Jizo Bosatsu

Bodhisattva of Deceased Children

Jizo Statues
A young man walks among Jizo statues at Zojoji Temple in central Tokyo. © Electra K. Vasileiadou / Getty Images

His Sanskrit name is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.  In China he is Dayuan Dizang Pusa (or Ti Tsang P'usa), in Tibet he is Sa-E Nyingpo, and in Japan he is Jizo. He is the bodhisattva who vowed not to enter Nirvana until the Hell Realm is empty. His vow: "Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; not until all beings are saved will I certify to Bodhi."

Although Ksitigarbha primarily is known as the bodhisattva of the Hell Realm, he travels to all of the Six Realms and is a guide and guardian of those between rebirths.

In classic iconography, he is depicted as a monk carrying a wish-fulfilling jewel and a staff with six rings, one for each realm.

Read More: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva

Ksitigarbha in Japan

Ksitigarbha has a unique place in Japan, however.  As Jizo, the bodhisattva (bosatsu in Japanese) has become one of the most beloved figures of Japanese Buddhism. Stone figures of Jizo populate  temple grounds, city intersections and country roads. Often several Jizos stand together, portrayed as small children, dressed in bibs or children's clothes.

Visitors might find the statues charming, but most tell a sad story. The caps and bibs and sometimes toys that decorate the silent statues often have been left by grieving parents in memory of a dead child. 

Jizo Bosatsu is the protector of children, expectant mothers, firemen, and travelers. Most of all, he is the protector of deceased children, including miscarried, aborted or stillborn infants.

In Japanese folklore, Jizo hides the children in his robes to protect them from demons and guide them to salvation.

According to one folk tale, the dead children go to a kind of purgatory where they must spend aeons piling stones into towers to make merit and be released. But demons come to scatter the stones, and the towers are never built.

Only Jizo can save them. 

Like most of the transcendent bodhisattvas, Jizo may appear in many forms and is ready to help whenever and wherever he is needed. Nearly every community in Japan has its own beloved Jizo statue, and each one has its own name and unique characteristics. For example, Agonashi Jizo heals toothaches. Doroashi Jizo helps rice farmers with their crops. The Miso Jizo is a patron of scholars. The Koyasu Jizo assists women in labor. There is even a Shogun Jizo, dressed in armor, who protects soldiers in battle. There are easily a hundred or more "special" Jizos throughout Japan.

The Mizuko Ceremony

The Mizuko Ceremony, or Mizuko Kuyo, is a ceremony that centers on Mizuko Jizo. Mizuko means "water baby," and the ceremony primarily is performed on behalf of a miscarried or aborted fetus, or a stillborn or very young infant. The Mizuko Ceremony dates to the post-World War II period in Japan, when abortion rates rose significantly, although it has some more ancient forerunners. 

As part of the ceremony, a stone Jizo statue is dressed in children's clothing -- usually red, a color thought to ward off demons -- and placed on the temple grounds, or in a park outside the temple.

Such parks often resemble a children's playground and may even contain swings and other playground equipment. It's not unusual for living children to play in the park while parents dress "their' Jizo in new, seasonal clothes. 

In her book Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers (Shambhala, 2003), Jan Chozen Bays describes how the Mizuko Ceremony is being adapted in the West as a way to process grief, both for the loss of a fetus in pregnancy and the tragic deaths of children.