A Buddhist Viewpoint on Abortion

Seung Sahn was a Korean Zen Master and somewhat controversial figure who founded a large and influential Western Zen institution. His book “Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake” is a collection of stories, talks and dialogues with students on a range of topics.

In one chapter, a student asks him for his position on abortion. Sahn’s reply begins:

“Buddhism’s first moral precept is a very strong one: do not take any life. And at the same time Zen Buddhism also guides us to the absolute insight that any action is fundamentally not good, not bad. So for many people, this can seem confusing. But actually it is very simple.

The most important thing to consider when doing any action is, why do you do something? Only for you, or for all beings? Why do you eat every day – only for your body, for your tongue’s pleasure? If your direction is not clear, even doing ‘good’ actions every day is not always clear. Correct direction means your actions are already beyond good and bad, and not based on the false notion of ‘I.’ So what kind of direction do you have? Why would you abort this baby? Determining that clearly in your mind is most important.”

Sahn reiterates that what is most important, rather than arguing over ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is that your direction is clear – or other words, your intentions.

He then illustrates his point by way of analogy. The first Buddhist precept is to not take life. Another precept is to not lie. He then tells the story of a man in the mountains collecting firewood. A rabbit runs by and runs off to the left. Moments later a hunter with a gun passes by and ask “Which way did the rabbit go?”

If the man ‘makes correct speech’ and doesn’t lie, the hunter will find the rabbit and kill it. “If the man strictly keeps the precept of not lying-simply for the sake of keeping precepts, to be a ‘good’ Buddhist who does no wrong-the rabbit will suffer”

He continues:

“But if your direction for keeping the precepts is truly to liberate all beings from suffering, then you will maybe tell a lie: ‘Oh, the rabbit went that way,’ pointing away from the direction where the rabbit really ran.”

The precepts include not killing and not lying. The question is, at that moment, break the precepts or keep them?

The student when asked this replied that they would prefer that the rabbit does not get caught and be killed. Sahn then makes an even stronger analogy – if someone came to kill lots of people, a policeman would be right to kill that person if it stopped them killing (or killing more.)

Sahn’s point is that a Buddhist viewpoint on such issues is never dictated by edicts or scripture. The Buddha’s teaching implore us to examine the here and now and determine our intentions – for what end are we doing this action?

“So, whether or not babies should be born is not the point. Instead, what is human beings’ correct direction? It is very important to find that. Some two thousand give hundred years ago, the Buddha taught, ‘Don’t kill any life.’ That is the Buddha’s teaching. But the behind-meaning means having Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Boddhisattva Way. It is extremely important that this not be considered as simply a question of whether or not to have a baby, or whether abortion is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Rather, we must deeply consider what is human beings’ correct direction and correct way, right now. At this time? How does this action help other beings? Find that, and moment to moment to moment, just do it. If you find that, any action, situation or condition doesn’t matter. You must do it. That is Great Love. That is Great Compassion.”

This is precisely the way of thinking that needs to be supported by legislation in Ireland. That women can at the moment, make the right decision, for that time, for that woman. You must do it. That is Great Love. That is Great Compassion.

The title of this blog post is A Buddhist Viewpoint on Abortion, and as such, does not purport to represent a standardised, canonical or general view.