Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva

This is one of the books in a series published under the sponsorship of The Institute for Advanced studies of World Religions New York, U.S.A. with the aim of making religious texts translated from various languages accessible in English.

The Collected Lectures of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua

Translated by American Bhiksu Heng Ching; Revised by American Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih;
Polished by American Bhiksu Heng Kuan; Certified by Gold Mountain Sramana Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua

Buddhist Text Translation Society
The Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions Publishers, New York, N.Y.

The translator dedicates this translation to his grandmother, Rose Klarer, and to his parents, David and Ruth Klarer.

International Standard Book Number: 0-915078-00-7
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 74-18135
© 1974 by the Sino-American Buddhist Association, San Francisco
All rights reserved
Printed and bound in the United States of America

Namo Earth Store Bodhisattva

Namo Ti Tsang Wang Pu Sa

Namo Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva

The sutra often instructs practitioners to recite the name of Earth Store Bodhisattva, as well as the names of various Buddhas. This is traditionally done by prefacing the name with the Sanskrit word Namo, which means praise or homage to, take refuge in, revere, etc. Thus the Bodhisattva’s name would be recited in English, Chinese, and Sanskrit as above.



THIS TRANSLATION OF THE Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva, with the explanatory lectures of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, has been prepared by the Buddhist Text Translation Society of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, with headquarters at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, 1731 15th Street, San Francisco, California 94103 U.S.A.

Since everyone who hears or reads a lecture has his or her own understanding, the views of a great many people have been consulted in the preparation of the translation. Although space precludes the mention of every individual, the following members of the Buddhist Text Translation society must be singled out: Dharma Masters Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou, who, although, they did not work on this text specifically, have given a great deal of advice and criticism on many aspects of translation over the years, Upasaka I Kuo Jung has also been of great help in this regard. The task of refining the English of the initial translation has been performed by Dharma Master Heng Kuan, editor-in-chief of Vajra Bodhi Sea and chairman of the Polishing Committee of the Buddhist Text Translation Society.

In addition to an enormous amount of editorial work, a great deal of preliminary rewriting and sifting had to be done. Much of this work was done by Dharma Master Heng Ch’ih of the Revision Committee of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, who not only helped in rewriting but undertook a great deal of laborious research into Sanskrit forms and niceties of presentation. She is also responsible for putting the entire manuscript into finished typed form, a job of no small matter in itself.

Many people took part in the earlier stages of preparation of this work. Special thanks are due to the following members of the Buddhist Text Translation Society: Dharma Masters Heng Shou and Heng Chu, who did a great deal of the proof-reading and made many useful suggestions: Upasakas Kuo T’ang Yager, Ph.D. candidate; Kuo Hui Weber; Kuo Kuei Bach; Upasika Kuo Chin Vickers, who provided valuable help in preparing copies of the manuscript; and especially Upasika Kuo Tsung Bach, who handled the complex and difficult task of turning the first rough typed manuscript into presentable form.

Special thanks are due to the Venerable Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua, chairman of the Certification Board of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, for having delivered the lectures in the first place and for his constant and patient aid during the preparation of this work.

Special mention must also be made of the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions, which has undertaken to have this sutra published, and of Nora A. Larke and Institute copy editors Upasika Yeshe Tsomo and Leah Zahler, who devoted much talent and effort to the preparation of the work. The skilled guidance provided by Nai Yung Chang of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in the production of this book is likewise greatly appreciated.

Buddhist Text Translation Society


FROM ANCIENT TIMES, the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva has been one of the most popular Chinese Buddhist sutras. “Earth Store” is a literal rendering of the bodhisattva’s original Sanskrit name, Ksitigarbha. In the Buddhist pantheon, he is one of the most highly celebrated bodhisattva, along with Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, and Samantabhadra. These four represent the four basic Mahayana qualities: Manjusri represents great wisdom; Avalokitesvara, great compassion; Samantabhadra, great meritorious deeds; and Ksitigarbha, the great vow – the vow to help and to cross over all sentient beings. “If I do not go to hell (to help them there), who else will go?” is the famous pronouncement of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.

In the seventh century A.D., this sutra was translated by Siksananda from the Sanskrit into Chinese, but not until this publication has it ever been translated into English. Dharma Master Heng Ching’s work is not a critical study in the traditional Western scholarly sense. However, it bears special importance, as it is accompanied by the comprehensive commentary of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua. Without such an accompaniment, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Western readers to understand the significance and applications of this sutra.

One of the aims of the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions is to make available religious teachings that were previously inaccessible to the English-speaking student of religion. In this light, the Institute is honored to publish this invaluable source of learning and awareness.

The Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions
APRIL 1974


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 the shore of Nirvana. 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,
AUGUST, 1973


THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF TRADITION have shown that there is no substitute for oral instruction. What is more, we in the West have long been hampered in our study of Buddhism by the lack of both adequate texts in English and qualified interpreters to transmit traditional explanations. Even though a few teachers have come to the West, there still remain the problems of access and linguistics. This work provides a solution to these problems by presenting in English translation what was originally a lectured commentary in Chinese.

Dhyana Master Hsuan Hua, founder of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, has been delivering oral commentaries on Buddhist texts for many years. Although based in an age-old tradition, he reveals the Buddhist tradition in a manner that speaks not only to specialists and historians but to all those faced with the continuing problems of human existence in a modern age. All the Master’s lectures since 1968 have been recorded and are being translated, this book being the second in a series of his collected lectures.

That the Master’s lectures are truly effective in terms of the real aim of Buddhism, which is to bring about a change in the lives of the audience, is quite obvious to those who have experienced his teaching. On several occasions during this lecture series, particularly when he discussed the depths of Earth Store Bodhisattva’s filial practice in past lives, many members of the audience were moved to tears. This is not, of course, to say that the Master’s style evokes weeping only; on many occasions his lively wit introduced a humorous and lighthearted mood in the assembly.

Unfortunately, in the transformation of a spoken lecture to the printed page, most such effects are necessarily lost. We have tried as much as possible to retain the flavor of the spoken word while avoiding some of the tedium that can come from a mere verbatim transcription. On the other hand, as we tried to approach the conventions of written English, we have dropped some of the more trivial scholarly niceties. Thus the reader will not find Sanskrit and Chinese words set off by italics; they will be presented as any other word in context and explained.

The good points of the translation are due to the combined efforts of all the member of the Sino-American Buddhist Association, the Buddhist Text Translation Society, the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions, and the editorial staff of Vajra Bodhi Sea, in whose journal these lectures first appeared. Any errors or faults are, of course, solely the translator’s responsibility.

American Bhiksu Heng Ching
Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, San Francisco
Earth Store Bodhisattva’s Birthday,
AUGUST, 1973


Spiritual Penetrations in the Palace of the Trayastrimsa Heaven
The Assembly of the Reduplicated Bodies
Contemplating the Karmic Conditions of Living Beings
Karmic Retribution of Living Beings
The Names of the Hells
The Thus Come One’s Praises
Benefits for the Living and the Dead
The Praises of the Multitudes of King Yama
The Names of Buddhas
The Conditions and Comparative Merits of Giving
The Dharma Protection of the Earth Spirit
The Benefits from Seeing and Hearing
The Entrustment of Men and Gods


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


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.


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.


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 the Himalayas for 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 in China. 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.


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.


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.


Having explained the previous subjects, we will now begin a discussion of the sutra text proper.


Spiritual Penetrations in the Palace of the Trayastrimsa Heaven

Trayastrimsa, “Heaven of the Thirty-Three”, is not thirty-third in a vertical arrangement of heavens. Vertically it occupies the second position among eighteen heavens. Its name is taken from the fact that it is the central one among a group of heavens located on the same plane, with eight heavens on each of its four sides. The lord of the central heaven, the thirty-third, is named Sakra or Indra, and in Buddhism he is a protector of the Buddha’s Dharma who does not merit a seat but must stand at all Dharma meetings. In the Surangama Mantra he is referred to in the phrase, “Namo Yin To La Yeh”.

The lord of this heaven is the one taken by most people as being God Almighty, ruler of heaven and earth. Although he is extremely powerful and attends to divine matters as well as earthly ones, he is not really different from ordinary people, since he still has sexual desires and eats, drinks, and sleeps. Although he still has desires, they are far lighter than those of humans, who usually become famished after several days without food, exhausted after a few hours without sleep, and frustrated after a short time without sexual activity. Sakra can go for one, two, or even three hundred days without eating and can pass a year or so without sleep or sex. Although his desires are light, he still has not eliminated them.

The Heaven of the Thirty-Three is eighty thousand yojanas high, and its city, the City of Good Views, is made of seven precious materials and is sixty thousand yojanas high. In the center of that city is Sakra’s palace, which is made of the most exquisite and valuable gems. Since he is constantly surrounded by such splendor, Sakra has no desire to leave; in fact, he wants all beings to join him in this world, where the lifespan is a thousand years and where one century in the human world is but a day and a night. He extends his hospitality but does not know that because of his greed for heavenly delights even he is doomed.

Question: How did he attain the position of Heavenly Lord?

Answer: At the time of Kasyapa Buddha, Sakra was a very ordinary and poor woman who saw a temple in ruins and vowed to restore it. Soliciting friends and relatives, she gradually gathered a group of thirty-two women. She herself was the thirty-third. Each of the thirty-three gave as much support as she could muster, and with their collective effort they repaired the ruined temple. When each one died she ascended to the heavens and became ruler of her own heaven. The heaven in which Sakra, the former leader of the women, lives is called the Trayastrimsa Heaven, and it is there that this sutra was spoken.

The thirty-three heavens are merely responses evoked from the karma of those thirty-three persons. If it were not for them there would be no such heavens. Heaven, you see, is merely a spontaneous manifestation of karma and exists only as such. In fact, the heavens are ephemeral, not permanent places of abode, and they should not be considered one’s ultimate goal.

Spiritual means the heart of nature. Penetrations refer to the universal pervasiveness of the nature of wisdom. There are six kinds of spiritual penetrations, which, although divided, are really one. In other words, although there are spiritual penetrations, fundamentally there is not even this one, according to Buddhist teaching. The Six Spiritual Penetrations are as follows:

1. The Penetration of the Heavenly Eye, a power that enables the entire world system of a billion worlds to be seen as clearly as an apple held in the palm. The Buddha’s disciple, the Venerable Aniruddha, was foremost in this power.

2. The Penetration of the Heavenly Ear, a power by means of which one can hear all the sounds of the world systems of a billion worlds, not just all the sounds in the heavens.

3. The Penetration of Others’ Thoughts, a power through which others’ thoughts are known before they are even spoken.

4. The Penetration of Past Lives, a power that enables past events, both good and bad, to be known.

5. The Penetration of Spiritual Fulfillment.

6. The Penetration of the Extinction of Outflows.

The reason we remain people and do not become Buddhas is that we have outflows and continually disperse our energies into the Triple World of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Outflows characterize living beings in all nine Dharma Realms: Bodhisattva, Sound-Hearers, Pratyekabuddhas (those enlightened to causation), gods, humans, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts, and dwellers in hell. Outflows come from ignorance. If ignorance is ended, there are no outflows and the cycle of birth and death is ended.

These spiritual penetrations are characteristic of sages, and not of ordinary people. The sages do not obtain them from outside sources; they possess them originally.

Question: Have common people lost their inherent spiritual penetrations?

Answer: No. The spiritual penetrations are all present in the self-nature of all living beings but have not yet been revealed. It is because the self-nature is occluded that it can be said that fundamentally there are no spiritual penetrations in common people. In any case, do not think that these powers are an overly important matter or that having attained them is tantamount to having realized one of the fruits of the Path. Do not brag about how rich you are if you obtain an ounce or two of gold, since those who have tens of thousands of ounces of gold do not take it as anything special. To make this mistake is to stop halfway down the road, to remain in the state of the Two Vehicles.


Thus I have heard; at one time the Buddha dwelt in the Trayastrimsa Heaven speaking Dharma for his mother. At that time an indescribable number of Buddhas as well as great Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, from limitless worlds in the ten directions, all assembled together to praise Sakyamuni Buddha’s ability to manifest the power of indescribably great wisdom and spiritual penetrations in the Evil World of the Five Turbidities, as well as his ability to regulate and subdue obstinate living beings so that they might come to know the dharmas of suffering and bliss. Each of these sent his attendants to greet the World-Honored One.


Beginning the sutra with the word “thus” shows that it has been verified as being credible and authentic and that it is used in accordance with the instructions given by the Buddha to the Venerable Ananda.

When the Buddha was just about to enter nirvana, the Venerable Ananda, distraught with grief, wept and became disheveled. The Venerable Aniruddha, who, although blind, was foremost in the powers of the heavenly eye and could see all the world systems of a billion worlds as though they were an apple in his palm, noticed Ananda’s condition and, being a bit more levelheaded under the circumstances, suggest to Ananda that he not cry but instead take care of some important matters while there was still time. He then suggested that Ananda put the following four questions to the Buddha:

1. “When the sutras are compiled, how shall we begin them in order to show that they are the Buddha’s words?” The Buddha answered this question by instructing that sutras should begin with the phrase, “Thus I have heard”.

2. “When the Buddha was in the world, we dwelt with him. Now that he will be gone where should we live?” The Buddha instructed his disciples to dwell in the Four Stations of Mindfulness: contemplation of the body as impure, contemplation of feelings as suffering, contemplation of thoughts as impermanent, and contemplation of dharmas as devoid of a self.

3. “Now that the Buddha will not be in the world, whom shall we revere as our teacher?” The bhiksus were told to take the Pratimoksa, the precepts, as their master.

4. “How shall we deal with ill-disciplined monks?” The Buddha said that such persons should be silently ignored.

When the sutras were being compiled, Ananda was excluded from the meeting, which gathered behind closed doors. As he stood outside the assembly he suddenly realized the state of Arhatship – cessation of involuntary physical birth and death – and was able to enter the meeting even though no one came to open the entrance-way for him. Although he was the most junior Arhat, he had a better memory than any of the others and in addition had been the attendant not only to Sakyamuni Buddha but to all the Buddhas of the past. Sakyamuni Buddha, furthermore, had said that his attendant was to compile and edit the sutras, and so it came to pass that Ananda presided over that assembly.

When he ascended the Dharma seat to compile the canon, Ananda’s appearance suddenly changed and took on that of the Buddha, except that he was three inches shorter. Consequently a number of doubts occurred among the assembly. Some thought that perhaps Sakyamuni Buddha had not entered nirvana and was still in the world; others thoughts that a Buddha from another world system had come, while still others thought Ananda himself had become a Buddha.

When Ananda began his speeches with “Thus I have heard,” he did so to eliminate doubts about who was speaking, to honor the Buddha’s instruction, to put an end to the arguments that might have come about if any senior members of the assembly accused him of having made up the texts himself, and to distinguish Buddhist from non-Buddhist sutras, since all the latter begin with some variant of the words “existence” or “nonexistence.”

Why did Ananda say “I,” rather than “my ear,” heard? The word “I” is used to represent the entire person whereas the term “ear” would be partial.

In order for a sutra to be spoken, a certain number of conditions must be fulfilled. These are called the Six Establishments. They are the establishments of credibility, of a hearer, of a time, a host, a place, and of an assembly. The initial word of the text, “thus,” establishes the first of these, the credibility of the sutra. The first sentence establishes the second, the hearer.

Question: Why doesn’t the text state a particular time and date so that we could know exactly when the Buddha spoke this Dharma?

