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Fellow Travelers – Part IV: Jizo Bodhisattva

May 30, 2011

Read Part I, Part II, and Part III here.  Now, the exciting conclusion.

Jizo Bodhisattva

Little Jizo statue at Shambhala Mountain Center, May 2005.

In addition to using the teachings about bodhisattvas to better understand the Dharma, our role in the world, and purify our motivation, we can use them as concrete examples or what Taigen Daniel Leighton calls ‘archetypes.’  By taking them as our models “we may find our own approach to the spiritual journey that acknowledges and connects with all of creation.” (Leighton, p. 1)  Leighton defines archetypes as “components of the psyche, and catalysts to self-understanding.” (Leighton, p. 3)

If all beings have the capacity for clear, open, awakened awareness posited by the teaching of buddha nature, then by seeing the bodhisattvas as archetypes, patterns or approaches to awakening activity, we may learn models with which we can each express the elements of our own enlightenment and beneficial nature. (Leighton, p. 3)

The seven bodhisattvas discussed in his book are Shakyamuni Buddha, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin, Kannon), Kshitigarbha (Jizo), Maitreya, and Vimalakirti.  It is on Kshitigarbha, the Sanskrit name for Jizo, who we focus as an archetype particularly useful to the Buddhist chaplain.

As discussed earlier, the vow is central to bodhisattva practice and various bodhisattvas are known by their various specific vows.  One unique to Jizo is the vow to “aid hungry ghosts and beings in hell.”  For people living through trauma, war, prison, and addiction, grieving the death of a loved one, or approaching their own death, “hell” is an apt description.  In this life, aiding these people in crisis is as close as the chaplain will come.  “Because of his vow to remain present with all beings in all the realms, Jizo is very close and accessible to all of us.” (Leighton, p. 212-213)  Likewise, chaplains often work in situations where they are close at hand, so that suffering people need not seek them out.  Chaplains are embedded in the daily lives of suffering people, rather than hidden in a church, rectory, or seminary.  For this reason, Jizo is already an appropriate model.

Leighton even draws a direct correlation between this bodhisattva and the wounded healer in Jizo’s role as a shaman.  “Shamans are sometimes referred to as ‘wounded healers.’  Such shamans are individuals who have suffered deeply, plunged into their own inner abyss, and awakened to a calling to care for others.”  The shaman is one who takes on a spiritual journey through many realms in order to be a guide and aid to others.  Jizo is often likened to a shaman due to his many journeys through other realms, part of his vow to be constantly available to aid all beings, and due to his close association with the earth and nature. (Leighton, p. 221)

Jan Chozen Bays, a practicing pediatrician and Buddhist in the Zen tradition of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, has written the only English language book (that I could find) dedicated entirely to Jizo Bodhisattva.  Here she discusses the origins and various manifestations of Jizo Bodhisattva as well as how she (in Bays’ typically gender-inclusive language) can be of aid to modern people in their daily lives.  The main sutra associated with Jizo is the Past Vows of the Earth Store Bodhisattva, believed to have been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese sometime during the reign of Empress Wu Zetien (624-705 CE).

The narratives [of the sutra] tell of great vows by heroic women; adventures of courageous children who make fearless sacrifices to repay their debt of kindness to their parents; graphic, gory accounts of the hells and sublime tales of the heavens.  We find practical advice for the spiritual aspects of childbirth, interpretation of dreams, and guidelines for avoiding rebirth in the evil destinies of animals, ghosts, and the hells. (Bays, p. xi)

As is evident from this description, one of the major aspects, perhaps even the most significant, of Jizo is her role as a protector of women and children, particularly miscarried and aborted fetuses.  This is not the role I focus on here, but a further investigation of these aspects of the bodhisattva would be of immediate relevance to the work of the chaplain.

As mentioned before, due to Jizo’s aspect as the patron saint of hell, more or less, she is directly relatable to the work of the chaplain.  “This is Buddhism with its eyes open,” says Bays of the Earth Store sutra, “a religion that takes faith off the meditation cushion and into the night of the soul, wide-eyed and open-handed into humanity’s grief’s, mistakes, broken hearts, and hurting wounds.” (Bays ,p. xiii)  This metaphor of the helping hand will appear again and again throughout her book.

In chapter seven of her book, Bays discusses “Jizo Bodhisattva and the Path of Pilgrimage.”  Often Jizo is portrayed dressed as a pilgrim and carrying a pilgrim’s staff or walking stick.  Bays makes a distinction between a pilgrim and a wanderer.  While a wanderer is “lost in the rounds of suffering existence” and without a path, a pilgrim is aware of the spiritual path and willingly walks it.  Here she talks about the spiritual journey in relation to the idea of “path consciousness.”  First, people need to know there is a path, a Third Noble Truth, a way out of the cycles of suffering.  Only then may they begin to seek or be shown the path. (Bays, p. 116-118)

I don’t know that the distinction between pilgrim and wanderer is so clear cut.  I rather believe that all people are on a path, even if some are going backwards or standing still.  However, it is true that not all people are aware of the path even as they walk it.  This path is constructed of the accumulated meanings and worldview they have formed throughout their life and shaped by their habitual patterns and karma.  As with Jizo, it is the chaplain’s duty to uncover each individual’s path, understand where they are within it, which direction they are heading, and, perhaps, help them see it for themselves.  This is a tall order given the limited amount of time chaplains typically spend with the people they help, which is why the first step is always simply meeting that person where they are – being present with them.  From this, all may later unfold, but it requires the first step.  That is the chaplain’s path.  We step from our own road onto theirs.

