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Early Buddhism and Antinatalism

Hello All,

This is my first post to this forum but it has been wonderful reading posts from others. I searched the forum and couldn’t find that there has ever been any serious discussion of antinatalism in the forum and was interested to hear others’ insights about the philosophy and how it relates to early Buddhism.

Antinatalism as I understand it is the belief that that it is morally unjustifiable to bring a new sentient life into existence since the preponderance of experience is infused with what Buddhists would consider Dukkha. The modern standard-bearer for antinatalism is David Benatar and his book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence”. He sums up the antinatalist position with the following points: The Asymmetry of Pleasure and Pain - David Benatar

I am someone who works with youth and have seen the younger generation increasingly adopt this philosophy, swearing off procreation as everything from too burdensome to immoral, given the state of the world and imminent disaster of climate change, among other things. I’ve found myself pondering whether the Buddha himself was the ultimate antinatalist in the pursuit of the cessation of the cycle of rebirth. I think at a cosmic level this clearly seems true, and the Buddha would concur that it is “Better never to have been”.

But would the Buddha be a modern antinatalist that discourages procreation? It’s an interesting question. I’m not sure. It’s clear that in the early texts the Buddha values the opportunity that a human birth provides someone: Samyutta Nikaya 56.48: Yoke with a Hole. With that logic it may be the case that we should produce as many humans a possible. It’s unclear to me though whether Buddhist cosmology provides for a finite number of conscious beings being reborn and whether or not new ones are created. I suppose that matters because if existence is Dukkha and it is a good thing to escape it, then it would be a bad thing to create more, new, beings. However, if those beings are already trapped in the cycle of rebirths, it would be a good thing to provide them with an opportunity to escape via a human rebirth.

Perhaps that kids are right, and given the current cliff of impending climate disaster, it is simply immoral to reproduce at this historical moment, but would be the opposite in another.

Dhamma friends, help me explore this topic. What are your thoughts?

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Hi,
Interesting question.

I am one of these ‘young ones’ who see no reason to go through all the financial and emotional stress to bring one or two more human beings to a planet which to me is already crowded of human beings.

Maybe, if conditions are right and I am able to retire early I may consider to sponsor or adopt one or two disadvantaged young ones.

But just the thought of being a biological father to another human being gives me a very weird feeling, I really detest that idea or possibility!

The Vinaya clearly makes no room for bhikkhus to have a role in the execution of abortions. So, there is no room for that to happen.

Although I had very kind and compassionate beings as parents I don’t wish on anyone the pain of being born and having to go through all the stress of growing up under all the uncertainty, stress and pointless social rituals of human society (schooling, career choosing etc). To me, being a normal human is just a massive waste of energy and time.

At the same time, as far as I know, it is no sin or misdeed for a lay person (i.e. a non-monastic) to enjoy the pleasure of the senses without resulting in procreation.

So, this means that the ones choosing to have partners but not procreate and discouraging others to do are surely not making anything wrong from the perspective of Dhamma.

:anjal:

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I would agree whole-heartedly. If such a thing were possible, it would be morally unjustifiable.

Thankfully, a newborn baby is not a “new sentient life,” but merely a new body for a very, very old sentient life.

Whether that’s a fortunate rebirth or not depends on us.

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This is a very important point to keep in mind in this discussion going forward.

Modern antinatalists think their position is sound because of their materialistic assumptions. Thus, they assume that having children is a case of causing the birth of a consciousness or being that did not exist before.

But this is not a view the Buddha would have accepted, since he did not think a baby’s consciousness is created during the conception - fetal stage process. Instead, it arrives in the new body from a previous life.

With this in mind, we can see the very concept of what birth entails is different for the Buddha than for antinatalists like Benatar. As such, his arguments have much less force for Buddhists, since if you refuse to have children, the beings which would have been your children will just be reborn elsewhere.

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Indeed.

But to me Buddhism supports an understanding that it is entirely up to each couple to decide if they want to have anything to do with this almost inevitable ‘popping up of beings’ in the human form within the bigger picture of the ignorance-infused and ignorance-rooted tragicomedy of samsara. :man_shrugging:t2:

Something that comes up to my mind is that an opposite extreme of pure pro-natalism would also not be justifiable as well.

