Ethics Practice

Nurture peace in this broken world

Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit (Shishigami) – Paper cut shadow box by Lorelei Schmitzer-Torbert (2020)

As we welcome the new year, our thoughts often turn to our hopes. We wish for joy and peace, for ourselves, our families, communities and the world. When we look out into the world, we never find a shortage of suffering, but this year in particular, I have noticed a quickening of the pace of suffering. Coming after the challenges of the pandemic, natural disasters, and the war in Ukraine, the scale of the loss of innocent life in Israel and Gaza these past few months has still been shocking to many. While the well of human suffering is deep, the scale of loss is really beyond our comprehension.

And while this violence may be physically distant from my own community, I see many people around me struggling greatly. Checking in with friends and family, so many have been weighed down, asking themselves, how do we go on in the face of senseless loss? As the world seems to break around us, it can be difficult to really hold on to hope that the world will know peace and joy in this new year. We may feel that we should be able to do something, to make a difference, but that we have no power to lend meaningful aid. In a real and acute way, it has felt to me like watching as someone I care about, someone I love, drowns.

At the same time, my heart goes out to those who feel the urgency of the moment. And who push for action, channeling our despair into outrage and activism. Online, I have seen people calling out Buddhists and practitioners of other religions, essentially arguing that we should feel guilty for our spiritual practice at this time. Some parts of the argument seems to be that we should be ashamed of our comfort while others suffer.

This impulse, the feeling that we must act – that we are obliged to act – resonates with me. After all, if we acknowledge the truth of interconnection, then even suffering that seems distant is part of our own life. Our actions have an impact, no matter how small. So, it may feel selfish, heartless, to be comfortable here sitting on our cushions.

Part of this reasoning strikes me as compelling: I do feel that the urgency of the moment. And yet, I worry about what we should actually do, as we get up from our cushion. If shame and outrage are our calls to action, will we be able to step forward without anger? If not, I worry that any action we take may just reinforce the conflict. Anger and guilt are compelling forces, but they do not seem to tools that are well suited to build peace.

Like wielding a blade with no handle – how could we not injure ourselves even as we try to protect others?

I do think that we are called to lend our strength to others in need. As the bodhisattva vows says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” And I see that the challenge is to see clearly if our efforts are actually helpful, to know what freedom means for all beings. And how to free any being without undermining the very peace that we hope for.

As I have thought about how to aim my own efforts towards peace, without falling into paralysis or outrage, I have found inspiration in the character of Prince Ashitaka (from Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful film, Princess Mononoke). Dealing with a curse that falls on him early in the film, Prince Ashitaka is propelled into the middle of a conflict between forces pushing for industrialization on the one hand, and to preserve the natural world on the other.

Trailer for Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke. For more on the release of Princess Mononoke in the United States, the BBC recently had a very fascinating article on the history of this version.

Prince Ashitaka is a skilled fighter, and could very likely have decided the outcome if he had chosen to align himself with one cause. But, Ashitaka refrains from taking sides, and focuses on seeing clearly what is going on, and helping all beings as best he can. This confuses everyone around him, and at one point in the film, a villager asks, “Just whose side is he on anyway?” It can be just as difficult for us today to imagine that a person could be committed to the welfare of the community as a whole, rather than their own interests, or those of their allies.

And, Ashitaka is not paralyzed by despair at the profound suffering all around him, and nor is he driven to hate and anger by the injustice in the world around him. What a delicate balance this is, to use whatever skills, talents, and privilege that we have to benefit all beings instead of serving our own interests. While Ashitaka is a fictional character, I think that the model that Miyazaki has shown us is a powerful one. It is important for us to clearly imagine what it would look like to act selflessly for peace. I think that the world would benefit if we all could carry this spirit into our own lives.

