I have a soft spot for this guy.
You see him everywhere in Japan – along country lanes, in the forks of roads, in cemeteries, outside homes, in temple yards, sometimes in the midst of a busy street. He usually wears a red bib and sometimes accessorises this with a red bonnet. Sometimes there are toys, baby bottles and other infant paraphernalia left with him.
He could look solemn and dignified at times and small and cute the next. His job is an important one. Sometimes he carries a rosary, rarely, a jewel but almost always a staff – which he uses to force open the gates of hell, and to tell people he was coming.
Long name: Ksitigharbha which can mean Earth or Earth Womb but hardly anyone in Japan calls him that anymore. Respectfully, he is O-jizo-sama. Though more often these days, he is just known simply and affectionately as Jizo.
Jizo is the patron saint of women, children, expectant mothers, miscarried or aborted fetuses and of children who died young and are in limbo. He is also the patron saint of pilgrims and travellers. As a birth educator, mother of five, writer and traveler, I am drawn to this simple saint. I too have lost children and the thought that Jizo takes care of them is a comforting one. As a Catholic, I am taught that children who die before they can be baptised are in limbo – a place that is neither heaven nor hell.
I’m not about to enter into a religious discourse but there are roughly similar ideas that both Catholic and Buddhist concepts of limbo share. Well, actually the Buddhist limbo seems to be harsher with manual labour and wicked demons abound. Which therefore makes me partial and rather sympathetic to the idea of Jizo protecting these babies and children in limbo.
According to tradition, it is believed that babies or children who die before birth or before they attain adulthood are not able to acquire enough merits in life to reach paradise, hence they are sent to limbo where they have to work (by piling up stones and pebbles) to gain the merits they are not able to in life before being allowed to move on to paradise.
Unfortunately Limbo is a harsh place. It is hot and there is little water and demons prowl around to demolish the small hills that these babies so pain-stakingly build up and they terrorise the little ones by beating them with their clubs. Jizo descends into limbo and offers his sleeves and his robe as a refuge for these babes to hide from the wicked demons. Hence also the practice of dousing a Jizo with a ladle of water. Much like a firefighter who drenches his jackets before entering a house on fire, the water on Jizo’s robes help keep him cool when he descends to limbo to protect the babies.
So it becomes a custom at some temples for people to give Jizo a scoop of water like these two children who delight in scooping up water and giving each Jizo a mild drenching.
I made it a point to look out for Jizo statues during this trip. What caught my eye this time round are Jizo statues with children and babies. Like the one above at Kofukuji temple in Nara – he’s got a child clinging to him at the side.
I also like this one at Nachi Taisha, a very graceful horizontal version with the baby coming to him:
There are so many different types of Jizo.
This little Jizo statue (below left) on one segment of the Kumano Kodo is believed to relieve backache if you insert a coin into the cleft in the middle of the statue. I left a 5yen coin and hoped for the best.
Throughout our journey in Japan on the various hikes we took through the countryside, we often found Jizo by the wayside.
Also a patron saint of travelers, he was often to be found by roadsides, in forks in the road (so that people would make the right decision and take the correct fork). His serene, weathered face was a comforting sight everywhere. In the Kumano Kodo, which is an ancient pilgrimage route, Jizo markers dotted the worn paths.
Below is one we found along the tree-lined path also in the Kumano Kodo. That was a stretch that was near silent, with only birdcall piercing the air. Round a bend, there it was – the red-bibbed figure that encouraged us to carry on, that we were on the right path.