This is because encouraging or stimulating procreation under the name of religion may create a situation in which the population growth is not matched by growth and development in material and institutional terms sufficient to guarantee the beings coming up in human form will have the conditions and context for a decent existence.

This is what occurs in other religions and some countries or regions where for centuries human life has been quite a penance… e.g. cultures, countries and societies plagued by poverty and misery like those in Africa and Latin America.

Please don’t take this as a straw man argument but as a point for continuing the conversation and expand on and from the original question.

At the other extreme of the topic we have: to what extent would Buddhism be compatible with a pro-natalist approach?

:anjal:

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Made me think of this ancient event…

SN42.9
At one time the Buddha was wandering in the land of the Kosalans together with a large Saṅgha of mendicants when he arrived at Nāḷandā. There he stayed near Nālandā in Pāvārika’s mango grove.

Now that was a time of famine and scarcity in Nāḷandā, with blighted crops turned to straw…

Then Asibandhaka’s son the chief, who was a disciple of the Jains, went up to Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta, bowed, and sat down to one side. Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta said to him:

“Come, chief, refute the ascetic Gotama’s doctrine. Then you will get a good reputation: ‘Asibandhaka’s son the chief refuted the doctrine of the ascetic Gotama, so mighty and powerful!’”

“But sir, how am I to do this?”

“Here, brahmin, go to the ascetic Gotama and say to him: ‘Sir, don’t you in many ways praise kindness, protection, and compassion for families?’ When he’s asked this, if he answers: ‘Indeed I do, chief,’ say this to him: ‘So what exactly are you doing, wandering together with this large Saṅgha of mendicants during a time of famine and scarcity, with blighted crops turned to straw? The Buddha is practicing to annihilate, collapse, and ruin families!’ When you put this dilemma to him, the Buddha won’t be able to either spit it out or swallow it down.”

Humanity survived that ancient famine… indeed it has survived countless famines, epidemics, wars…civilizations have been built and destroyed in the time since the Buddha said…

Iti106
Brahmā,’ bhikkhus, is a term for mother and father. ‘Early devas’ and ‘early teachers’ and ‘those worthy of veneration’ are terms for mother and father. For what reason? Because mother and father are very helpful to their children, they take care of them and bring them up and teach them about the world.

Perhaps what is important is not the question of having children or not, but how we choose to bring them up

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The value placed by the Buddha on gaining birth in the human state seems to be contingent on the opportunity to be exposed to the Dhamma. SN.48:

You have obtained that human state, bhikkhus; a Tathagata, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One has arisen in the world; the Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata shines in the world.

A case could be made for Buddhist pro-natalism based on wanting to expose as many people to the Dhamma as you can, since it’s such a rare opportunity.

Honestly, I don’t see much evidence in the suttas for antinatalism in its modern form, given the cosmological perspective of samsara being so vast. The antinatalism of the suttas is a cosmic antinatalism. If anything the suttas seem to have a flavor of indifference towards physical birth. A sort of “Well, life is suffering, it happens and it’s been happening for a very long time. It is what it is.” attitude. The flavor only changes with the arising of the Tathagata and the persistent survival of the Dhamma and Discpipline, presenting an opportunity for escape.

That’s where my understanding is at the moment anyway, based on the discussion here so far. The suttas are pro-natalist in cases where you can expose the person to the Dhamma, and indifferent otherwise.

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Just a few thoughts on the subject…

In my mind, making antinatalism into a cause or a movement seems a little extreme. In my 20’s, It didn’t seem like a good decision to have children until my 30’s when I decided it wasn’t a good idea for me. I didn’t think I was equipped to be a good parent or material, emotional or spiritual provider. Now at 60, I think it was a very good decision for myself and others.

At this point in time, the Earth seems small to me and with climate change and the footprint of 7.8 billion people, procreation doesn’t make sense. But I never thought to label it Antinatalism or make it a philosophy.

