I would like to express my appreciation to the Venerable S. Dhammika, the Venerable Subhuti, and David Chadwick for their support and suggestions in preparing this article.
The practice of Buddhism begins with morality, and morality has its base in karma – the law of moral causation.1 Karma is one of the five laws of nature, which all beings are subject to.2 Even a fully enlightened being (arahant in Pali), such as a Buddha, is subject to the law of karma. One difference, however, between an arahant and an unenlightened being is that a fully enlightened being does not create any new karma; in other words, an enlightened person’s morality is naturally perfect, since even the most subtle defilements no longer exist in his or her mind. We may try to emulate the behavior of a Buddha or an arahant, but that is not an easy task, and most of us are bound to fail. Nevertheless, with right effort and understanding, out of repeated failure comes success. Once we are able to keep the moral precepts,3 the mind relaxes. We become less tense, less guilt ridden, and it becomes easier to gain concentration. With concentration, we can begin to develop wisdom. Wisdom leads to enlightenment, and with enlightenment, we are liberated from samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and attain Nibbana, the cessation of suffering. Thus, morality stands at the beginning of our path to liberation.
A Buddhist Perspective on Abortion
The purpose of this article is to present a Buddhist perspective that will help us to examine the subject of abortion from five different points of view: 1) from a purely moral perspective; 2) from the perspective of karma and rebirth; 3) by applying the concept of the middle way; 4) from the point of view of the greater good; 5) from the perspective of the three characteristics; and 6) as an exercise in the practice of compassion.
1) From a Moral Perspective: One of the most important of the 227 rules in a Theravada Buddhist monk’s code of discipline4 is to abstain from the taking of human life;5 this rule includes both euthanasia and abortion, as well as the verbal encouragement to perform
1 Karma means “action” and consists of wholesome and unwholesome actions, arising from one’s volition. What most people call “karma” is actually “karma result”, i.e., the cause-and-effect results of our actions.
2 The five laws of nature include: 1) The laws of physics; 2) The law of genetics; 3) The law of karma; 4) the laws of the mind and 5) The laws/aspects of the Buddhist teaching.
3 The five Buddhist precepts for a lay person are: 1) Not killing; 2) Not stealing; 3) Not engaging in sexual misconduct; 4) Not lying; 5) Not consuming alcohol or drugs.
4 The Theravada Buddhist code of discipline is found in the Vinaya Pitaka, one of the three great divisions of the Buddhist Cannon, laid down for regulating the conduct of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (male and female monastics) under the Buddha’s guidance.
5 Intentionally depriving a human being of life is the third of four great rules laid down for monastics by the Buddha, the transgression of which defeats one’s purpose in becoming a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni.
such an act. A commentary to the Vinaya Pitaka explains five necessary conditions that must be present to constitute an act of killing:
1. The thing killed must be a living being;
2. You, the killer, must know or be aware that it is a living being;
3. You must have the intention to kill it;
4. There must be an effort to kill;
5. The being must be killed as a result.
First of all, how do we define a living being? The Vibhanga6 defines a living (human) being as a person “from the time consciousness7 first becomes manifest in a mother’s womb, up to its death-time,” so consciousness is the crucial factor here. In the Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (MN 38), the Buddha describes the conditions necessary for consciousness to enter the womb: “Bhikkhus, the descent [of consciousness] into the womb takes place through the conjunction of these three [conditions]: There is a union of mother and father [sexual intercourse], the mother is in season and the gandhabba [the being to be (re)born]8 is present.” Since fertilization can occur as soon as a few minutes after sex to as many as five days later, the exact sequence and duration of the process will vary from person to person; nevertheless, despite not being able to know the exact moment of conception, most Buddhists still regard it as the beginning of a new life. This means that even though the embryo begins as nothing more than a single fertilized cell, it is still possessed of a unique consciousness, whose karma has ultimately brought it to this realm, and will continue, along with the law of genetics, to define and shape its destiny, including many of its physical and mental characteristics (which begin to manifest soon after conception). With this understanding, the first and second conditions for the offence of killing are fulfilled.9
If the woman decides she wants to have an abortion – that decision provides an intention to kill, which satisfies the third condition. When she seeks an abortion – that meets the fourth condition of making an effort to kill. Finally, a being is killed because of that action, and an offense is committed, which satisfies the fifth condition. Please note that one can be indirectly responsible for the death of another and still satisfy these five conditions. If, for example, I were to encourage a woman to have an abortion and she
6 Vibhanga: the second book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, one of the three great divisions of the Buddhist Cannon.
