One of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas that is constantly represented in temples is Ksitigarbha. Commonly known as Dia Tang (Viet), Di Zhang (Ch.) or Jizo (Jap.), Ksitigarbha is an important figure in the popular religious life of Mahayana Buddhists.
Ostensibly the protector of the Underworld, Ksitigarbha serves as the point of prayer and worship for those seeking to memorialise their dead relatives, particularly those who were closest to them. Prayers and offerings to Ksitigarbha are considered particularly powerful because he is capable of interceding with the Buddha on behalf of those prayed for. Much of the mythology surrounding Ksitigarbha is mixed up with the stories of Maha Moggallana from the Pali Canon, in which one of the Buddha's most gifted disciples is given a vision of Hell, and there he sees his own mother. He subsequently appeals to the Buddha to help his mother, and the Buddha finally agrees.
Mahayana Buddhists use this story as evidence that prayers and offerings made in Ksitigarbha's name are important to the spiritual welfare of deceased family members, and especially so during the Feast of Ullambana (Vu Lan), normally held around August, and the second most important celebration on the Buddhist calendar.
In his Japanese form as Jizo, Ksitigarbha has transformed into a sweet little child. Some suggest that this infantilisation of the Boddhisattva's form is connected to the modern practice of purchasing and installing a Jizo statue at a Buddhist temple in memory of an aborted child. On memorial days women visit the temples and offer toys and candy to the statues of the Bodhisattva, and he has slowly come to represent the spirit of childhood itself.
In more traditional statues Ksitigarbha is represented carrying a staff, the top of which has six rings attached. Each ring represents one of the Buddhist Perfections - kindness, morality, patience, persistence, attention and insight. The six rings jingle as he travels, thereby sending the sounds of the Perfections throughout the universe. And the staff itself can be used to open the gates of hell, ultimately liberating the poor souls he is charged with protecting.
A shrine to Ksitigarbha is present in most Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist temples. IN a small temple it will normally be to the left of the main shrine, but in larger temples it is normally situated in a separate room or building, which serves as a memorial hall for the dead.