Although I wouldn’t say this unsolicited, when I hear a couple excited about expecting a child, I think of the future world that that person will have to navigate in and great compassion arises in me for that unborn or newborn child. I admit too that when I see a large family of 3, 4, 5 or more kids, I don’t get it. It seems so unsustainable (and perhaps kind of selfish of the parents).

From a Buddhist perspective, what do you think is the motivation? Tanha? Avijja? Obviously, instinctual procreation of the species is a driving factor. But many couples logically plan, hold off and get their ducks in a row and then proceed to have children. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but generally in the suttas, following the Buddha usually meant going in the opposite direction of cultivating a family. That’s logical to me.

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That’s not how I read it. The main point there is that even among humans it is rare and very special to be born where the Buddha Dhamma is still present in theory and practice. Hence the simile of the turtle in the middle of the ocean…

Currently, given the high birth rate in regions and countries plagued by poverty, immorality, fanatism, consumerism or war, I would say that a human birth is most likely to not lead to an encounter with the four Noble truths and the eightfold path…

:man_shrugging:t2:

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You’re spot on.
Nothing in EBTs support the idea that Buddhists should have bigger families so to spread and extend then religion.
This is stuff of other faiths …

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Thanks, this is an important question and it is welcome to see it brought up with such care. I appreciate the various comments on the thread, but I would like to see a few more women’s voices!

As a monk I have made my choice. But celibacy was never enjoined on people or required, it was an option. And the fact that some people choose to forgo a family was never meant to be a general condition.

Times have changed, of course, and with population and climate change, perhaps the Buddha would have some things to say, who knows?

The first thing, I think, is to have compassion and understanding for where people are coming from. It is a super-hard decision, and it goes right to your core. Good people might evalauate the reasons and come down on one side or the other, so we shouldn’t judge. I touched on some of these issues in an essay recently.

In that article I refer to two articles by Gemma Carey, which I’d strongly recommend. It’s worth noting that Ms. Carey, while going through a terrible life situation, was brutally attacked on social media by antinatalists.

Purely to clarify a few points of Buddhist doctrine here:

Okay first, “becoming” is not correct, what it means is “future existence”. The context is important here. Given that we are here in samsara, what is best to do about it? The Buddha’s advice was to practice for the ending of rebirth.

Now, clearly there’s some affinity with an antinatalist perspective here. Certainly Buddhism has never been a fertility religion like many others: it’s not that having babies is the purpose of life or is morally good or spiritually required in and of itself.

But this isn’t a statement about the worth of existence as such; after all, if you have never been born, you can never practice Dhamma.

Nor is it a statement about the worth of having a child, a topic on which, if my memory serves me well, the Buddha did not comment. When people who were having children came to him, he always gave support and good advice, while at the same time, not being shy to point out that suffering would ensue.

I think that Buddhism provides a uniquely useful framework for understanding these issues, precisely because of its ambivalence towards birth. Rather than co-opting it under an anti-natalist banner, it would be better to see it as a framework that would support a compassionate understanding of different choices.

From a practical perspective, I would encourage adoption where possible. I would also urge sensitivity to the fact that the decision to have children or not is deeply personal and culturally embedded, and reducing it to an abstract moral equation is unlikely to be helpful. It is also important to bear in mind that the environmental impact of a child in a developed region and an undeveloped region are hugely different, as is the economic cost of a child. Not to mention the availability of education and contraception.

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It’s very understandable that women are not very willing to discuss these things on a forum.

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I’ll give it a try as a woman but don’t shoot the messenger.

It’s very understandable that women are not very willing to discuss these things on a forum.
Antinatalism is a men’s philosophy (check it please), not a women’s one.
True, Nina Paley is a woman. Still, she looks at it from a female perspective.
Not from an aversion towards just anything related to giving life.
Giving life is a female thing, not a male thing.

I personally become very suspicious when I hear men supporting antinatalist ideas.
It seems to me another hidden and yet effective way of keeping women under control.
For centuries, all we had to do was giving birth. And now we have to feel guilty if we do?
No thanks. What’s more, some men have a serious problem with the feminine nature.
And certainly with their own masculine nature. That’s their problem, not mine as a woman.