Answer: Calendars of different cultures vary, with the year beginning at different times. What some calendars reckon as the first month is the fourth or fifth in others. If specific dates were mentioned, not only would there be no way to determine exactly when they were, but some people, such as archaeologists, would feel compelled to undertake extensive research and spend a great deal of time and energy, in an effort to solve an insoluble problem. To avoid such complications the sutras merely say “…at one time,” thus fulfilling the third of the Six Establishments, that of time.

The Buddha fulfills the fourth, establishments of a host.

The Trayastrimsa Heaven fulfills the establishment of a place, the fifth of the Six Establishments.

Speaking Dharma for the sake of his mother is the sixth establishment. The Buddha’s mother, the Lady Maya, “Great Illusion,” ascended to the Trayastrimsa Heaven seven days after her son’s birth. The Lady Maya has been the mother of all the Buddhas and will also be the mother of future Buddhas, each of whom must go to the Trayastrimsa Heaven to speak Dharma for her. All this is done the way actors perform in plays. Those who understand the world know that it is like a theater, of pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy, love, hate, desire, and so forth, those who understand know that it is all just a play, a dream, an illusion, a shadow. The Diamond Sutra says:

As a dream, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dewdrops, or a bubble,
So should one view what is conditioned.

The Buddha, dwelling in the Playful Samadhi, teaches living beings as if nothing were going on, quite unlike ordinary people who have many attachments. “East,” they insist, “is east, and west is west, and that’s all there is to that.” This kind of view is what keeps living beings from seeing the total interpenetration and non-obstructed fusion of all things. Because they do not understand that there is nothing that is not false and empty, living beings bind themselves unnecessarily. In the Playful Samadhi, the Buddha, at the request of his father, the Wheel-Turning King, or in some cases at the request of Brahma, speaks Dharma for his mother in the heavens. At this assembly he spoke the Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva.

At that time does not have the meaning it had in the phrase, “Thus I have heard; at one time…” Here it can be explained in the following five ways:

1. At the time when he wished to speak, the time the Buddha desire to speak the Dharma of filial piety.

2. At the time when he wished to correct wrong views.

3. At the time of planting seeds. After seeds are planted, there is a period during which the roots grow; then they sprout and are harvested. The Buddha teaches those who have not planted good roots to plant the seeds that will give rise to them, and then he tells them how to nurture and cultivate those roots. Once the seeds have grown they must be harvested or else they are useless. Once good roots have been planted there still must be cultivation, so that the fruit is ripened and the harvest of liberation is attained.

4. At the time of a true teacher. In order to study Buddhadharma there must be a master who understands a true teaching, and a desire to study. Without the desire for true study, both the teacher and the teaching are useless. If you have true teaching and a desire to study, but no true teacher, there is no way to attain the goal.

5. At that time also means at the time when the Buddha likes to speak Dharma and when living beings like to hear it. Both the speaking and the hearing of Dharma are on one level, since the teaching and that which is taught are interlinked. There is no high or low in this, so that when the Buddha wishes to speak Dharma, living beings like to listen.

Although this sutra was spoken for the Buddha’s mother, the twelve hundred fifty bhiksus who followed the Buddha, as well as Sakra and numerous other gods, were all present. Therefore the establishment of the assembly is made by the phrase “…for the sake of his mother…,” for it includes the great assembly, thus completing the Six Establishments.

Sakyamuni is a specific name of a particular Buddha; Buddha is the name common to all Buddhas. Sakya, “capable of humaneness,” is a family name that indicates the humaneness with which this Buddha crosses all living beings from suffering to bliss. Muni means still and silent – the Confucians say, “…arrived, ended, nothing further to add.” “Still and silent” refers to Samadhi; “capable of humaneness” represents the aspect of immutability. Although the Buddha responds to various conditions, he does not change; while he is still and unmoving in Samadhi he can respond to the thoughts of living beings. Since he is “still and silent” he can know everything; since he is “capable of humaneness” he can see everything. Thus it is said, “The thoughts of all living beings are known and seen by the Thus Come One.” Because of this, cultivators of the Way receive a response that corresponds exactly to their own sincerity. Those whose thoughts contain one degree of sincerity receive one degree of response; and those who have a millionfold sincere thoughts receive that great a response. From the original, enlightened, still, and unmoving ground, Sakyamuni Buddha can move to reach out and aid living beings.

Buddha, “the enlightened one,” is so called because he has perfected three enlightenments – inherent, initial, and ultimate – as well as ten thousand virtues. Everyone who cultivates in accordance with the principles of Buddhadharma can attain the position of an enlightened Buddha. Upon becoming enlightened, Sakyamuni Buddha said:

All living beings have the Thus Come One’s knowledge and vision, and are kept from actualizing it only because of their attachments and false thoughts.

Turbidity is a condition that occurs when substances become intermingled with one another, as when dirt is put into clear water. The original qualities of both are lost in the turbid mixture that results. Earth is fundamentally obstructive and can support objects placed on it; water is basically clear and flows freely. When the two are mixed, the resultant mud can neither support any weight nor flow freely, and the clear attributes of the constituent elements are lost in the murky mess. The Five Turbidities follow:

1. Time is turbid because it cannot be distinguished clearly. There is no such thing as time, only the arbitrary and none-too-clear divisions established by beings.

2. Views are turbid since they cannot be seen clearly. Everyone has his own views; if an attempt is made to separate the substance of one person’s views from those of another, it is found to be impossible.

3. Afflictions are turbid because everyone has his own, yet individuals can still set off one another’s afflictions. If one person’s were truly his alone, there would be no way for him to annoy or trouble other people. It is just because they cannot be clearly demarcated that afflictions are turbid.

4. Living beings are turbid because a human in one life may suddenly become a dog, a cat, or even a worm in his next life. Living beings blend together in a great corporate entity, and their positions switch back and forth in a confused jumble. Those who aren’t being sold are being bought, and in the final analysis there is no way to discern just what any particular being is.

5. The lifespan is turbid since there is nothing fixed about it. Some beings are long-lived and some die at birth, so that there is no way to know for certain what the lifespan of living beings will be.

Sakyamuni Buddha teaches beings by regulating and subduing and harmonizing them, much as the five flavors – sour, hot, sweet, bitter, and salt – are harmonized and blended in cooking so that a balanced and harmonious dish is produced. Some beings, for example, like the teachings of Confucius, some those of Lao Tzu, some those of the Buddha, some those of Christ, and some those of Muhammad. As a result, there are the five great religions of the world. These five are, in fact, one. All dharmas are the Buddha’s own and special dharmas, and “all dharmas” include the dharmas of all religions – Christian, Confucian, Taoist, Moslem, or any other one. There is not a single religion that can say it does not have a dharma and thus it falls outside “all dharmas.” All dharmas are the Buddhadharma and all dharmas are unobtainable; there is not a single dharma that exists. Frankly speaking. I will not tell you that I have some dharma, some delicious morsel with which I can cheat you. I do not. I do not have anything at all, for fundamentally there is nothing at all to have. As the Sixth Patriarch said.

Fundamentally Bodhi has no tree,
The bright mirror has no stand,
Fundamentally there is not one thing,
Where can the dust alight?

As long as there is something, there is a place for dust to settle, but when there is nothing, there is no way for it to do so, and no way for defilement to take place. Although all dharmas are the Buddhadharma, among them there are right and wrong dharmas, provisional and actual dharmas, good and evil dharmas, and so forth. Those who cultivate the Way should make sure that they are cultivating an ultimate, not a non-ultimate, dharma. Non-ultimate-dharma cultivation is like trying to get from America to the other side of Australia by foot – a long, slow boat trip, followed by a hard and wearying trek, before the goal is reached. Cultivation of ultimate dharmas is like setting out for a goal by airplane – quick and efficient. Non-ultimate dharmas are dharmas of external paths which, although they do have some good points, are slow and roundabout. Ultimate dharmas refer to the Buddhadharma. Sakyamuni Buddha regulates and subdues beings by saying to those who have a bad temper, for example, that temper is not bad, that afflictions are identical with Bodhi, and that birth and death are identical with nirvana. When such persons hear these principles, they are led to put their ill temper to work for the sake of great Bodhi, and their tempers diminish as their afflictions slowly change. This very changing is Bodhi.

To beings who are so timid that they almost faint at the bark of a dog, the Buddha extends a protective and consoling attitude. When they see such a manifestation, living beings feel that at last they have found someone whom they can trust. As they study Buddhadharma their courage grows. In Hong Kong I had a disciple who was so terrified of ghosts and spirits that he would not set foot out of his house after dark, even if accompanied. After he took refuge with the Triple Jewel, he discovered that he no longer had this fear, even though nothing in particular had been done to rid him of it. This manner of teaching is extended to accord with the various propensities of beings, all of whom tend to gravitate to one extreme or another. When they are led to attain the middle way they are basic and subdued.

Because of their basic obstinacy, living beings are quite careless about matters of suffering and bliss and boast that they are not going to bother with such questions. Sakyamuni Buddha is able to lead such persons to understand what suffering and bliss really are – that suffering is falling into the lower paths, and that bliss is attainment of the fruit of Arhatship. Falling among the hells, hungry ghosts, or animals is suffering; becoming enlightened is bliss. Although there are manifold kinds of both suffering and bliss, the general tenor of each can be inferred from the teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha.


At that time the Thus Come One smiled and emitted hundreds of thousands of millions of great light clouds such as the Great Perfect Fullness Light Cloud, the Light Cloud of Great Compassion, the Light Cloud of Great Wisdom, the Light Cloud of Great Prajna, the Light Cloud of Great Samadhi, the Great Auspicious Light Cloud, the Light Cloud of Great Blessing, the Light Cloud of Great Merit, the Light Cloud of Great Refuge, and the Light Cloud of Great Praise.


Among the millions of clouds of light, these ten are mentioned because they represent both the living beings in the ten Dharma realms and the contemplation of the ten Dharma realms.

The Great Perfect Fullness Light Cloud represents the Buddha Way, which pervades all Dharma realms. There is no place where it is not found. Every single mote of dust in the entire Dharma realm is illuminated by this cloud of light.

The Light Cloud of Great Compassion connotes empathy and the ability to rescue beings from their sufferings. Such conduct describes the Bodhisattva Way because Bodhisattvas do everything in their power to give living beings what they like.

The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra was once an attendant in a monastery dining hall. His job entailed walking between rows of tables with a condiment tray, supplying the desires of the bhiksus. To those who liked sweets he gave honey; to those who favored pungent flavors he gave hot sauce. This seemingly easy task was complicated, however, and he often received complaints that he had dished out too much or too little; no matter what he gave the bhiksus it was often a source of irritation to them. Practicing the Bodhisattva Way and fulfilling the wishes of all living beings is not all that easy a practice.

The Light Cloud of Great Wisdom. This light refers to the wisdom of Pratyekabuddhas, those who are enlightened to causation. By contemplating the Twelve Links of conditioned Causation, they have come to understand the birth and death of the Ten Thousand Things, and through that understanding, their inherent great wisdom is manifested. The Twelve Links and their interdependent relationships are as follows: ignorance causes actions; action causes consciousness; consciousness causes name and form; name and form cause the six entrances; the six entrances cause contact; contact causes feeling; feeling causes love; love causes grasping; grasping causes existence; existence causes birth; and birth causes old age and death.

The order of extinction of the Twelve Links of Conditioned Causation is: when ignorance is extinguished, action is extinguished; when action is extinguished, consciousness is extinguished; when consciousness is extinguished, name and form are extinguished; when name and form are extinguished, the six entrances are extinguished; when the six entrances are extinguish, love is extinguished; when love is extinguished, covetousness is extinguished; when covetousness is extinguished, existence is extinguished; when existence is extinguish, birth is extinguished; when birth is extinguished, old age and death are extinguished. Those enlightened to causation understand that when ignorance is broken down, the entire interlinked chain of becoming is smashed.

The Light Cloud of Great Prajna. Prajna, wisdom, is of three types: Literary Prajna, Contemplative Prajna, and Reality Prajna. In order to maintain a distinction between the light cloud previously discussed, which represented the Dharma realm of Pratyekabuddhas, and this cloud of light, which stands for the realm of the Sound-Hearers, the term “Prajna” is left in Sanskrit rather than translated. When Sound-Hearers hear the sound of the teaching, they develop Contemplative Prajna, through which they are able to attain to Reality Prajna and the position of Arhatship.

The Light Cloud of Great Samadhi, “transit-concentration,” represents the realm of the gods who cultivate the superior grade of the Ten Good Deeds and thus attain the power that enables them to penetrate the Four Dhyanas and the Eight Samadhis. The Four Dhyanas – each of which includes a certain number of heavens, which will be discussed in due course – have names in addition to their more common numerical designations. The first is called the Blissful Ground of Leaving Production; the second is called the Blissful Ground of the birth of Samadhi; the third is the Ground of the Wonderful Bliss of Leaving Happiness; and the fourth is the Ground of the Purity of Renouncing Thought. In addition to these there are the Four Stations of Emptiness, which also include heavens. They are the stations of Boundless Space, Boundless Consciousness, Nothing Whatsoever, and Neither Thought nor Nonthought. These two lists taken together are called the Four Dhyanas and Eight Samadhis, and their corresponding heavens can be attained by those who take refuge with the Triple Jewel, maintain the Five Precepts, and cultivate the superior grade of the Ten Good Deeds.

The Great Auspicious Light Cloud represents the human realm, in which auspicious happenings are cause for rejoicing and fate is taken to be the origin of most events. Those who take refuge with the Triple Jewel and maintain the Five Precepts can be born in the human realm.

The Light Cloud of Great Blessing refers to the realm of the asuras, who are sometimes found among the gods, sometimes among humans, and sometimes in other paths. These beings have the virtue of the gods but are lacking in blessings.

The Light Cloud of Great Merit shines on the realm of the animals. It is emitted by the Buddha for the purpose of eradicating the offenses of beasts so that they may leave suffering and obtain bliss.

The Light Cloud of Great Refuge, representing the realm of the hungry ghosts, is emitted to induce these creatures to change their ways and take refuge with the Triple Jewel.

The Light Cloud of Great Praise represents the realm of the hells and is emitted for the benefit of denizens of that region.


After emitting more indescribably clouds of light, he also emitted a great many wonderfully subtle sounds such as the Danaparamita sound, the Silaparamita sound, the Ksantiparamita sound, the Viryaparamita sound, the Dhyanaparamita sound, and the Prajnaparamita sound.


Although the Buddha speaks with a single sound, each living being hears it differently and in his own tongue, be he Japanese, English, French, or an inhabitant of any other realm. There is no need for translation, because the sound of the Buddha is totally inconceivable.
In Chinese the word “sound” may be defined with a homonym that means “to drink,” since living beings receive the Buddha’s sound just as a thirsty man receives water. It is sometimes explained by another homonym that means “hidden,” because although his sound is often large, at other times it is only a still, small voice.

Question: How far does the Buddha’s sound carry?

Answer: Mahamaudgalyayana, the disciple foremost in spiritual penetrations, once traveled to the east in search of the answer to this question and passed through as many world systems as there are grains of sand in the Ganges. No matter how far he went, the sound of the Buddha’s voice was equally strong, as if the Buddha were speaking directly into his ear.

The Danaparamita sound. Dana, “giving,” is of three kinds: giving of wealth, of Dharma, and of self-confidence. How should one give? Giving, in order to be true giving, should be done in such a way that the substance of the Three Wheels is seen as empty. The Three Wheels are the giver, the gift, and the recipient. If the thought of any of these occurs in the transaction and an idea that one is giving arises, his giving becomes a kind of stinginess. When giving takes place with the Three Wheels seen as empty, no attachment to giving arises, and not even a remembrance of giving remains. Thoughts of giving cancel out the good retribution that might have come from the act. Then, at best, the giving rates merely a heavenly reward. Such giving cannot bring one to the state of being without outflows.

