Kishitigarbha (Jizo)

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Exemplars of bodhisattva Jizo (continued)

John Coltrane

An example of the modern monk in our own North American culture is the dedication and intensity of the great jazz musicians. Many jazz adepts, such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, McCoy Tyner, and Pharaoh Sanders (to name only a few), exemplify Jizo in their monklike commitment to their art and its spirit. Marginal to much of mainstream culture and working amid an often hellish milieu of racial discrimination, poverty, and, all too frequently, drug addiction, these pioneers have extracted music from inner realms to testify powerfully to spiritual truth and beauty.

All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.

John Coltrane, a great master in this tradition, persevered through lack of critical appreciation and his own demons (including use of heroin and alcohol) to create a highly visionary music. Inspired by African and Asian musical traditions as well as by literature ranging from Islam to Kabbalah and from Plato to Krishnamurti, Coltrane sang his own inner heart and glory, in such classic hymns as "A Love Supreme." His music is a unique expression of universal vision and wonder, more in the mode of the Samantabhadra archetype. But the inner depths Coltrane explored to bring forth his spiritual sense of sound, with its ferociously energetic, angular improvisations, reflect as well the dedication of Jizo to persistent witnessing of the truth and raw beauty of awakening, arising even out of the hellish.

Coltrane was concerned with

. . . new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at…so that we can see more clearly what we are. In that way we can give those who listen the essence, the best of what we are.

Issan Dorsey

Many American Buddhist practitioners have turned their attention to witnessing our society's hells. As the AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s, many took on hospice work, becoming companions for the dying. The Zen Hospice Program, initiated at the San Francisco Zen Center, trains people to work as hospice volunteers for the terminally ill, in homes or in hospitals. At the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco's largely gay Castro district, Zen priest and teacher Issan Dorsey established a hospice to care for many of his own students and their friends, as they succumbed to AIDS-related diseases. Before Issan's own death from AIDS, his temple (now named Issanji, after him) expanded into the building next door to include a functioning hospice facility along with its meditation hall.

Witnessing for and assisting dying people clearly reflects the traditional and central Buddhist concern for the "great matter of life and death." Staying present to face the dying process has greatly deepened the wisdom and commitment of the hospice workers, as well as helping people pass on with dignity and awareness, in an atmosphere of love and kindness. These hospice projects contributed significantly to the critical needs of caring for victims of the AIDS plague, expressing Jizo's vow by tending to the hellish, wasting conditions of AIDS victims.


Many people on the fringes of our society live in the hell realms of the imprisoned, the homeless, and the inner-city poor. My friend Frank and I began meditation practice around the same time in New York City, with a Japanese Soto Zen priest. Since our teacher retired in the mid-1980s, Frank has continued intensive daily meditation on his own.

Frank is a social worker employed by New York City. His job at times has included working to rehabilitate prostitutes and drug addicts, frequently in extremely dangerous neighborhoods. Frank sometimes befriends his clients. One such client was a young, pregnant woman with an addiction problem and a remarkably difficult family situation. Frank, without family or children of his own, fell in love with his client's new daughter when she was born. With the biological father long gone from the scene, Frank ended up becoming godfather to the infant, as well as to her older sister. For many years now he has spent most of every weekend with the family, acting as father to the two young girls and encouraging wholesome pursuits for those in the extended family.

I envision Frank, with his commitment to care for these girls and in all of his dedicated work, as like Jizo, protecting children and helping diverse beings in hellish situations. Frank himself scoffs at the notion of his being a bodhisattva and feels that his own life has been enriched immeasurably from the connection with his goddaughters. He attributes his ability to joyfully confront the challenges of their situation not to any virtue of his own but simply to the energy emerging from meditation practice.

Other Jizos?

What other Jizo exemplars can you think of, people who nurture and protect those in hellish situations, or people who are steadfast in witnessing for those who are suffering?

Jizo and you

In considering these exemplars of Jizo, a Bodhisattva is one who devotes his or her life to freeing others from suffering, can you identify in yourself those qualities that might inspire yout to plunge fearlessly into any place or situation to help those in need?