In an open letter, William R. LaFleur, professor of Japanese Studies, criticizes the Roman Catholic Church for its stand against contraception and implores the pope to reconsider the Vatican's position in light of Buddhist ethics.
Convinced that a fully responsible stewardship of our planet requires that we control the increasingly rapid growth of our population, and that the knowledge and use of effective contraceptives is a proven means to that end, I deplore your opposition to these as both wrong and directly contrary to what would clearly benefit humanity at this time in our history.
By contrast, the public position of most Buddhists strikes me as ethical. Buddhist monks in Southeast and East Asia have openly supported programs to implement the responsible control of human birth and held that the use of contraceptive devices was not immoral and ought, in fact, to be encouraged. A Thai study in the 1980s stated:
We believe the pace of decline [in fertility here] has been facilitated by . . . the Buddhist outlook on life and the position of women. . . . Buddhism contains no scriptural prohibitions against contraception, nor is Buddhist doctrine particularly pro-natalist.
It will be no news to you that many of my Catholic friends disagree strongly with the views you articulate in a writing of yours that I have before me—namely, your 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, known in English as The Gospel of Life. The majority of Catholics in Europe and America do not heed the position of the Vatican in their personal lives. But for many, their concerns extend beyond private desiderata; they see their church's position as morally indefensible in terms of its negative impact upon the ecological balances on our planet. It is, moreover, possible to argue that the wide use of contraceptives actually reduces the abortion rate. If many Catholics find much of the moral viewpoint expressed in Evangelium Vitae objectionable, it should not be surprising that this is a fortiori the case for many who are not members of your church.
Many Buddhists will agree with some of the concerns you express in Evangelium Vitae—and join you in wishing to ask serious moral questions. They will agree fully that the gross disparity between the fabulously wealthy and the abysmally poor in our world must be deplored—and remediated. A major disagreement, however, will come over contraception. And that occurs, I suggest here, because Buddhism—perhaps uniquely among what are sometimes called the “world religions”—either explicitly or implicitly rejects what I have elsewhere called “fecundism,” which may be defined most simply as the positing of links between reproductive success and religious value. It consists of defining the tribe's god or gods as mandating, or at least blessing, demographic expansion; the deity is depicted as rewarding piety with progeny. Fecundism has the god or gods as bedside cheerleaders, telling people that the deity's own deep wish is that his or her select people multiply in the greatest possible numbers.
No one individual articulates an official Buddhist position. Many, perhaps most, Buddhists seem to prefer things that way. Thus, what I provide here is no more than my own personal attempt to sketch out one possible Buddhist reaction to Evangelium Vitae and the outline of the bases of Buddhist support of the use of contraception. It is important to note, however, that this will not be offered as a secular point of view; although clearly different from your own views on contraception, what follows, I hope, will be at least equally expressive of a religious point of view.
Buddhists have, as you perhaps know, their own corpus of texts regarded as “scriptural” and their own long, somewhat diverse, historical tradition—one now nearly two and a half millennia in length. Since different Buddhist communities regard different parts of the vast library of scriptures as crucial, these variations will often be reflected in positions taken on religious and moral issues. This means, for instance, that some Buddhists will agree with you that abortion is unethical in all cases. The majority, however, will show much more flexibility.
Abortion, thus, is a social issue over which some Buddhists are likely to disagree. Contraception is less so. Perhaps one of the most interesting—and potentially valuable—aspects of Buddhism is that as a religious tradition it has shown next to no interest in being fecundist.
The thinking of Buddhists about religious and ethical questions can be determined by looking not only at the multiplicity of “scriptures” but also at the traditions that have grown up over time. Although it no doubt contributed to the caricature by others of Buddhists as “negative” and as “life-denying,” the birth of a baby was not something that Buddhists traditionally celebrated as an unambiguously felicitous event. Having children sometimes acts, in fact, to deflect us from the specifically religious path. Shakyamuni, who was all prepared to set out on a religious quest, named his newborn son “Rahula”—that is, “Impediment.” Most especially, however, Buddhists were not predisposed to see being born or even giving birth as events with inherent religious value or meaning.
