Emptypockets has a long rumination about embryonic stem cell research at The Next Hurrah.
That subject of desecration and its relationship to organ donation is, I think, a more apt context for discussing embryonic stem cells than the abortion rubric under which stem cells are usually put. Unlike a fetus, which likely would become a person, an unimplanted blastocyst is terminal and the moral issues about how we treat it are closer to end-of-life issues than conception ones. At least, that analogy is more apt biologically — whether it is helpful politically, I don’t know.
What does emerge from this analysis is, for me, a better understanding of what may be on the minds of stem cell research opponents. The sanctity of life may mean, for them, not only the call to preserve life itself — something which is, for an unimplanted blastocyst, impossible — but the demand to treat the elements of human life with respect and dignity. Some opponents may be appalled not by the demise of a ball of cells, but by what they see as an undignified death, in the polished steel of a tissue culture hood with a lab-coated graduate student bearing a pipetteman in place of a funeral Mass.
Call it a desecration or just plain creepy, that cold alien-autopsy vision of life’s end may be what drives some segments of the opposition. It is partly relieved by shifting the view to patients the research might help, just as rabbis struggling with organ donation may yield most often when they confront the potential for saving another life. But it may also be partly relieved by writing into future stem cell legislation explicit language requiring the blastocysts be treated with respect, and by acknowledging in debate that scientists recognize this concern and are sensitive to it.
I doubt opponents of embryonic stem cell research will be appeased by promises to treat blastocysts “respectfully.” However —
I’ve gone on and on about life and the moral argument for embryonic stem cell research already, and I don’t want to repeat all that now. Let’s explode everyone’s head today and look at some undiluted Zen.
Living beings are the result of many factors and conditions. Some of these are the presence of sperm, an egg, the condition of fertility, and the presence of a being desiring a form. Once living beings are created, there are other conditions necessary for their survival, such as sunshine, warmth, air (or the absence of these) as well as water and food. Many of the things that make up our world were once alive and depended on these same conditions, like wood, paper, cotton, wool, and oil products. Even stones and diamonds, and the planet itself, are the result of many related factors. All causes and conditions are interrelated. Yet, because of our conditioning and our delusions, we are easily confused and distracted from seeing our true relationship to all things. I think the nature of delusion is that it makes us feel separate, giving the illusion of duality.
In Taking the Path of Zen, Aitken Roshi writes, “There is fundamentally no birth and no death as we die and are born. When we kill the spirit that may realize this fact, we are violating this precept. We kill that spirit in ourselves and in others when we brutalize human potential, animal potential, earth potential.”
In the first precept, the crucial section is, â€œIn the sphere of the everlasting Dharma, Not nursing a view of extinctionâ€¦â€ The Dharmakaya is complete, ultimate reality. It is selfless and empty and is the origin from which everything arises and to which everything returns. The Dharmakaya is never â€œbornâ€ into the world of appearances, so it cannot die. We arise, together with our world, as human beings. Each moment we arise from and return to unity with everything; we are all children of our common parent â€“ the Dharmakaya. When we consider the questions of â€œkillingâ€ or â€œnot killingâ€ we have already divided our world into self and other. If we see our world only through human self-interest we will miss the underlying unity that is our common origin. When we are unaware of this underlying unity, the best that we can hope for is a respect for all life.
From this perspective, to deny the potential of a blastocyst to heal the sick — a blastocyst that would otherwise remain frozen until it had lost all potential — is not respecting life at all, but denying life. Belittling Michael J. Fox for the sake of keeping some cells frozen is not respecting life. Belittling, even lying about, the potential of embryonic stem cell research is not respecting life.
The First Grave Precept is “Affirm lifeâ€”do not kill.” What does it mean to kill the environment? It’s the worst kind of killing. We are decimating many species. There is no way that these life forms can ever return to the earth. The vacuum their absence creates cannot be filled in any other way, and such a vacuum affects everything else in the ecosystem, no matter how infinitesimally small it is. We are losing species by the thousands every year, the last of their kind on the face of this great Earth. And because someone in South America is doing it, that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible. We’re as responsible as if we are the one who clubs an infant seal or burns a hectare of tropical forest. It is as if we were squeezing the life out of ourselves. Killing the lakes with acid rain. Dumping chemicals into the rivers so that they cannot support any life. Polluting our skies so our children choke on the air they breath. Life is nonkilling. The seed of the Buddha grows continuously. Maintain the wisdom life of Buddha and do not kill life.
Treat the air respectfully, and the seas respectfully, and birds and bugs and everything else on the planet respectfully. And we should treat living beings respectfully. Picketing an abortion clinic while wearing shoes made with slave labor in a third world country is not respecting life. Opposing abortion by belittling the lives of women — screaming at women entering abortion clinics, for example, or calling them selfish — is not respecting life.
Making excuses for civilian deaths in Iraq is not respecting life.
We can play around with the word â€œstate.â€ â€œStateâ€ is a condition or manner of being. In Buddhism, mind-states determine our thoughts, words, and actions which in turn create karma and its fruits. In a worldly sense â€œstateâ€ means position or rank or class. It also means a polity or nation. Americaâ€™s leaders point their fingers at an â€œaxis of evilâ€ states. As far as they are concerned, it is just fine to despise Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. They add other enemies like Cuba, Syria, and even France (without whom there would never have been a United States). Despising these states and the people who live in them goes against the spiritual reality that all beings are Buddha, all beings are God. They may as well be pointing at themselves. [p. 3]
Yes, of course we should treat the blastocysts with respect. This means freeing them from freezing and allowing them to be life — if not as an embryo, then as a treatment for a sick child or a crippled adult.
It’s all One.