7 What we term “consciousness” in Buddhism is actually the continuous stream of an infinite number of extremely brief consciousness moments, lasting about a trillionth of a second each. Note that consciousness is not synonymous with being conscious; for example, one is not conscious in deep sleep, although consciousness is still present. As well, the so-called subconscious is merely a deeper level of consciousness that the mind is normally too agitated to see. If this were not the case, a person would die every time he or she fell asleep, and killing a person in deep sleep or a coma, or while dreaming would not be considered murder.
8 In some ways, the Gandhabba is similar to the Judeo-Christian concept of a soul; however, in this context, it is more accurate to view it as the stream of consciousness that bridges the gap from one life to the next.
9 Contraception (with the exception of an IUD) prevents the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm, in which case, consciousness is unable to enter the womb, and the first of the five conditions that constitute an act of killing is not fulfilled. Unlike contraception, in vitro fertilization produces a viable embryo, and since a number of excess embryos are created as part of the reproductive process, their disposal creates a definite moral dilemma.
followed my advice, I would have to disrobe, and would be barred from ordaining again for the rest of my life.
Can science prove any of the above claims about karma, consciousness or rebirth? Probably not, but when it comes to the question of taking a human life, isn’t it better to err on the side of caution? Anyway, Buddhist monks are obliged to follow the Vinaya, and although some of the rules are more nuanced than others, the rule about taking a human life is quite clear cut; besides, it is the nature of karma to be exacting, so please bear with me if I seem a bit inflexible in the area of morality. In no way is this article an attempt to prop up a political party or to criticize the beliefs of others. As you read further, you will see that Buddhism encompasses many other approaches for dealing with such a complex subject as abortion.
2) From the Perspective of Karma and Rebirth: According to its karma from a previous life, every being in the universe is born into one or another of the 31 realms,10 and is attracted to its parents11 due to a karmic affinity with one or both of them from a previous life.12 By having an abortion, a pregnant woman is not only preventing the unborn child from coming into this world and fulfilling its human potential, but she is also harming herself by creating the unwholesome karma of taking a human life. When that karma ripens, it will create a correspondingly unwholesome and painful result.
To demonstrate the effect that the belief in karma has on society, let us take the example of Bali: Most Balinese villagers, being Hindu, share a strong belief in the law of karma. They honor their ancestors and believe that many of them return again and again to the same family line over numerous generations, coming back as a grandchild or great grandchild, a niece, nephew, cousin, etc. As a result of this belief, abortion is strongly discouraged in these Balinese communities (called banjar).13 Personally, I have met with Balinese families who are quite convinced that a grandparent or great grandparent has “reincarnated” as a grandchild or other member of their extended family, citing the character traits that their deceased grandparent or great grandparent shares in common with the young child. For them, to perform an abortion would be to murder their ancestor and lose the merit of reconnecting via a personal relationship to their family line. The result is that when a Balinese girl gets pregnant in the banjar, she and her boyfriend are more inclined to marry and begin a family than in other cultures, where the girl often has to fend for herself.
10 The 31 realms (of existence): the totality of existence, including (from the lowest to the highest) the Hell Realm, Animal Realm, Hungry Ghost Realm, Demon Realm, Human Realm, Heavenly Realms (6), Fine-Material Realms (16) and Immaterial Realms (4).
11 This statement does not apply to beings born by spontaneous generation or parthenogenesis.
12 In the Samyutta Nikaya (SN.ii.189), the Buddha states: “Monks, it would not be easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, or your son or daughter [in a previous life]. If the Buddha could make this claim in regard to our relationship with animals, how much more true would it be in regard to our relationship with fellow humans?
13 Banjar: an administrative division of Bali; the subsection of a town or village in Bali, with a traditional, partially autonomous, democratic form of government.
According to Buddhism, all life is precious, but human life, in particular, offers a rare opportunity for moral and spiritual development, which does not exist to the same degree in other realms. By having an abortion, the mother is depriving the baby in her womb of this opportunity, and who knows how long that being may have to wait until another opportunity arises to be reborn in the human realm? Even in the case of a child that, due to its past karma, will be born severely handicapped, it is still better to let that child be born and expiate its unwholesome karma in the human realm than in some other realm, where the opportunity to grow and learn from that experience is lacking.