Buddhism is so decidedly non-fecundist that until rather recently Buddhist monks did not even bless marriage by performing weddings. When local populations demanded fertility rites or marriage ceremonies, Buddhists usually were happy enough to leave such things in the hands of non-Buddhist shamans and priests.
If Buddhism can now contribute some insight—as an essentially non-fecundist faith—into this problem and what needs to be done about it, it should be allowed to serve mankind in that way.
In the Hebrew Bible fecundism had a classic formulation, of course, in Genesis 1:28, which has God commanding his chosen people: “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it.”
If taken as a continuing mandate, Genesis 1:28 is, as you know, a text that has become deeply problematic to persons with ecological concerns. Many Jewish and Christian interpreters today view this as a text that, if still taken literally, would give license to a devastation of our earth and its resources. The command to “subdue the earth,” they say, is no longer either appropriate or even ethical. What is ethically responsible in our time has become, I believe, the effort to preserve our planet and its variety by limiting the growth in human numbers.
In your encyclical—possibly realizing yourself that “subdue the earth” is not exactly what humans at this stage in history need again to be told to do—you wisely write that “man has a specific responsibility to the environment in which he lives . . . ” But you follow this by saying that:
It is the ecological question-ranging from the preservation of the habitats of the different species of animals and of other forms of life to “human ecology” properly speaking-which finds in the Bible clear and strong direction, leading to a solution which respects the good of life, of every life.
In that very last phrase we are already getting back, at least implicitly, to your letter's central message about abortion and contraception. Yet you do not address the problem caused by your condemnation of contraception, a very valuable tool for arresting the sharp rise in population.
In your letter's very next page—after having just expressed concern for our planet's ecological balances—you go on to write that mankind's “responsibility for human life as such reaches its highest point in the giving of life through procreation by man and woman in marriage.” This assertion grants an extraordinarily high status to human reproductive activities—both morally and religiously. The making of children—something Buddhists see as something most of us do naturally and simply by virtue of our biology—is defined as something of exceptional moral, even religious significance.
If many Catholics object in good conscience to your claim that contraception is ethically objectionable, that is surely the case for people who are not part of your church. And yet you write: “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh, is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church.” This image of your church as the real mother of all human beings—whether or not they are aware of it—implies that those identified with no faith or with other faiths, persons such as myself, are still under the “maternal care” of your church. This may be a traditional position of the Roman Catholic Church but it is also insensitive, and increasingly inappropriate in our pluralistic world.
In a central passage of the Evangelium you write:
. . . we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.” We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility to be unconditionally pro-life.
This position is fleshed out through the exposition of biblical and extra-biblical sources. One quoted in the first paragraph of the first chapter of your letter is from The Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24:
God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.
Buddhists, as you perhaps know, generally do not attach real religious value to mythological accounts of how the world or other things came to be. Shakyamuni taught that such things will be speculative and, more importantly, do not really contribute to the solution of our central religious needs. Buddhists will, thus, tend to be skeptical about your ability to prove that death entered our planet as a foreign intruder and as having its origin in Satan's envy. A myth such as the one to which you appeal is, they would judge, an interesting—and even charming—bit of literature that has been important in the West's tradition. To take such myth, however, as providing the equivalent of scientific truth about the etiology and role of death in our ecosystem is risky indeed.
Eschewing myths of origins, Buddhists have traditionally tried to base their views on observations—ones that culminate in teaching. Their own experience recapitulates that of Shakyamuni—namely that all things are impermanent. This observation is part of what is called the First Noble Truth. A recognition of that reality, especially because it means that we too are impermanent, is for Buddhists the beginning of real wisdom in religion.
