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The Buddha's Way and Abortion: Loss, Grief and Resolution

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[Last updated: 28 March 1994]


a lecture by Yvonne Rand, Sensei.

Originally published in: Mind Moon Circle, Autumn 1994, pp.5-8.

This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious issues. Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful way.

All copyrights to this document belong to Yvonne Rand, California, USA.

Enquiries: The Editor, "Mind Moon Circle", Sydney Zen Centre, 251 Young St., Annandale, Sydney, NSW 2038, Australia. Tel: + 61 2 660 2993

The Buddha's Way and Abortion: Loss, Grief and Resolution

by Yvonne Rand

(Yvonne is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.)

Attitudes about abortion have given birth to heartbreaking polarization and violence. The need for a safe and respectful meeting ground for everyone concerned now overrides the issues themselves. My own view on the issues may appear inconsistent on the surface, for I am anti-abortion and pro-choice, but what concerns me these days is the intolerance and intemperance which prevent any harmony between the contending camps. I see remarkable grief in people as an aftermath to abortions and miscarriages and no container in which to heal that grief.

The perspective on abortion I present here has developed through my experiences as a practicing Buddhist and as a Zen priest. In conducting memorial ceremonies under the benevolent auspices of Jizo Bodhisattva, I have come to appreciate the capacity the Buddha Dharma gives us to accept what is painful and difficult. In Japan, Jizo is the much loved form of the Bodhisattva of the underworld; he is the emanation of compassion which guides and protects transmigrators into and out of life.

My first encounter with Jizo happened in 1969 after a dear friend of mine died in a train accident in Japan. Several years earlier, my friend had gone on a search for himself which ended at a Zen monastery. His sudden death was a blow and I grieved his passing deeply. Later that year I found myself driving Suzuki Roshi to Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre from San Francisco. When I told him that I had been taking care of a footlocker holding my friend's precious belongings (music, a flute, essays, books drawings), Suzuki Roshi suggested that we burn the belongings in the stone garden near his cabin at Tassajara. After a proper funeral and fire ceremony, we buried the ashes in the rock garden, and marked the spot with a small stone figure of Jizo.

This, my first meeting with Jizo, affected me deeply. For some years afterwards, I could not explain my pull to the figure of this sweet-faced monk with hands in the mudra of prayer and greeting.

Several years after this funeral ceremony, I terminated an unexpected pregnancy by having an abortion. I suffered after the abortion, but it was not until some years had passed that I came to fully understand my grieving and/or the resolution to which I eventually came.

Subsequently, I began spending time in Japan and became reacquainted with Jizo. Figures of Jizo are everywhere there. I saw firsthand that Jizo ritual and ceremony involved not just graveyards and death in general, but particularly the deaths of infants and foetuses through abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. Back home, during the 1970's and 1980's, women had begun coming to me and asking if I could help them with their difficulties in the aftermath of an abortion or a miscarriage. In consequence I began doing a simple memorial service for groups of people who had experienced the deaths of foetuses and babies. After many years of counselling both men and women I decided, three years ago, to spend several months in Japan doing a focused study of the Jizo practices.

Initially, I did the ceremony only with women. But now I include men and children as well. The participants are neither all pro-choice nor all pro-life in their politics; a full spectrum of opinion and belief is represented in the circle we make. Many of the people who come are not Buddhists. Yet somehow this old Buddhist way seems to absorb whoever does come.

What the ceremony accomplishes is to provide a means for people to be with what is so, no matter how painful that may be. Being fundamentally awake to what is so is a great path, open to us all. The path means awakening to what is truly and specifically so, rather than remaining narcotized or habitually preoccupied by our fears and desires, our loves and hates. Ignorance and unconciousness make us lose our way and cause great suffering to ourselves and others. Sex, as we know, can lead to pregnancy. Failure to consider the gestative potential of sexuality can result in suffering for the lifetime of many lives over multiple generations. Women who have had abortions are sometimes haunted for decades afterwards.

Each of those who attend our ceremonies has suffered the death of one or more small beings. Strangers assemble with their grief and unresolved dismay. Over time I have been struck by how successfully the ceremony has provided a container for the process of acknowledging what is so, for encompassing what is difficult, and for bringing about resolution and healing. When I initially performed the Buddhist Memorial Ceremony, I followed a quite traditional form. Slowly I have modified and added to it in a way that seems to work better for Americans.

The ceremony is as follows: we sit in silence, sewing a bib or hat for one of the compassion figures on the altar. The figures are from different cultures: Jizo, Mary with Jesus, "Spirit entering and leaving" from the Eskimo people, or a mother and child. Our commitment is to listen to those who wish to talk without attempting to give advice or comfort. Some of know from twelve-step meetings of the important practice of simply listening.

The principle of "no crosstalk'' provides safety from uninvited comforting and solicitude, and many find it to be the most healing of possible attentions. After this, we walk to the garden, form a circle, and go through a simple ceremony of acknowledging a particular life and death. One by one, each person says whatever is in his or her heart while offering incense, placing the sewn garments on one of the altar figures and bowing. We then chant the Heart Sutra, give the unborn beings Dharma names and say goodbye to them. Prayer sticks are made and inscribed with prayers for forgiveness and for the wellbeing of those who have died. No names are signed. The prayers are hung from the bushes and trees in the meditation garden, thus committing our messages to the wind and the rains. Afterwards we have a cup of tea, walk in the garden, and go home with a quieter heart.

Over the years, I continue to learn from the people who participate. About seven or eight years ago, at a conference for Women in Buddhism, I led the Jizo ceremony for a large group of conference participants. At the end of the ceremony a woman spoke about her own experience. She described herself as a nurse midwife who did a lot of abortion counselling. After undergoing an abortion herself, she had begun to ask women who came to her for help to first go home and talk to the foetus they were carrying. She encouraged each woman to tell the baby all the reasons for her inner conflict about the pregnancy. She reported that the number of spontaneous miscarriages that occurred was remarkable.

After hearing this woman's story, I began to hear about a similar practice of speaking to the foetus in other cultures: in Cambodia, in the Netherlands, and among native peoples in America, to name a few. I find great sense in this practice. Speaking to the foetal baby is a way to recognise and acknowledge that the being in utero also is a presence, also has a voice, also has some concern for the outcome. I continue to be struck by the deep rightness of such an attitude in the midst of the suffering that comes with conflict over a pregnancy.

I have added modern touches to the ceremony. Yet the wisdom it embraces comes from traditional Buddhist teachings which, although steeped in history, nevertheless offer profound guidance for the current conflict over abortion. For me, the Buddha's first grave precept - not to kill intentionally - cannot be denied, much less minimized. Since I am convinced that the teaching embodied in the precept is correct, both conventionally and ultimately; and since adherence to it is a necessary step on the path that leads away from suffering, I feel compelled to take a stand against abortion.

At the same time, I can readily and willingly keep someone company when abortion is the choice she has arrived at. I am strongly in favour of the freedom of each individual to chose what to do for herself regarding a conflicted pregnancy. I could not and would not advocate a return to the years when the government controlled the woman's decision. In 1955 when abortion was illegal, almost one out of four American women had an abortion by the age of forty-five, and some perished in the process.

What, then, is the solution? My experiences as a Buddhist priest continues to teach me that looking into a situation in detail, without glossing over what is unpleasant or difficult, is what helps us to stay present and clear and break through ignorance. This is certainly true in the potent realms of sexuality, fertility and gestation. The premise of restraint, which underlies all the Buddha's precepts and is fundamental in the practice of compassion, is also of critical importance in how we lead our sexual lives. Through the precepts and through the practice of awareness of what is so, we can understand our previous actions and make wise decisions about future actions. By contrast, action which is based on unexamined and habitual thought patterns - implanted in childhood and reinforced by the generalities, platitudes and superficialities of the common culture perpetuates ignorance and sentences us to ever-renewing suffering.

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