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A temple in Little Tokyo

Understanding why a Buddhist memorial service for miscarried and aborted babies appeals to hurting human hearts

A temple in Little Tokyo

Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin in Los Angeles (FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

I must have walked past the Japanese Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, several dozen times and never noticed it until the day I set up an interview with the temple priest there. That was in December, when I was working on a story about the Japanese Buddhist practice of observing memorial services for unborn babies (see “Guilt Offerings”). I had just returned from a trip to Japan, where I visited two Buddhist temples with cemeteries full of baby-faced statues that represent the souls of children who have died of abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. The temples, like many others in Japan, offered memorial services (called mizuko kuyo) for these never-born babies. But this third temple I was now visiting was on my home turf of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo, a historic ethnic neighborhood dotted with museums, theaters, sushi bars, and mochi sweet shops.

Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin is a beige-and-gray, slope-roofed temple in the heart of the neighborhood. Elbowed between a Japanese collectible gift shop and a shabu shabu house, the temple is hidden down a narrow driveway, away from the bustle and gaggle of tourists. I almost missed the entrance to the gateway, and as I parked my car nearby, I watched a white couple wander into the temple courtyard and gawk around, confused, before bumbling back out. It was like we had entered an abrupt, secret tranquility—the noises of traffic outside shushed down, and the only chatter I heard was from chirping birds from who-knows-where (seriously, where were these mysterious birds in this concrete jungle?).

A young priest greeted me at the door with a smile and a bow. Here in America, many Buddhist priests adopt Christian ecclesiastical titles, so instead of greeting him as Priest Hayashi, I bowed hello to Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi. (His boss is the Bishop Emeritus Taisen Miyata.) Other than the Americanized title, Rev. Hayashi was otherwise very traditional: He wore a long olive-green robe, an outer garment printed with intricate gold patterns, thick white socks, and white slippers. His head was shiny bald, and he had smooth, expressive fingers that waved for emphasis as he talked. 

One of Hayashi’s duties is to perform mizuko kuyo for anyone who requests it. He knows that most of these cases involve abortion—he sees and hears the parents’ regret. He calls abortion a “very disgusting thing”: He’s seen video footage of late-term abortions, watched the scenes where a fully formed unborn baby tries to wiggle away from the abortionist’s needle, and says he personally thinks abortion should be illegal: “The child had no sin. It’s the parents who are guilty. They made a decision.” But his role as a minister, he said, is to be the “intermediary” between the participant and the spirits, and also to help the parents through their loss: “I just listen. The purpose of mizuko kuyo is to pray.”

Over the years he’s even had non-Japanese, non-Buddhist participants seeking relief from their suffering or guilt over their child’s death. Mizuko kuyo was the only ceremony they found that specifically addressed the issue of prenatal deaths in a ritualistic way. These American patrons, Hayashi said, are willing to try anything that will help them. To me, these requests signify a very human longing for some sort of public, bodily expression of the grief of losing an unborn child. Even when the parents don’t believe in the personhood of an unborn baby, they feel the need to mourn in some way. Perhaps a mizuko kuyo seems comforting in its simplicity and formality.

Here in Koyasan Buddhist Temple, the priest prays to Jizo, a bodhisattva whom the Japanese believe protects and guides children to a better place. Mizuko kuyo also has a therapeutic component: It appeals to the heart of the parent to acknowledge their grief. Many temples in America focus more on the emotional rather than religious aspect of the service, since the growing number of American mizuko kuyo participants are not Buddhist.

But traditionally, the heart of mizuko kuyo is all about Jizo. In the courtyard outside the Koyasan temple stood several gray stone statues of Jizo. They had red cloth bibs around their neck and held a jingle staff in one hand, a mani jewel in the other—the staff to warn small creatures so Jizo can avoid trampling them, the jewel to grant all wishes. One Jizo statue at the temple had a baby in his arm and two more crying babies crawling up his lap, with a halo around his head to signify his divinity. I also saw smaller Jizos the size of my forearm—chubby figures with tilted faces, beaming crescent eyes, and pouty lips, adorned with red bibs and fluffy Santa Claus hats. 

Japanese Buddhists believe Jizo presides over the otherworld, where the spirits of unborn babies whimper and weep before the mythical Sanzu River that blocks their path to the spirit world. The tale goes: Since these infants so prematurely departed the earthly world, they have no tally of good deeds to help them cross the river. What’s more, their untimely deaths brought their parents much pain, so they are doomed to pay penance by eternally piling stones by the river bank, stuck in a limbo of perpetual atonement and pain. Indeed, Buddhism does not take the matter of karma lightly: You get what you reap, no more, no less. But Jizo, the semi-deity who denied Buddhahood to first help others attain salvation, is full of compassion and mercy. He protects the weak by shielding the defenseless children behind his robe from demons, letting them hear mantras, and guiding them to the spirit world. 

Hmm ... this sounds familiar. It’s no wonder that Jizo is the most beloved deity in Japan—deep down, we long for a Savior full of compassion and mercy for the weak and lost. I was reminded of a verse I recently studied from the book of Hosea: “For in you, the fatherless find compassion.” But preluding that sweet, tender line is also a recognition of the true God: “We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion” (Hosea 14:3). And Jizo, as lovely as he sounds, is still a manmade imitation of Jesus Christ.