Respecting Life

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.”

Another facet:

In the first precept, the crucial section is, “In the sphere of the everlasting Dharma, Not nursing a view of extinction…” 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 “born” 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 – the Dharmakaya. When we consider the questions of “killing” or “not killing” 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 life—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 “state.” “State” 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 “state” means position or rank or class. It also means a polity or nation. America’s leaders point their fingers at an “axis of evil” 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.

10 thoughts on “Respecting Life

  1. I agree, of course, that blocking stem cell research is the antithesis of respecting life. (In fact, personally I don’t regard unimplanted blastocysts as “life” in any meaningful way.)

    But of course if research opponents agreed with that, we wouldn’t need to talk about any of this. It’s hard for me to understand their point of view — it’s easy for me to dismiss them as irrational Bible-thumpers. But if I dismiss them that way, it negates the possibility of changing their minds.

    Do you think their minds can be changed?

  2. Do you think their minds can be changed?

    No. The reason they cling to their opinions doesn’t have a whole lot to do with blastocysts, one way or another. There’s murkier stuff going on there.

  3. Do you think their minds can be changed?

    A little OT, I heard John Dean speak today (at that church in Pasadena that’s being sued by the IRS for preaching politics). His talk was mostly based on Conservatives Without Conscience although he provided lots of fascinating background and tangential information.

    Someone asked him whether there was any hope for moderate Republicans to take back their party. His answer surprised me: a very decisive “No”. He explained that his research into authoritarianism indicated that the 25% of our population who are authoritarians will only dig their heels in harder and will never change. He mentioned that the “thumping” the right got on Nov 7 will only incite them to redouble their efforts.

    One of the questions was about impeachment, Dean said there was no chance of it, since the Senate requires 2/3 majority to convict (if that’s the right term) and the votes aren’t there. He mentioned that this was also the case with the Clinton impeachment, and that the Rs knew this, but they went ahead anyway, in order to tarnish the man. He made the point that by contrast, Nixon’s impeachment was supported by Republicans and Democrats – Nixon resigned rather than put himself through that ordeal.

    Dean said that Rep Conyers has all the materials ready to go for impeachment procedings, but Conyers deferred to Pelosi’s decision to not go through with it.

    Dean closed with the observation that Dick Cheney’s particular genius is to let George Bush wake up every morning, convinced that he is the President.

  4. He made the point that by contrast, Nixon’s impeachment was supported by Republicans and Democrats – Nixon resigned rather than put himself through that ordeal.

    Yes, which is why it’s important to not procede with impeachment unless (or until) a substantial number of Republicans want to ditch the bum. But this is not impossible.

  5. Maha, your undiluted Zen did not explode my head, but it did give me a wonderful dose of heartedness. Thanks. I am reminded of what I felt reading Michael Roads book, “Talking With Nature”. Roads is an Australian organic farmer, and unusual explorer of the interconnectedness of the web of life.

  6. Exactly the point, Barbara, (in #4). Do the investigations, even though we know (or think we know) what will be revealed. Let it play out in public in open testimony as if it’s all a surprise. The mainstream media has to play catch-up regarding the truth. They don’t want to admit how complicit they have been in the last 6 years with this administration. So give them a new stage to discover & report the truth. As the kingmakers in the Republican party look with horror at the ’08 prospects, they will NEED someone to blame to try to save themselves.

  7. Embryonic stem cell research is just plain genocide. Your lame rationalizations just amount to “wir töten keine Menschen nur Untermenschen”.

  8. anonymoose — you are mildly amusing, but too stupid to engage in an actual argument. Also too stupid to realize that equating research on surplus blastocysts to the Halocaust is a damn bigoted slam on the victims of the Holocaust. I don’t allow anti-Semitic comments here, so you’re banned.

  9. For a blastocyst that will never be implanted, extracting its stem cells before disposal (with the parents’ permission) is no more heinous than donating a minor child’s organs if he or she is killed in an accident. This would be a hard choice for a lot of parents, it certainly would be for me, but I like to think I’d decide to donate if it meant a chance of life for someone, and I think a lot of couples who have created a number of embryos in order to have a baby would also decide to donate one rather than to discard it because it’s passed its viability date.
    I’m not trying to judge the stage here at which fertilized cells become a child. My point is that the chance of any of these entities growing into a fully-developed child is much lower when it has to compete with the contents of the other test tubes in the rack.

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