Ksitigarbha: Bodhisattva of the Hell Realm

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Hsiang-Te Temple, Tiangsan, Taiwan
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Hsiang-Te Temple, Tiangsan, Taiwan.

Bernard Gagnon / Creative Commons License

Ksitigarbha is a transcendent bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. In China he is Dayuan Dizang Pusa (or Ti Tsang P'usa), in Tibet, he is Sa-E Nyingpo and in Japan he is Jizo. He is one of the most popular of the iconic bodhisattvas, especially in East Asia, where he often is called upon to guide and protect deceased children.

Ksitigarbha primarily is known as the bodhisattva of the hell realm, although he travels to all of the Six Realms and is a guide and guardian of those between rebirths.

Origins of Ksitigarbha

Although Ksitigarbha appears to have originated in early Mahayana Buddhism in India, there are no existing representations of him from that time. His popularity grew in China, however, beginning about the 5th century.

Buddhist legends say that during the time of a Buddha before Shakyamuni Buddha there was a young girl of the Brahmin caste whose mother died. The mother often had slandered the Buddha's teaching, and the girl feared her mother would be reborn in hell. The girl worked tirelessly, performing pious acts to make merit dedicated to her mother.

According to the Sutra on the Original Vows and the Attainment of Merits of Ksitigrabha Bodhisatta, eventually, the king of sea-devils appeared to the girl and took her to the hell realm to see her mother. In other stories, it was the Buddha who found her. However it happened, she was taken to the hell realm, where a hell guardian told her that the acts of piety had indeed released her mother, who had been reborn again in a more pleasant pace.

But the girl had glimpsed the countless other beings in torment in the hell realm, and she vowed to free them all. "If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go?" she said. "I will not become a Buddha until the hells are empty. Only when all beings have been saved, will I enter Nirvana."

Because of this vow, Ksitigarbha is associated with the hell realm, but his goal is to empty all of the realms.

Ksitigarbha in Iconography

Particularly in East Asia, Ksitigarbha often is depicted as a simple monk. He has a shaved head and monk's robes, and his bare feet are visible, indicating that he travels to wherever he is needed. He holds a wish-fulfilling jewel in his left hand, and his right hand he grasps a staff with six rings attached to the top. The six rings represent his mastery of the Six Realms, or according to a few sources, his mastery of the Six Perfections. He may be surrounded by the flames of the hell realm.

In China, he is sometimes pictured wearing ornate robes and seated on a lotus throne. He wears a "five-leaf" or five-section crown, and on the five sections are pictures of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. He still carries the wish-fulfilling jewel and the staff with six rings. At least one bare foot usually will be visible.

In China, the Bodhisattva sometimes is accompanied by a dog. This is in reference to a legend that he found his mother reborn in the animal realm as a dog, which the Bodhisattva adopted.

Ksitigarbha Devotion

Devotional practices to Ksitigarbha take many forms. He may be most visible in Japan, where stone images of Jizo stand, often in groups, along roads and in cemeteries. These often are erected on behalf of a miscarried or aborted fetus or stillborn baby as well as for deceased children. The statues often wear cloth bibs or children's clothing. In Japan, the Bodhisattva is also the protector of travelers, expectant mothers, and firemen.

Throughout Asia there are a number of mantras chanted to invoke Ksitigarbha, often to avert danger. Some are quite long, but here is a short mantra found in Tibetan Buddhism that also burns away obstacles to practice:

Om ah Kshiti Garbha thaleng hum.

Ksitigarbha mantras are also chanted by people with severe health and financial problems.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Ksitigarbha: Bodhisattva of the Hell Realm." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/ksitigarbha-450137. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Ksitigarbha: Bodhisattva of the Hell Realm. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/ksitigarbha-450137 O'Brien, Barbara. "Ksitigarbha: Bodhisattva of the Hell Realm." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/ksitigarbha-450137 (accessed March 30, 2023).