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.

An agnostic guided meditation

I have tried to make these instructions agnostic/tradition-neutral. I think that every human being is capable of exploring their own mind. These instructions are based on my experience(s).

I will give you the instructions all at once, because, if you do it correctly, my voice (or this text) should become harder and harder to hear (or read), the farther you go. Also, you would be going below the level of discursive thinking in your mind, and human language seems to be limited to the discursive level.

If you have any duties that require constant attention (e.g., young children, a serious health problem, etc.), make sure someone else is monitoring them, because you may not be available. Sit upright in a quiet place with dim lighting, which is neither too comfortable nor too uncomfortable, and close your eyes. Nothing else matters as much as what you are doing now. If the phone rings, if you hear someone speak, if a dog barks, if a car passes, if a lawnmower runs, if you feel a pain or an itch in your body… ignore them. Push the world away, and go into the darkness of your mind. It may take 15-30 minutes to adjust to that feeling. Just ignore the time and focus on going into your mind. If you have trouble ignoring the world, create the image, no matter how vague/blurry, of a pole, a line, or something else that is simple and stationary, in the middle of your mental field of vision, and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.

Eventually, you should start seeing mental images, like a lucid dream. Watch them, but keep them at a distance. Don’t give them any encouragement or energy. Don’t get attached to them or emotional about them; if you do, you may have a hard time going any deeper into your mind. Notice how they come and go on their own, if you do not interfere with them. That is how the mind works: one momentary construction after another, in an endless series.

After a while of watching mental images, apply your mental focus/energy to push them away like you did ‘external’ sensations, and go deeper. Gradually, the mind should feel brighter and brighter, like someone is slowly raising the light level in the room. If you were to open your eyes at this point, the room might actually feel darker than your mind just felt. Continue applying your focus, as the mind feels brighter and brighter.

You might see a vision, at this point, such as that you are flying atop an infinite expanse of clouds. Whatever you see, you can explore it, but do not get attached to it or emotional about it, or you may not be able to go deeper. Wherever the light or brightness is in the vision, work on approaching that brightness, which usually requires steadily increasing focus and effort.

If you believe in a religious tradition, or perhaps even if you are just in a religious place (e.g., a church, mosque, temple, vihara, etc.), you might experience a religious vision at this point. You might see one or more religious figure(s) (e.g., a Buddha or Bodhisattva; Christ, Muhammad, or an angel; a Hindu deity; etc.), which might be more beautiful than anything you have ever seen in the world, and more and more mental focus might be required in order to approach them. You can choose either to work on approaching them or to work on going towards the light/brightness, which may be different/separate than approaching the religious figure(s). If it is too difficult, slow down and rest, or stop the meditation (see the next paragraph, for instructions on how to stop) and try again later. These beings/things are always there, available to you. If you are able to reach the religious figure(s), you might be able to have some interaction with them and maybe learn something from them.

To stop meditating, it is best to slowly return back up through the things you have been holding back through concentration. If you suddenly stop concentrating/focusing on holding them back, they might all come rushing back, like flood waters after a dam is broken, which can be unpleasant. Whether you stop slowly or quickly, you might feel unusually strong cravings for worldly things (entertainments, food, sex, etc.) as well as anxiety or depression about returning from a more heavenly place to our more stressful world. But you also should have a deeply peaceful feeling and memories about what you experienced while meditating. Finally, depending on how deeply you have gone into your mind, if you stop meditating suddenly, you might return to a sleeping state, instead of to a conscious state.

If you ignore any visions and continue towards the light/brightness, you should eventually begin to experience the Jhāna process, which progresses through a predictable series of signs and stages that are known to several Dharmic religions. The stages are characterized by the mental light becoming brighter and whiter, and the feelings at each stage becoming more and more refined/subtle forms of a peaceful happiness. Eventually, Theravada Buddhists think, one realizes that the mind’s nature/core is always brightly radiant and in a deep state of peaceful happiness, but that it becomes harder to see the brightness the farther away from the core one goes, the more involved in worldly constructions one becomes. At the last stage of Jhāna, according to early/Theravada Buddhism, one supposedly can see that there is a better, more stable/permanent state of being in which the mind can live (called nirvana/nibbana), and that it is possible to transition from our current state (called samsara) to that state. One who completes that transition is said to be Enlightened, an Arahant, one who will not be born again into any impermanent world.

Whatever path you choose, be patient with yourself and don’t give up. May you always meet with spiritual success.

Is life “good”?

Perhaps the biggest difference I see between Buddhism and the world’s other largest religions (i.e., Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) is whether or not they consider worldly life to be “good”.

The other big religions usually say that worldly life (i.e., mass production and consumption, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, cultivating attachments to people and things, developing a sense of self, etc.) is good, is connected to an eternal creator God and is itself spiritually meaningful, is worth spending all of one’s time and energy exploring and pursuing, etc.