I much more sympathise with the ideas found in the Lysistrata play but that’s a whole other story.
For those who don’t know it, one woman in ancient Greece - that’s how the story goes - called Lysistrata persuaded other women to withhold sexual privileges from their menfolk as a means of forcing them to conclude the Peloponnesian War. Seems to me like a good measure for birth control worldwide! Just imagine how fast wars would be over, if every woman on this planet would deny sex to any man on this planet. It would be effective, I am quite sure of that, as the very reason why the world turns into such a chaos, is not because of giving birth. It’s because of what men are doing to the living beings after they give live to them. Full of greed, illusion and hate, they train them to be soldiers for the wars they themselves have started.

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Thanks so much for your perspective, it is very important and I appreciate you taking the time and effort.

It is absolutely the case that any such dialogue should be led by women and we should be suspicious of any theory of reproduction advocated by men. To my mind the key role we can play as a Dhamma community is to accept and support the choices that women make, understanding that they are geuninely life and death decisions.

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Beautifully said Bhante

Procreation is such a complex topic. I agree that Buddhism is particularly well placed as a framework, because it is not about the ‘outcome’ (child or no child) but analyses all the issues from perspectives including conditions and intentions. As such there can be no uniform answer, but different answers dependent on the individual circumstances. No unilateral right or wrong choice here, just cause and effect - if this, then that… I feel that taking a ‘moral stand’ in this case is more about application of current ‘values’, and of course these are subject to change…

PS @Teresia Lysistrata has always been one of my favourite plays :smiley: :clap: :clap: :clap:

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With pleasure, bhante. I appreciate your respectful handling of this subject.

Just a comment on the alternative: adoption. It’s a long one but it’s a complex subject after all. I went the international adoption road myself. It was a 100% choice as I can have a biological child. Domestic adoption was no option, it’s very rare that children are given up for adoption in a developed country.

Let’s put it straightforward, if someone wishes to adopt, be prepared for an extremely long, bumpy and tough road. And we don’t walk that road to feel so altruistic. That’s very much celebrity nonsense. After some years in the procedure, you have questioned every single piece of yourself why you wanted to adopt in the first place. It is a grueling and discouraging procedure as it takes long, uncertain years. A child is at least 4 years old when you welcome it at home and say: “Hey there! I’m your mum and he’s your dad! Hand over your small but heavy briefcase. Let’s make the best out of this. We’ll start by changing your name into a more common name so you won’t be bullied at school. Well, not for that reason.” Obviously, the child won’t understand you, it won’t recognise its new name and it will express its fear by being very clingy or totally avoidant for a long period of time. Such a child lived extremely painful events before it arrived at your very doorstep. Not so much always in the orphanage, as people might think, but especially during the adoption procedure. So what’s in for the child, you’d ask? A very good question.

Only a minority of adopted children are real orphans. Many of them - and many adoption institutions refuse to admit this - still have living biological parents or any other family member who can - and if asked - would like to take care of the child. The idea that people in the West can give children a better chance to live a happy life, is biased. Almost every mother who gives up her child for adoption, does so because she has no money to feed it or is shamed by men and women for being pregnant. She doesn’t do so because she doesn’t care about her child. How much I would love to live in a world where not women but men are shamed for making women pregnant if it was without their consent.

Still adoption might be a very beautiful idea. But the reality is so much different. You never know in advance if a child is an orphan and if it is, if it was unhappy in its orphanage. Such children have been living for many years in an orphanage and other children and most caretakers over there are family to them. Most of these caretakers are doing their best, given the circumstances they work in.

On the other end, adoptive parents are being turned inside out by social workers. They want to make sure that you and your partner will be ideal parents for the child they are selling you. It is a financial transaction and you’d be surprised how much it costs. Madness. Ironically, no institution will ever question biological parents about their desire to raise children. How many parents want to give life to a child - and let it live - and not to their own unfulfilled dreams. How many are considering the benefit of a child and not their own desire? Kahlil Gibran was very right when he wrote: your children are not your children (The prophet, 1923). There are adults out there who drug children and force them to kill. You tell me who is contributing to suffering in this world, an adult or a child.