This contrasts sharply with your view. The notion of death as something extrinsic to our world is, in the eyes of Buddhists, an example of how elaborate the structures of our self-delusion can be. The postulation of permanence is, according to Buddhists, one of the ways humans engage in wishful thinking, an activity through which we habitually try to deny the reality of our own inescapable mortality. Buddhists maintain that from all the empirical evidence at our disposal, death appears to have always been here and in that sense simply belongs to our world. Buddhists would be extremely reluctant to base either an ontology or an ethic on any assumption to the contrary.
They will have no difficulty agreeing with those biologists who view the processes of dying and of being born—for all species on our planet—as deeply inter-dependent. Death is no less “natural” than life. Therefore, Buddhists will tend to see your letter as demonizing a necessary and natural aspect of our planet's existence. A world teeming with infinitely reproducing life-forms but deprived of death-forms, their necessary complement, would be, in fact, unlivable.
Does this difference between the viewpoint of Buddhists and that in your letter have ecological significance? I think it does. I realize that in other contexts you have discussed ecological issues. Even if those statements are stronger than the occasional paragraphs about ecology that show up in Evangelium Vitae, your condemnation of contraception in that document and your linkage of it with abortion and the “culture of death,” seriously mutes, I think, the impact of what you may wish to say about ecology there.
I am struck with what in the final pages of this document is the depiction of a great cosmic struggle. On one side stand Life, all that is good, and the Church defined as a mother. On the other are the forces of evil and what is called the culture of death. According to what I know about the history of religious ideas, there is something in the tenor of those passages that seems quasi-Manichaean. What is said there deserves a close look. The sweeping, vivid language of this section will tend to be fairly startling and downright troubling to those of us who are not Catholics.
The Church's spiritual motherhood is only achieved—the Church knows this too—through the pangs and 'the labour' of childbirth, that is to say, in constant tension with the forces of evil which still roam the world and affect human hearts, offering resistance to Christ.
Those of us whom you have described in such a way that we are by definition part of “the culture of death” and allied with “the forces of evil” may reasonably begin to worry when you describe what is a battle against us as being, in reality, the parturition pangs through which your church's “spiritual motherhood” is achieved. Your text's easy fusion of the language of the battlefield with that of giving birth is quite amazing. Does not language used in this way, however, begin to look alarmingly like what in times past was taken to give the justification for literal crusades, the murder of heretics, inquisitions, and purges?
Am I wrong to see something at least a bit suspect in your depiction of the church militant as engaged in a kind of cosmic parturition? Perhaps it is merely that my imagination is feeble, but I must say its elasticity is being stretched when I am asked to think that the Catholic Church—whose top hierarchy remains exclusively male—is, in reality, a kind of cosmic Mother.
If the implications were innocuous—both for women and for our world-I would admire the metaphoric and linguistic gymnastics of a text such as Evangelium Vitae. The imagined drama is played out on a cosmic stage; the protagonist side includes God-in-Christ, Mary as Mother, your church and its hierarchy, and billions of women wanting above all to give birth to babies. These are opposed in a struggle to the death by Satan, a red dragon, King Herod, abortion-performing doctors, persons who distribute condoms and IUDs—and, I must conclude, persons like myself who believe there is both ecological sanity and religious value in having governments encourage family planning.
Unfortunately, however, your letter is intended not as “literature” to be enjoyed but as a program for personal and social action. Thus, the fact that it depends so heavily upon a great medley of metaphors must be a matter of concern to those of us depicted as, at least implicitly, on the other side of your campaign. While recognizing the personal right of Catholics to live their lives within a great metaphor that gives personal meaning to those lives, we understandably begin to worry about the consequences of such a structure of words when we are given the image of a great cosmic battle and the implication that it is not only against Satan but also against ourselves that that battle needs to be waged.
