Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha
(Jizo Bosatu)

Zen’en (active first half 13th century)
Kamakura period, 1223-1226
Cypress wood with cut gold leaf and traces of pigment; Staff with metal attachments
H. 22 3/4 in. (57.8 cm); 1979.202a-e

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Artist Comments

Ping Chong

When I first made the acquaintance of this personage, it was through a large format, color photograph in a glossy, coffee table book. Later, I would meet him again in a climate controlled storage room at Asia Society's temporary quarters on Park Avenue. In that cool, indifferent room, he was lying in state housed in a metal cabinet detached into four separate pieces: Head, body, base, and staff. Now he stands before you protected in a display case lit in a tasteful manner, an antiquity of immense value. Once he stood in a Buddhist temple imbued with a spiritual purpose, a member of a spiritual whole. And as extraordinarily beautiful as this personage is, it is his spiritual substance that above all holds me still.

Pico Iyer
I see this figure, so I imagine, every time I walk across Shijo Bridge, above the Kamo River, in Kyoto. Around him are pachinko parlors, 14-story hotels, a tiny McDonald's that once claimed to own the world record for most hamburgers sold in one day. Kids with yellow hair, and muscle cars, and beeping cell phones. He stands in the middle of the congested city in just these sandals, head bowed, as if he were aspiring to be nothing more than any monk, or every monk.

Often, a hat obscures his face, as if to complete the annulment of personality; just as often, you can see nothing as you walk past except his extended bowl. Always he seems about to wander off into the mist. This piece moves me because it speaks for everything that doesn't change in Japan-or anywhere-in the midst of all its transformations. It tells me that what doesn't change is what sustains us. And, in some ways, it explains how Japan keeps its soul alive while it changes with each season: Jizo stands in the middle of the busy modern city, and his presence sounds inside us like a bell.

Bill Viola
The wide eyes of young children and the weary eyes of travelers reveal the vulnerability of the human soul. In an unfamiliar land, in a state of constant change and transition, they long to make their way to a place of security and stability. The presence of Jizo Bosatsu, Bodhisattva of the Earth Womb, watches over us at the crossroads. The protector of travelers and small children, he is the savior who will guide the faithful during the period when the true teachings are in decay.

Midway on this life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood, the right road lost.
-Dante, Inferno

Holding wisdom in the palm of his hand in the form of a jewel that grants all wishes (knowledge makes all things possible), Jizo is there to look after us when we are most vulnerable. The rings on his staff make a sound as he moves along the path, alerting small creatures to scurry out of the way so they won't be harmed.

In this contemporary technological world, we have all become travelers. We struggle with teachings that have slipped into disarray, searching for guideposts that are no longer there, markers that have faded from disuse, signs that no longer fulfill their function. We desperately, secretly, or even unconsciously, long for the image of calm repose, wisdom, and internal peace, but today Jizo's quiet presence has to compete with the din of many voices on the road, and often remains unheard.