Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: H. Buddhist Perspectives

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Buddhism is a dominant cultural force in most parts of Asia. Theravada Buddhism, also known under the name of Hinayana or "Small Vehicle," prevails in such Southeast Asian countries as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos; its sister sect, Mahayana Buddhism, or "Great Vehicle," is currently found in Tibet, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. This article focuses on Theravada Buddhism, especially as practiced in Thailand.

Though Therevadins have their own sacred literature that distinguishes them from the rest of Buddhism, they do share certain central beliefs with other Buddhists. Among these beliefs are those concerned with samasara, karma, and nirvana, which are the key concepts of all forms of Buddhism. Samasara refers to the round of existence, or the cycle of rebirth, in which all beings revolve according to their karma. This perpetual cycle comprises three realms of rebirth, namely, the realm of desire (kamaloka), the realm of forms (rupaloka), and the formless realm (arupaloka). These realms have thirty-one subspheres containing different forms of life, such as humans (manussa); animals (tirachan); ghosts or unhappy departed beings with deformed bodies (peta); spirits or wandering ghostly beings (bhuta); hell-beings or tortured beings (niraya); titans (asura); and gods (deva). The realm of desire consists of the higher spheres of gods; the middle spheres, of sentient beings, humans, and animals; and the lower spheres, of ghosts, spirits, and hell-beings. The celestial realm of forms and the formless realm are the abodes of the most refined and subtle beings (brahman). Despite differences in life span, beings in all realms are subject to death and rebirth.

Karma means intentional, mental, verbal, or physical action and its result (vipaka). The sequence of actions, or deeds, and their effects, known as the law of karma, act both as the natural law of cause and effect (operating in the physical realm) and as the moral law (governing the moral sphere that regulates the movement of beings between rebirths). Rebirths of all beings are the natural results of their own deeds, good or bad, and not "rewards" or "punishment" imposed by a supernatural, omniscient ruling power. All beings reap what they sowed in the past, and all will be reborn according to the nature of their present deeds—they are "heirs" to their actions. When a being dies, the karmic result, acting as the individual life-force, passes to other lives, endlessly exalting or degrading successive rebirths. This life-force will become completely inactivated only with the cessation of craving (tanha), the inherent force of karmic action. Such cessation is referred to as nirvana and can be achieved through following the Middle Path (Majima Patipada) consisting of wisdom (panna), morality (sila), and concentration (samadhi).

Buddhist Concepts in Population Growth and Control

There is no fixed number for population in samasara existence. It is in a state of flux, with continual migration of beings from one realm to the others regulated by the law of karma and continuously readjusted to the nature and the quality of samasara dwellers. An increase of population in one realm means a decrease of population in others, and vice versa. Human rebirth is considered incomparably precious because the human realm is the only place where there is enough suffering to motivate humans to seek ways to transcend misery and enough freedom to act on their aspirations. In the higher and lower spheres, by contrast, beings are fully reaping the karmic results, good and bad: The gods are too absorbed in the blissful state to find ways out of samasara existence while animals, ghosts, spirits, and hell-beings are in irremediable misery and have little freedom to do either good or evil. These suffering beings will gain the precious human rebirth only when the results of bad karma that led to their lower rebirths are exhausted. When this happens, the results of their previous good actions performed when they were human will lead them to better rebirths and, sooner or later, to the human level again.

From this view, an increase in the human population is desirable for it means more beings will have the rare human opportunity to transcend suffering. In theory, then, Buddhists should welcome population growth. But the fact that increasing numbers of Buddhists use contraceptives in countries such as Thailand, where 98 percent of the population is Buddhist, seems to indicate a different position. Family planning has been quite successful in both urban and rural areas of Thailand. Apart from the contributing factors of the economy, social change, and education, there are some Buddhist tenets that may account for the low fertility rate. The most important one is the emphasis on the quality of human life concomitant with the high value it gives to human rebirth.

In the Buddhist perspective, the rare human rebirth is meaningless if there is no quality in it. The value of life does not depend on its duration but on its quality. For life to be worth living, it should be lived with the ultimate purpose of attaining nirvana, the final emancipation. This goal, however, like all spiritual progress, cannot be achieved without a certain degree of material and economic security. Below the level of subsistence, human life lacks real meaning because it consists only of hunger, illness, and unrelieved misery. This emphasis on material necessities was made by the Buddha as a necessary condition for a truly enlightened, meaningful life. The Buddha himself once refused to preach to a starving man until his hunger had first been appeased. He also recommended that monks who lead the life of renunciation depend on the lay community for food, shelter, and clothing.

This emphasis on life's material necessities is an important part of the Buddhist perspectives on population control and thus needs to be considered together with the Buddhist endorsement of human rebirth. That is, human rebirth, though desirable, needs adequate supporting conditions (upatthambhaka) to enable it to be worthwhile. Since famine is one of the most powerful forces (upapilaka) working against spiritual development, Buddhism does not approve of population growth disproportionate to a society's available resources of food. Because of this, Buddhists in Thailand and other countries do not attribute large family size to good karma. Unlike the Hindu householder, who believes he must have sons to perform the prescribed rituals for him after his death, Buddhist parents are not anxious to have sons to be ordained as monks. Although ordination is considered a meritorious act that will ensure good rebirth after death, many other means of receiving merit are also available, including offering food to monks, listening to sermons, and building or repairing temples.

The lack of anxiety for sons or large families supports the practice of family planning among Thai Buddhists. Unlike abortion, which is still socially unacceptable in Thailand and not as widely practiced as it is in Japan, birth control is believed by Thai Buddhists to be in line with Buddhist teachings concerning marriage and family life. Though the Buddha considered celibate life superior to married life, he did not advise it for all his followers. Realizing that all humans were at different stages of spiritual evolution, he did not commend the same codes of conduct to all. To his lay followers who could not lead the austere life of monks and nuns, he recommended marriage but stressed spiritual progress, and not procreation, as its main goal. For those with children he devised a code of discipline, emphasizing responsible childbearing and child rearing.

For Thai Buddhists birth control, unlike abortion, does not transgress the Buddhist precept of nonkilling, nor does it interfere with the working of the law of karma. In Buddhist understanding, conception begins only when three factors merge: the coitus of the parents, the woman's generative capability, and the presence of the gandhabba, the karmic life force of one who has died. By preventing pregnancy, birth control makes human rebirth more difficult but it does not interfere with the operation of the law of karma.

From the Buddhist viewpoint, the fruition of good or bad karma requires the right supporting conditions; without them the karmic life-force cannot express itself. Only beings who are fully qualified for human rebirth can be reborn in the human realm. Under unfavorable physical conditions a being, though possessing the good karma to be reborn as a human being, must dwell in his or her sphere waiting until the opportune moment. Buddhism does not oblige parents to open the gate of human rebirth to all beings with good karma by having as many children as they can. The Buddhist concept of karma assigns to each person sole responsibility for his or her own life. According to the Buddhist analysis of human nature, one's sexual life is the outcome of the urge to satisfy one's sexual craving. Whether sexual activity produces children or not is a matter to be decided by the couples themselves. The autonomy of individuals to choose their own destiny and to be responsible for their own actions is a crucial element in Buddhist population ethics.

Self-restraint and the control of the senses and passions are recommended as important forms of population control and to prevent the sexual indulgence that widespread use of artificial means of birth control may lead to. Following this teaching, many Buddhists in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma have contributed to population control by practicing sexual continence, leading celibate lives as monks or nuns, and using contraceptives.

pinit ratanakul (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Buddhism, Bioethics in; Coercion; Embryo and Fetus, Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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