American 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 Buddhadharma 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 Center 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 understand fully 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 fetuses 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 fetuses and babies. After many years of counseling 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 unconsciousness 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 being. 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 us 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, giving the unborn beings dharma names and saying good-bye to them. Prayer sticks are made and inscribed with prayers for forgiveness and for the well-being 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 mid-wife who did a lot of abortion counseling. 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 fetus 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 fetus 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 fetal baby is a way to recognize 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 favor of the freedom of each individual to choose 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 experience 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.
The solution I propose is neither tidy nor quick. I have seen that there is no easy or “right” answer. I think that each woman must stay with her experience and be with what is so in as simple and clear a way as she can. I feel that it is important, whatever one’s starting point on the abortion issue, to study its history in this nation. By doing so, we will benefit from a wider framework and a better ventilated point of view. For good resources on this subject, see the following books:
The Worst of Times
(Patricia G. Miller, Harper Collins, 1993)
Contains individual stories critical to understanding women’s experiences.
Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes
(Laurence H. Tribe, W.W. Norton and Co., 1990)
Presents the history of abortion in countries around the world, as well as in the United States. It supplies details making it easy to understand ourselves and our opponents, rather than making generalizations about each other.
The Choices We Made
(ed. Angela Bonavoglia, Random House, 1991)
This book also abounds with important details and individual stories about what women do when they feel cornered and desperate. It is sometimes stunning to learn the extent of the ignorance about sex, fertility and birth control.
(Sue Nathanson, New American Library, 1989)
I strongly recommend this book. In revealing the particulars of her grieving and healing, Nathanson suggests how to be with ourselves in a compassionate and honest way.
Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan
(William R. LaFleur, Princeton Univ. Press, 1992)
A fascinating look at abortion in Japan for Americans trying to find their own way on this issue. Although the Japanese experience may not be one we will want to replicate, understanding it should enhance our ideas about how to proceed here at home.