Paramita, “gone to the other shore,” is a Sanskrit term that means simply the completion of anything that is being done, reaching any goal for which one has set out. When we begin a Dharma lecture we are at this shore; a couple of hours later, at its conclusion, we have reached the other shore. Crossing from the opening phrase, “Thus I have heard,” to the conclusion, “The entire assembly made respectful obeisance, placed their palms together, and withdrew,” is also a Paramita. If the goal is the extinction of birth and death, then birth and death are this shore. After the intervening current of afflictions has been crossed, the other shore, nirvana, is reached, much as one reaches Oakland after crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In one case the first shore is represented by San Francisco and the other shore by Oakland; in another case, the first shore is the world in which we live and the other shore is the Buddha’s Permanent Still Land of Light. In either case, once the goal has been determined, it is still necessary to set out on the journey and travel the route that leads to the destination.

The near shore is the state of being a foolish common person; the far shore is reaching the level of the sages. This shore is not understanding Buddhadharma, the other shore is complete understanding. There are different kinds of shores, however, and some are ultimate while others are not.

Question: What is the difference between ultimate and non-ultimate shores?

Answer: To pass from the stage of a common person to the first fruit of the Path, called the fruit of a Stream Winner, is to have arrived at another shore but not an ultimate one, for there is still the second fruit of the Path, the Once Returner, to be reached. When that has been attained, there still remain the third and fourth fruits of the Path, and so it cannot be called an ultimate shore either. After the fourth fruit of Arhatship has been reached, the ultimate shore is still far off, since the shore of the bodhisattva has not been attained. Those who land on the Bodhisattvas’ shore have yet to realize the knowledge and vision of the Buddha, and so their shore too, is a nonultimate one. Achieving Buddhahood, Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, the utmost, right, and equal enlightenment, is to arrive at the ultimate shore. The principles contained in this term are many, but this introduction is sufficient to enable you to infer the remainder, so that from hearing one principle, you come to understand ten.

The Silaparamita sound. Sila, “cool refreshment,” “no annoyance,” or “to repel,” may be summed up in the English word “morality”: the morality that repels all evil, as described in the proverb, “Do no evil, do only good.”

A great layman once asked an eminent master for instruction and said, “Venerable Sir, what is the Buddhadharma?”

“Avoid all evil, and do only good,” came the reply.

“Sir,” said the layman, “I sought Buddhadharma. What you say can be understood by any three-year-old child; how is that Dharma?”

“A three-year-old child can understand it,” he answered, “but a hoary graybeard of eighty cannot.”

“Avoid all evil” means, of course, not to do any one of the myriad evils that can be done. Although the word “all” here means one, it clearly says “all,” and so I say that all is one and explain this phrase as meaning not to do one single evil. If you commit one bad act you will soon do a second and a third, and before long there will be hundreds of thousands of millions of evils, all of which have sprung from one. I explain the word “mountain” in the same fashion. Mountains seem big, yet they are composed of accumulated motes of fine dust. Because the number of such particles which go to make up a mountain is incomprehensible, it is better to say “one” because anyone can understand it. In the same way, “avoid all evil” means not to do a single bad thing. If it were explained as meaning “all evil,” people would feel that only a great amount of evil, that which is totally bad, was to be avoided, and that the single small evil which they wanted to do could be allowed. Consequently, “avoid all evil” may be explained as “do not do a single evil.”

“Do only good” means to do as many good deeds as there are pores in the body. “Only good” means “all good,” and so it is not permissibly to say that you can do one good deed and avoid another. Regardless of whether a good deed is large or small, it should be done. Although the principle of avoiding all evil and doing only good can be understood by a three-year-old child, the eighty-year-old master admitted that even at his age he could not do it perfectly.

While other people explain all as everything, I differ in that I turn it around. Since I can’t calculate sums and don’t know which is which when the figures get too high, I return it all to one. This is much like being in a race on a circular track in which you fall so far behind that eventually the front of the race comes up from behind and you end up ahead of them all. My explanations of sutras are like this. I can’t count very high. How much does talk about millions of million s of millions boil down to? It is just one. When explanations are made in this way, not only can I understand, but even little children can.

Sila also means moral precepts. As was mentioned above, when the Buddha was about to enter nirvana, the Venerable Ananda asked four question, one of which was who should be the teacher of the disciples after the Buddha left them. The Buddha replied that the Pratimoksa, the moral precepts, were to be taken as the master. Precepts teach the principle of avoiding all evil and doing only good and are of the utmost importance in cultivation of the Way. In cultivation, giving, too, is foremost, but the precepts have equal priority. For that matter, in speaking Dharma, there is nothing that occupies a second place; everything is foremost. Any Dharma at all is foremost, and when asked which of eighty-four thousand teachings is first, I reply that they all are.

The Eighty-Four Thousand Dharma Doors are established as medicine to cure the eighty-four thousand illnesses of living beings. Each person has his own particular sickness, and whatever cures it is the foremost of medicines as far as he is concerned. How can a first place among all of these be determined?

Some medicines cure headaches, some cure toothaches, some cure eye infections, while others cure internal illnesses. It would be an error to say that any one of them is foremost among medicines. For those with headaches, headache medicines are best; for those with broken legs, quite another remedy is the superior one.

This principle holds true for greed, hatred, and stupidity, the three grave illnesses of living beings. For those whose greed is cured by understanding Buddhadharma, the methods which cure greed are best; for those whose hatred is cured by understanding Buddhadharma, the methods which counteract hatred are superior. In order to cure the eighty-four thousand habits and illnesses of beings, the Buddha spoke as many Dharma Doors. The Diamond Sutra says, “This Dharma is equal and has no high or low.” Consequently all of the eighty-four thousand methods are foremost.

When discussing precepts, the name of Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan, a renowned cultivator of the precepts who wrote commentaries on the Vinaya, should be mentioned. He maintained the precepts so purely, and the power of his morality was so great, that the gods brought him offerings and he did not eat the food of common men. To say that he was pure in his maintenance of the Vinaya means that he was pure in the appearance, dharma, and substance of morality, which encompass the Three Thousand Awesome Demeanors and the Eighty-Four Thousand Fine Practices.

The Three Thousand Awesome Demeanors are derived from the four deportments: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. It is said,

Walk like the wind, stand like a pine;
Sit like a bell and lie like a bow.

Walking like the wind does not mean imitating a tornado, nor even the kind of half jog that many people use to get from one place to another. The wind which should serve as a model for walking is the gentle zephyr, which does not even ripple the surface of a still pond.

To stand like a pine is to stand up straight, not slumped over as if totally devoid of energy. The head should not hang as if looking only at the ground; the gaze should be regulated and should not dart furtively back and forth like that of a thief.

To sit like a bell is to be erect and solid yet quite natural and spontaneous. In lying down, the legs should be drawn up slightly like a bow.

When one maintains the two hundred and fifty precepts in each of these four deportments, he has the One Thousand Awesome Demeanors which, when multiplied by the past, present, and future, yield three thousand.

Because Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan was pure in maintaining the precepts, he did not talk idly, did not laugh all the time, did not answer immediately when questioned, did not become angry, and did not burst with happiness. He always maintained his original appearance.

Question: Isn’t such behavior extremely wooden and inhuman?

Answer: It is not the case that he was inhuman; merely that he was not driven by emotions. To be unmoved by emotional states is to maintain the middle way, something which those who maintain precepts do in every action and at all times.

Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan lived in Chung Nan Mountain in the same system of ranges that includes the Himalayas. There were a number of old cultivators of Dharma who lived there, and the wild tigers and wolves of the area acted as their Dharma protectors. He lived in a single thatched hut and maintained the practice of eating only one meal a day, before noon, which was brought every day at the same time by a god named Lu Hsuan Ch’ang.

Contemporary with Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan, but living in another part of the country, was the National Master K’uei Chi, the Three-Cart Patriarch, disciple of Tripitaka Master Hsuan Tsang, and expounder of the Consciousness-Only School. When the Great Master Hsuan Tsang translated sutras with the aid of eight hundred bhiksus, K’uei Chi was the foremost among them, a fact which in itself vouches for his intelligence.

One day Patriarch K’uei Chi recalled all the fine foods he had eaten during his life, both flesh and vegetarian delicacies, and realized that he had never before tasted the food of the gods. Having heard of Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan’s diet, he decided to pay him a call, and set out for Chung Nan Mountain. He arrived early one morning. Since the Master Tao Hsuan only ate one meal a day, K’uei Chi had to wait all morning for food to be served. He waited until eleven, until noon, and then until well past noon. Finally night fell. Since no one had shown up with any food, the two Dharma masters went hungry, and even unheard of and almost unbearable for K’uei Chi.

“Well,” he said to Master Tao Hsuan, “You say the gods send you food. Why it is that no one comes when I’m here? You would not be lying, now, would you? Could you perhaps be out to cheat people?”

“Say what you will,” replied Tao Hsuan, without argument. “Say I deceive people if you like, but I myself know whether I am a fraud or not.”

By this time it was too dark to begin the long descent down the mountain, and so K’uei Chi stayed overnight in the thatched hut. Tao Hsuan, although he dined on divine food, was still a skinny man. K’uei Chi, on the other hand, who had eaten only the food of mortals but who was very concerned with the subject of food in all its details, was remarkably fat. That night K’uei Chi didn’t bother to sit or practice meditation; he just lay down and soon was snoring like a cow. Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan sat to meditate, but K’uei Chi’s snoring kept him from entering Samadhi.

Cultivators who lived in mountain hermitages often had lice, and as Tao Hsuan sat he felt bug bites. Because he maintained the precepts strictly, he would not kill the little beasts, but he very slowly and carefully set them on the ground. The room was dark and the Dharma Master K’uei Chi was snoring soundly.

In the morning Tao Hsuan asked, “Why don’t you work at cultivation? All night long you snored like thunder and kept me from entering Samadhi. You really are not a true cultivator of the Way.”

“You think,” said K’uei Chi, “that I am not a true cultivator, but as I see the matter, it is quite the reverse. Last night, although you may have worked hard, you did not work well. One of those lice you set down so gingerly and carefully to avoid killing it broke two legs, while the other died and went before King Yama to press charges against you. King Yama was about to send some ghosts out for you, but I managed to get in a few good words on your behalf. ‘He is a cultivator,’ I said, ‘and besides, he really did try his best not to harm the lice.’ My plea saved you quite a bit of trouble, and so, while you think that I am not a true cultivator, I think the situation is quite the reverse.”

Since the room had been totally dark when these events occurred, Master Tao Hsuan certainly wondered how K’uei Chi could have come to know all this. He did not ask, however, because he was a cultivator of precepts and would not chat casually with people.

Shortly afterward Master K’uei Chi left, saying that Tao Hsuan could carry on with his work, but that he, K’uei Chi, was not about to wait around for lunch. Not long after his departure, the god Lu Hsuan Ch’ang arrived, knelt before Tao Hsuan, and apologized, saying that he had come with food the day before, as usual, but that for forty miles in every direction there had been such a bright golden light that he could not even open his eyes. When he asked a local earth spirit the cause of this phenomenon, he was told that a Bodhisattva in the flesh was visiting Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan. Lu Hsuan Ch’ang begged forgiveness, telling Tao Hsuan that even though he had tried every possible avenue of approach, he had had no way to come and make the customary offering. From that point on, Vinaya Master Tao Hsuan realized why K’uei Chi was a national master and held him in high esteem.

The Ksantiparamita sound. Ksanti, “patience,” is a virtue that must be practiced over long periods of time to be brought to perfection. It is a virtue that is constantly being tested. There once was an old cultivator of the Way who specialized in the practice of patience and who, after many years of hard work, felt that he had reached his goal, the perfection of patience. To announce this fact to the world, he set up a sign saying “A Nature Like Ashes” outside the hermitage in which he sat patiently.

A traveler passing on the road one day was struck by the unusual sign and stopped to ask its owner what it meant. “It says ‘A Nature Like Ashes,’” the cultivator answered.

“I beg your pardon,” said the traveler, “would you mind repeating that?”

“It reads,” said the sage quite clearly, “‘A Nature Like Ashes.’ “

“Oh,” came the reply, ‘but what does it say?”

“It says ‘A Nature Like Ashes.’ “

“Excuse me,” said the youth, “but for some reason I can’t quite make out the words. Would you be so kind as to read them to me?”

“They say,” said the old cultivator, with the calm demeanor of a patient man, “‘A Nature Like Ashes.’ “

The conversation continued in this vein for some hours, until quite late in the day, when the traveler said, “Would you be so kind, sir, as to read this sign for me?”

The sage, mustering the full force of his patience, said, “It says, ‘A Nature Like Ashes,’ if you must know.”

“Yes,” the traveler said, “but what does it say, please.”

“Damn it!” exploded the sage, “if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times, it says ‘A NATURE LIKE ASHES.’ That’s what it says.”

“I see,” said the traveler as he took a step upward into the air and manifested the resplendent body of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (for that indeed is who he was), “that there remains an ember or two in those ashes. Given another twenty years, perhaps they may cool off. Good man, you will have to wait around a while yet and keep working. In time we may meet again.”

Patience, although seemingly easy to cultivate, is always subject to trying and unexpected tests. It is only during these that the proof of the practice is to be found.

The Viryaparamita sound. Virya, “vigor,” is the fourth of the Six Perfections. Those who truly understand vigor apply it to the cultivation of the Buddha Way, but many people apply vigor to the non-beneficial ascetic practices cultivated by externalists. There are many such groups in India. One, for example, models itself on cattle, and its adherents eat only grass. Others follow the morality of dogs and go so far as to eat only what dogs eat, as they crawl about on all fours. The followers of yet another such group live in ashes, which they add to already basically unclean bodies. Some sleep on beds of nails, and others do all manner of extreme things in the name of cultivating vigor.

Such vigor is quite useless since it is pursued among unwholesome dharmas. This is turning ones back on the Way. Vigor should be applied in wholesome dharmas, such as bowing to the Buddha, reciting sutras, performing repentance ceremonies, reciting the Buddha’s name, and other practices which involve vigor of the body. From vigor of the body, vigor of the mind – in which every single thought is a cultivation of wholesome dharmas – arises. When such vigor is practiced, even fatigue and hunger are forgotten. But if vigor slackens, problems arise: fatigue sets in, energy and spirit drain, and the only thing left to do is sleep. Go ahead, examine your own vigor. You will discover that this is true.

When the Buddha was in the world, everyone who had left the home life was required to recite the following verse:

Watch over the mouth, hold the mind, with the body do no wrong;
Do not, in any way, annoy a single living being;
Keep far away from non-beneficial ascetic practices;
Cultivation such as this can surely save the world.

This verse reminds cultivators of the Buddha Way that they cannot engage in idle talk about trivial matters and personal preferences, that their thoughts should be collected and not allowed to roam aimlessly, and that in every movement cultivators should remember what they are doing and what kind of people they are.

Not a single living being, not even an animal, should be annoyed or bothered and non-beneficial asceticism should be shunned. The Twelve Dhutanga Practices of Asceticism should, of course, be maintained, but the bizarre forms of asceticism indulged in by those who follow the ways of cattle or dogs should be shunned.

Question: What gives rise to such strange and useless practices?

