How Should A Buddhist Vote?


From top: statue of Buddha at the Triratna International Centre; Darragh Murphy

We know the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Islamic Centre, the Methodist Church, the Evangelical Alliance, and of Atheist Ireland. But what is the view in one of Ireland’s fastest-growing religions – Buddhism​ – on repealing the Eighth Amendment​?

The short answer is there is no official Buddhist view on anything. With increasing numbers of Buddhists practising outside the traditional monastic-lay dichotomy, the nuances of one’s own personal support for an abortion comes down to Buddhist ethics, and the principle of taking responsibility for the karmic consequences of one’s own actions and intentions.

Like Jesus, the Buddha did not speak directly about the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland. There is no Buddhist pope or Archbishop handing down edicts. The Dalai Lama, for example, is the head of just one of many schools of Tibetan Buddhism alone.

Elsewhere, there are Theravada, Mayahana, Zen and Pure Land demoninations. While the Buddha advised followers to test his teachings in their own experience, he did enunciate ethical training principles. Along with the centrality of going for refuge (committing) to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, these ethical guidelines are practised by all Buddhists.

The shortest list – the Five Precepts – enumerates for lay followers how an Enlightened Being would naturally behave, including abstaining from taking that which is not freely given (generosity), abstaining from sexual misconduct (contentment); abstaining from untruthful, harsh or divisive speech (truthful communication); and abstaining from intoxicants (mindfulness).

Yet it is the first precept which is most relevant here: abstaining from harming living beings (loving-kindness). This is connected to principle of non-harm, and is motivated more by the principle of respecting the dignity of life, rather than preserving life at any cost.

In the upholding or violation of the precepts, intention is crucial. If the practitioner is motivated more by unselfishness, love and generosity, then it is more likely to be a skilful act than if the person is motivated by greed, ill will or delusion.

As always, it is down to the individual Buddhist practitioner how (s)he interprets his or her actions.​ ​Ethically speaking, the first precept usually means moving towards a vegetarian diet and cultivating, through meditation, a more selfless, compassionate attitude towards all living beings.

What about abortion? Ordained Buddhists in the west are notoriously heterodox​ on most issues. ​A minority ​of Order Members ​in the UK will support Brexit, for example, while some Buddhist monks in Tibet continue to eat meat. One Buddhist centre in London counts a Conservative Party MP among its regular practitioners.

Many Buddhists will therefore interpret this first precept of non-harm as a contravention on abortion. Others will insist it requires ​​a compassionate attitude ​balancing the mental and physical sufferings of the mother​ with that of the foetus.

​The general attitude I encounter among Buddhists towards abortion is similar to that towards drugs​. ​It is treated as a matter for personal morality and medicine, rather than one for the criminal courts. The bottom line for many Buddhists is whether repealing the Eighth Amendment will lead to less, or more suffering.

For centuries, traditional monastic Buddhism – in the form of the monastic Vinaya code, mostly laid down long after the Buddha’s paranirvana – was one of prima facie opposition to abortion, due to the traditional view of life starting at conception.

Science has recently caught up with Buddhism in many areas, not least in the area of neuroplasticity, and, since the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, the sentience of non-human animals. Yet it has yet to discover when consciousness begins in the life of a foetus.

Even if one is to go along with the traditional pro-life view, this would not prevent a stoically pro-life Buddhist from voting Yes in Friday’s referendum. After all, abortion rates have fallen in those countries, like Portugal and Switzerland, with access to safe, legal abortion in the first trimester.

In any case, for many modern followers of Buddhism not governed by the Vinaya code, this lack of certainty regarding when consciousness arises in the womb will lead them to give primacy to the suffering of the mother.

Too often in modern society, the governing question involves asking who is responsible for a certain act, and how they can be punished. The Buddhist alternative is to ask who is suffering, and how can we alleviate it.

At present, an average of three women and girls a day use unsafe abortion pills, rather than undertaking the expense and upheaval of going abroad – an effective income threshold for unplanned maternity.

It also seems that denying a termination in the case of rape, or in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality, would increase rather than reduce suffering, given the rise in suicide among women in poorer areas.

Whether you “support” abortion or not (and it remains a highly personal choice based on circumstances), ending the criminalisation of this activity seems in keeping with Buddhist ethics of compassion and non-harm.

It’s theoretically possible that, in some cases, terminating an early pregnancy (and thereby causing possible harm to the nascent living being in the womb) may save much more suffering than forcing an unwilling mother to carry to full term.

While the referendum campaign has been marked by no lack of rancour, there are moderate voices on both sides.

Whatever the outcome, one hopes that those who argue so fervently for the right to “love both”, extend their sphere of concern to the many other sentient beings, human and non-human alike, mothers and fathers, living decidedly unloved existences.

 Darragh Murphy is a journalist training for Buddhist ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. He is writing here in a personal capacity. Follow Darragh on twitter:​ @DarraghPMurphy​

Pic Triratna International Council

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40 thoughts on “How Should A Buddhist Vote?

  1. ZeligIsJaded

    “Like Jesus, the Buddha did not speak directly about the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland.”

    This made my morning!

    1. newsjustin

      I think it may have been in some of Jesus’ later works.

      (Very interesting read Darragh.)

      1. kellma

        LOL! Using the spiritual vehicle of the IONA institute… God spare us (says the heathen)!