Of course, even if we do, what this effort would look like will differ for each person according to their situation. In the fictional story of Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka was able to have a strong impact on the world – he found himself in a position that offered great leverage over the events around him. Part of that came from his position as an outsider, with few ties of loyalty to the parties involved. He was also a skilled warrior who had the resources to travel on his own. We may not find ourselves in a similar position, able to change the course of conflicts in the world or to even to make a major impact on an important decision in our community.

But, we can aspire to see clearly where are standing, and hope that we use whatever leverage that we have to the benefit of not just ourselves, but for the whole world. As we start this new year, that is my hope. Not that the world will be peaceful, in some permanent or final way, but that each of us will act as best we can to lend our aid to those in need.

Beyond fiction, I would also offer this quote to you, from Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on Dōgen’s Genjōkōan:

“… if we consider peace a condition in which there is no war among countries, no fighting or conflict among people, and no pain, anxiety, or struggle in our minds, there will probably never be a time when such a condition can be completely achieved. Does this make peace a meaningless dream? Not at all. According to Dōgen, our efforts to achieve peace are themselves a source of peace in each moment of each step we take toward peace.”

Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan

Happy New Year to each of you, and I wish that you take steps to nurture peace and find joy this year.

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Ethics Science

Changing how we choose

It feels today that public debates (or rather arguments) have greatly intensified, over reproductive rights (especially abortion), racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights (and especially for trans persons). At the heart, these conversations are grounded in morality what are we free to do, and how should we treat one another? What do we owe to one another?

As we see how polarized these struggles have become, it is easy to be discouraged, and feel that there is no way for us to agree on these basic, and important, questions. We might start to feel that there is no “right” way to do morality.

Looking out from this particular moment, we can see that so many behaviors have been moralized in one way or another. What is condemned in one time and place may be ignored, or even praised, in another. While we can identify some common principles across time and cultures (a respect for fairness, for instance), it has seemed to me that we could not establish that one particular moral system is good, or better than another.

And, as a scientist, I have also felt that morality is really outside of the reach of the scientific method. I often tell my students that in science, and psychology is no exception, our focus is on problems that we can approach empirically – questions that we can answer by making careful measurements in the world, using methods that exist today.

In classes, I often give them an example of a problem that is beyond the reach of science, such as “What is the meaning of life?” This is an important question, perhaps the most important one that any person will grapple with. And, the ways that we answer this question can shape the entire course of our lives.

But, as a psychologist, I cannot answer this question – there are no measurements I could make that would firmly establish the “true” meaning of life. I can ask other questions: how do people develop their sense of meaning in their lives? How do different systems (religious, agnostic, atheistic, etc.) impact people’s well-being, or their behaviors? How do important life events impact our beliefs about the meaning of life? The list of interesting questions that we can address is enormous.

But, I don’t think that I can answer that first question: What is the meaning of life? The question itself stands outside of psychology, and science.

And, in my conversations with my students, I have always included morality along with those other questions that are outside of science. Why do people help one another? Why do we judge, or hurt others? Certainly, these are the kinds of questions about morality that science has looked at closely. And, we have learned a great deal through their study. But, the fundamental questions: what is right, and what is wrong? – these are not questions that we can address through empirical means.

Photograph of the book Changing How We Choose by David Redish

Or, at least I thought so, until I read a new book, Changing How We Choose, by David Redish1. Dr. Redish is a neuroscientist whose work has focused in recent years on decision-making, and understanding how the brain allows us to choose the best actions for each situation. And, how those decisions can go awry (think of addiction, for instance). For anyone interested in learning more about the neuroscience of decision-making, and how decisions can go “wrong,” I would highly recommend his earlier book, The Mind within the Brain.

In his new book, Redish makes the case that across all of our various moral systems, we can see not only human universals in morality (reaching towards fairness, loyalty, avoiding harm, etc.), but that we can identify a goal towards which any moral system is striving.

