The Children of Jizo

Sunday night in Newtown, President Obama asked, “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” His answer was a resounding “No.” How everyone else will answer in the comming days and weeks will remain to be seen, but I suspect that since Friday many have pondered this same question in one form or another.

In Buddhist mythology, the protection of children, especially deceased children, is the mission of Bodhisattva Jizo. While this Buddhist icon has a Sanskrit name, Ksitigarbha, meaning “Earth Store”  or “Earth Womb,” I believe that most scholars are of the opinion that the sutra in which he first appears is Chinese in origin. Jizo is how the Bodhisattva is known in Japan.

Kshitigarbha with his staff and mani jewel, from a Korean painting, c. 14th century

The Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva relates how Jizo followed a path of filial piety in previous lifetimes and became a bodhisattva, making great vows to liberate other sentient beings. Jizo’s primary vow is that he will not attain Buddhahood until “all the Hells are empty.” This great determination is symbolized by the shakujo or sistrum, the “monk’s staff,” which the Buddha is said to have asked mendicant priests to carry. According to E. Dale Saunders “In China, the shakujo is used in the ceremony for the salvation of ancestors. It is carried by a monk who represents Jizo going through the Hells, forcing the demons to open the doors of cells where the dammed are caught.”*

In China, Jizo is called Ti-ts’ang, or Dizang, and the reverence afforded him is superseded only by Kuan Yin and the Buddha. Jizo is the protector of women and travelers. In Japan, ceremonies are offered to Jizo to help ease the suffering of women who have lost children. Evidently, it was only in Japan where Jizo also became the protector of children. Bodhisattva Jizo is said to help deceased children navigate the transition between life and death.

Children are considered too young and innocent to have a deep grasp of the Buddha’s teachings, and therefore they are unable to attain enlightenment. In Japanese Buddhist mythology, when they die at an early age, they are “in limbo” and go to a place called Sai no Kawara (“Children’s Limbo,” originally from Shintoism), a mystical riverbed where they stack piles of stones into small towers that symbolize help the children offer to their parents to accumulate merit for their own journey through the cycle of birth and death. Each night demons destroy these towers, and so each day the children must pile them again. The demons also appear during the day, scaring the children as they play or as they build their towers.

Bodhisattva Jizo helps the children on the banks of the Sai no Kawara. When they are frightened by the demons, they can jump into the sleeve of Jizo’s robe, where they feel safe.

Jizo statues in a Japanese cemetery. The wool hats and bibs are placed by parents in hopes that Jizo will cloth their dead child in his protection.

In Japan, Jizo statues are found outside of temples, in cemeteries, and at crossroads. The features of the statues are childlike to resemble the children Jizo protects. Often people will pile stone pebbles before them as an offering to departed children, or they leave toys, candy or fruit.

The Ksitigarbha Sutra contains a beautiful story, too long to include in this post, of how in a previous life, Jizo was a Brahman girl who became the Earth Store Bodhisattva. We may ask ourselves what relevance stories like this have for us today, how all this symbolism relates to real protection for children who seem to be under siege and, as Robert B. Reich wrote yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, “shortchanged on almost every issue we face as a society.”

The answer is fairly obvious. President Obama said it the other night: “[We] bear responsibility for every child, because . . .  we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”

We have to be the Jizos of the real world, the protectors of all children.

I can’t imagine what it is like to be a child in today’s world. Those of us, of a certain age, were lucky in that our childhoods were mostly innocent affairs. The only bad guys I ever saw growing up were on television. The only shootings I witnessed were not real.

“When [the] qualities of Jizo become our own, then . . . we do not know boredom or loneliness. We are always accompanied,” says Jan Chozen Bays in her book on Jizo.**

I would add that when we take on Jizo’s qualities, we then accompany others. When we assume the responsibility – when we share responsibility, for all living beings, that is when we are never lonely.

Every person can open the sleeves of their heart to become a Bodhisattva Jizo in the real world. There are myriad ways in which each of us can contribute to the protection of children. They are in limbo, for they are helpless without our support. In the spirit of the Metta Sutta, “just as a mother protects with the life of her child,” let us use the staffs of our compassion to unlock the cells that have caught our most precious treasure.

Two Jizo haikus by Issa:

suzume no ko jizô no sode ni kakure keri

baby sparrow
safe in holy Jizo’s


takenoko no ban shite gozaru jizô kana

kindly guarding
the bamboo shoots…
holy Jizo



* E. Dale Saunders, Mudra, A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, Bollingen Foundation/Pantheon Books, Inc., 1960

** Jan Chozen Bays, Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers, Shambhala Publications, 2003


Be a Hero of the Mind

$66 million the first weekend.

