Exemplars of bodhisattva Jizo
Modern exemplars of Jizo are those willing to witness with dignity our contemporary hells, willing to testify, despite their dread and grief, to these horrors. With this steady presence, they are sometimes able to help the afflicted, or at least in some sense redeem their suffering.
As witness to the Nazi Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, exemplifies bodhisattva Jizo. Wiesel has written many powerful books that attest to the horrors suffered by Jews during World War II. As a teenager in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, Wiesel, like Jizo, beheld the torments of hell. Wiesel reflects on these terrible scenes, unsurpassed in horror by any of Jizo's visions of hell. He considers what they mean about us as humans and how we can understand and withstand such cruelty, and he discusses the individual moral choices that led to such consequences.
In One Generation After, amid graphic descriptions of the concentration camp atrocities, Wiesel expresses the importance of this witnessing:
Rejected by mankind, the condemned do not go so far as to reject it in turn. Their faith in history remains unshaken, and one may well wonder why. They do not despair. The proof: they persist in surviving—not only to survive, but to testify.
The victims elect to become witnesses.
On his way to the mass grave, the historian Simon Dubnow exhorts the Jews of Riga, his companions in misfortune: 'Open your eyes and ears, remember every detail, every name, every sigh! The color of the clouds, the hissing of the wind in the trees, the executioner's every gesture: the one who survives must forget nothing!'
In Buchenwald, I attended several "literary" evenings and listened to anonymous poets reciting verses I was too young to understand. They did not write them for me, for us, but for others, those on the outside and those yet unborn.
There was then a veritable passion to testify for the future, against death and oblivion, a passion conveyed by every possible means of expression.,
Through his witness, Wiesel redeems the suffering of the residents of the hell camps, standing by them as Jizo would, and he also warns us about our own worst capacities and our need for watchfulness. Through Wiesel, we can see Jizo's liberative work in hell as simply remaining present, humanity intact, willing to view the extremes of cruelty and suffering. Without attempting to explain the unspeakable, he expresses astonishment and perplexity, and the fullness of grief. By relating the concentration camp victims' own "passion to testify," he allows us to see them, too, as exemplars of Jizo, calling to us.
Wiesel has continued observing and speaking of other horrors and violations of human rights, in places like Southeast Asia, Nicaragua, and South Africa. After surviving the Nazi Holocaust, Wiesel vowed to remain silent for ten years. He felt he had to wait, perhaps purifying himself like Jizo's past-life daughters waiting to enter their mothers' hells, before he could finally find appropriate words to bear witness.