  2. Listrade

    “Many Buddhists will therefore interpret this first precept of non-harm as a contravention on abortion. Others will insist it requires ​​a compassionate attitude ​balancing the mental and physical sufferings of the mother​ with that of the foetus.”

    Pretty much the whole debate in a nutshell, not just for Buddhists.

  3. Lilly

    ‘The bottom line for many Buddhists is whether repealing the Eighth Amendment will lead to less, or more suffering.’

    Makes perfect sense.

  4. Tim

    Think the Buddhist community in Ireland should put out a statement attacking the brutal massacres that are being perpetrated by the Burmese Buddhists against the Rohingya.

          1. Ina.

            Denounced by all Buddhists? Are you serious? It’s being perpetrated by Buddhists. Get your head out of the sand.

  5. Cian

    “One of Ireland’s fastest growing religions”
    Buddhism was 12th fastest growing out of 22 ‘religions’ in the 2016 census. It was also 12th largest (of 24).

    Religions in Ireland (population in 2016 census) ordered by increase since 2011.
    ↑ Lapsed (Roman) Catholic (8,094) 538.3%
    ↑ Evangelical (9,368) 135.9%
    ↑ Atheist (7,477) 99.3%
    ↑ No religion (451,941) 76.0%
    ↑ Not stated (119,349) 73.8%
    ↑ Agnostic (5,006) 47.5%
    ↑ Pagan, Pantheist (2,645) 40.5%
    ↑ Orthodox (Greek, Coptic, Russian) (60,777) 38.1%
    ↑ Hindu (13,729) 33.3%
    ↑ Muslim (Islamic) (62,032) 28.9%
    ↑ Baptist (3,642) 13.1%
    Buddhist (9,358) 12.0%
    ↑ Other stated religion (nec) (19,454) 8.7%
    ↑ Jehovah’s Witness (6,264) 4.0%
    = Protestant (4,269) 0.1%
    ↓ Church of Ireland, England, Anglican, Episcopalian (122,612) -1.5%
    ↓ Presbyterian (22,188) -2.8%
    ↓ Roman Catholic (3,696,644) -3.5%
    ↓ Apostolic or Pentecostal (13,193) -4.9%
    ↓ Methodist, Wesleyan (5,847) -6.9%
    ↓ Christian (Not Specified) (35,996) -9.2%
    ↓ Lutheran (4,549) -9.9%
    ↓ Spiritualist (2,922) n/a
    ↓ Born Again Christian (2,565) n/a

    [*] both Spiritualist and Born Again Christian were 0 the 2011 census.

    1. bisted

      …can’t speak for others on that list but I can say, as a card carrying member, that atheism is not a religion…in fact it is the opposite…

        1. bisted

          …football followers do seem to display many of the traits associated with the more manic practicioners of religions…up to and including trying to maim and kill those of a different persuasion…

      1. Cian

        yes – hence the quotes around ‘religion’

        The point I was making related to “One of Ireland’s fastest growing religions” when in fact the following religions are faster growing: Lapsed (Roman) Catholic, Evangelical, Pagan & Pantheist[1], Orthodox (Greek, Coptic, Russian), Hindu , Muslim (Islamic) and Baptist
        [1] I’m not sure if this is a religion.

    2. scottser

      this needs to be presented top of the pops style, by a religious keith chegwin type.

    3. Darragh Peter

      The last time I checked, “lapsed Catholic”, “Evangelical”, “Atheist”, “No religion”, “Not stated”, “Agnostic” and “Pagan, Pantheist” were not organised religions.

      The number of Buddhists grew by 12.1% between 2016 and 2011.

      1. Cian

        Darragh originally said religion, not organised religion.
        Is Buddhism is an organised religion?

        Anyway, it was the fifth fastest growing organised religion in 2016 after:
        * Orthodox (Greek, Coptic, Russian) (60,777) 38.1%
        * Hindu (13,729) 33.3%
        * Muslim (Islamic) (62,032) 28.9%
        * Baptist (3,642) 13.1%

        1. Ina.

          Yes, it’s an organized religion, the center Darragh’s connected too claims all the privileges granted to it by Irish law as an organized religion (tax, etc.).

          1. Darragh Peter

            Well it’s a non-profit charity actually reliant on volunteers, donations and with next to zero assets (it has to rent a youth hostel as a retreat centre, for example). Not many organised religions can say the same.

  6. johnny

    is faith now required to join the ‘religion’ of whatever “Buddhism” this chap studies,lost me at the ‘religion’ part, the one I study sure ain’t no religion.

    1. Ina.

      Yep, the Dalai Lama is a fraud and a nasty piece of work. He hates gays and lesbians, he believes a medieval/ feudal clerical ruling class is best, and he doesn’t think much of women. Darragh’s either naive, or he’ll get a shock when he sees the truth. Tho I’m guessing his Buddhism’s of the Edward Said Orientalist type.

  7. Dinny Do Well?

    Chanting As We Repeal.

    This reads with all the conviction and insight of an Ab Fab scene.

    Who cares what those religious zealots think?

    Is there a vegan position on the 8th? How about Quakers?

    The Mummers out in Swords… they have the word “Mum” in their name so they must be a valid stakeholder in the debate. How should they vote….

  8. Dinny Do Well?

    Surely, “How should genocidal maniacs vote”? (asking for a Presbyterian friend, like)

Comments are closed.

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