Friday, November 19, 2010

2000 + Fetuses Discovered inside Thai Buddhist Temple

Here's a story that highlights some of the challenges and contradictions tucked away in the wider Buddhist world. Here in the U.S., we have things like power abuse scandals, money grubbing charlatans, and all kinds of poorly examined class and race issues. In Thailand, they recently discovered this:

Thai police investigating a strong smell emanating from a Buddhist temple have found more than 2,000 fetuses hidden in the complex's morgue that appear to have come from illegal abortion clinics.

During an initial investigation at the temple in Bangkok on Tuesday, police discovered piles of plastic bags containing more than 300 fetuses. Police Lt. Col. Kanathud Musiganont said workers pulled more bodies from the temple's morgue Friday. More than 2,000 have been unearthed from vaults where bodies are traditionally interred pending cremation, which under some circumstances can take place years after death.

Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under three conditions — if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy affects her health or if the fetus is abnormal.

The article goes on to say that amongst those helping to maintain the rigid laws on abortion in Thailand are Buddhist activists. This, in a country where foreign male tourists come in swarms to indulge their sexual fantasies, and where thousands of women and girls have been sold into sex slavery, and where "abstinence education" is probably much more prominent than any well-rounded form of sex education.

It's quite complex. There's a whole layer of the old colonialist, exoticism-based attitude going on with the men using the sex trade in Thailand. The strict abortion laws, coupled with heavy emphasis on abstinence, are hallmarks of an oppressive patriarchy. (In some parts of the United States, there is a quite similar combination going on.)And then there are the Buddhists who are helping to maintain all of this.

It's pretty easy to see how a strict, literal take on Buddhist teachings would lead people to press for limited or zero legal abortions. Awhile back, I wrote a post detailing my own struggles over how to view abortions as a Buddhist. There aren't any easy answers. However, in my view, it's quite clear that when you try to eliminate access to abortions in a place where women are second class citizens (much of the world), you're bound to have trouble.

What do you think about this story? How can Buddhists work with abortion in a way that upholds the teachings, but also isn't oppressive?


Ji Hyang said...

I agree in the great challenge abortion presents with regard to Buddhist precepts. While I personally could not do this, I support access for women, their ability to make this decision according to conscience. Recognizing this situation comes into being through causes and conditions, there is the question of not only the value of an individual life but the health of the whole web of interbeing, intra-sentient beings' precious life-- which faces this challenge.

After World War II, Japanese temples worked with the needs of women's spirituality by doing Jizo ceremonies for these "water babies"-- Jan Chozen Bays' book on Jizo is a great resource in this regard.

Anonymous said...

Umm, the article doesn't say the temple was an abortion clinic, does it?

Algernon said...

The Buddhist activists are concerned about abortion vis a vis the precepts, but they don't appear to be examining the issues of choice and force in light of the precepts. I wonder if they have anything to say about sex tourism and slavery, for instance, or the importance of choice.

Nathan said...


I'm not sure if the abortions were done on grounds or not. It's not terribly clear from the article.

Ji Hyang,

I'd forgotten the water baby ceremonies were discussed in the Jizo book.


It would be interesting to know what Buddhists over there thought of the various issues involved here. I can imagine there are some folks who see a larger picture, while others are just focused on the abortions.


Dean Crabb said...

The article states that the abortions were not done on the grounds but they foetuses were delivered to the temple. We have to remember this is a known mortuary, so having bodies being delivered is common, and actually being a mortuary would be expected.

I recall when I travelled to Vietnam and visited a temple there and found many, many children. This particular one many years ago started as a normal monastic temple and then mother's started dropping off their unwanted children (from similar issues as Thailand's sex industry). Over time more and more mother's dropped off their unwanted children and the temple in their compassion took them all on. Over time they became so well known for accepting children that temple became known locally as an orphanage temple.

I'm no expert on their culture but from what I know even though a the abortions are illegal there is still the compassion to want there to be some good for the foetuses afterwards hence why they'd be getting delivered to the temple.

