Ksitigarbha (地藏菩薩) is a Bodhisattva primarily revered in East Asian Buddhism and usually depicted as a Buddhist monk. His name may be translated as "Earth Treasury" or "Earth Store". He is often regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings, as well as the guardian of children and patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses in Japanese culture, where he is known as Jizo or Ojizo-sama.
Unlike most other Bodhisattvas, who are dressed like Indian royalty, Ksitigarbha is usually depicted as a monk dressed in a monk's simple robes and with a halo around his shaved head. He carries a monk staff(錫杖) to force open the gates of hell and a cintamani (wish-fulfilling jewel) to light up the darkness. Ksitigarbha is sometimes depicted wearing a crown like the one worn by Vairocana (毘盧遮那佛).
Ksitigarbha is one of the four principal Bodhisattvas in East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. The others are Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara. At the pre-Tang dynasty, he is depicted in a classical Bodhisattva form. After the Tang, he became increasingly depicted as a monk carrying Buddhist prayer beads and a monk staff.
His full name in Chinese is 大願地藏王菩薩, or "Bodhisattva King Ksitigarbha of the Great Vow". This name is a reference to his pledge, as recorded in the sutras, to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the six worlds in the era between the Parinirvana (Nirvana after death/般涅槃) of Gautama Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛) and the rise of Maitreya (彌勒菩薩), as well as his vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied.
The story of Ksitigarbha was first described in the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapranidhana Sutra (地藏菩薩本願經), one of the most popular Mahayana sutrass. This sutra is said to have been spoken by the Buddha towards the end of his life to the beings of the Trayastrimsa Heaven as a mark of gratitude and remembrance for his beloved mother, Maya.
In the Ksitigarbha Sutras, the Buddha states that in the distant past eons, Ksitigarbha was a maiden of the Brahmin caste by the name of Sacred Girl. She was deeply troubled when her mother died, because she had often been slanderous towards the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). To save her from the great tortures of hell, the girl sold whatever she had and used the money to buy offerings that she offered daily to the Buddha of her time, known as the Buddha of the Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment. She prayed fervently that her mother be spared the pains of hell and appealed to the Buddha for help.
While she was pleading for help at the temple, she heard the Buddha telling her to go home, sit down, and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was. She did as she was told and her consciousness was transported to a Hell realm, where she met a guardian who informed her that through her fervent prayers and pious offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and had already ascended to heaven. Sacred Girl was greatly relieved and would have been extremely happy, but the sight of the suffering she had seen in Hell touched her heart. She vowed to do her best to relieve beings of their suffering in her future lives for kalpas (Aeon, a relatively long period of time (by human calculation) in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology).
There is a legend about how Ksitigarbha manifested himself in China and chose his bodhimanda (道場) to be Mount Jiuhua (九華山), one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China. During the reign of Emperor Ming of Han, Buddhism started to flourish, reaching its peak in the Tang and eventually spreading to Korea. At the time, monks and scholars arrived from those countries to seek the Dharma in China. One of these pilgrims was a former prince from Silla named Kim Gyo-gak, who became a monk under the Chinese name Dizang "Ksitigarbha". He went to Mount Jiuhua in present-day Anhui (安徽省). After ascending, he decided to build a hut in a deep mountain area so that he could cultivate the Dharma.
According to records, Jijang was bitten by a poisonous snake but he did not move, thus letting the snake go. A woman happened to pass by and gave the monk medicines to cure him of the venom, as well as a spring on her son's behalf. For a few years, Jijang continued to meditate in his hut, until one day, a scholar named Chu-Ke led a group of friends and family to visit the mountain. Noticing the monk meditating in the hut, they went and took a look at his condition. They had noticed that his bowl did not contain any food, and that his hair had grown back.
Taking pity on the monk, Chu-Ke decided to build a temple as an offering to him. The whole group descended the mountain immediately to discuss plans to build the temple. Mount Jiuhua was also property of a wealthy person called Elder Wen-Ke, who obliged to build a temple on his mountain. Therefore, Wen-Ke and the group ascended the mountain once more and asked Jijang how much land he needed.
Jijang replied that he needed a piece of land that could be covered fully by his kasaya (robes of Buddhism monk, 袈裟). Initially believing that a piece of sash could not provide enough land to build a temple, they were surprised when Jijang threw the kasaya in the air, and the robe expanded in size, covering the entire mountain. Elder Wen-Ke had then decided to renounce the entire mountain to Jijang, and became his protector. Sometime later, Wen-Ke's son also left secular life to become a monk.
Jijang lived in Mount Jiuhua for 75 years before passing away at the age of 99. Three years after his nirvana, his tomb was opened, only to reveal that the body had not decayed. Most people had the intuition to believe that he was indeed an incarnation of Ksitigarbha. Jijang's well-preserved, dehydrated body may still be viewed today at the monastery on Mount Jiuhua.
Like other Bodhisattvas, Ksitigarbha usually is seen standing on a lotus base, symbolising his release from rebirth.
In Chinese Buddhism, the following mantra is associated with Ksitigarbha:
The true words for eradicating offenses (滅定業真言)
唵 鉢囉末鄰陀寧 娑婆訶 (ong bō là mò lín tuó níng suō pó hē)