One final point: No one can produce karma without first creating its mental component
– no one can produce a physical action without first having a thought to do it. What this means is that how you do something is as important as what you do; in fact, the two are inseparable. Take, for example, two women who decide to have abortions: The first woman actually wants to have the baby, but due to a rare uterine condition, her doctor has strongly recommended surgical removal of the fetus; the second one had unprotected sex at a party with someone she barely knew and hasn’t the least concern for the welfare of the child in her womb or, for that matter, any intention of keeping it. Either way, both women are going to produce some unwholesome karma by engaging in the act of killing, but the strength of that volition and the concurrence of other supporting mental factors are going to contribute to two completely different outcomes. Although the first woman might agonize more over her decision and actually suffer more initially, the karmic result of the second woman’s decision, all things being equal, will be more unwholesome and more productive of suffering in the long run. However, if the second woman takes even a few minutes to analyze what may one day become an extremely difficult or untenable situation, she may be able to change her course and circumvent the worst of her tribulations.
3) Applying the Concept of the Middle Way: Every thought and action in this world can be taken to an extreme. By rigidly adhering to a particular action or point of view, we end up forcing ourselves beyond our natural limits and alienating others in the process, which all too often provides the impetus for them to adapt an opposing view. Thus, the pendulum of life circumstances continues to swing back and forth, from one extreme to the other, increasing our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others, and bringing us further and further astray from the path to enlightenment. The middle way – the path between these two extremes – is the Buddha’s answer to this problem: “Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathāgata14 teaches the Dhamma via the middle.”15
To practice the middle way, we need to be able to see both sides of an argument, without clinging to one side or the other; we also need to be able to put each situation into context. Through this practice, even the most difficult circumstances can often be
14 Tathāgata: an appellation for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus come.”
15 Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15)
easily resolved; for example, as a Buddhist monk, by practicing the middle way, I can more easily empathize with a woman’s decision to have an abortion, even though I might not agree with her from a moral perspective. Acting in this manner, I am also practicing tolerance, creating a “safe space” for reconciliation and compromise, and avoiding the very real danger of becoming entrapped in the mire of fundamentalism and dogma. Of course, if the woman comes to me for advice, I will do my best to convince her of the benefits of following the Buddhist precepts and not taking another being’s life.
4) From the Point of View of the Greater Good: Acting in accord with the greater good is more of a Mahayana Buddhist teaching than a Theravada one,16 which means basically that in Mahayana you can more easily bend the rules if you or your community determines that such an action is for the greater good of oneself, one’s community, or the population at large. It implies both the benefit and the deficit of a particular choice, and the net gain in regard to health, happiness, success in life, lessening of suffering, etc. Of course, to arrive at a decision that would override any of the moral precepts is a task that requires impartiality, wisdom and compassion. It is a task that sees the world in numerous shades of grey, and a greater good that may vary from situation to situation, placing the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual, to make the right decision – or the wrong one.
Years ago, I heard a story about a well-known Japanese monk, who, while working in the monastery garden, would kill the destructive insects with his bare hands. More recently, I read about a famous Burmese monk who, before becoming a monk, was a farmer. One day, after he had been practicing meditation for some time, he attained the third level of enlightenment, in which all worldly attachments are destroyed. After that, he found he was unable to plow the field, due to his concern for the suffering caused to the insect and animal population living in the earth. Which monk was right – the one who killed the insects so that his fellow monks could eat or the one who refused to plow the earth out of compassion for the millions of living beings who took that land as their home? In determining the greater good, we are dealing with conventional truth,17 a truth that may yield different and sometimes opposing answers to the same question.
Let us now look at the question of abortion through the lens of the greater good. When one aborts a child, the fetus dies. From a purely ethical point of view, that’s a negative; however, depending on the context, the mother may be spared considerable physical, mental, social and economic hardship, which would be a positive. Other members of the woman’s immediate family might also benefit, thus the greater good would seem to favor the abortion; the balance changes, however, when we factor in three things:
16 Although, strictly speaking, this is true, there does seem to be some room for overlap between the greater good and the middle way.
17 Conventional truth: a truth that relies on conventional language and expressions, e.g., “man, woman, table, car, etc.,” and is thus relegated to the domain of concepts.
a) A woman who is planning to have an abortion should know that there is a possibility she may experience greater physical and mental suffering from following through with her decision than if she went ahead and had the baby. Nowadays, abortion is a relatively safe procedure for a woman in countries where it is allowed; however, every surgical procedure has its inherent dangers. Also, that doesn’t include the very real mental suffering that the woman is bound to undergo, which may even outweigh the physical suffering.
b) The degree of suffering that the fetus experiences in undergoing an abortion maybe greater than the degree of suffering that the mother experiences if she has the unwanted baby. Of course, it’s easier to empathize with the mother, because we can see her suffering, and more difficult to empathize with the unborn child, whose suffering we cannot see; however, what we can and cannot see does not necessarily determine the truth of a given situation. According to the Visuddhimagga (a famous Buddhist commentary): “When the mother has an abortion, the pain that arises in him [the fetus] through the cutting and rending in the place where the pain arises, which is not fit to be seen even by friends, intimates or companions – this is the suffering rooted in abortion.”18 At least in the Visuddhimagga, it would seem that the suffering of the aborted fetus is far greater than the suffering of the pregnant mother who decides to keep the child (although this may vary, depending on the duration of the pregnancy and other circumstances).