I think the mistake on behalf of the temple is not revealing to the police a known illegal activity.


Nathan said...


Yes, good point about unwanted children being dropped off at temples. I've heard stories from some of my ESL students to the same effect. It's true that temples are safe houses in that regard, and others.

"I think the mistake on behalf of the temple is not revealing to the police a known illegal activity." Perhaps this is where the conflicting issues are coming in. Maybe some of the monks are questioning the validity of the abortion laws, given what they are seeing.


Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, it's really hard to say, how will we ever know?

This is a slippery slope and I don't think we'll ever know their true intentions so trying to speculate I don't feel is good for yours or my meditation practice. How does this help us save all beings?

I feel sometimes the passion towards Buddhism can create issues. We read or see anything that has Buddhist in the title or mentions Buddhism and then have a need to promote it, think about it, share it and discuss our views on it. This is no different to the media sensationalising the latest and greatest drama on the news. All the media noise starts to become a problem and truth becomes obscured. Over time in reading these people come to question "Is Buddhism helpful?" and the answer might be "Maybe not" which is a real shame.

Views, discussing views and attachment to them I don't think is too fruitful.

With Metta
Dean Crabb

Nathan said...
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Nathan said...


I respect your desire not to speculate. It's true that sometimes we bloggers go to far about Buddhist related stories.

I disagree with you, though, that posting about this story, and considering what's happening in other parts of the Buddhist world, is sensationalism.

Abortion, and all the things tied into it, impact everyone. If we as Buddhists have nothing to say about abortion, or feel it's best to stay out of social issues all together, the whole practice is pointless in my opinion. I have known so, so many women, some of them from Thailand, who have been impacted by oppressive abortion laws, coupled with little or no access to options other than dropping off unwanted children at temples or churches. I will not turn my back on them, nor do I think it weakens my practice to do so.


Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, I think we are talking about different things here. I was talking about our tendency to get engaged in views. In your preceding post you were attempting to guess their intention. Will we ever know? Will we ever resolve this? No, not unless we can speak to them directly and they tell us their intention face to face. How is this fruitful? Discussing this, discussing that, guessing at people's mind, to-ing and fro-ing like this isn't fruitful. We are just lost in our minds and the inner chatter.

I agree our practice is about practising compassion, so I don't disagree with you here or the issues around abortion. So to discuss the article and how it relates to ourselves and coming to a clear understanding about compassion and right view in ourselves is important. Then we are clearer to save all beings. But you can see we easily slipped into wrong views about "is their intention this or that", and suddenly our good intention that started in sharing to contemplate the problems of abortion slipped into sensationalism that obscures and muddies the water. This is why I raised the point.

So as I said it's a slippery slope. Once you start on the slope of discussing views though it can be hard to stay on track.

I hope this clarifies my comments.

With Metta

Nathan said...

we all have views. you said you thought they made a mistake in not reporting the activity to the police. that's a view.

in fact, i made that comment speculating on motives precisely because i don't know what they were thinking, and don't want to impose what i think these monks should have done onto the situation.

every post on every single buddhist blog contains a set of views. that's just how it is. issues come, in my view, when people are too attached to their views, and start demonizing others for having different views.

it's true that speculating on others' motives if you can't talk to them directly is often a dead end. but i've also think that there are situations where saying "maybe it was this or that" demonstrates a willingness to remain open. just saying "i don't know" or "i can't know" can sound dismissive to people who aren't steeped into Buddhist teachings. and frankly, sometimes i've seen how Buddhists hide behind such phrases because they don't want to deal with issues that scare them. i'm not saying that you're doing this here; i'm saying i have experienced this in my own sangha, among other places.

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, we are in agreement here. It is the attachment to the view not the view itself that is the issue.

With Metta,

Nathan said...

Thanks for another interesting dialogue, Dean. Take care.


Marcus said...

Hi Nathan,

1) You really must fix the title of this post! An abotion clinic was NOT found in a temple! What was found, in a temple morgue, were the bodies of fetuses that most likely came from abortion clinics elsewhere.

