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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Zen Master Seung Sahn on Abortion.

Previously I had only known Zen master Seung Sahn through short YouTube clips but I was enlightened by what I heard. However, just before we left for a vacation in Costa Rica, I wanted to find a book that would help me stay grounded despite all the activity we'd be experiencing.

We all enjoy fun but given the reality of samsara, even the most enjoyable activity can become a source of suffering after too much indulgence. I don't necessarily believe in fate, (though I do believe in karma) but when selecting a book I couldn't find any of the half a dozen books that I was searching for at the local bookstore.

So, I wandered over to the Buddhist section as is my customary starting point when I don't have a specific book in mind. I perused the various ones taking time to flip through the pages and soaking up the relaxing smell of crisp paper. After going through several books I discovered Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn's book, "Wanting Enlightenment is a BIG MISTAKE."

I immediately performed my test of a book I haven't researched ahead of time. I flipped through the book to random pages to see if it caught my attention. After several minutes passed I realized that I had started reading the book from the beginning, and so I knew my decision was made up. This book is very easy to read but is full of teachings that will have you contemplating even the seemingly simplest teachings. Seung Sahn was never afraid of controversy, blunt speaking or odd language when the lesson required such behavior.

As one of his students said of his broken English, "You had to drop underneath his words to grasp his true meaning." I have found during my nearly decade long practice that the best Buddhist teachings come across in the fewest words.It is full of short but powerful teachings on everything a modern society struggles with. Including abortion, which is too often a topic that is avoided in Buddhist circles. During a visit to Poland a student asked the master if abortion was wrong. Seung Sahn first emphasized the first precept against killing is to be taken into consideration but that hte most important thing to consider in making such a decision is why do you do something?

"So what kind of direction do you have? Why would you abort this baby? Determining that clearly in your mind is most important. Whether or not you go to jail is not the way to decide this. The only thing that must be clear is why or why not you would have this abortion. Of course this baby is a human being. He goes on to tell the story of a person has to decide what to tell a hunter, which direction the rabbit he is pursuing went. "But if your direction for keeping the precepts is to truly liberate all beings from suffering, then you will maybe tell a lie. Our teaching says that you must not kill, especially human beings. But when a bad man comes and hurt many people, a policeman sometimes kills that person. But this policeman is not killing for himself, because of his own angry mind. His action of killing is to save sentient beings from suffering.

Every day, between seven and eight thousand people die from one or two diseases alone. Every day. No food, no clothes, no house. Babies are suffering. Why make all this suffering for babies? So, whether or not babies should be born is not the point. Instead, what is human beings' correction direction? How does this action help other beings? That is great love. That is great compassion.
James: This was my general thesis for being supportive of a woman's right to choose but it's nice to have a recognized Zen teacher underline the point. I believe that sometimes bringing a baby into the world actually causes more suffering for all involved than not. If the baby will simply be born addicted to crack or already dying from HIV/AIDs then to abort them would be in my view the compassionate thing to do. Or what if the child is born but like many become stuck in the cycle of foster homes--many of, which are abusive and neglectful as the parents are simply looking for the check they get from the government to care for the child/children.

Of course, not all foster parents are this way but enough to be a concern. Another concern is if giving birth to a child will endanger the life of a mother who has several children already. Is the life of the unborn child important enough to kill the mother of the three kids already living? In this case it would seem the greatest suffering would be from the several children left without a mother. Including then the newborn.

This all said, sometimes the less suffering choice is to indeed have the child. I like that Master Sahn said not to think about it as "good" or "evil" but why? This is the idea of Right Intention where an action doesn't necessarily cause one less skillful karma if the intention wasn't to cause suffering in the first place. Such as a young child (4-5 years old) who distracts their parent enough to cause a car crash, which kills them. It isn't that child's fault because his/her intention wasn't to kill their parent. All in all this book is amazing and despite it being a quick read it is full of great teachings, wisdom, laughter and insight. It is also a great desk reference book, so keep this one handy in your collection. I've give it 10 out of 10--it really was one of the best Dharma books I've read, and I've read many.

~Peace to all beings~

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L.B. said...

I love 'Wanting Enlightenment is a big mistake'. Anything published by the Shambhala Pub. House can usually be trusted.

Matt Stone said...

So what would you say to the woman who wants to abort because its not the right time, or a baby would cramp her lifestyle, or some other less than life threatening reason? What if she accused you of being 'oppressive' for suggesting she consider an alternative?

They call him James Ure said...

@L.B...It really is an indispensable book for Buddhists.

@Matt Stone...If a woman asked my opinion on if she should get an abortion I'd first say that such a decision isn't mine to make. I believe that a woman has the right to choose regardless of if it's a decision I'd agree with.

However, if she persisted and wanted my opinion then I'd ask, "If you're getting an abortion because it's not the right time, why isn't it the right time? If it is because she wishes to enter a monastery and have a greater chance at liberating many, many others then perhaps it's clear.

If she is having the abortion because it's not, "the right time" so she can finish her medical degree in pediatrics, which would make her a doctor that would save hundreds of other childrens' lives then I think the answer is clear.

If, however, the motivation is simply so that she can go out clubbing more often then that is for selfish reasons. It is not for the benefit of other beings. It is merely for benefit of her ego. In that case, the action would seem less skillful.

If she accused you of being oppressive for suggesting an alternative then again the question is why?

If you are suggesting an alternative for the greater benefit of all humans then perhaps it is helpful.

If, however, you are suggesting the alternative simply because it is a dogmatic, religious belief then perhaps the motivation isn't so clear.

If your motivation is clear and spurred by helping to liberate as many beings as possible then the direction is clear also. Whether she gets upset at your suggestion at that point is up to her and her karma.

This is a very personal subject and despite my opinions I do not profess to be in a position to tell women what to do. Whether we agree with abortion or not it is their right as conscious living beings to make up their own minds.

I've tried to frame my responses to the words of Master Seung Sahn and I hope I've stayed true to their intention.

Mushinronsha said...

Very good article and answer to a reader's comment, James.
I'll certainly keep an eye out for that book. It sounds interesting.

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