The key, in Redish’s argument, is that morality is a set of tools, or a social technology, so to speak, that allows humans to cooperate with one another. In this framework, morality creates and maintains the conditions in which humans can work together and cooperate. At the very core, morality imbues cooperation with value, and supports cooperative behaviors while restraining selfish behaviors.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

In building his case for cooperation as the key concern of morality, one Redish’s key frames comes from game theory. Game theory focuses on the mathematics of situations where people are in competition with one another, and where the best choice that you can make as an individual depends on what other people do. One classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, which considers a case where two people are suspected of a crime. I personally like this version, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years”  


Imagine that we have two people, Emma and Miguel, who are suspected to have committed a serious crime. If both of them do not confess, they will spend three months in prison, and otherwise the penalties will be the same as those in the case above. We can then represent the possible outcomes with a table:

Based on this way of looking at the problem, we can consider what Miguel and Emma should do, if they want to avoid spending time in prison. But, while we will consider this situation amorally (without worrying about what they should do in a moral sense), I do want to acknowledge that it feels wrong to treat serious crimes as games – if Emma and Miguel are guilty of a serious crime, we would generally hold that they should confess, right?

If we do approach this situation just from the self-interest of Emma and Miguel, it is clear from the table above that the best choice for Emma and Miguel is to remain silent. In this case, they only spend a few months in prison. And, if they can work together, this might be a feasible “strategy.” But, the prisoner’s dilemma includes a wrinkle: Emma and Miguel each must make their decision alone:

“[The suspects] cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself. Paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise”


This is an important point: if Miguel and Emma each do not know what the other chooses, and they are only in this situation one time, then the best strategy for them as individuals is different from the best strategy for them as a group.

Take Emma, for example, as she considers her options: if Miguel were to confess, then her best option is to confess as well (spending 5 less years in prison). And, if Miguel were to remain silent, her best option is still to confess (and spend no time at all in prison).

Apart from our moral concerns about responsibility for our actions (if a person really did commit a serious crime), this kind of analysis can feel unsettling – as if we are endorsing cold, selfish behavior.

The Assurance Game

A fundamental part of Redish’s argument is that for humans, most of our interactions are not competitive in ways that match the prisoner’s dilemma. Or, at least, they do not have to be competitive in this way.

In many cases, if humans can cooperate effectively, then the group of cooperating people is more successful than each person could be individually. To illustrate this, he uses the assurance game. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, the assurance game is a case where we will all be better off if we work together. But, in the assurance game, you can decide not to cooperate without suffering the kinds of risks (of loss, or punishment) that happen in the prisoner’s dilemma. Redish uses an example that was introduced by Rousseau in his work, A Discourse on Inequality, where Rousseau considers hunters working together to take down a deer:

“If it was a matter of hunting a deer, everyone well realized that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without scruple.”


While today, hunting deer is usually an individual activity, it was not always so. So, we can imagine two people, Maria and Liam, who have a chance to work together to hunt for deer (without all of the benefits of modern hunting equipment). In this case, we can say that they will be more likely to succeed if they work together than if they hunt for a deer separately. If they were to hunt for rabbits alone, they are more likely to be successful, but also will get less food. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, we can represent the potential outcomes as a table, like this:

I personally do not have a great deal of experience with game theory, and for a time, the important difference between the assurance game and the prisoner’s dilemma escaped me. But, Redish points out that the key is that the assurance game rewards cooperation, without also rewarding people who act only in their self-interest.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, if Emma cannot communicate with Miguel, and has no idea what he will choose, her best choice may be to confess. And, the same is true for Miguel.

In the assurance game, Maria is better off hunting rabbits if Liam decides to hunt rabbits. But, she is not better off if Liam will hunt for deer with her. In fact, she is much worse off, because the benefit from a deer is much greater than that of a rabbit.

It is an oversimplification of Redish’s argument, and of the research fields that he draws on, but a key insight is that for humans who can live and cooperate together, in many cases the benefits of cooperation (to the individuals participating in that society) are much greater than a person could earn if they lived entirely on their own (if that was even possible). And, Redish sees that morality is focused on creating the conditions where more and more of our interactions are actually assurance games (where cooperation is nurtured).

