The Jizo figure

by Stefan Chiarantano, Jun 30, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

On my travels in Japan, I have seen them in Buddhist temples and cemeteries. Perhaps, you have too. They are also placed alongside roads. They invoke in me a sense of sadness and I had to find out why.

Sometimes, they are dressed with small red caps and bibs. What are they? They are Jizo figures.

They are small statues made of granite stone and are childlike in appearance. They are depicted with a shaven head, dressed in a monk's simple robe, and are usually shown in a standing position. However, I know of some cast in bronze in the sitting position and placed alongside the six major Japanese highways to protect travellers.

Jizo is a Buddhist deity introduced into Japan during the Heian period. He is considered a Bodhisattva or in Japanese a Bosatsu. Although Bodhisattvas have reached the final stage of transmigration and enlightment, a Bodhisattva remains on earth to help and save people. According to Japanese Buddhist tradition, he is associated with protecting and helping children, women, and travellers. But now it appears he is associated with helping never born children find peace and solace. Never born children are children who are aborted due to a spontaneous miscarriage or a termination, and/or who die at birth, stillborn.

According to Japanese Buddhist tradition, parents have a moral obligation to help their never born children pass over otherwise these never born children will remain in a state of limbo. There is a Buddhist ceremony which assists in the peaceful resettlement of never born children. They aren't able to do it on their own. They need help to cross the river separating the living from the dead. This ceremony helps them do it.

How many parents avail themselves of this Buddhist service I can't tell you. But there isn't anything similar to this in the West to help never born children pass over. But here, the Japanese have found a way to deal with the tragedy of never born children and perhaps, deal with the painful decision of terminating a pregnancy or losing a child.

I've mentioned that I've often seen Jizo figures adorned with red caps and bibs which I later learned are mostly likely donated by the bereaved mothers. Sometimes, toys and flowers are placed with them. At least, Japanese women have a way to deal with and express their grief and Jizo figures in a way, symbolically represent that these never born children are not completely forgotten.

Abortion in North America is such a contentious issue politically and morally. On the one hand, women have reproductive rights and the right to terminate a pregnancy. On the other hand, the unborn child has the right to life, and many hold the sanctity of life from conception. Yet, abortion goes on here and there. Regardless of ideology, pregnancies are terminated and women mainly deal with the repercussions both medically and psychologically of their decisions. I think many are deeply troubled by their decisions. Once, it's done, it's done. There is no turning back the clock. Based on my experience with women who have had abortions, it colours their lives but at least here these never born children are not forgotten. They can be grieved and mourned. There is a recognition of their short existence and a means to help them pass over. Perhaps, North America can take a lesson from this practice and help women heal from a terminated pregnancy or lost of a child.

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