A Poem by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva


Translated By Andrew Yang

Chinese Buddhism typically worships four major bodhisattvas, each representing a particular type of virtue and cultivation. Manjusri Bodhisattva embodies wise thinking, known as the bodhisattva of great wisdom. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva characterizes cultivation by action, known as the bodhisattva of great diligence. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva epitomizes loving kindness, known as the bodhisattva of great compassion. And Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva symbolizes oaths sworn to illuminate darkness in the nether world, known as the bodhisattva of great vows.

In this way, the four great bodhisattvas exemplify the four vital Buddhist practices of virtue: compassion, wisdom, vows and action, while together they signify Buddha’s four extraordinary merits. In China, these four bodhisattvas each have their home temple in a sacred mountain. For example, for Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who pledges not to become a buddha until all the hell is empty, Mount Jiuhua has been designated as his seat of enlightenment.

But how did Mount Jiuhua in Anhui province come to house the spiritual home of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva as his bodhimanda? Legend has it that in the year 630 during the Tang dynasty, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva was born as a prince in the Silla kingdom (presently part of Korea) named Kim Gyo-gak (630-729). Having a delicate look with bulging parietal bones, the prince was charitable and extraordinarily intelligent. At the age of twenty-four, after he had his hair shaved and became ordained as a bhikkhu, he took his white pet dog Shan Ting along and crossed the sea to arrive in China. In his travel he reached Mount Jiuhua in Qingyang county. Seeing nine peaks shaped like a lotus flower in a stunningly majestic and tranquil environment, he was so impressed that he made a home in a cave on the mountain to practise Chan meditation diligently.

One day over twenty years later, a gentleman was scouting in the mountain with a group of local villagers for natural wonders in seclusion. When they came to a spot with few traces of people, they saw a beautiful scenery of white clouds with luxuriant vegetation and gurgling streams, and found a monk meditating all alone in a cave. Beside him in a vessel they saw some leftover food with wild herbs cooked in some wheat-like semi-mineral dirt powder. Then they learnt that the monk was a prince from Silla who had come to China in pursuit of the Dharma, and for decades he had lived on this kind of rough food as an ascetic. Everyone was so moved that they decided to build a temple to house the monk.

At the time, the owner of Mount Jiuhua was an elder named Min Ranghe, a fervent believer in Buddhism. Overjoyed on hearing the news he immediately went to meet the monk, and told him that as a donor, he would be happy with whatever land he chose to build his temple. Knowing that their karma was ripe, the monk asked for a place big enough just for keeping his cassock and practising the Dharma. Considering Elder Min’s sincerity in supporting the Dharma, the mage, a holy monk, used his magical power to spread his cassock, which ended up covering all the nine peaks of Mount Jiuhua. This further deepened the elder’s veneration, and so he decided to offer up the entire mountain as promised.

For some time, it is also believed the monk had a boy keeping his company, but because it was a secluded place deep in a mountain, life was too lonely for the boy, and so he cried and asked to leave. At the same time, he was sad to part with his master who had raised and taught him. Thus, the master wrote a poem upon their farewell:

In such a silent, empty place you miss home,
Bidding farewell to the cabin to go down Jiuhua.
You rode bamboo horses round a bamboo railing,
But was too playful to practise the Dharma.
No more playing with the moon as you fetch water,
Nor fiddling with flowers while making tea.
Feel free to go now without choking through tears.
There are misty clouds to keep me company.

The boy, no longer able to bear the quiet loneliness of mountain life, wanted to descend the mountain and go back home, and so the monk he said, “In such a silent, empty place you miss home, / Bidding farewell to the cabin to go down Jiuhua”. (See Note 1)

The boy was young and hyperactive, but neglected to do temple errands that would add merits to his practice, and so the monk recalled, “You rode bamboo horses round a bamboo railing, / But was too playful to practise the Dharma”.

“No more playing with the moon as you fetch water, / Nor fiddling with flowers while making tea.” These two details are used to remind the boy of abiding by Buddhist precepts in worldly life, to be single-minded and remember impermanence. The reference to tea making is also an indication of simplicity away from a life of vulgarity and debauchery.

In the end, the monk consoled him, “Feel free to go now without choking through tears. / There are misty clouds to keep me company”. What he meant to say was, Lad, go home and live your own life. Do not weep for me just because you feel reluctant to leave. You don’t have to worry about me, as I have all the mountain and hazy clouds with dawn and sunset glow as my companions. How could one feel ill at ease about solitude when there is freedom of the mind?

This poem, balanced with both reason and emotion, reads deeply touching with simple empathy. The monk was not only a devout practitioner, but an expressive poet as well.

As to the monk’s monastery, after its completion practitioners from all over began to gather and it became a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, especially for those from the kingdom of Silla. Soon it became challenging to provide for all, but the monks and their lay supporters persevered. Later, when the king of Silla learned of it, he sent a special convoy with regular provision of food.

The monk died on the night of July 30th in the year 729 at the age of ninety-nine. Shortly before that, he had assembled the sangha to bid farewell, and then passed away peacefully while meditating, seated in the lotus position. It is said that with it, the mountain rumbled, rocks rattled and bells lost their ringing sound. The monk’s body, disinterred after three years, had an appearance of someone alive. It has since been enshrined in the pagoda on Shenguang Peak.

When alive, the monk looked solemn and regal, taking after Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. In his practice he was a pious follower of the bodhisattva, achieving miracle and attaining enlightenment. Thus, soon after he died, Kim Gyo-gak the bhikkhu was recognized as the bodhisattva’s manifestation. And since then, Mount Jiuhua has been the sacred bodhimanda of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.


Note 1  Buddhism takes “emptiness” as an important doctrine and approach of practice. Hence, here in the poem it implies the practice of Buddhism.

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