Another type of suffering that is not described in this passage is the mental suffering of the unborn child not being able to attain the birth that it so desires, for desire is what ultimately brings one to the door of human existence. Of course, whether or not that being attains a human birth, he or she is still bound to suffer; however, to miss the opportunity for human existence and end up wandering in woeful realms,19 for ages unknown is to suffer more.
c) In deciding on the greater good in a given situation, we cannot come to a clear determination without factoring in the doctrine of karma, for karma considers the present, as well as the future, and this life, as well as the next. Here are several examples:
1. A woman who has had several abortions during her life is born infertile in an equal number of future lives or perhaps even aborted in some of those lives, and then reborn in a non-human realm, as an animal, demon or hungry ghost.20
18 Visuddhimagga 3.16.39
19 Woeful realms: Hell Realm, Animal Realm, Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Demon Realm.
20 The important point to remember here is that one’s birth in the next life will correspond to the karmic sign that appears to him or her at the time of death in this life. This “death-proximate karma” is the end result of the way one has lived during his or her life. Generally, it’s cumulative (referred to as “habitual karma”), but sometimes, one can perform a particularly potent act (referred to as “weighty karma”), such as killing one’s mother or father, that has the power to produce an unalterable outcome at the time of death – in this case, rebirth in a hell realm.
Note that doctors who perform abortions and those who encourage a woman to have one are also culpable.
2. A single woman with a career gets pregnant. Because her career is more important to her than having the child, she opts for an abortion. One, two, three times. Eventually, she becomes CEO of the company where she works, meets someone she really likes and marries. They decide not to have any children, but sometimes she thinks about the three children that could have been hers. Quickly, she puts the thought out of her mind.
3. A woman marries and becomes pregnant. Soon after, her husband leaves her; nevertheless, she decides to go ahead and have the baby. For years she struggles to support her son, as he grows into manhood and gets an education. The son appreciates how his mother’s sacrifice has made it possible for him to become successful in life, and years later returns the favor by supporting his aged mother.
4. A young woman who was raped decides to not have an abortion, but since she is unable to care for the child, she seeks adoption and finds a family that is willing to adopt the child. The adoptive parents love the child, and the child grows up in a healthy and happy environment. One day, the child is reunited with its biological mother. The mother feels a great burden lifted from her heart, and is finally able to forgive the man who raped her.21 Of course, these are only stories, and I’m sure there are an equal number of stories that could demonstrate just the opposite. However, no one can choose the precise story for his or her future life, and even with an understanding of karma, it is not an easy task to fathom the future results of one’s actions. What an understanding of karma can do, however, is to point out the general direction one is headed, plus those tendencies that are increasing, and those that are decreasing. Even if we cannot directly see the unfolding of karma, as some people can, we can still see it in terms of probabilities and future consequences.
Finally, how can we determine the greater good without first defining what that good is? Perhaps, in regard to good, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. This would mean that there is no one definition of good that can apply to all persons and situations. But is this really true? What about clean air and pure water – isn’t that good for all people? Generally speaking, yes, although the way we prioritize these two essentials might vary from person to person, and place to place. And what about money – is money (as a means of exchange) good? For someone with a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, the answer would be yes; for that person, money would definitely be a priority. For a Theravada monk living in a monastery where he is supplied with all his basic requisites,
21 It is often the case in Bali that if a young girl gets pregnant, someone in her extended family will offer to care for the child. Outside of a traditional banjar environment, the child is more likely to end up in an orphanage, which, generally speaking, is not able to offer the same degree of love and care that foster parents can.
the answer would be no; for him, money would not be a priority, nor, according to the Vinaya, is it allowable (although the Buddha did allow his monks to drop the minor precepts after his passing away).
