Mizuko is a Japanese word that means “water children”, a term for the unborn, the miscarried, and the aborted.
Jizo is a bodhisattva dedicated to assisting all beings in their passage out of hell, and is the guardian of mizukos.
Jizo, C.Roberts 2011, Acrylic on canvas
As many of you know, 2011 was a very challenging year for Frank and I. Even before our pregnancy loss, I had been thinking very deeply about personal meaning, emotional connection, and authentic expression, and these thoughts paved the way through my healing, and brought me to this project.
During my recovery, I learned of a Japanese bodhisattva named Jizo. For those unfamiliar: in Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an enlightened being who remains in this realm in order to help others attain enlightenment. Jizo’s promise was to assist passage of all beings out of hell, and is the guardian of unborn, miscarried, and still born children, as well as women, firefighters and travelers.
The Japanese have a word for these children: Mizuko. To explain mizuko, I offer a quote from Peggy Orenstein: “I had never previously considered that there is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus. In Japanese it is mizuko, which is typically translated as ”water child.” Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified only gradually over time and weren’t considered to be fully in our world until they reached the age of 7. Similarly, leaving this world — returning to the primordial waters — was seen as a process that began at 60 with the celebration of a symbolic second birth.”
It is believed that children cannot make their own way through hell, and so Jizo helps them, cares for them, and protects them from oni (evil spirits) by hiding them in his long sleeves, and guides them to salvation.
When I read this, I closed my eyes, and imaged the spirits of my departed, tucked smiling into the sleeves of the compassionate Jizo Bodhisattva. No matter that I am not Buddhist, nor Japanese, this was a beautiful and healing image for me. I made a painting of this.
I read a lot more about Jizo, and about mizuko kuyo, a ceremony performed to remember and apologize to the unborn that has gained popularity since the 1970’s. There is an interesting history to the practice (and exploitation) of mizuko kuyo, but it is much an aside, so I will allow you to do your own investigating should you find it calling you. One element of the practice that I will share though, is to place in temples, beside roads and running water: statues of Jizo, depicted as a smiling child-like being with palms together in prayer. Families who have experienced babyloss will place offerings, often little red bibs and hoods, and decorate the statues. There are many images of rows upon rows of stone Jizos, each with little red accessories.
Although interesting, the mizuko kuyo did not resonate with me as something I felt was appropriate or necessary for my own healing. But what did stick with me, was the image of this bodhisattva, this being of compassion, who tries to assist everyone in their journey through the dark places. My mizukos traveled through a dark place the day they left me. I traveled through a dark place as I accepted that they were gone.
The hardest part was not that I didn’t get to be a mother. I don’t look at my loss and think, “poor me”. When I feel it hardest, is when I think of those little babies: one carried in a container to the hospital, the other motionless on a screen, and I wonder who they would have been. Two little people who never had a chance. I carried them, and I lost them, and I couldn’t stop it from happening. They weren’t just potentials, they were people.
I felt compassion for them. I felt the compassion that others were pouring out to me in my grief.
Something I see often, is people appealing to a bodhisattva much like they would appeal to a deity – asking for help, for guidance, for salvation. But buddhas and bodhisattvas are not gods. They are merely a reflection of what is possible within ourselves. So when I look at an image of Jizo, I see the potential for compassion that is in myself. I hold my mizukos up to the light of my compassion, and it shines within me, and warms my life.
With Jizo as a focus in healing, I felt my own capacity for compassion grow, and felt moved to express that. To offer my heart, ease the suffering of others, to ignite compassion in their hearts, and pour that healing out to those who needed it as much as I did.