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Voices Across Boundaries Vol.1 No.2: Designer Babies

Jizo Bodhisattva

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Protector of Little Ones

by Jan Chozen Bays
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The Canadian Journal of Feminist Spirituality

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ALL OVER JAPAN, you will notice grey stone statues wearing red bibs and caps. You come across them tucked between urban shops and telephone poles, beside busy highways, at the crossing of rural dirt paths in the rice paddies and in old wooden shrines in the cool bamboo forests.

These figures are images of the much beloved Jizo Bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, an "enlightenment being," is one who has decided to turn back from complete union with the divine mystery (in Buddhist terms, delayed entering nirvana) to work in the world of human suffering. The name Jizo means "earth treasury" or "earth womb." Jizo is the guardian of all things that emerge from the earth, and the protector of those on physical or spiritual journeys. Jizo became the especial guardian of women and children, whose lives were considered perilous journeys in old Japan because of frequent epidemics, the risks of childbirth and infant mortality as high as 50 percent.

Bodhisattvas are revered not as unapproachable idols, but as embodiments of energies that we ourselves can cultivate. Jizo has both masculine and feminine characteristics, including benevolence, optimism, determination, fearlessness and full involvement in the world. Jizo is said to walk through hell realms unafraid, rescuing beings from misery, and is called the patron saint of lost causes, much like the apocryphal saint Christopher. Dressed as a simple monk, Jizo carries the six-ringed pilgrim staff in the right hand and the bright jewel of truth in the left.

A particular form of Jizo, the Mizuko Jizo, emerged after World War II to relieve suffering caused by the death of an infant or young child. Mizuko, meaning "water baby," is a term for unborn fetuses, who float in a watery world. If children die early, they are taken back into the realm of the gods where they resided before birth, guided by Jizo Bodhisattva, who shelters little ones who might be confused by the events of a brief life and sudden death.

The devastation of war plunged many people into poverty and early death from starvation, tuberculosis and radiation exposure. The government, which before the war had favoured large families, reversed its policy and passed a law encouraging birth control through abortion -- the only effective form of contraception until the pill was made legal in January 2000. Thus many Japanese women have experienced the death of several children through abortion, miscarriage or disease.

In the West, we think of each human life as solid and discrete, beginning at conception and ending at death. The Buddhist view is of waves appearing and disappearing endlessly on a great ocean of life energy. When cause and effect combine in a certain way, a wave arises, appearing to us as an individual whom we can see and touch and love. When death occurs and it disappears from our view, we mourn our loss. If we could see clearly that it has only rejoined that ground of being and nonbeing from which it emerged, that it has indeed returned home, we would find great comfort.

The Mizuko Jizo ceremony was developed in Japan to help families who had lost infants. The Mizuko Jizo is portrayed as a child-monk, or as an adult monk holding a baby, with other children taking shelter in the folds of his long robes. A family could dedicate a statue of Jizo to the memory of their child and place it in a Jizo garden or cemetery associated with a temple. Often these cemeteries, with hundreds or even thousands of Jizo statues, are located next to the playground of the temple kindergarten, a visible affirmation of the harmony of lively activity and quiet repose, of birth and death. Families bring toys, food and handmade bibs or bonnets to place on the Jizo statues. Passing strangers, including school children, will make offerings to the statues, praying for their own safe journey in life and a peaceful transition for any children who have died.

The Mizuko ceremony is now celebrated at a number of American Zen temples. During an hour of silence, participants make remembrance tokens, bibs, hats and simple toys for the children they wish to recall and honour. The group then gathers in the Jizo garden to chant and dedicate their offerings to the children, placing them on or around a Jizo statue. The garments and toys are left in the garden to weather slowly and return to the five elements, as we and all life forms do. At our temple, families have come to honour children who died through miscarriage, abortion, illness or abuse, as well as twins who died during infertility treatments and adult children who died by suicide. The simple but deeply moving ceremony offers a palpable easing of the weight of suffering that surrounds the death of a child. This is the particular gift offered by the holy being Jizo Bodhisattva.

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Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen priest at Jizo Mountain, Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. She also works as a peditrician specializing in child abuse.

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Voices Across Boundaries is a publication of Across Boundaries Multifaith Institute (ABMI), an educational institute whose goal is to increase knowledge and understanding of religious faith traditions, their history, practices and place in the contemporary world through research, publications and public forums.

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