Abortion and Buddhism Part 2

I wanted to re-visit the issue of abortion and Buddhism, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

People often ask me for the Buddhist view on some subject. It’s always difficult to answer this because Buddhism is not like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in that there is no book that is universally accepted by all Buddhists as being definitive and final the way Jews think of the Torah, Christians think of the Bible, and Muslims think of the Koran.

In each of those religions there is a huge degree of variation and lots of argument over how to interpret the scriptures. But at least they can point to specific scriptures that are supposed to be definitive. Christians may not all agree on their interpretations of the Bible, but at least they agree that the book they need to interpret is the Bible.

In the case of Buddhism, there is no one single definitive scripture. The closest you can get to that is the so-called Pali Canon. These are the teachings of Buddha as recorded in the Pali language about 200 years after Buddha died. Prior to that, these teachings were transmitted orally. They were memorized and recited by monks in order to preserve them without writing them down. For a long time, the Pali Canon was thought to be the oldest written version of Buddha’s words, but nowadays there is some argument about that. For the time being, though, most Buddhists tend to think of the Pali Canon as the oldest source.

But not all Buddhists agree that the oldest sources are the best. The earliest Buddhists did not believe that the Buddha was a supernatural being whose words were, therefore, perfect and flawless. Even today, although there are forms of Buddhism in which the Buddha is seen as a supernatural being, there isn’t any widespread agreement about which texts best preserve his words.

Be that as it may, the Pali Canon does have something to say about abortion. I ignored this stuff in my previous article because that article was more specifically about Japanese Buddhism and about William LeFluer’s book Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. But I’d be remiss if I just left it at that and didn’t say anything about what the Pali Canon says.

Peter Harvey’s book An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (available as a free PDF at that link) is a really good source for information about what the Pali Canon has to say about abortion. I’m using that book as the source for the quotations I’ll be citing in this article.

First off, Harvey points out that the Buddha reckoned a person’s age according to the idea that life begins at conception. You had to be at least twenty years old to become a monk. The Buddha said, “When in his mother’s womb, the first mind-moment has arisen, the first consciousness appeared, his birth is (to be reckoned as) from that time. I allow you, monks, to ordain one who is aged twenty from being an embryo.”

A human being is said to be composed of five elements or skandhas (which literally means “heaps”), one of which is consciousness. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha seems to have believed that consciousness entered the womb at conception. In a dialogue with his attendant Ananda, the Buddha says,  “’Were consciousness, Ananda, not to fall into the mother’s womb, would the sentient body be constituted there?’ ‘It would not, Lord.’ ‘Were consciousness, having fallen into the mother’s womb, to turn aside from it, would the sentient body come to birth in this present state?’ ‘It would not, Lord.’”

Contrary to what I said in my previous blog post about the commonly held beliefs among Japanese Buddhists, the earliest Buddhists believed that an embryo was fully human. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha says, “Human being means: from the mind’s first arising, from (the time of) consciousness becoming first manifest in a mother’s womb until the time of death, here meanwhile he is called a human being.”

The Japanese idea that a person doesn’t become fully human until he or she grows up does not come from the Buddhist sutras — even though it is a commonly held belief among many Japanese Buddhists. When I say it’s a commonly held belief, I don’t mean that if you ask a random Japanese person when someone becomes human they’ll say, “At twenty years of age!” Most Japanese people would not give that answer, even if they considered themselves to be Buddhists. It’s more like an old fashioned belief that was cited in the past to justify abortion and even, sadly, infanticide.

But let’s stick with the Pali Canon, for the purposes of this article. When it came to the question of abortion, the Buddha is recorded to have said, “When a monk is ordained he should not intentionally deprive a living being of life, even if it is only an ant. Whatever monk deprives a human being of life, even down to destroying an embryo he becomes not a true renouncer.” In other words, a monk could be expelled from the Buddhist order for participating in any way in an abortion. Expulsion from the order was the worst punishment the Buddha gave to any of his monks, and was reserved only for the most severe breeches of ethical conduct.

The quotation above comes from the Vinaya, which was a list of rules monks were supposed to follow. The Vinaya rules developed when situations arose in the early Buddhist order of monks. When some monk did something that was ethically questionable, they’d ask the Buddha for his opinion on the specific issue at hand. The Buddha’s answers were memorized and formed the rules that monks were supposed to follow. We can infer, then, that some monk probably assisted in an abortion or advised someone to abort a fetus, or perhaps an early Buddhist nun had an abortion, and thus this rule came into being.

The reason abortion was considered ethically bad was because it was believed that it was rare and precious to be born as a human. Only humans can fully understand the Buddhist truth. This is because humans are in the perfect sweet spot in which there is just enough suffering, but not too much, and just enough knowledge to tell right from wrong. A god or deva has so little suffering that they never do the work necessary to follow the Buddhist path. Animals and demons are too immersed in suffering to be able to follow it; they may not even know right from wrong in such a state. Again, that’s just what the scriptures say. Not every Buddhist believes this.

So, if you were to treat Buddhist scriptures the way the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition treats its scriptures, you’d have to say that abortion is not OK with Buddhists. The Buddha himself appears to have considered it a serious violation of the rules of ethical conduct.

Still, as I said in my previous article, abortion is generally not a hot button issue in Buddhist countries. It’s certainly not a major issue in Japan. In other Buddhist countries it’s given more attention that they give it in Japan. But even in those countries you don’t see nearly as much argument and wrangling about abortion as you see in the United States. In fact, most other Christian nations don’t get as heated up about the subject as America does.

In any case, I just wanted to post this short piece to help clear up any confusion my previous article might have caused. Although, after reading this back, I feel like I might have only added to the confusion!

The bottom line is that there is no one single, universally agreed upon Buddhist view on abortion. Which is pretty much the case with any other religion. Nobody can give us a single definitive answer as to when human life begins and what exactly our responsibilities are to defend the lives of those too young to defend their own. Not even Buddha, although he did, apparently, have an opinion on the subject.

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