I have this tattoo on my right forearm.
People ask me what it is a lot. Once in a while someone knows. This is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva—he is what’s called a Transcendent Bodhisattva. I’ll explain briefly what a Transcendent Bodhisattva is.
A Bodhisattva is one who has vowed to help others attain Enlightenment. A Transcendent Bodhisattva is a semi-mythical figure. There are many Transcendent Bodhisattvas in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.
People look to these Transcendent Bodhisattvas for inspiration. Some people believe they literally exist and they live on in some spiritual realm watching over us. Other people (like me) believe that they are powerful metaphors.
I’d compare them to things we talk about in western culture like Mother Earth or the Grim Reaper or Father Time. Do some people believe in them literally? Sure, but usually they’re just used metaphorically.
Different Transcendent Bodhisattvas represent different things. There’s a Bodhisattva of Wisdom and a Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Ksitigarbha is sometimes called the Bodhisattva of Vows. His name means Womb of the Earth (a connection to our ideas about Mother Earth?).
His story is that he vowed to bring other beings to Enlightenment. That’s what Bodhisattvas do, but his specialty was unique. He dedicated himself to saving those beings that are thought to be beyond saving. He vowed to bring to Enlightenment the lost and the broken, the misfits and renegades, travelers and wanderers, the depressed and even the wicked. It’s been said that he gives teachings even to demons—those that most people think wouldn’t deserve the gift of the Dharma.
Because the way of the Bodhisattva isn’t just about bringing Enlightenment to the wise, it’s about bringing it to everyone.
As a side note, at the risk of being confusing, in Japan Ksitigarbha is depicted as a child monk named Jizo. In Japanese branches of Buddhism Jizo is a Transcendental Bodhisattva that strives to help lost children find their way.
He’s usually depicted with a halo to represent his Awakening, a staff that he uses to open the gates to Hell to enter and give teachings and a jewel which he uses to light up even the darkest places.
Ksitigarbha is a hero to me.
Going to difficult places and lifting up the broken is one of the noblest things I can think of. It makes me think of activism—striving with diligence to make a better world.
It makes me think of standing up when no one else will.
Ksitigarbha is who I want to be like. And, in all honesty, Ksitigarbha is what I think about when I think I’m broken. When I think I’m beyond saving, I can remember that Ksitigarbha tries to save everyone.
Even those who are much more broken than me.