Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha | Jizō
Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

1. Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha (in Japanese: Jizō; Korean: Jijang) is a Bodhisattva primarily revered in East Asian Buddhism and usually depicted as a Buddhist monk.

His name may be translated as "Earth Treasury", "Earth Store" or "Earth Womb".

Kṣitigarbha is known for his vow to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the 6 worlds between the death of Gautama Buddha and the rise of Maitreya, as well as his vow not to achieve Buddhahood until all hells are emptied.

He is therefore often regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings, as well as the guardian of children and patron deity of deceased children and aborted foetuses in Japanese culture, where he is known as Jizō.

Usually depicted as a Monk with a Halo around his shaved head, he carries a staff to force open the gates of hell and a wish-fulfilling jewel to light up the darkness.

2. Overview

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha is one of the 4 principal Bodhisattvas in East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism:

1. Kṣitigarbha
2. Samantabhadra,
3. Mañjuśrī,
4. Avalokiteśvara.

At the pre-Tang dynasty grottos in Dunhuang and Longmen, he is depicted in a classical Bodhisattva form. After the Tang, he became increasingly depicted as a monk carrying Buddhist prayer beads and a staff.

His full name in Chinese is Dayuan Dizang Pusa or "Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva of the Great Vow," pronounced Daigan Jizō Bosatsu in Japanese and Jijang Bosal in Korean.

This name is a reference to his pledge, as recorded in the Sūtras, to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in the 6 worlds in the era between the Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha and the rise of Maitreya.

Because of this important role, shrines to Kṣitigarbha often occupy a central role in temples, especially within the memorial halls or mausoleums.

3. A Brahmin maiden

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

The story of Kṣitigarbha was first described in the Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrva Praṇidhāna Sūtra, one of the most popular Mahāyāna Sūtras.

This Sūtra is said to have been spoken by the Buddha towards the end of his life to the beings of the Trāyastriṁśa Heaven as a mark of gratitude and remembrance for his beloved mother, Māyā.

The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrva Praṇidhāna Sūtra begins,

"Thus have I heard. Once the Buddha was abiding in Trāyastriṁśa Heaven in order to expound the Dharma to his mother."

The Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Pūrva Praṇidhāna Sūtra was first translated from Sanskrit into Chinese between 695 and 700 CE, during the Tang dynasty,

by the Tripiṭaka master Śikṣānanda, a Buddhist monk from Khotan who also provided a new translation of the Avataṁsaka Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

However, some scholars have suspected that instead of being translated, this text may have originated in China, since no Sanskrit manuscripts of this text have been found.

Part of the reason for suspicion is that the text advocates filial piety, which was stereotypically associated with Chinese culture.

It stated that Kṣitigarbha practised filial piety as a mortal, which eventually led to making great vows to save all sentient beings.

Since then, other scholars have pointed out that Indian Buddhism also had traditions of filial piety. Currently there is no definitive evidence indicating either an Indian or Chinese origin for the text.

In the Kṣitigarbha Sūtra, the Buddha states that in the distant past eons, Kṣitigarbha was a maiden of the Brahmin caste by the name of Sacred Girl.

This maiden was deeply troubled upon the death of her mother - who had often been slanderous towards the Three Jewels.

To save her mother from the great tortures of Hell, the girl sold whatever she had and used the money to buy offerings that she offered daily to the Buddha of her time, known as the Buddha of the Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment.

She prayed fervently that her mother be spared the pains of hell and appealed to the Buddha for help.

While she was pleading for help at the temple, she heard the Buddha telling her to go home, sit down, and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was.

She did as she was told and her consciousness was transported to a Hell realm, where she met a guardian who informed her that through her fervent prayers and pious offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and had already ascended to heaven.

Sacred Girl was greatly relieved and would have been extremely happy, but the sight of the suffering she had seen in Hell touched her heart.

She vowed to do her best to relieve beings of their suffering in her future lives for kalpas.

4. A Buddhist monk

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

There is a legend about how Kṣitigarbha manifested himself in China and chose his Bodhimaṇḍa to be Mount Jiuhua, one of the 4 Sacred Mountains of China.

During the reign of Emperor Ming of Han (28-75 CE) Buddhism started to flourish, reaching its peak in the Tang and eventually spreading to Korea.

At the time, monks and scholars arrived from those countries to seek the dharma in China.

One of these pilgrims was a former prince from Silla named Kim Gyo-gak (696-794), who became a monk under the Chinese name Dizang "Kṣitigarbha," pronounced Jijang in Korean.