Answer: Through long cultivation, it is possible to open one’s heavenly eye and see, among other things, the death and rebirth of beings. In the past there were people who, having obtained this faculty happened to see a dog or a cow reborn in the heavens. Because they were ignorant, these people mistakenly assumed that the animals had earned those rewards from some quality of their existence as animals, and consequently they imitated the behavioral patterns of such beasts in the hope of attaining rebirth in the heavens.

All the vigor of which we are speaking is fundamentally nonexistent, but it is discussed for the benefit of us ordinary people. Each of the Six Paramitas involves vigor. Giving, morality, and patience belong to vigor of the body, while vigor, Dhyana, Samadhi, and Prajna belong to vigor of the mind. Explained in this way, vigor does not exist, for it is identical with the other five Paramitas. When giving is generous, it is vigorous giving; when precepts are held firmly, that is the vigor of morality. Diligence is applying vigor in the substance of vigor itself. The ceaseless cultivation of Dhyana is the vigor of Dhyana, and the constant practice of wisdom is the Prajnaparamita.

It may be objected that vigor was practiced once but found to be fatiguing and consequently of no benefit. This is simply an attachment to one kind of vigor, and it keeps one from true vigor. As long as one thinks his vigor is great and there is no vigor at all, because there is a vigor that blocks true vigor. When the Buddhadharma is understood, there is not anything at all. It is only when there is no understanding that things exist.

Of course, it cannot be argued that if one is not vigorous he has reached the state of not having a single thing. That is quite a different kind of non-vigor. If the Buddhadharma is truly understood, then it is genuine vigor that is non-vigor, since there is no attachment to it. If there is no real understating of Buddhadharma, there is an attachment to vigor, and consequently, no vigor. After the Buddhadharma has been understood, everything must be relinquished. If this is not done, Dharma has not been fully understood, for the Buddhadharma teaches beings to forsake all attachments and appearances.

The Dhyanaparamita sound. Dhyana, “thought cultivation,” or “quiet consideration,” is of several sorts. There are the Four Dhyanas, the Eight Samadhis, and the Nine Successive Stages of Samadhi, as well as Worldly Dhyana, World-Transcending Dhyana, and the Superior Grade of World-Transcending Dhyana.

Ordinary people cultivate Worldly Dhyana, which includes the Four Unlimited Thoughts and the Four Formless Samadhis. These states need not be discussed in detail. If you apply effort and cultivate sitting meditation, you will spontaneously come to understand them. For me to explain them all now would be like talking of food and not eating it – you would not know the flavor. For the time being, let it suffice to say that there are many types of Dhyana: Worldly, World-Transcending, Superior, Thus Come One Dhyana, Patriarch Dhyana, and so forth. Now all that remains for you to do is the work of cultivation, in order to attain them and know them for yourselves.

The Prajnaparamita sound. Prajna, “wisdom,” is of two types, worldly and world-transcending. Worldly wisdom is the clear argumentation of worldly principles in such matters as science and philosophy. Clear argumentation is the ability to find principles where there are none. World-Transcending Prajna is the ability to think of the Buddhadharma in every thought, so that even in sleep, dreams, and sickness there is only thought of the Buddhadharma.

In the final analysis, these two are just one kind of wisdom; the difference lies in its application. Used in the world, it becomes worldly wisdom; applied to world-transcending dharmas, to the Buddhadharma, it is world-transcending wisdom. Although Prajna is not two, it is divided. Suppose, for example, that through the study of worldly dharmas, one comes to realize that conditioned existence is impermanent, marked by suffering, and devoid of self. If this wisdom gained from worldly dharmas is used to investigate world-transcending dharmas, it becomes world-transcending wisdom. Because most people have worldly wisdom but not world-transcending wisdom, they are involved in confused and inconsequential matters, while ignoring the fundamental question of life and death. Some people, on the other hand, investigate world-transcending questions, but do not investigate worldly dharma.

It is said, “Understand the transcendent and understand the mundane. The mundane is transcendent, the transcendent is mundane.” An ancient poem says:

“Intelligence is aided by secret determination;
Secret determination leads one on the road to intelligence.
If secret determination is not practiced as the cause of intelligence,
Intelligence reverses and becomes a hindrance.”

One cause of intelligence is good deeds done in past lives. However, good deeds should not be done for publicity. They should be done but not spread about – for example, if one ransoms prisoners, it should be done without letting them know the identity of their liberator. Another cause of intelligence is the recitation of sutras. Reciting the Diamond Prajnaparamita Sutra several tens of thousands of times, for example, is a good cause of future intelligence.

If one does not practice secret good deeds in this life, however, one’s intelligence backfires and becomes an obstacle. How is that so? If one is not at all clever, he cannot do very many bad deeds; but those who are clever not only are able to do evil but are just as good at covering up their tracks so that they never get caught. One of the most intelligent men in China was the notorious general Ts’ao Ts’ao who was even more clever than ghosts. He did a great many indecent things. Those who are wise will hear the verse cited above and put it into practice by doing deeds which will benefit mankind rather than harm it.


The Sound of Great Compassion, the Sound of Joyous Giving, the Sound of Liberation, the Sound of No-Outflows, the Sound of Wisdom, the Sound of Great Wisdom, the Sound of the Lion’s Roar, the Sound of the Great Lion’s Roar, the Sound of Thunderclouds, the Sound of Great Thunderclouds.


The Sound of Great Compassion. In Chinese, the term “compassion” consists of two characters. The first connotes the kindness that bestows happiness and the second the mercy that is able to rescue beings from their sufferings. All beings who hear this sound of the Buddha area able to leave suffering and attain to bliss, end birth, and cast off death.

The Sound of Joyous Giving. Kindness, Mercy, Joy, and Giving are called the Four Unlimited Thoughts. This sound indicates the joy which should accompany giving.

The Sound of Liberation. To be liberated is to obtain genuine independence, without restraint or bondage; liberation is freedom from the sufferings of the Six Paths on the wheel of rebirth.

Once a bhiksu requested Dharma from a famous master. “Superior One,” he asked, “how can liberation be attained?”

“Who,” replied the master “is binding you?”

At those words, the monk was enlightened and realized, “Fundamentally no one binds me up; I bind myself. One who does not bind himself attains liberation spontaneously.”

Question: What is meant by binding oneself up?

Answer: To have seen through things but not relinquished them is to bind oneself and keep oneself from liberation. It is quite simple. If you relinquish everything, you obtain liberation; if you do not relinquish it all, you are bound. In this sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha emits the Sound of Liberation to say, “Don’t tie yourself up and cast yourself into a prison of your own making.”

At this point someone may object, “I am quite independent; if I want to go east, I go east, and if I want to go west, I do that.”

The independence of which we are speaking here, however, is not the independence of the body; it is the independence of the self-nature. When you realize this independence, you can live or die at will, and your death will be completely free of illness. This is what is meant by the phrase, “Life and death are in my own and not Heaven’s hands.” One who is free can live to a hundred or thousand years if he wishes, and when he wants to die, he can return to his original home at any time. If he likes his house he lives in it; if not, he can always move.

The independence of the self-nature is of two types. One is an independence of the consciousness-spirit and the other is the inherent Buddha-nature. The consciousness-spirit belongs to the sphere of yin, and while it is able to travel about, it is unable to carry anything with it. We might say that it can go to New York, Europe, or Asia to find out what is going on in those places but is not able to bring things back to its starting point without the help of an airplane, bus, or other means of transportation.

The freedom of the inherent Buddha-nature, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of yang and has the great function of the complete substance. When the liberation of the Buddha-nature has been attained, one can sit in San Francisco, for example, and stretch out his arm to bring things back from New York. In this wonderful state, the world systems of a million worlds are contained in a single room, and one can go anywhere in them.

While it is possible to attain this state, it is not permissible to give casual demonstrations of it by pulling in items from all over the world for the gratification of spectators. The Buddha told all his disciples that after his nirvana they should not manifest their spiritual powers, because if they did, they would not remain in the world very long. Ordinary people would be too startled and frightened and would turn on them. In any case, it should be clearly understood at this point that the ability to go anywhere and do anything belongs to yang. Without this ability, the state is merely one of consciousness and belongs to the realm of yin.

The Sound of No-Outflows. This sound is also the sound of existence without ignorance, for, as long as one has even a trace of ignorance, he cannot attain to the state without outflows. Why are you greedy? Because you suffer ignorance. Why do you have stupidity? Because of your ignorance. Why do you have desire? Because you don’t understand karma. If one attains the Sound of No-Outflows, he is without ignorance.

The Sound of Wisdom. Wisdom is the complement of stupidity. If you are characterized by one, you do not have the other, because the two cannot stand together. But I will also say: wisdom is stupidity and stupidity is wisdom.

Someone may now say, “Then because I am rather stupid, I must be wise. I might as well indulge my stupidity to the utmost.” If you are truly able to carry this off, truly able to take your stupidity to the ultimate, that in itself is true wisdom.

“Dharma Master,” someone else objects, “I can’t believe these principles. NO matter what you say, I cannot believe that wisdom and stupidity are identical. I have watched stupid people be confused, and wise people behave with precise clarity.”

This objection is not invalid; in fact it is quite right. Looked at differently, on the other hand, your position is quite erroneous, since stupidity can change and become wisdom. It is because of this potential for change that I say that stupidity is wisdom; because wisdom becomes stupidity when it fades, I say that wisdom is stupidity.

The verse explained earlier embodies this principle quite well. The wise do not say that they cannot be stupid. The wise- those who have genuine independence and true liberation – do not behave in a confused manner, and fools do not act wisely. While stupid people are moved by others, the wise do not budge, because they have a selective Dharma eye and can discriminate properly. If something is right, they respond; if it is wrong, they don’t move.

Fools, on the other hand, often know quite clearly that what they are about to do is wrong, but they go ahead and do it anyway. Gamblers, for example, know that the chances of becoming rich are a million to one against them, and yet, moved by their greed and ignorance, they lose everything. Even though they become penniless, they usually do not awaken but rather say that since they were only off by one number when they last lost, they are sure to win next time. If you don’t think this is stupid, just ask yourself if casino operators could make a living off gamblers who always got rich.

Stupidity is not confined to gambling. Some people smoke opium. Although we have heard time and again that it is a harmful practice, some people try it a number of times, and each time they smoke they feel as if they have not quite reached the ultimate state. And so they try again, and yet again, until they find themselves addicted. Not only are they unaware that they have lost their independence, but, what is worse, they think that their drugs are their independence. They think that they are free to do whatever they wish; but if they lack their opium, they become irritable and their eyes start to water and their skin begins to itch. Anyone with any wisdom does not get involved in such things.

The Sound of Great wisdom. Great Wisdom can see the consequences of actions even more clearly. Great wisdom is simply the study of the Buddhadharma, the means of attaining genuine independence.

The Sound of the Lion’s Roar. The sound of the Great Lion’s Roar. When the lion, the king of beasts, roars, he sets all the animals to trembling simultaneously, petrified with fear. All are brought to heel by this sound, even the ferocious tiger and rapacious wolf.

The Sound of Thunderclouds. The Sound of Great Thunderclouds. The sound of the Buddha covers the earth and then pours out a rain that nourishes the roots of all the plants, each of which receives the amount of moisture it needs. In the rain of the Buddhadharma, each being obtains exactly the amount its roots are able to absorb in order to help its Dharma-body grow and its wisdom increase.


After such indescribably sounds had issued forth, gods, dragons, ghosts, and spirits from the Saha world and other realms assembled in the Palace of the Trayastrimsa Heaven. They arrived from the Heaven of the Four Kings, the Trayastrimsa Heaven, the Suyama Heaven, the Tusita Heaven, the Transformation of Bliss Heaven, and the Heaven of Comfort Gained through Transformation of Others’ Bliss.


Saha, “able to endure,” is the name of our world system because its inhabitants are capable of bearing much pain and suffering. Just as the Western Land is a place of extreme bliss, so this world of ours is one of utmost suffering.

The Heaven of the Four Kings is halfway up Mount Sumeru. In the east is a king named He Who Maintains Countries, in the south is a king named Increase and Growth, in the west is a king named Many Languages, and in the north is a king called Much Learning, who is also known as Wide Eyes. The gods in this heaven are half a yojanas tall and have a lifespan of five hundred years, each consisting of twelve months of thirty days each. One day in this heaven is equivalent to fifty years among humans. Because this heaven is extremely close to us, its inhabitants watch over the affairs of human beings.

The Trayastrimsa Heaven has already been discussed, and so here we will add only that the inhabitants are one yojanas tall and live for a thousand years.

The Suyama, “well-divided time,” is a heaven located so high on the side of Mount Sumeru that the light of the sun and moon cannot reach it. It is light there, however, because the gods all emit light. Because there is no light from the sun or moon, time is measured by the opening and closing of the lotus flower; when the lotus is open, it is day, and when it closes, night has arrived. The inhabitants of this heaven are two yojanas tall and live for two thousand years. Throughout all these heavens, the height and lifespan double in each successive heaven.

The Tusita, or “contentment,” Heaven, is divided into an inner and an outer court. The outer courtyard is subject to destruction by the Three Disasters, fire, water, and wind, which occur at the end of the kalpas, but the inner courtyard is not.

The inhabitants of the Transformation of Bliss Heaven take pleasure in transformational creations.

The gods of the Heaven of Comfort Gained through Transformation of Others’ Bliss obtain their bliss through transforming it away from other heavens. Those who live in this heaven are neither genuine spirits nor immortals but heavenly demons.

The Heaven of the Four Kings, the Trayastrimsa Heaven, the Suyama Heaven, the Tusita Heaven, the Transformation of Bliss Heaven, and the Heaven of Comfort Gained through Transformation of Others’ Bliss are known as the Six Desire Heavens. Although those who dwell there are among the gods, they still have impure thoughts of sexual desire. In the Heaven of the Four Kings and the Trayastrimsa Heaven, sexual affairs are carried out in the same manner as they are among people, but a newborn child in the Heaven of the Four Kings is as large as a five-year-old human child. In the Trayastrimsa Heaven an infant is as large as a seven-year-old human child, and in the Suyama Heaven the newborn are as large as human children of ten. Shortly after birth, the infant sits on the knees of an adult and eats spontaneously-appearing sweet dew, after which he becomes as large as an adult god. It is said:

The Four Kings and the Trayastrimsa
Fulfill desire by embrace,
Suyamas hold hands, Tusitas laugh.
In the Transformation Bliss they gaze,
And in the Other they merely glance.

The desire of those in the Heaven of the Four Kings and the Trayastrimsa Heaven is like our own; but in the Suyama Heaven, husbands and wives prefer to cultivate the Way and only infrequently hold hands. In the Tusita Heaven, marital affairs are carried out by laughing. Although most people consider laughter good, it is actually a function of emotional gratification. In the Transformation of Bliss Heaven, the gods merely gaze at one another to achieve their gratification, and in the Heaven of the Comfort Gained through Transformation of Others’ Bliss, a glance is enough to perform the marital act. As one ascends through the Six Desire Heavens, emotional desire decreases. If desire is not light, there can be no ascension to these heavens. If desire is heavy, stupidity results; as desire is lightened, wisdom grows.


The Heaven of the Multitudes of Brahma, the Heaven of the Ministers of Brahma, the Heaven of the Great Brahman Lord, the Heaven of Lesser Light, the Heaven of Limitless Light, the Heaven of Light-Sound, the Heaven of Lesser Purity, the Heaven of Limitless Purity, the Heaven of Universal Purity.


