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Saturday, March 31, 2012

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A fragment of a gravestone is wrapped in cloth and set up as a Jizo in Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. JOE ARCIDIACONO

JAPAN LITE

A guide to Jizo, guardian of travelers and the weak


"Jizo Bosatsu has confirmed you as a friend on Facebook," said the email. I clicked on "view profile," which took me to Jizo's Facebook page. Not much information was revealed, except that his religious views are Buddhist, and he has 409 friends. His profile picture is a stone Jizo statue sitting peacefully with eyes closed, a hand-knitted cap atop his head, and a string of juzu beads around his neck. Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit) is known as the earth bearer, and he holds a shakujo staff in his right hand and a mani jewel in his left. The shakujo staff is the kind with six rings that jingles. His mani jewel grants all wishes.

This is the Jizo we know and love, the Jizo full of awesomeness, compassion and fortitude. Jizo does not get angry, nor does he ever give up, even when trampled and stepped upon like the earth. He guides us on our travels, gives power to those who are weak (such as children) and to those in dangerous places. His mantra is Om ka ka kabi sanmaei sowaka.

Among Jizo's Facebook friends is Hank Glassman, associate professor of East Asian Studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Face of Jizo: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism" (University of Hawaii Press). I sent a friend request to Professor Glassman, and within a couple of hours I was on the phone with my new insta-friend, discussing his book and our mutual friend, Jizo. He also sent me a copy of his book.

An alternative title for Glassman's book could be "Jizo — Unplugged: The Biography of a Rock Star."

The fact that Jizo is usually carved out of rock is significant. While Jizo statues can be made from a variety of materials (clay, bronze, etc.), he is most popularly carved out of stone. In his book, Glassman describes "the power of stones to engage the human heart." Stone is a material that has been worshipped and used for protection since ancient times. Stones having spiritual value predates Buddhism.

"The face of Jizo," includes basic Jizo facts as well as more intricate manifestations of his personality and his role in Japanese society, mainly via iconography. So here it is, everything you've always wanted to know about Jizo, according to Hank Glassman.

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.

Jizo, protector of children: Jizo takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age. Children "in limbo" in Japan are said to go to a place called sai no kawara, where they must create piles of stones into small towers. But every night the stone towers are destroyed by demons, so the next day the children must make new piles of stones. The making of these towers is to help their parents accrue merit for their own afterlife. This is why you sometimes see stray stones that have been made into little towers alongside Jizo statues. People make them for the souls of these children, to help them achieve their goals. People also leave toys, candy or fruit as offerings at the base of Jizo statues.

Women also pray to Jizo for fertility and easy childbirth. Some temples sell amulets for this purpose.

Glassman tells us how Jizo's role in Japan has changed along with the needs of modern society with the introduction in the 1970s of mizuko kuyo, a ceremony for aborted fetuses performed at local temples.

Dressing Jizo, accruing merit: You may wonder why Jizo statues are dressed with a small red bib around their necks. This practice of dressing Jizo includes hats, robes, or anything one wishes to adorn his figure with. Such red bibs were said to have been worn by children in earlier times. Although the bibs are usually red, a color that represents safety and protection, they can be any color, fabric or pattern. I've even seen bibs with alphabet patterns and Hello Kitty on them.

Local women usually take care of Jizo statues and provide them with hand-knitted hats and hand-sewn bibs. Glassman suggests that 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.

Welcome to Jizo. I hope you enjoyed your preliminary tour of Jizo basics. Of course, there is much more to the bodhisattva than this, all revealed in Glassman's book, "Face of Jizo." If you'd like to start accruing merit for your afterlife, you can start by buying his book, and by befriending Jizo on Facebook.



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