“… what humans call morality is a set of mechanisms that help us turn our interactions into an assurance game and to find our way into the cooperate-cooperate corner of that assurance game, where we can reap the benefits of its non-zero-sum nature and make things better for all of us, both as a community and as individuals. Fundamentally, humans have evolved to work together. Morality is a set of tools that make us better team players”

(Redish, p. 265)

Redish presents morality as a set of tools, a kind of technology, that helps humans create and succeed in assurance games. The tools of morality are built out of our social interactions, but they also depend on a set of systems in the brain. Redish points to emotions such as shame and guilt. Guilt is commonly felt when a person realizes that they have violated a norm or rule for their community, while shame often comes when that violation is known by the community. “Guilt is a recognition of the offense, but shame is the recognition that one is part of a team and has let the team down.” (Redish, p. 64).

We might very well worry that in some times and places, shame and guilt are overused to restrict the behavior of some people in a society. But, would a society be better (work better) if every person had no ability to feel any guilt or shame?

I would guess not. But, this does not mean that guilt and shame are necessarily appropriate. We can consider how these emotions are used with any moral system, and ask if they are aligned with the goals of supporting cooperation. If we find they are being used oppressively, to restrict one group’s behavior or opportunities, then it does become possible to judge that moral system as less effective than it could be.

What does it mean for our Zen practice?

As we think of the implications of this work, I think that any religious person should consider how these arguments impact their own religious practice. As a Zen practitioner, I feel that it is important to think carefully about how we apply these lessons of the science of morality.

One part that I appreciate in Redish’s proposal for a scientific study of morality is how well it overlaps with the ways morality is understood in Buddhism and Zen. For example, in his commentary on Dogen’s Shishobo, Shohaku Okumura writes:

“Bodhisattva practice is not the way of self-sacrifice. The goal of our practice is to find a way we and other beings can live together without causing suffering to each other. This is the middle way between pursuing only one’s own interests and sacrificing oneself.”

(Okumura, p. 12)

And, while I appreciate the overlap between Redish’s proposal for a scientific understanding of morality, I don’t think that this view will replace our religious or spiritual frameworks. Redish has an interesting chapter on religion, in which he sees morality as the core of religion, writing:

“… quite literally, religion is about morality. It defines groups through shared beliefs, shared rituals, and shared sacrifice. It defines structures within those rules so that everyone has a part to play. It embodies rules that limit intragroup conflict.”

(Redish, p. 238)

I certainly won’t argue that religions (even Buddhism) are not concerned with morality. And, they do includes these elements that he describes. But, fundamentally, from the perspective of our lived experience, religion is not about morality. Or, at least is should not fundamentally be about morality. It should be about the “why” of it. Why do we exist, and what is the meaning of it all?

Religions, and other systems of belief, answer that question in different ways. Specific moral systems can follow from those answers. But, morality is not at the core of religion. A science of morality may be very useful as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our moral systems. It may give us easier ways to have conversations across traditions and cultures with very different moral systems. But, it will not, or should not, supplant those traditions.

For comparison, consider the science of nutrition, in which I can see many parallels to the argument that Redish advances. Nutrition, as a science, focuses on the ways that our diet supports our bodies. Not every diet (in the sense of what we eat, rather than in the sense of restricting what we eat) is equally beneficial for our health.

And, we can see the traditional cuisines of a culture as a set of tools that support the nutrition of its people. Just as with morality, there is likely no single “correct” way to eat – there is no such thing as the one and only perfect nutrition. But, we can judge different patterns of eating against the effects of those diets on health. And, there are certainly failures when it comes to nutrition.

