Small stone statues dot the Japanese countryside. You will see them along roadways and trails; they appear tucked away in small shrines. They show up in manga (Japanese comic books) and popular films like My Neighbor Totoro. The diminutive bald figure, often rendered with baby-like features is comforting, cute even. This is Jizo, a Buddhist Bodhisattva whose history goes all the way back to India. However, he has become most prominent in Japan as a ubiquitous part of religious folklore.
Who is Jizo?
Jizo (地蔵), as he is called in Japan or Ksitigarbha in the Indian tradition, is a revered Bodhisattva in Buddhism. Bodhisattva’s are individuals who have resolved to attain enlightenment, while delaying Buddhahood out of compassion to help others reach this same goal. The name Jizo roughly translates to “Earth Treasury” or “Earth Womb.” His name signifies his role as a guardian of the Earth and its beings. It is also the reason why statues depicting Jizo are most commonly rendered in stone.
Jizo is a compassionate and benevolent figure, renowned for his vow to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings, especially those in the realms of hell. This unwavering commitment to saving others makes Jizo a beloved Bodhisattva, known for willingness to guide lost souls towards enlightenment.
Within a Buddhist context, Jizo is one of the four primary Bodhisattvas alongside Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara. Jizo, or Ksitigarbha, is first described in the “Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha.” The sutra is particularly popular in China.
In China, Jizo appears wearing a crown, sometimes wearing more elegant, ornate robes. In his right hand he holds a staff topped with metal rings known as a “shakujo” (錫杖), and in the left he clutches a tear-shaped jewel from the Indian tradition known as a cintamani.
Significance in Japan
In Japan, Jizo has a special place in the hearts of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Known as Jizo Bosatsu or O-Jizo-sama, he is often depicted as a humble and benevolent monk, dressed in simple robes, and carrying a shakujo. The shakujo traditionally served many purposes for a wandering monk, including scaring away wild animals and also alerting villagers to bring alms.
One of Jizo’s primary roles in Japan is to serve as a protector of children, particularly those who have passed away prematurely. Parents often offer toys, bibs, or tiny hats to Jizo statues in the hope of ensuring their children’s safe passage to the afterlife. It is common to find Jizo statues adorned with red hats, bibs, and clothing. Mothers leave these offerings and pray for the safety and wellbeing of their children. The color red is no coincidence either; it wards off illness and evil spirits.
A guide for the lost and weary
Jizo can sometimes appear as a child-like figure. His gentle smile, represents the innocence and purity of the human spirit. The “Jizo Mizuko” or “Jizo for the Unborn” statues are small statues that people often place at graveyards or temples to commemorate miscarried or aborted fetuses. It is common to find small stone towers or cairns built up with rocks by passersby at the feet of Jizo statues. This tradition is a form of offering to Jizo in hopes of alleviating the burden of the spirits of children in the afterlife.
Jizo stands as a figure of spiritual and cultural significance across Japan and Asia, whose influence extends beyond the boundaries of Buddhism. Whether as a protector of children, a guide for lost souls, or a symbol of unwavering compassion, Jizo’s presence resonates with people from many walks of life. Though representations of him may vary across cultures and traditions, he remains a welcome sight for the lost and weary.
Still Sitting carries a simple cast iron Jizo statue perfect for a home shrine or meditation space.
Read more from Still Sitting: Who is the Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin?
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