Kishitigarbha (Jizo)

9 of 11

Exemplars of bodhisattva Jizo (continued)

Toni Morrison

The works of Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, depict the horrors and the spiritual struggles faced by African Americans. Morrison has written several novels that movingly describe her characters' plight amid hellish circumstances of slavery and racism. Her masterpiece, Beloved, is most notable as an example of the Jizo archetype, as it deals with mourning and reclaiming the spirit of a murdered child. In this story, set in Ohio after the Civil War in the early 1870s, Sethe, a former slave, and her daughter, Denver, live in a house that is haunted by the spirit of Sethe's other daughter, killed when not yet two years old, the one word “Beloved” now etched on her tombstone.

The book reveals, with great poignancy and vitality, the dreadful conditions that led to the infant's death. We see through the eyes of Sethe's lover, Paul, the calamities on the road to escape from slavery:

During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, patrollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merrymakers. Once he met a Negro about fourteen years old who lived by himself in the woods and said he couldn't remember living anywhere else. He saw a witless colored woman jailed and hanged for stealing ducks she believed were her own babies.

As Morrison eloquently allows us to see and share in what has happened to Sethe, the reader comes to understand her fierce determination to defend her children from the hell of slavery. We as readers are also immersed in her hellish experience. Along with protecting children, Jizo's work of witnessing hell is in the forefront of the lives of all the many characters attempting to deal with the ghosts of their own slavery. Witnessing these ghosts, the reader sees how they still haunt our society today.

The mother and daughters in Beloved struggle to understand how they are hell-bound and by what means they can help each other, much like the passionately caring earth daughters and mothers described in Jizo's past lives. Sethe and her daughters travel across the borders of life and death like Jizo, haunting each other and witnessing the shifting hells, and sometimes maybe even saving each other from further horror.