Ksitigarbha is a bodhisattva primarily revered in East Asian Buddhism and usually depicted as a Buddhist monk.
His name may be translated as “Earth Treasury“, “Earth Store“, “Earth Matrix“, or “Earth Womb“. Kṣitigarbha is known for his vow to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds between the death of Gautama Buddha and the rise of Maitreya, as well as his vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied.
He is therefore often regarded as the bodhisattva of hell-beings, as well as the guardian of children and patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses in Japanese culture, where he is known as Jizō or Ojizō-sama.
Usually depicted as a monk with a halo around his shaved head, he carries a staff to force open the gates of hell and a wish-fulfilling jewel to light up the darkness.
As a Brahmin maiden
The story of Ksitigarbha was first described in the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra, one of the most popular Mahayana sutras.
This sutra is said to have been spoken by the Buddha towards the end of his life to the beings of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven as a mark of gratitude and remembrance for his beloved mother, Maya. The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra begins:
“Thus have I heard. Once the Buddha was abiding in Trayastrimsas Heaven in order to expound the Dharma to his mother.”
The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrvapraṇidhāna Sūtra was first translated from Sanskrit into Chinese between 695-700 CE, during the Tang dynasty, by the Tripiṭaka master Siksananda, a Buddhist monk from Khotan who also provided a new translation of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and the Lankavatara Sutra.
However, some scholars have suspected that instead of being translated, this text may have originated in China, since no Sanskrit manuscripts of this text have been found. Part of the reason for suspicion is that the text advocates filial piety, which was stereotypically associated with Chinese culture. It stated that Ksitigarbha practiced filial piety as a mortal, which eventually led to making great vows to save all sentient beings.
Since then, other scholars such as Gregory Schopen have pointed out that Indian Buddhism also had traditions of filial piety. Currently, there is no definitive evidence indicating either an Indian or Chinese origin for the text.
In the Ksitigarbha Sutra, the Buddha states that in the distant past eons, Ksitigarbha was a maiden of the Brahmin caste by the name of Sacred Girl.
This maiden was deeply troubled upon the death of her mother – who had often been slanderous towards the Three Jewels. To save her mother from the great tortures of hell, the girl sold whatever she had and used the money to buy offerings that she offered daily to the Buddha of her time, known as the Buddha of the Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment. She prayed fervently that her mother is spared the pains of hell and appealed to the Buddha for help.
While she was pleading for help at the temple, she heard the Buddha told her to go home, sit down, and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was. She did as she was told and her consciousness was transported to a Hell realm, where she met a guardian who informed her that through her fervent prayers and pious offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and had already ascended to heaven.
Sacred Girl was greatly relieved and would have been extremely happy, but the sight of the suffering she had seen in Hell touched her heart. She vowed to do her best to relieve the beings of their suffering in her future lives for kalpas.
As a Buddhist monk
There is a legend about how Ksitigarbha manifested himself in China and chose his bodhimaṇḍa to be Mount Jiuhua, one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China.
During the reign of Emperor Ming of Han, Buddhism started to flourish, reaching its peak in the Tang and eventually spreading to Korea. At the time, monks and scholars arrived from those countries to seek the dharma in China.
One of these pilgrims was a former prince from Silla named Kim Gyo-gak, who became a monk under the Chinese name Dizang “Kṣitigarbha,” pronounced Jijang in Korean. He went to Mount Jiuhua in present-day Anhui. After ascending, he decided to build a hut in a deep mountain area so that he could cultivate the dharma.
According to records, Jijang was bitten by a poisonous snake but he did not move, thus letting the snake go. A woman happened to pass by and gave the monk medicines to cure him of the venom, as well as a spring on her son’s behalf.
For a few years, Jijang continued to meditate in his hut, until one day, a scholar named Chu-Ke led a group of friends and family to visit the mountain. Noticing the monk meditating in the hut, they went and took a look at his condition. They had noticed that his bowl did not contain any food and that his hair had grown back.
