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.
In Japan, Jizo Bodhisattva is a beloved bodhisattva, omnipresent and accessible. The other bodhisattvas sometimes have a fierce aspect and are housed in dark niches on altars at a distance from the people in the temples. Peering through a wire screen or a wooden grate in the darkness of an old temple you can catch a gleam of gold or a glimpse of a graceful man or torso. In contrast, Jizo Bodhisattva resides in the open, among the people. His face is serene and gentle, with a hint of a smile. Even in city neighborhoods he can be found in small shrines every few blocks. The cities have grown up around him and the old altar houses that shelter him are sometimes notched into telephone poles or squeezed into a niche between modern buildings.
Jizo's presence helps maintain the palpable sense of orderliness and safety in the little neighborhoods that make up even the larger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. One or two blocks off a busy commercial street you can enter a neighborhood that feels like a small village. A policeman notes your entry and exit from his ward, nodding politely from his small glass enclosed box as you pass. Mothers pedal bicycles serenely through heavy traffic with either one or two children balancing in front or back seats. There is no graffiti. Vending machines are everywhere, with $30 bottles of whiskey behind intact glass. Children as young as three or four years play in groups, darting about chattering happily. No adults seem anxious for their safety. No child whines or shrieks. No one yells at the children or smacks them. There is a palpable sense that everyone is watching over the children and the visitors…and Jizo Bodhisattva watches over all.
Jizo Bodhisattva is accessible. He can be found among the activities of everyday life, at country crossroads, beside village paths, in many small altars on city street corners. These altars are maintained by people in the neighborhood. In the same way that everyone takes responsibility for the bit of street in front of their shops or houses, sweeping or washing it each morning, they also care for "their" Jizo. They keep the little altars clean and make offerings, a piece of candy, a golden tangerine, a few flowers in a jar, or even a cup of sake. In the larger shrines the offerings include children's clothing and sandals or shoes because Jizo travels far to comfort those who need his help.
If you need to ask Jizo for help, you probably won't have to go more than a few blocks. You can even duck into one of his temples during an errand or over lunch hour downtown. In Kyoto, there are several small Jizo temples just off busy commercial streets. A steady stream of people enter these tiny oases all day long. There are grandmothers less than five feet tall, bent almost in two by the years, in their dark dresses or kimonos, pushing the strollers old people in Japan use to get around. There are business people in suits and parents carrying infants or holding children by the hand.
Entering the temple courtyard they take water from a stone trough in a bamboo dipper to rinse hands and mouth in a ritual of purification. Parents help the smaller children. Then they light and offer a candle or stick of incense, ringing a bell to attract Jizo Bodhisattva's attention. They may circumambulate the Jizo image or pour water over it. Some stand, palms pressed together, whispering earnest prayers.