The march of Jizo ~ Buddhism and Reproductive Rights

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Buddhism believes that life begins at conception and views abortion as the taking a of human life, but rejects the idea of rights, as in “right-to-life,” or even rights to one’s own body. It also stops short of intervening in a woman’s decision. According to statement published by the Japanese-American Buddhist Churches of America: “It is the woman carrying the fetus, and no one else, who must in the end make this most difficult decision and live with it for the rest of her life. As Buddhists, we can only encourage her to make a decision that is both thoughtful and compassionate.” [link]

A standard Buddhist approach to the ethics involved in having or providing an abortion is not a black and white issue. Although the first precept to not take a life seems prohibitive, it is less of a prohibition and more a requirement to approach the issue with compassion, concern and wisdom born of experience and contemplative practice. While the decision to have an abortion may not be viewed as the most skillful action for a woman to take, imposing a strict code against that choice would be equally discouraged. We all stand on our karma. The only footing we have is provided by our actions and the results of them. Each of us has the right to make a choice concerning those actions.

There is a larger picture to view. A picture of circumstance, personal experience and cause and effect. A picture of karma. Events will manifest as causes leading up to a woman contemplating terminating a pregnancy and the effects will echo after. It is not a simple decision, not a single correspondence. It is layered and complex decision that will lay a foundation for future events and actions, both good and bad, skillful and unskillful but all equally pressing. All equally important. Each needing to be adressed with compassion and not guilt. Wisdom and not condemnation.

It is a choice born of compassion tempered by wisdom – made by one person, the woman carrying the fetus. Those choices will reverberate throughout her lifetime and I, as a Buddhist, believe that we should respect a person’s experience and karma enough to allow that choice, despite personal beliefs or concerns. Just a simple allowance to a person the right to be mindful of their motivation–to stare fear, attachment and circumstance in the eye so that wisdom, compassion and selflessness shine through…no matter the decision made.

The Diamond Sangha (led by the now deceased) Robert Aitken Roshi had the following statement in a version of their revised Mizuko koyo ceremony.

We gather today to express our love and support for (names of parents) and to say farewell to a child unborn, a bit of being we have named (name of child), who appeared just as we all do, from the undifferentiated mind, and who passed away after a few moments of flickering life, just as we all do.

In our culture, we place  great emphasis upon maintaining life, but truly death is not a fundamental matter, but an incident, another wave. Bassui Zenji speaks of it as clouds fading in the sky. Mind essence, Bassui says, is not subject to birth or death. It is neither being nor nothingness, neither emptiness nor form and color.

It is, as Yamada Koun Roshi has said, infinite emptiness, full of possibilities, at once altogether at rest and also charged with countless tendencies awaiting the fullness of karma. Here (name of child) is in complete repose, at one with the mystery that is our own birth and death, our own no-birth and no-death

Of importance to me is Aitken Roshi’s willingness to address and bear witness to the inherit difficulty and sadness of this choice rather than an issue of right or wrong. Accepting a sangha member’s decision and providing support and aid. It ain’t easy for Jizo to see the endless march of sadness and fear but he rescues with vigor and without discrimination. He plunges himself without thought of self to help those in need. Jizo is a image of hope to parents and to expected mothers he is an image of salvation. Salvation from guilt and concern, from fear and condemnation. Freedom from judgment and isolation. To awaken those qualities in our own actions is accept the choices one makes with care and concern. To view the karma of another with compassion, that is the action of a Bodhisattva.

This is not meant to be a piece on Buddhist apologetics. Nor is it in-depth examination on Buddhist ethics. It is a statement of how I view abortions through my experience and my practice. I would be curious where you stand. Please include your position in the comments or include some resources to help others.

Some resources:

Please comment over at Elephant Journal.

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4 thoughts on “The march of Jizo ~ Buddhism and Reproductive Rights

  1. Very tough subject, but well written friend. We have people that bring abortion up as a topic at our temple, which happens to be Japanese in lineage (Nichiren Shu). Many people are shocked when they are told that it’s ‘not black and white’. There are many cases where the karma in having the baby could be detrimental to the mother and/or child and like you stated is a decision that must be carried by the mother.Thank you for providing this perspective for people in relation to our practice.DW

  2. Thankyou for this thoughtful and balanced piece. As a woman I respect so much that you have taken the time to reflect and consider all aspects of this difficult choice. A beautiful piece.

  3. I have always felt that my unborn child had a consciousness and was deeply troubled and filled with grief as a result. Reading this post and learning about Jizo has given me some peace. I will always honor the memory of what could never be but I have also found some relief after performing my own ceremony. Thank you very much.

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