2) Every time anyone mentions Thailand, espcially in the sensationalist press, they mention western sex-tourism. You do the same:

"This, in a country where foreign male tourists come in swarms to indulge their sexual fantasies"

And yet western sex tourism in Thailand is a tiny, tiny, fraction of the entire Thai sex industry. Western sex tourism in Thailand is located in a few streets of a few cities. The Thai sex industry reaches every last village.

It is very unlikely indeed that those fetuses had any link at all with the western sex tourist industry in Thailand.

As for opposition to the sex industry and support for its victims, I've seen Thai Christians working in this field but never, in my experience (over ten years here), any kind of Buddhist, Thai or otherwise.

All the best,


Nathan said...

Hey Marcus,

Ah, I figured this post would stir a few people up. The title isn't accurate - I understand that now.

As for the sex industries, well, I suppose talking about Westerners sells papers and advertisements. I honestly don't know enough Thailand's sex industry to speak with any authority.

I do wonder what Buddhists over there think about it all. What the range of views are. But I haven't found anything, and don't live there, so I can't ask anyone about it.


Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, I think you are a great guy and have a great blog and are also honest and sincere about your practice but your last comments here leaves me wondering if you should have thought more skilfully about how you achieved your means. If you do wonder about the views over on Thailand googling it and doing research on Thai forums and news may yield more favourable results without obscuring the truth. I just did a quick search and within 10 seconds had several articles about views on Buddhism and the sex industry in Thailand. Interestingly though, and this goes to my point about sensationalism, the first two pages of google results were about the fetus story.

Your opening comment makes me think you knew it would stir people but didn't think hard enough about how and why and what result you'd get. To me this shows an ignorance to the cause of effects in life. To me, and this is just my opinion, that comes across a bit selfish "Look I know this is going to stir up a mess but I'll just pull the pin, launch the grenade, throw it out there and see how much devastation it causes and see if I can learn anything from it in the process."

While I understand your need to justify why you think you did it, I think you have to question was it right and was this best way? A sincere discussion on "What are your views on abortion as a Buddhist?" may have been more fruitful.

Again, I feel this is a slippery slope and the results of this tread I think are evidence of it.

Please know I say this with kindness and compassion. I wanted to write you directly (offline) but couldn't find an email address to send to. Sorry.

With Metta

Nathan said...


No one's perfect. I'll admit failing to pay close enough attention on this one. The mistake I made was that I didn't have enough time that day to write a thorough post, and put it up too quickly. I should have waited, as I would have caught the mistakes you and Marcus pointed out.

I was interested in the actual event in Thailand, as well as a general discussion about people's views on abortion.

The thing about stirring people up though is that I have found that any topic that is charged - like abortion - will stir a few people up no matter how balanced you write about it. Whenever I post about a "hot" topic, I prepare myself to handle challenging responses. Sometimes they come; other times they don't. But I make sure if I post something that I'm open to receiving comments I don't want to hear.

Another thing is that I don't blog all the time to achieve specific results. Sometimes, I want to offer something I have learned. But other times, I'm just curious about something, or confused, or frustrated, or interested in what others think about something.

Finally, Marcus and I have a long history on our respective blogs. We have had our differences, but I think also have a good respect for each other as practitioners. Marcus calls me out clearly when he disagrees with something, and I check and respond. I've done the same with him before. I think we have both learned from each other, in part because we've offered distinct positions on certain issues and ways of practice.

Nathan said...
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Nathan said...

One last thing ...

I have found that people rarely step into a discussion about difficult issues unless they read or hear something they either really agree with or really disagree with. I've made a few posts about sex and Buddhism, asking what people think about Buddhist teachings as they pertain to sexuality, and you could hear the crickets in the field.

On the opposite end, I did a series of posts last winter about the lack of younger adults in Zen practice which took very clear stances on some issues, and gained a lot of interesting responses. As a leader in my sangha, these responses and others have helped me, our teacher, and others in my community reflect on what's going on, and make efforts to reach out better to younger folks. It took those strong, maybe controversial positions to get people talking.