Sunday, September 18, 2011


By way of The News from Wabu-eup, a blog that I discovered thanks to The Western Confucian (now The Pittsford Perennialist), I just learned about a striking tradition found in Japanese and Korean Buddhism, mentioned here in the context of a visit to a Korean temple:
Next . . . we find the Ksitigarbha, or Medicine Buddha Hall. This figure, known in Korean as Jijang Bosal, is particularly revered. He is said to have taken a vow not to achieve final enlightenment until all the hells are emptied. He is also invoked as a protector of children. In Japan, parents who have lost children, had miscarriages or abortions will sometimes offer statues of Ksitigarbha as a child and have the statue dressed with a bib and a hat to comfort the soul of the dead child and avoid retaliation from its vengeful spirit. This is seen in Korea sometimes as well. Manbulsa, a temple I visited last year, has quite a few of these statues. Often, pieces of candy are sometimes left as well.
Here is a bit more on Ksitigarbha, known in Japan as Jizō:
More commonly called O-jizo-sama out of respect, he is just about the most beloved figure in Buddhism in Japan. His statues are everywhere. I do mean everywhere. They are very common along most roads, in hillsides, along random paths, in graveyards, and on and on.

Jizo is seen as the guardian of children, especially children who have died before their parents. In Japanese mythology, he helps children cross the river Sanzu (think of this as the river Styx in Greek mythology) on their way to the afterlife, which they are unable to do by themselves.

Jizo is usually dressed with a bib to show this connection with saving children. Smaller jizo statues in graveyards are dressed in baby clothes, often with toys nearby. The clothes and toys are from grieving parents who donate their child’s things as a way to thank Jizo for watching over their child in the afterlife.

He’s not exclusively prayed to for children, however. People might commonly stop at one of his statues on the roadside, bow and say a simple prayer of thanks for life. In Buddhism, he is a bodhisattva. Think of that as someone who has achieved enlightenment and out of compassion has sworn to help everyone else achieve the same.
Noting potential similarities between the beliefs and practices linked with devotion to Ksitigarbha in Japanese and Korean Buddhism and some aspects of the Christian cult of the saints, I wonder how (or whether) indigenous traditions like these have affected Japanese and Korean Catholics. Has the traditional cultural role of devotion to Ksitigarbha led Japanese and Korean Catholics to regard devotion to the saints of the Church in a different or distinctive light? This is an interesting question, I think, and a worthwhile one for those who believe (as I do) that the cult of the saints is an essential aspect of Christianity as well as a universal cultural phenomenon. I only wish that I had the time and expertise to consider this further. AMDG.

The above photo of a group of Jizō statues in Tokyo was found here.


At 12/08/2011 5:55 PM, Blogger Radnor Rowing -- The Boy's Blog said...

Hey Joe, Check out my new book on Jizo to be released in January 2012. Do you know my friend Michelle Francl?

Hank Glassman, The Face of Jizo: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism (U of Hawaii Press)

At 12/09/2011 9:48 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the tip - I will look for the book. (And yes, I do know Michelle - we actually did a presentation together on Ignatian spirituality earlier this week - small world!)


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