Depictions of a shaven-headed monk are revered throughout East Asia. This being is known as Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit and Dayuan Dizang Pusa in Chinese. He is known as Sa-E Nyingpo in Tibet, and the Japanese affectionately call him O-Jizo-san – Jizo for short.
Jizo postponed his Buddhahood to guide beings in all six dimensions during the time between the death of Gautama Buddha and the arrival of Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha). He vowed to save all beings and continue on his quest until no more beings exist in the hell realm (called Niraya in Pali and Naraka in Sanskrit).
Depictions of Jizo often portray him as a monk (often in child form) holding a wish-fulfilling jewel and staff. The staff features six rings, one to symbolize each realm of the World of Desire, and jingles to warn small creatures and insects that he is coming. His image is found throughout Japan, such as near Buddhist temples, in graveyards, next to quiet roads, and, sometimes, even on street corners in cities.
Jizo is the guardian of beings between rebirths and the protector of expectant mothers, children, travelers, and firemen. He looks over the souls of children who passed away, including stillborn, aborted, and miscarried infants.
The souls of these children cannot cross the mythological River Sanzu to enter the spirit world because they have not accrued enough good deeds during their incarnation on earth. They are destined to build towers by piling stones on top of each other to make up for this. According to legend, demons come to level these towers. Jizo comes to the child-beings’ aid and hides them in his robes while reciting mantras to them, comforting them as he helps them cross into the afterlife.
In Japan, statues of Jizo are often decorated with red bibs and hats. The red attire is believed to ward off illness, danger, and demons. It is not uncommon to find children’s toys placed near a Jizo statue. These keepsakes are often left by mourning parents who have lost a child, so that Jizo may bring the offerings to comfort their late child. Additionally, these statues are also frequently surrounded by stone towers. The towers are created to help the child-beings with their aforementioned task in the afterlife. It is also meant as protection, since if the towers are destroyed, the children are vulnerable to the demons (yokai).
Jizo is also known as the ‘womb of the earth’ or ‘earth bearer.’ For that reason, these figures are made out of stone, frequently covered in moss, and placed where they are exposed to rainwater. The stone represents longevity and provides protection.
There are different kinds of Jizo, each with its own name and characteristics. However, all have the essence of compassion and kindness – providing assistance to those in need. Jizo is a beloved deity often portrayed as a child-monk – resembling those who are in his care. He brings comfort to grieving parents and offers protection to children, expecting mothers, firemen, and travelers.