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Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

October 2, 2015

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  W. W. Norton & Company (2015).

5 stars

A beautiful and informative account by a Japanese American woman’ of her personal journey into traditional Japanese practices around death and grief.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. She grew up in the United States but spent much of her childhood in Japan, most often at the temple where her relatives still reside.  As a child she absorbed the language and culture of Japan at an experiential level.  As an adult she understands herself as belonging to both Japan and the “West,” giving her articulation of the differences between these cultures unusual grace and depth.

Three years after her father’s death Mockett remained caught in grief and depression. Then her Japanese grandfather died and the massive tsunami struck the region of Japan where her family lived. The security she had felt in Japan as a child seemed to be eroding. Over the next couple of years she returned to Japan several times deliberately exploring the traditional ways the Japanese deal with death and grief. In this book, she describes these journeys.  In the process she relates the basic history of Japan and of its Buddhist and Shinto religions.  At the same time she is coping with her own personal grief and seeking a new balance in her life.

Mockett is basically a skeptic about the supernatural, yet she participates in the rituals and ceremonies.  Such behavior is totally acceptable in Japan.  As a man explains to her. “We believe.  We don’t believe. Half and half.” Unlike the Judaeo-Christian and Muslim faiths, the traditional Japanese religion focuses on practice rather than commitment.   The Japanese are also accepting of the existence of ghosts and spirits.  While Mockett tries to discount these supernatural creatures, she cannot always find more rational explanations for what she and others experience.

As part of her intellectual and emotional journey, Mockett visited and stayed in various temples and shrines where she talked with priests and other participants, many of them intriguing characters.  Her descriptions of Zen, Pure Land, and Shingon Buddhism was one of the clearest I have read. She also relates her conversations with ordinary people: innkeepers, those who lost loved ones in the tsunami, and other visitors to the religious sites.

Gradually Mockett moves into discussion of rituals, sites, and practices around death and the spirits of the dead. She visits a volcano in a peninsula on the northern end he main island of Japan that is said to be a place devoted to grief and the spirits of the dead. Here and elsewhere she experiences people’s public and collective grief.

For me, one of the most moving sections of the book was Mockett’s experiences with Obon, several days of rituals held throughout the country when it is said that the barrier separating the living and the dead thins. Ceremonies by the living call the dead back to those who loved them. After several days of communication, the dead are sent away. Candles that represent the souls of the dead are lit and put on tiny boats. The candle boats are then placed on the river and sail away. Watching the departing boats Mockett observes that the candle boats drift into patterns rather than follow individual routes. Through this and other rituals, she is relieved to realize that the dead are not alone but always part of a community of living and dead. Last month a group near where I live observed the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by launching candle boats, but I had not known this was part of an ancient Japanese tradition.

As she journeys around Japan, Mockett observes that she finds relief from the sadness that had weighted her down. Regardless of her beliefs, the rituals helped. Her grief has not gone away, but it no longer overwhelms her. She is able to accept her loss by recognizing its presence. Uncomfortable with the model of American counseling, she notes that Japanese do not grieve in private. Instead they come together with strangers to ring bells and perform other loud and perform other public, symbolic acts together. She finds comfort in joining in the grief of others.

When I about this book I was eager to read it because I had loved Mockett’s novel, Picking Bones from Ash. (See my review.) I put off reading it, however, because I feared reading about death and grief would be depressing.  Instead I found Mockett’s new book to be warm and life-affirming because it is able to accept suffering, as Buddhism affirms, because all of us suffer.

I heartily recommend When the Dead Pause to all readers who are interested in Japan or Buddhism. Mockett gives us an account of how Japanese Buddhism is practiced, not an idealized or abstract description. More importantly, Mockett’s book takes us through her own grief and the relief she gains by participating with others in ritual grieving.  In doing so, she makes an important contribution to how we all face life and death.

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