He went to Mount Jiuhua in present-day Anhui. After ascending, he decided to build a hut in a deep mountain area so that he could cultivate the dharma.

According to records, Jijang was bitten by a poisonous snake but he did not move, thus letting the snake go.

A woman happened to pass by and gave the monk medicines to cure him of the venom, as well as a spring on her son's behalf.

For a few years, Jijang continued to meditate in his hut, until one day, a scholar named Chu-Ke led a group of friends and family to visit the mountain:

Noticing the monk meditating in the hut, they went and took a look at his condition. They had noticed that his bowl did not contain any food, and that his hair had grown back.

Taking pity on the monk, Chu-Ke decided to build a temple as an offering to him. The whole group descended the mountain immediately to discuss plans to build the temple.

Mount Jiuhua was also property of a wealthy person called Elder Wen-Ke, who obliged to build a temple on his mountain. Therefore, Wen-Ke and the group ascended the mountain once more and asked Jijang how much land he needed.

Jijang replied that he needed a piece of land that could be covered fully by his Kāṣāya (monk robes).

Initially believing that a piece of sash could not provide enough land to build a temple, they were surprised when Jijang threw the Kāṣāya in the air, and the robe expanded in size, covering the entire mountain.

Elder Wen-Ke had then decided to renounce the entire mountain to Jijang, and became his protector. Sometime later, Wen-Ke's son also left secular life to become a monk.

Jijang lived in Mount Jiuhua for 75 years before passing away at the age of 99. 3 years after his nirvana, his tomb was opened, only to reveal that the body had not decayed.

Because Jijang led his way place with much difficulty, most people had the intuition to believe that he was indeed an incarnation of Kṣitigarbha.

Jijang's well-preserved, dehydrated body may still be viewed today at the monastery he built on Mount Jiuhua.

5. Traditional iconography

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

In Buddhist iconography, Kṣitigarbha is typically depicted with a shaven head, dressed in a monk's simple robes (unlike most other Bodhisattvas, who are dressed like Indian royalty).

In his left hand, Kṣitigarbha holds a tear-shaped jewel or Cintāmaṇi, in his right hand, he holds a Khakkhara (a tin stick), which is used to alert insects and small animals of his approach, so that he will not accidentally harm them.

Like other Bodhisattvas, Kṣitigarbha usually is seen standing on a lotus base, symbolizing his release from rebirth.

Kṣitigarbha's face and head are also idealised, featuring the 3rd eye, elongated ears and the other standard attributes of a Buddha.

In the Chinese tradition, Kṣitigarbha is sometimes depicted wearing a crown like the one worn by Vairocana.

In China, Kṣitigarbha is also sometimes accompanied by a dog:

This is in reference to a legend that he found his mother reborn in the animal realm as a dog named Diting, which the Bodhisattva adopted to serve as his steed and guard.

In Japan, Kṣitigarbha's statues are often adorned with bibs, kerchiefs or kasa hat on his head, and sometimes dressed with a haori (long jacket).

6. Kṣitigarbha as Lord of the 6 Ways

Another category of iconographic depiction is Kṣitigarbha as the Lord of the 6 Ways, an allegorical representation of the 6 Paths of Rebirth of the Desire realm (rebirth into hell, or as pretas, animals, asuras, men, and devas).

The 6 Paths are often depicted as 6 rays or beams radiating from the Bodhisattva and accompanied by figurative representations of the 6 Paths.

A Japanese variation of this depiction is the 6 Kṣitigarbhas, 6 full sculptural manifestations of the Bodhisattva.

7. Chinese traditions

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Mount Jiuhua in Anhui is regarded as Kṣitigarbha's Bodhimaṇḍa.

It is one of the 4 Sacred Buddhism Mountains in China, and at one time housed more than 300 temples. Today, 95 of these are open to the public. The mountain is a popular destination for pilgrims offering dedications to Kṣitigarbha.

In some Chinese Buddhist legends, the Arhat Maudgalyāyana known in Chinese as Mùlián acts as an assistant to Kṣitigarbha in his vow to save the denizens of hell. As a result, Mùlián is usually also venerated in temples that enshrine Kṣitigarbha.

In folk beliefs, the mount of Kṣitigarbha, Diting, is a divine beast that can distinguish good from evil, virtuous and foolish. In iconographic form, it is often enshrined at the side of Kṣitigarbha, or portrayed with Kṣitigarbha riding on its back as a mount.

