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.

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.

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.

Limiting the wealthiest to benefit the rest

In my opinion, there should be much lower legal or practical limits on how wealthy an individual or a corporation can become. Billionaires and large corporations just gobble up, and decide the fate of, most everything they encounter. Only they can often manage/afford representation on government committees. Only they can hire as many lawyers as necessary, and appeal for as long as necessary, to win any battle. Only they can afford to hire the most popular artists and constantly saturate the world with their marketing campaigns. Only they know that they will always have enough customers and employees, such that they can have exploitative internal policies and rude external customer service without consequences.

Why does a person need more than maybe a million dollars of savings (i.e., enough to have a middle-class family, house, car, health insurance, retirement, etc.), or a large corporation more than maybe a billion (i.e., enough to provide their service at a high quality to a large region)? Why do wealthier people get to act like monarchs/dictators and decide the fates of poorer people? Did they really earn their wealth fairly — through a daily workplace grind, like most people — or are they being rewarded for out-thinking, out-maneuvering, or being willing to do more unethical things than others? How many local people’s lives would have been enriched, how many local companies and jobs would have been created, if a large corporation’s store(s) had been required to close early, because they had reached their sales limit for that day?

Legalized mass murder

“I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder” (Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier of World War I).

Q&A on karma

Q: As you understand it, from an early/Theravada Buddhist perspective, what is karma (Pali: kamma) and how does it work?
A: First, some history and definitions.
The Buddha’s apparent innovation on the Vedic concept of karma was that it is not only physical action/deeds, but it begins with the most basic mental action possible. “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN, 6.63). This is in line with Buddhism’s very phenomenological character. “Phenomena [i.e., everything one experiences] are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). “Heart,” in that famous sentence, is the Pali word “mano,” which is “the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while viñnāṇa represents the field of sense and sense — reaction (“perception”), and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness … it [mano] ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres (the āyatanāni or relations of subject and object…). These are: (1) cakkhu (eye) which deals with the sight of form (rūpa); (2) sota (ear) … (6) mano, with the sensing (viññāya) of rational objects or cognisables (dhamma). Thus it is the sensus communis (Mrs. Rh. D. Buddh. Psych. 140, 163) which recognises the world as a “mundus sensibilis” (dhamma). Both sides are an inseparable unity: the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words: mano is the counterpart of dhammā, the subjective dh. Dhamma in this sense is the rationality or lawfulness of the Universe (see dhamma B. 1), Cosmic Order, Natural Law. It may even be taken quite generally as the “empirical. world” … i. e. the material world), as the world of “things,” of phenomena in general without specification as regards sound, sight, smell, etc. — Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i. e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality; manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak. … As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated, that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation “heart”), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such. … In the more popular opinion and general phraseology however manas is almost synonymous with citta as opposed to body…. So in the triad “thought (i. e. intention) speech and action” manas interchanges with citta” (from the Pali Text Society’s Pali dictionary’s definition of mano/manas).

In the centuries following the Second Buddhist Council in approximately 334 BCE, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika early Buddhist schools tried to reconcile the idea of karma with the idea that people’s minds and bodies are a continuum of momentary particles/atoms/energies (for more on humans’ so-called “mindstreams,” see my 2016-06-12 post), specifically how an intention in one moment could lead to an effect in another moment. “Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of “possession” (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the “possession” of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is “possessed” until the actualization of the result” (Hirota, 2004; p. 5100). The Sautrāntika school developed the metaphor of karmic seeds (bija) and fruits (phala), or perfuming, to indicate that intentions in one moment leave some kind of impression on future moments, so that the seed eventually comes to fruition. Later Mahayana schools developed yet more elaborate ideas, such as the Yogācāra school’s concept of a store-house consciousness (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna).