Taking pity on the monk, Chu-Ke decided to build a temple as an offering to him. The whole group descended the mountain immediately to discuss plans to build the temple. Mount Jiuhua was also the property of a wealthy person called Elder Wen-Ke, who obliged to build a temple on his mountain. Therefore, Wen-Ke and the group ascended the mountain once more and asked Jijang how much land he needed.
Jijang replied that he needed a piece of land that could be covered fully by his kasaya. Initially believing that a piece of sash could not provide enough land to build a temple, they were surprised when Jijang threw the kasaya in the air, and the robe expanded in size, covering the entire mountain. Elder Wen-Ke had then decided to renounce the entire mountain to Jijang, and became his protector. Sometime later, Wen-Ke’s son also left secular life to become a monk.
Jijang lived in Mount Jiuhua for 75 years before passing away at the age of 99. Three years after his nirvana, his tomb was opened, only to reveal that the body had not decayed. Because Jijang led his way place with much difficulty, most people had the intuition to believe that he was indeed an incarnation of Ksitigarbha.
Jijang’s well-preserved, dehydrated body may still be viewed today at the monastery he built on Mount Jiuhua.
Ksitigarbha as Lord of the Six Ways
Another category of iconographic depiction is Kṣitigarbha as the Lord of the Six Ways, an allegorical representation of the Six Paths of Rebirth of the Desire realm (rebirth into hell, or as pretas, animals, asuras, men, and devas).
The Six Paths are often depicted as six rays or beams radiating from the bodhisattva and accompanied by figurative representations of the Six Paths. Many of these depictions in China can be found in Shaanxi province, perhaps a result of Sanjie Jiao worship in the area.
A Japanese variation of this depiction is the Six Jizō, six full sculptural manifestations of the bodhisattva. An example of this can be found in Konjikidō, the ‘Hall of Gold,’ in the Chūson-Ji temple.
In Buddhist traditions
Mount Jiuhua in Anhui is regarded as Ksitigarbha’s bodhimaṇḍa. It is one of the Four Sacred Buddhism Mountains in China, and at one time housed more than 300 temples.
Today, 95 of these are open to the public. The mountain is a popular destination for pilgrims offering dedications to Ksitigarbha.
In some areas, the admixture of traditional religions has led to Ksitigarbha being also regarded as a Taoist deity, albeit his duties differ from what Ksitigarbha does.
In Japan, Kṣitigarbha, known as Jizō, or respectfully as Ojizō-sama, is one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards.
Children’s limbo legend
In the common tradition associated with the Sai no Kawara or the banks of the Sanzu River, the Jizo is portrayed as the protector of the souls of children, who are condemned to stack piles of stones vainly, for these towers are repeatedly toppled.
Jizō has been worshipped as the guardian of the souls of Mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses in the ritual of Mizuko kuyō (“offering to water children”).
One of the most well-known forms is the cult of the Togenuki Jizō (“the Splinter-Removing Jizo”) centered at Kogan-ji.
Jizō statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, put there by people in the hope that it would shorten the time children have to suffer in the underworld.
Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents. The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children’s clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Jizō would specially protect them. Sometimes the offerings are put there by parents to thank Jizō for saving their children from a serious illness. His features are commonly made more baby-like to resemble the children he protects.
As Jizō is seen as the savior of souls who have to suffer in the underworld, his statues are common in cemeteries. He is also believed to be one of the protective deities of travelers, the dōsojin, and roadside statues of Jizō are a common sight in Japan. Firefighters are also believed to be under his protection.
Southeast Asian traditions
In Theravada Buddhism, the story of a bhikkhu named Phra Malai with similar qualities to Ksitigarbha is well known throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Laos.
Legend has it that he was an arhat from Sri Lanka who achieved great supernatural powers through his own merit and meditation. He is also honored as a successor to Mahamoggallana, the Buddha’s disciple foremost for his supernatural attainments.
In the story, this pious and compassionate monk descends to Hell to give teachings & comfort the suffering hell-beings there. He also learns how the hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells.