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​Common Questions on the Practice of Ksitigarbha Sutra

The Ksitigarbha Sutra is popular among the general public, yet so are the widespread myths about the methods of practice stated in the sutra. For instance, there is the common misconception that one is not supposed to recite the sutra at night, and that one is prone to attracting spirits and undesirable spiritual responses by reciting it. So, why not let the following Q&A session debunk the myths and help us establish correct views so that we can recite the sutra at ease without unnecessary concerns.

1. Does reciting the Ksitigarbha Sutra make one prone to attracting the spirits of sentient beings?

A: Reciting sutras is equivalent to giving Dharma talks on behalf of the Buddha. Although the intended audience of Dharma talks is human beings, sentient beings in other realms of existence such as heavenly beings, gods, ghosts, are also able to receive the Dharma. Chanting the Buddhist sutra with sincere concentration can also inspire unseen sentient beings to come and listen to our recitation, especially the ones having good roots (kuśala-mūla, the inclination to accept the Dharma).

As indicated in the chapter of the sutra entitled "Praises from the Buddha" , the ghosts and spirits that appear in our dreams—some screaming and whining in sorrow and distress, while others with terrifying appearances—are likely to be our family members in past lives who have fallen into the unfortunate destinies of existence, hoping to have our deliverance. Thus, when we recite the sutra, we can sincerely invite them to attend the hearing of the Dharma. We can also transfer the merit of sutra recitation to all sentient beings, wishing them early deliverance from evil destinies. 

In the chapters entitled "Earth Deities Protecting the Dharma", and "Praise and Extolment from Yamarāja and His Crowd", it is also mentioned that people who recite and study the Ksitigarbha Sutra as well as make offerings to the image of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva will have the support and protection of heavenly protectors from the Trayastriṃsa Heaven and the Brahmā heavens, earth deities, and ghost kings. In addition, floods, fires, burglaries, serious illness, unexpected calamities, and even all the misfortunes and disasters won't find their way into their households.

Therefore, reciting the Ksitigarbha Sutra benefits not only the living but also the dead. In addition to benefiting ourselves, the merit of reciting the sutra also includes establishing good connections with sentient beings. Beings with deep virtuous roots may be delivered—depending on their comprehension and perception of the Dharma—by hearing even a single Gatha (verse) or a line from the sutra. For those with shallow virtuous roots , reciting the sutra also helps to sow the seeds of deliverance in them.

2. The sutra states that the power of karmic retribution can be so enormous that it states:"Suppose that the closest family members as intimate as father and son have gone on their respective paths. Even if they meet by chance, none of them is willing to take the burden of another's karmic retribution." Why is that? 

A: This passage is excerpted from Chapter Five: The Names of Various Hells. And its preceding passage says, "The power of karma is so enormous that it can rival the size of Mount Sumeru; reach the abyss of the vast ocean; and obstruct the path to enlightenment. Hence, sentient beings must not overlook their minor misdeeds, thinking that it constitutes no transgression. There will be retribution after their death to be received, even as tiny as a single hair fiber." This is where Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva depicted the tortuous sufferings that evil-committing beings have to undergo in hells, as an admonition to all sentient beings that trivial evil deeds are not something they can take lightly and ignore, because the karmic retribution will happen to them no matter how tiny the action is.

The Buddhist principle of karmic causality is, simply speaking, that evil actions induce painful retribution, and good deeds generate blessings. For instance, when someone has eaten a meal, it does not mean others get fed and satisfied as well. On the other hand, when someone skips a meal, others will not feel hungry as a result. As an old Chinese saying goes, "When you eat, you eat for yourself; every individual has to receive their own karma." When you have created some evil karma, nobody else can receive it for you. Even Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have no way to receive the karma created by others; they can only guide sentient beings in their practice by helping them hear the Dharma and benefit from it.

3. Is there any taboo about reciting the Ksitigarbha Sutra?

A: There is no taboo at all in reciting Buddhist scriptures. As long as we have a settled and reverent mind, anytime and anywhere is suitable for the recitation. Some claim that one should avoid reciting the Ksitigarbha Sutra at night, at home, during the so-called "Ghost Month"—the seventh lunar month—and while one is sick. Furthermore, it has been said that, while reciting the sutra, one should skip the names of ghost kings, lest doing so would summon the spirits of deceased family members and ghosts. These are all baseless misconceptions.

Moreover, the Ksitigarbha Sutra mentions many benefits of chanting the sutra to encourage its recitation. Constantly reciting the sutra helps alleviate our misfortunes and transgressions, gain the respect of ghosts and deities, enjoy longevity, make the land abundant and fertile, and keep our household in permanent peace. If one transfers the merit of reciting the sutra to sentient beings in all dharma-realms, their action of giving will bring them blessings, Furthermore, if one cultivates their spirituality according to the teachings of the sutra, the goddess of earth (pṛthivī) and all deities will constantly protect them and their family to ensure their safety and well-being. 

