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Friday, September 27, 2019

My "Ancestral Shrine"

A Tribute to My Family, My Japanese Sojourn, and My Ancestors

[This article was originally posted in the "American Temples" section of the old Temple Guy site, probably in late 2004 or early 2005. At that time, I was publishing the "Laughing Buddha" blog; see here for more information on that and other defunct projects. Notes in square brackets were added in 2019, when the article was relocated to this site. I have also added far more photos than were in the original.]

Back in the early 50's, before this disreputable Laughing Buddha was born, my family moved to the house they still live in, in Rosemead, a suburb of Los Angeles.

In L.A.'s highly mobile society, fifty years [now over 65] is a long time for anyone to stay in one place, but the Buckets have done just that. All of us--my two older brothers, my younger sister, and I--went to the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. We had many of the same teachers, and friends of mine were often siblings of my sibling's friends.

What I'm getting at is: the Buckets of Rosemead have established the closest thing to an "ancestral home" as you'll find on the Left Coast.

At the age of 41--no "spring chicken"--I found myself rather far away from that home. I had applied for my first-ever passport and moved to Japan.

My company assigned me an apartment that was five minutes away from the Hiyoshi (Kanagawa) train station. First up a long narrow road, past a small cemetery; then up some stairs, and across part of the campus of Keio University; and down a broad, tree-lined avenue to the station.

Between the cemetery and the university stairs, I daily passed the little character above. As you can see, he was the subject of active veneration: fresh flowers, fruit, and, often, cups of sake. I had seen some of the older ladies of the neighborhood tending this curbside-shrine-on-a-cinder-block, and vaguely wondered what it was all about.

As my year in Japan lengthened into five, I learned more of Japanese religion, and discovered that this fellow was named "Jizo." He was a sort of patron of travelers--a friend, I realized, as I was sojourning away from my "ancestral home." [He is called in Chinese "Dizang," and in Sanskrit "Kshitigarbha."]

And then one day a gong was struck: this unassuming little man was also the patron of dead children. Learning this, I began to feel a stronger attraction toward him.

You see, I myself had not been the healthiest of children. In fact, they tell me that for a time there, I was not expected to live. Most of my earliest memories are of doctors and hospitals, or of illness. I caught every little disease that came through the neighborhood, and yet built up no immunities. Finally, when I was in Kindergarten, the doctors discovered a small tumor on my neck. Benign, they said, but nonetheless physically weakening. (I still don't know what that means: benign or not?)

Anyway, they removed it. The skinny little Boo Radley look-alike with the bags under his eyes that you see here: that was me.

It wasn't until puberty--and another brush with death after having had my tonsils out--that I learned that, as sick I had been as a child, I was the lucky one. During her pregnancy, my mom had had a miscarriage. (And yet, you're thinking, you're still here.)

That's right, I am. In her fifth month, after the misfortune, Mom went in for a "final check-up," game over. And the doctor, checking her out, said: "There's still one in there."

That was me.

My mom had miscarried my twin (kind of like Elvis). The doctor called it "one-in-a-million." I don't know if he was being hyperbolic or statistical. Either way, learning this--especially on the heels of having "swallowed my tongue" in recovery after the tonsillectomy--gave me a sense of being somehow... I don't know... special. We are all dangling between the cradle and the grave, and life is to be lived, by golly.

Anyway, when I heard that this Jizo was a patron of those like my "brother," who hadn't made it, I began to focus on him a bit more. As I visited more and more temples, and watched out for this little fellow, he took on new dimensions.

For one thing, I learned his last name.

He is technically "Jizo Bosatsu." It turns out that he is a bodhisattva, "bosatsu" being the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit.

Another thing I learned is that he is not only the "patron of dead babies," but that he advocates in the court of Emma-O, King of Hell, on behalf of all the dead. Much later, I learned that he is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (Ch. Ti Tsang, or Dizang), who vows to work for the release of all from Hell, and won't accept Enlightenment until the six levels of Hell are empty. (At many crossroads--he is patron of those, too--you will find "Roku Jizo," six statues of Jizo standing in a row, as above: one for each level of hell.)

