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KITIGARBHA , called Dizang in China and Jizō in Japan, is, after Avalokiteśvara, the most important bodhisattva of Buddhist East Asia. Kitigarbha is also well known in Tibet. His name is usually interpreted to mean "receptacle (womb, storehouse) of the earth"; as such, he may be a Buddhist transformation of the Vedic earth goddess Prthivi.

Information about the cult of Kitigarbha in the esoteric and exoteric Buddhist traditions comes from a number of sūtras. Principal among these are two texts:

  1. Dasheng daji dizang shilun jing (Mahāyāna Mahāsanipata sūtra on Kitigarbha and the ten wheels; T.D. no. 411). This sūtra was translated into Chinese by Xuanzang (596?664) in the year 651, but there may have been an earlier translation of the same Sanskrit original made about 400. This scripture is the only exoteric sūtra concerning Kitigarbha whose pre-Chinese origin is undoubted.
  2. Dizang pusa benyuan jing (Sūra of the original vow of the Bodhisattva Kitigarbha; T.D. no. 412). This sūtra is said to be translated from Sanskrit by Śikānanda (652710), but in fact this attribution is impossible to substantiate. Many contemporary scholars believe that the sūtra was written in China as late as the tenth or eleventh century.

History in India

An independent cult of Kitigarbha apparently never developed in India. The seventh-century Chinese pilgrims to India do not mention Kitigarbha. Maala s in the cave-temples of Ellora do include Kitigarbha, but there are no separate images of him. Textual references to Kitigarbha are found as far back as the first or second century ce, as well as quotations from an rya Kitigarbha Sūtra in a text from the seventh or eighth century. In Central Asia, Kitigarbha was more important: Separate images have been found in caves at Dunhuang in what is now Gansu province.

According to the Dasheng daji, Kitigarbha's special characteristic is that Śākyamuni Buddha has entrusted him with the task of rescuing sentient beings during the buddhaless interval between Śakyamuni's parinirvāa and the enlightenment of the next Buddha, Maitreya. For countless aeons, the scripture maintains, he has worked to lead sentient beings toward buddhahood in worlds bereft of buddhas. Kitigarbha is said to respond to those who call upon his name and rely on him singlemindedly, meeting their immediate needs, eliminating their suffering, and setting them firmly on the path to nirvāa. He softens the hearts of those mired in evil and brings them repentance. Similarly, those in hells obtain release through his intercession.

History in China

Knowledge of Kitigarbha (Dizang) was probably introduced to China around 400, but there is no evidence that Dizang became an object of widespread devotion there until much later. An important stimulus for the popularity of faith in Dizang's vows seems to have come from the Sanjie Jiao, or Sect of the Three Stages, a group that believed that various of the teachings of the Buddha were designed to be beneficial in each of three historical ages. Xin-xing (540594), the founder of the sect, promoted the worship of Dizang as appropriate to the present, the third and most evil of the three ages. Judging from the number and dates of images in the Buddhist caves at Longmen, worship of Dizang became popular among the aristocracy, in tandem with that of the Buddha Amitabha, from 650 to 700.

The Dizang pusa and other texts very possibly written in China made central the notion of Kitigarbha's special intention to rescue those in the hells. Filial piety is another theme that emerges in these texts. Of four stories in the Dizang pusa that relate the origin of Kitigarbha's vow to rescue all beings from suffering, two tell of his previous births as women who are moved to take such a vow after they have learned that their own mothers are suffering in the Avici hells. In certain "counterfeit" sūtras (i.e., sūtras whose provenance is clearly Chinese) showing obvious Daoist influence, Kitigarbha was linked to the "ten kings" who were the judges of the Chinese "dark regions," and prayed to specifically in order to lengthen life and ward off disaster. In these sūtras, Dizang both judges and saves beings.

Reliance on Dizang's vow remains part of Buddhist practice in Chinese cultural areas today. In the seventh lunar month the Dizang pusa is widely recited and special offerings made in gratitude for his rescuing of ancestors reborn in the various hells.