Like most boys, when I was young I loved comic books. I was weaned on DC Comics, which had Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and The Flash – the classic superheroes. As I grew older I came to feel that they were all one-dimensional characters. Then, almost as if someone had read my mind, along came Marvel Comics. One of the first new characters to emerge from Marvel was Spiderman.

Now, Spidey (AKA Peter Parker) was supposed to be a few years older but essentially he was just a kid like me. And he had problems. I mean aside from the problems associated with battling bad guys. Personal problems. Girl problems. He was misunderstood, he screwed stuff up. In other words, Spiderman was a superhero with more than one dimension. He was thoroughly human.

Marvel's Thor was the creation of two immortals: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Another character Marvel introduced early on was Thor, who was the exact opposite of Spidey. This guy was an immortal god, just like in the Norse legends. But in the Marvel version of the story, Odin, the king of the Norse gods and Thor’s father, resolved to teach his son some very human lessons and placed him in the body of a medical student named Donald Blake. I guess that made him at least part human.

The traditional Thor may have been immortal but he was not imperishable. As I recall from my readings of the Norse legends, it was prophesied that one day Thor would die from a serpent’s poison. So even the traditional telling of the Thor story had a somewhat human element. The mythological gods of most cultures were anthropomorphic, endowed with human qualities such as anger, hatred, and jealousy. In presenting their gods with human frailties, the tellers of these myths imparted moral lessons, and by giving the gods superhuman powers, they inspired their listeners, as well as entertained them. In Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell notes that these stories,

[Are] telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums.

Not only were the mythological gods representations of the human spirit, they also represented phenomena, the forces of the natural world. The gods of India were no different. They were called devas and this word originally meant something partaking of the nature of heaven. The Chinese translated deva as t’ien, which literally means “heaven.” Yensho Kanakura, in Hindu-Buddhist Thought in India, points out that “The noun and adjective ‘deva’ derives from a verbal root div, meaning ‘to throw’ or ‘to shine.’ Deva is a cognate of the Latin word deus.”

It’s said that Buddha did not reject the idea of devas but rather maintained a tolerant attitude. That may have been the case, however it seems clears from his discourses that he did not take them seriously nor did he feel that they deserved the same attention as they were given by the compilers of the later Abhidharma literature.

With the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, a different type of “superhero” was idealized – the bodhisattva. Although the bodhisattva was first represented in Buddhist literature as a celestial being, the path the bodhisattva traversed could be walked by anyone.

In his book Diamond Sutra: transforming the way we perceive the world, Soeng Mu informs us that

“In later Mahayana tradition, Indo-Tibetan scholars translated bodhisattva as jangchub sempa (“awakening mind hero”). This was an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new kind of spiritual hero . . .”

This is a great concept – mind-hero. The real personification of this ideal is the Buddha himself. Unlike Thor, Buddha was not a god. Unlike Jesus, the ultimate god/superhero for some, Buddha did not perform awe-inspiring miracles or ascend to the heavens. Unlike Superman and comic book heroes, Buddha did not have “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” Buddha was a human being. His powers and abilities were the ones he already possessed. Although it’s claimed he levitated above the Ganges, in truth the only thing Buddha ascended was his own mind. He was a mind-hero.

We can never become gods. We’ll never be faster than a speeding bullet or be able to fly through the air by swinging an incredibly heavy hammer around our heads. We can be bodhisattvas. We can be a heroes of the mind.

Becoming a mind-hero requires courage. It takes a certain amount of bravery to conquer one’s mind. The goal is to master the mind, instead of having it master you. It requires the courage to lay aside our preconceived notions long enough so that our minds are open and receptive to new ways of thinking.

In the Chinese language, mind and heart have the same character. In Japanese, it’s called kokoro – mind/heart. So we can also say that a mind-hero means being courageous in heart and spirit. It means opening our hearts to others, having a boundless spirit of compassion.

Spiderman often likes to meditate in the ancient Tibetan upside-down position.

If you are like me, often you do not feel very heroic. You may feel that to train your mind is a very difficult thing (and you’d be right) or that you often fail at mastering your mind. But being a hero is not so much about the results. More important is the effort you make. Heroes often fail to achieve their goals. Many have gone down in defeat, but they are heroic because they tried, they made effort.

In his Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Prasastrasena wrote,

Bodhi refers to the sphere of the mind. Because he exerts himself and tries to achieve that [bodhi, awakening], he is a hero contemplating enlightenment (bodhisattva).

