Jizō Bosatsu

Jizō Bosatsu, late 12th to mid-13th century, Kamakura period, Japan, wood with lacquer, gold leaf, cutout gold foil decoration, and color, 181.6 x 72.4 x 57.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Hannah Sigur and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re on the second floor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Japanese galleries, looking at this almost life-size carved wooden figure of Jizō, who is a bodhisattva.

Dr. Hannah Sigur: [0:16] A bodhisattva is a deity that attends on a Buddha, the primary deity of Buddhist sects. Every Buddha has his own specific bodhisattvas. Jizō attends the Buddha Amitābha, the Buddha of Compassion.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] A bodhisattva is an enlightened being that has not chosen to remove himself entirely from our world.

Dr. Sigur: [0:40] An actual Buddha has already attained enlightenment and has no place in the profane world any longer. The bodhisattva retains that element of profanity so that he can help us.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] They function as a kind of ladder to lead us into a higher realm. Considering the role of the bodhisattva, this figure does seem very formal, almost aloof.

Dr. Sigur: [1:01] The reason why he looks that way is because he is in a state of meditation, and it is the assurance of his garments and what he is carrying — his mendicant staff and his jewel — that convey the message of his compassion.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] Although he’s earthly, he represents here access to the divine. We’re looking at a sculpture that may be 900 years old, and it’s in spectacularly good condition. But we are seeing it out of its original context.

Dr. Sigur: [1:27] It would have been in a chapel, and it might have been surrounded by beautiful bouquets of flowers. It would have probably been by itself because although Kṣitigarbha or Jizō is a bodhisattva who attends Amitābha, he’s also extremely important as a figure of devotion in his own right.

[1:48] Entire schools of worship arose around this particular figure. The people who made this and the way it was worshiped was not as a sculpture, the concept has no role in Buddhist tradition, but as a religious figure.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] The way in which I recognize this as Jizō is because of what he holds, the monk’s staff, the jewel in his left hand, but also because of his bald head, referencing him as a monk, and particularly because of the extended earlobes.

Dr. Sigur: [2:16] The lobe is extended with a long, slot-like shape in it that suggests that once in an earlier form he was wearing very, very heavy earrings.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] So he’s traded his glittering, worldly earrings for the simplified spiritual garments of a monk.

Dr. Sigur: [2:33] Those garments are referred to as the Three Garments, which originated in the Indian subcontinent where the climate was very, very warm. The notion came from the idea that one should be garbed, but with rags from the trash heap.

[2:48] And so the garment of the traditional monk was three squares: one to wrap around the hips, one to put over the shoulders, and then one third one to put over both shoulders to keep one warm.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] He stands on a pedestal that is actually a representation of a gigantic lotus blossom. The reference there is this exquisite flower that begins its life in the mud. It seems to me a similar reference that through humble bearing, one can spiritually blossom.

Dr. Sigur: [0:00] You can also see other elements of that in his staff, which is a mendicant monk’s staff.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] By mendicant, you mean monk that has given up all worldly possessions and is dependent on the goodwill of others.

Dr. Sigur: [3:32] The mendicant monks would wander around the village rural areas, and when they came to a village, they would bang the staff on the path. It has several rings at the top that dangle and they would rattle.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] We also see an urna in his forehead.

Dr. Sigur: [3:43] It’s just above the eyes, and it is a symbol of wisdom.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] So seeing beyond the ordinary world, seeing into the spiritual realm.

Dr. Sigur: [3:52] He is holding an object that looks a bit like an onion, and it sits on a small lotus blossom. This is the wish-granting jewel, and it is one of the central symbols of Jizō.

Dr. Zucker: [4:03] The hand that holds the jewel is so beautifully carved. Look at the delicacy of the fingertips that curl just at the nail.

Dr. Sigur: [4:10] The positions of the hand are known as mudras, and mudras is a term that is applied to the hand positions of many deities that come out of the traditions of India, as Jizō ultimately does. Every feature of this is intended to convey some sort of theological concept.

Dr. Zucker: [4:29] This carving dates to the late 12th or 13th century. This is a period in Japanese history that we call the Kamakura period, and it was a period of real upheaval.

Dr. Sigur: [4:37] The capital city of Kyoto is where the emperor resided, and around him was a coterie of aristocrats. They began to fight amongst themselves and they farmed their disputes out to mercenaries who were from the distant branches of their families, called cadet branches.

[4:56] These mercenary warriors then took over from the court itself.

Dr. Zucker: [4:59] The emperor remained, but became largely symbolic, and real power resided now not in Kyoto, but rather in Kamakura, outside of what is now Tokyo. This figure is so serene that it displays no reference, at least to me, of the political chaos.

Dr. Sigur: [5:17] Of the violence that was unfolding around. The serenity of this figure, it makes you think of the temple precinct as a place of refuge.

Dr. Zucker: [5:25] His facial features especially are meant to represent that of a boy.

Dr. Sigur: [5:28] The story of Jizō is that in a previous life, he was a girl who was so distressed at her mother’s evil ways, the mother was relegated to hell upon her death. As a devoted daughter, she was so upset, she went into hell to rescue her mother. Other stories say that she made great efforts of obeisance to the deities to rescue her mother.

[5:53] In the process, the girl begins to see that other people are in terrible torment in hell as well.

Dr. Zucker: [5:59] This was one of the motivations for Jizō remaining a bodhisattva. Although enlightened, not giving up this world, but instead turning first her and then his attention to those suffering in the underworld.

Dr. Sigur: [6:12] In Buddhist theology, deities such as this are always male. Jizō doesn’t just become male, but becomes a little boy.

Dr. Zucker: [6:19] Now, in this temple carving, although boy-like, the features are still quite severe. In more popular representations of Jizō, you often have a much more playful representation.

Dr. Sigur: [6:30] In many places, you find rows of these Jizōs to represent children who have become ill and died.

Dr. Zucker: [6:36] This is because Jizō is tasked with looking after and freeing those children in the afterlife. So although we’re looking at a sculpture that is eight or nine hundred years old, Jizō is very much present in contemporary Japanese culture.

[0:00] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”jizo,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Hannah Sigur and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jizō Bosatsu," in Smarthistory, March 7, 2018, accessed June 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jizo-bosatsu/.