The Story of Jizo

The images of Jizo are often commissioned by bereaved parents in the hope of relieving their deceased children’s labors. According to the story, children who die go to the underworld as punishment for causing sorrow to their parents. Eventually, they reach Sai-no-Kawara, the riverbed of souls in purgatory.

There, they build stone towers, hoping to climb out of limbo into paradise. However, soon hell demons arrive, scatter their stones, and beat them with iron clubs. At this moment, Jizo consoles the children and hides them in the wide sleeves of his robe, thus saving them.

Even today, mourning parents cover Jizo statues in pebbles. They believe that every stone tower they make will help the soul of their dead child in performing his or her penance. Parents can also cover Jizo statues in red caps or bibs. In Japanese belief, red is the color for expelling demons and illness. This bodhisattva is also believed to aid women wishing to conceive and is the patron deity of travelers.

In the sculpture, Jizo takes the guise of a monk with a shaved head. He has an urna or dot between his eyebrows as a sign of wisdom. The bodhisattva holds a jewel or chintamani in his left hand. In his right hand, he carries a monk’s staff or khakkara with six rings that jingle to announce his arrival.

Kshitigarbha – the Guardian Bodhisattva

Kshitigarbha is of lesser importance than the other bodhisattva archetypes in terms of philosophical doctrine. His name translates as “Earth Womb” or “Essence of the Earth”. He is the savior of the oppressed and the dying. Kshitigarbha has vowed not to stop his labors until he has saved the souls of all the dead condemned to hell. In China, people believe that Kshitigarbha or Dicang is the overlord of hell. He is usually invoked when someone is about to die. In Central Asia, he often appears on temple banners.

However, In Japan, Kshitigarbha or Jizo does not reign over hell. Instead, people venerate him for the mercy he shows to the departed. In particular, he displays his kindness to dead children. Therefore, Jizo is associated with ceremonies for deceased children. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards.