Your Questions, My Answers ~ YOUR CHOICE


"We can easily understand that abortion is immoral and criminal and cannot be sanctioned by religion, as it is nothing less than murder. But what about birth control? I know the Catholic Church opposes and condemns it, but I’m not sure why. What is the Buddhist standpoint on it?"


Well, first of all, according to what the Buddha taught, for conception to take place, there must be not only the union of the sperm with the ovum, but a third factor: the incoming consciousness—which some would call the soul or spirit—of the being-to-be-born; it is not just a matter of the physical elements of the parents, but also of the mental element—the mind—of what will later become the child.

Genetics can explain our physical make-up—and much of our mental make-up, too—in terms of heredity; but not everything can be thus accounted for, and much remains a mystery. There is, for example, the phenomenon of child prodigies—that is, children who show remarkable and unaccountable abilities like speaking and writing in various languages at an early age, when they could not possibly have learned them in the present life time, and composing wonderful music, together with the written score, as did Mozart and Beethoven. In most child prodigy cases, their parents and grandparents had no such abilities, nor—it seems—did the prodigies pass them on to their descendants—where they had descendants—in like measure, as we might expect if it were all due to heredity.

This, therefore, lies outside the present ability of Science to explain. Asian religions account for it by the theory of reincarnation or rebirth, by which it is assumed that this is not our first life, but the most recent of many. The body dies each time, but the mind, consciousness or spirit, survives and takes birth for another period, another series of experiences. Thus, people who were highly skilled or learned in previous life times carry their abilities over with them to the subsequent lifetimes. Whether this theory is true or not, I can neither say nor demonstrate, but am merely stating it as the view of most Eastern philosophies; the fact that I accept it and find it reasonable myself should not interest others; it is still only a concept.

Now, I don’t remember the moment of my conception—though I suppose the memory of it is stored somewhere in the vast labyrinth of my mind—but I’ve read of people being regressed, through hypnosis, to and through their childhood and infancy, to their birth, their intra-uterine state, and back to the moment of conception, which some have described as ‘like being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner’—speaking of their consciousness, that is. (It may be worth stating here that, according to Buddhist theory, most of us have little or no control over where we will be reborn, rather like coconuts falling from a tree: it cannot be predicted where they will come to a standstill. But others, it is said, having gained a degree of mastery over their minds, do have some choice in this matter; they are like birds flying from tree to tree, and can choose where they will be reborn). Some people have even been regressed to previous lifetimes and spoken about things that they had no knowledge or experience of, but which were later verified. We shall probably hear more of this kind of thing as hypnosis loses its not-so-good reputation of the past and gains wider acceptance by the scientific community; it is happening now.

Any mother knows that the foetus in her womb reacts to sudden loud noises; the child is a sentient-being—feeling, sensing, sensitive—and sentient-beings are psycho-physical, not just physical. So, it would seem that there is consciousness in the womb from the moment of conception. Why, then—some will ask—does nobody remember it, or their nine months of confinement therein? One explanation is that birth is such a traumatic experience that anything previous is forgotten. And anyway, who can consciously recall even as far back as their actual birth? I’ve met only one person who claimed he could, but whether he was honest about this or not, I don’t know. My earliest memory is of when I was about three years old.

The practice known as ’In-Vitro-Fertilization’—IVF—does not disprove the Buddhist theory of conception, which needs only the three factors of sperm, ovum and consciousness, and can take place just as well in a test tube—’test tube babies’ —as in the uterus; the mind has no shape, size or weight.

Now, however, with the advent of cloning, the Buddhist concept is facing a major challenge—one that we are going to have to deal with very soon. It has become possible to dispense with parents altogether, and to bring into being/cause the arising of/make/manufacture/mass-produce sentient beings (including, without a doubt ‘humans’), without the previously indispensable elements of sperm and ovum. Just by taking a single cell from any part of any living thing—plant or animal—it is possible to replicate a whole being, with every part complete. The implications of this are staggering. It has already been done with monkeys, sheep and pigs, but as far as we know—or as far as they want us to know—humans have not yet been cloned, so we cannot say anything about the mental state of cloned humans; it’s only a matter of time, however, before we will know—or become aware of—it, for with the means now available, all the promises, all the legislation, and all the safeguards in the world will not prevent someone—individuals, organizations or governments—doing something that was previously impossible; and morality will not be a guiding factor, either; science is amoral.

Conception is the coming-together of the factors needed to produce birth, while contraception is the prevention of conception, a deliberate act by one or both partners, and it is this that the Catholic Church opposes, claiming it is against the laws of God and is unnatural. Well, this is true: it is unnatural to use condoms or pills, but it’s not the only unnatural thing in our lives. In fact, it can be said that we are unnatural, for, unlike other animals, we wear clothes, cook our food, drive cars, live in houses with electricity and all the things operated thereby, and so on. All these things are unnatural, and if we were to be natural, we would have to give them all up and go naked, live in caves, hunt our food, and eat it raw. But long, long ago we began to rebel against Nature, and our journey away from it has gone on ever since. (I cannot resist telling here the little story of the Salvation Army captain who was walking backwards down a country lane as she led her brass band along, when they came upon an old farmer sitting on a fence smoking a pipe. The captain stopped and indignantly said to him: "Now, listen here, my good man, if God had intended you to smoke He would have given you a chimney on top of your head!" "Aye, ‘appen you’re right", replied the farmer, "and if ‘e’d intended you to walk backwards, ‘e’d have given you eyes in your butt!").

