To Attain Buddhahood First Or Guide Others To Attain Buddhahood First? 先成佛或先度众?


— 地藏菩萨(重申)愿

With sentient beings delivered completely, then realising Bodhi, if the hells are not yet empty, I vow to not accomplish Buddhahood.

— Earth Treasury Bodhisattva’s (Reiterated) Vow

In Earth Treasury Sūtra’s《地藏经》Fourth Chapter On Jambudvīpa Sentient Beings’ Karmic Connections (阎浮众生业感品第四), this is taught – ‘When speaking these words, the assembly within had a Bodhisattva Mahāsattva, named Concentration Ease King Bodhisattva, who to the Buddha said, “World-Honoured One, Earth Treasury Bodhisattva in continuous kalpas since, in each gave rise to what vow, to now receive the World-Honoured One’s attentive and diligent high praises? I only wish the World-Honoured One, to briefly then speak of this.”(说是语时,会中有一菩萨摩诃萨,名定自在王,白佛言:「世尊!地藏菩萨累劫已来,各发何愿?今蒙世尊,殷勤赞叹。唯愿世尊,略而说之。」)

At that time, the World-Honoured One told Concentration Ease King Bodhisattva, “Attentively listen, attentively listen! Well contemplate with mindfulness of this, as I will for you, differentiate and explain. Thus in past immeasurable asaṃkhyeya nayutas of unspeakable kalpas, at that time, there was a Buddha, named All-Knowledge Accomplished Thus Come One – One Who Should Be Offered, Right All-Knowing One, One With Understanding And Practice Complete, Well-Gone One, World-Understanding One, Unsurpassable One, Tamer Of Men, Heavenly And Human Beings’ Teacher, Buddha, World-Honoured One, with that Buddha’s lifespan being sixty thousand kalpas. When yet to leave the household life, as a small country’s king, he was with a neighbouring country’s king as friends, together practising the Ten Goodnesses, to benefit sentient beings. Their neighbouring countries within, all their people, were with many creating all evils. The two kings discussed and planned, to widely establish skilful means for them. (尔时,世尊告定自在王菩萨:「谛听!谛听!善思念之,吾当为汝,分别解说。乃往过去,无量阿僧祇那由他不可说劫,尔时有佛,号一切智成就如来——应供、正遍知、明行足、善逝、世间解、无上士、调御丈夫、天人师、佛、世尊,其佛寿命六万劫。未出家时,为小国王,与一邻国王为友,同行十善,饶益众生。其邻国内,所有人民,多造众恶。二王议计,广设方便。)

[Note 1: The Ten Goodnesses (十善) or Ten Good Karmas (十善业) are to have the body not doing matters of (i) killing lives, (ii) stealing and (iii) sexual misconduct, the mouth not speaking words of (iv) false speech, (v) frivolous speech, (vi) double-tongued speech and (vii) harsh speech, and the mind not giving rise to thoughts of (viii) greedy desires, (ix) anger and (x) ignorance. (身不行杀生、偷盗、邪淫之事,口不说妄言、绮语、两舌、恶口之话,心不起贪欲、嗔恚、愚痴之念) The good practice of these can lead to a human or heavenly rebirth.]

One king gave rise to the vow, ‘I will soon accomplish the Buddha path, then delivering these kinds of beings, causing them to be without those remaining.’ One king gave rise to the vow, ‘If not first delivering those with transgressions and suffering, enabling them to have peace and bliss, to attain reaching of Bodhi, I will in the end, not yet aspire to accomplish Buddhahood.’ (一王发愿:『早成佛道,当度是辈,令使无余。』一王发愿:『若不先度罪苦,令是安乐,得至菩提,我终未愿成佛。』)

[Note 2: To summarise, there are two spiritual paths for Buddhists, in terms of initial priorities, by (i) first accomplishing Buddhahood, before delivering all beings, or by (ii) first delivering all beings, before accomplishing Buddhahood. However, the differences are not so clear-cut, as (i) attaining of Buddhahood requires delivering of at least some beings too, just as (ii) delivering of all beings requires at least some advancement towards Buddhahood too.]