However, Buddhism says that we are in an unfortunate state of existence (involving constant struggle and inevitable loss), that the physical details of this life are ultimately meaningless because they are very fleeting, that the only God-like beings one can see from here are trapped in impermanent lives like we are (they only live longer than we do), and that one should spend as much time as possible trying to permanently (i.e., without rebirth) escape from this prison. From a Buddhist perspective, perhaps the only things in life that are really good are people’s capacities to help themselves and others understand and undo their predicament.

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

Spiritual metaphors: the mountain & the river

I am not sure where I heard this comparison — maybe in the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness book. He and Trappist Catholic monk Thomas Merton were friends. Merton’s description of the spiritual process, in books such as The Seven Storey Mountain, is one of going within oneself, away from the outside world, as if climbing a mountain. At the top, one is left with only oneself and very little of the world. One can only call to God and wait/hope to be raptured (rapture has the same word root as raptor and rape, meaning to overtake by force; the image is of God swooping down and carrying one away from the world into the heavens). At some point, there is nothing more a person can do on the spiritual journey, and it becomes all up to God.

By comparison, a similar Buddhist metaphor is that there are two shores (perhaps of a river or of two islands), which represent two different states of being: one shore is samsara and the other nirvana. It is not evident how the two shores came into being, but the two always exist side-by-side, and the shores are visible to/from each other, if one looks hard enough. Most people spend their lives just walking up and down this samsaric shore. Very few people abandon this shore, jump in the water, and make the effort to swim to the nirvanic shore, but the process is possible through personal effort alone. There also are “vehicles” (i.e., traditions of Buddhism; Mahā-yāna means great-vehicle) that can ease the crossing.

People don’t just speak a language…

… they think in terms of a language. Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman ideas and histories are so intricately a part of the thought-world(s) of English speakers that it is usually imperceptible to them. Even atheistic scientists often unwittingly use such concepts and words when speaking and thinking in English. Societies form as internally coherent bubbles, based on old ideas and events, expanding over time to incorporate new things. To really understand a society, one must learn its history from its perspective and think/speak/live as an insider. For example…

Ancient Greek and Latin still are often taught in British and some American schools, because many English words and grammar constructions derive from them. “An entire mythology is stored within our language” (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough). “If a lion [or even humans with different thought-worlds] could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).

The notion that human thought (e.g., in mathematics) and experience are capable of accessing or fathoming absolute/universal reason, logic, truth, and reality may come from the Eleatic, Plotinan/Neo-platonic, and physicalist mainstreams of ancient Greece and post-Greco-Roman Christian civilizations. These ideas have been mainstream during most of Europe’s history, and continue to be a core part of many contemporary Western institutions (governments, laws, non-profits/NGOs, science, etc.).

The monistic and essentialistic views of those schools of philosophy often tend Western seekers/explorers of world religions towards other monistic and essentialistic traditions (e.g., Islam; Bahá’í; Vedanta, Vaishnava, and Tantra Hinduism; Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; etc.).

Words like spirituality, animism, numinous, gaia, etc. usually suggest that people/things have spirits, souls, or essences and that non-mundane experiences must involve a soul/spirit/essence, though there are non-essentialist traditions around the world.

The word “creatures” appears often in science and science fiction to describe living beings in general, and it apparently implies that which was creat-ed (by God, presumably).

Judeo-Christians often refer to people of other “faiths.” Non-theistic traditions often emphasize personal development or experimentation (e.g., lifestyle modifications, meditation, or scientific experiments) over faith in divine mysteries and either do not have concepts of theos/God(s); limit those concepts to beings who are not all-powerful, omniscient, always loving, creators of everything, etc; or argue that people often invoke God(s) out of convenience, fear, or avoidance. For example, it’s easier to put a word on a complex and variable phenomenon (e.g., “depression”) and give the impression that one understands it than it is to actually explore and understand the phenomenon. Also, it can be easier to invoke God(s) in order to deny one’s own capabilities, or to defer responsibility, for solving hard problems (e.g., for controlling basic human instincts, or for living a quiet/secluded life and attaining a deep level of self-knowledge) than it is to make the effort necessary to solve the hard problems oneself.

Finally, Judeo-Christians often assume that other traditions involve prayer or worship. In much of Asia, holding the palms of one’s hands together (anjali) means a greeting/salutation, not necessarily prayer to God(s), and bowing/prostration can mean a deep respect or personal exercise of humility or selflessness, not necessarily worship (in the sense of devotion to, or dependence on, a deity). Jews can be Theravada Buddhists without giving up Judaism (see the Jewish Buddhist movement), because that tradition considers the Buddha to have been only a human who accomplished something great (i.e., who stopped karma/becoming and converted his mind from having an impermanent kind of matter as its base to having a permanent kind of matter as its base), and who is deeply revered but is not worshiped. Of course, there are people in Asia who are praying to God(s) when they hold their hands together, or who do worship the Buddha or monks as God(s) (especially Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, and occasionally the pop-culture side of Theravada), but anjali and prostrations don’t necessarily have those meanings.