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July 15, 2009

Jeff Wilson’s Mourning The Unborn Dead

Judith Maclean Miller

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A book review by Judith Maclean Miller

Jeff Wilson, Mourning the Unborn Dead; a Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, Oxford University Press, 2009, 260p, ISBN 978-0-19-537193-2

This book is richly instructive non-fiction, based in university PhD dissertation work and elegantly written. It opens into a perhaps unfamiliar world of mitzuko kuyo, Jizo, unborn spirits, aborted babies and bodhisattva. With these intersecting concepts, Wilson explores the shaping of Zen Buddhism in the United States.

Basing his text on careful and exhaustive research, including many interviews, Wilson follows the ritual of mitzuko kuyo in Japan and its emergence in the United States. This is a ritual for unborn children, “water babies.” In Japan, it is a ceremony to appease spirits of aborted children who may be angry, lingering around parents, especially mothers, bringing bad luck.

Jizo is a bodhisattva, a spirit who could have achieved nirvana but has chosen to remain between worlds, assisting humans. People in Japan identify Jizo as a transcendent being who cares for the spirits of children waiting to be born, who have been baulked by abortion or miscarriage. Ceremonies request his attention or intervention.

Wilson discovers that in America, the water baby ritual takes on other elements and meanings. The focus is still usually on children, but it may widen to include lost children, even lost or alienated adult children. Small groups of people create written texts, drawings or tiny garments to clothe statues of Jizo. Often they speak their experiences aloud. While the Japanese ceremonies wish to appease the spirits of unborn children, the American ones seek to share and relieve the pain of parents who have lost or aborted children.

Wilson traces the intriguing development of Zen rituals in America, looking at their similarities to and divergences from practices in Japan, so that this becomes an investigation of Zen in America as well as a description of the specific water baby ceremonies.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Americans have developed a water baby ritual which is strong on psychotherapy and healing, given what Wilson shows is something of a preoccupation in the United States with personal development and individual psychology.

One of the real pleasures of this book is the naming of the chapters, with such titles as “Carried with Jizo Bosatsu,” “A Shadow in the Heart,” “Branching Streams Flow on in the Dark.” They reflect the grace and poetry of a prose which is never pedantic.

Wilson quotes often from other writers, such as French social theorist Michel de Certeau, linking this study to the wide world of reflection on the merging of religious practices and even on our ways of speaking to one another, “other regions give us back what our culture has excluded from its discourse.”

Wilson walks straight into the heart of controversial issues of discourse in America when he quotes Elaine J. Ramshaw, a Methodist preacher: “There are those who ideologically refuse to call a stillborn or miscarried fetus a ‘baby,’ and those who ideologically insist that if a woman who has miscarried doesn’t use the word ‘baby,’ she is denying her grief.” Caught between such ideologies are women trying to come to terms with their own emotions. Some of them have embraced water baby ceremonies as a way of working through a difficult conflict.

Even reading the notes and the bibliographies in this book is highly instructive, with a wide range of writers and places to follow up on. This is a compassionate, instructive book for which I find myself grateful. It will appeal to psychotherapists, students of religion, feminists—to anyone interested in people and ideas.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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