on January 19th 2015
Genres: Personal Memoirs
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Marie Mutsuki Mockett's family owns a Buddhist temple 25 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In March 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami, radiation levels prohibited the burial of her Japanese grandfather's bones. As Japan mourned thousands of people lost in the disaster, Mockett also grieved for her American father, who had died unexpectedly.
Seeking consolation, Mockett is guided by a colorful cast of Zen priests and ordinary Japanese who perform rituals that disturb, haunt, and finally uplift her. Her journey leads her into the radiation zone in an intricate white hazmat suit; to Eiheiji, a school for Zen Buddhist monks; on a visit to a Crab Lady and Fuzzy-Headed Priest’s temple on Mount Doom; and into the "thick dark" of the subterranean labyrinth under Kiyomizu temple, among other twists and turns. From the ecstasy of a cherry blossom festival in the radiation zone to the ghosts inhabiting chopsticks, Mockett writes of both the earthly and the sublime with extraordinary sensitivity.
When Marie Mutsuki Mockett is able to contact her relatives at their temple after the nuclear meltdown, she urges them to evacuate. She can’t understand why they won’t go to a safe area. Over the course of the next two years she travels to Japan and learns how the Buddhist priests in the area are helping to lead the people through their grief after the disaster. She combines this with trips around Japan to help her understand the Japanese expression of grief in all forms as she grieves the loss of her father.
She explains the history of Shinto in Japan and how Buddhism came to Japan. She talks about how elements of both religions are combined so that the animism of Shinto is still celebrated by Buddhists.
“The love of things, the belief that the world is alive, is in part what informs modern Japanese design, where things are sleekly, cleverly shaped, almost as though they are repositories for a soul.”
She meets with priests from different sects of Buddhism and meditates with each of them to understand the difference. She consults with female seers and participates in rituals meant to lessen grief.
Although she is half Japanese and is fluent in the language and has been visiting Japan regularly since she was a child, she is frequently made aware of her status as a foreigner. People are reluctant to speak to her openly because they say that she can’t understand Japanese ways. Only hearing that she has family with a temple can make some people open to communicating with her.
I didn’t know a lot of the history of Buddhism specifically in Japan and how the different sects operate. I didn’t realize that the priesthood was usually a family business passed down from father to son. I learned about many Japanese celebrations meant to keep your ancestors happy.
This is a beautifully written book. It keeps you engaged even if you feel like sometimes you are missing part of the story. She doesn’t talk much about what is happening in her life in between trips to Japan. I had more questions like, “How are you flying over to Japan so often? How can you afford this? Wait, you are in a documentary now? When did that happen? What is it called?” I guess I’m just nosy.