From New World Encyclopedia
Ksitigarbha statue at Mt. Osore, Japan.

Kṣitigarbha (Sanskrit: meaning "Earth Womb") is a famous Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva who is especially popular in Asian countries where he is worshipped as Dizang in China and Jizō in Japan. Renowned for his vow to postpone achieving Buddhahood until all hells are emptied, Kṣitigarbha is regarded as a savior figure of immense compassion who seeks to save beings trapped in hell. His famous vow, recited by many Buddhists, is, "Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; Not until all beings are saved will I certify to Bodhi."[1]

Usually depicted as a monk with a nimbus around his shaved head, he carries a staff to force open the gates of hell and a wish-fulfilling jewel to light up the darkness.

Interestingly, Kṣitigarbha shares many similarities with the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell, which correspondingly posits that Jesus descended into Hell before being resurrected in order to save those in hell. Whether these similar beliefs emerged separately or were influenced by each other is an interesting point of scholarship. Today, many followers of the world's religions are beginning to acknowledge their many similarities and to engage in dialogue.


Kṣitigarbha is one of the four principal bodhisattvas in oriental Mahayana Buddhism along with Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara.[2] His full name in Chinese script is (Traditional Chinese: 大願地藏菩薩; Simplified Chinese: 大願地藏菩萨; pinyin: Dàyuàn Dìzàng Púsà), or the Bodhisattva King Dizang of the Great Vow, pronounced as Dayuan Dizang Pusa in Beijin Mandarin dialect, Daigan Jizo Bosatu in Japanese.

Kṣitigarbha is renowned for his pledge to take responsibility for the instruction of all beings in six worlds, in the era between the death of Gautama Buddha and the rise of Maitreya Buddha. Because of this important role, shrines to Kṣitigarbha often occupy a central role in any Oriental Mahayana temples. Additionally, the grottos in Dunhuang and Longmen, he is depicted in classical bodhisattva shape. After the Tang Dynasty, he became increasingly depicted as a monk, carrying rosaries and a staff.

Red-bibbed Jizō statues in Nikkō.

The story of Kṣitigarbha is described in the Sutra of The Great Vows of Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva, one of the most popular Mahayana Buddhist sutras. This sutra is said to have been spoken by the Buddha at the end of his life for the beings of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven as a mark of gratitude and remembrance for his beloved mother, Māyādevī.[3] Thus, the Sacred girl became Kṣitigarbha through her filial piety and eventual great vow to save all sentient beings from hell.

The Buddha claimed that in the distant past aeons, Kṣitigarbha was a Brahmin maiden by the name of Sacred Girl. She was deeply troubled when her mother died, because her mother had often been slanderous towards the Triple Gem. To save her from the great tortures of hell, the young girl sold whatever she had and used the money to buy offerings, which she offered daily to the Buddha of her time, known as The Buddha of Flower of Meditation and Enlightenment. She made fervent prayers that her mother be spared of the pains of hell and appealed to the Buddha of her time for help.

One day at the temple, while she was pleading for help, she heard the voice of the Buddha advising her to go home immediately and to sit down and recite his name if she wanted to know where her mother was. She did as she was told and while doing so, her consciousness was transported to a Hell Realm where she met a guardian who informed her that through her fervent prayers and pious offerings, her mother had accumulated much merit and therefore, she had already been released from hell and ascended to heaven. She was greatly relieved and should have been extremely happy, but the sight of the great suffering she had witnessed in Hell so touched her tender heart that she made a vow to do her very best to relieve beings of their suffering forever in her future lives of kalpas to come.

Ksitigarbha painting, Goryeo Korea, late fourteenth century

There is another legend about how Kṣitigarbha manifested in China, and chose his bodhimanda to be Mount Jiuhua, one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism.

In the Eastern Han dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Ming, Buddhism started to flourish, reaching its peak in the era of the Tang Dynasty, eventually spreading to Japan and Korea. At the time, monks and scholars arrived from those countries to seek the Dharma in China. One of these pilgrims was a former prince of Korea, which was at the time divided into three countries (Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje). The monk, whose Korean romanization was Kim Kiaokak (Ch: Jin Qiaojue (金喬覺)) was a prince from Silla who became a monastic under the name of Earth Store (Also called Jijang, the Korean pronunciation of Dizang). He came to the region of Anhui to Mount Jiuhua. After ascending the mountain, he decided to build a hut so that he may be able to cultivate meditation.

For a few years, the monk continued to meditate in his hut, until one day, a scholar named Chu-Ke led a group of friends and family to visit the mountain. Noticing the monk meditating in the hut, they went and took a look at his condition. They had noticed that the monk's bowl did not contain any food, and that his hair had grown back. Feeling pity on the monk, Scholar Chu decided to build a temple as an offering to the monk. The monk lived in Mount Jiuhua for seventy five years before passing away at the age of ninety-nine. Three years after his nirvana, his tomb was opened, only to reveal that the body had not decayed. Because the monk led his wayplace with much difficulty, most people had the intuition to believe that he was indeed the transformation body of Kṣitigarbha. Monk Jijang's well-preserved, dehydrated body may still be viewed today at the monastery he built on Mount Jiuhua.

