Ashina seems to be a land of the Bodhisattva. Many of the major works of Busshi are of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. The second most represented Buddhist figure in Ashina is the Bodhisattva Jizo. Whereas the works of Kannon are more ornate, the works of Jizo are more numerous.
Jizo statues and sculptures find themselves in many different locations throughout Ashina, perhaps owing to the smaller size of many of the sculptures. Senpou Temple, the Sunken Valley, Depths of Ashina and Hirata Estates all have Jizo statues and sculptures. While the majority of the Jizo’s in Ashina are small, there are some massive ones, second only in size to the giant carvings in the Bodhisattva Valley.
Whereas many Bodhisattva’s have ornate and grandiose presentation, Jizo appears in the guise of a monk, lacking that dress and splendour. That doesn’t lessen any appreciation of Jizo for he is beloved in Japan for many reasons. Jizo works to ease the sufferings of those in the underworld and will not pass into nirvana until all those are free. Jizo answers prayers for a variety of ailments and problems but is most famous for helping children who died in childbirth or prematurely (more on that later). Given the happenings at Senpou Temples, and the atrocities inflicted upon the children there the extensive presence of Jizo makes perfect sense. Jizo is often seen carrying two items – sometimes at the same time, sometimes preferring one or the other.
Those items are a Shakujo (錫杖), a six ringed staff that Jizo would shake to awaken people from their delusions and help them escape the six states of existence and achieve enlightenment. . The monks of Senpou carry this staff, except they use it to deal Sekiro blunt force trauma. The staff would have also been used to scare away small animals of pilgrimages so that they would not be trodden on. The fact it is now being used for violence is another small detail that represents Senpou’s descent from the pious to the morally abject.
The other item is that hōjunotama (宝珠の玉), a wish granting jewel. This is seen in the hands of some of the smaller Jizo sculptures and in the hands of the giant Jizo’s also. It represents Jizo’s bestowal of blessings upon those who suffer, and grants wishes, neutralises desire and imparts clear understanding of Dharma.
One last point. I’ve referred to Jizo as he in this piece as in most Japanese descriptions Jizo appears as male. But Jizo has been represented as both female and male in Buddhism and I feel that’s worth noting.
The Jizo statues and sculptures of Ashina come in three varieties. The most common and widespread on is most analgous to the Mizuko Jizō. While wandering through Ashina Sekiro will encounter many Jizo’s with halos. In some circumstances the halo is absent but the Jizo figure remains that same. These figures come in two different sizes with one being the height of Sekiro when he crouches, and the other being roughly half that size and it is used in great numbers to mark graves. Jizo’s in Japan often mark grave sites, so Jizo’s being used in Ashina for this purpose isn’t happenstance or cool factor. It’s a deliberate tool for world building.
Mizuko Jizo (水子地蔵) translates as Water Child Jizo, and Jizo under this guise is the guardian of children who have been aborted and children who have died prematurely. In the context of Japanese culture this can have a different meaning to a premature child. Prior to the 20th Century, Japanese Children did not often pass the age of seven. Less than 50% did. Only after the age of seven would a child be counted in a census, that meaning then they would be counted as able to participate in the adult world. Prior to this, children where regarded as other worldly beings between this world and the world of the gods. Given this, and the events at Senpou with the experiments on children with the divine waters the number of Jizo statues throughout Ashina is readily explained as memorials for the dead children. It’s worth noting however that the view of Jizo as watching over aborted and premature children is an effect of modern Buddhism but given the atrocities at Senpou the sheer volume of these Jizo statues doesn’t seem to be coincidental.
This style of statue is present in Mibu Village, sans heads. This is probably due to an act of retribution or rebellion against Buddhism as the burned-out temple is nearby. Regarding the headless Jizo’s, there is an historical reference to headless Jizo statues – Kubikire Jizo (首切れ地蔵).
A monk by the name of Junrei was set upon by robbers and Jizo stepped in, offering his head in the place of Junrei. On waking, Junrei found a blood-stained image of a Jizo with the head lying on the ground. Whether or not this was the basis for the headless Jizo statues in I cannot say but I found it interesting that headless Jizo’s are present in Japanese myth and legend.
