When the Dalai Lama comes to New York this week, he will be flooded by an onslaught of Buddhists and spiritual seekers. His popularity, and the interest in Buddhism, has grown exponentially since the 1960's through an overwhelmingly liberal excitement over non violence and spiritual exploration. But the Dalai Lama is in many ways an orthodox religious figure: he is celibate, has taken a vow against any form of inebriation, and understands the act of abortion to be a form of killing.
There is nothing surprising about these facts, they are stated plainly in Buddhist scripture, and it is the Buddhist party line. Monks must remain celibate because they are to concentrate on reaching enlightenment; drinking alcohol leads to an unclear mind -- the worst possible state for a practicing Buddhist; and non violence is essential because of the Buddhist understanding of Karma.
Westerners are either befuddled or enamored by the law of Karma and non violence: the Dalai Lama's peaceful response to the Chinese invasion, Thich Nhant Han's critique to both sides of the Vietnam conflict, and Aung Sang Su Ki's non violent stand against the Burmese Junta all demonstrate the enactment of an extreme principle. But from a Buddhist point of view the reason not to kill, or have an abortion, is technically the same: killing a person gets you very bad Karma.
For Buddhists, the moral law of Karma is the way that the universe operates. It is not controlled by God or constructed by humans. It is more like the law of gravity -- it is what it is. According to tradition it was first understood and explained in our world by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, and while philosophically subtle and complex, one thing is clear: negative actions have a negative reaction to the actor, regardless of circumstance. If one hurts or kills, one is likely reborn as an animal or hell being. One's intention, in this case ones intent to kill, does increase the negative karmic response, because of the Buddhist belief that the each person's mind triggers their Karma.
In the west this Buddhist principle is wielded by social justice liberals when arguing against war, capital punishment, and torture. It tends to be twinned with meditation, the Buddhist activity for reaching a peaceful state of mind, which makes one less violent, and therefore less likely to produce bad karma.
But here is where liberals take what they want from a tradition, and leave out the over arching logic. According to Buddhism, a fetus is a human. There is no distinction either in definition or in karmic punishment. In this way Buddhism is far more confident about when life begins than say Catholicism, which leaves this answer as a mystery.
Buddhism is deadly serious about non violence, because karma has serious consequences. Morality is never about a person's right to choose, but about understanding the consequences of ones actions. Or put another way, moral action is entirely about what one chooses to do -- and one must suffer the consequences. The rules in Buddhism are really vows, not set up to please God, but to protect people from being reborn into unseemly realms.
Buddhists who take Karma seriously do not believe that other moral choices, which may be socially or personally legitimate, neutralize the karmic reality of the universe. Karma is a physical law, in this way. For example, in the 17th Century a Korean Buddhist monk led his monks into battle against the invading Japanese army. Afterwards he thanked them, but made it clear that they would still suffer the karmic consequences of their actions. In another case that demonstrates the same belief, I once knew two Tibetan women who lived in a cockroach infested apartment, but they refused to use roach traps for deadly fear of the karmic response.
Do these insights mean that Buddhists are conservative after all, and should be lining up behind Sarah Palin? Arguing that a faith backs this or that political party is treacherous because principles, in this case non-violence, can play out in ways that crisscross our contemporary party lines quite unexpectedly. This might say as much about our way of doing politics as it does about the principles themselves.
Accepting a moral principle, though and following it through does seem to take courage. The day after 9/11 the Dalai Lama wrote to President Bush, his most important political ally, warning him about the danger of responding to violence with violence. He also defended the Pope's view on abortion. Religious principles can unexpectedly alienate. The unexpected is rarely easy. But then moral choices never were.