In some areas, the admixture of traditional religions has led to Kṣitigarbha being also regarded as a deity in Taoism and Chinese folk religion.

Kṣitigarbha Temples are Taoist temples that usually enshrine Kṣitigarbha as the main deity, along with other gods typically related to the Chinese netherworld Diyu, such as Yanluo Wang and Heibai Wuchang. Believers usually visit these temples to pray for the blessings of the ancestors and the souls of the dead

8. Japanese traditions

In Japan, Kṣitigarbha, known as Jizō, or respectfully as Ojizō-sama, is one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards.

Children's limbo legend

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

In the common tradition associated with the Sanzu-no-Kawa or the banks of the Sanzu River, Kṣitigarbha is portrayed as the protector of the souls of children, who are condemned to stack piles of stones vainly, for these towers are repeatedly toppled.

In a later version the oni demons wreck the stone piles, and torment the children, and the children seek haven with Kṣitigarbha who hides them inside his garment and comforts them.

In an earlier version, found written in "The Tale of the Fuji Cave", c. 1600 or earlier, when the dead children pile stones at the Sanzu-no-Kawa ("Children’s Riverbed Hell"),

winds and flames are the agents knocking down the stone tower, and the flame reduce the children into cremated bones, to be revived back to whole by the Jizō Bodhisattva.

This concept of Sanzu-no-Kawa, or children's limbo first appeared in the prose of the Muromachi Period (1392–1573).  

So the notion was developed quite late, in the Post-Medieval era, although it has been associated with the priest Kūya (10th century).

The Kṣitigarbha and the Sanzu-no-Kawa legend was connected with the Kūya and his wasan, or chanting probably some time in the 17th century, creating the Jizō wasan.

Lost pregnancies

Kṣitigarbha has been worshipped as the guardian of the souls of Mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried, or aborted foetuses in the ritual of Mizuko kuyō ("offering to water children").


Kṣitigarbha statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, put there by people in the hope that it would shorten the time children have to suffer in the underworld. (The act is derived from the tradition of building Stūpas as an act of merit-making.)

Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents.

The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children's clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Kṣitigarbha would specially protect them.

Sometimes the offerings are put there by parents to thank Kṣitigarbha for saving their children from a serious illness. His features are commonly made more baby-like to resemble the children he protects.

Roadside God

As Kṣitigarbha is seen as the saviour of souls who have to suffer in the underworld, his statues are common in cemeteries.

He is also believed to be one of the protective deities of travellers, the dōsojin, and roadside statues of Kṣitigarbha are a common sight in Japan.

Fire fighters are also believed to be under his protection.

Southeast Asian traditions

In Theravada Buddhism, the story of a Bhikkhu named Phra Malai with similar qualities to Kṣitigarbha is well known throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Laos.

Legend has it that he was an Arhat from Śrī Lanka who achieved great supernatural powers through his own merit and meditation.

He is also honoured as a successor to Mahāmoggallāna, the Buddha's disciple foremost for his supernatural attainments.

In the story, this pious and compassionate monk descends to Hell to give teachings and comfort the suffering Hell-beings there. He also learns how the hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells.

9. Mantra

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

Kṣitigarbha | Jizō

In mainstream Chinese Buddhism and Japanese Shingon Buddhism, the mantra of Kṣitigarbha comes from the "Treasury of Mantras" section of the Mahāvairocana Tantra.

The effect of this mantra is producing the "Samādhi Realm of Adamantine Indestructible Conduct." This mantra is the following:

Namaḥ Samanta-buddhānāṁ, Ha Ha Ha, Sutanu Svāhā

Other mantras

Mantra of Eliminating Fixed Karma:

Oṁ Pramardane Svāhā

In Chinese, this mantra reads:

wēng bōluó mòlín tuóníng suōpóhē

In Chinese Buddhism, the following mantra is associated with Kṣitigarbha:

Námó Dìzàng Wáng Púsà

In Korean Buddhism, the following mantra is associated with Kṣitigarbha:

Namo Jijang Bosal

In Tibetan Buddhism, the following mantra is associated with Kṣitigarbha:

Oṁ Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva Yaḥ

In Shingon Buddhism, a mantra used in public religious services is:

On Kakaka Bisanmaei Sowaka

In Sanskrit:

Oṁ Ha Ha Ha Vismaye Svāhā


Oṁ! Ha Ha Ha! O wondrous one! svāhā!