Jizo Bosatsu or just Jizo is a very curious character from Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. He is viewed as a saint as well as a bodhisattva, i.e., a future Buddha. More often than not, however, he is cherished and worshipped as a protector deity who watches over the people of Japan, travelers, and children in particular.
Who Exactly Is Jizo?
Jizo is seen as both a bodhisattva and a saint in Japanese Buddhism. As a bodhisattva (or Bosatsu in Japanese), Jizo is believed to have attained prajna or Enlightenment. This puts him at the very end of the road to Enlightenment and one of the few next souls to one day become Buddha.
As a bodhisattva, however, Jizo intentionally chooses to postpone his ascension into a Buddha and instead spends his time as a Buddhist deity focused on helping people with their day-to-day lives. This is a key part of every bodhisattva’s journey to Buddhahood, but Jizo is especially beloved in Japanese Zen Buddhism for who he chooses to help and protect.
A Deity of Both Travelers and Children
The main focus of Jizo is to keep an eye on the well-being of children and travelers. These two groups can seem unrelated at first glance but the idea here is that children, like travelers, spend a lot of time playing on the roads, exploring new areas, and often even get lost.
So, Japanese Buddhists help Jizo protect all travelers and playful children by building small stone statuettes of the bodhisattva along the many roads of the land of the rising sun.
Since Jizo is also known as the “Earth Bearer”, stone is the perfect material for his statues, especially since it’s said to have spiritual power in Japan.
Jizo is also believed to be a patient deity – as he’d have to be as a bodhisattva – and he doesn’t mind the slow erosion of his statues from rain, sunlight, and moss. So, his worshippers in Japan don’t bother cleaning or renovating Jizo’s roadside statues and only remake them once they erode beyond recognition.
One thing Japanese Buddhists do for Jizo’s statues is to dress them in red hats and bibs. That’s because the color red is believed to symbolize protection against danger and illness, so it’s perfect for a guardian deity like Jizo.
Jizo’s Protection in The Afterlife
This well-meaning Buddhist deity doesn’t just keep children safe on the roads of Japan, however. What makes him especially beloved is that he looks after the spirits of children who have passed away. According to Japanese belief, when children die before their parents, the child’s spirit can’t cross the river to the afterlife.
So, the children must spend their days after death building small towers of stone in an effort to gain merit for themselves and their parents so that they would one day be able to cross over. Their efforts are often ruined by the Japanese yokai – evil spirits and demons in both Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism – that look to tumble down the children’ stone towers and force them to start over every morning.
How does this relate to Jizo?
As a protector of children, Jizo makes sure to keep the spirits of children safe beyond death too. He’s believed to both help keep their stone towers safe from the yokai’s forays and to keep the children themselves safe by hiding them under his clothes.
That’s why you’ll often see small stone towers by the roads of Japan, right alongside statues of Jizo – people build those to assist children in their efforts, and they place them next to Jizo so he can keep them safe.
Jizo or Dosojin?
As Shintoism was already widespread in Japan by the time Buddhism started spreading through the island nation, a lot of Japanese Buddhist deities are derived from Shinto tradition. This likely is the case with Jizo as well with many speculating that he’s the Buddhist version of the Shinto kami Dosojin.
Like Jizo, Dosojin is a kami (deity) that looks after travelers and ensures their successful arrival at their destinations. And, just like Jizo, Dosojin has countless small stone statues built all over the roads of Japan, particularly in Kantō and its surrounding areas.
This proposed connection can’t really be held against Jizo, however, and there doesn’t seem to be much quarrel between the two popular Japanese religions about Jizo and Dosojin. If you are practicing either Shintoism or Japanese Buddhism, you might have trouble distinguishing between these two, so be careful which roadside stone statue you’re praying to. If you’re neither a Buddhist nor a Shinto, however, feel free to give praise to either of these awesome protector deities.
Like many other beings in Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism, Jizo Bosatsu is a multi-faceted character derived from several ancient traditions. He has multiple symbolic interpretations and various traditions associated with him, some local, others practiced nationwide. In any case, this Buddhist bodhisattva is as fascinating as he is beloved, so it’s no wonder that his statues can be seen all over Japan.