Home » Features » How The Future Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva ‘First’ Visited Hell

佛名大觉,具一切智,
若在世时,我母死后,
傥来问佛,必知处所。

– 婆罗门女
《地藏菩萨本愿经》

[The] Buddha [is] named [the] Great Awakened [One],
complete [with] all wisdom,
thus [on] when alive, [and] my Mother after death,
if coming [to] ask [the] Buddha,
[he] definitely [will] know [the] place [she is at].

– Brahmin Woman
(Sūtra [Of] Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Fundamental Vows)

As recorded in ‘Chapter One [On] Supernormal Power [In] Trāyastriṃśa Heaven’s Palace’ (忉利天宫神通品第一) in the ‘Sūtra [Of] Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Fundamental Vows’《地藏菩萨本愿经》, inconceivable kalpas (or world cycles of 1.3 trillion years each) ago, there was a very virtuous Brahmin woman (婆罗门女), whose Mother believed in false teachings and slandered the Triple Gem (of the Buddhas, Dharma and Saṃgha), despite her many skilful attempts to change her mind. Thus, after death, her Mother fell into Avīci Hell (阿鼻地狱) with uninterrupted suffering. Knowing her likeliness to be reborn in a lower realm, the woman sold the family house and searched far and wide for various offerings of incense, flowers and such, making them before King Of Flower Of Awakening’s Concentration And Ease Tathāgata’s (觉华定自在王如来) shrine.

Seeing the Buddha’s inspiring image, she gave rose to reverence and enquired on where her Mother is. After weeping for a long time while gazing at his image reverently, she heard a voice in the sky telling her not to be sorrowful, as he will show her where her Mother is. With palms together, she asked who the voice belonged to, which answered that he was the Buddha she paid respects to. He remarked that as he saw her to be recollecting her Mother much more than others did, he will show her where she is. The woman further implored to have the answer quickly, as she herself was near death. The Buddha replied that she should finish making her offerings, return home, and sit upright to be mindful of his name, and she will soon know the answer. 

After a day and night of practice, she saw herself beside a boiling sea, with many ferocious beasts of iron bodies flying and running, in pursuit of countless men and women rising and sinking in the sea, who are caught and devoured by them. There were also violent yakṣas (夜叉) with many hands, eyes, legs, heads and sharp teeth, who drove them towards the beasts. Then, the Brahmin woman, with the power of mindfulness of Buddha thus, was naturally without fear. (时婆罗门女,以念佛力故,自然无惧。) A ghost king named Poisonless (无毒鬼王) prostrated to welcome her, asking why she had come here. Asking where it was, he replied that it was the Great Iron Encircled Mountain’s first western sea (大铁围山西面第一重海).

A hundred thousand yojanās (由旬) east, is a second sea where suffering is many times greater. (One yojanā is about 20 kilometres). Further east is a third sea where suffering is again multiplied. These are karmic seas (业海) that exist due to evil karma created with body, speech and mind. Asking where the actual hells are, the king replied that the karmically different 18 great hells are within these seas, numbering hundreds of thousands. Next are 500 hells, and further with hundreds of thousands, all with immeasurable suffering. When she asked where her Mother was, the king asked what she habitually did previously. She replied accordingly, adding that even when her Mother had right faith for a while, she would become disrespectful again.

The king next asked who her Mother was. With the answer, he replied that she should return home, and not be worried or sorrowful, as her Mother had already been reborn in a heaven three days ago, when she received the meritorious virtues from her filial child’s making of offerings and cultivating of blessings. Even others in that hell (who deserved and received her dedication) experienced joy and were together reborn then. The king then withdrew, as she quickly ‘awoke’, as if from a dream. She then made a great vow before the image and stupa of the Buddha, that exhausting future kalpas, she will use many skilful means to enable suffering beings to be liberated. The king is now Wealth Foremost Bodhisattva (财首菩萨), and the Brahmin woman now Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva (地藏菩萨), who is known for his great Aspiration to empty the hells, and to guide all beings to Buddhahood.

The above is how Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva first practised mindfulness of Buddha. In the same sūtra, he further advocates it for benefiting the living, dying and deceased. The incident described how utmost sincere mindfulness of a Buddha can lead to answers for pressing questions, especially those motivated by great compassion of filial piety, though all beings have been reborn as our parents before. Instead of answering the Brahmin woman’s question directly, the Buddha gave her a ‘de/tour’ to hell, knowing she will give rise to Bodhicitta (菩提心) to save all beings. Thus, being a special case for the spiritually ready, it is not that mindfulness of Buddha leads to hell. Most practise it to guide oneself and others to Amitābha Buddha’s (Āmítuófó; 阿弥陀佛) Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss (极乐世界), with Faith in him and Aspiration to reach it. This is the ideal destination as it is the easiest Pure Land to reach, which transcends all heavens as is eternal, and guarantees swiftest attainment of Buddhahood.

Also in the sūtra, it was taught that if there are those whose family members have passed away, who wish to know where they have been reborn, they can practise sincere mindfulness of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’s name, and/or with more related practices, such as creating his image by sculpting and painting, gazing at it, prostrating and making offerings, for one to seven days. Through these meritorious virtues, the loved ones can be liberated from lower realms, to be reborn in the human or heavenly realm. If they were already in either, they will grow in their causes for liberation. If with practice for twenty-one days, reciting the Bodhisattva’s name for ten thousand times, he will appear to inform of where loved ones are, or within a dream, lead to vision of their whereabouts. (These principles should also apply to mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s name, especially since he is a Buddha.)

愿我尽未来劫,
应有罪苦众生,
广设方便,
使令解脱。

– 婆罗门女
《地藏菩萨本愿经》

May I, exhausting future kalpas,
should [there] be sentient beings [with] transgressions’ suffering,
widely establish skilful means,
[to] enable [them to be] liberated.

– Brahmin Woman
(Sūtra [Of] Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva’s Fundamental Vows)

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