[Note 3: The Pure Land path allows the simultaneous practice of advancing towards Buddhahood while delivering beings. One can practise mindfulness of Buddha for reaching his Pure Land, with this advancing towards Buddhahood. While doing this, there can be encouraging of others to practise likewise, with this delivering these beings. Even reaching of Pure Land, by oneself and others, is for training there, for advancing towards Buddhahood, and for delivering more beings. Thus, it is a false dichotomy that one must either advance towards Buddhahood or deliver sentient beings. It is possible to have both higher seeking of the Buddha path, and lower transforming of sentient beings (上求佛道,下化众生).]

The Buddha told Concentration Ease King Bodhisattva, “That one king who gave rise to the vow to soon accomplish Buddhahood, thus is All-Knowledge Accomplished Thus Come One. That one king who gave rise to the vow to completely [i.e. ‘forever’] deliver sentient beings with transgressions and suffering, yet to aspire to accomplish Buddhahood, thus is Earth Treasury Bodhisattva.” (佛告定自在王菩萨:「一王发愿早成佛者,即一切智成就如来是。一王发愿永度罪苦众生,未愿成佛者,即地藏菩萨是。」)

[Note 4: However, in the Sūtra On Divination And Observation Of Good And Evil Karmic Rewards And Retribution《占察善恶业报经》, it is revealed that Earth Treasury Bodhisattva has already attained Buddhahood, who is thus a re-manifested Bodhisattva ‘(Śākyamuni) Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) told Firm Pure Faith Bodhisattva, “You should not give rise to thoughts of high and low. This good man (i.e. Earth Treasury Bodhisattva), since giving rise to the Bodhi Mind, passing immeasurable boundless and inconceivable asaṃkhyeya kalpas, is already long able to cross sarvajña’s ocean, with meritorious virtues fulfilled. However, relying on the power of his fundamental vow and ease thus, with skilful means appearing and manifesting, with images responding in the ten directions. Although repeatedly and universally travelling in all lands, constantly giving rise to meritorious achievements, and in the five defilements’ evil periods, with transformative benefits leaning towards the substantial, also relying on his vow’s power’s permeation thus, and because of sentient beings’ transformative karma that they should receive thus. He, from eleven kalpas ago since, adorned this world, to mature sentient beings. Therefore, in this assembly within, with body’s form dignified, and majestic virtues excellent, only other than the Thus Come One, it is without those able to surpass him.”‘(【释迦牟尼】佛告坚净信:「汝莫生高下想。此善男子【地藏菩萨)】发心已来,过无量无边不可思议阿僧祇劫,久已能度萨婆若海,功德满足。但依本愿自在力故,权巧现化,影应十方。虽复普游一切刹土,常起功业,而于五浊恶世,化益偏厚,亦依本愿力所熏习故,及因众生应受化业故也。彼从十一劫来,庄严此世界,成熟众生。是故在斯会中,身相端严,威德殊胜,唯除如来无能过者!」)

To be able to cross sarvajña’s ocean (能度萨婆若海) is to have attained all-knowing wisdom (omniscience) with attainment of Buddhahood. As Bodhisattvas advance on the Bodhisattva path to Buddhahood to be more efficient Bodhisattvas, it is natural that all meritorious virtues (功德) and wisdom (智慧) for Buddhahood will be fulfilled and realised respectively, thus accomplishing Buddhahood. If not, there will be no actual advancement. Thus, diligent Bodhisattvas will naturally become Buddhas, who are essentially perfect Bodhisattvas. However, after attaining Buddhahood, Buddhas can re-manifest as Bodhisattvas to complete their vows, such as that of aspiring to deliver all beings. Even if this takes indefinite time, it will be done with great peace, bliss and ease. It is precisely because Earth Treasury Bodhisattva is an ancient Buddha (古佛), who has long attained Buddhahood, that he can continually manifest as a Great Bodhisattva (大菩萨), who embodies and expresses the perfect great vows (or aspirations) (大愿) of all Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.]