For example, once when I was a teenager, I spent about a week at a camp that was held on a military base in Ohio. Meals were available in the mess hall, but generally required getting up early, and this was a serious obstacle to me at that time. So, I had come prepared for the week with a large stash of Pop Tarts. And, for at least two full days, I do not think I consumed anything except Pop Tarts, water, and probably many soft drinks. I’m not sure how well I could tolerate that diet today, but even then, I do remember feeling very ill one night. It was quite some time before I ate another Pop Tart.

Like morality, there may not be a single, perfect cuisine to support nutrition. And, there certainly ones that we can identify as bad, like much of the highly processed foods that flood our stores and fight for our attention today.

But also, eating is not about nutrition. Not from our own position, the one that we actually live. To eat for nutrition is to let your cuisine die. Eating is moment of deep connection, a humbling acknowledgement of our interconnection to the entire world. Meals are also very social, a time when we come together in community. To reduce cuisine to nutrition – at the level of our own motivation – is a terrible mistake. The same is true, I think, for morality. The science of morality may give us new insights into the core, or most fundamental parts, of our ethical systems. It may help us also recognize what parts are superfluous, what we can discard. Maybe.

“We all do better when we all do better.”

Paul Wellstone

Redish opens his book with this quote by the late Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who died tragically in a plane crash when I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Senator Wellstone was a wonderful example of the kind of person that we would all be better for emulating. Buddhism and Redish’s science of morality would agree on that point, and I hope that the conversations that this new book stimulates will help us all work together to reach for this goal. We will all be better if we do.

1Full disclosure! Dr. David Redish was my graduate adviser for my Ph.D., and a colleague and friend today.

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Works cited

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, December 23). Prisoner’s dilemmaEncyclopedia Britannica.

Okumura, S. (2005, September). “The 28th Chapter of Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta-Shishobo The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions – Lecture 5” Dharma Eye, 16. 

Redish, A. D. (2022). Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Rousseau J.-J. & Cranston M. (1984). A Discourse on Inequality. Penguin Books.


A clean and pure anger

Over the past week, the military conflict in Ukraine has been at the top of my mind, like so many in the world. As reports of escalation of military force have dominated the headlines, my heart goes out to all those affected. I hope for cooler heads to gain purchase, and that Russian forces withdraw from the country. And, I hope for all those involved to find a path to end this needless suffering.

Ukranian diaspora in Brussels protesting
Bartosz Brzezinski – Ukrainian diaspora in Brussels protests the Russian invasion

From where I sit, in the Midwestern U.S., it is difficult to know what I could personally do that would have a real, and meaningful impact. We have joined in local gatherings to support the Ukrainian people, and to call for peace. We’ve looked for ways that our donations can help those who are displaced. And, while I don’t think that social media is a particularly effective way to help, we have been encouraged to see the public support for Ukraine, and all of those who are suffering needlessly.

Last week, I also came across some discussions on Reddit, where people were still processing the early escalation of violent attacks. On a Buddhist-focused forum, I found a number of people struggling with the question of how a Buddhist could act ethically, if they found themselves in the middle of the fighting.

It was probably inevitable, really, that this question would surface in these communities. But, I was disappointed to see a number of strong statements, and what seemed to be rigid, inflexible positions. Although, based on other conversations I have seen on Reddit, I probably should not have been surprised.

I was disappointed to see a number of cases where people reached quickly for a justification to condemn anyone who participated (as violating Buddhist principles), or for joining in the fighting. Other voices did acknowledge the complexity of the situation, and how difficult it can be to find the skillful action in the middle of violence. But, I felt that the places where the discussion focused on whether using force (in self-defense of one’s self or one’s country) was “right” or not to be a bit tone-deaf. In many cases, it felt that those commenting were judging the actions of people who were living out a terrible situation (while they themselves were not in any particular danger).

Overall, can we say that force is never a skillful means to deal with a dangerous situation?  I worry about taking that step – to say that I can be confident that force is never appropriate. And I worry that it is all to easy to judge from afar the actions of people who have been thrown into a terrible situation.

