Jan Chozen Bays is the co-abbot of the Jizo Mountain–Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon.
From Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers & Other Voyagers, by Jan Chozen Bays, © 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.
A little man of gray stone stands in the garden. His eyes are closed and his lips curve in a faint smile. A fern leaf arches over his head like an umbrella, holding a few drops of rain. Someone has made a small bonnet and cape of red cloth for him. A bit of paper peeks out of a pocket sewn on the cape. If you slip it out, you will find it is a message to a child, a dead child. You had a sweet soul. In your short life you knew pain and love. I miss you.
A small kite flutters on a low branch. It has a long tail made of bright twists of paper, each bearing a message. "Uncle Jim remembers your wonderful laugh." "Auntie Jean sends you butterfly kisses." "Bye, bye, baby boy. Mommy loves you".
As you walk around the garden you find other stone figures standing among the moss. Some have begun to crumble, their features softening, and the gray lichen has begun to creep over their patient bodies. There is something here that makes you fall silent, a tinge of sadness mixed with an embracing calm. You see several thin wooden plaques hanging from a tree and see that they bear names and dates of birth and death separated by only a few months or years. On some plaques are faded drawings, flowers, a teddy bear, a sprinkling of stars, and on some, more prayers. "You are loved and remembered my sweet baby girl. Conceived in love and desired. Died through medical mishap. Never far from our hearts and minds — one of God's smallest angels."
There are messages to a seven-year-old boy who was killed when a soccer post fell on him during a pickup game and to twins conceived after so many months of fertility treatments who died after a routine amniocentesis. There is a poem for an adult son who was irreversibly brain damaged when he was drunk and fell out of a tree. He had lost his house keys and was just trying to get in and go to sleep. There is a small statue of a turtle left by a man who cannot quite forgive his seven-year-old self for leaving a pet without water in the sun. At the base of a standing Jizo, there is a blue doll. It was painstakingly cut and sewn from a favorite T-shirt by a man whose unborn son died when the mother was struck by a car. He had stuffed the doll with paper tissues wet with tears of friends who came to mourn. There are notes and remembrance tokens from women recalling abortions many years past and from doctors and nurses who have assisted in abortions. A little card, beautifully decorated in an old-fashioned style is from a seventy-year-old mother who was bewildered to have survived her beautiful daughter, a young doctor and mother of two, who died of breast cancer only a few months after her diagnosis.
Under one statue there is a fringed miniature carpet. A note says, "I came to remember the three miscarriages my wife had. They came so fast and I was afraid to feel them. I'm ready to remember them now. Today I made a magic carpet because I had always hoped to tell stories to my child about castles and magic carpets. Now we are divorced and I will have no children but these three who are gone."
Today you are alone in this unusual garden. If you came on another day, you might witness a procession of men and women winding their way to the garden carrying tiny garments sewn from red cloth, wooden plaques, and pinwheels or other handmade toys. Led by a woman in a Zen priest's black robes, they chant together, offer incense, then place the remembrances they have made on statues in the garden. The priest intones a dedication, a list of names of children including babies whose sex was unknown or who were never named. A few couples hold hands, tears run silently down cheeks, and one woman slips quietly into the trees for a few minutes to sob alone before joining the group for the final chant.
This is a Jizo garden, one of the first in America…