However it happens, the idea is that, in each moment, the self-other world we experience is an automatic/unconscious result of karmic seeds that our more-or-less conscious intentions planted in the past. In every moment, we are presented with these fruits, and we plant new seeds for future becoming. It is a one-to-one process; one intention plants one seed, which leads to one fruit, but people continuously plant karmic seeds. Hence, what we experience in the present is heavily biased by the intentions we have made in the past. For example, those who often cultivated anger in the past might now perceive a more hostile world than really exists.

There also is a debate about to what degree a person’s feelings about their body and surroundings are karmic fruits, and to what degree there might be other forces (Pali: niyama) at play, such as a natural environment, genetics, etc. Even if there are other forces at play, there also is an argument that the contents of one’s mindstream cause one automatically to seek rebirth in a certain place, with certain parents, etc. And there are arguments that mindstreams might be limited in how far they can (or are likely to) travel between lives, which might constrain their options, and that it is unclear how the process of unconsciously or automatically matching minds with bodies occurs (e.g., does it happen according to physical laws, or can the mind between lives (called a gandhabba) see/know something about its options?). This leads some Buddhists to avoid traveling to places where they would not want to be reborn.

Q: Must one always only have faith in karma, or can one ever see it directly?
A: Supposedly one can see it directly, beginning at the fourth level of jhana. As I understand, the Buddha asked people to have provisional faith/trust in only two things, before they attain enlightenment or a high level of meditation: that karma exists, and that the Buddha’s teachings and techniques can/might lead one to liberation.

Q: To what degree might the universe have a kind of built-in criminal justice system? What might that mean for police officers, court judges, soldiers, etc.? What about merit?
A: As a part of nature, karma is instantaneous and automatic, and the outcome is causally connected to the action that prompted it. How fair, or proportionate to the action, that outcome is seems unclear. Karmic fruits arise as they can, given the sensory input that the mind receives. It is hard to say whether the heavenly or hellish world that someone might perceive as a result of some intention/action would be as vivid or affecting as the original action. It might be possible that a karmic seed lays dormant for a very long time, such that, when it comes to fruition, the circumstances hardly resemble the original circumstances.

Karma probably is specific to individuals; it probably can’t be deferred up a chain of command. If one person even wishes to harm or punish another, that individual must live with the karmic fruit of that intention/action. In this way, a soldier who kills to defend their country, or a judge who punishes people in order to protect society, might make a kind of personal karmic sacrifice — accepting an unpleasant future for themselves, in order to serve what they think is a greater good.

The concept of merit — that positive karma can be accumulated, can counteract negative karma, or that positive karma can be transferred to other people — is popular in Asia. Like with empty vs. emptiness, there appears to have been a noun-ification of its meaning from earlier to later Buddhism, where it initially seems to have meant just the positive effects on a person of living a virtuous life, but it came to mean a kind of spiritual/karmic currency. My understanding of the early Buddhist notion of karma is that it is momentary, it is tied to an individual’s mind, and it just is what it is (i.e., it itself is not good or bad, positive or negative). For example, a soldier who is willing to kill because they love their country can plant karmic seeds of both the willingness to kill and the love for their country in two separate, but perhaps closely combined, moments. It is unclear to me whether one seed can affect another seed, and it seems unlikely to me that people could share seeds.

Q: If karma is intention, what might that imply about the entertainments (music, TV, movies, etc.) that people watch? For example, would Buddhism say that listening to violent music, or playing violent video games, can cause physical violence?
A: The Buddha warned people about becoming too involved in the strong emotions one often finds in entertainments. “Any beings who are not devoid of passion [or aversion or delusion] to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion [or aversion or delusion], focus with even more passion [or aversion or delusion] on things inspiring passion [or aversion or delusion] presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. … Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb” (SN 42.2).

One’s intentions set the stage for how one will experience the future. Listening to a lot of violent music may not actually cause one to use harsh language, to join a gang, or to do physical violence, but it sets the tone of one’s future states of mind, so that using harsh language and making violent choices will seem more natural, correct, necessary, not so bad, etc. in the future. Similar things are true for any kind of media, from greedy, lustful, or fearful media to loving, peaceful, etc. media. As I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, how one keeps one’s mind in the present sets the stage for how one will experience the future.