But perhaps most disturbing of all, I learned one of the sources of his "popularity."

I had been to many temples where entire hillsides were covered with small statues of this bosatsu. Although I thought the number was rather large, it never occurred to me that there was anything ... sinister... about it.

And then, visiting a temple with a friend one day, I was told the awful truth: every one of those statues represented an abortion. The lost children were known as mizuko--literally, "water babies." And the statues on the hillsides represented an industry based on guilt.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm no raving anti-abortionist ("pro-life" is such a misnomer). I believe in a woman's right to choose.

But the unassuaged pain represented in the offering of toys and clothing to five-foot-tall Jizo statues; the dressing up of smaller statues, as seen here; the sheer volume of little figures, each one representing a life taken by choice, in a surgical procedure: it was much too much.

And on another level, I couldn't help but think of the social factors behind those "choices": the economic pressures, the lifestyle preferences. Japan is facing a severe labor shortage in the future, and she needed all those babies. But the die is cast, and the population is shrinking.

Another disturbing realization was: there was a whole industry playing on this guilt, building bigger-and-better temples with the blood money paid for those statues.

The Jizos in this picture--from an earlier time than the "mizuko"
statues--more likely represent pleas for  adults to "rest in peace."

All of this is on a grand scale. But on the human scale: every one of those statues represented a grieving mother.

Yes, I'm still somewhat conflicted about the role this bodhisattva has taken on in Japan.

But when I returned to the U.S. in December of 2001, I had just come off of a ten-week pilgrimage. My mind had become, uh, tender. I did not want to let go of Japan; in fact, I was constitutionally unable to do so.

So, wondering what to buy my parents for my first Christmas home in five years, I hit on an idea: I bought a small statue of Jizo from San Gabriel Nursery, long the premier "Japanese nursery" in the area. I brought it home, put it in the garden, and that was that.

It was two years before I did what I had been planning to do all along: I built a hut for the Jizo, a proper shrine.

This was completed around Christmas of 2003, only six weeks or so before my departure for China. And here [in China--not anymore!] I have learned that families have shrines where their ancestors are remembered.

So, my sisters and brothers, I give you My Ancestral Shrine.

There are several "holy souvenirs" hanging on the shrine: a bell bought at a Japanese temple; sand from the Ganges given to me by a Chinese nun; little shoes, also given by a Chinese nun; sand from the Tibetan ceremony I attended in January of 2004 (see this post); and another bell. In his hands, he holds beads I got from my first trip to China. I'm sure more will be added in the future.

So that is the story of my shrine. I packed away the statues in my room when I left, of Kuan Yin [pinyin Guanyin, Jp. Kannon, Skt. Avalokiteshvara] and Mi-le-fo [Jp. Miroku, Skt. Maitreya]. I brought along my small, elegant Tibetan-style Shakyamuni (a gift from my dear friend, the Venerable Yin Gen), and my incense burner; they are in my room as I write.

But my Ancestral Shrine stands on the suburban tract grounds of my Ancestral Home, awaiting my return and the offering of thanks I will surely make when this leg of my pilgrimage brings me home again.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT: In June 2008 there was a fire in my family's home. No one was hurt, and all is repaired or replaced. But during the reconstruction, for some reason, my "shrine"--which was well away from the activity--was removed and it and the statue relegated to a garden shed.

It occurred to me that the statue mightn't be as important to my family as it was to me. (Duh.) So when I left China in 2015 and moved to the Philippines, shipping tons of books and whatnot from the 'States, I shipped my Jizo, too. He now stands in a tiny bamboo grove in our yard.


Here are a few more pictures of unusual Jizos, singly and in groups, photographed in Japan. (Do forgive the poor-quality scans, here and above; I did my best!)

See the little fellows at the bottom of this Jizo statue?

Here they are closer up. Surrounding him, they total six.

Here's another statue with the same motif.

Here, the number is more obvious. (That one little adult face is disturbing, yo!)

The Mickey offering is devastating.

This one is clearly quite old.
Six more, to end on a happy note!

Posted September 27, 2019

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