Owakare: The Great Parting

Several times a week Zen Buddhist priest Kaneta Taiō heads out in his pickup truck with a small group of helpers to visit one of the dozens of temporary-housing communities on the Tōhoku coast. Kaneta calls these rounds Café de Monk. The term is a pun; the Japanese love puns. Kaneta is a priest, which he says is a kind of monk. The English word monk also sounds like the Japanese word monku, which means “to complain,” and one of Kaneta’s jobs post-tsunami is to listen to people’s complaints. But monk is also a reference to jazz artist Thelonious Monk, whose music Kaneta plays whenever he sets up his mobile café.

“Monk,” he says, “has a groove, which keeps things lighthearted. But there is tremendous sadness in his music. Monk is the perfect soundtrack for what we are experiencing today.”

Kaneta is from the city of Kurihara, where he runs a four-hundred-year-old temple called Tsūdaiji, Temple of the Great Way. Kurihara is located a bit inland from the coast, and immediately following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami Kaneta found himself on his feet for hours and hours, day after day, reciting sutras for the dead as bodies were recovered and cremated in his local crematorium. He did not know most of the people whose cremations he conducted. But he saw his job as necessary and important because it is at the cremation that people must experience what the Japanese call owakare, “the great parting.”

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