “The Sutra of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha’s Fundamental Vows.” Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2006.
法門；sect, denomination, or pathway.
In Taiwan, the term Taoism refers mostly to Chinese folk religion, not necessarily the Daoism of Laozi.
地藏經第十二品, Ksitigarbha Sutra, Ch. 12；three evil paths: animal, hungry ghost, or hell realms.
地藏經第十二品, Ksitigarbha Sutra, Ch. 12；three evil paths: animal, hungry ghost, or hell realms.
依他得救；by relying on the vows Amitabha (or Ksitigarbha) are we saved.
The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Ch. 5.
The five pungent vegetables/plants: onions, garlic, scallions, chives, and leeks. These are avoided by many Chinese Buddhists.
The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Ch. 12.
Ibid, Ch. 6, “Loudly chant this [Ksitigarbha] Sutra.”
Again, the five pungent plants: garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks
The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Ch. 1
The Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Ch. 13.
Ibid, Ch. 2
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Eddie Sobenes is a high school English teacher. He is interested in Mahayana sutras, education, and music composition.