Why do you believe?

There are so many (often-conflicting) philosophies and religions in the world. Why is yours the right one? Have you taken the time to really study and practice the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, to find the one(s) with which you actually most agree and feel are true, or do you just believe what your family or society tells you to believe? Similarly, do you believe what you want to be true, or what you think is most likely to be true?

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.

Business idea: any-local-recipient donation pick-up and drop-off service

Donations today often involve a lot of work for the donater, which might discourage people from donating. Not only do you have dig the stuff out of your basement or closet, but you have to find and load up a large enough vehicle, drive it to a donation center, maybe unload the vehicle for them, maybe return the vehicle if you rented/borrowed it, and then find your way home.

What if, for a small fee, a van or truck service would drive around picking up people’s stuff, taking it to whomever/wherever they want it donated in the local region (e.g., a particular non-profit organization, a friend or relative, etc.), and scanning any receipts (for tax deductions) from the receiving person/organization and electronically returning them to the customer?

In case the recipient isn’t available, or doesn’t want, to receive the donation, the service might need a secure warehouse for temporary storage, might need good theft and damage insurance, etc. This idea might be quite future-proof as well (for the business’s owner). The delivery vehicles might become self-driving, the warehouses might become automated, and people probably will always accumulate more stuff than they want/need and occasionally will want to donate some of it.

(This idea is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. It may be used commercially.)

Not me

There is so much in the world that is not oneself, not under one’s control. Even one’s body, mind, house, and legacy often/ultimately are not under one’s control. Beyond seeking/providing the basics of a healthy life (livelihood, health/survival, family/friends, liberty/privacy/security, feelings of enjoyment or contentment, self-knowledge, etc.), what is the point of spending all one’s time building and maintaining big sandcastles, possibly at others’ expense? The less you have, the less you have to worry about (paraphrasing both the Buddha and my grandfather, who was not a Buddhist).

A few reasons not to take your worldly (as opposed to spiritual) life too seriously

Idea: family journals

Something I wish would exist, or become more organized, is a tradition of families making and passing down records of the views and wisdom that individuals in the family had, and the reasons why certain family members made certain important decisions. It wouldn’t need to be lengthy autobiographies — just a journal that preserves important insights. Personal letters and diaries often don’t survive, possibly because individuals might not want their private thoughts, romantic letters, etc. shared so broadly. But a family journal could preserve a less intimate or embarrassing, yet still insightful, account. If every family kept more-or-less the same kind of journal, the tradition might become more organized than the proverbial shoebox of photos and recipes that many families hand down now. History records migrations, wars, social movements, etc., but individuals are not necessarily/completely defined by society. What kinds of people were my ancestors, and why did my family do what they did?