Geographical Worship

In China

Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui, China is regarded as Kṣitigarbha's seat. It is one of the four great Buddhist mountains of China, and at one time housed more than 300 temples. Today, 95 of these are open to the public. The mountain is a popular destination for pilgrims offering dedications to Kṣitigarbha.

In some areas, the admixture of traditional religions has led to Kṣitigarbha to also be regarded as a Daoist deity. For example, in Taiwan, followers of Buddhism, Daoism or folk religion can be found venerating Kṣitigarbha, where he is often appealed to for protection against earthquakes. There, and in Hong Kong and among Overseas Chinese communities, his images are usually found in the memorial halls of Buddhist and Daoist temples.

In Japan

Jizō bodhisattva statue at Mibudera temple in Japan, depicted with children and bibs.

In Japan, Kṣitigarbha, known as Jizō, or Ojizō-sama, is one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards. Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents. Since the 1980s, the tendency developed in which he was worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses. In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that Jizō saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe, and letting them hear sacred mantras.

Jizō statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, in the hope that such reverence would shorten the time that children have to suffer in the underworld (the act is derived from the tradition of building stupas as an act of merit-making). The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children's clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Jizō would specially protect them. Sometimes the offerings are put there by parents to thank Jizō for saving their children from a serious illness. Jizō's features are also commonly made more babylike in order to resemble the children he protects.

As he is seen as the savoir of souls who have to suffer in the underworld, his statues are common in cemeteries. He is also believed to be the protective deity of travelers, and roadside statues of Jizō are a common sight in Japan. Firefighters are also believed to be under the protection of Jizō.


Traditional iconography

In Buddhist iconography, Kṣitigarbha is typically depicted with a shaven head, dressed in a monk's simple robes (unlike most other bodhisattvas, who are dressed like Indian royalty). In his left hand, Kṣitigarbha holds a wish granting jewel; in his right hand, he holds a monk's staff called in Japanese a shakujo (錫杖) (jingle staff), which is used to alert insects and small animals of his approach, so that he will not accidentally harm them. Such a staff is traditionally carried by high ranking monks of Chinese Buddhist temples. Usually, Kṣitigarbha will sometimes be seen wearing a crown depicting the Five Dhyani Buddhas, worn by Tibetan and Chinese monks in Tantric rituals.

In Japan, Kṣitigarbha is almost always depicted in a standing position upon a lotus base, symbolizing his release from the karmic wheel of rebirth. Kṣitigarbha's face and head are also idealized, featuring the third eye, elongated ears and the other standard Asian artistic attributes of an enlightened being.

Mizuko Jizô statues at the cemetery in the Zojoji-temple in Tokyo. Each one is dedicated to a lost baby life.

The Narihira Santosen Temple in Katsushika, Tokyo contains the "Bound Jizo" of Ōoka Tadasuke fame, dating from the Edo Period. When petitions are requested before the Jizō, the petitioner ties a rope about the statue. When the wish is granted, the petitioner unties the rope. At the new year, the ropes of the ungranted wishes are cut by the temple priest. The vandalism of a Jizo statue is the theme of the Japanese horror movie Shibuya Kaidan.

Parallels in Other Traditions

Kṣitigarbha shares many similarities with the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell, which correspondingly posits that Jesus descended into Hell before being resurrected in order to save those in the realm of the dead. Whether these similar beliefs emerged separately or were influenced by each other is an interesting point of scholarship as followers of the world's religions begin to acknowledge their many similarities.

Additionally, in Theravada Buddhism, the story of a Buddhist monk called Phra Malai, who has the similar qualities of Ksitigarbha, is well known throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Laos. Legend has it that he was an arhat from Sri Lanka, who achieved great supernormal powers through his own merits and meditation. He is also honored as a successor to Maudgalyayana, the Buddha's disciple foremost for his supernormal attainments.

In the story this pious and compassionate monk descends to Hell to give teachings and comfort the suffering hell-beings there. He also learns how the hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells.

Kṣitigarbha has also often been mistaken by many to be Xuanzang, the famous Tripitaka master of the Tang Dynasty who made the hazardous journey to the west to seek the Buddhist scriptures, and the basis for the fictional character from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. This is mainly because of the robe and the Five Buddha crown, which both are seen to wear.

Additionally, many Buddhists, Daoists, and those who believe in Chinese folk religion, see Kṣitigarbha as identical with Yama, the judge of Hell, but this is a misconception since the two figures are separate.


  1. Shingon Buddhism and Jizo Retrieved August 19, 2008.
  2. Kṣitigarbha also has a twin known as Ākāśagarbha, the "Void Store." While also important, Ākāśagarbha lacks the popular cult of Kṣitigarbha.
  3. Ksitigarbha Sutra - Chapter One: Miracles In The Palace Of The Trayastrimsas Heaven: Retrieved August 19, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • MacCulloch, J.A. Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine. Ams Pr Inc., 1982. ISBN 978-0404184261
  • Martin, Regis. The Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness. Ignatius Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1586171056
  • Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra. Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0802840394
  • Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2003. ISBN 1590300572
  • Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. Harvest Books; 1st Harvest edition, 1995. ISBN 978-0156001373

External links

All links retrieved April 25, 2018.


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