The Heavens are those of the first three dhyanas, each of which subsumes three heavens. The first of the three heavens of the First Dhyana is called the Multitudes of Brahma, because of the emotional desire of those in the Six Desire Heavens. In the Heaven of the Ministers of Brahma are the attendants of the Great Brahma Lord, who lives in the next heaven. He has cultivated the merits of the heavens, but has not truly become enlightened or certified to the fruit. Consequently he ascends through the heavens to be the Great Brahma King. He is surrounded and protected by gods from the two heavens below.

The three heavens of the First Dhyana are called the Joyful Stage of Leaving Production. Here no more afflictions are produced, so it is an extremely happy place. Diligent cultivation of the Way can lead to attainment of the First Dhyana, where the Great Brahma Lord, his ministers, and the multitudes may be seen.

In the First Dhyana, the pulse stops as one sits in meditation. This is commonly the sign of death, but because the self-nature goes to the heavens, no decay or death occurs in the body. One may enter this Samadhi for as long as twenty or thirty days or more without any sign of either pulse or decay. When the average person dies, his body becomes putrid within seven days, but the body of one who cultivates and attains this state will not rot no matter how long he remains in Samadhi.

The Heaven of Lesser Light, the Heaven of Limitless Light, and the Heaven of Light-Sound are reached by eliminating desire and love. They cannot be reached without ending sexual desire.

The first of these heavens of the Second Dhyana is called Heaven of Lesser Light. The bodies of this heaven’s inhabitants shine with a light much greater than that of the Suyama Heaven but less than that of the other two heavens of the Second Dhyana. They shine because they maintained the precepts purely in the world. In the First Dhyana, the gods of the multitudes of Brahma and the Ministers of Brahma also maintained the precepts purely, but they did not emit light. However, here in the heavens of the Second Dhyana, the gods have maintained the precepts so well that their bodies shine.

The inhabitants of the Heaven of Light-Sound use light to speak. Just as television uses light to create pictures, the gods of this heaven use light to represent speech. Some commentators say that these gods have no language and cannot speak, but this is not the case, for if it were, they would have done good deeds and been reborn in the heavens only to find themselves mute. Just as humans have both spoken and written aspects of language, the gods in this heaven use light to represent speech.

When people who practice Dhyana obtain Samadhi and reach the second of the Four Dhyanas, they have attained the stage called the Joyful Stage of the Arising of Samadhi. At this stage the breath stops. Anyone who meditates can reach this level, and those who practice should now ask themselves whether or not they have attained such skill. Has your pulse stopped? Has your breath stopped? If they have not stopped, there still remains much work to do; and if they have, there still remains the ending of birth and death.

Do not become attached to some minor psychic state which you may encounter. To have seen light or Dharma protectors while meditating is a very minor matter. It is also possible that the body will shake involuntarily during meditation; this is a manifestation of the phenomenon known as “the great earth shaking in six ways” and still does not indicate genuine skill. There is a great deal of work left to do after such states are reached, for one cannot be lazy and end birth and death. Although it is always possible to object that such work leads to discomfort and is unpleasant, wait until you find yourself in hell someday, and then see just what “uncomfortable” can mean. If you set out to cultivate the Way and then do not work at it but prefer to savor your so-called independence, you can do so. Your independence may take you to hell in the end.

The Heaven of Lesser Purity, the Heaven of Limitless Purity, and the Heaven of Universal Purity are the heavens of the Third Dhyana, which is called the Ground of the Wonderful Bliss of Being Apart from Joy. Here thought stops. The Heaven of the First Dhyana were pure but had little light; those of the Second Dhyana were more pure and had more light. The heavens of the Third Dhyana are purer still.

Ascending through these heavens can be compared to the process of cleaning a floor. The First Dhyana is like sweeping the ground clean; here are found the heavens of the Multitudes of Brahma, the Ministers of Brahma, and the Great Brahma Lord. Although the floor has been swept, it has yet to be waxed, and so it is lacking in luster.

Once the waxing has been done, the floor shines with light. This can be likened to the Heaven of Lesser Light, the Heaven of Limitless Light, and the Heaven of Light-Sound – the heavens of the Second Dhyana. Once the floor has been waxed, it may shine with light, but nonetheless fine specks of dust may settle on it again. Dusting it off represents the Heaven of Lesser Purity, the Heaven of Limitless Purity, and the Heaven of Universal Purity – the heavens of the Third Dhyana.

Although the pulse stopped in the First Dhyana, and the breath in the Second Dhyana, the flow of thought still remained. It is in the Third Dhyana that the continual arising of false thoughts ceases. In a single ksana (instant of time) there are ninety productions and extinctions, and in each of these there are nine hundred thoughts. When all these thoughts stop in the Third Dhyana, it is possible to sit for months or even years and not be aware of the passage of time. In such a state there is neither time nor space, and yet one who is in it is not dead. He can return at any time, and when he wishes to do so the thoughts no longer remain still. The thought “I am sitting in meditation” arises, and the meditator returns.

As long as thoughts remain, there is no real purity, for thought is like dust on the ground. Although there is a kind of purity when the breath stops and light is emitted, this is not the true purity, which is manifested only when thought is stopped.
The Third Dhyana is called the Wonderful Bliss of Being Apart from Joy, because even happiness must be put aside and not become the object of attachment. When this happens, the “wonderful” arises.


The Birth of Blessings Heaven, the Love of Blessings Heaven, and Abundant Fruit Heaven, the No-Thought Heaven, the No-Affliction Heaven, the No-Heat Heaven, the Good Views Heaven, the Good Manifestation Heaven, the Ultimate Form Heaven, the Mahesvara Heaven and so forth, until the Heaven of the Place of Neither Thought nor Non-thought. The gods, dragons, ghosts and spirits assembled together.


In the Birth of Blessings Heaven, the cause of suffering is exhausted and bliss is not permanent. In the realms below this, that is, in the Second and Third Dhyanas, suffering and distress remain even though pulse and breath may stop. In the Birth of Blessings Heaven, the first of the nine heavens of the Fourth Dhyana, the causes of suffering come to an end and the seeds of suffering cease to exist. Since the gods have no suffering, they are also unattached to their happiness, and so it is said their bliss is not permanent.

The cause of suffering eliminated in this heaven is desire, more precisely, sexual desire. When there is no sexual desire, there are no seeds of suffering. The gods of the Second Dhyana have cut off thoughts of desire; in the Fourth Dhyana the very seed of desire, the appearance of all coarse forms, is cut off, and blessings are born.

The second heaven of the Fourth Dhyana is called the Heaven of the Love of Blessings, and it is here that there is a supreme renunciation. What cannot be renounced is nonetheless renounced, and what cannot be given up is given up. The gods of this realm obtain a supreme purity of liberation. Their blessings are unfathomably great, and they reach beyond heaven and earth to attain a state of wonderful compliance in which everything accords with their intent. Their bliss is renounced and they are apart from both suffering and bliss. Although devoid of craving for the realms of desire and form, they nonetheless have a hope, something for which they seek: the heavens directly above them.

Directly above the Heaven of Love of Blessings are two heavens, one called Abundant Fruit and the other No-Thought. The path to these is likened to a forked road: it is very easy to go down the wrong fork and enter No-Thought Heaven. The Abundant Fruit Heaven is the highest reward common people can obtain the highest state that includes the gods of the realm of desire. In this heaven, all the defilements of the lower heavens are left behind and there is illimitable and inexhaustible happiness. Here the miraculous functioning of spiritual penetration can be found. The wonderful compliance attained in the heaven immediately prior is even more subtle in this heaven, and the gods are able to attain whatever they wish.

At the end of the other path of the fork lies the Heaven of No-Thought. The inhabitants of this realm have cut off thought, although not permanently. Their lifespan is five hundred kalpas, and during the first four hundred and ninety-nine they have no thought. In the last half of the final kalpa, however, thought once again arises; consequently “No-Thought” actually means that there is very little thought. The inhabitants of this heaven belong to the paths of the externalists and demons who think that they have achieved an ultimate nirvana. What they do not realize, however, is that, in spite of their cultivation, they too are doomed to fall.

In the next heaven, the Heaven of No Affliction, there are neither views nor thought. Views mean the arising of greed when faced by any sort of condition; thought is confusion about principle and indulgence in discriminating thinking. The gods of this heaven have neither suffering nor bliss and obtain a cool refreshment.

In the Heaven of No Heat there is no heat from afflictions. In the Heaven of Good Views there is an extremely wide and expansive vista. In the Heaven of Good Manifestation, a very subtle form of transformation occurs, and the inhabitants are able to create all sorts of wonderful pleasures. The Heaven of Ultimate Form is the last of the heavens in the realm of form.

In the Mahesvara, the Great Self-Sufficiency Heaven, the chief god has eight arms and three eyes and rides a great white ox; as a result he thinks he is very independent.

With the exception of the No-Thought Heaven, the abode of demons and externalists, the heavens mentioned above belong to the Fourth Dhyana. This Fourth Dhyana is called the Stage of Renouncing Thought, because, just as the pulse stopped in the First Dhyana, breath in the Second Dhyana, and thought in the Third Dhyana, in the Fourth Dhyana all thought is fully put aside.

And so forth until the Heaven of the Place of Neither Thought nor Nonthought. And so forth includes the heavens of Infinite Space, Infinite Consciousness, Nothing Whatsoever, and Neither Thought nor Nonthought. In the last of these, consciousness is practically nonexistent, and so it is said that there is no thought. However, a very fine trace of thought still exits, and so it is called neither thought nor nonthought.


Moreover, sea spirits, river spirits, stream spirits, tree spirits, mountain spirits, earth spirits, brook and marsh spirits, sprout and seedling spirits, day, night, and space spirits, heaven spirits, food and drink spirits, grass and wood spirits, and other such spirits from the Saha and other worlds all assembled together.


Seas, rivers, and streams are some of the various bodies of water that cover the earth. What is their origin? The great heat of the sun draws from the earth, plants, and living beings, and the accumulation of this water constitutes the seas. The Surangama Sutra discusses the all-pervasive nature of water, which can be demonstrated by the condensation which forms on a metal plate left out overnight. Although water is everywhere, only some places manifest its substance; what is all –pervading about water is its nature. This is analogous to the Buddha-nature in people. Although everyone has it, we see only the substance of living beings. Just as water, although it can be seen only in some places, is all-pervading, so too are fire and the other elements. Their substances appear to contradict one another, but their natures work in harmony and do not conflict.

What keeps water from inundating the world? The Four Heavenly Kings have a precious and wonderful gem which has the power to halt water. Without this, heaven and earth would be joined in a mass of water.

Sea Spirits. Within the sea are a great many spirits, such as the dragon kings, the Jao, the Yang Ho, and others. The spirits of the sea are beasts of a sort; dragons are a well-known example. The chief sea spirit, the Jao, has eighteen tails, eight legs, and eight heads which look human – four male and four female. There are many such spirits, which need not be discussed now; but if you ever happen to be sitting in meditation and encounter such a phenomenon, don’t be upset. Just recognize it for what it is.

River spirits. Rivers are broad but are not very deep if compared to the sea. While seas stay in one place and invite all other waters to join them, rivers flow on unceasingly.

Tree spirits. The word “tree” is defined by a homonym in Chinese that means upright or perpendicular. Here, in Jambudvipa, the Jambunada is the king of trees. When trees become large and old they are known to be dwellings for ghosts and spirits who lodge in trees, where they feel a sense of security and comfort. If these spirits are unable to find such a tree they experience a sense of distress. For this reason bhiksus are not permitted to cut down large trees; this is specifically mentioned in the Dharmagupta Vinaya.

Once the great General Ts’ao Ts’ao ordered a great tree cut down, even though it was rumored to be the house of a spirit. The general said that he did not believe in such things. Not much later he developed a splitting headache which had to be cured by the physician Hua T’uo. The source of his headache, it was explained, was the spirit whose home he had destroyed.

At Nan Hua Monastery a large camphor tree received the precepts from the Venerable Master Hsu Yun, and at Nan Yao, the Dharma seat of the Old Man of Mount Wei, a ginkgo tree also received the precepts.

Mountain spirits. Mountains are defined by the Chinese words that mean “grow” or “produce,” since things may grow and flourish on their sides.

Ground spirits. Ground may be explained by a homonym in Chinese that means “bottom.” Although the ground is on the bottom, it produces myriad things.

Day and night spirits. Day is calculated as beginning at midnight and night as starting at noon. Although the sun is not visible at midnight, the yang energies begin to rise at that time. Shortly before daybreak, about three, four, or five o’clock, this rise causes a corresponding rise of lustful desires in people. After noon, when the yin is rising, a similar phenomenon occurs. If the desire can be contained, it can be transformed into wisdom. This is not unlike the forked path leading to either the Abundant Fruit Heaven or the Heaven of No-Thought. Traveling down one path aids the flourishing of desires; turning to the other aids the growth of wisdom. In both cases there is a choice to be made, and it is up to the individual to make it for himself.

Space spirits. This spirit, whose Sanskrit name is Sunyata, is discussed in the Surangama Sutra.

Food and drink spirits. Anything anyone eats, even a mere mouthful of water or piece of fruit, is watched over by a spirit. If you believe this principle, the spirit exists; if you do not believe it, it exists nonetheless. To say that such things exist only if there is belief in them, and that they cease to exist if there is no belief, is preposterous.

In Peking there once lived a man named Tuan Cheng Yuan, who was often known as Honorable Master Tuan. He once encountered a remarkable individual who was the son of a very busy official who supervised several hundred persons. While the father worked at the duties incumbent upon such an official, the son slept day in and day out. This behavior annoyed the father, who finally confronted his son.

“Look at me, “he said, “over sixty and working full time to support you, a young man in your twenties. You ought to be ashamed.”

“You, Father,” the son said, “are a government official; I am a food and drink official.”

“Whatever are you talking about?”

“Every day I allocate the food which everyone will consume. It’s that simple.”

“You must be mad, “said the father, controlling his temper, “There is no such thing. All right, if that’s what you do, just tell me now; what am I going to eat tomorrow?”

“Just a moment,” said the son, “I have to sleep first and then I will be able to tell you.”

The father, by now nearly mad with rage, choked and shook as his son dropped off once again to sleep. When he finally awoke, he informed his father that on the next day he would go hungry.

“Now I know you’re mad,” said his father. “How can a major government official possibly go hungry?”

“Well, Father, actually you are going to get something, but it’s only going to be a slightly spoiled egg and half a bowl of soured millet gruel.”

“Incredible,” shouted the outraged father. “My own son is trying to make a fool of me!” He rushed off to order preparations for dressing ducks, chickens, geese, fish, and other delicacies for the next day’s meal.

The kitchen staff was unusually busy the next morning preparing an elaborate meal, which was delayed a bit as a result of the great amount of care and effort that went into it. Just as he was about to sit down to dinner, the official received an urgent message, an order to disperse a bandit group in the countryside. Not a moment could be lost, and he sprang to his mount at the head of his troops, leaving the banquet steaming on the table. Before long, the bandits were engaged and were finally defeated.

The men, who had eaten their ordinary meal at the usual time, were not fatigued by hunger, but the official himself had not eaten a thing and was weak with exhaustion. Accompanied by some of his troops, he stopped at a nearby farmhouse and asked for some provisions.

“We haven’t a thing,” replied the head of the household, “except an old egg and half a bowl of millet gruel, which we were saving for my pregnant wife. The egg’s a bit bad, and the gruel’s gone sour, but you’re welcome to them if you want.”

