Calling on Jizo

In Japan, Jizo Bodhisattva is the “guardian of children who have died.” Zen priest and grief counselor Dojin Sarah Emerson recalls how the Jizo Ceremony helped after the death of her daughter.

By Dojin Sarah Emerson

Photo © Michael Stephens.

“Homage to Jizo Bodhisattva, protector of those crossing over, guardian of children who have died, comforter of loved ones struggling on the path of crossing over from this life and those who grieve their deaths; homage to your great vow and to the fearlessness you illuminate and inspire in those who grieve; and deep gratitude for the balm and healing your fierce love illuminates in this world of striving and love and suffering.”

There is a ritual that, over the years, I have come to participate in often. I know it as the Jizo ceremony, or the “Ceremony for Children Who Have Died”; in Japan, it’s called Mizuko Kuyo. When I join in this ritual, my ways of perceiving and engaging are shaped by three of my identities: that of a Soto Zen priest, that of a grief counselor, and that of a mother of a child who has died.

I lived and trained in the San Francisco Zen Center community for about nine years before formally ordaining as a priest. Our first child, a daughter, was born at Tassajara. Right around the time I ordained four years later, I became pregnant with our second child. This daughter, Sati, was with me from the beginning of my life as a priest in every respect, as she continues to be today. Sati was born a few weeks premature, and despite everyone’s hopes and much skillful high-tech medical intervention, she died the day after she was born, a Moon-face Buddha. In loving response to our daughter’s death, many a Jizo flowed into our home, sent by friends. To this day, a small legion of them occupies our altar, and they travel with me to Jizo ceremonies in the wider community.

In the days following our daughter’s death, I was driven by the natural instinct to clothe, nourish, and nurture my child—to somehow infuse her with our love and protection. I sewed a set of rakusus, or small robes—one small one to go with her body as it crossed over into ashes, and another one to stay in this realm, with us, on the Jizo on our altar. The satisfaction I drew from that work is hard to describe. Every ounce of what I expected to be a lifetime of embodied devotion was distilled into these small garments, this one gesture. Making something for her, full of my instinct and need to care for her, was an anchor for me in those first days of grief and shock. And entrusting one to the Jizo on our altar, making this offering even before I really knew any formal practices around Jizo, was the beginning of my grieving and eventual healing.

The archetypal qualities that Jizo embodies — fearlessness, protection, and fierce love — are the very same qualities we call forth in ourselves whenever we turn fully toward the complexity of our grief.

Jizo Bodhisattva is most always depicted as a humbly dressed monk, with a shaved head, simple robes, monk’s staff, and a gentle face. Even the very simple line drawings that so often depict this bodhisattva convey Jizo’s paradoxical qualities: a kind of sweet innocence together with a fierce protective stability and resolve. (Historically, Jizo Bodhisattva is usually depicted as a male monk, but to honor the feminine and masculine aspects of this being, I respectfully will use both male and female pronouns.) It is said that long ago, upon witnessing the suffering of beings in hell realms, Jizo made a great vow to help every being, in every realm, cross over from suffering. So great is her resolve that Jizo is unhindered by the delineation of the six realms—she fearlessly steps across these boundaries to wherever her intercession is needed.

The lore of Jizo originates in India as the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, or “Earth Womb” Bodhisattva. In China he became Ti Tsang, and in Japan, Jizo, both also meaning “Earth Womb” or “Earth Storehouse.” In Japan, Jizo took on a multitude of manifestations to address particular forms of suffering. One that has become prevalent in modern times is the “Water-Baby Jizo,” or Mizuko Jizo, who protects children in general but especially those who die before or soon after they are born, babies who live most of their embodiment in the watery realm of their mother’s womb.