Your letter helped me see that Buddhism is for the most part, at least by comparison, prosy, maybe even prosaic. There is in Buddhism much great literature but there are also cautions about its misuse. Some of Buddhism's great teachers have warned against getting carried away or entrapped by simile and metaphor. One classic statement in Chinese, for instance, tells us that, after looking at mountains as not mountains and at rivers as not rivers, we need to push our awareness to a higher level. At that higher level we will see that mountains “are not other than mountains” and rivers “are not other than rivers.” This, importantly, is taken not as a “secularization” but as the path to higher religious awareness.
Buddhists would wish to demur from the rather sharply dualistic conceptions that underlie the moral agenda in your encyclical. Its portrait of a cosmic struggle between light, life, and the Church on one side and demonic forces as well as the “culture of death” on the other will tend to strike Buddhists as overdrawn, too simplistic to account for the ambiguities of actual life. More importantly, however, such dualisms usually strike the Buddhist as implying that we have real, instantiated enemies that we must regard as such and against which we must do battle. Their own analyses of such things suggest that any putative, substantialized “enemy” is due to a mistaken conceptualization.
It is precisely in the articulation of this viewpoint that Buddhists themselves bring out their own symbol of “the Mother.” It has, however, a strikingly different application. For instance, a Tibetan meditation designed to cultivate an altruistic aspiration asks that we, first, focus on a supposed enemy and, then, bring to mind the fact that
. . . this one apprehended as an enemy has been my mother limitless times through beginningless cyclic existences.
Supposing that in the beginninglessness and endlessness of time “there is not even one sentient being who has not been my mother,” it is concluded that the putative “enemy” is, in fact, a being who in an earlier incarnation was my mother, someone who
. . . held me to the warmth of her flesh, . . . looked at me with happy eyes, . . . cleaned away the mucus in my nose with her mouth, [and] wiped away my filth with her hand.
Even if one were to be a somewhat “modernized” Buddhist having some doubts about the teaching of transmigration and multiple lives, such doubts would not negate the personal, philosophical, religious and ethical import of this meditation. If allowed to shape and inform the mind-set of the practitioner, this meditation would perform its intended task of weakening that frame of mind which conceives of an “enemy” as that against which a pitched battle must be fought.
It took four million years for the human race to grow to two billion. To add a third billion only thirty more years were required. Now we add 95 million people to our world every year. Whole species are disappearing from our earth as never before. Unless we reverse this trend it is highly likely that the world as we have known it will cease to exist. The processes that are driving our entire world in that dire direction must, I think, be identified as both far more dangerous and far more deadly than what Evangelium Vitae identifies as the “culture of death.”
When some of us say that our world needs a religious ethic appropriate to the twenty-first rather than the fourteenth century, we are—perhaps justly at times—charged with the mouthing of a clichï¿½ and with being captives of the ethos of our own era. The morality of the past is not, our critics say, useless simply because it is old or because our moral consciousness has somehow evolved beyond it. That is correct. We have no proof for supposing that we in our era are either more enlightened or more benighted than our ancestors. We fall down and rise up . . . over and over . . . again and again.
But the conditions of our world are very, very different than those of the fourteenth century. We are not living when it looked like the Black Death just might ravage the whole human population of Europe and bring to racial extinction those people who were coterminous with Christendom. Fecundism in that century may have made some sense. By contrast, it makes no sense in ours.
We do, importantly, share with our fourteenth-century ancestors an anxiety about extinction. We worry that if our numbers continue to increase we will outgrow the planet. To find the ways to curb that growth is now one of our deepest moral responsibilities.
With this letter I am suggesting that the Buddhist perspective has something to offer the world in terms of a critique of fecundism. I would be very grateful and honored if you would agree. Your cooperation in improving the way we think about these things could literally change our world for the better.
William R. LaFleur is the E. Dale Saunders professor in Japanese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan (Princeton, 1992). The complete letter, “Ending Fecundism: An Open Letter to Pope John Paul II Concerning Contraception, Religion, and Ecology,” presented in 1996 at a conference at Harvard University, is available at www.tricycle.com.
Image credit: AP/Wide World Photos; Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbols, © Robert Beer