Mourning the unborn dead: American uses of Japanese Buddhist post-abortion rituals Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Wilson, Jeffrey Townsend
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Religious Studies
  • Among the most common rituals in Japan, the Buddhist post-pregnancy loss ritual mizuko kuyo has come to America. Mizuko kuyo first arrived in Japanese-American Buddhist communities. Temples of various denominations demonstrate a range of attitudes and practices related to mizuko kuyo. The ritual is particularly sought out by new Japanese immigrants, and is largely contextualized by Japanese Buddhist notions of the spirit world and clear distinctions between priests and laypeople. What changes occur in mizuko kuyo are generally the result of indirect forces, such as lack of space. Convert Zen practitioners in America also practice a form of mizuko kuyo, often called "water baby ceremonies." Despite their depiction as unritualistic, since the early 1990s these new Buddhist groups have increasingly taken up mizuko kuyo as a practice to help members deal with pregnancy losses. Women have been the pioneers of this practice, which is buttressed by the rise of bodhisattva-oriented movements. Numerous alterations can be seen in the process of recreating mizuko kuyo as water baby ceremonies. Among the most important is the re-orientation from placating the spirit to psychologically healing the parent. The rise of mizuko kuyo demonstrates that convert Zen has reached a new stage which pays greater attention to ritual and other elements of the tradition left out by earlier American converts. Thus mizuko kuyo pushes these groups closer to Asian models. Buddhists are not the only Americans with an interest in mizuko kuyo. Pro-life and pro-choice proponents rhetorically appropriate mizuko kuyo in ways designed to bolster their political positions. Pro-life adherents use mizuko kuyo to prove that they care about women, and that their convictions arise from objective psychological phenomena. Prochoice proponents use it to show that they care about families, and that they are sensitive to the religious aspects of abortion. More surprising, some American Christians and others seek healing after pregnancy losses through mizuko kuyo. These ritual appropriations come in many forms, from discussing Buddhism in online forums to performing mizuko kuyo. Buddhism may be becoming the specialist religion that ministers to post-pregnancy loss grief for many Americans, regardless of their personal religious affiliation.
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  • Tweed, Thomas A.
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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