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A Middle Way for Abortion
Lessons for grieving the unborn from Japanese Buddhism.
The monk breaks into prayer the instant I tell him about my brother. There is no pause, the chant is instant. When I hear it, tears well up in my eyes.
I’ve told almost no one what happened to my brother, I never imagined I’d tell a Buddhist monk in a quiet temple in the outer suburbs of Shizuoka, Japan. We never speak about my brother openly in my family. What I know of him, what I think I know of him, comes in whispered tones.
Because our family is Catholic. And my brother—he was never born.
The whispers are of complications that made the pregnancy very high risk. Had he been born, my brother would likely have been blind, or brain-damaged. It was illegal in Venezuela—it still is—but if you knew the right doctors, what needed to be arranged could be arranged. In Spanish a single word—aborto—means both abortion and miscarriage. Which one it was, I never quite knew.
Two years later, another pregnancy. This time, there were no quiet arrangements. Mom refused. And I was born.
I’m telling this story to this monk, Yasui-san, holding back tears. A couple of hours earlier, I’d arrived at the temple he runs a couple of hours west of Tokyo in journalist mode.
My plan had been to ask him about mizuko-kuyo, the Buddhist ceremony to mourn those who were never born. Yasui-san had turned his small temple into a center for mizuko-kuyo, allowing even people who didn’t live in his neighborhood to hold one.
When I’d called to arrange the interview, I hadn’t really been thinking about my brother. I’d been thinking about the bedeviled politics of abortion in the United States, about the way polarization had turned this most personal, most private of matters into a public fight, into legislative riders on funding for Planned Parenthood and the poisonous fight over the Supreme Court. I wanted to write about abortion from a radically different place, and Japan is nothing if not radically different.
There is no such thing as abortion politics in Japan.
Abortion is legal, widely available, and never talked about. In a country that prizes privacy intensely, the idea of politicians fighting over abortion struck the Japanese people I talked to as simply bizarre, as if you’d found out about an exotic foreign land split in two by a poisonous, debilitating political fight over the permissibility of reading in bed.
Hearing about it from my Japanese wife, I’d instantly been gripped by curiosity about mizuko-kuyo. In Japanese, mizu means water, ko “child,” and “kuyo” means “ritual”—making it a “waterchild ritual.”
In ancient times, the Japanese believed that a fetus begins life in the womb as a liquid, and gradually “hardens” as it grows into a child over the course of a pregnancy. A fetus, then, is a “water child”—suspended in an in-between space, neither entirely a child nor entirely not-a-child.
I’d been captivated by the way this story breaks the poisonous either/or dynamics of the Western abortion debate. In the West, a child’s personhood is digital. It follows yes/no logic according to which a fetus has either every human right or none of them.
Water-child logic turns the debate from digital to analog, from either/or into a spectrum.
Because, really, isn’t that the way we actually think about pregnancy? Isn’t that why intuition screams at us that the morning-after pill isn’t morally equivalent to a third-trimester abortion? Isn’t this just a saner, softer, more human way to think about it all?
Facing Yasui-san, the priest, decked out in his elegant silk robes sitting in front of the altar at his 500-year old family temple, this is the debate I think I’m going to have when I ask him, by way of an opener, what the word “mizuko” means to him. His answer is not at all what I expected.
A second meaning of “mizu,” he tells me, is “unseen.” What he specializes in, he says, are Unseen Child Rituals: tending to the grief of those who never saw the children who were never born.
“Would you like me to perform one, to demonstrate?” he asks.
I hesitate. This is in no way what I’ve prepared for. I dither, through my translator, but Yasui-san is having none of it. Japanese Buddhism is about what you do, he tells me, not about what you think. The notion of discussing mizuko-kuyo with someone who’d never seen one struck him as nonsense.
He asks me to light a stick of incense to show the Buddha the path to the altar, and begins to chant, mournfully, in a mixture of Sanskrit and ancient Japanese. It’s not language modern Japanese people can understand, it’s language they’re meant to feel. Time and again he returns to the sacred mantra beseeching the Buddha to extend his mercy to this unseen child. There was a slowness to his movement, a sacred intent, a profound, whole-of-body seriousness shot through every gesture.
Now and then he pauses the demonstration to explain the meaning to my translator in modern Japanese. As he chants, he releases a rain of stylized flower petals, letting them tumble to the ground. This, he tells us, is meant to create a path for the mizuko’s soul to ascend to heaven to meet the Buddha now descending down the trail of incense I’d lit moments earlier.
