A Theravada view of abortion

Given the current US presidential debate environment (about sexism, abortion, etc.), here is my understanding of a Theravada Buddhist view of abortion, which does not seem to be represented by any candidate running for US president. This description will be skewed towards a Sri Lankan perspective, because I am most familiar with that.

“Monks, the descent of the embryo occurs with the union of three things. … when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs” (MN 38). From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction to that sutta: “Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas — devas who are often represented as obsessed with lust. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93” (ibid).

Therefore, perhaps the only way in which a fetus might not possess a gandhabba, and be just a physical shell/husk, is if the fetus dies for some reason during the course of pregnancy (e.g., from a congenital defect), such that the gandhabba leaves that body naturally and seeks a different body. If the fetus is not already dead, a gandhabba probably is still there, at any stage of pregnancy, and killing the fetal body that is supporting the gandhabba probably is the same as killing any living human (i.e., murder, if the killing is intentional, which might cause the killer to be reborn in some type of hell). This prompts a number of questions:

  • Should women have the right to choose abortion? Should any human have the right to choose to murder another human? If it comes down to a decision between saving the life of the mother or the life of the baby, who has a greater “right to life”? As I understand it, the law in Sri Lanka, which is a Theravada Buddhist-majority country, is that abortion is legal only if a medical doctor believes/certifies that abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Otherwise, the baby has a right to life.
  • What if doctors know that the baby will be severely handicapped and/or have a very difficult or painful life? As I understand it, the Buddhist view is that that is the baby’s karma — a natural result of its past intentions and actions. Wherever that mind is born, it must face its karma, so sparing it a life here and now would just send it somewhere else to suffer similarly.
  • Women did not consciously choose to be the child-bearers in our species. Is it fair to ask them to sacrifice themselves? As I understand it, women’s gandhabbas did unconsciously choose to be born as women, though it is questionable how much a gandhabba can know about the body it is choosing.
  • Is that sacrifice a kind of suicide or self-murder? Many parents (including fathers) love their children more than themselves, and would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children (e.g., undertake risky travel to help their children, would jump in front of a bus or train to push their child to safety, etc.). Is it selfish of a mother not to be willing to sacrifice herself for her child? It seems to be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario (i.e., having to choose between killing a child or allowing oneself to die). Hell is not eternal in Buddhism, like it is in the Abrahamic religions, but, still, it is probably not somewhere one wants to go. There is a jataka story (a story about the Buddha’s past lives), where the Buddha, in a past life, before he was fully enlightened (so he could not avoid rebirth in hell) but when he was still quite spiritually accomplished, came upon a family of tigers that were starving. He went to the top of a nearby cliff and jumped off, sacrificing himself so that the family of tigers could have something to eat. He supposedly paid for that suicide with a rebirth in some kind of hell, but was willing to do it because of his great love for all living beings, who were not even his own immediate children.

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.

10 tenets of global citizenship

As a social scientist, here are 10 things that I think should be basic tenets of global citizenship:

  1. Physical requisites: either a universal income stipend or a safe-enough job, on which one is periodically tested and found to be capable of performing, which provides enough income for access to the following: clean air and water, adequate and medically appropriate food, adequate shelter for one’s geographical location, basic privacy and security in one’s home, basic hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.), basic healthcare services, and a basic portable computer or smartphone with unlimited (but possibly slow) Internet service
  2. Mental requisites: universal access to the following basic mental requisites: a high school-level education, free online higher education courses, and merit-based scholarships for in-person higher education
  3. Freedom of identity, with respect: the freedom of all people to affiliate themselves with and/or to practice any identity (cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.) and/or language, as long as their behaviors are respectful of others, including of the majority culture in a given region
  4. Preservation and sustainability: preserving and protecting adequate natural habitats for the world’s non-human species, and seeking to counteract every environmentally destructive thing that one does, in order to live with no overall environmental footprint
  5. Affordable global transit: the ability to travel between any major city on Earth using only low-cost (possibly slow) public transit systems
  6. Sex and/or marriage by consent: that sex and/or marriage should involve mutual, written consent; that any two people over 18 years old can legally have sex or marry; and that any person who is in a sexual or marriage relationship can end their participation in the relationship for any reason
  7. One lingua franca: online collaboration in producing a single, international auxiliary language by and for all of humanity, and a working knowledge of its use
  8. Generosity: individuals with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 million, or corporations with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 billion, should donate the excess to underfunded social or environmental causes of their choosing.
  9. Universal arbitration: any dispute between people in any nation may be settled through low-cost, legally binding arbitration by an international consortium of arbitrators who follow common guidelines.
  10. Standards based on international consensus, in order to foster communication and ease travel: measurements, date and time formats, telephone number formats, electricity plugs and voltages, driving conventions and rules, college entrance exams, what to include (and how things are presented) in high school textbooks, business and financial conventions, etc. should be determined through national participation in international consensus organizations, like the ISO.

Scientific questions about mindstreams

As a Western scientist, here are the questions that I would ask the most accomplished Buddhists (i.e., Arahants, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas) about mindstreams and self-other mental construction:

  • Can we identify substances that act as substrates/support for mental phenomena, as well as their properties, how they nourish/support minds, and the ways in which certain mental phenomena can emerge from, or be encoded/preserved upon, certain substrates?
  • Is nirvana a more stable substrate for the mind?
  • Why is the mind radiant? Are mental phenomena encoded on some kind of light?
  • How cohesive and stable is a mindstream? Does it degrade, when the body is old or unhealthy? Between lives, can mindstreams split (like light) or fade/degrade (like radio waves), if they are not reborn quickly enough?
  • Could we develop signatures/fingerprints (like a hash function) for specific mental phenomena or for an individual’s mindstream, and track those phenomena’s movement through and between different substrates/lives?
  • Can the karmic seed-to-fruit metaphor be demonstrated under well-controlled (i.e., laboratory) conditions? How exact/one-for-one/fair is karmic retribution, and do any other forces intervene (e.g., the natural environment, genetics, the actions of other beings, etc.)?
  • Can we compare the mental and substrate phenomena of different species with our own?
  • If everything we see and think is a construct, are there methods of consciously controlling the constructions? For example, could I consciously construct the perception/vision of an apple sitting on a table, or of another person in the room with me, when there is not really one there (i.e., a waking lucid dream)?

What if governments weren’t monopolies?

How might life be, if governments were not monopolistic within their territories, for example, if several federal governments (e.g., one run by democrats, one by republicans, one by environmentalists, etc.) competed to offer laws and services to a country, and citizens could subscribe to only one government at a time? I wonder if this freedom would cause people to fight less with each other.

  • People within the same territory could pay fewer taxes for fewer benefits, or more taxes for more benefits. There probably would need to be a base level of oversight and taxation (i.e., a very small unifying federal government) that all governments require (e.g., for military defense of the homeland), but I can imagine many competing governments with differing cultures or philosophies catering to people with those cultures or philosophies: the various ethnic groups, religions, etc. that are most common in the US. Perhaps people’s ID cards could be used to access benefits offered by the government to which they subscribe.
  • There could be several US presidents, possibly a committee, and elections could end at the primaries.
  • People could be free to live under the kind of government they prefer all the time, not just every four or eight years (or never), and people could actually live under the rules of the smaller parties that currently never win elections.
  • There might be several legal and penal systems that sometimes need arbitration. For example, if Muslims were allowed to wear full-face burqas in public by the democrat government but were prohibited from it by the republican government, and a democrat Muslim wore a burqa in a republican-majority area, how would that be handled?
  • This model might also show people very clearly and quickly the consequences of different forms of government.