When we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict (violent or otherwise), what one does – the specific actions one takes – is less important than how one does it. If we can act from a position of equanimity, of balance, that is the most important point. I was reminded of a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, reflecting on whether anger could be pure:

Suzuki Roshi was once asked if anger could be like a pure wind that wipes everything clean. He said, “Yes, but I don’t think you need to worry about that.” He said that he himself had never had an anger that was like a pure wind. And our anger is surely not that pure, either, because of the fear that lies beneath the anger. Unless we contact and experience our fear, we will have harmful anger.

Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen

Often, our actions – and especially our use of force – comes out of our fear, or our anger, and the results can be harmful.

Last week, someone from my hometown posted on social media about an incident at a local store. A man was acting erratically, as they described it, and making a number of extreme political statements. From their description, his behavior did not suggest that he was in full control of his faculties. And, it seemed that he might be a risk to himself or others.

The staff in the store were able to talk with the man, and to deescalate the situation, and the person who posted about the incident praised their ability to stay calm and deal with the situation humanely. We should be grateful for those who have the presence of mind to be able to act skillfully in such a charged situation.

I noticed, though, in the comments on this post, one man described how he would have handled the situation. His recommendation was something to the effect of “two punches to the head, one to the throat.”

I’m glad he wasn’t there, in that moment, to make a delicate situation worse. Force may sometimes be the best option available. But, I also understand that we can find ourselves turning quickly to force out of fear. Or, because we see so many stories around us that glorify solving our problems with our fists.

As we look at the conflict in Ukraine, and in every place that people are suffering under injustice, I hope to be careful about judging their actions. I hope we have the humility to know that the challenges in such a moment are very different from those that many of us are facing.

I hope that in the same situation, I would be able to look past my own defensiveness, my own anger, and reach for the best means in the moment. With the full knowledge that I may be wrong. Or, miss some other open path that is in front of us. That is our vow, is it not? To save all beings?  

As Kōshō Uchiyama’s wrote in “Opening the Hand of Thought,” there are may be times when one acts in a way that is counter to the precepts:

… it’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.

Kōshō Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” from “The Bodhisattva Vow

The real challenge, though, is to see each situation clearly.

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Ethics Zen

Our responsibility to life

In the last few months, as struggles in the U.S. have intensified over access to abortion, I have found myself conflicted as I reflected on the logic of my own attitudes. On the one hand, I see that access to abortion is an important part of reproductive medicine. But, I can appreciate that drawing a single, firm line to define when abortions could be allowed is difficult.

The life of a living thing begins when conditions are right, and will come to an end when conditions change. Much as a whirlpool emerges from the turbulent flow of a river, we exist as a temporary, dynamic structure. Our life is never really separate from the universe, in the same way that a whirlpool is not separate from the water of the river.

And, as every whirlpool stills eventually, it is natural for each life to come to an end. But, it is also natural, and right, to cherish our time as a living being – and I believe deeply that each life is a precious treasure. But, each human life, from conception to birth and beyond, is a process without sharp transitions. Each life takes its shape and structure gradually, much as a whirlpool begins with a gentle rotation, and only slowly takes its mature form. Where then does abortion fit into our responsibility to life?

Photo credit: Alex Wright, Children playing at sunset, Ko Tao, Thailand

Thinking about abortion as a Zen practitioner, one recent piece that I found interesting was by Sallie Jiko Tisdale about Buddhist views on abortion. Tisdale considers the tension that we see in some Buddhist traditions, observing:

the conclusion of Orthodox Buddhist scholars has long been that a human being appears at the moment of conception. Because human birth is a rare and precious gift, to deprive a being of the opportunity is a grave mistake. Therefore, a one-day-old embryo must be accorded the same protection as living human beings.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale, Is There a Buddhist View on Abortion?

