Kishitigarbha (Jizo)

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Monk as Earth Mother

Kshitigarbha first appears in Tibet and in India as simply one of many bodhisattvas. But as the Mahayana spread through Central Asia and into China and Japan, Kshitigarbha came to rival even Avalokiteshvara in popularity, thanks largely to his relationship to the earth and his protection of the spirits of the dead.

Kshitigarbha is called Dizang in Chinese and Jizo in Japanese. In modern Japan Jizo is still highly venerated as a protector of children and travelers and as a guide to the afterlife. Jizo is especially known as the protector of the spirits of aborted fetuses and deceased children. Since he is such an important figure in contemporary Japan, we will generally refer to him by his Japanese name Jizo, rather than the Sanskrit Kshitigarbha.

In English, Jizo means "earth storehouse" or "earth womb." In many ways Jizo relates to the ground and to our earth. Although usually depicted as a male monk in Japanese tradition, I think of Jizo as the earth mother bodhisattva. In accord with his name Earth Womb, Jizo expresses many aspects of mothering, as well as of male nurturing and protective functions.

Iconography of Jizo

Jizo usually appears as a shaved-head monk, with a staff in one hand and a wish-fulfilling gem in the other. The monk's staff has six metal rings at the top, which jangle as the monk walks, announcing his presence, warding off predators, and scaring away small animals that might inadvertently be crushed underfoot. In early statues, instead of carrying this staff, Jizo often held his hand in either the mudra (gesture) of giving, with open hand extended, or the mudra of fearlessness, with arm held up, palm facing forward, to calm and reassure.

Jizo (as Dizang) remained prevalent in Chinese temples into the twentieth century, with special halls housing his image, although statues are not set out along the roadside, as they are in Japan.

In contemporary Japan small stone Jizo statues appear frequently alone or in clusters at temples, in small shrines, along many city streets, and on country roadsides to protect travelers. Stone Jizos are often placed at crossroads, riverbanks, on the seashore, and at other transitional spaces. Often these stone Jizos are given red cloth bibs as offerings to the spirits of deceased children.