Underneath the Earth
Earth can be synonymous with the life giving, with death, with transformation and with rebirth. Earth has always had its shadow side as the container for a frightening hellish underworld. It’s deeply embedded in so many myths of the afterlife, such as that of Osiris. Though his role as guide through the underworld is a benevolent one, not all of the guides or gods of the dead are so kind. The metaphors and symbolic links between life, death, the afterlife,and the changing of the seasons are made time and time again across cultures and civilisations. Vegetation and death are twin aspects often embodied in one deity. Yet these myths are full of the sort of hope, that is more akin to the most ardent of wishful thinking. In Greek mythology, people after death would descend into the realm of Hades the ruler of the underworld, filled up with the earthly bodies of everyone who has ever died. The lord and king of this underworld Hades, is a tyrannical ruler. He represents everything about human death that is cold, oppressive and imprisoning. He is the dark that will separate you from all whom you love, blind your eyes to life, will wall you off from the experience of sunlight falling upon your forehead, forever.
No one has escaped the clutches of Hade’s ironclad and deadly fist. All except one person, Persephone, who, because she was the daughter of Zeus and Hades wife Demeter, is almost able to cheat death. It all started with Hades abducting his step daughter Persephone and taking her down into his underworld. Demeter is an Earth Mother like patron of agriculture. Out of her grief and anger at the loss of Persephone she causes all vegetation to wither and the whole earth to become barren. Zeus negotiates with Hades a way by which the return of his daughter can be obtained. Part of this contract meant that Persephone must marry Hades, and reign over the souls of the dead with her new husband. She does, however, get to leave the dead and the underworld for six months of the year, to make a return to the world of the living.
Persphone subsequently became a revered vegetation goddess strongly associated with springtime. Making the parallels between her mythological story and that of the seasons even more apparent. Like her Mother she can cause plants to wither, and the earth to become barren, only to break forth in the Spring with renewed vigour. She’s also similar to Osiris, because it’s through betrayal and treacherous circumstances beyond her control, that she becomes a guide to the dark underworld of death and of rebirth into the light. People worshipped and prayed to Persephone to help their recently deceased friends and family make the difficult traverse to heavenly rebirth. Interestingly she also the result of a union between an Earth and a Sky deity, which appears to be a common archetypal element in the myths of gods or goddesses of the underworld. They have to be able to put one foot in the world of the living and one in the world of the dead, be partly of the earth and partly of the heavens. Into the black earth one’s earthly body will be buried and entombed, and into the blue sky your etheric essence, your soul, your spirit or your consciousness will disperse or dissolve. Eventually to fall like rain onto freshly tilled soil, from which will emerge new life.
It would appear we have always needed a sort of saviour figure to conquer death for us, or to come and rescue us from the jaws of it. In this archetypal role that they perform in their myths, Osiris, Persephone and even Jesus Christ, are very similar - it is to rescue us all from the twin hells of suffering and death. The Buddha’s spiritual quest, as traditionally told, is motivated by this same very familiar desire. He leaves his comfortable home-life as a prince, and sets off to lead a homeless life because he needs to discover how to bring to an end old age, sickness and death, to bring to an end all human suffering. Once he discovers it, he is awoken, transformed into an Enlightened being, a Buddha. One who has the wisdom and compassion to see the nature of reality, not only clearly but truly. The difference between this and other myths is that what he discovers isn’t a propensity only given to gods, it lies within the reach of all earthly humanity, requiring no divine intervention for it to be achieved. Over the many millennia of Buddhist history, the way Enlightened beings are portrayed has developed into a diverse pantheon of beautiful archetypal forms. Incalculable numbers of previous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from past aeons, have mythical stories of how they also discovered the truth, and manifest the many different facets of wisdom and compassion.
The Earth Store Bodhisattva is one such figure, who has become a popular devotional figure in Buddhist East Asian countries. His name in Sanskrit is Kshitigarbha, which means ‘one who encompasses the earth‘. ‘Kshiti’ meaning all that is stable, still, firm,vast and versatile, whilst ‘Garbha’ is ‘a treasury’ ‘a womb’ ‘a store’ or ‘a matrix’ Earth Store Bodhisattva then, represents an inexhaustible resource for the world, abundant with earthly wisdom, filled with compassion for all earthly suffering. Here are some verses in his praise:~
Earth Store Bodhisattva,wonderful beyond compare;
Gold-hued in his transformation body he appears,
Wondrous Dharma-sounds throughout the Three Paths and Six Realms;
Four Births and Ten Kinds of Beings gain his kindly grace.
His pearl,shining brightly, lights the way to heaven’s halls;
Six-ringed golden staff shakes open wide the gates of hell.
