Saturday, February 12, 2011

水子供養 comes to America

I'm in the middle of a fantastic recent book which tells how the practice of mizuko kuyô (水子供養) - a quasi-Buddhist Japanese rite to memorialize children who were born dead, whether by tragic accident or design - has come to America: Jeff Wilson's Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (OUP 2008). I've taught about mizuko kuyô for a while (in Exploring Religious Ethics). Images of rows (sometimes veritable legions) of stone-carved statues of the bodhisattva Jizô (地蔵菩薩) in Japan are striking, especially when the figures - which resemble a child as well as the bodhisattva - have been garlanded with caps, capes, and toys. As Helen Hardacre has shown, the practice is in fact of very recent vintage, and driven less by tenderness than by media-stoked terror of tatari (祟り), the angry revenge of the aborted, who demand costly propitiation. But it is hard for an American to learn of mizuko kuyô without thinking about our own unresolved views on abortion - and the public invisibility of the unborn. [pic source]

I noticed a few years ago that some American Christians had taken note of the practice and had been impressed by what they saw as its deep humanity in concretizing through ritual the largely unacknowledged emotions surrounding abortion. But I didn't know that mizuko kuyô had already been practiced for years in Japanese-American and American convert Buddhist traditions (including, prominently, Zen - the figures above are made at Great Vow Monastery), nor that mizuko kuyô-inspired rituals have indeed emerged beyond Buddhism. Wilson's book describes and analyzes the spread and diversification of mizuko kuyô practices in the US, along the way challenging many a scholarly and popular stereotype about Japanese-Americans, Buddhists - and Christians, too.

Take the image below, for instance (p. 120 in Wilson's book), one with which I'm tempted to start my Fall course on "Lived Religion in NYC." It's not in New York but in the Jizô Garden at Great Vow (which is in Clatskanie, Oregon) where people - many of them not Buddhist - participate in a mizuko kuyô offered because No matter how the child dies, suddenly or slowly, whether through illness, sudden infant death, accident, miscarriage, abortion or suicide, our sorrow is deep and may be long-lasting. The ritual begins with acquiring a Jizô statue (perhaps one of those made at the monastery), for which - in the ritual's first stage at the monastery - participants write a message or sew clothing. They then move to the dedicated Jizô Bodhisattva Garden, where the figures are placed with the accoutrements, in a silence full of complex emotions. The figures will remain in the garden, where they may be visited. The accoutrements will slowly rot and become one with the earth.

But you're right:
this isn't a statue of the bodhisattva Jizô. It's a statue of the Virgin Mary - not in her usual blue cloak, but in the red one of a mizuko kuyô ritual.

Can you feel the stereotypes trembling?

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