Once in a while we might go camping, thinking we are ‘getting back to nature’, but this is our delusion, because we take with us tents, cooking utensils, beds and bedding, food, radios, books, lighting equipment, and so on; we never really ‘go back to nature’, like Tarzan in the jungle, nor can we. And, while I do think that our lives are far too complex and would be better simplified, I’m not saying we should go back to nature; I would not like to give up everything and live like a prehistoric cave man, nor do I know anyone who would. So, before we talk about ‘being natural’ we must understand what it really means, instead of holding romantic notions about it.

"Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it", was God’s exhortation in Genesis 1:28. But we long ago got to and passed the point where the following of this ‘order’ became not only unwise and impractical, but downright irresponsible and dangerous; since then, we have overpopulated the world, and continue to multiply rapidly, so that, if we go on at this rate, the present population of almost six billion will double within fifty years! (I’m doing my share for population control, but it’s not enough!) Disastrous consequences of this, in forms of famine, drought, starvation, deforestation, war, disease, pollution, and a decreasing standard of living are already upon us, with worse looming on the horizon. Why is God such a poor warden of the planet? Why did He not say, when the planet was able to support its population in a reasonable condition: "Okay, enough now; relax, and take it easy!"?

As it is, the Catholic Church continues to oppose birth control and express its disapproval of sex by saying it is not something to be indulged in for pleasure but only for the sake of procreation. But can the Church reasonably expect people to engage in sex only when they intend to procreate? How many people would conform to such restrictions? Most would just follow their feelings, and some would become burdened with guilt thereby, because of these anti-human teachings.

Buddhism is not so prim about sex, and recognizes it as a form of pleasure, though not a very refined form; it is regarded as legitimate when it is not adultery, rape, incest or other improper forms that cause suffering.

Many Catholics today, however, do use contraceptives, in spite of their Church’s opposition. They prefer to do so rather than bring children into the world that they do not really want or cannot afford; it is a matter of practicality. In ‘third-world’ countries especially, large families are still common, but mainly among the poor and uneducated—the very people, in fact, who can least afford them! This results in things like the spread of urban slums, rising crime rates, the so-called ‘flesh-trade’ with the rampant VD and AIDS that accompany it in such countries as Thailand, India and the Philippines.

China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, have attempted to deal with their exploding populations by rigorous birth control programs, and, while they have not had the success hoped for, it is scary to contemplate what it would have been like without these programs! In India, the Hindus have responded better than the minority Muslims who wish to increase their numbers. The Indian government offers incentives in the form of things like transistor radios to people who volunteer for vasectomies or sterilization, while China’s government penalizes people who have more than the permitted one child in ways such as delays in job promotion, set-backs on the list for public housing, non-issuance of ration cards for extra children, and so on; yet the population continues to rapidly increase.

My maternal grandmother died giving birth to her eighth child, and my mother, as the eldest at the tender age of only twelve, had to take her place. Contraception, even in those days, was available, but people were not so well informed as now, or simply did not care. For one thing, there was no social security system then, and so large families were regarded as ‘insurance policies’ for people’s old age.

It is useful to reflect upon something that has puzzled people down the ages: Do we have free will, or is everything predestined? This baffles people as they see it as an either/or situation, unaware of a ‘higher third’. We cannot really talk of ‘free will’ when even the words we use are not ours but are inherited from others; moreover, we are products of our environment and live and act according to our conditioning. But, to say that everything is predestined is also incorrect, for though the present is the culmination of everything that preceded it, it is open ended, and what we do with it now has an effect—sometimes a great effect—on what will come after. Of course, everything happens in a moment-by-moment sequence and not in big chunks like years, months or even days (which are all made up of moments in any case).

So, although we cannot really act freely unless and until we fully understand our conditioning and motivation, there is no-one else responsible for our actions, and it is unreasonable to blame others for what happens to us. We must learn to accept responsibility for our own lives and see what we can do with them. Don’t waste time wishing you had been born wealthy or into the aristocracy instead of into the working class; be happy to be human and strive to understand what it means; don’t just accept other people’s standards as your own, but look a little deeper than most people. And then, instead of giving way to envy and despair, you will find a sense of direction and value in your life.

Now, because the present is open ended, we have some choice; we are not robots, programmed to act in certain ways —or are we? And when we have choices, we must be responsible enough to accept the consequences thereof. It is true that the Pill and other forms of contraception have changed the way we live considerably; some say they have made people more promiscuous, and this is probably true; ours is known as ‘the permissive society’. But, because of contraception, people can avoid unwanted pregnancies and plan their families. Even so, the abortion rate continues to rise, and this is a very big problem, for it means we are treating human life very lightly, as something of little significance. We know that abortion is nothing new and has gone on throughout the ages, in back rooms under unsanitary conditions. But now that we have contraceptives the abortion rate should be expected to decline instead of increase. What has happened? Why aren’t people using these things responsibly and for their intended purpose?

Have you ever known children who were not wanted? The world’s streets are full of them, living rough, getting into and causing trouble. I worked with such people in Manila’s jail. Lacking love and affection, it is almost automatic to join others like them, and fall into bad ways. More to be understood than condemned, they do not understand themselves and do not wish to be unwanted and unloved; they did not ask to be born as ‘accidents’, as it were.

With the variety of contraceptive devices available today, there is really no excuse for bringing unwanted children into the world, and we cannot say that those who do not use—or refuse to use—contraceptives are more moral than those who do; the abortion clinics and increasing numbers of ‘street kids’ are evidence to the contrary.

So, choose, with whatever information and wisdom is available to you. And, having chosen, with awareness of what you are doing, accept the consequences thereof. If you choose to do something you know is not right, well, it would be unreasonable to complain about the consequences, would it not? Remember, too, that your children are not just your children, but the children of the world.


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