Q: Can karmic seeds be destroyed before they come to fruition?
A: Enlightened people supposedly can see how to destroy karmic seeds, and can choose not to make any new seeds, so that they will not be reborn again into samsara. They supposedly can do this either suddenly or gradually: they can choose to cut their karmic/mental stream completely and immediately stop existing in samsara (i.e., through force of will, stop their hearts from beating, their brains from even unconsciously thinking, etc.), or they taper off the stream slowly, perhaps in order to stay around awhile to teach or to say goodbye to people in samsara. Supposedly, only fully enlightened people can commit suicide without negative consequences, because only they can completely stop their karma/mindstream.

Q: Is it fair that enlightened people can destroy their karma? Does that mean that they are not held accountable for negative intentions/actions they did in the past?
A: Only a very pure mind — free of anger/hatred, greed/lust, selfishness, etc. — can attain the meditative states necessary to attain enlightenment. The karma that is left in such a mind probably is quite minimal and harmless, such as attachment to the body and to family and friends.

Q: Might the orderliness, fairness, morality, etc. of the law/system of karma suggest that it was designed by some being outside of samsara (e.g., a non-interactive God)?
A: Maybe. The beginnings and boundaries of space, time, and life as we know them are among the 14 unanswered questions. Whether the Buddha did not know the answers to those questions (e.g., how could even a very old mind that arose in this universe know what came before this universe?), or whether he merely thought they were not worth spending one’s short human life pondering (e.g., see the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow), is unclear to me.

What distinguishes and unifies the US?

My family came to North America about 350 years ago, before the US existed; we were among the early British settlers/invaders of the continent (for which I am not proud); and we have participated in most of the milestones of the US’s history (for some of which, such as slavery, I also am not proud). I am nearly middle-aged now, and have spent most of my life in various places around the US. Though I have met a few political refugees here, and there are small enclaves of foreign diaspora communities mostly around large cities, still it seems to me that the only thing that really unifies most Americans is overworking to fund indulgent materialism and the world’s largest military expenditure. When I meet people from/in other countries, their impression of the US is usually that it’s where people go to make money. So, on this Independence Day weekend, I ask: what else distinguishes and unifies the US?

