I have had two miscarriages. Both were very early. It hurt to lose the promise of a new baby, but I was fortunate that each was followed by a successful pregnancy. I like to think that each of those miscarriages was my baby trying to get here against difficulty.
Everyone has a different way to view pregnancy and infant loss, including Buddhists.
According to Buddhist teachings, the souls of those who die before birth or shortly afterwards would be doomed to pile rocks in limbo because they could not accrue enough karma for themselves in this life. And every night the demons are said to knock down the piles of rocks. But Jizo is there to help them.
Jizo is said to be a monk who reached enlightenment through great personal effort. But he postponed his ascension into Buddhahood to save all souls from the torments of hell between the time of the passing of Shakyamuni (the Buddha of our age), and the arrival of the future Buddha, Maitreya. Jizo is most popular in Japan where he is revered as the “good” judge of hell who has the power to save souls from the punishments meted out by the other nine judges of hell. He is also regarded as a protector of travelers, so statues of Jizo line the roads of Japan.
Perhaps it is because of this special power that he has come to be known for protecting the souls of babies who die before they are born (through miscarriage, abortion or stillbirth) and children who die at a young age. In Japan, parents who have lost a child have placed statues of Jizo by the grave of their child as a way of asking Jizo to relieve their child of hard labors. Sometimes there are little piles of rocks built by the statues as a way of helping the child with his or her labors.
These statues of Jizo often depict him as a small monk with smiling features. Since clothing a Jizo statue is a way of gaining merit, parents will often decorate the statues with clothes, toys or red bibs or hats. (Red is a color of protection.) Offerings of candy or fruit are also sometimes left at the base of the statue. Some of the major Buddhist temples in Japan have sections of graveyards with Jizo statues as a remembrance of children who left too soon and a prayer that they will have peace in the world to come.
Outside of Japan, some parents who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss will keep a Jizo figurine as a reminder that no life is too brief to be important. In America, some Buddhist monasteries will do a special ceremony called a mizuko kuyo for parents who have experienced a loss. The mizuko kuyo is a recent development- it’s only been around since after World War II. In Japan, the ceremony focuses on Jizo’s intervention. In America, it’s more about helping parents with the grief. Participants make a token, like a necklace or bib, before the ceremony. During the ceremony, they chant the mantra associated with Jizo and place their token on the statue and a piece of paper with the baby’s name on it.