In helping us take that first step, Jizo offers “The Greatest Gift: No Fear.”  Jizo is often depicted making the mudra of fearlessness with her right hand while holding a six-ringed (or any other number) staff.  “Like other buddhas and bodhisattvas, she is fearless because she has seen through the illusion of self.”  The reoccurring theme of non-self was touched on earlier, but now shall be explained.

One Dharma teacher has defined self as the process of defining and defending personal territory.  When we think our puny little self is all that we are, then we are afraid when there is any threat to it.  The fear is the source of all anger.  When the self is seen as empty, that is, simply an ever-changing process with no thing at its heart, then there is nothing to defend and nothing to fear. … It is her great love for all living beings that renders Jizo fearless. (Bays, p. 111-112)

Through this fundamental understanding, a subject often cultivated through meditation and personal practice, the chaplain realizes “the fundamental emptiness of inherent individuated existence both of the rescuer and all these beings who are to be rescued.” (Birnbaum, p. 29)

Birnbaum points out that to “enter the worlds of sentient beings, understand their mentalities and needs and conditions, and then act accordingly,” one “first depends on one’s own pure mind.” (Birnbaum, p. 35) By cultivating Right View, one of the parts of the Noble Eightfold Path (itself the Fourth Noble Truth), one sees with a “clear and unflinching view that all beings and all concepts are empty of self-nature,” thus making way for true generosity.  Giving without fear of what will be lost is one of the main topics of the Diamond Sutra. (Birnbaum, p 36) The Bodhicharyavatara describes “the happiness of egolessness” in its opening chapter.  This springs from the understanding that “there is no solid self-identity or separateness.  We’re all invited in.” Pema Chödrön calls it the “joy of realizing there is no prison; there are only very strong habits,” which we can overcome. (Chödrön , p. 13-14)  We can be that pilgrim and take that first step for the sake of others.

How we do so can be learned by walking in Jizo’s footsteps, so to speak.  Jizo Bodhisattva is not merely a metaphorical or mythical pilgrim.  She has already traveled all the way from India, into Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and now America and Europe.  Jizo has been an immigrant to all these countries and in each she has slowly taken “on new names, new forms, and new dress,” and “assumed new powers and functions.” (Bays, p. 96)  Jizo has adapted to always be of use to those her need her in the way they need, as the bodhisattva should, but while maintaining that strong foundation of pure motivation, boundless compassion, and timeless wisdom.  This is one of the things that makes her further adaptable to a role model for Buddhist chaplains.

Upaya is the Buddhist notion of ‘skillful means.’  The sutras relating to bodhisattvas are full of such examples: twenty-five practice methods in the Surangama Sutra, testimony from thirty-two bodhisattvas in the Vimalakirti Sutra, and numerous methods in each of the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra for starters. (Birnbaum, p. 37)  Leighton specifically discusses seven different models knowing each may be of more or less benefit to different people at different times.

Likewise, Jizo’s constant presence and adaptability should be understood as skillful means.  “As she enters new countries new forms of practice develop that make her more accessible and are most suited to the suffering particular to each time and place,” but “she always can be recognized by the benefit that appears in her wake.” (Bays, p. 112-113)  Thus, in our training, education, and ongoing work as chaplains, we must constantly cultivate wisdom and skillful means to be able to fully meet the limitless beings who come our way.  We can use Jizo and the other bodhisattvas as examples of how this can be accomplished.


Zen Master Dogen has said that paintings of a rice cake will not satisfy our hunger.  Just to read the history of Jizo Bodhisattva will not satisfy our deep longing to know personally the heart and mind of a bodhisattva. (Bays, p. xxiii)

In order to know the path, we must walk the path.  (In contrast, but not, I think, contradiction of Bays’ path-consciousness.)  As a traveler, we will have our own spiritual path, just as we have since the day we were born.  This path will coincide with that of others from time to time and we may walk beside them in companionship for a while before our paths diverge.  When we become chaplains, we make a commitment to seek out the crossroads where many travelers come and go, helping those most in need.  We never stop walking our own path, but we may let go of the emphasis on destination, instead tailoring our steps to the stride of the person we are traveling with.  In doing so, we ironically progress faster on our journey, reducing the hindrances of ego, fear, and spiritual ambition.  At least, this is the idea.  As the dream warns, the road is hard to travel even for one who knows it is there.  We will lose sight of it completely at times.  We will need a helping hand.  As we are that hand for others, others will be that hand for us.

Here I have done my best to present an understanding of the spiritual journey by breaking down the steps in one popular presentation, Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.  The second section focused on the role of the chaplain as a fellow traveler, the theological basis of the metaphor in the bodhisattva idea, and the practical model one particular bodhisattva, Jizo, can provide.  I hope it has been of benefit to you, the traveler.  May your path be safe and your journey swift.


Bays, Jan Chozen.  Jizo Bodhisattva: Gaurdian of Children, Travelers, & Other Voyagers.  Boston: Shambhala Press, 2003.

Birnbaum, Raoul.  “In Search of an Authentic Engaged Buddhism: Voices from Ancient Texts, Calls from the Modern World,” Religion East & West, Issue 9, October 2009, p. 25-39

Chödrön, Pema.  No Time To Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.  Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005.

Leighton, Taigen Daniel.  Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and their Modern Expression.  New York: Penguin Group, 1998.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hank Romanowski permalink
    September 23, 2011 7:10 am

    Wow this is great. I’m a second year MDiv student at Naropa and I wrote a term paper on Kshitigarbha last semester also seeing him as a model for chaplaincy and I used many of the same references. I’m glad you didn’t post this until May 30 so I can’t be accused of plagarism. I handed my paper in before that. You write much better than I do.

    Anyway I’m happy to see that someone else appreciates Jizo the way I do. Did you read “The Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva”? It’s great.

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