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In China, Jizo is called Ti-ts’ang, or Dizang, and the reverence afforded him is superseded only by Kuan Yin and the Buddha.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