When you study and practice Buddhism, you should feel empowered. You should have a feeling that you too can achieve what the Buddha and all those ancient masters and all mind-heroes have achieved – calmness of mind, happiness, wisdom. You should also feel encouraged, confident that you can transform your life and change your mind, because even the most fantastical stories in the Buddhist sutras are telling you truths others have realized, truths that you can realize too. Most of all, even when you stumble and fall and it might seem that you have been defeated, it’s actually a victory because you made an effort and in the end that’s all that counts. When you exert yourself in this way, you are a true mind-hero.

This is my constant thought: how I can cause all living beings to be the same as me and gain entry to the transcendent Way.

– The Buddha in The Lotus Sutra


“Like a cart for the supporting of burdens.”

You may have heard about the Dalai Lama’s recent remarks on the death of bin Laden – here’s how it was described by Mitchell Landsberg in the May 4th edition of the LA Times :

As the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama says he practices compassion to such an extent that he tries to avoid swatting mosquitoes “when my mood is good and there is no danger of malaria,” sometimes watching with interest as they swell with his blood.

Yet, in an appearance Tuesday at USC, he appeared to suggest that the United States was justified in killing Osama bin Laden.

As a human being, Bin Laden may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said in answer to a question about the assassination of the Al Qaeda leader. But, he said, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”

Here is a more detailed description from website of The Office of Tibet (my emphasis):

His Holiness . . . [gave] a public talk on “Secular Ethics, Human Values and Society“ organized by the University’s Student Interfaith Council and co-hosted by the Dalai Lama Foundation and the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values . . .

His Holiness then answered questions, some of which were submitted through the Internet. The first question was on His Holiness’ emphasis on compassion as a basis of ethics.  It asked whether in some situation ensuring justice is more important than being compassionate to the perpetrator of a crime. It referred to the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden and the celebrations of it by some, and asked where compassion fit in with this and ethics. In his response, His Holiness emphasized the need to find a distinction between the action and the actor.  He said in the case of Bin Laden, his action was of course destructive and the September 11 events killed thousands of people.  So his action must be brought to justice, His Holiness said. But with the actor we must have compassion and a sense of concern, he added. His Holiness said therefore the counter measure, no matter what form it takes, has to be compassionate action. His Holiness referred to the basis of the practice of forgiveness saying that it, however, did not mean that one should forget what has been done.

This event of bin Laden’s killing is not easily resolved in our mind. We have questions, concerns. If we look at it strictly from the precept of not-killing as the great moral truth, as an ultimate or absolute truth, then we betray the ultimate truth. Mahayana teaches that the highest truth is no truth at all. Nagarjuna states, “Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

Furthermore, he says:

All deeds are sunya (relative and contingent); and the deeds that are done with this understanding are called right deeds. The farer on the Great Way, the bodhisattva, comprehends the ultimate sameness of all deeds; and he does not take the good deed as meritorious and the evil deed as devoid of merit. For in the ultimate truth there is not this distinction of good and bad. In the ultimate sense, there are no deeds, good or evil. This is the true prajna (wisdom).

Nagarjuna’s not promoting a free-for-all attitude, a way to rationalize unwholesome behavior, rather he’s telling us good and evil are non-dual. If there wasn’t evil, how could there be good? Ultimately, though, they are just concepts. What’s more, when holding a moral truth to be absolute, we box ourselves in a corner. David J. Kalupahana, in his study of Nagarjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, says, “A moral law that is incapable of accommodating any exceptions can be utterly useless and even harmful.”

The alternative is not very attractive. In the relative and mundane world, there are deeds and doers of deeds, actions and actors. And there is good and evil. Once we begin to make exceptions, we veer dangerously close to the idea that the end justifies the means. By justifying immoral acts owing to a good intention, we betray not only our highest ideal, that of the bodhisattva, but also the very real vows of compassion the bodhisattva makes on behalf of others.

Shantideva in the Siksha-Samuccaya (“Compendium of Teachings”): “It is armed with that compassion which takes just this bodily form, that a Bodhisattva refuses to do an evil deed, even for dear life.”

In the same work, Shantideva says that if a Bodhisattva commits a “sin” but commits it with no desire, no attachment, no hatred, and for the benefit of others, then no “bad sin” has been committed. Maybe back to the end justifying the means? I don’t know . . .

Something else: Shantideva quotes the Viradatta-paripriccha, “He who has a mind for the Dharma must carry his body about like a cart for the supporting of burdens.” And the Vajradhvaja Sutra, “For I have taken it upon myself, by my own will, the whole of the pain of all things living. Thus I dare try every abode of pain . . .”

