Japan Temples and Shrines

Jizo – guardian of travellers, children, and motherhood

One of Japan’s most beloved deities, Jizō is the guardian of travellers, the hell realm, children, and motherhood. Everywhere in Japan, at busy intersections, at roadsides, in graveyards, in temples, and along hiking trails, one will find statues of Jizō Bosatsu decked in clothing, wearing a red or white cap and bib, adorned with toys, protected by scarfs, or piled high with stones offered by sorrowing parents.

Jizo, protector of children: Perhaps the greatest influence on Japan’s tradition of decking Jizō statues in hats, bibs, scarfs, and toys comes from the Sai no Kawara legend attributed to Japan’s Pure Land sects in the 14th and 15th centuries. According to this legend, children who die prematurely are sent to the underworld for judgment – like all sentient beings, their life is reviewed by the 10 Kings of Hell, judgment is pronounced, and they are reborn into one of six realms of existence. They may be pure souls, but they have not had any chance to build up good karma, and their untimely death caused great sorrow to their parents, and thus, they too, must undergo judgment. They are sent to Sai no Kawara, the riverbed of souls in purgatory, where they are forced to remove their clothes and to pray for salvation by building small stone towers, piling pebble upon pebble, in the hope of climbing out of limbo into Buddha’s paradise. But hell demons, answering to the command of the old hell hag Shozuka no Baba (also called Datsueba), soon arrive and scatter their stones and beat them with iron clubs. But no need to worry, for Jizō comes to the rescue, often hiding them in the sleeves of his robe. Even today, this horrific folklore about hell prompts Japanese parents into action.

Says Kondo Takahiro (an independent Buddhist scholar from Yokohama): “They imagine their little babies lingering at the riverbed, unable to cross the river, unable to gain salvation. Japanese parents therefore feel a great need to do something to alleviate their child’s suffering, to do something to improve the child’s chance of redemption. Thus the great cult of Jizō Bosatsu in Japan. Parents clothe Jizō statues in hopes that Jizō will clothe the dead child in his protection. Small pebbles are piled around the Jizō statue as well, offered by sorrowing parents as a prayer to Jizō to help the suffering soul of their deceased child. Even today, Jizō statues in some places in Japan are covered – sometimes from top to bottom – in pebbles placed there by sorrowing parents, who believe that every stone tower they build on earth will help the soul of their dead child in performing his/her penance.”

In modern Japan, a red hat, bib and toys are often found on Jizō statues, the gifts of a rejoicing parent whose child has been cured of dangerous sickness thanks to Jizō’s intervention, or a gift to help the deceased child in the afterlife.

Jizo, protector of travelers: Jizo is the first deity most people encounter when they set foot in Japan. This is because he is the protector of travelers. You’ll find Jizo peeking out among the grasses along the road, standing at intersections, overseeing borders, or sitting in a wooden shelter built especially for him. Jizo is at temples too, where sometimes he holds a baby in his arms. He is found at boundaries between places both physical and spiritual, between here and there, life and death.

Although the bibs are usually red, a color that represents safety and protection, they can be any color, fabric or pattern, even with Hello Kitty on them.

Local women usually take care of Jizo statues and provide them with hand-knitted hats and hand-sewn bibs. The practice of dressing Jizo statues is related to accruing merit for the afterlife, a common theme in Buddhism. Jizo represents a monk, and when people dress a monk statue, they accrue merit. Dressing Jizo gives people a chance to interact with him.

Sentai Jizo (one thousand Jizos): Jizo is also the overseer of muen botoke (the unconnected dead), those forgotten graves of ancestors or of the marginally departed. In medieval times noh and kyogen theater in Nara and Kyoto were performed near graveyards to appease the restless souls of the dead. Sometimes you will see stacks of abandoned tombstones, those no longer attached to a grave, gathered together and tied individually with red bibs. This practice is intimately linked to Jizo as the guardian of lost souls. Large groupings of Jizo statues are known as sentai jizo (one thousand Jizos). When grouped together at muen botoke sites, these stones embody the prayers and emotions of family members who once prayed for the deceased – they become “living icons” with the power to save other beings on earth.

Blog based on articles from http://www.onmarkproductions.com and https://www.japantimes.co.jp

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