The Ceremony for Children Who Have Died, as it has come to be practiced in North America, is pretty simple. People gather quietly, sometimes lighting a candle for whomever they are holding in their hearts. The officiant gives a brief description of Jizo, the ceremony, and what it means to call on Jizo’s intercession: how Jizo’s great fearlessness allows her to step with ease across divides we can feel are insurmountable, like the perceived distance between the living and the dead, and how whenever we call on her fearlessness, we necessarily call forth our own. An explanation then follows about making the offerings: traditionally caps or capes, but also small bundles, something sweet for the child or loved one, something made while holding them in our hearts and minds. Materials are provided and might include scraps of cloth, needle and thread, paper, markers, glue, string, and yarn, sometimes even glitter and stickers. There might also be fresh flowers: forget-me-nots, or rosemary for remembrance. There’s a reminder that this work will mostly be done in silence. Often someone present has some hesitation about “not being crafty.” I used to worry about this. But I have witnessed this ceremony many times now, and I’ve seen how people find their way in. Sometimes they dive, and sometimes it takes a while, but I have never seen anyone not find a way to make the offering they need to make. For many people there is something innate that longs to express the depth of their emotions through the work of their hands.

Once the items are made, everyone gathers around the altar, which may hold one Jizo or several. An invocation is made, calling on Jizo and all beings of wisdom and compassion to be present for our offerings, and dharma words are spoken, and then people come forward, one at a time or as a family. They say some words to their child or loved one, either silently or out loud, then offer what they have made to one of the figures on the altar (or later in a Jizo garden outside). They bow and come back into the circle, making room for the next person. This might be followed by chanting: the Jizo Mantra, or Heart Sutra, or something else. After a dedication is made, people are invited to either take their offerings home or leave them behind.

In my understanding and training, all ceremonies in Zen are held in the context of nonduality. Zazen, for example, the fundamental ceremony of Zen practice, is both the sitting meditation of an individual person and an enactment of Buddha’s awakening. In its fullness, it is not just one or the other or both, but the nondual intersection of all of this. The Jizo ceremony, too, when offered in a Zen setting, is grounded in the nonduality of the people attending the ceremony and Jizo herself. The archetypal qualities that Jizo embodies—fearlessness, protection, and fierce love—are the qualities we call on when invoking Jizo in the ceremony; they are also the very same qualities we call forth in ourselves whenever we turn fully toward the complexity of our grief. The Jizo ceremony is, among other things, simply time carved out in busy lives to spend with grief. In the face of loss, just showing up for the ceremony requires a kind of fearlessness that is challenging in our predominantly death-denying culture. To do this in a room of people who have also made this choice forms a kind of collective courage, mirrored, infused, and bolstered by Jizo’s presence and fearlessness.

In the days and weeks and months following our daughter’s death, and still now every anniversary, the Jizo wearing her twin rakusu has stood patiently on our home altar, receiving our chanting, incense offerings, and prayers of protection in her name. It soothes my heart to still be able to do something for her benefit, and also to satisfy the need I still have to care for her, even if only this.

Many cultures in the US do not practice collective rituals of grief. There are funerals, which are the marking of a person’s death, and memorials to celebrate their life, but they tend to center around the person who died, not around the experience of those who mourn. A ritualized turning toward and processing of grief, done in a collective way, is often hard to find.

Because the Jizo ceremony is mostly silent, the specifics of people’s losses are not shared. But sometimes, from previous conversations, I know who is sitting in the room: a couple whose child died in labor three weeks ago, the mother’s belly still soft and postpartum; a woman whose child died fifty years ago; a family who lost an adult child to suicide or accidental overdose; a couple wanting to honor an elected abortion; the family grieving a six-year-old who died from cancer. Some who attend are Buddhist practitioners, but others are not. Each loss is distinct, but I have seen this ceremony resonate and be a place of healing for people experiencing these losses and others as well. The Jizo ceremony provides, for all of them, an expression and an experience of communally witnessed grief.