So what are a monk’s priorities? His first priority is to keep the moral precepts, and his top priority is to attain Nibbana (lasting peace and happiness). Other sects or religions might refer to the final goal as salvation, moksha, God-realization, enlightenment, liberation or Buddhahood. To attain such a goal – would that not, at least for a monk, be the greatest good? And that which leads to the greatest good, would that not be the greater good? Thus, one’s goal in life determines what, for him or her, would be the greater good, and that goal, in turn, is determined by one’s belief system. For a Buddhist, the greater good, in simple terms, consists of avoiding evil, doing good, and purifying the mind,22 and this is accomplished in three stages: the practice of morality, the practice of concentration, and the cultivation of wisdom.23
35 years ago, my girlfriend became pregnant. She was 16 years older than me, and I had no plans to marry her at the time. When I found out she was pregnant, I decided that the honorable thing for me to do was to support our future child by offering to marry her. However, if I had met her 20 years earlier, when many young Americans, like myself, were experimenting with drugs and pursuing a hippie life-style, I would never have made that choice – I would have just run away from the situation and left her to figure things out on her own. So what is it that made me change?
In late 1967, I was living and working in Bern, Switzerland, when a friend loaned me a copy of the Dhammapada.24 As I read through the teachings of the Buddha, it was like someone turned the light on in the room. Suddenly I saw the answers to many questions that had plagued me throughout my life, including the assassination of JFK, the escalation of the Vietnam War, my conflicts with fellow students and family members, and the fantastical visions of elaborate palaces and gruesome ogres that would appear out of nowhere when I closed my eyes to go to sleep at night, frightening me in the dark as a young child.
Through the Dhammapada, I was introduced to the doctrine of karma and began to understand the importance of morality – of practicing virtue in one’s daily life. I took the Buddha as my refuge and role model, and began to meditate. From that point on, my whole life changed – once I understood the law of karma and incorporated that understanding into my belief system, I began to take responsibility for my actions. I also realized that it’s not just a woman’s fault when she gets pregnant. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Thus, a man who runs out on a woman when she gets pregnant,
22 Dhammapada 183: “To avoid all evil, to do good, to purify the mind – this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.”
23 The practice of morality has already been discussed in Section 1; the practice of concentration will be discussed in Sections 5 & 6; and the practice of wisdom will be discussed in Section 5.
24 Dhammapada: a popular Theravada text, which serves as a compendium and introduction to the Buddhist teachings.
must share in the burden of guilt if she opts for an abortion. A final note: In her third month of pregnancy, my girlfriend miscarried (she was 54 years old at the time); so the child that we were both expecting, never arrived.
In my opinion, we ultimately all have the same goal – lasting peace and happiness; however, since each of us is at a different place on the path to that goal, only the individual can determine what is the greater good for him or her. Since nothing in this world is perfect, that determination is all too often limited to a choice between the lesser of two evils – this is the result of being caught in samsara, where worldlings25 all too often mistake temporal peace and happiness for the goal. However, even though we are caught in samsara, if we follow the Buddhist teachings, then our goal in life will be Nibbana, in which case, our choice for the greater good will naturally conform to the moral precepts. When we make that choice, our guilt will be assuaged, and compassion will rise up in our hearts for the suffering of others.
Years ago I was asked the following hypothetical question: “If a criminal entered your house with a gun, and it was clear that he was planning to kill you and your family, would you kill that person to prevent him from killing others?” I turned the question around and asked him, “Since we have both taken the Buddha as our refuge, what do think the Buddha would do in a similar situation?” Or you could ask a Christian, “What do you think Jesus would do in a similar situation?” Personally, I am sure that both of them would try to find a way to prevent the killing of innocent people, without having to take the life of another human being. So would the decision of Buddha or Jesus be the right choice for you? If you choose to emulate Buddha or Jesus, the answer would be yes. Anything less than that would be a compromise. And yes, I know, sometimes we have to compromise. For example, a pregnant woman who is extremely ill and would most likely die in childbirth might justifiably choose to have an abortion. Even in a country like Indonesia, where abortion is outlawed, if the woman has been raped or her life is in danger,26 she can undergo an abortion legally.
So how and where does the metaphor about Buddha or Jesus apply? In the Karaniyametta Sutta (SN 1.8), the Buddha explains: “Just as a mother would risk her own life to protect her only child, even so, toward all living beings, one should cultivate a boundless heart…” In this verse, the Buddha is positing a mother’s love as an ideal that we should all try to live up to. If this is the case of a mother’s love for a child already born, why would it not be equally true for the “child” still in her womb, who depends on her in more ways than we can possibly imagine? Is it not possible that a woman would so love the “child” in her womb that she would willingly risk her own life to protect it?
25 Worldling: an unenlightened being.
26 According to Dr. Anthony Levatino, an obstetrician and gynecologist in the US, abortion is rarely necessary, especially in the later stages of pregnancy. Based on his experience, it’s better to stabilize the mother and deliver the baby by induction or caesarian than to risk having an abortion. Here is the original interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=132&v=ysl1tRnk-ig&feature=emb_logo
(This, by the way, was not an unusual scenario years ago when childbirth was not as safe as it is today.)
