To Provide Compassionate Care for the sick & terminally ill and create a supportive, nurturing environment for people to consciously face their illness and/or end-of-life journeys.
Taking Both Sides
For the first time, I became unequivocally pro-choice. And anti-abortion. Buddhist studies did not encourage pro-choice, but they did expand those perspectives on death most familiar to Westerners. In my own case, I could not find resolution in the black-and-white moral systems of my own culture. Buddhism allowed for an acceptance of that killing which is necessary to life, and of the death and the dying that inform the dimensions of a conscious life. Pro-choice can be seen as manifesting "big mind" of Buddhism, not because it promotes or condones abortion, but because it contains all possibilities, and reflects the interdependence of life and death.
IT MUST BE ADMITTED HOWEVER that there is little that relates to abortion in traditional Buddhist societies that is useful to Americans. Information regarding abortion attitudes and practices in Asia is scant. In most Asian countries, patterns of sexism are still too entrenched for women's issues to appear on the political agenda. And nowhere has the male priesthood felt obliged to investigate interpretations of the first precept on behalf of women and the abortion issue. Abortion remains very much a women's problem and a private matter. Women rarely discuss sex, not even with other women, and never with men. What little we know comes from doctors, hospital administrators, and representatives of world health organizations. Vietnamese women, for example, share with many women in other Asian cultures a belief that the unnamed has no consciousness. While Vietnamese priests go on record as being anti-abortion, some Buddhist women in the Vietnamese community in Boston explained to me that during the first couple of months of pregnancy, the fetus has no consciousness, no spirit and therefore, first trimester abortion is not the taking of life. This discrepancy may indicate the actual and official Buddhist versions of abortion, or it may be another instance of men attempting to regulate the lives of women.
On the other hand, in the United States an increasing number of American priests, men and women, are being called on to provide rituals or services for aborted fetuses as well as for those that miscarried. According to women who have participated in these services, much of their value lies in the opportunity to acknowledge abortion in terms of "the great matter. "
One American Zen teacher who has been performing services for aborted and miscarried babies is Robert Aitken of the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. In his collection of essays on ethics, The Mind of Clover, Aitken Roshi discusses the Japanese Buddhist funeral for the mizuko or "water baby," the poetical term for fetus: "Like any other human being that passes into the One, it is given a posthumous Buddhist name, and is thus identified as an individual, however incomplete, to whom we can say farewell. With this ceremony, the woman is in touch with life and death as they pass through her existence, and she finds that such basic changes are relative waves on the great ocean of true nature, which is not born and does not pass away. Bodhidharma said, 'Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of everlasting Dharma, not giving rise to concepts of killing is called the Precept of Not Killing.'"
In the case of Buddhist-inspired programs for homelessness, AIDS patients, or prisoners, we see the Western heritage of social responsibility merging with those Buddhist teachings that urge experiential understanding of the essential unity of the provider and the receiver. In this integration, one tradition enhances another without conflict or contradiction. When it comes to abortion, however, dharma teachings can be used to validate either pro-choice or antiabortion politics. For this very reason, abortion places American Buddhists at the crossroads of Western and Eastern perceptions of the individual, society, and what liberation is all about. Anyone considering abortion from Buddhist teachings—and not from political peer pressure—is thrown back again and again on interpretation and view, on self-analysis and ambiguity. This in itself is Buddhism at its most instructive, demanding an authentic confrontation with oneself.
INDRA'S NET, as described in the Avatamsaka Sutra, suggests that every particular manifestation of life is necessary to the whole fabric. Every phenomenon has the capacity to illuminate, contain, and reflect the entirety. Nothing exists outside this Net of Indra. Nothing can be left out because of personal preference or moral judgement. And the texts are very precise on the all-inclusive nature of this view, as difficult as it is to come to terms with, for it includes babies and bunny rabbits, lovers and teacups, radios and parents, as well as nuclear bombs, abortions and Hitler. To experience all phenomena without judgment, with neither aversion nor attraction, is what some Buddhist masters speak of as "what is." This points to a view of "self" which has always been, and will always be, formless, not contained by skin, not structured by bone. The emphasis in Buddhist practice is to apprehend this reality through meditation, and therefore know it internally. But we struggle not just to realize ourselves as impermanent manifestations of the unborn and undying in an impartial universe. We take vows to be where the suffering is. In terms of abortion, this means staying open to the suffering of a woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy, to her lover who may or may not want the child, to the suffering of an aborted fetus, to the suffering of an unwanted baby.
In Buddhism we say there is no birth, no death, no dying, no cessation of dying. Zen master Dogen tells us that wood is wood and ash is ash and wood does not turn into ash. So life is life and death is death and life does not turn into death. All forms manifest what is; gross distinctions between life and death are labels of convenience—useful perhaps, but with no basis in reality. Writing on the Ten Grave Precepts, Robert Aitken opens a discussion on the first precept with: "There is fundamentally no birth and no death as we die and are born. When we kill the spirit that may realize this fact, we are violating this precept."