This document was originally distributed on Internet as a part of the
Electronic Buddhist Archives, available via anonymous FTP and/or
COOMBSQUEST gopher on the node COOMBS.ANU.EDU.AU or ANU Soc.Sci.WWW Server
The document's ftp filename and the full directory path are given in the
coombspapers top level INDEX file.
This version of the document has been reformatted by Barry Kapke and is
being distributed, with permission, via the DharmaNet Buddhist File
[Last updated: 9 June 1994]
"THE BUDDHA'S WAY AND ABORTION - LOSS, GRIEF AND RESOLUTION"
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
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
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
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
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 occured 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
[end of file].