Mainstream Japanese Buddhism, it turns out, is quite different from the classical Indian Buddhism you may know best. The cycle of reincarnation that plays a central role in Indian Buddhism takes a backseat here to salvation, and the Buddha’s role becomes Christ-like: part human, part divine, a hybrid who takes a personal interest in your salvation. The difference, really, is that to Yasui-san salvation is there for the asking. All it takes is for a monk to invoke the Buddha’s compassion in sacred chants for a soul to break out of the cycle of reincarnations and ascend to heaven to be with Him.
There’s a strange beauty to the ceremony—the ancient altar, the robes, the soothing rhythmic sameness of the chants. Twenty minutes into it, my skeptical, questioning mind is starting to give in. As I see the incense waft up, I mull the unseen children back home—millions upon millions of them—who will never be invited to meet the Buddha along its trail.
And the knot in my throat grows harder to ignore.
After the ritual, Yasui-san offers me strong green tea and tells me the mizuko-kuyo he performs is basically an adapted Buddhist funeral. Normally, in Japan, a funeral is centrally concerned with the handling of mortal remains: cremation, the handling of the bones and ashes.
When a water child, an unseen child, dies, there is no body. In the West, grief specialists would call it “ambiguous grief”—grief complicated by the absence of physical remains. Yasui-san has no interest in intellectualizing it. Instead, he performs a ritual focused on the salvation of the unseen child’s soul—a ritual re-enactment of its ascent into heaven.
“Sometimes grieving mothers come to me haunted by visions of their mizuko,” he tells me. “Often, they see them in dreams. They’re worried that the child is angry at them, that it will curse them. I tell them that it’s not like that, that their mizuko just misses them, that it wants to be held in a mother’s arms. I tell them that they appear to them in dreams because they love their mothers so much. That after the ritual, the child will ascend to heaven, and that one day they will be able to hold them in their arms.”
We’re suddenly very far from the politics of Roe vs. Wade.
“In the West,” I tell him, “none of this could happen.” Because people who believe abortion should be legal face a strong taboo against grieving their water child because they’re not supposed to believe the child has any human traits at all. “Just a clump of cells.” And people who believe mizuko have all the same rights as children, well, they may be able to grieve a miscarriage, but never an abortion. It’s too big a sin to ever admit.
There’s a bit of toing-and-froing with the translation—because, like Spanish, Japanese doesn’t distinguish abortion and miscarriage very clearly. Once he understands, I tell Yasui-san that religious leaders in the West would find the concept of a mizuko-kuyo for an aborted child monstrous: a ritual that only enables a grievous sin.
“I mean, for you, isn’t it a sin?” I ask.
And here he surprises me again.
“Well of course it’s a sin, a very big sin,” he says. “But I would never, ever say that to a grieving mother. Because she knows it, she knows it much better than me. It’s not my role to judge her. My role is to help free her—and her child—from the weight of it, so she can heal and so she can one day hold her baby in heaven.”
“What you describe in the West,” he says, his voice starting to crack, “is just a tragedy. All those unseen children going unmourned…all that pain…” he says, his voice trailing off.
By now, my mind is a million miles from the politics of abortion. I’m thinking of my friend, the proud feminist who screwed up her senior year of high school, had an abortion, and couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t stop crying for three months afterward. I’m thinking of how life might have been different for her if she’d been able to have a mizuko-kuyo, somewhere to channel her sadness and her guilt, some place with official standing to tell her that her child would be ok, and she would be ok.
And I’m thinking of my brother, who was never born and whom we never talk about and never mourned, about the decades of repressed guilt and remorse and enforced silence my mom endured. I’m thinking about how her life might have been different if the Catholic Church had made an unseen child ritual available to her.
By the time I work up the courage to tell Yasui-san about my brother, we’re nearing our goodbyes. After he chants his prayer, he tells me about the mother and daughter who came to his temple asking for a Mizuko-kuyo recently—the mother in her late 70s, the daughter in her 50s. He tells me he hadn’t quite known whose water child they were grieving as the ceremony went on, but that when he’d seen the old woman’s tears, he had understood. The child had died, unseen, more than 50 years earlier—and gone ungrieved all that time.
He told her he had invoked the Buddha’s mercy, and the Buddha never withholds His mercy. He told her her baby would ascend to heaven, as would she, and that she’d hold him there. And the pain that had festered for five decades, unseen, began to heal.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion. His Substack is Solid Reality.
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