Why is this Buddha EVERYWHERE in Japan?

Spend even a tiny amount of time in Japan, and you may notice a strange yet comforting presence. And no, I’m not talking about the kami, nor our favourite fiend Fudomyo’o. I’m talking about a presence often spotted along popular and not-so-popular roadsides alike. Oh, also in graveyards, for reasons that will soon become obvious. Trademark red bib and cap, long shakujo staff, and massive bald head to boot (well, under the cap), it’s the one and only:

Jizo.

Jizo-san of Jizo-dake, one of the main peaks of Zao-san.

Jizo-san. Ojizo-sama.

Who is Jizo-san? Why do we see him everywhere in Japan? What’s up with those red bibs and caps? Jizo-san is a Buddhist Bodhisattva called Kṣitigarbha (Kashi-ti-garbha) in Sanskrit. Japanese people primarily know him as the protector of travellers. But why? Well, the answer lies within Jizo-san’s Shinto manifestation:

Dosojin.

Literally ‘road ancestor deity’, Dosojin are guardians of borders and paths often found in the form of stone statues and sometimes in small shrines called hokora. No one knows exactly when or how Dosojin originated. What is known, however, is that after Buddhism’s arrival into Japan, our red-bibbed friend, Dosojin’s Honji Buddha, instead became the main guardian god of travellers and pilgrims. So, what about Jizo-san makes him so special?

Jizo-san’s Great Vow

Jizo-san of Bussho’ike, a pond on Gassan, arguably one of the more important locations for Jizo-san.

Jizo-san’s full name is Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva of the Great Vow.

The Great Vow?

The Great Vow. Jizo-san’s Great Vow is to instruct all beings as they make their way through The Six Realms.

The Six Realms?

The Six Realms. Which of course are part of:

The Ten Realms of Buddhist Cosmology

You see, in Buddhist cosmology, there are Ten realms or worlds we are reborn into as we collect karma and go about our lives. These realms are divided into the first six, called The Six Realms or The Six Paths, and the final four ends with enlightenment. With Japanese names and Sanskrit, the six realms are:

  1. the hell realm (地獄界, jigoku-kai, naraka),
  2. the hungry ghosts realm (餓鬼界, gaki-kai, preta),
  3. the animals or beasts realm (畜生界, chikusho-kai, tiryagyoni),
  4. the human realm (人間界 ningen-kaimanushya),
  5. the titans or warlike demigod realm(阿修羅界, ashura-kai, asura), and
  6. the god or celestial beings realm (天人界, ten’nin-kaideva).

In that order.

Jizo-san at Gyokusen-ji temple in Tsuruoka.

Yamabushi practice the six realms during Shugyo (ascetic training). The Beasts Realm is practiced by no personal grooming, for example, but for the other realms, well, you’re going to have to join the training. Jizo-san vowed to never stop until all of us have made our way through The Six Realms. Not only that, Jizo-san vowed not to attain Buddhahood himself until all hells are empty.

Jizo-san is really taking one for the team. So much so, his own Buddhahood is dependent on us getting through The Six Realms. In saying that, when I said Jizo-san was the protector of all travellers, I should have said Jizo-san was the protector of all travellers.

Including those you didn’t think to think about.

Naturally, this is where the red bibs and caps come into play. Bibs are usually associated with babies, right? You know, those small humans that for the life of them can’t seem to keep their food in their mouths?

Well… and this is where it gets a bit grim, in Japan, it’s believed children who die before their parents, including those who are unborn, aborted, or miscarried, are to be punished for the anguish they afflict on their parents.

And it gets worse…

A stack of rocks commonly found on mountains in Japan. This one was on Yamadera.

In what is called the Sai no Kawara Legend, these children are unable to cross the Sanzu River, a sort of Buddhist equivalent of the River Styx. The Sanzu River is commonly believed to be in Osore-zan, AKA Mt. Dread, in Aomori Prefecture. Sai no Kawara is ‘the riverbed of souls in purgatory’, and lies alongside the Sanzu River. Places called Sai no Kawara are commonplace on many mountains in Japan, including on Chokai-san and Zao-san here in Yamagata Prefecture.

Well, instead of crossing the Sanzu River, an evil old hag called Shozuka no Baba strips the children of their clothing and tricks them into endlessly stacking stones on top of each other to build a stairway to climb up to paradise. As it so happens, hell demons that really have nothing better to do knock these stones over. To make matters even worse, they have the nerve to beat the children with iron clubs!

Won’t somebody please think of the children!

Never fear!

The ever compassionate Jizo-san shelters the children under his massive robes, providing much-needed protection from the evil old hag and those outright evil demons. Then back in our world, to shorten the time the children have to suffer, kind souls stack the stones instead, the stones you’ll see on the mountains in Japan.

Cool. Now what about the red bibs?

Jizo-san sits under a rock at Risshakuji Temple, Yamadera.
Jizo-san and his tiny companion at Yamadera.

To get back at that old hag, and to provide their own form of protection to the children, people place clothing such as red bibs or caps on Jizo-san. The reason for red is simple. Red is a traditional colour of warding off evil in Japan.

So, now you know what Jizo-san is about, do him a favour. Be kind to others and build up your karma so you can be reborn into the next realm. Oh! And if you spot a Jizo-san without a bib or cap, or a pile of stones in the middle of the mountain, now you know what to do, right?

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