In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
Taking Both Sides
If the essential nature of all phenomena is emptiness, who dies? Who kills? Who is killed and who is reborn? These are the great questions of Buddhist dharma and address the absolute nature of reality. Introducing the absolute dimension to the abortion issue doesn't easily translate into a political agenda. But neither does it serve us well to hold the absolute at bay for fear of misinterpretation. What happens to the question of abortion when, even intellectually, we apprehend that everything is the enlightened way, realized or not, aborted or not? What happens in the big view?
"Life is life recycling itself all the time," says Sylvia Boorstein. A grandmother of four, Boorstein feels fortunate that she herself has never had to face the decision whether or not to abort. As a vipassana teacher, however, she is often called upon to comfort women who come into retreat following an abortion. "What counts," explains Boorstein, "is pro-carefulness. Pro-contraception. Pro-attention, pro-thoughtfulness. Pro-thoughtfulness with regard to sex is an expression of a sexuality that is non-exploitative, not compulsive. There is a way to have a compassionate abortion that involves the recognition that this is not the right time for this plant to flourish. But also, life is nothing but continual change and flux, with no beginning and no ending and, from the big view, it really doesn't matter where life appears to stop and where life appears to start."
When asked about abortion at a conference some six or seven years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke of it as a violation of the first precept. But he added, sometimes circumstances are such that abortion can result from a compassionate decision.
Many years ago an American couple, unmarried and young, consulted their Tibetan lama when the woman became pregnant. For them, abortion was one option. But, said the lama, "How can you even consider taking a life when you have taken the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings?" The lama then told them that if, for any reason, they found themselves unable to care for the child once it came into the world, he himself would raise it.
According to Buddhist teachings, the chances of being exposed to true dharma are less likely than the chances of a sea turtle placing its head through the one and only yoke floating in all the ocean waters of the world; any dharma student who has an abortion automatically denies this extraordinarily rare and precious opportunity. Just to attain a human birth at all is considered a cause for celebration, for only in this life form can a sentient being realize its own true nature—which is to say, become enlightened. At the same time, Buddhist teachers also speak of the capacity of those who have passed from this sphere of existence to choose their next set of parents, and therefore participate in addressing their own karmic needs. Presumably this includes choosing wombs that carry to term and those that do not.
Speaking of reality the Zen texts tell us no snowflake falls in an inappropriate place. No exceptions, including wanted and unwanted, healthy, sick and aborted babies. But Zen gardens do not tolerate weeds. Do weeds have a right to live? Or unwanted fetuses? That human beings have this "right" assumes another human—or anthropocentric—argument. It has nothing to do with reality, that is, with snowflake reality. Humans have no more inherent right to live than they have the right to decide that garden weeds or livestock are born to die. This belief in the "right" to life reflects the Western impulse to control and shape reality, to project onto life values that embrace human, as well as individual, supremacy. As Joseph Schleidler, Executive Director of the Pro-Life League put it: "For those who say I can't impose my morality on others, I say just watch me." How difficult it is to consider that life itself may not care whether we live it or not; or take notice of our desires to be special when we are not.
Buddhist teachings emphasize that all form is essentially empty of description. Therefore, the responsibility for description falls to us. Buddhism in the West introduces the possibility that a nonanthropocentric reality can inspire universal responsibility, and that compassion can be cultivated as a way of being, and not as an attitude conditioned by personal judgment.
This has nothing to do with voting for or against abortion. It has everything to do with how any individual relates to sex, deals with pregnancy, decides whether to have an abortion or a baby. Yet, unfortunately the abortion debate reflects only a Western obsession with control, not consciousness.
Recently I spoke with a young man whose girlfriend had become pregnant. He was a Buddhist practitioner and she wasn't: He wanted to have the baby and she didn't. She went off to an abortion clinic with a girlfriend and he went to visit his Buddhist master and burst into tears. He was given a practice to alleviate his anxiety, his longing, and his guilt. I asked if his experience would change the way he might vote on the abortion issue. After remaining quiet for a few minutes, he said, "I'm not interested in listening to politicians talk for or against life or for or against abortion. I would vote for anyone who got out there and asked 'What is life?'"
Images (top to bottom):
Mizuko Jizo (water babies), at Hase-dera, a temple in Kamakura, Japan. Jizo figures represent the spirits of the unborn,
commemorated in cases of abortions, miscarriages, and stillbirths. Photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida
Pro-choice advocates. SIPA press/ Steve Rasmussen
Anti-abortion advocates. FPG International/Mike Valeri
Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, oil on canvas by Frida Kahlo © Col. Fundacion Dolores. Olmedo, Mexico