Leads on those with causes garnered life and life again;
To bow at the Nine-flowered Terrace of the Honoured One
Namo Earth Store Great Vows and Compassion
Bodhisattva of the dark and dismal worlds;
On Nine Flower Mountain, Most Honoured One,
With Ten Wheels of power you rescue all the suffering ones
Homage to Earth Store Bodhisattva.1
Like all Bodhisattva figures he has vowed not to accept full Enlightenment until all sentient beings are saved from suffering. Kshitigarbha’s Vow is however quite specific ~ not just to save all beings from the hell realms, but to empty and destroy the hell realms altogether. He’s willing to go down into those ‘dark and dismal worlds’ as it says in the verses, in order to rescue them. Though he started off portrayed like most Bodhisattva’s as an ever youthful golden skinned deity, Kshitigarbha eventually is portrayed as a human being, dressed humbly in a monks robe, with a six-ringed staff in one hand to show he is mendicant, and a chintamani , a pearl or jewel, in the other to demonstrate his desire to liberate the minds and lives of everyone. In Japan he became the protector for families, and all who’ve ever died, particularly children, and is known as Jizo Bosatsu. When Kshitigarbha was a mortal it is said he attained insight through the practice of filial piety over numerous lifetimes. He therefore encourages the practice of filial duty, because its the simplest and most direct ethical practice that anyone can perform.
Kshitigarbha, is either portrayed standing as one liberated and walking in the world, or seated with one foot stepping down off his main lotus, to rest on a smaller lotus pad beneath it. This ‘stepping down’ posture symbolises his insightful desire to save, by direct intervention in the world. Green Tara and Padmasambhava, who also have this ‘stepping down’ manner, have similarly ‘active’ earthly roles. Kshitigarbha is said to be willing to walk with you, to guide you through death, to put you on the right path to heaven, in much the same way as Osiris is said to do. Though Bodhisattva’s are not gods, they do represent the same ethical archetypes or spiritual urges. So their postures and iconographic imagery become quite significant in denoting the specific behaviours of an Enlightened being. In this a Buddha or Bodhisattva figure is supposed to model them for us. Devotional practice focused on these figures becomes a way for a practitioner to tune in and be influenced by this virtuous imperative present, not only within themselves, but also in the universe. Even if we don’t believe these figures have a literal existence, the things that they embody and represent do. We can align ourselves with these imperatives for the good, through directing our devotion toward these archetypal figures. Through them we can be put in touch with what transcendental wisdom and compassion may be like. In this way a figure like Kshitigarbha can indeed become a source of treasure, a womb, a store, a cosmic matrix that we can tap into imaginatively. One of our deepest human desires is to be saved from suffering in the hell realms of our own making, whenever and wherever they may occur.
So there is significance to be found in the iconography of Kshitigarbha. The mythology that lies behind the Earth Store Bodhisattva, can only be touched on briefly here. Such as the interesting tale that Kshitigarbha’s Bodhisattvahood is based on a previous life as a Brahmin maiden called Sacred Girl. Who was deeply troubled at her Mother’s Death, for her Mother had repeatedly slandered the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and would suffer in the hell realms as a consequence. Sacred Girl, sold all she had, and used the money to make daily offerings to the Buddha Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment. fervently praying that her Mother might be spared the pains of the hell realms. Pleading for his help, the Buddha transports her to the Hell Realms where a guardian says that her fervent prayers and offerings have accrued such merit that her Mother has ascended to heaven. Sacred Girl though relieved and happy for this, sees the sufferings of everyone else in the hell realms and vows to save them in all her future lives in whatever aeon.
What is it then that this Earthly Bodhisattva keeps in his Treasury his Store? One could say its a wealth not to be measured in gold or jewels. What Kshitigarbha is rich in, is in all the many forms of wisdom ~ worldly wisdom, other-wordly wisdom, mudane wisdom, heavenly wisdom, transcendental wisdom. The archetypal wisdoms of all Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s; the mirror~like wisdom; the wisdom of sameness; the discriminating wisdom; the all~accomplishing wisdom; the dharmadhatu Wisdom ~ which all amount to the same thing ~ the knowledge and vision of things as they really are. When Kshitigarbha sees the sufferings of the world and knows not only what its causes but its cures are, he doesn’t just weep for us, he must act to save us from ourselves, from our self-inflicted suffering. So his earthly store, is an infinite Store of Wisdom and an infinite Store of Compassion. No-one can know what he knows about reality and the human condition, and do nothing. Life on Earth, as exemplified in Earth Store Bodhisattva, becomes not just the repository of knowledge, insight and compassion for the world, but the very means by which we can liberate ourselves. By being willing to go deeper into the earth, deeper into death, deeper into the underworld, deeper into our self, we discover for ourselves the means to save ourselves. Without the intervention of a god or goddess.
1- Taken Verses of Praise from The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva
Translated by Master Shikshananda. Publisher The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation.