Walking down the Kamogawa river the other day in Kyoto, I passed a wayside Jizo shrine (see above). Nothing very unusual – you see them all over the place. Jizo has to be the most popular deity in Japan, for his statues easily outnumber all others. Not only is he a guardian of travellers, which is why he’s often found at roadsides and crossroads, but he helps guide dead souls on the tricky passage into the next world, children in particular.
Mark Schumacher’s excellent page about Jizo describes the deity’s Indian origins and the first recorded appearance in Japan in the Nara period. Jizo rose to prominence in the Heian period, when fears about the end of Buddhist Law (Mappo) were rife. Later in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Pure Land preachers frightened audiences with the horrifying hell awaiting lost souls, Jizo was championed as a saviour. It was around this time apparently that he became represented by the rock figures that are so numerous throughout Japan.
As a boddhisattva, Jizo is understood to have vowed to stay on in this world after death to help save fellow mortals. He’s often pictured as a simple wandering monk, with staff in hand, which made poor villagers feel an affinity for him. He was accessible, approachable and all too human. No doubt the image helped spread his cult, as did the notion that he could be represented by a mere rock rather than a sumptuous gilded statue. As such he would have fitted in with the dosojin rock figures which acted as border guardians in rural areas.
Though essentially Buddhist in origin, Jizo has been incorporated into the syncretic world of Japanese deities. He had already taken on Taoist qualities in China, and to my friends in Japan he’s ‘the kami of children’. It’s because of his role as a protector of children that he often gets a red bonnet and bib (red drives away illness, caps and bibs because of his role in saving children).
So here’s what I wondered as I wandered along the River Kamo. Why on earth is Jizo depicted as a rock? Usually a human face is drawn on it, but not always. Often Jizo appears as just a rock, plain and simple. Pure rock. No other Buddhist deity gets treated in this way, not surprisingly since they are considered to have been human at some stage. So to paraphrase Groucho Marx, why a rock?
There’s only one explanation that I can think of: Jizo has been absorbed into Japan’s shamanic folk heritage. In East Asian shamanism, rocks are associated with the spirits of the dead. Dust to dust runs the Christian refrain, and in death we return to the earth (which is after all a great big rock hurtling around in space). Corpses were left in ancient times on mountain sides to rot or were buried in tombs, and the spirits of the dead were thought to seep into the adjacent rock. In this way they became part of the durable, permanent, everlasting world after death. It stood in contrast to this transient life of perishable matter.
On his website Mark Schumacher points out that Jizo translates as ‘Earth Womb’. Ha-ha! Here then is the vital key to understanding the phenomenon. Jizo’s association with death and rebirth in the Pure Land means that he represents the womb-tomb to which we all return. Death is our inevitable fate, and Jizo is a rock on which we can all depend.
Rock solid. Rock hard. Rock for ever… Jizo rocks on as a syncretic, shamanic reminder of Japan’s deepest spiritual impulses.