  • Economic hub? Though the NYSE is the world’s largest exchange by market capitalization, if foreign companies are going to be listed on a stock exchange outside their home country, they usually use the London or Luxembourg exchanges. The US’s high tax rates also often motivate US companies to keep large sums of money elsewhere.
  • Equality? Billionaires and large corporations, dynastic or life-long politicians, mass media, and the electoral college form an almost untouchable oligarchy / class system. The US is still struggling with age-old issues like gender, ethnic, and religious equality, as well as, after hundreds of years, what to do with the conquered indigenous peoples who it still grants only pitifully small reservations on undesirable lands (I’ve visited a few in the western US). US TV and film are still mostly dominated by people of northern European descent.
  • Freedoms? In terms of freedoms and “development,” the US consistently ranks 10-15th, or lower, in the world. The US military-intelligence establishment has created an immense police/surveillance state, the US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and people often note that every little thing in the US is becoming more bureaucratic and litigious. The US TV and film industries are saturated with endless cop, courtroom, forensics, and spy shows. Even street cops these days often look like paramilitary commandos.
  • Healthcare? Other than the way that very poor people sometimes can go to emergency rooms for free, the US is one of the few wealthy countries that doesn’t provide any form of universal healthcare.
  • Infrastructure? The US is so large, its state, county, and city governments so numerous, and its large corporations so powerful that its mass-adoption of new technologies (e.g., fast/ubiquitous trains, broadband, etc.) often falls behind smaller countries.
  • Inventions? Most of the US’s inventions are either business-related or militaristic. The US’s main cultural inventions include: the materialistic “American Dream,” a fall harvest festival that often presents a false unity between Native Americans and European invaders as well as excludes vegetarians and non-theists (Thanksgiving), sports that either resemble cricket (baseball) or emphasize genetically unusual (large or tall) people (American football and basketball), deep-fried or refined-sugary foods that cause obesity and heart attacks, blues and rock music inspired by the oppression/legacy of slavery, arrogant/violent cowboys, and small and rather arbitrary modifications of British English words (e.g., travelled to traveled, colonisation to colonization, theatre to theater, etc.).
  • Language? The US’s official language came from England, it is slowly losing ground to Spanish, and many immigrant communities around big US cities avoid English if they can.
  • Laws? The US’s legal system has Roman and European roots.
  • Political leadership? US politics are so ideologically oppositional that most of the legislative time seems to be spent in stalemates or passing useless bills. There also are always quite large political parties (libertarians, environmentalists, etc.) with agendas that are poorly represented by the main two parties. For decades, the US public has gone back and forth about whether the president should be a functional statesman or a ceremonial celebrity (functions which countries with monarchies usually separate), and the president has gained such an incredible amount of power that the entire world nervously watches a year-long election pageant every four years. One of the current presidential candidates is a billionaire playboy reality TV show star, and the US has a history of electing to high offices celebrities who lack much political experience (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenneger). During the Cold War, US and Russian leaders had the power to mostly destroy humanity within a few hours or days, among similarly vast telecommunication and economic powers. Yet, though the president’s power is much more immense than when the US was created in 1776, a single person still can hold office for a lengthy eight years.
  • Religion? The US’s main religions and holidays came from the Middle East and Europe, membership in them is steadily falling, and many immigrants from places other than the Middle East or Europe have different religions. In many US workplaces, saying anything about cultural, ethnic, gender, philosophical, political, religious, etc. things has become taboo, because somebody might take offence, and few Americans are broadly educated or acculturated enough to have intelligent discussions about such things. This adds to the general sense that Americans’ public lives must be purely secular and materialistic. The most notable American religious inventions that come to my mind are radical off-shoots of foreign mainstream religions, for example: Southern Baptists, Christian cults (the KKK, Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, etc.), and the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, before they changed to mainstream Sunni Islam).
  • Responsible living? People in the US are highly materialistic/indulgent, wasteful, and apparently in denial about both life’s impermanence and the effects of their actions on the rest of the planet or on future generations. For example: they surround themselves with young people and new things, throw things away that are barely broken or simply out of style, live in giant houses and drive giant cars, eat mostly imported food and waste about 30-40% of their food, eat food and medications containing many synthetic chemicals which might cause cancer and environmental harm in the long-term, embalm their dead bodies with hazardous chemicals that can leach into the ground(water) after death, use electricity/fossil-fuels and non-recyclable plastics with reckless abandon, rely on heavy industry and nuclear fission power that release mercury and other toxins into the environment which accumulate over time and take thousands or millions of years to decay, make their appearances look more unnatural with every passing year, and on and on. Even many of the chemicals (e.g., heavy metals) used in 4th of July fireworks can be toxic to the environment, and often are released into lakes or rivers during municipal fireworks displays.
  • Standardization? The US is so isolated that it is often among the last to adopt international standards. For example, only the US, Liberia, and Myanmar (a closed anocracy) continue to use non-metric measurement systems; the US has idiosyncratic electricity voltages and frequencies; non-Unicode or non-ISO character encodings are still common in many US people’s computers; and, until 2009, the US had an unusual analog TV encoding system (NTSC).
  • Virtue and tolerance? The US’s love of graphic sex, intoxicants, and violence in media, sports, and sometimes life, as well as its habit of trying to influence and police the world, are highly reminiscent of ancient kingdoms or European colonialists.