Senpou Temple has a unique Jizo sculpture. Every other Jizo is carved from stone but these ones are carved from wood and accompanied by Pinwheels marking the dead children of the Divine Child experiments. Senpou has a lot of pinwheels. These Jizo’s are arranged in clusters, and in this regard they are like Sentai Jizo’s (千躰地蔵).
This translates as 1,000 bodies of Jizo’s and it refers to clusters of Jizo;s placed together in order to increase the effectiveness of their healing powers. These clusters are seen on the mountain outcrop before the Armoured Warrior, and many of these Jizo’s are wearing red bibs. Jizo’s are often showing dressed in hats and bibs, and it shows that there are people taking care of them. Red is also the colour in Japan that is used to ward off demons and illness.
Further playing into this is the legend of Sai no Kawara (賽の河原). Children who die prematurely (lot of those at Senpou) are sent to the underworld for judgement by the 10 kings of hell. Because these children have had no chance to build up any good karma despite being pure souls, they have no way to balance out bad karma generated by causing their parents grief (that’s harsh) and as such as sentient beings they must be judged. Sai no Kawara is the riverbed of souls in purgatory. Here the children build small towers out of stones in order to pray to Buddha and use these towers to escape hell. But hell demons with hammers continuously knock them down. But don’t worry! Jizo descends into the underworld and rescues children by hiding them in his massive sleeves. Thus, Jizo statues are clothed and adorned with stone towers to take care of them and assist Jizo on his trips down to the underworld.
The fact that someone or some people at Senpou still cared enough to put the bibs on Jizo’s shows that at least all compassion wasn’t thrown out of the window.
Those towers are present in Sekiro. At the Torii Gate that marks the giant drop into the Ashina Depths, if you look near the lanterns you will see the stone towers.
Based on their appearance, these wooden Jizo sculptures may have been inspired by a Busshi from the Edo period named Enku (円空). Enku was a wandering monk and poet who in exchange for lodging and shelter would carve Buddhist sculptures from wood. Enku’s work is roughhewn but blessed with warmth and soul. He and another Busshi from the time, Mokujiki Myoman are credited with reviving the art of Busshi in the Edo period as after the Keiha and Zenpa schools of Busshi in the Kamakura period no new schools of Busshi emerged. But back to the Jizo sculptures, here are the ones from Senpou.
And here is one of Enku’s works:
They both share that roughhewn quality, and the facial expressions are uncannily similar. This is speculation and assumptions, but I do see some similarities there between the Senpou Jizo’s and the works of Enku.
The last Jizo variant in Sekiro rests in the poison pit of the Ashina depths. These are massive constructions, and only bigger works of Busshi in Sekiro are the Bodhisattva’s of the Sunken Valley. These Jizo’s are shown holding an hōjunotama, a wish granting jewel. These Jizo statues are massive, and there are examples of massive Jizo statues in Japan so there is precedent for such giant works. It would be interesting to see these Jizo statues in this location before the poison pit bedded in. I would assume these Jizo’s where sculpted by the monks at the temple near Mibu before it was reduced to ash.
With the Kannon piece I attempted to link the sculptures to schools of Busshi. I’ve had a tougher time doing this a second time as the Jizo sculptures (beyond the Senpou Jizo’s) are so ubiquitous across Japan and depending on the type of Jizo they seemed to stay the same across eras. With the Kannon sculptures the variety was much greater and as such attempting to match them up to Busshi schools seemed more doable. Still, exploring the Jizo variants and their symbolism and mythology has been a lot of fun so I can’t complain.
In the next piece regarding works of Busshi in Sekiro I will be looking at Temple Gate Guardians at Senpou, along with the four Guardians located in the building behind the temple gate. Already looking forward to the writing and research.
Notes and Asides:
As with the Kannon piece, Onmark Productions has been an invaluable resource. Lots of information regarding Bodhisattva Jizo, and many great pictures of various Jizo representations.
Another article that I found to be useful was this piece from the KCP Japanese Language School. Not as much content as the Onmark piece but the information is concise and well presented.
Regarding the carving of Enku’s works, I’ve wrote about that previously when I waxed lyrical about the Dilapidated Temple. That’s also where I wrote about the Busshi’s (as in the character) Buddha’s.
I know the Japanese word for Bodhisattva is Bosatsu and I should be using that. But I’m so used to the word Bodhisattva that I always default to that. Force of habit, and I’m sorry for that.