September, 2005 NUMBER 16

Preparing for the Jizos for Peace Pilgrimage
Rev. Yuko Krieger
Great Vow Zen Monastery, Clatskanie, Oregon

This August, thirty five Western Buddhists from the United States, Canada and Germany traveled to Japan on pilgrimage for the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pilgrimage was the culmination of an over two-year effort to gather 270,000 images of Jizo Bodhisattva to bring to Japan as a peace offering. The images of Jizo, many of which were drawn of cloth and sewn into quilts and peace flags, were contributed by people from every state within the United States, from many countries of the world, and each continent. By the time the pilgrims left on their journey, the number of Jizos totaled nearly 500,000.

Jizos for Peace pilgrims

The night before we departed all of the residents of Great Vow Zen Monastery, abbots included, stayed up well beyond ten o'clock in order to prepare for the pilgrimage. Jizo panels, tapestries and origami strings were cast about the monastery, some all ready to go to Japan, some in stacks and suitcases in the process of being organized. The spirit in the air was one of cheerful anticipation mixed with gratitude for the hundreds of thousands of individual Jizo images that have been sent in as part of this project.

The mission of Jizos for Peace is to support people in cultivating and expressing peace in their lives. Having lived with this project over the past few years, I have received the gift of seeing the power of this simple intention: we have received letters from prisoners who found their own voice through making Jizos; stories from veterans and victims of war alike who grieve deeply for all they have seen and done, and who have been able to release some of that weight into the simple act of expressing their wish for peace on a small white square of fabric to be taken to Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a class of school children who studied Jizo Bodhisattva and Japanese history before carefully sculpting traditional figures of Jizo to bring to the monastery in person. To have helped staff this project has been to be the container of and witness to an ocean of prayers for peace, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

Pilgrims chant the Heart Sutra in Nagasaki

Feeling personally connected to Jizos for Peace, I have made many Jizo panels since the project's inception and have experienced firsthand the connection to peace and healing that can come through this project, which invites everyone to find the desire for peace within themselves and then to extend it outward. In the 1940's my grandfather, a tall and eloquent man, worked on the Manhattan Project as a chemical engineer. He went on to a lifetime's career of developing missiles. My own life indirectly arose from his, and in taking part in Jizos for Peace it feels as though I have been able to begin to use the gift of our lives, my grandpa's and mine, for good. My grandfather died this spring, and when I went to Japan as a pilgrim for Jizos for Peace I carried his memory with me, as well as the complicated love I know for the harm and kindness that can arise from being a human-being.

As the hours passed and the suitcases bound for Japan piled higher, we spoke of the beauty of each piece of cloth, decorated with pictures of Jizo Bodhisattva. Behind each small offering is a long history, and the sincere desire for peace. In Japan many prayer flags made of these Jizo panels danced in the wind.

The days in Kyoto were spent visiting temples, shrines and other sacred sites. As western Zen practitioners it was meaningful to see the ancient roots of the practice we share with our brothers and sisters across the water. The profound grace of Kyoto with its countless temples and bright bustling downtown full of shrines tucked into every corner set a tone for the rest of the trip which lasted throughout.

From Kyoto we followed the heat and humidity southward to Hiroshima. There we were kindly received as guests at Zensho-ji. Staying at a family temple was an experience that allowed everyone to take part in a life we would never have been able to know otherwise. Many pilgrims realized that most who visit Japan may only see the outside of a temple, but that given the nature of our trip, we were allowed into the workings of daily temple life - the bells, samu period, simple and delicious oryoki meals. We were grateful for this during the whole pilgrimage.

Jizo parade in Hiroshima

In Hiroshima, the Peace Park and museum were sites of pilgrimage. Although many of us had prepared for this trip by studying the history of the bombings, the war and its aftermath, there was no way to prepare for the effect of actually being at the site of the devastating bomb. In the peace museum there are cases of objects belonging to victims of the bomb: shreds of clothing, book satchels with holes burned through them, lunch boxes of children seared black. Somehow seeing these items and then walking outside onto the land that witnessed and suffered under the bomb silenced our hearts and brought the reality of why we were there to life.

The Annual Hiroshima Peace Day was a large gathering of individuals and various groups championing the peace cause. There was a "die-in" at the time the bomb was detonated, where everyone dropped to the ground from where they stood. In the evening countless paper lanterns were sent down the river by the park, and on each lantern was written a prayer for peace.

Chozen Bays and others offering Jizos at a Nagasaki nursing home

After continuing on to Nagasaki by train, the group visited more sites of pilgrimage, and attended the Peace Day in Nagasaki Peace Park. The Jizos for Peace Project had a presence at the day's official activities, ranging from interfaith religious ceremonies to a colorful peace parade in the Peace Park of Nagasaki.

One of the most important aspects of the pilgrimage was that of personal connection. We were able to meet with hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings) in senior homes as well as on the peace days, friendships were forged between the western pilgrims and our excellent companions/guides from the Soto-shu, and everyone returned home with memories of brief, strong encounters with people everywhere we went. The common desire for peace in the world transcends language, age and nationality. This was apparent on our pilgrimage, where people from many different backgrounds were able to connect with one another in the common goals of practice, and peace.


The Jizos for Peace pilgrimage was an honor to take part in. At our last group meeting before returning home, we acknowledged that much of the processing of this trip will happen over time. The spirit of pilgrimage is one of open-handedness - open hands for giving, and for receiving. The effects of what we attempt to give to the world can never be known, but the gifts of kindness, insight and peace which we received from so many people during our time in Japan are shining jewels which have been brought back with us to our distant homes.

Jizos and the Heart Sutra
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