I have been studying and writing again about Jizo Bodhisattva. Again and again, this archetypal energy inspires me. I found it particularly inspiring in helping me practice during the current political climate. If you are in my tribe of politics, the situation right now is disappointing, paralyzing, depressing or worse, as each of us reacts in our own ways.
So I find studying Jizo Bodhisattva again has shown me a way to practice. Jizo is an energetic archetype that I can tape into and begin to work from a different place in myself.
A bodhisattva is a person who has found relief for themselves in this world but has made a vow to help others before they themselves become fully enlightened or a non-returner. A bodhisattva serves others, forgetting the self. A bodhisattva’s suffering is no longer bound up in self-criticism or self-absorption.
Jizo bodhisattva is often paired with Kannon or Avalokiteshevara, the bodhisattvas of compassion. But Jizo has a slightly different take. This is compassion and service work that is specifically directed to the reflection of great suffering. Jizo goes willingly into hell, into the worst situations, to help others in any way he or she can.
I love the image of Jizo’s staff. Since Jizo is associated especially with the transitions in life and in particularly, Jizo helps with the transmigration of the 6 realms of existence. On the top of his staff are 6 dangling moveable circles, which represent the six realms. As she walks, the circles clink and make a soft noise. The shaking of this staff and the sound of the tinkling, can open the doors to hell and Jizo willingly enters hell to help people.
What qualities do we have to have to enter hell? Certainly, my small ego doesn’t want to enter hell. I’m often in my own hell! Why would I bother to enter someone else’s hell? If I rely only on my self, my story and my frontal lobe, I fall apart in hell. But if I can tap into my larger self, my Buddha self, the largest perspective I know, then basically I can handle anything. If I can let go of my opinions, my ideals, my constructed reality, then I can enter hell and its just another moment to deal with. In that moment, I can react with kindness to what is in front of me. Kindness and presence helps all situations. But, and this is a big but, our practice of having a big mind has to have matured and developed before we enter a problematic situation. This endurance and strength is not instantaneous. It is developed. Zazen and sesshin (Zen’s extended sitting retreats) are one way of developing our resilience to staying with pain and staying in the moment. As this practice gets developed, then, we are free to go anywhere and help. With this practice we can manage our overwhelming feelings and stay in activities that might produce a solution to the problems.
Even our fear of death is not a reason to be paralyzed. Our fear of death has to be abandoned. Like the Heart Sutra says: “When the mind has no hindrance, there is no fear.”
So here are Jizo Bodhisattva’s qualities:
Benevolence and compassion
Supreme or radical optimism
Taking full responsibility and teaching karma
Active engagement in life
No fear – stepping into the unknown as we die
Patron saint of lost causes
There are no lost causes only people caught in ignorance.
What follows is the great Koan! How do we have Supreme or radical optimism in the face of the current political climate? Our task at hand, if we wish to emulate Jizo Bodhisattva, is to continue under any circumstances. Radical optimism goes beyond our usual way of thinking. Certainly for me, who grew up in a time of doomsday visions, or for my sons who watch TV and movies about the apocalypse where we all end up as zombies, radical optimism is a strange concept. What do we have to do in our minds and hearts in order to have radical optimism? I guess that’s why it’s called radical. This optimism is only perceived through Buddha’s eyes.
The next quality is unflagging determination. One maturation of our practice is that nothing stops us from doing the right thing or from doing that which our particular karma allows us to do. We can go beyond our usual complacent selves, reach out, and help in ways we hadn’t foreseen. Unflagging determination. We continue even if we don’t see the results we want to see. Part of Buddhist practice is to work without attachment to result, continuously.
The last quality, which makes me smile, is – the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Jizo doesn’t give up. He continues ceaselessly to help the world even though the world is often royally disturbed. This is samsara, continuously difficult, and continuously barking up the wrong tree. The world of our ego-centricity is always barking up the tree of greed, anger and ignorance. But we can keep attending to this lost cause and keep trying to work from a different basis of operation in our minds.