As he downed the simple meal the official suddenly recalled his son’s prediction of the preceding day. From that time onward he left his son alone to preside over food and drink, while he himself continued to preside over human beings.

As I said before, if there is belief in spirits, they exist, and if there is not, they exist nonetheless. It is not true that such things exist only if people believe in them. It is much like gold found deep in a mine. Knowing that there is gold in the mine can be likened to believing; not knowing of the gold is like disbelieving. In the final analysis, there is still gold in the mine, regardless of your belief or disbelief. If you believe, you know there are spirits, if you disbelieve, you do not know that there are spirits. But be that as it may, the spirits are there nonetheless, it is just that you lack the knowledge and vision that can encompass such matters.


In addition, all the great ghost kings from the Saha and other worlds assembled together. They were the Evil-Eyed Ghost King, the Blood-Eating Ghost King, the Essence-and-Energy-Eating Ghost King, the Womb- and Egg-Eating Ghost King, the Sickness-Spreading Ghost King, the Poison-Gathering Ghost King, the Kindhearted Ghost King, the Blessings and Profit Ghost King, the Great Love and Respect Ghost King, and others.


Most people explain the word “all” in the phrase all the great ghost kings as meaning many, but I explain it differently and say that it means few. In fact, it means one. Someone will object and ask why I explain “all,” a word that everyone knows to be plural, as one. I just like to. When there are many numbers, I simply can’t remember them, but one is simple enough to remember. If the sutra text is explained as “many,” we must ask just exactly how large “many” is, and we find that it is an infinite amount, a bothersome thing. Consequently, I explain “all” as meaning “one.” This is the point where my explanations of sutras differ from those of most other people.

All the great ghost kings’ means one ghost king, the one I happen to be explaining at any particular moment. There are the Evil-Eyed Ghost King, the Poison-Collecting Ghost King, and others, but I’ll just explain them one at a time and not lump them together. Of course “all” can be taken to mean the collectivity of ghost kings, yet at the same time it means any particular one.

A moment ago I said that I explained “all” this way because I liked to, but it was unprincipled of me to say this. I’d better explain my reasons in greater detail so you won’t have doubts about this matter. Where do the many come from? They come from the one. In fact, the many do not even come from one. But because we say that the many come from the one, there is no way not to start with one. Once that has been counted, it is possible to count a second, followed by a third, and so forth. Thus, one is limitless, and the limitless all return to one. A single one disperses to become the myriad numbers, the myriad numbers all return to a root of one. Thus, in cultivation, it is important to return to a unity, to One. Cultivation means to cultivate the mind and unify it. There is a saying, “When the One is attained, everything is finished.” Once the One is obtained, there are no further matters left. If thoughts are unified, wisdom will be manifested.

If you are able to avoid giving rise to a single thought, everything will be manifested. The six organs will function harmoniously and the covering clouds will disperse. In this passage of text we’ve encountered many ghosts, but if not even a single thought arises, there will not be a single ghost. Not only will there be no ghosts, there won’t be any spirits either. In fact, there won’t be any Bodhisattvas or even a Buddha. There won’t be anything at all, and yet at just that time everything will become manifest. Buddhas will come, Bodhisattvas will come, Arhats, Pratyekabuddhas; everything will become manifest because you won’t have anything at all. As long as you still have anything, they will not come.

This very “all” is the point of what is wonderful. Don’t let “all” be “all,” let it be one, and then don’t even have that. Then the great ghost kings will become nonexistent and run off. When there aren’t any ghosts, there isn’t any world, and when there isn’t any world, well, what is there to be worried about? No worries, no cares, not a single obstacle. This is what is meant by the phrase, “Understand the nature of self and others; be equal to heaven and earth.”

When you fathom and end the nature of others, self, and things, you are heaven and earth, and heaven and earth are you. You are all Buddhas, and all Buddhas are you. There is no distinction and no discrimination, so how could there possibly be an I, a you, or a he? How could there be a distinction of self, of others, of living beings, or a life? There are none of these. If you have nothing at all, how can you have any afflictions? This condition is one of purity and wisdom. When not even a single thought arise, everything is manifested, the six organs function together, and the clouds disperse – an indescribably state.

Since it is indescribable, isn’t it better not to describe it? That wouldn’t’ do at all. I describe it because I have to in order to give you some feeling about that state I refer to. Even if you don’t want me to talk I shall still do so. Who is it, anyway, who knows that this is indescribably? Who? So, I’m going to keep on talking, and I will discuss now all the great ghost kings.

Let us examine the Chinese word for ghost. Take a look, ghosts have long legs. I really can’t measure how long they are and rather doubt that even Chinese professors would be able to explain this, since the legs of ghosts are so long that there is no way to see where the ghost is. In Chinese, “ghost” is a homonym of a word that means “to return.” Ghosts are defined as “returning,” and so it is said that when a person dies, he returns. He returns to the place where he committed offenses.

In English you can say that ghost sounds like the word “go.” It can be derived as follows: “go, goes, ghost.” Ghosts go off to hell. In Chinese they return and in English they go, they go off to the hells, because they consider it their home. Ghosts become confused because they like to run about, going here and there, playing about all over and enjoying their kind of fun. Unsuspectingly, they find that they have gone off to the mountain of knives, the tree of swords, and the caldron of oil. They go off to the hells, to the realm of animals, to the hungry ghosts. Where have the great ghost kings under discussion here gone? They have not gone anywhere, they are right there in hell.

The Essence- and Energy-Eating Ghost King, “Pisaci” in Sanskrit, eats the essential energies of both people and plants. The reason for unexpected decay of energies in people or plants is that they have been taken by this ghost.

The Womb- and Egg-Eating Ghost King is responsible for miscarriages and premature stillbirths.

The Sickness-Spreading Ghost King runs about spreading diseases and encouraging epidemics.

The Poison-Gathering Ghost King, on the other hand, is a beneficial ghost king who removes poisons from people. Although he is a ghost king, he is really a transformation body of a Bodhisattva. He rescues living beings by gathering the poisons which they have contracted.

The Kindhearted Ghost King leads other ghosts to resolve their thoughts on enlightenment.

The Essence- and Energy-Eating Ghost King got his position because he liked to kill but would not give the flesh of any of the animals he killed to his wife. He would not even give her the blood to drink. Since he treated his own wife this way, you can imagine how he treated other people. He was extremely stingy, and as a result, he has to eat the most unclean things.

The Blessings and Profit Ghost King is actually the spirit of wealth, but in this sutra he is classified as a ghost king.


At that time Sakyamuni Buddha said to the Bodhisattva Manjusri, son of the Dharma King. “As you regard these Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, dragons, ghosts, and spirits from this and other worlds, who are now assembled in the Trayastrimsa Heaven, do you know their number?”

Manjusri said to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, even if I were to measure and reckon with my spiritual penetrations for a thousand aeons, I would not be able to calculate it.”

The Buddha told Manjusri, “As I regard them with my Buddha eye, their number cannot be exhausted. Throughout many aeons all these beings have been crossed over, are being crossed over, will be crossed over, have been brought to accomplishment, are being brought to accomplishment, or will be brought to accomplishment, by Earth Store Bodhisattva.”


The great ghost kings mentioned previously are called kings because they lead the ghosts, and, regardless of whether they seem beneficial or malevolent, they are all transformations of great Bodhisattvas. In the past these ghosts kings vowed to use expedient devices to benefit living beings. Some use compassion to protect their followers while others manifest a fierce appearance to subdue them. The two methods, protection and subduing, are the two major divisions in the methodology of teaching beings. Since some resolve their thoughts on enlightenment when they see a ghost of great compassion, the method of compassionate protection is practiced to teach them; because others will resolve their thoughts on enlightenment only after meeting a terrifying ghost, the method of subduing is also used.

In either case, the method used is not a question of good or evil on the part of the ghosts themselves, because good and evil come only from the karmic responses of living beings. When a being’s bad karma ripens, it may encounter someone like the Ghost King with Evil Eyes; when its good karma ripens, it may meet the Great Compassionate Ghost King. Any karma may, of course, be changed when it has ripened – bad karma may become good, and sometimes good karma turns bad. Students of the Buddhadharma should learn not to be affected by either good or bad karma, but should strive to turn bad into good and not allow themselves to go down the road which leads to the mountain of knives, the caldron of oil, and the tree of swords. They should study Buddhadharma, upset heaven, and smash through earth. Heaven represents good causes, earth bad ones. Turn the bad to good and the evil ghost kings will be of no use, while the good ones will be able to retire.

Manjusri, the Bodhisattva to whom the Buddha put his question, is also known as Wonderful Virtue or Wonderful Luck because of ten miraculous signs that occurred at his birth: light filled the room; all bottles were filled with sweet dew; the Seven Precious Things welled up from the earth; the treasure within the earth was revealed; chickens gave birth to phoenixes; pigs gave birth to dragons; horses gave birth to unicorns; cows gave birth to white “tsai,” a serpent like animal with two bodies and one head; the grain in the granaries turned to gold; and elephants with six tusks appeared.

The Bodhisattva Manjusri is not, however, a Bodhisattva. Long ago he became a Buddha named Superior Venerable Dragon-Seed King, and, in addition, he is currently the Buddha Happy Store Accumulation of Muni Gems, who dwells in a northern world called Happiness. Although he has been a Buddha for a long time, he is a great, compassionate rescuer who manifests the small while hiding away the great. Thus he appears as the Bodhisattva Manjusri.

Manjusri Bodhisattva is, as explained in my lectures on the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra, the spiritual grandfather of Sakyamuni Buddha. Sun Moon Lamp Brilliance Buddha, the last of the twenty thousand Buddhas, had eight sons, the last of whom was the Buddha Dipankara, “Burning Lamp,” whose teacher was the Dharma Master Wonderful Light and who bestowed the prediction of Buddhahood on Sakyamuni Buddha. That Dharma Master, Wonderful Light, is now the Bodhisattva Manjusri, who, consequently, is the master of Burning Lamp Buddha. Since Sakyamuni Buddha is the disciple of Burning Lamp Buddha, the Bodhisattva Manjusri is his spiritual grandfather and has greater seniority. Nonetheless, when Sakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world, Manjusri Bodhisattva came to be his disciple. Just think, for a moment, about the state of such a Bodhisattva, devoid of high, low, up, down, big, or little. As it says in the Diamond Sutra, “This Dharma is level and there is no high or low therein.”

Perhaps within this very assembly there are those who were my disciples. It may be that among you there is someone who will study the Way, develop great virtue, and become a Buddha very soon. Perhaps I shall then bow to that person as my own master, for there is nothing fixed in the Buddhadharma.

Manjusri is called “Wonderful Virtue” and “Wonderful Luck,” and the wonder lies in simply understanding that all dharmas are apart from characteristics. If there is no such understanding, attachments arise. If nothing is done, there is a falling into emptiness. What, in the final analysis, is to be done? You’ll have to find the answer to that one yourself.

My explanations are often like this, just carefree talking in which I say whatever I think. Sometimes when I talk I break through heaven; sometimes the earth quakes; but I don’t care if the one topples and the other collapses, for there is really nothing at all. All dharmas are devoid of a mark of self, others, living beings, or life. How can the Buddhadharma flourish, how can it decay? Where is there a Proper-Dharma and where a Dharma-Ending Age? There is none of this; everything is false. You may well object that the more I speak the more confused you become; that is just why I do it, for if you understood, who would pay attention to sutra explanations?

The Buddha eye is one of the Five Eyes explained in the following gatha:

The heavenly eye penetrates what is without obstruction;
The fleshly eye sees obstacles and does not penetrate.
The Dharma eye can contemplate only the relative truth;
The wisdom eye can contemplate and know true emptiness,
While the Buddha eye blazes forth like a thousand suns.
Although the Five Eyes’ functions differ, their substance is of one source.

Of the Five Eyes, the heavenly eye can penetrate things. The fleshly eye, on the other hand, can see only people and objects and cannot see through them. These two eyes are located on either side of the forehead. There is no need to mention which is on which side at the moment, since when a cultivator opens them he will know which is which. With the fleshly eye, everything which has a physical form can be seen, no matter how far away it may be; all one has to do is look. If no looking is done, of course, nothing is seen.

Even though one may be able to use this power, its better not to do so; for whenever things are looked at, a thought is spent, and adding a thought is not as good as diminishing one. To use the Five Eyes is to indulge in thought, and although such thoughts differ from ordinary ones, they are still not beneficial. It is always better to have one false thought less than to have one more.

The Dharma eye contemplates the common truth which is called the conventional, relative truth, or wonderful existence. If this eye is opened, there is no need to use books in order to read sutras, since the entire extent of space is seen to be full of limitless Dharma treasures.

The wisdom eye contemplates the true, the absolute truth, which is also known as true emptiness and the truth of falseness, since it shows that everything is unreal. The real mark of all dharmas falls within the vision of the Buddha eye.

The Buddha eye, blazing like a thousand suns, can see, know, and even hear everything. Although these Five Eyes differ in what they see, they basically are of common substance.

The term accomplishment may be described in two ways. The first accords with the literal meaning of the Chinese characters, “become flourishing.” The second description of “accomplishment” is derived from the first. Since to “become flourishing” means to become high, lofty, and expansive, it also connotes the idea of the emperor. Ancient emperors regulated their empires by means of filial piety, and thus they accomplished ultimate virtue. Only the emperor was allowed to apply the word “filial” to himself. The two terms, accomplishment and filial piety, are related in the emperor’s achievement, which is one major theme of this sutra, the “accomplishment” of ultimate virtue by means of “filial piety.”

Earth Store Bodhisattva has aided beings to become accomplished, to plant good roots, and he now helps beings who have planted good roots to make them grow and mature. Those good roots that have ripened he harvests so the beings might obtain liberation.


Manjusri said to the Buddha, “World-Honored One, throughout many aeons I have cultivate good roots and certified to unobstructed wisdom. When I hear what the Buddha says, I immediately accept it with faith. Sound-Hearers of small attainment, gods, dragons, and the remainder of the Eightfold Division, as well as other living beings in the future, may hear the Thus Come One’s sincere and actual words but will certainly harbor doubts. They may receive the teaching most respectfully, but they will be unable to avoid slandering it. World-Honored One, please discuss the conduct of Earth Store Bodhisattva while he was on the causal ground, and tell about the vows he made that have enabled him to accomplish such an inconceivable task.”


Unobstructed wisdom is another term for the Four Unobstructed Eloquences: unobstructed eloquence of Dharma; unobstructed eloquence of principle, in which hundreds of millions of principles may be spoken and then returned to one; unobstructed eloquence is phrasing, in which every word carries principle; and unobstructed eloquence of delight in speech.

Those who hear and harbor doubts are not unlike the very few people in the west who currently have the opportunity to encounter the genuine teaching of Buddhism. When they do meet it, it is not certain that they will recognize it. If someone who has never seen gold before receives some, he may mistake it for copper; those who have never seen diamonds may well take them for glass. When actual principle is explained, many will think it to be merely an external display. If the outside is not understood, how can one know the inside, since the two are inextricable? If there is no inner understanding, there cannot be any outer practice, since these two are also a pair. If there is understanding go the principles of Buddhadharma, there can be cultivation in accordance with them.

Even while the Buddha was in the world, Manjusri Bodhisattva brought up the fact that many beings would receive the teaching respectfully but, because of their wrong thinking, would be unable to understand it and would end up slandering it.

The term causal ground simply means past lives, the times in which the causes leading to a result were planted. Whenever anyone makes a vow, he should be sure to act in accord with his resolve, no matter how difficult that may be.


