In the Sutra of the Past Vows of Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, Shakyamuni
Buddha explains Kshitigarbha's vow. Jizo has been enacting his vow
to help save all beings for an inconceivable, cosmically vast span
of time, and he vows to continue until the arrival of Maitreya Bodhisattva,
the next historical buddha. Jizo has liberated countless beings over
many ages and set them on the path to full awakening, and he vows to
remain in the world for the benefit of those still suffering. Jizo
helps liberate beings by warning them of the unfortunate consequences
of their particular misconducts.
Because of his vow to remain present with beings in all the realms, Jizo is very close and accessible to all of us. This closeness is a feeling held by many East Asian Buddhists and accounts for his special popularity.
Jizo's powerful vow is to be present for all suffering beings in all six realms. Jizo is everywhere, but he is particularly known and appreciated for aiding hungry ghosts and beings in hell.
The six realms ???keep? Not really about Jizo
Traditionally, Jizo is guardian of and guide to the underworld and the intermediate state between births, especially benefiting those in the hell realms. As friend to those in hell, Jizo loyally stands by and comforts the tortured, the wretched, and the afflicted. But Jizo is also ever present in the other five realms, or worldly destinies, of Buddhist cosmology. These realms are the physical situations in which beings are incarnated during the rounds of rebirth due to the cause-and-effect workings of karma. But the six realms are also a psychological teaching and can be understood as the basic mental states that any of us might experience during the course of a week or even a day.
Since Jizo does bodhisattva work to help beings in all six realms, we will look at these six to understand Jizo's practice, which of course is also our practice.
The heavenly beings
The heavenly beings (devas in Sanskrit) have a delight-filled, carefree existence in their home among the clouds in the sky. But since they are constantly being entertained with pleasures and are spared pain and hardships, it is very difficult for these devas to awaken to spiritual practice for the benefit of others. We might relate this state to our own experiences of bliss, glimpses of the ecstatic we may fondly recall. The heavenly beings have long, pleasant life spans, but they are still subject to the consequences of worldly cause-and-effect, and eventually a day comes when they look in the mirror and see a gray hair. This sign of the onslaught of aging is a calamity, signaling the imminent demise of the heavenly beings. Their resulting destiny may well be the hell realms, since the loss of their pleasant existence is likely to cause great resistance and desperate, futile clutching to hold on to their heavenly status. Such a mentality paves the road to hell. But there are also sincere devotees who are said to abide for a time in the heavenly realms in order to help prepare themselves for deeper spiritual practice and to return to the other realms with bodhisattvic intention and commitment.
Angry, fighting deities
Angry, fighting deities (ashuras in Sanskrit) are powerful but ambitious characters who are jealous of those in more lofty heavens above them. We may liken this state to that of a successful, wealthy executive who can only think of having even more power and material possessions, too engrossed in business conquests to enjoy the simple wonder of just being alive.
The human realm is considered highly auspicious because it is the most likely place where we can recognize the possibility of spiritual awakening. Thanks to Jizo's intervention, some beings from the other five realms also have a chance of becoming human and awakening to spiritual practice. Humans are subject to greed, anger, and confusion, to dissatisfaction and restlessness, and we humans frequently have a vague nagging sense of nausea and anxiety. But humans are not so beleaguered with misery as those in the three lower realms, so we can more easily feel concern for others and act to help them. To be truly and simply human is the ultimate worldly goal.
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Animals live in a swirl of appetite and fear. We can recognize this beastlike state in those people who alternate between craving and satisfaction and in their fight-or-flight responses to perceived physical threats.
Hungry ghosts (pretas in Sanskrit) are restless spirits in a miserable state of constant hunger. They are depicted as frustrated beings with large stomachs and tiny, needlelike throats, who can never swallow enough food. We may recognize an element of such desperate hunger and hopeless dissatisfaction in North American consumerist culture. To the extent that an economy is predicated on the cancerous necessity for boundless growth, people may become conditioned by advertising to want more and more, to go out and buy the latest model or the newest fashion or toy. This is like the mindset of hungry ghosts. East Asian ceremonies featuring Jizo are dedicated to feeding and finally satisfying the hungry spirits in order to pacify them and encourage them to take up awakening practice for all.
Hell contains many beings tortured in various grim settings. Some medieval Japanese images of the Buddhist hells resemble medieval European depictions of fire and brimstone. Other hell precincts are icy cold. Jizo is sometimes shown in hell, saving those who suffer.
Like the other five realms, hell is both a destiny where beings may be reborn in other lives and also a psychological state that we can arrive at in this life as a consequence of our actions. Jizo particularly studies these hells, working tirelessly to release beings from such suffering.
AUDIO Many stories and parables
in Buddhist folklore describe the different realms, both as actual
destinies and as psychological states that are always available to
us. The great seventeenth-century Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin
was once approached by a samurai warrior who asked Hakuin to explain
heaven and hell to him. Hakuin looked up at the samurai and asked disdainfully,
"How could a stupid, oafish ignoramus like you possibly understand
such things?: The samurai started to draw his sword and Hakuin chided,
"So, you have a sword. It's probably as dull as your head!" In a rage,
the proud warrior pulled out his sword, intending to cut off Hakuin's
Hakuin stated calmly, "This is the gateway to hell."
The startled samurai stopped and, with appreciation for Hakuin's cool demeanor, sheathed his sword.
"This is the gateway to heaven," said Hakuin softly.
The banquet tables of heaven and hell
One popular fable describes hell as a room in which a bunch of angry, emaciated people sit around a banquet table. On the round banquet table is piled a wonderful feast, with many platters of the most delicious-smelling foods that one can imagine. Strapped to the forearms of the famished people sitting around this table in hell are four-foot-long forks and spoons, so no matter how they try, they cannot get any food into their mouths.
Heaven, on the other hand, is a room in which jovial, well-fed people sit around a banquet table that is piled high with a wonderful feast, with many platters of the most delicious-smelling foods that one can imagine. Strapped to the forearms of the happy people sitting around this table in heaven are four-foot-long forks and spoons—and the people are feeding one another across the table.