If we take the Buddha or Jesus as our refuge, and make their example our lodestar, we create a reference point in life that will influence all our future decisions. Buddha and Jesus represent the ideal man – one who has overcome all obstacles, perfect in wisdom and compassion, an unvanquished warrior, with no chink in his moral armor. During the Buddha’s time, many of his disciples, both male and female, became arahants, attaining the highest level of enlightenment, and, like him, also achieving moral perfection.
In the Sutta of the Simile of the Saw, the Buddha describes how his monks should train: “Monks, even if bandits were to sever you limb from limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who became angered on that account would not be doing my bidding. Even so should you train yourselves: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of goodwill, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with loving-kindness and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with loving-kindness – abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That is how you should train yourselves.”
Perhaps monks nowadays are not of the same caliber as they were in the time of the Buddha, for it would not be easy for most of us to forgive one who had cut off his arms and legs; in fact, to many, it would seem an impossible task. Nevertheless, that is how the Buddha expected his monks to train. We might say to ourselves, “This was a long time ago. People were different back then, so why I should I waste my time trying to accomplish the impossible?” But that would amount to little more than a rationalization and an excuse. In the Angulimala Sutta, we read how the mass murderer, Angulimala, changed completely after he met the Buddha, and never killed another being (not even an insect) from that time on. He later attained enlightenment and became known for his great compassion. If even Angulimala could change for the better, can we not do the same? And even if we cannot accomplish exactly what he did, if we change our priorities in life, will our actions not follow suit, to a lesser or greater degree? One who killed or stole will cease to kill and steal. One who drank, took drugs or committed adultery will cease to do so. One who lied and slandered others will now speak the truth. Our perspective will change – we will become less self-centered and more altruistic. And with that growth and maturity, will come a new perspective on abortion.
5) From the Perspective of the Three Characteristics: The practice of vipassana meditation is the wisdom practice of Theravada Buddhism. “Vipassana” literally means “seeing clearly” or “insight;” it is defined as the experiential knowledge that arises from directly seeing the three characteristics of existence in mind and matter. The three characteristics are:
1) Impermanence – mind and matter are subject to change; as soon as they arise, they pass away;
2) Suffering – mind and matter are always oppressed by arising and passing away;
3) Non-self – mind and matter are empty of anything that could be called a self, void of
an ego-I; nor is there any enduring substance or essence, either inside or outside of mind and matter.
Like an electron microscope, vipassana magnifies the mind’s power many times, making it bright and sharp – capable of penetrating solid matter and areas of the consciousness never before seen. Through the practice of vipassana, the meditator enters an impersonal world of nanoparticles and mind-moments, arising and passing away billions of times a second. This is called seeing mind and matter at the level of “ultimate reality.”27
As the meditator’s practice grows more stable and the wisdom faculty gradually matures, a day will come when the mind naturally adverts to the ultimate reality of Nibbana. With that experience, the notion of an ego-I finally comes to an end, and the meditator ceases to regard the “I”, “me” and “my” of the so-called self as anything other than a mental fabrication. He or she finally understands what the Buddha meant when he referred to the three characteristics as “a firm condition, an immutable fact and a fixed law.”28
Of course, most people have neither the time nor the energy to learn meditation; thus, the vast majority, being unable to develop the necessary concentration to “see things as they really are,”29 remain stuck at the level of what the Buddhist commentaries refer to as “conventional truth.”30 The problem with conventional truth is that it is purely conceptual – what appears to the observer at this level as true is actually the result of trillions of mental impressions, including images and other sense data, plus thoughts, opinions, biases, past-life memories, tendencies and percepts, all of them joined together by the subtle misperception of an ego-I and the craving that arises from it. Everything we see, hear and do gets filtered through this vast matrix-like web, which people in the West refer to as the subconscious.
What this means, in practical terms, is that two people can view the same object and end up seeing two completely different things. Now we can understand why there is so much conflict in the world – because most of us, in a subjective sense, don’t even live in the same world. This may sound pretty bad, but it is not completely hopeless, since we
27 Ultimate reality: truth or reality in the purest sense; the level of mind and matter, at which point, they cannot be broken down or refined any further. There are four basic categories of ultimate reality: consciousness, associated mental factors, materiality and Nibbana.
28 Arising Discourse (A.III.134).
29 Kimatthiya Sutta (A.X.I.1)
30 Conventional truth: a truth that relies on conventional language and expressions, e.g., “man, woman, table, car, etc.,” and is thus relegated to the domain of concepts.
can still make some good karma while we’re here, although not as easily as one on the path,31 who has already seen mind and matter at the level of ultimate reality.
Take, for example, a woman discussing the issue of abortion with her friends. When she hears the well-known catchphrase “my body, my choice,” she automatically visualizes the body as a solid and compact entity, of which she – her-self – is the owner. It does not occur to her that there might be another way to view the body and the mind’s relationship to it. However, assuming she reads this article and is inspired to undertake the practice of vipassana, her view of the body will radically change. As her concentration improves, and she is able to penetrate the delusion of compactness,32 she will know for the first time that “her body” does not really belong to her; in fact, the only thing in this world that truly belongs to her is her karma. To see the world in this light is to see it as it really is – impermanent, full of suffering and void of a self. Based on this understanding, a great compassion will arise in the meditator’s heart, and with it, the confirmation of a universal golden rule, whose standard is to harm neither oneself nor another.
6) As an Exercise in the Practice of Compassion: Compassion is the second of the Four Brahmaviharas33 (the four heavenly abodes). The first Brahmavihara is love, the foundation for all the others, and a topic that we have already discussed. In Buddhism, when we speak of love, we refer to it as loving-kindness (metta in Pali). Loving-kindness is not romantic love, but a love that is universal, without preference for any one person or being. When we practice metta, our goal is to feel the same love for all beings, even for those for whom we may feel intense dislike. According to the Visuddhimagga, through the practice of loving-kindness, it is possible to attain the third level of concentration, and it is said that with proficiency in this practice, our success in meditation will be assured. With love comes empathy. When we have empathy, we feel another person’s suffering and want to relieve it – that is compassion. Like love, our practice of compassion ideally has no preferences or bounds. It may be difficult to grasp that one would have compassion for a mosquito or a spider, and yet, when we recite the verse, “May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering,” all beings includes both mosquitoes and spiders. Since a fetus is also a living being, it follows that we should have the same love for the unborn child as we do for the one already born, and thus, the same compassion for each
31 Path: abbreviation for the Noble Eightfold Path, taught by the Buddha, namely: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
32 Delusion of compactness: the delusion that the body and mind are solid, impenetrable, permanent, synthetically cohesive entities.; see Visuddhimagga (VsM.xxi.739). According to the Meghiya Sutta (U.iv.1/A.IX.I.i.3): “For those who have powerful vipassana knowledge of impermanence, vipassana knowledge of non-self will also appear clearly.”
33 The Four Brahmaviharas: four interrelated meditation practices (and their resulting states of concentration), consisting of: 1) loving- kindness, 2) compassion, 3) altruistic (or sympathetic) joy, and 4) equanimity.
of them. Therefore, before going ahead with an abortion, a pregnant woman should sit down and contemplate the gravity of the action she plans to take, open her heart and fill it with compassion for the being in her womb, who has “chosen” to come into this world as her son or daughter. She should imagine herself in the same situation, at the mercy of a potential death sentence, in which she – the mother – is both judge and jury, and pray that she makes the right decision for all involved, for it is not a small decision, but rather a decision of great import.
One of the functions of every major religion is to establish a moral code, which makes it possible for people to live together in harmony, respecting one another’s basic rights and restraining themselves when their passions might otherwise provoke them into harming another. Not only is morality an essential element of religious dogma, but it also plays an important role in government, serving as the foundation for our laws, and as a preventative against corruption.
Laws are the children of morality. When morality is weaponized and taken to its lowest common denominator, it becomes a law. Despite their common origin, laws and morality are fundamentally different: Laws are a form of forced restraint and are imposed from without, while morality is a form of self-restraint and is imposed from within; laws can be legislated, while morality cannot; laws change, sometimes all too quickly, while morality has a certain permanency to it. Most important, the end goal of the legal system is to protect the constitutional rights of a country’s citizens, while the end goal of morality is Nibbana – the “unborn, supreme security from bondage.”34
These differences are made manifest in the separation of church and state, which limits our government from incorporating the full scope of any particular religious teaching into its laws. In 1973, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in the case of Roe v. Wade, upholding a pregnant woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. That decision represents a shift in values in Western society, illustrating a cultural dynamic between rights and morals, which, in recent times, has gradually moved toward a more liberal and less traditional balance.
