It’s hard to be in Japan for very long without noticing this cheerful figure in temples, roadside shrines and so on:
This is Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, the Earth-Store Bodhisattva, also known as Jizō (地蔵). Jizo is a popular figure in East-Asian Buddhism,1 especially in Japan where he is nearly universal, and often recognized by his bald head and long staff or shakujō (錫杖), as well as his role as a Buddhist guardian figure. This statue near Ueno Park’s Shinobazu Pond, photographed by me in 2010, is a good example:
Within Buddhism, Jizo is often best known for his/her vow to rescue all beings from Hell before he reaches the state of Buddhahood.
Buddhism and the notion of Hell is an interesting subject both to Buddhists and non-Buddhists doing religious comparative studies. For us Westerners, Hell is an all-too-familiar subject, and one reason why many people leave Western religions (too much judgment and condemnation), so when they encounter graphic depictions of Hell in Buddhism as well, this causes both confusion and discomfort. Westerners who like to focus on Buddhism’s rational side usually dismiss these graphic depictions of Hell, and figures such as Enma the Judge of the Underworld, as mere “cultural accretions” or as examples of why Asian Buddhism is somehow backwards.2
However, recently I decided to read through the Buddhist sutra called the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra, which is the only text to feature Jizo Bodhisattva, but also covers the subject of Buddhist hells and salvation as well.
The Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra expounds at length the story of Jizo Bodhisattva, who started the path to become a Bodhisattva as a young Brahmin (high-caste) woman, and had a vision of her mother in Hell. The sutra goes into length describing her dream, and her conversations with the demons in the dream, who explain how Hells are subdivided, various punishments and so on. The Sutra also explains in great detail the effects of one’s negative karma and how this leads to rebirth in various Hells:
Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, explaining further, said to Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, “Sir, these are the places and manners in which sentient beings in South Jambudvipa who create bad karma by leading evil lives receive their retribution. Karma is tremendously powerful. It is capable of covering Mount Sumeru, is capable of plumbing the vast ocean depths and is even capable of obstructing the holy doctrines. Therefore, sentient beings should not neglect lesser evils as being not sinful; for retribution will be meted out to them after their deaths for every bad intention or violation, even though it be as small or insignificant as an iota. Even beings as closely related as fathers and sons will part their respective ways, and one will not take the punishment of the other even if they chance to cross paths.
The point here, I believe is two things:
- No intentional, harmful act is “too small”. Everything has its price, and we all have to pay our debts sometime, however small.
- A person has to accept responsibility for their actions and cannot blame others, nor simply wish them away however uncomfortable or inconvenient.
But the sutra also points out later that even if one commits the worst sins, and is reborn in the worst Hell (Avici) for a near-infinite amount of time, this is still not a permanent state:
[The Buddha:] “Fifthly, if a person falls into this hell, he will die myriads of times and be revived myriads of times each day and each night from the time of his initial entrance unto hundreds of thousands of future kalpas [eons], and he will never have any relief or rest whatsoever from his suffering and torture even for one instant. It is only with the exhaustion of his sinful karma that he will finally be able to gain rebirth. Owing to such continuity of suffering and torture, this hell is, therefore, known as Avici.”
This sentiment is repeated in the Lotus Sutra’s “Devadatta” chapter where Shakyamuni Buddha predicted that Devadatta, the great betrayer who tried to kill the Buddha more than once and divide the monastic commnity, would become a Buddha once his time in the Avici Hell was completed. Unlike the Western notion of Hell, the Buddhist notion of Hell is only as long and terrible as you make it.
In the midst of all this though, the sutra also describes at length Jizo’s efforts to lead and guide beings, to rescue beings in hell, as well as to prevent beings from being reborn in hell in the first place. This is a very important teaching of Salvation in Buddhism as well, as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strive to help all beings regardless of their lot. Because all phenomena are empty (contingent and temporary), today’s criminal could become tomorrow’s Bodhisattva, thus the it is taught that given enough time all beings will eventually awaken and become Buddhas.
Anyway over time, Jizo eventually also became seen in popular religion in Japan as a kind of protector of children through his friendly demeanor and his staff. Thus, it’s often the case that people who have lost children also pay homage to Jizo to help protect their children in their transition to the next rebirth, and avoid any spiritual pitfalls and so on. This may also explain why people tie scarves on statues of Jizo, or pile stones and other offerings: in hopes that Jizo will either convey these to their lost ones. One example is a photo I took on a trip to Japan in early 2010:
There are six statues here, with the iconic red bibs and hats, which is a common motif for depictions of Jizo Bodhisattva. This is to depict the 6 realms of rebirth in traditional Buddhist cosmology, and Jizo’s efforts to assist beings in each realm. Again, this is explained in the Sutra if you would like more information.
On that note, I have a story in a small book I bought from Todaiji temple in 2005, about the reconstruction of the temple after the disastrous Genpei War. This took a great toll on its chief from the Fujiwara clan, Fujiwara no Yukitaka, who died soon after the temple’s completion. According to the story, the daughter, grieving, prayed before a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva for 7 days, and on the seventh day, a mysterious letter waited for the princess in the hand of the statue from her father, who told her not to grieve and that he was dwelling among Bodhisattvas in the Tushita Heaven for his meritorious deeds.
Another, more famous story I’ve seen in many Japanese children’s books involves a poor but kind couple who were starving one winter just before New Year’s. The husband went to sell some straw hats in the village, but sold nothing, and as he returned home, he passed a famous hill that had 6 statues of Jizo. He put a hat on each one of them to protect them from the cold. As his wife and he slept that night, they awoke to a clatter and saw the six statues retreating to the hills, and having left behind a huge bag of food and provisions.
In regards to Jizo’s role as a protector of children, when my daughter was first born, I was concerned about her, and would sometimes recite a basic mantra to Jizo, found in Shingon Buddhist lay services:
on kaka kabi sanmaei sowaka
I even looked for a statues of Jizo as well (see footnote 1) to put by her crib, just in case. This might sound silly, but unless you are a parent, you may not appreciate how vulnerable children are, and even if the stories are a myth, then it provides parents at least a spiritual peace of mind. Imagine life in the old days when disease, infant mortality and malnutrition were a dangerous reality (and still is in many parts of the world).
In any case, Jizo is a pretty intriguing figure in Buddhism, and his role in popular Buddhism in Japan should not be underestimated, and I hope the Buddhist notion of salvation and redemption gets more treatment in the West as time goes on.
Namu Jizō Bosatsu
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. Reminds me of a recent comic by Sinfest.
P.P.S. I wrote this post a while before a certain incident involving a famous Buddhist golfer, and comments about Buddhism and redemption by a certain misinformed news anchor, so I decided to revise somewhat at the last minute.
1 I once stopped by a Tibetan-goods store here in Seattle and asked about a status of Jizo, and got a confused look. I found out later Jizo is a very marginal figure in Tibetan Buddhism, which highlights the regional differences in Buddhist culture, as Jizo is huge in Japan.
2 Trust me, I do not subscribe to this view. Being with my wife this many years, and further study of Buddhism from Asian sources has made me appreciated the rich tradition there, and feel a little ashamed by Western ‘book Buddhists’ at times. Then again, we’re all learning. Today’s know-it-all is tomorrow’s bodhisattva.