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A Buddhist View on Abortion and Forgiveness

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Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha were on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? "What Would Sid Do?" is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: You and I are Sid.

This week's question comes from Pretty Girl:

I am a single mother raising a young man who is four years old. I am 41 and I have been pregnant three times. The first I terminated and can not forgive myself for. The second was a miscarriage. Everyday I wonder why I am here and how I could have been so selfish as to kill my child. I love my son, but wonder why I have been given another chance. I have also been very self destructive in trying to find forgiveness for my actions. WWSD?

Generally speaking in Buddhism it is traditionally believed that life starts at the time of conception. Little in-between-realms you sees your parents having sex, thinks it looks pretty cool, and goes to investigate. At that point your consciousness has entered the realm and goes about the process of being born. As such, the Buddha taught that abortion is indeed taking a being's life which is a grave misdeed.

Still, many Buddhist teachers have said that there are times that it may not be karmically ill-advised to have an abortion, such as if the child poses a significant health risk to the mother. Along those lines, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stated in an interview with the New York Times that " ... abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance."

Traditional Buddhism may discourage abortion, but it also discourages imposing rigid moral absolutes. While I suspect Sid would probably not encourage his partner to have an abortion I doubt he would deny a woman her right to chose what she should do with her body. I have to say this is a departure from what I personally would do as Lodro Rinzler, who is not Sid and may or may not encourage my partner to get an abortion. These are issues I have to reconcile for myself.

Buddhism is very much an individualistic path. I have no idea why you had an abortion and as such have no right to condemn or praise you (and commenters, please be kind here: there are real people behind these real questions!). I do encourage you to contemplate the motivation behind your decision. Knowing nothing about you whatsoever I will only guess that what you did was meant to diminish suffering not only for yourself but also for the child that you would be bringing into the world. If that's the case then your intention wasn't bad and, since the act has occurred, learning to forgive yourself is extremely important.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche once said, "In the case of an abortion ... if the parents feel remorse they can help by acknowledging it, asking for forgiveness, and performing ardently the purification practice of Vajrasattva. They can also offer lights, and save lives, or help others, or sponsor some humanitarian or spiritual project, dedicating it to the well-being and future enlightenment of the baby's consciousness." All good options, although I'd like to qualify this statement by noting that Vajrasattva, a Tibetan Buddhist purification practice, should be taught by an authorized teacher. In other words, don't try this at home. Or through a book.

This topic reminds me of the story of the Buddha and Angulimal. Angulimal was a murderer. A mass murderer. It's said that he had killed 999 people and wore a necklace of fingers, one from each of his victims. Still the Buddha went down the road to see him. Angulimal warned him that if he came any closer the Buddha would be his 1000th victim.

The Buddha, willing to offer his life to fulfill Angulimal's desire to complete his necklace, asked only for one last wish. His desire? For Angulimal to cut a branch from a tree. Angulimal did so and offered it to the Buddha. Then the Buddha asked him to re-attach it to the tree. When he saw the murderer was confused the Buddha explained, "If you cannot create, you have no right to destroy. If you cannot give life, you don't have the right to give death to any living thing."

Angulimal was instantly transformed, put down his sword and was accepted into the monastic order. He was forgiven by the Buddha himself for his misdeeds and is said to have died a truly awakened man.

I mention this story not to equate what you did with this mass murderer (really and truly) but to point out that even the harshest and most senseless of acts can and have been forgiven. Furthermore, our largest mistakes serve as the largest fodder for our path to enlightenment. We learn what aspects of our life we want to cultivate and which we need to learn to reject. We grow stronger knowing that we have survived our mistakes and learned from them.

You mentioned that you have done many self destructive things on your path towards forgiveness. The fact that you have recognized those things as destructive is step one. Step two is abandoning those things. Step three is even harder. Step three is learning new habits, specifically learning to be with our emotions as they are, be they guilt, anger, or sadness. To feel our emotions fully is, in my experience, the best road to forgiving ourselves for our mistakes. I probably sound like a broken record on this site but meditation is a valuable tool that enables us to be present with just these sorts of experiences.

Furthermore, I think the Buddha's words to Angulimal are quite relevant to your situation. At this point you have given life to a precious being. You can love him and raise him with a heart full of compassion and understanding. I personally believe that parenting is a full and rich path that, if done correctly and if partnered with meditation, can lead to great awakening.

I wish you tremendous luck on this path towards forgiveness as well as on your path of parenthood. Learning from our mistakes is a valuable practice opportunity. Learning to forgive ourselves is even more valuable. However, learning to be present in the midst of great confusion or sadness is the bee's knees. As Acharya Pema Chodron has said, "This moment is the perfect teacher."

Have a question for this weekly column? Send it here and Lodro will probably get to it!

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