The Buddha said to Manjusri, “By way of analogy, it is as if all the grasses, trees, forests, hemp, bamboo, reeds, mountains, rocks, and motes of dust in the world system of a million worlds were enumerated, and each one made into a Ganges River, while within each Ganges River each grain of sand became a world and within each world each mote of dust was an aeons, while within those aeons the motes of dust which would accumulate were in turn to become aeons. Increase this sum of time a thousand fold and know how long Earth Store Bodhisattva has remained on the position of the Tenth Ground. Much longer was his dwelling on the grounds of Sound-Hearer and Pratyekabuddha.”


The Ten Grounds are known by the following names:

1. Dry wisdom, or the ground of happiness
2. The ground of leaving defilement
3. The ground of emitting light
4. The ground of flaming wisdom
5. The ground of being difficult to overcome
6. The ground of manifestation
7. The ground of far traveling
8. The unmoving ground
9. The ground of good wisdom
10. The Dharma-cloud ground


“Manjusri, the awesome spirit and vows of this Bodhisattva are beyond thought. If good men or women in the future hear this Bodhisattva’s name, praise him, regard and worship him, make offerings to him, or if they draw, carve, cast, sculpt, or lacquer his image, they will be born among the Heaven of the Thirty-Three one hundred times, and will never again fall into the Evil Paths.”


Since he made the vow, “Only when all the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; only when living beings have all been saved will I attain to Bodhi,” Earth Store has used his awesome spirit to subdue living beings who have accumulated bad karma. He thus has passed through an unthinkably long time yet still has not realize Buddhahood, because after one being has been taken across, there is yet another ready to go, and after that one, still another.

There is no one-to-one correlation between the number of beings born and those entering nirvana, since those who are born outnumber those who attain nirvana by tens of hundreds of millions. The same relationship exists in the realm of birth and death; the number of births in any given period is greater than the deaths in the same time. Those who are to die have to grow old and pass through an entire life before that happens, but those who are waiting to be born only have to spend nine months in the womb. Since birth is such a rapid process, the persons born greatly outnumber the dying at any given moment. For this reason Earth Store Bodhisattva has not yet become a Buddha. He does not, however, have any regrets about his vow, and the more living beings there are to rescue, the more he has to do. If there were no living beings, there would be no work, and if there were no work, he would become a Buddha, since Buddhas have nothing left to do. When there actually isn’t anything to do, Earth Store Bodhisattva goes looking for work. Although he could remain quiet and at leisure, he continues to busy himself over living beings because of the power of his vows.

There is no way that we can imagine the strength of such vows. What has been mentioned herein is only the smallest part of their greatness, for, indeed, there is no way they can ever be fully discussed. On hearing of these vows, people ought to consider their own behavior. If you find that you have vowed to rescue even one or two people, then you have not been studying this sutra in vain; but if you say that Bodhisattvas are Bodhisattvas and we people are quite another matter, you might as well never have studied a single word of it.

Don’t let your motto be, “Amitabha Buddha, every man for himself; Mahasattva, don’t worry about others.” If you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, vow to cross her or him over. If you’re too young to have such people to rescue, then you must still be close to your parents, and you can save them. Even if you are an orphan, you still have siblings or friends. Vow to see all of them over to Buddhahood. I, for example, have vowed that as long as any of my disciples do not become Buddhas, I, too, will not become one. This, of course, applies to those who have taken refuge and who believe. If such a person falls into the hells, I shall go there to rescue him. And so, while my vows are not as great as those of Earth Store Bodhisattva, they are not too small, either.

Whenever we make prostrations before the images of Buddhas or bodhisattvas; when we recite their names, as, for example, when we recite Namo Earth Store Bodhisattva of Great Vows; when we explain the sutras, such as this one, which describes the inconceivable qualities of a Bodhisattva; or when we place flowers, fruits, and incense before his image, we are regarding and worshiping, reciting the name, praising, and making offerings.

Those who know how to draw or paint can make images of Buddha and thereby enhance their own appearance. With every image, their appearance will improve. Those who wish to perfect the Thirty-Two Marks and Eighty Minor Characteristics may do so by making images. Every one adds to the perfection of the features, and finally, after hundreds of thousands of millions have been made, the full set of Thirty-two Marks and Eighty Minor Characteristics will be achieved. Anyone who wishes to be handsome should make images – painted, sculpted, carved, or of whatever kind. It is said that those who cultivate this dharma will be born one hundred times in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three. This means that they will be born throughout all of the Six Desire Heavens, the Heavens of the Realm of Form, and the Formless Realm, all of which were discussed earlier. After each birth they will again be born among the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, and will complete this cycle one hundred times. They will never again fall into evil paths.


“Manjusri, unspeakably many aeons ago, during the time of a Buddha named Lion Sprint Complete in the Ten Thousand Practices, Thus Come One, Earth Store Bodhisattva was the son of an elder. On seeing that Buddha adorned with a thousand blessings, the elder’s son asked what practices and vows had enabled him to achieve such an appearance. The Thus Come One said, “if you wish to perfect such a body throughout long aeons, you must liberate living beings who are undergoing suffering.’

“Manjusri, the elder’s son then made this vow: ‘Throughout immeasurable aeons until the very boundaries of the future, I will establish many expedient devices for the sake of suffering and criminal beings in the Six Paths. When they have all been liberated I myself will perfect the Buddha Way.’ From the time he made this vow in the presence of that Buddha until the present, unspeakably many hundreds of thousands of nayutas of aeons have passed, and still he is a Bodhisattva.


The Five Precepts are included in the cultivation of the Ten Good Deeds. Thus there are fifty merits at the start of cultivation, and fifty at the completion, making a total of one hundred merits. In each of these one hundred there are still the Ten Good Deeds, leading to a thousand blessings. When one thousand of these blessings are accumulated one is said to have completed one superior blessing. The accumulation of one thousand of these superior blessings is what is meant by adorned with a thousand blessings. On hearing the announcement that such a reward was cultivated by rescuing suffering living beings throughout the Six Paths, the son of the elder, who is the Bodhisattva Earth Store, decided upon his great and far-reaching vows.


“Moreover, unthinkable asamkhyeya kalpas ago there was a Buddha named Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One. That Buddha’s lifespan was four hundred thousand million asamkhyeya kalpas.”


In this Buddha’s name the term “Enlightenment-Flower” represents a cause and “Self-Sufficient King” a result. Enlightenment-Flower is a root and Self-Sufficient King a branch. While still on the causal ground, while still cultivating toward Buddhahood, this Buddha planted the cause of the Enlightenment Flower and then used Samadhi to cultivate the result and become Self-Sufficient King. In this case, Samadhi is both the cause with which he cultivated and the effect attained through cultivation.

The lifespan of the Buddha may be explained in several ways, and it is important to realize that in Chinese the concept “lifespan” is made up of two terms, one of which corresponds to duration, or longevity, and the other to the continuity of the life itself.

In the Dharma Blossom Sutra, it is said that the Dharma body of the Buddha is not separate from dharmas, and this coexistence with all dharmas constitutes its longevity. The fundamental principle of Suchness constitutes the life of the Dharma body. The lifespan of the retribution body is based on Reality Wisdom and the interactive response of wisdom and its objects. In these terms the states that are known are identical with the wisdom that knows. Thus, all states are instantly and fully understood. Although wisdom and its states are originally a duality, they function as a single entity that constitutes the longevity of the retribution body. The lifespan of the retribution body is made up of wisdom alone.

The third of the Buddha’s three bodies is the response, or transformation, body. The longevity of this body is the hundred-year duration of a human lifespan. This body’s life is determined by causal conditions and circumstances.

The lifespan of the Buddha may also be explained in terms of the Sutra of the Sixteen Contemplations. According to this explanation it is not necessary to break down the term “lifespan” into its constituents. The transformation body is said to have a lifespan that shows a beginning and an end, the Buddha’s birth and entry into nirvana. The retribution body displays a beginning but no end, since once it is obtained it is everlasting. The Dharma body shows neither beginning nor end; it is not long-lived nor is it short. The lifespan of four hundred thousand million asamkhyeya kalpas discussed here is that of this Buddha’s transformation body.


“During the Dharma-Semblance Age there was a Brahman woman who had much merit from former lives and who was respected by everyone. In walking, standing, sitting, and lying down she was surrounded and protected by gods. Her mother, however, had improper belief and often slighted the Triple Jewel.”


In every Buddha’s Dharma there are Three Ages, an Age of Proper Dharma, a Dharma-Semblance Age, and a Dharma-Ending Age. In the first of these, bhiksus, bhiksunis, Upasakas, and upasikas study and cultivate with great sincerity, and many of them attain the fruits of the path. During the Dharma-Semblance Age there is less practice, and effort is applied to externals. Such a period is strong in the construction of temples, stupas, and pagodas, as people seek for blessings but do not seek for wisdom. In the final period, the Dharma-Ending Age, there is emphasis on fighting and strife. The Proper-Dharma Age lasts for one thousand years, as does the Dharma-Semblance Age. The Dharma-ending Age, in which we now live, lasts for ten thousand years.

After the Nirvana of Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One, there was a woman who lived during the Dharma-Semblance Age who was of the Brahman, “pure,” class. The pure practices of Brahman cultivators include vegetarianism and celibacy, conditions without which there cannot be purity. Although the Brahmans cultivate purity, they cultivate haphazardly, a little in one direction and then a bit in another, so that they never do attain an ultimate principle. This ancient religion of India still exists today; we recognize it in yoga, which is one of its practices. If the word “Brahman” were to be applied to Chinese civilization, it would be said to refer to the Taoists, who cultivate similar practices.

The Brahman woman in question was well regarded by everyone, and because she had done many meritorious deeds in the past, her physiognomy was full. It is possible to tell from a person’s appearance whether or not he has had any merit, for one whose merit is complete will have full and harmonious features, while those without merit will be ugly. The Buddha’s wonderful appearance, for example, is a result of countless meritorious acts.

The term “thousand blessings,” which has been previously discussed, may also be explained as the one thousand good deeds which constitute one blessing. Consequently a million good deeds make a thousand blessings, which, once perfected, lead to the Thirty-two Marks and Eighty Minor Characteristics.

When the sutra text says that her mother had improper belief, it does not mean merely that she believed in improper teachings; it means that she only halfheartedly believed. For example, she may have believed in the Buddha one day, and then had doubts about him the next: “I have never seen a Buddha, and although there are sutras, there doesn’t seem to be much that is special about the Dharma. The Sangha is just composed of common people, as far as I can see. Why should I respect them?”

This is the brand of thought which is called “improper belief.” If one does not have a proper heart, he has an improper one.

Another example of improper belief concerns the externalist way which offers to set up a person as emperor for cash, say, a million dollars. Fools with improper belief fall prey to such charlatans and lose their wealth. How could the imperial position be so easily bought? Nowadays, in democratic countries, such a swindle would be even easier since people think they can buy the presidency. The argument might run, for example, “The only reason you have not become president is that you are a woman. For a mere million I guarantee that in the next life you will be president.” People with improper belief may fall for such schemes, but when the next life comes around, whether they are president or not, they won’t find any million dollars.

Of course, if one could give a million and then become president in that very same life, it would not be a case of improper belief, since there would have been some principle in the initial belief. There is, however, no principle at all in improper belief. Some people will cheat a woman by telling her that for an offering of a hundred, a thousand, or whatever, she can be assured of a male body in her next life. Thinking she has a good deal, she pays; no small number of externalist teachers are kept thus in wine, women, and song. None of these offers hold any guarantee, none of them demand proper belief. In addition to these, there are a great many other methods used to defraud those who have improper belief.

Among such frauds are those who say things like, “Why believe in the Buddha? You can be a Buddha right now. Just fork over sixty-five dollars for this genuine, authentic Dharma transmission. That’s all there is to it.” Although money can be used to do good deeds and cultivate merit, Buddhahood cannot be bought. Even when merit is accomplished, there must still be cultivation; meditation must be perfected. If the position of Buddhahood were negotiable, Sakyamuni Buddha could have purchased it. There would have been no need for his six years of austerities in the Himalayas, no need for him to sit beneath the Bodhi tree, see the stars at midnight, and understand the Way. As a prince he could have bought anything, but Buddhahood is not bought with money.


“That wise woman worked many skillful plans to entice her mother to hold right views, yet the mother did not totally believe. Before long her life ended and her spirit fell into the uninterrupted hell.”


The Brahman woman often used skillful means and spoke provisional teachings that met her mother’s needs and that her mother could accept. She told her mother of the benefits of Buddhadharma, teaching her much as one would entice a child with candy. Although her mother sometimes felt that all this talk of Dharma was interesting, she was never certain and only half believed. Before long she died.

Death is an extremely good thing! The dead know nothing; they don’t worry about eating, about clothing, nor about working or sleeping; the dead do nothing at all.

Death is an extremely bad thing! The dead may fall to the realms of the hells; the dead may turn into hungry ghosts; they may find themselves reborn among the animals. Those who do good deeds will find themselves born in the Three Good Paths; those who do wrong will arrive in the state of woe.

Not long ago a group of military men visited us. I spoke to them about the responsibilities of the military and told them that among soldiers there are both Bodhisattvas and asuras. Bodhisattvas appear to teach people to kill less; asuras in the military delude soldiers, saying that all-out slaughter is the highest action, one that leads to rank and status. Bodhisattvas, too, may attain rank and status, but theirs is derived from pacifying the world. I told our visitors that they should model themselves on the Bodhisattvas and not the asuras and then gave them an example. The general Kuan Yu of the Three Kingdoms period killed many people, yet after his death he became a Bodhisattva since he killed only evil men. General Pai Ch’i of the Ch’in Dynasty also killed a great many people, and after his death he became, in turn, a horse, a cow, a pig, and other beasts because he had buried alive in a huge pit two hundred thousand soldiers who had already surrendered to him.

After I had discussed this matter, a young officer asked if I really believed that people could become animals after their death. I replied, “If you believe that people can become animals, that is fine, and if you don’t believe, that also is fine. If you are due to become an animal in your next life, and you believe that people can be reborn as animals, then you will end up as an animal; if you don’t believe that you can become an animal, and you are due to become one, then, your disbelief notwithstanding, you will become an animal all the same. If you do the deeds of a Buddha, you will become a Buddha; if you do the deeds of a Bodhisattva, you will become a Bodhisattva; if you do the deeds of a human, you will end up among men; and if you do ghostly deeds you will end up among the ghosts. You are what you do. It is not a case of your belief making a situation go one way, and your disbelief making it go another. Believe it or not, you will be what you ought to be and you will certainly not be what you should not be.”

At this point everyone should ask himself, “When am I going to die? The sutra says that the life of the Brahman woman’s mother ended before long. When will mine end? Will I, like her, fall into the hells?” When studying sutras the important point is to reverse one’s illumination; in other words, study yourself a little. Simply to study the books and let it go at that is useless.

Everyone, without exception, is going to die. Don’t worry whether death is a good thing or not; if you do good, your death will be good, and if you do bad, your death will be horrible. If you plant good deeds you will reap good fruits; if you plant bad deeds you will reap bad fruits. And ancient author said,

When I see another’s death,
my heart burns like fire;
It burns, but not for him;
for death rolls on toward me.