As a Buddhist monk, the question of abortion is as much a legal issue for me, as it is a moral one; however, for lay practitioners (living in a country where abortion is legal), it is a strictly moral one. For them, it is no longer a question of rights, but of right and wrong. Unfortunately, questions of right and wrong no longer dominate the cultural landscape of Western society the way they once did. This is partially due to the separation of church and state, which prevents us from seeking the answer to any question on morality through our state or federal institutions, but the primary reason is what the
34 Quote from the Noble Search Sutta (MN 77).
Buddhist scriptures refer to as the wrong view of materialism, which is directly related to the wrong view of karma – a view that denies the efficacy of moral causation.35
When a majority of the populace, including those who serve in our government, no longer believe in the continuity of life and the moral consequences of our actions, when happiness equates to little more than financial success and indulgence in the five sense pleasures, and when we have come to rely solely on economic, political and technological solutions to life’s problems, then the separation of church and state has gone beyond its original intent, and we are headed in a dark direction, that will ultimately lead to lawlessness, chaos and tyranny. There’s a balance between laws and morality that we need to return to, for it is obvious that we need both, if a society is to prosper.
So where do we go from here, and how does the issue of abortion relate to all of this? I believe we need to somehow bridge the gap between church and state, and from that bridge create a different type of social structure, with morality as its foundation. Of course, talk is cheap, and politicians nowadays seem to have a particularly difficult time walking their talk; so instead of waiting for the ideal leader to come along and reform our government, we should take the initiative upon ourselves and seek the leader within, and that leader’s first priority should be to reform himself or herself. If we want to create the ideal society, each of us must first become the ideal citizen. Only then will we be able to collectively arrive at a meaningful value for the life of an unborn child or decide on any other moral issue, for that matter.
To accomplish this, the most effective way to begin is by correcting our wrong view of karma. Having a right view of karma36 will incentivize us into following the moral precepts, a crucial step to take if we want to develop our character. I would also suggest that each person take some time from his or her daily schedule to learn to meditate. Start with twenty minutes, once or twice a day; better yet, take a block of time off to attend a meditation course. Since vipassana is a uniquely Buddhist practice, I’ll just say a few words about one of its major benefits – the cultivation of mental stability. Even in a single meditation retreat, one can begin to experience some of the benefits of vipassana, for example, being better able to cope with the stresses of daily life and less likely to fly off the handle or break the moral precepts – qualities essential for the well-being of any society.
35 According to the Buddha, especially harmful are those wrong views that deny the workings of karma, since such views inevitably lead to the performance of unwholesome actions.
36 In the Great Forty Sutta (MN.117), the Buddha described right view of karma in the following manner: “There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are priests & contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.” Please note that Abrahamic and other deistic religions agree with most of the above assertions.
Finally, we should undertake the joint practices of loving-kindness and compassion, cultivating “for all the world, a heart of boundless loving-kindness, above, below, and all around, unobstructed, without hatred or resentment… not falling into erroneous views, but virtuous and endowed with vision…” – these are the direct words of the Buddha.37 As the “Great Physician,”38 he is providing us with a balm that we can apply to each other to heal the ills of all mankind, and in this day and age, when pharmaceuticals are all too often used to mask the symptoms of a deeper disease, it is a balm that we are all in sad need of. As the Buddha states in the Dhammapada, Verse 5: “Hatred can never overcome hatred in this world. Only by non-hatred [loving-kindness] is hatred overcome
– this is an eternal law.”
My mind drifts back to the traditional Balinese village where I have been living for the past year. I see young children here on a daily basis, walking the streets without fear, visiting each other in their respective homes, playing with one another on the streets that serve as their playground, riding their bikes down the main path through the rice paddies, carefree and confident, and wonder, “Why can’t children live like this in the US, without getting beaten up, shot, molested or hooked on drugs?” There’s no abortion here, but the kids and parents are happy. There’s no theft, at least not enough to require residents to lock their doors at night. No gangs, rape, pedophilia, sex slave trade or drug wars, at least not in the banjar. What are children learning here that children in the US are not?
It is not the compass of this article to provide answers to all of these questions, but rather to stimulate the reader’s desire to find the answers for themselves. One thing is for certain, though – the American dream of the new house in the suburbs, with the two-car garage, isn’t cutting it anymore. What we substitute for that house will help to determine our future values, and according to those values, we will progress or regress as a society, beginning with the understanding that when a child is born, he or she is actually nine months older than we think. PhD’s in the West can argue this statement on the basis of biology, the laws of physics or physiology, but it is still a one-dimensional argument. There are other dimensions and other laws that need to be considered if we are to arrive at a meaningful answer to the question of abortion. In the words of William Shakespeare: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
37 A quote from the Karanīyametta Sutta, Sutta Nipāta 1.8
38 Great Physician: an appellation for the Buddha.