However, this view – of the absolute sanctity of human life – contrasts with some Buddhist teachings that human life is impure, or to be avoided:

Traditional Buddhism is anti-birth, based in a celibate and solitary life outside the family. Sexual desire is said to turn the wheel of samsara, and procreative sex is a greater transgression for a monastic than nonprocreative sex. The uterus is a disgusting place and babies begin to decay at birth, yet women are told to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the embryo… A human body is so rare and precious that we must protect it from the day of conception? … Wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?

Sallie Jiko Tisdale, Is There a Buddhist View on Abortion?

In that essay, I was struck by the line, “Wouldn’t the highest form of practice be to create more opportunities for human birth?

I put this question to myself: if I believe that to live as a human is a precious gift, then do I see an ethical obligation to increase human life, an imperative for procreation?  You can find similar arguments in other religious traditions, where procreation can be framed as a duty (and here, I think of the conservative Christian “Quiverfull” movement which received attention a few years back).

Personally, neither position – that procreation as a duty, or as a defilement – resonates with me. In the end, what is the real difference between these extremes?

Our human life is a rare opportunity. As we look out into the universe around us, we see great beauty. But, we have not yet seen other people, intelligent beings, looking back at us. Our own galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars. There may be other suns in our galaxy (or beyond) that have planets with life on them, and even intelligent life. However, from what we have seen so far, the universe does not appear to be bursting with life. And, intelligent life may be quite rare. In so many places, the flowering of the universe plays out to an empty room.

The life that we have on this planet, then, seems to be a remarkable gift. And, it would have been a terrible shame, I think, if our planet had been yet another lifeless world. If the course of the river of the universe had run entirely straight, with not a single whirlpool, here on Earth. What if not even one person was ever to have taken a deep and authentic delight in this world? How tragic that would have been.

But on the other hand, what if the river of the universe was a chaotic, churning rapids? Full of whirlpools that came into a crowded existence, interfering with one another, full of suffering? We have seen great suffering where humanity increases beyond the ability to support each person. What benefit is there to bringing life into a world that will not support it?

Influenced by my Zen practice, I would love to see the universe more full of life, bursting with it. But, only to the extent that we can bring an end to suffering, to duhkha. Thinking about this delicate balance, I am reminded of a quote from Paul Broks:

To disturb someone from a state of non-existence is a terrible responsibility.

Paul Broks, Into the Silent Land

Broks was not advising us to avoid our responsibility to life. Rather, he was both acknowledging the precariousness of our life, while celebrating the preciousness of life. And the seriousness of creation, the responsibility we have to children. That resonates with me as a parent. I enjoy so much the delight that children take in the world, in all of the possibilities that their futures hold. And I am afraid, too, of where some of those paths may lead. The responsibility of a parent is awe-inspiring. Momentous.

Any conversations we have about abortion, about reproductive medicine in general, should be grounded in this responsibility to our children, to all of life. To all of children who we have called out of the void of non-existence. And, I don’t think that rigid rules (allowing or restricting abortion or any other reproductive medicine) will entirely satisfy this responsibility.

In this vein, I have appreciated a passage in Kōshō Uchiyama’s book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” where he describes advising a young woman to get an abortion. Uchiyama felt that ending the pregnancy was wrong, but he also believed that it was the right thing to do in her case. And, if she would have suffered negative consequences for that decision, he was willing to suffer right along side of her:

it’s not enough for a bodhisattva of the Mahayana to just uphold the precepts. There are times when you have to break them, too. It’s just that when you do, you have to do so with the resolve of also being willing to accept whatever consequences might follow.

Kōshō Uchiyama, “Opening the Hand of Thought”, from “The Bodhisattva Vow

Most importantly, I feel that our responsibility is to care for life. That we nurture the flower that is human existence, for as long as it can bloom. And that we help those humans, and all sentient beings, escape from suffering and to take delight in existence.

In the end, I don’t know what our laws specifically about abortion should be. But our responsibility, one of the bodhisattva’s vows, is to free all sentient beings from duhkha (suffering). Knowing how to act skillfully in any specific case will require our complete engagement, and may lead us to avoid simple rules.