What made me eventually decide to stop my adoption procedure - though it caused me pain - is that if I adopt a child, I can’t guarantee that I will be capable of giving happiness to this child. She/he never asked to be taken away from its family and culture, adults decided to do so. I would be supporting a bankrupt court system in India or Ghana (or elsewhere), lots of lawyers and institutions. That’s not what I’m after. When I said my goodbyes to the procedure, I asked the office if what I would have paid would have been given to a child or to a bankrupt system in India and Europe. They tried to assure me nothing was bankrupt but I don’t believe them, there’s too much money involved. International adoption is a very hidden form of human traffic. Many parents of adopted children are still alive. Take a look at it: all internationally adopted children come from very poor backgrounds. Why’s that? Just a coincidence? Sure not. The fact that I have more money than a mother of a child, doesn’t give me the right to take her child away from her, under the guise of better opportunities for her child. Supporting young women is much more contributing to the happiness of children worldwide. And condemning and stopping wars and the sale of weapons causing them harm. All over the world, people daily recite sacred texts. But what if we would actually be living a sacred life, in respect to others? I try to share some truth about international adoption from my own perspective, without saying there aren’t kind adoptive parents out there. Sure there are many, and thank you to all of them for bringing happiness to into the lives of other people’s children.

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Thank you for sharing your experience of the realities and complexities of adoption :pray:

With Much Metta :slightly_smiling_face: :revolving_hearts: :dharmawheel: :sunflower: :relieved:

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And seconded from me, that was really interesting. And I am so lucky to learn from your experience.

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Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective about international adoption. It’s certainly a complex issue.

I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback in the earlier post by the assertion that antinatalism is a man’s philosophy and a way to control women. I rarely consider perspectives like that because I’m lucky enough to be in a very happy marriage for many years where we discuss family issues together and make mutual decisions. I wasn’t going to share my personal views, as I was more interested in what the texts might have to say about the idea, but the conversation seems to have taken us there.

My wife and I made the mutual decision a long time ago to not bring any children into the world. If anything, she’s more of an antinatalist than I am and was more insistent on it. We have all the usual reasons about the current state of the planet behind our decision, but I do find the philosophical antinatalist positions about suffering convincing as well.

When it comes to the Buddhist idea is Samsara and the infinite cycle of rebirths, I, alas, have no direct experience of it. So I’m making something likes Pascals wager and saying: If it does exist and I do or don’t have kids, then no harm, no foul either way. Samsara continues. If it doesn’t exist, then I’m doing some beings a favor by not bringing them into existence. The only negative outcome happens I do have kids and Buddhist cosmology happens to not be true. So the ethical wager in our book is to not have kids.

It all sounds very philosophical, and it is. I recognize that in the end it’s every couples decision and I’m not going to judge it, since it is so philosophical. This is just what we’ve decided.

In the last 24 hours I’ve discovered this fellows scholarship on the matter: Anti-Natalism: Rejection Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar

He’s considered both Buddhism and Antinatalism to be “Rejection Philosphies” that run counter to the world. I haven’t read his book yet, but it’s on my list now.

Thanks everyone for you perspectives here.

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Thank you for bringing up the subject and for sharing your personal story. I admire the motivation behind your decision. It’s hard to deny that Cioran and Schopenhauer had a very pessimistic worldview and the antinatalist ideology has been brought into life by them. They are male philosophers so it’s basically a male perspective on giving birth. Schopenhauer, just like Nietzsche, has demonstrated the inferiority of women many times. Where as Cioran, a follower of Nietzsche and not so friendly with women either, admired also Hitler. I learned that Buddhism has a realistic worldview, it tells us that every human has the capacity to end suffering. And I try to convince myself that Buddhism, fine-tuned by male disciples of the Buddha, doesn’t see women as inferior but I am not yet convinced. I therefore do my best to focus on the integrity of the heart of Buddhism. But in essence, these two world views seem different to me.

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