[Note 5: In this evil period (恶世) are the five defilements (五浊), which are (i)-(v), as explained by the Pure Land Tradition’s 9th Patriarch Great Master Ǒuyì (净土宗九祖澫益大师) in the Essential Explanation Of The Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Amitā(bha) Buddha《佛说阿弥陀经要解》-

‘That (i) Kalpa’s Defilement, is when defiled dharmas (i.e. phenomena of mind and matter, such as the below) gather. Within Kalpa’s Defilement, if not using the Pure Land Practice of bringing (evil) karma to horizontally exit (the three realms of existence, of desire, form and formlessness), one definitely will not be able to be delivered (from the cycle of birth and death). (劫浊者,浊法聚会之时。劫浊中,非带业横出之行,必不能度。)

That (ii) Views’ Defilement, has five sharp agents (of wrong views) that make evil views increase and flourish. Namely, (a) Self View (of thinking there is self within the body), (b) Extreme View (of clinging to extremely wrong concepts), (c) Attachment To False Views, (d) Attachment To Precepts (as the complete path to liberation) and (e) all Evil Views (which are other wrong views, such as disregard of the karmic law of cause and effect, which make us) muddled, confused and sunken. Thus is it named as a defilement. Within Views’ Defilement, if not not having help from that Pure Land Practice as skilful means, one definitely will not be able to be delivered (from the cycle of birth and death). (见浊者,五利使,邪见增盛。谓身见、边见、见取、戒取及诸邪见,昏昧汩没,故名为浊。见浊中,非不假方便之行,必不能度。)

That (iii) Afflictions’ Defilement, has five dull agents that make afflictions and confusions increase and flourish. Namely, (a) greed, (b) anger, (c) delusion, (d) arrogance and (e) doubt, as afflictions that make us troubled and disturbed. Thus is it named as a defilement. Within Afflictions’ Defilement, if not using the Pure Land Practice of seeing that even though with the ordinary mind, it is the Buddha’s mind, one definitely will not be able to be delivered (from the cycle of birth and death). (烦恼浊者,五钝使,烦惑增盛。谓贪、嗔、痴、慢、疑,烦动恼乱,故名为浊。烦恼浊中,非即凡心是佛心之行,必不能度。)

That (iv) Sentient Beings’ Defilement, by (ii) Views’ and (iii) Afflictions’ Defilements, those induced confused and coarse Five Aggregates (of form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness) joined, falsely named as sentient beings, are with forms and minds together all lowly and inferior. Thus is it named as a defilement. Sentient beings within this defilement, if not using the Pure Land Practice of rejoicing for birth in the Pure Land and having aversion for birth and death in the Sahā World, one definitely will not be able to be delivered (from the cycle of birth and death). (众生浊者,见烦恼所感粗弊五阴和合,假名众生,色心并皆陋劣,故名为浊。众生浊中,非欣厌之行,必不能度。)

That (v) Lifespan’s Defilement, with cause and effect (i.e. karma) together lowly, lifespans are short and fleeting, and even not filling a hundred years. Thus is it named as a defilement. Within Lifespan’s Defilement, if not using the Pure Land Practice that does not waste the time of kalpas, not labouring with toilsome suffering, one definitely will not be able to be delivered (from the cycle of birth and death). (命浊者,因果并劣,寿命短促,乃至不满百岁,故名为浊。命浊中,非不费时劫,不劳勤苦之行,必不能度。)

Furthermore, only with this Faith and Aspiration adorning each recitation of “Āmítuófó”, transforms (i) Kalpa’s Defilement as a pure ocean-wide assembly, transforms (ii) Views’ Defilement as immeasurable light (of wisdom), transforms (iii) Afflictions’ Defilement as eternal still light (of peace), transforms (iv) Sentient Beings’ Defilement as lotus flower transformed births, and transforms (v) Lifespan’s Defilement as immeasurable life.’ (复次只此信愿庄严一声阿弥陀佛,转劫浊为清净海会,转见浊为无量光,转烦恼浊为常寂光,转众生浊为莲华化生,转命浊为无量寿。)]


— 地藏菩萨(为过去大长者子)

I, from now to the end of the future’s limit, in incalculable kalpas, will for these six paths’ sentient beings, with transgressions and suffering, widely establish skilful means, to enable all to be liberated, and with myself then, accomplishing the Buddha path.

— Earth Treasury Bodhisattva (As A Great Elder’s Son) (Earth Treasury Sūtra: First Chapter On Supernormal Powers In Trāyastriṃśa Heaven’s Palace)

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