Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva: The Deity of the Earthly Realm and Afterlife

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Promise of Liberation:  The Protector of Souls and Symbol of Hope

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is predominantly revered in East Asian Buddhism. In the East, he is typically portrayed as a Buddhist monk. Ksiti means the word "earth" or "land," while the word "garbha" is frequently interpreted as "womb," it may also mean "matrix" or even "embryo." Thus, the name Ksitigarbha can refer to number of things, including the Womb of Earth, the Matrix of Earth, or the Embryo of Earth or Earth Treasury.

Between the death of Gautama Buddha and the ascension of Maitreya Buddha, Ksitigarbha pledged to take responsibility for the upbringing of all beings in the six worlds. He also vowed not to attain Buddhahood until all hells were empty.

Therefore, in Japanese culture, he is frequently recognized as the Bodhisattva of Hell beings and the protector of children, the patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses. He is one of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism's four main Bodhisattvas, alongside Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokiteshvara.

In Chinese scripture, his full name is Dayuan Dizang Pusa, also known as the Bodhisattva King Dizang of the Great Vow. It is also spelled Dayuan Dizang Pusa in Mandarin Chinese, Daigan Jiz Bosatsu in Japanese, and Jijang Bosal in Korean.

Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in Different Stories

Since Ksitigarbha lived many honorable prior lives, including as a Brahmin girl and then as Sudhana, a monk, there are many different origin legends for him.

bodhisattva ksitigarbha copper statue

Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha as Brahmin Maiden

The "Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra", one of the most well-known Mahayana sutras, is where the legend of Ksitigarbha was originally narrated. As a gesture of appreciation and remembering for his cherished mother, Maya, Gautama Buddha is reported to have spoken this sutra to the beings of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven, toward the end of his life.

The Buddha states in the sutra that Ksitigarbha was a Brahmin girl named Sacred Girl in ancient times. Her mother, who had frequently criticized the "Three Jewels", had passed away. She got worried that her mother would experience great torture in hell. This caused the young woman in highly distressed state. The young girl sold everything she owned to buy offerings for the Buddha of her time, also known as the Buddha of the Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment. She offered every day to save her mother from the severe torments of hell. She pleaded with the Buddha for guidance as she sincerely hoped that her mother be spared the suffering of hell.

She heard the Buddha asking her to go home, sit down, and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was, when pleading for guidance at the temple. When she followed instructions, her mind was transported to the realm of Hell. She saw a guardian who told her that because of her sincere prayers and virtuous offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and reached heaven. The sacred girl was overjoyed and immensely relieved, but the sight of the agony she had witnessed in hell broke her heart. In her future lifetimes for Kalpas, she vowed to do her utmost to alleviate the suffering of all beings. 

Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha: A Buddhist Monk

According to a legends, Ksitigarbha manifested himself in China and chose Mount Jiuhua, one of China's Four Sacred Mountains, as his bodhimanda.

Buddhism began to grow during the rule of Emperor Ming of the Han, peaking in the Tang and finally expanding to Korea. Monks and academics then traveled to China to study the dharma. One of these pilgrims was Kim Gyo-gak, a former prince of Silla who took the monastic name Dizang and Jiang in Korean. He traveled to Mount Jiuhua in present-day Anhui. He decided to construct a hut in a remote mountain area after ascending so that he may practice the dharma.

Records claim that a deadly snake bit Jijang, but he did not react and let the snake flee. A woman who just happened to be passing by gave the monk medicine to get rid of the venom and some water on her son's behalf. Jijang continued to concentrate in his hut for a few years until a scholar named Chu-Ke took a group of family and friends to the mountain one day. After spotting him in the hut, they checked on the monk, where he was meditating. They had seen his hair had grown back and that his bowl was empty of food.

Chu-Ke decided to build a temple as an offering to the monk out of compassion. The entire party promptly descended the mountain to talk about how to construct the temple. Elder Wen-Ke, a wealthy individual who owned Mount Jiuhua, agreed to build a temple there. To find out how much land he required, Wen-Ke and the group once more scaled the mountain.

Jijang said that he required a plot of land that his kasaya could completely encircle. They were taken aback when Jijang tossed the kasaya in the air, and the robe increased in size, covering the entire mountain, contrary to their initial belief that a single piece of sash could not offer enough ground to construct a temple. At that point, Elder Wen-Ke decided to hand over the entire mountain to Jijang and took on the role of his protector. Later, Wen-Ke's son similarly renounced the modern world to take up monastic life.

Jijang spent 75 years in Mount Jiuhua before passing there in 99. When his tomb was opened three years after his enlightenment, it was discovered that the body had not decomposed. Since Jijang navigated his way across challenging terrain, most people intuitively assumed he was a Ksitigarbha's manifestation.

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva as Prince Sudhana

Ksitigarbha is often called Sudhana, his name in former life. Sudhana was the sole child of a powerful dynasty in southern India that ruled over a small kingdom. Sadly, his loving parents passed away when Sudhana was only eleven years old. He ascended to the kingdom as the single heir at a young age.

Although Sudhana was a kind and compassionate monarch, being without his parents left him sad and alone. He once met a holy man who informed him about the sufferings experienced by beings in the lowest regions. Sudhana felt compassion for all those beings who were experiencing such great agony. He immediately decided to renounce his throne and take on the life of a monk to lessen the suffering of all living things.

Sudhana became a monk and changed his name to Ksitigarbha. He is frequently shown with a jeweled staff in his hands. This staff symbolizes his vow never to stop striving until all beings are free from misery. Ksitigarbha has promised to enter hell to save every being who is tormented there. Because of this, he is referred to as the "Bodhisattva of Hell.

Depiction of Ksitigarbhaksitigarbha bodhisattva iconography in thangka

Click here to view our Hand-Painted Bodhisattva Thangka

Ksitigarbha is usually portrayed as a monk with a nimbus, an urna (tuft of hair) between his eyebrows, and a shaven head. He is seen with the fiery pearl (Chintamani), which he uses to pierce the darkness, and the clerical staff (khakkara), which he uses to pry open the gates of hell. In Japan, Ksitigarbha is typically depicted in six ways, each representing one of the six worlds of desire. This is so that Ksitigarbha can express himself in a way that the suffering requires.

He is usually depicted with bare feet. This symbolizes the fact that he travels wherever he is needed. He might be engulfed in the halo of flames of hell. In China, he is depicted sitting on a lotus throne and dressed magnificently. He wears a "five-leaf" or "five-section" crown depicting the Five Dhyani Buddhas on each of its five segments. He still holds the staff with the six rings and the wish-granting jewel.

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Mantra


This is the mantra that Ksitigarbha heard the Buddhas speak, equal to the number of Ganga River's sand grains. The phrase was provided to him after he made offerings to them. This mantra should be recited whenever problems or difficulties since it is always the best course of action. Even after four or five repeats, it continues to be effective. The Bodhisattva's name can be recited or thought of with enormous potency. It has extraordinary power.

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