A Ceremony for Children,
Born and Unborn,
Who Have Died

by Yvonne Rand

The ceremony allows people to free themselves from staying narcotized or habitually preoccupied by feelings of loss or failure, by fears and desires, by loves and hates.

My first encounter with Jizo occurred in 1969 after a dear friend, whose search for himself ended in a Zen monastery, died in a train accident. His sudden death was a blow, and I grieved his passing deeply. Later that year, I was driving Suzuki Roshi to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. I told him that I had a footlocker holding my friend's precious belongings (music, a flute, essays, books, and drawings). Suzuki Roshi suggested that we burn whatever could not be used by someone else. After a funeral and fire ceremony, we buried the ashes in the stone garden near Suzuki Roshi's cabin at Tassajara and marked the spot with a small stone figure of Jizo.

My first meeting with Jizo affected me deeply. I could not at first explain the pull I felt to this sweet-faced monk who held his hands in the mudra of prayer and greeting. Subsequently, in Japan, where figures of Jizo abound, especially in graveyards, I renewed and deepened my acquaintance with Jizo. I saw firsthand the role Jizo plays in ritual and ceremony to mark the deaths from abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth of infants and fetuses.

Back home, during the 1970s and 1980s, women had begun asking if I could help them in the aftermath of an abortion or a miscarriage. In response, I began conducting a simple memorial service for women who had lost babies. In 1991, I decided to spend several months in Japan focusing on the Jizo ceremony and the lore and tradition that has grown up in Japan around Jizo.

Initially the ceremony was only with women. Today men and children come as well. A full range of belief and experience shows up. The circle we make for the ceremony represents and encompasses the lives and viewpoints of all those present. Many are not Buddhists. Yet this old and generous Buddhist way works hospitably to welcome, include, sustain, and assuage the griefs of whoever does come.

The ceremony allows people to find their own capacity to be with what is so, no matter how painful. The ceremony lets them rest with what is truly, immediately, and specifically so for each participant individually. It lets them free themselves from staying narcotized or habitually preoccupied by feelings of loss or failure, by fears and desires, by loves and hates.

In ignorance and unconciousness we lose our way. While lost we can cause needless suffering both for ourselves and for others. The Jizo ceremony counteracts dulling ignorance, for it encourages participants to feel freshly what hurts, what aches, what saddens and depresses, and then to allow the detritus of re-enlivened grief to dissolve and once and for all finally disappear.

I have been struck by how successfully the ceremony accommodates the process of acknowledging what is so, for encompassing what is difficult, and for bringing about resolution and healing.

Each person at a Jizo ceremony has suffered the death of one or more children. Increasingly people come who have had children die after a healthy birth, whether as infants, youngsters, teenagers, or adults. The grief that arises when child predeceases parent is piercing and poignant, for the world feels turned upside down. Strangers assemble with their grief and unresolved dismay. Over time I have been struck by how successfully the ceremony accommodates the process of acknowledging what is so, for encompassing what is difficult, and for bringing about resolution and healing.

Initially I conducted this old Buddhist memorial ceremony in a quite traditional form. Over the years I have modified and added to it in ways that seem more effective for Americans. Today the ceremony begins with forming a circle, sitting together in silence, and then sewing a bib or hat for one of the compassion figures on the altar. The altar figures represent different cultures and religious traditions: Jizo, Mary with Jesus, "Spirit entering and leaving" from the Eskimo people, a mother and child.

We listen to those who wish to talk without attempting to give advice or comfort. We only listen, simply listen. The principle of "no crosstalk" protects the speaker against uninvited and invasive solicitude. People often tell me that speaking and listening in this way is the most healing dimension of the ceremony. Thereby each of us participates in acknowledging a particular life and death.

One by one, each speaker says whatever is in his or her heart while offering incense, placing the sewn garments on one of the altar figures, and bowing. We then chant the Heart Sutra mantra together and give the children being remembered Dharma names. We say good-bye to the dead.

We make prayer sticks and inscribe them with prayers for forgiveness and for the well-being of those who have died. The prayer sticks are hung, unnamed, unsigned, from bushes and trees in the meditation garden. Their messages are committed to the wind and the rain. To end, we have a cup of tea and a walk in the garden, and go home with a quieter heart.

In January, 2002, I was invited to join in a memorial ceremony at St. Gregory's for those who had lost children. I found that integration of liturgical calls and responses, voices joined in sacred song and the use of the church’s heart-core space produced a kind of ceremonial fullness and depth that I aspire to emulate.

The Jizo ceremony is flexible and capacious. Widening its focus, blending the traditions of St. Gregory's with the traditions of Buddhism as I teach and practice them, can only enrich the ceremony.

I dream that one day there may be a place in the San Francisco Bay Area devoted to remembrance of children who have died, a place that provides a nonsectarian expression of compassion and that speaks to all human beings who have suffered the untimely death of a child, where any parent who has lost a child can experience compassion and find comfort.

Yvonne Rand is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her perspective arises out of these experiences and her experiences as a mother.


Jizo Bodhisattva expresses manifest compassion in Japanese Buddhism. In Japan, Jizo is the much-loved form of the Bodhisattva of the underworld; he is the emanation of compassion who guides and protects transmigrators into and out of life.


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