This ceremony is also a space for a nonverbal processing of grief, which is often undervalued and hard to come by. Many of our experiences while grieving are difficult to put into words, and even when we can, words are often reductive and belie the complexities and presence of all that is unspoken. Emotions in grief are wide ranging. Often there is sorrow, which is widely acknowledged and accommodated (as long as it doesn’t get too loud or go on for too long). But there are so many other emotions that can and do arise in mourning: confusion, rage, guilt, frustration, fear, and even joy, elation, relief, excitement, feelings of humor, feelings of love. It’s hard to reckon with the gamut of emotions that show up even in the privacy of our own hearts, let alone express them for others to possibly judge and misconstrue.  Also, these feelings don’t just come around for a few months and then go away. For the major losses in our lives, this expansive emotional range of experience is with us, in a kind of ebb and flow, for the rest of our lives. This ceremony makes room for all of this complexity to be expressed, infused, and bundled into the offerings we make, offerings that can be witnessed and collectively held, even while the particulars can still be held privately. And there is the enactment of the offering itself, which allows these bundles of complexity to be acknowledged in this world but then handed over, entrusted to Jizo, and released. Jizo, in his immense capacity, a heart–storehouse as wide as the womb of the earth, is vast enough to hold the immensity of our grief.

When I first became involved with the ceremony, I often had the experience of my own grief being awakened by the grief of those around me, and it was heavy. I would be wiped out afterward—my limbs would feel weighted down, my mind foggy. But over time I came to see how fully the form and container of ceremony could hold grief, and I began to trust in that. I didn’t have to hold it all myself. I still feel a real gravity when engaging with these ceremonies. But I also feel a kind of joy and a wholeness that’s subtle but deep. In my experience across many realms—social, religious, psychological, even in communities of hospice workers—child-loss makes people squirm. There are not many shared places where a relationship with a child, or a loved one of any age who has died, can be acknowledged, let alone honored and made central. But in this ceremony there is a relief in getting to hold the whole truth of our lives. For me the truth is that I have a middle child, a daughter, and I love and cherish her. She has a place in my life. I get to make something for her, on this material plane where I live. With my hands and heart, I can offer it up to be transmuted through my love and Jizo’s conveyance to be a gift for her, to be of benefit for her wherever and however she is.

Over the years, I have been asked several times as a priest to adapt this ceremony to respond to other traumatic deaths, including death by suicide. In doing so, I have found certain principles of this ceremony, whether we are meeting the death of a child or a different loss, to be true: that participants call forth, and call upon, Jizo’s qualities; that the container of the ceremony is wide enough to hold the vastness and complexity of loss; and that expressing our grief through the making of something, and then offering it up, entrusting and releasing it as an enacted and witnessed expression, is part of a path of healing.

The Jizo ceremony as I practice it is an adaptation of a ritual with its own cultural background and history, and I know that carries its own complexity. I am a priest in a religious tradition that comes, originally, from another country, from another culture. It is easy, and in some ways accurate, to say that this is what Buddhism has historically done: moved through countries and cultures and been picked up by the people there, and then been changed and shaped by their cultural histories and influences. But this does not excuse me from taking up and being intimate, every day, with the questions of what my particular engagement means given the privileges, statuses, and particularities I carry, in the cultures where I live and practice. Is it okay for me to be offering this ceremony? Is it okay to adapt and change the form to respond to the needs of those around me? I do not feel entitled to offer this ceremony, or even to help make it available to others. But at the same time, witnessing its transformative potential over and over in the face of the immense suffering of loss, I do feel a kind of humbled obligation to find my way into offering it, into honoring this form and ritual that can help heal parts of our suffering that are so rarely addressed.

Grief, when it can be held, honored, and expressed, is a path of healing. We need to make spaces in the community for grief and loss of all kinds to be experienced and shared. So I hold all this with curiosity. I wonder about the intersections of my life converging in this ceremony, right down to my daughter’s conception aligning with my ordination, which in some ways means nothing and in other ways deeply shapes my life as it is, including my life as a priest. I feel supported by Jizo Bodhisattva, in her example of fearlessly turning toward what is difficult and painful, to staying open, to holding the complexity of it all.

Dojin Sarah Emerson

Dojin Sarah Emerson

Dojin Sarah Emerson trained at San Francisco Zen Center, primarily Tassajara, for ten years, culminating in ordination as a Zen priest in 2007. She has also worked in the fields of mental health and pastoral care. She and her husband Korin serve as head teachers of Stone Creek Zen Center in Sebastopol, California, where they live with their two children.