History in Tibet

Kitigarbha is known in Tibet as Sahi snying po. There is a Tibetan translation of the Dasheng daji but not of the Dizang pusa. Kitigarbha is most frequently honored as one of the grouping of "eight great bodhisattva s" whose maala s are important in the Esoteric (i.e., Vajrayāna) tradition.

History in Japan

The first unquestioned evidence of the enshrining of an image of Jizō in Japan and the conducting of an offering service in his temple dates from the year 850. From the ninth century onward, ceremonies of offerings called Jizōkō were widely observed to avert illness and to rescue beings from the hells. Jizō also became honored throughout the country as a protector of children as well as a provider of various blessings sought by the common people. Jizō's festival (Jizōbon), on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, usually centers on prayers for the safety of children.

In Japan, many carved stone images of Jizō can still be found at roadsides or in the wild. (Some scholars say that these images gradually replaced an indigenous tradition of erecting stone phallic symbols by the roadside.) In this form, Jizō is the subject of many children's songs and folk songs from ancient times. Today, as in the past, when people mourn victims of war or traffic accidents, or pray for children or for the mizunoko (the souls of children who died before birth, usually by miscarriage and abortion), they still often dedicate a small Jizō image at a temple.


Although Kitigarbha appears in the princely garb of a bodhisattva in the Esoteric tradition and in all traditions in China, in Japan he usually appears with the shaved head and monk's robes of a śravāka, or Hīnayāna monk, a devotee of the first of the "three vehicles" that, in Mahāyāna thought, comprehend the three soteriological paths recognized by the tradition. He usually carries a pearl and a staff. In the Japanese Shingon (Vajrayāna) tradition he appears in both the Taizōkai (Womb Realm Maala) and the Kongōkai (Diamond Realm Maala). Another highly developed tradition in Japan is the depiction of "six Jizōs," each with different attributes according to the path of rebirth in which he appears.

See Also

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, article on Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Xinxing.


In English, M. W. de Visser's The Bodhisattva Dizang (Jizō ) in China and Japan (Berlin, 1914), although somewhat dated, remains the best reference. The Dizang pusa has been translated into English by Heng Jing and the Buddhist Text Translation Society as Sutra of the Past Vows of Earth Store Boddhisattva: The Collected Lectures of Tripitaka Master Xuan Hua (San Francisco, 1974).

The literature in Japanese is extensive. Among the best works are Manabe Kōsai's Jizō bosatsu no kenkyŭ, 2d ed. (Kyoto, 1969), which includes a history of texts; Hayami Tasuku's Jizō shinkō (Tokyo, 1975), a well-researched, popular book with a good bibliography; and Jizō shinkō, edited by Sakurai Tokutarō (Tokyo, 1983), which includes essays on all aspects of the topic by a number of scholars.

New Sources

Gabain, Annemarie von. "Ksitigarbha-Kult in Zentralasien. Buchillustrationen aus den Turfan-Funden." In Indologen-Tagung: Verhandlungen der Indologischen Arbeitstagung im Museum für Indische Kunst Berlin, 7. 9. Oktober 1971, Wiesbaden 1973, pp. 4771, edited by Herbert Härtel and Volker Moeller. Wiesbaden, 1973.

Kamstra, J. H. "Jizo on the Verge of Life and Death: The Bodhisattva-god of Japan's Buddhism of the Dead." In Funerary Symbols and Religion: Essays Dedicated to Professor M. S. H. G. Heerma van Voss on the Occasion of His Retirement from the Chair of the History of Ancient Religions at the University of Amsterdam, edited by J. H. Kamstra, H. Milde, and K. Wagtendonk, pp. 7388. Kampen, 1988.

LaFleur, William R. Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton, 1992.

Miyazaki, Fumiko, and Duncan Ryuken Williams. "The Intersection of the Local and the Translocal at a Sacred Site: The Case of Osorezan in Tokugawa Japan." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 28, nos. 34 (2001): 399440.

Wang-Toutain, Françoise. Le bodhisattva Kitigarbha en Chine du Ve au XIIIe siècle. Paris, 1998.

Miriam Levering (1987)

Revised Bibliography