For the non-Buddhist, it is almost certainly a foreign term. Maybe you recall the name of an old Steely Dan album, at best.
Put simply, bodhisattva is “a Sanskrit term for anyone or anything motivated by great compassion.”
It is a combination of two separate Sanskrit concepts:
When combined bodhisattva can be viewed as someone (or something) seeking an awakened existence, an enlightened reality.
But like so many other religious and philosophical concepts, to strictly define bodhisattva as the above is to dramatically over-simplify the breadth of its applicable meaning.
Bodhisattva is the road which we travel upon in the quest for inner-peace and tranquility. It is a phrase that encapsulates all the elements of a remarkable journey towards a higher form on living on Earth—not higher in a sense of material worth, but higher in a sense of spiritual worth.
Therefore, it is critical to think of Bodhisattva not as any one individual, but as an archetype we may all strive to embody — a philosophical vehicle by which anyone can adopt as they move toward a life of patience, generosity, compassion, and, ultimately, englightment.
Using this framework for reference, we can view Jizo as an embodiment of everything it means to be a true bodhisattva.
Oft depicted as a shaven-headed monk with childlike features, Jizo walked the Earth more than 2500 years ago. Through great effort, Jizo achieved enlightenment but postponed his ascension into Buddhahood until he could find a way to save all conscious beings, going so far as to promise Buddha he would remain on Earth until every last soul was finished suffering and ready for salvation. Such a sacrifice demonstrates the depth of compassion necessary to earn the label of a bodhisattva.
Within the context of Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, Jizo is revered as the protector of women, children, and travelers. In particular, Jizo is denoted as being the protector of the Mizuko—literally translated as “Water Babies”—children who were never born or failed to survive past early childhood.
Use Jizo as your inspiration on what it means to live life as a Bodhisattva.
Use Jizo as your counselor in times of grief and anguish, especially if that pain is related to the loss of a child.
If you are anxious or depressed, imagine Jizo holding part of you safely, like a frightened child, in arms that can be trusted.
Use Jizo as your means to obtain inner peace, and build a world laden with compassion, patience, and unabated generosity.