Reciting Buddhist scriptures serves as an entry-point to spiritual cultivation. All the Buddhist scriptures commend the merit of sutra recitation to encourage Buddhist practitioners to recite Buddhist texts. Ven. Yin Shun also encouraged Buddhists who have taken the Three Refuges to regularly hear the correct Buddhist teaching, become close to virtuous Dharma friends, learn the Buddha-dharma from the scriptures, immerse themselves in correct views, and emulate Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' virtuous actions to mend their deeds. These are the starting points for Buddhist practice. 

The Ksitigarbha Sutra is rich in content. With Ksithigarbha Bodhisattva's great aspiration to deliver sentient beings, the Dharma approach as taught in the sutra is simple and achievable for practitioners. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's filial piety to deliver his mothers in past kalpas always moved Master Hong Yi to tears whenever he heard the sutra being read in his early monastic life. He was devoted to the study and transcription of the sutra himself, and also encouraged people to recite the sutra to repay their parents' kindness.

4. Is the recitation of the sutra conducive to spiritual experiences?

A: While reciting the sutra, some people may feel cold, hot, mentally and physically light and calm, or gain a sharper sensitivity. Others may feel scared, with their pores flaring, or their body becoming heavy. These are just physical sensations rather than indicative of spiritual states. 

From a Buddhist perspective, spiritual responses arise from sincerity, and the level of sincerity determines the intensity of the spiritual responses. Therefore, it is said that "a true heart with sincerity invites the responses from the Bodhisattva." It is inevitable for one to have physical or mental reactions while engaging in spiritual cultivation. However, Buddhism does not particularly stress spiritual response and encourage people to seek after it. Spiritual response is something like encouragement from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for practitioners. Whether we have experienced any spiritual responses or not, we are required to simply continue with our practice.

As Elderly Ven. Meng Tsan, who devoted his life to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Dharma approach, indicated, "In our practice, whatever phenomena we encounter, neither attach to them nor fear them, and over time we will gain strength through persistent cultivation." In addition, we must have both the right knowledge and the right view to aid our cultivation. How do we establish correct concepts? "All Buddhist scriptures show us the correct methods, especially the Ksitigarbha Sutra, which teaches us multiple methods throughout its chapters."

The stories regarding spiritual responses mentioned in the sutra are mostly about fulfilling wishes, enjoying peace and security in the household, as well as eradicating the karma and saving the suffering, which are all related to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's past vows. Reciting the Ksitigarbha Sutra not only fosters our faith in the Buddha-dharma, but also further helps us develop a compassionate mind towards all beings, thereby enabling us to put its teachings into practice in our lives.

5. Do hells really exist?

A: Buddhism does not deny the existence of hells, as they are within the scope of samsaric cycle of birth and death and are caused by personal karmic retribution; thus every being could potentially experience the hells. As the Ksitigarbha Sutra says, "Within each hell, there are hundreds and thousands of instruments of karmic retribution. They are made of copper, iron, stone, or fire. These four materials are the karmic manifestations of the sinners' evil actions." All the tools of torture featured in various hells result from different evil karma by the hell dwellers.

In addition to the Ksitigarbha Sutra, detailed depictions of hells can also be found in the Dīrgha Āgama, the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Commentary on the Sheath of Abhidharma), the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners), and the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (the Treatise on the Great Prajñāpāramitā). According to the Ksitigarbha Sutra, hells are located in a place encircled by the three-fold oceans of karma. Depending on the different karmic retribution corresponding to each individual's evil karma, there are countless hells that vary in size. According to the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, hells can be categorized into three main types: radical hells, adjacent hells, and isolated hells. The ones that the scriptures refer to are generally the radical hells. 

In terms of karmic results, hells do exist, but they don't actually exist in physical directions or areas. Hells and heavens are the reflection of what our minds manifest; that is, they exist within us. In our daily lives, as long as we have affliction and attachment, our minds suffer in extreme distress of fear and aversion, which is no different than being tortured in hells. For example, with grave greed arising in our mind, we degenerate ourselves into the state of hungry ghosts. Similarly, the moment when we feel there is nowhere to turn to, we are as if on the brink of hell. As long as we keep our minds untangled by ignorance (avidyā), and direct our speech and actions towards wholesomeness and away from evil, we are keeping ourselves away from hell.

Related articles:

Buddhist Scripture of Filial Piety: Ksitigarbha Sutra

​A Basic Introduction to the Ksitigarbha Sutra

​The Foundation of Attaining Buddhahood — Altruism

Practicing Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva's Method

​Common Questions on the Practice of Ksitigarbha Sutra

Resource: Issue 372 of Humanity  Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Sinag-ling Li (李祥苓)
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-Cheng Chang (張家誠)