If you do not fear death, then die right now. Why can’t you? Death is not a matter of fear or lack of it; it is a question of good and bad. Accidental deaths, such as those caused by natural disasters, airplane crashes, train derailments, and the like, are bad deaths; good death is dying when you wish. If you wish to avoid death, cultivate the Way. Cultivators can attain independence from life and death and live if they wish; or, if they do not wish to continue life, they can sit in meditation and leave, entering nirvana. In order to do this, of course, they must have some skill in cultivation. Those who have such skill hold power over their own life and death and can die when they wish to; or, if they wish to live, they can live forever. The time may come when such a cultivator desires to leave the Evil World of the Five Turbidities because it is too unclean. When he wishes to do this, one who has cultivated can die at will.

When the text says that her spirit fell into the uninterrupted hell, it refers to her Eighth Consciousness. The uninterrupted hell is so named because there is no interruption in time, in life, or in body. When one person occupies it, it is full, yet it can also be full of many people. This hell will be described later on; for now, let it suffice to say that suffering is undergone endlessly and as soon as death occurs there is instantaneous rebirth into the same continuously tormented body.


“Knowing that when her mother was in the world she had not believed in cause and effect, the Brahman woman realized that, in accordance with her karma, her mother would be reborn in the states of woe. Thereupon she sold the family house, procured incense, flowers, and other items, and performed a great offering in that Buddha’s temple. Upon seeing the awesome and majestic image of the Thus Come One Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King in the temple, the Brahman woman became double respectful. As she gazed at the venerable image she thought to herself, ‘Buddha are also called Greatly Enlightened Ones Complete With All Wisdom. If the Buddha were in the world and I were to ask him, he would certainly know where my mother had gone at death.’

“The Brahman woman wept for a long time with lowered head and then fixed her gaze on the Thus Come One. Suddenly a voice was heard in space, saying, “O weeping holy woman, do not be so sorrowful, I shall show you where your mother has gone.’

“The Brahman woman placed her palms together toward space and said, ‘What divinity is this who comforts my grief? From the day I lost my mother onward I have held her in memory day and night, but there is nowhere I can go to ask about the realm of her rebirth.’”


As she looked at the image of the Buddha, her gaze became fastened to it as if by a cord, unwilling to leave it. Attentive in body and without extraneous thoughts, she had a pure mind, and she heard a voice address her from space, calling her a holy woman. Although her mother had committed offenses, she herself had very good roots and thus could be called by such a name.

The meaning behind the Brahman woman’s response to the voice from space is, “My mother bore me and I should have been filial. Now my mother has died because I have not been filial; I am extremely grieved.” There is a couplet which says,

The tree would be still,
but the wind will not rest;
The son would maintain them,
but the parents are gone.

The kindness of parents is as boundless as the sky, higher than heaven, and broader than earth, and so the Brahman woman felt remorse and shame that she had been unable to repay such compassion.


“A voice again resounded from space and said to the holy woman, ‘I am the one whom you behold and worship, the past Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One. Because I have seen that your regard for your mother is double that of ordinary living beings, I will now show you the place of her rebirth.’

“On hearing this voice the Brahman woman suddenly leaped up and fell back, breaking all her limbs. Those around her picked her up, and after she had been revived for awhile, she spoke into space and said, ‘Please pity me and quickly tell me my mother’s realm; my own death is not far off.’

“The Thus Come One Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King, spoke to the pious woman and said, ‘After your offering is complete, return home quickly. Sit upright thinking of my name and you will certainly know your mother’s place of rebirth.’ After she had finished worshiping the Buddha, the Brahman woman returned home, where mindful of her mother, she sat upright recollecting the Thus Come One Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King.

“After a day and a night she suddenly saw herself beside a sea whose waters seethed and bubbled. Many horrible beasts with iron bodies flew about the sea, rushing in every direction. She saw hundreds of thousands of millions of men and women rising and sinking in the water, being mauled and devoured by the beasts. She beheld yaksas as well, each with a different form. Some had many hands, some many eyes, some many legs, and some many heads. Sharp, swordlike teeth protruded from their mouths, and they drove the offenders on toward the beasts. Some yaksas seized the offenders and twisted their heads and feet together in myriad horrifying shapes at which none would dare look.”


Why is it that when you study Dharma nothing much happens? Why was the Brahman woman able to influence the Buddha to speak to her? It was simply a result of her utter sincerity and concern for her mother that the Buddha, who had long since entered nirvana, appeared to speak to her.

Although she had taken a severe fall, breaking most of her bones, the Brahman woman finished her offering and made full prostrations to the Buddha in spite of her pain. She then returned home and, ignoring her sufferings, sat upright reciting the Buddha’s name for an entire day and night. During this time she neither ate nor drank, and did not even relieve herself, but singlemindedly worked at recollecting the Buddha. Then she saw herself by a sea. There is an important point to be clear about. She was not having a dream. Because of her complete sincerity, her spiritual nature left her body. Within the body there resides the Eighth Consciousness. When one sits for a long while, stops everything and forgets pain, and practices only undeviating singlemindedness, the Eighth Consciousness may be able to leave the body. This state may occur in cultivators who sit for long periods of time.

When this state occurred to the Brahman woman, she saw herself by the side of a sea. When the Five Eyes in the ordinary flesh body are not opened, such things cannot be seen, but if they are open, ghosts, spirits, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas – everything is visible. Even if the flesh body of a cultivator has not opened the Five Eyes, his spiritual nature has them, and when it leaves the body it can see all manner of things.

When she found herself by the side of the boiling sea that was full of people being devoured by evil beasts, she also saw a great many yaksas, “speedy ghosts,” who run and fly at about the speed of light. Because people are smarter than beasts, the men and women in the sea occasionally managed to outwit the animals and escape – only to be confronted by yaksas. Behind them were beasts, before them were yaksas, and there was no place to hide, as in the line that says, “Ahead there is no road to take, behind the soldiers push.” Both the beasts and the yaksas seized the people in their talons. Sometimes yaksas grabbed the beasts and twisted their feet and heads together, and occasionally the beasts would do the same thing to the yaksas. Both of them twisted and tied the offending people into the most grotesque and hideous forms possible, shapes that no one would even dare look at.


“During this time the Brahman woman was calm and fearless because of the power of recollecting the Buddha. A ghost king named Poisonless bowed and came to welcome the holy woman and said, ‘Excellent, O Bodhisattva. Why have you come here?’

“The Brahman woman asked the ghost king, ‘What is this place?’

“Poisonless replied, ‘This is the first sea of the western face of the Great Iron Ring Mountain.’

“The holy woman said, ‘I have heard that hell is within the Iron Ring. Is this actually so?’

“Poisonless answered, ‘Hell is really here.’

“The holy woman asked, ‘How have I now come to the hells?’

“Poisonless answered, ‘No one can come here unless he has either awesome spirit or the required karma.’

“The holy woman asked, ‘Why is this water seething and why are there so many criminals and evil beasts?’

“Poisonless replied, ‘These are the newly dead beings of Jambudvipa who have done evil deeds and how, during the first forty-nine days after their death, had no survivors to perform acts of merit on their behalf and rescue them from difficulty. Moreover, during their lives they planted no good causes. In accordance with their own deeds the hells appear, and they must first fathom this sea. Ten thousand yojanas east of this sea is another sea which has double the sufferings of this one. East of that is yet another sea where the sufferings are doubled still again. What the combined evil causes of the Three Karmic Vehicles evoke is called sea of karma. This is that place.’”


The Great Iron Ring Mountain is one of the mountains outside Mount Sumeru, and beyond it is hell. Hell exists and is not merely a human fiction. The only ways to reach hell are through spiritual penetrations and virtuous conduct or by committing offenses.

The Three Karmic Vehicles are the body, the mouth, and the mind. There are three evils enacted by the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. There are three of the mind: greed, hatred, and stupidity. The mouth can commit four evil deeds: vulgar speech is improper talk of sexual affairs; false speech is lying; harsh speech is scolding and berating others; and duplicity is saying to Smith that Jones is wrong, and then to Jones that Smith is wrong: one tongue speaking in two ways. Taken together, these are called the Three Vehicles of Karma.


“The holy woman again asked the ghost king Poisonless, ‘Where is hell?’

“Poisonless answered, ‘Within the three seas are hundreds of thousands of great hells, each one different. There are eighteen that are specifically known as great hells. In succession there are five hundred with unlimited cruel sufferings, and further there are over one hundred thousand with limitless sufferings.

“The holy woman again spoke to the ghost king. ‘My mother has not been dead long, and I do not know on what path her soul has gone.’

“The ghost king asked, ‘When the Bodhisattva’s mother was alive, what were her habitual deeds?’

“The holy woman replied, ‘My mother had wrong views and ridiculed and slandered the Triple Jewel. Even if she occasionally believed, it was short-lived and turned again to disrespect. Although she has been dead but a few days, I do not know the place of her rebirth.’

“Poisonless asked, ‘What was the Bodhisattva’s mother’s name and clan?’

“The holy woman replied, ‘My parents were both Brahmans; my father’s name was Sila Sudarshan, my mother’s name was Yueh Ti Li.’”


The word “sea” represents a large quantity and does not necessarily denote an actual body of water. Here it symbolizes the powerful karma of living beings, as vast as a limitless sea. The three seas represent the deeds done by the bodies, mouths, and minds of living beings.

There are hundreds of thousands of ten thousands of hells, each one with its own attributes, each hell corresponding to an evil deed done by a living being. Hells are not prepared before beings fall into them; rather they are manifestations of the various particular karmas of beings. Whatever evil deed a being has done elicits a corresponding hell.

For example, in the roasting hell there is a large hollow brass pillar full of fire. Those guilty of sexual misconduct fall into this hell and see the roasting pillar as a person. Men, for example, see it as a beautiful woman whom they rush to embrace, only to find themselves burned so badly that they cannot pull their seared flesh away from the pillar. A woman sees the pillar as her most beloved partner in life and rushes to him only to be seared to death.

As soon as death occurs in the roasting hell, a wind called the “Clever Breeze, “a wonderful dharma, blows and revives the dead, who then forget the painful consequences of their behavior, recalling only its pleasurable aspects. Driven by this memory, they rush to the pillar again, only to
find the cycle repeated. The roasting hell is only one of the many hells, and each one is unique. Eighteen are called great, and within each of these eighteen there are eighteen subsections.

The ghost king knew that the woman must have come to the hells because of her great spirit and vows, and consequently he addressed her as a Bodhisattva. The Brahman woman had to admit that she could not hide her mother’s errors and flaws, and told the ghost that her mother had held wrong views. “Improper views” is one of the Five Sharp Causes, which are:

1. View of a body
2. Extreme views
3. Improper views
4. Seizing on views
5. Views of prohibitions

The first of these, the view of a body, is the constant drive to pamper the body and never let it sustain the slightest loss or discomfort. People whose actions are based on this view may eat themselves into obesity, thinking that the more flesh they have, the better their health. Day in and day out, there is nothing but constant concern for the maintenance of the body.

Those with extreme views maintain radical positions tenaciously. If a person whose behavior is characterized by extreme views likes to smoke, for example, and is told by others that it is harmful and should be given up, he may stubbornly reply that his adviser obviously has not yet understood the wonderful advantages of the habit, for if he had, he too would smoke and not give it up. Extremist views lead people to propound all sorts of bombastic arguments to defend themselves, but while they may talk cleverly, they are truly foolish.

People with improper views maintain totally erroneous views. For example, on hearing the virtues of filial piety praised, they might reply that it is useless, that parents have children only as a result of desire for pleasure, and that the children should be ignored or, even better, allowed to die a little sooner to save the world the trouble of supporting them.

The fourth of the Five Sharp Causes, seizing on views, is characterized by grasping and holding on to any number of improper views.

The fifth, views of prohibitions, is characterized by maintaining improper precepts. For example, once, when some people heard that Buddhists are vegetarians, they replied that anyone can do so simple a thing as abstain from meat, but a really able person would abstain even from salt. This kind of talk leads to slander and ridicule of the Triple Jewel, for such persons are apt to find fault with anything at all. Their behavior is similar to that of horsetraders, who will closely inspect a fine horse by diligently blowing on the hairs of the mane to expose minor skin blemishes.

People who ridicule and slander the Triple Jewel will say things such as, “How are Buddhists different from any other people? They eat, drink, and do what everyone else does. They too have flaws; as a matter of fact, they are totally criminal elements of society who will do anything at all. The Buddha is just an image, the dharma is nothing but ordinary words on paper, and the Sangha is made up of ordinary folk who are not the least bit deserving of respect.”

When people speak like this they sometimes lead those who believe the Buddha to hide their faith and be secret Buddhists. Some time ago, a man who comes to this temple occasionally said that he wished to take refuge, but only if he could do so in secret. I did not accept him. Taking refuge with the Triple Jewel is not like stealing. Why do it in secret? I told him that there was no secret refuge-taking here, and that he had better wait until he was a little clearer about what he felt. His problem was that he was a Catholic and feared that many of his friends would brand him a heretic. I told him that if he tried to keep it a secret he would be even more sinful. How can anyone believe in the Buddha and still act in such a fashion? How pitiful. Those who believe in the Buddha should have an eternal faith, not faith like that of the Brahman woman’s mother, who believed one hour and disbelieved the next. Don’t be a “five-minute blaze,” so that, after an ardent but brief moment of belief, you turn around and say boldly, “What is so wonderful about this?”

Within the Indian caste system there were four major groups: Brahmans, the pure caste; Ksatriyas, the royal class; Vaisyas, the merchant class, and Candalas, butchers and the like. Those of the lowest classes could not walk on the same roads as the pure Brahmans and even had to wear insignia so that they could be recognized. India, like England, was an extremely class-conscious society, and upper-class people might not even dare speak to lower-class people, lest they be scorned by their peers.

The name of the Brahman woman’s’ father means “cool and refreshing good view.” Her mother’s name has been transcribed into Chinese, and there is no tradition of commentary to explain the original Sanskrit. In spit of this I shall go ahead and give a commentary.

The first character used to transcribe the name, Yueh, means “to be favored,” and the second character, Ti, means “an emperor.” Thus her name can be explained as meaning that she was favored by the emperor because of her great beauty. There is nothing fixed about people’s names, and they can be explained in any way, provided the explanation is reasonable.


“Poisonless placed his palms together respectfully and told the Bodhisattva, ‘Please, Holy One, return to your original dwelling. Do not be worried or sorrowful, for the criminal woman Yueh Ti Li was born in the heavens three days ago. It is said that she was succeeded by a filial child who made offerings and cultivated merit for her sake in the temple of Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One. Not only has the Bodhisattva’s mother obtained release from hell, but, as a result of so much merit, other offenders deserving of uninterrupted retribution have also attained bliss and have been reborn.’ When the ghost king was finished speaking, he withdrew, with palms still respectfully joined.

“The Brahman woman quickly returned as if from a dream, understood what had happened, and swore a deep vow before the image of Enlightenment-Flower Samadhi Self-Sufficient King Thus Come One in the temple, saying ‘I vow to establish many expedient devices in response to living beings who are suffering for offenses. Until the end of future aeons, I shall cause those beings to obtain liberation.’ ”


When the text says that she understood what had happened, it means that when she returned, she remembered clearly the entire episode with Poisonless and knew that it was not a false imagining or a dream but rather was due to the power of the Buddha. She thereupon made the vow which reaches throughout unending aeons.


The Buddha told Manjusri, “The ghost king Poisonless is the present Bodhisattva Wealthy Leader. The Brahman woman is now Earth Store Bodhisattva.”


There are seven treasures of cultivation, all of which have been attained by the Bodhisattva Wealthy Leader. They are faith, morality, learning, giving, wisdom, a sense of shame, and a sense of remorse.

End of Chapter One
(Next: Chapter Two)

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