Statue of the bodhisattva Jizo

Maker unknown
Japanese, 16th century

This month’s object is this small but intricately carved Japanese bronze statue of the bodhisattva Jizo. He is standing on top of a lotus flower and holding a ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’. In his other hand he originally would have held a monk’s staff with six rings, representing the six realms that you can be born into when you are reincarnated (gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, ghosts, hell). A key belief in Buddhism is that if you do good things in your life you can build good karma, which will help you be reborn in a better life. Equally if you do bad things in life you can end up being reborn as a ghost or into hell. Jizo was believed to be the saviour of all living things, who could lead people out of hell. As a result he has been a very popular Buddhist deity in Japan since at least the early 8th century when he appeared in the first written records of Japan, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki.

Statue of Jizo, Chiddingstone Castle, object number 01.1559

A bodhisattva, or bosatsu in Japanese, is a being who is ready to become enlightened and has decided to dedicate themselves to helping others. Jizo is believed to have vowed to not become fully enlightened until hell is completely empty. To be ‘enlightened’ is to be free of all worldly worries, concerns, and attachments. It is a state of peace, freedom, and complete understanding and knowledge. Buddhism as a religion is based on the idea that an ancient Indian prince called Siddhartha Gautama, who lived around the 6th century BC, became enlightened after a long period of meditating and searching for an escape from suffering. His followers spread his teachings throughout the world.

Ancient tombs as they are seen today in Osaka, including the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (the largest in the image). The Japan Times,

A lacquered wood statue of Jizo holding his ringed staff, lacquered wood, late 12th – mid 13th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 18.93

There are many bodhisattva in Buddhism, each with a certain power or ability which helps them look after or guide living beings. For example, the bodhisattva Manjusri has the power to banish ignorance, and the bodhisattva Tara is a compassionate healer. Jizo is the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, who is an important deity in many Asian countries.

Painting of Jizo, hanging scroll painted on silk, 13th century, Important Cultural Property, Nara National Museum

In Japan Jizo is arguably the most popular bodhisattva. Small stone statues of him can be seen at temples, on street corners, at scenic spots, and many other locations throughout Japan. Some temples, such as the Zojo-ji in Tokyo, are known for having hundreds of statues of Jizo in their grounds. Jizo’s popularity is due to the common belief that he watches over children, in particular unborn children and children who have sadly died. It is believed that he will protect and watch over them in their next life. Expecting families or parents who have lost children donate Jizo statues to temples or make hats and scarves for the statues as offerings.

Rows of Jizo statues with hats and scarves in the cemetery at Zojo-ji temple.

The Jizo statue in the Castle’s collection is of high quality, and may have originally been made for a household altar or as a donation to a temple. It may originally have been covered in gold leaf, and there is a space on the forehead where a rock crystal jewel may have been. Jizo is usually depicted as a monk with flowing robes and a bald head.

The statue can be viewed in our Buddhist Room – we open for the season from the 29th of March and close again at the end of October.

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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