Thoughts on life after the PhD
“There are no sects or churches when we are faced with the wreckage of our own homes, and doctrines hold no water before the absurdity of nature.” –Taiou Kaneda, head priest, Tsudaiji Temple, Miyagi prefecture
I keep coming back to stories like this one.
It seems that a lot of people are seeing ghosts in Tohoku, or feeling the presence of some kind of supernatural evil. And given Japan’s long history of reluctance to talk about or seek help for PTSD and mental illness, many are turning to religion and religious leaders to banish the evil spirits.
The trauma faced by survivors of the tsunami, and the difficulty of dealing with that trauma in a country that shuns psychotherapy, are very real problems, and many would argue that religious ritual cannot do enough to solve them. But in thinking of the way that monsters and ghosts can be human-made manifestations of pain and trauma, I can’t help but think that some people in Tohoku have the right idea.
I don’t believe in “ghosts,” if ghosts are defined as supernatural beings that exist as tangible remnants of the dead. I don’t believe in an afterlife of any kind. But if we can define “ghosts” as traumatic memories, as pieces of history, or as a kind of collective feeling that surrounds the people and places affected by tragedy, then Tohoku is certainly full of ghosts. And such ghosts must be dealt with.
In seeking out religious leaders and rituals to banish their ghosts and demons, some of the people of Tohoku are seeking relief from pain and grief in the only way they know how. It reminds me of Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain and its depiction of people’s intense desire for ritual in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Even in the midst of fires and ruins and contaminated rivers, someone had to read the sutras. The rituals gave everyone a sense of normalcy and closure.
I also think of Marilyn Ivy’s writings on Mt. Osore, the sacred mountain on the Shimokita peninsula that has become a spiritual center for those wishing to communicate with the dead, a “powerful site for enactment of allegories of loss,” a place where, through spirit mediums, “the dead can literally be made to speak again.” Certain places in Tohoku are so haunted by grief and traumatic memories that they have also taken on this role. Counseling those who see ghosts, Taiou Kaneda, head priest of Tsudaiji Temple in Miyagi prefecture, says “Many people passed away, so it is natural for you to see their apparitions. Please do not be scared. This can also become an opportunity for you to take a moment and think about life and death for yourself. You should make this a first step towards moving forward in this life.”
I find Kaneda’s words, particularly the part about not being scared of (real or imagined) ghosts, incredibly moving. Kaneda is working with the Miyagi Prefecture Religious Institution Liaison Council, through which priests, ministers, and monks from different Buddhist and Christian sects are providing telephone counseling services to those in need. What a wonderful thing it is for very different religious organizations to work together to help people heal.
Monsters and ghosts need not be objects of fear. They’ve been created by writers, painters, and everyday people for thousands of years to express the inexpressible. In confronting them we can confront our own fear and pain. Whether the people of Tohoku choose psychotherapy, the chanting of a sutra, or simply private counseling with priests and close friends and family, I hope they are all able to one day make peace with their ghosts.
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