One of the four great bodhisattvas, Ksitigarbha has sworn to endure and relieve the sufferings of all the souls in hell — and not until Buddhism’s 16 hells are empty will he attain nirvana.
Ksitigarbha the merciful, known as the Earth Treasury King (Di Zang Wang µØ²ØÍõ), was born on the 30th day of the seventh month of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. But this year there are only 29 days, so he misses a party.
It is said that Ksitigarbha only opens his eyes on the night of his birthday when the mortal world is filled with the fragrance of burning incense. At dusk, households place three lighted sticks of incense and two lighted candles at the front door. Then there are prayers and chanting.
Children traditionally stick many pieces of incense in the soil, cracks in stone paths and at the corners of walls.
The burning incense not only conveys worship of Ksitigarbha, but is also believed to temporarily relieve all the suffering in the underworld when the fragrance reaches hell.
Taboos on the night include pouring water on the ground, urinating on the ground, and stepping over incense.
The next morning children compete to see who pulls out the most sticks of incense.
Ksitigarbha is one of the four principal bodhissatvas in East Asian Buddhism, along with Samantabhadra, Manjusri and Avalokitesvara.
He is depicted in a classical bodhisattva form in the famous pre-Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. He more often appears as a simple monk with a halo around his head; he carries Buddhist prayer beads and a staff member that can force open the gates of hell.
According to Buddhist classics, Ksitigarbha takes responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds, in the era between the death of Gautama Buddha and the rise of Maitreva Buddha. Therefore, he often occupies a central role in Mahayana temples.
It is said that in his earliest life, Ksitigarbha was a Brahmin maiden named Sacred Girl. To save her impious mother from the tortures in hell, the girl sold everything she had to buy offerings to the Buddha. She prayed fervently and appealed to Buddha for help. Buddha told her to go home, sit down and recite his name. She did so, and then her consciousness was transported to a realm of hell (there are 16 hells, eight hot and eight cold). There she met a guardian who told her that her prayers and offerings had given her mother great merit and her mother had already ascended to heaven.
The girl vowed that she would dedicate her life to relieving suffering of beings in hell, and thus became Ksitigarbha.
According to one legend, for 75 years a Korean monk named Kim Gyo-gak cultivated himself under the name of Ksitigarbha on Jiuhua Mountain in what is now Anhui Province. He died at the age of 99. His tomb was opened three years later and the body was found undecayed. People said the monk was an incarnation of Ksitigarbha.
Jiuhua Mountain then became the bodhimanda of Ksitigarbha.