Who is Jizo and What Does He Represent?


Jizo is a bodhisattva in Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, originally known in Sanskrit as Ksitigarbha (‘Womb of the Earth’, ‘Earth’s Treasury’). He is worshipped primarily in East Asia. Jizo is believed to have sworn not to attain Buddhahood, choosing rather to instruct the denizens of six worlds. His decision to postpone his Buddhahood, for the time between Gautama Buddha’s death and the arrival of Maitreya Buddha, was also taken in order to empty hell of all its prisoners.

Jizo presides over a world that few like to think about. He is the protector of children, especially those who die before their parents. They include mizuko, the souls of aborted, stillborn or miscarried babies. Such children cannot cross the mythical River Sanzu en route to the spirit world because they are yet to accumulate sufficient good deeds. They are doomed to endlessly pile stones on the riverbank as penance, but Jizo protects them in his robe from demons and lets them listen to mantras.

Statues of Jizo depict him as a shaven-headed monk, holding a shakujo or jingle staff that warns insects and small creatures of his coming, so that he may not harm them unintentionally. He often has childlike features, resembling those of his protégés. Sometimes, Jizo statues are adorned with tiny bibs or toys. He is also a protector of travelers and firefighters; hence his statues can be seen along roadsides.