While reading those lines, I thought about the Navy Seals who carried out the raid, particularly of the man, or men, who killed bin Laden. I always hear about our troops putting themselves in harm’s way, and frankly, most of the time it goes in one ear and out the other. But to put oneself at risk like that for the sake of others is a compassionate act. To take the life of another is a huge burden to assume, whether one is cognizant of it or not. It’s not an abode of pain I would enter eagerly.

Those Navy Seals deserve our compassion and our forgiveness, too.

Anyway, like you probably, I have not resolved all this myself. Which brings us to another truth: some things are never resolved. Yet we will keep searching for resolution, because we will never be completely satisfied with the state of things or the answers we have at hand. In the moment, yes. That’s contentment, peace, it’s real. In the long run, no. We should never be satisfied.

A bodhisattva vows to save all living beings and knows that it is impossible to save all living beings, yet keeps trying anyway . . .



“Samsara is my beat” Philip Marlowe, Bodhisattva

Raymond Chandler and Bogart as Marlowe

Today I feel compelled to note the 122 anniversary of the birth of my favorite author, Raymond Chandler. The main reason being that I am currently re-reading what I think is the true Great American Novel, Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye.

Chandler, as some of you may know, was the creator of arguably the second most famous fictional private detective in the world, Philip Marlowe. [Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly Number 1] Marlowe is a tough, down-at-heels private eye, who in spite of the cynicism he tries to project is at heart an idealist and an optimist. Over the narrative course of five novels he continually gets involved in the messy lives of the people he meets even when he doesn’t really need to.

In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe meets a guy named Terry Lennox:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

When Lennox is abandoned by the girl he’s with just because he’s just run out of dough, Marlowe takes him home and sobers him up. Marlowe knows better than to get involved with drunks, but he does it anyway.

Marlowe says, “Terry Lennox made me plenty of trouble. But after all that’s my line of work.” Well, maybe. Usually a private eye gets paid for helping people. Lennox has no money, and in fact, Marlowe rarely makes a dime off any of the people he helps. So, it’s more than just Marlowe’s “line of work.” More like his mission.

“I’m supposed to be tough but there was something about the guy that got me,” Marlowe ruminates after his first encounter with Terry Lennox. Later, he tells Lennox,

I’m a private dick. You’re a problem that I don’t have to solve. But the problem is there. Call it a hunch. If you want to be extra polite, call it a sense of character. Maybe that girl didn’t walk out on you at The Dancers just because you were drunk. Maybe she had a feeling too.

Tricycle Magazine did an article once on Marlowe as a Bodhisattva. I wish I could find it. If you’re a subscriber, you can log in a read it. I think It’s called “Zen Master Marlowe.” There might be an earlier one, from the ‘90’s also. I remember they described him as the “true American Bodhisattva.”

Continue reading ““Samsara is my beat” Philip Marlowe, Bodhisattva”


Sunday Dharma: Shantideva

Shantideva was a Buddhist scholar who lived in the 8th Century CE, and the author of a number of works, the best known being the Bodhicaryavatara or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

Central to Mahayana Buddhist teachings is the ideal of the Bodhisattva or Enlightening-being. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by compassion, seeks to work for the salvation of other beings. In a more formal sense, a Bodhisattva is one who makes a vow to save all beings by taking on all their sufferings.

Some readers may see an obvious similarity between the Bodhisattva and the sacrifice of Jesus to take away the sins of the world. The general concept of the Bodhisattva was part of Buddhism from its earliest beginnings, some five hundred years before the time of Jesus. Scholars believe that the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal with its vow to endure sufferings for the sake of others was fully realized by the First Century CE at the latest. Some suspect that a common source for the notion of a “suffering savior” may have originated in the Middle East.

Here is a short excerpt from Shantideva’s Sikaasamuccaya or Manual of Wisdom. Shantideva was a poet of the first magnitude and I find his description of the Bodhisattva’s attitude, particularly single-minded determination to accomplish the awesome vow undertaken, to be tremendously moving each time I read it. Although the Bodhisattva is presented here as masculine, please be assured that this ideal transcends gender.

The bodhisattva stands alone, without a companion, and he puts on the armor of supreme wisdom. He acts on his own, and leaves nothing to others, working with a will steeled with courage and strength. Strong in the strength of his own strength, and he resolves thus: “Whatever all beings should obtain, I will help them to obtain . . .

Continue reading “Sunday Dharma: Shantideva”