A Buddhist View of Population Control

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1994 »A Buddhist View Of Population Control

Sivalee Sirilai

Like many of its neighbours, Thailand has long been aware of the problems than can be caused by excessive population growth. Thus a population policy was included in the Third National Development Plan of 1972 ‑ 1976. Up to now, the achievements have been impressive. According to population data, by 1990, the growth rate had been reduced from 4 percent per year to 0.74 percent per year. As Thailand is known as a Theravada Buddhist Country, we need to consider this issue in relationship to Buddhist Morality. This paper outlines the general structure of Buddhism, Buddhist Ethics and Moral Principles, which are the basis for ethical rules and moral decisions, and also, how Buddhism addresses the issues of population control.


Buddhism, Buddhist Ethics, Ethical Rules, Moral Principles, Moral Judgement.


As we know, Thailand is one of the prominent Buddhist land in South East Asia. Looking back on our Thai history, we see clearly the close relationship between Buddhism and the Thai nation. We can say that the history of the Thai nation is also the history of Buddhism in Thailand. The Thai nation was settled firmly in present day Thailand 700 years ago. Also seven centuries ago it adopted the present form of Buddhism.

Buddhism is the state religion of Thailand. Under the constitution, the King, although the protector of all religions must, as a symbol, is a Buddhist. According to the latest census, the total population of Thailand is 56 million. Out of this number, 95 percent are Buddhists, 3.8 percent are Muslims, 0.6 percent are Christians, and 0.6 percent belong to other religions. Buddhism has had a deep influence on Thai culture, arts, traditions, learning and the character of the people. Understanding Buddhism will be helpful for those who want to live and work in Thai Society.

Buddhism is the western term for the teaching of the Buddha or the "religion" founded by the Buddha. In the East, it is known as the Buddha‑Sasana. Buddha is not a name, it is a title, meaning, the Enlightened One or the Awakened One. The Buddha's personal name was Sidhattha and his clan’s name was Gotama.

The significant characteristic of Buddhism is that it is a religion of action. Buddha's teaching focused on man. Man's position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his destiny. One is one's own refuge. The Buddha taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself and to work out his own emancipation. For man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. Here we may say that by right thinking, right choice, and right behavior, man can develop his mind and his action.


The main ideas of Buddhism are contained in the statements known as the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, which the Buddha proclaimed in his first sermon at the Deer Park near Benares (Now known as VARANASI, INDIA) in the first year of his ministry. The Four Noble Truths can be explained briefly as follows:

1) The Noble Truth of Suffering: This truth deals with all the problems of life as represented by birth, old age, disease and death, including sorrows and frustrations of every kind. These things are unsatisfactory and people try their best to avoid them and to be free from them. The First Noble Truth deals with the problems and problematic situations, which are to be observed, located and comprehended in human life.

2) The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering: In this truth, the Buddha examines and explains how suffering arises through various causes and conditions. This Second Truth includes the­ profound law of cause and effect called Paticcasamuppada or Dependent Origination, the practical part of which is the well known Law of Karma. To put it simply, the Second Noble Truth deals with the examination and explanation of the origin of the problems by way of causality.

3) The Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering: This Third Truth deals with the goal of Buddhist endeavour. It tells us that when ignorance is completely destroyed through knowledge and when craving or selfish desire is eradicated and replaced by the right attitude of love and wisdom, Nirvana, the state of perfect peace, the absence of defilements, and freedom from suffering, will be realized. The Third Noble Truth serves as a prediction, a hope and an urge for the striving of the followers of the Buddha.

4) The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Extinction of Suffering: This truth defines the Buddhists' way of life and contains all the ethical teaching and practices of Buddhism. It provides the way and means to attain the goal as set forth in the Third Truth. This way is called the Noble Eightfold Path as it consists of eight aspects, namely:

4.1 Right View or Right Understanding
4.2 Right Thought (the training in Higher Wisdom ‑ Panna)
4.3 Right Speech
4.4 Right Action
4.5 Right Livelihood (the training in Higher Morality ‑ Sila)
4.6 Right Effort
4.7 Right Mindfulness
4.8 Right Concentration (the training in Higher Mentality ‑Samadhi).


Right Action

Right Effort

Right View/or

Right Livelihood

Right Mindfulness

Right Understanding

Right Speech

Right Concentration

Right thought





According to this Fourth Truth, a good life cannot be through the control of and mastery over external factors alone, be they our natural or social environments. External control must be combined with the internal control of man's own inner nature. This means the control of internal factors according to the method described under this Truth. This control is worked out by systematic training. To put it insimple words, these practices are sometimes summed up in the Three Fundamental Principles, namely:

  1. Not to do evil
  2. To cultivate good
  3. To purify the Mind


We come to the conclusion that, for those who are training in the path of self‑purification, the Buddha prescribed knowledge and wisdom as the key virtue. Wisdom is usually developed by the method of critical reflection. This means a person has to learn to think, to investigate and to understand things for himself. Buddhist principles are things to see, not to believe. Even the words in the scriptures are to be studied and investigated, not to be readily believed. "Don't go by mere tradition, don't go by mere reasoning, don't blindly follow merely because it is the master who says this. Don't do something merely because it is prescribed in the scripture, etc. But when you know for yourselves that these things are not good, that they are conducive to loss and sorrow ‑‑ then reject them. When you know for yourself ‑‑ that these things are good, that they are conducive to welfare and happiness ‑‑ then follow them."


Focusing on Buddhist Ethics, the following six significant topics should be considered:

1. The "Summum Bonum", the Absolute Reality or ultimate goal, which may serve as the ultimate standard for right action and the destiny of life. In the Buddhistic view, this can be explained on two levels. These are

1.1 A Mundane State or basic level. At this level, the Buddhist viewpoint agrees in principle with materialism. Buddhism accepts the appearance of things or phenomena as they exist and views man as perceiving phenomena by sense perception.

1.2 The Supermundane State or high level. Here, the Buddhist viewpoint can be said to be idealism. This is because NIRVANA, the Absolute reality or "Summum Bonum", is beyond our sense perception. Man can enter Nirvana by insight, knowledge and meditation. Only the arahant, the holy person who has worked for the realization of the Fruition of Stream‑Entry, can enter Nirvana. These two levels are two sides of one coin for, they cannot be separated.

According to the first topic, the destiny of life which should be aimed at, includes the good to be won in this life (Ditthadhammikattha), the good to be won in the life to come (Samparayikattha), spiritual welfare: and the highest good or final goal ‑‑‑NIRVANA (Paramattha).


2) The Source of knowledge of the "Summum Bonum" or Absolute Reality. According to Buddhism, sense perception is the basic level for obtaining knowledge. Man perceives things or phenomena as they exist and should understand the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, "dukkha", and non‑self, (which is the law which governs all things). Man also has to understand The Four Noble Truths which are the truth of human life and which includes the law of Dependent Origination or the chain of causation. This understanding leads man to right conduct and a decent life.


3) The Dharma. Man can understand Dharma as the law of nature, the law of cause and effect, or the orderliness of nature. If man understands his nature and the nature of the empirical world, then he can live in accordance with nature. This allows the most truly happy life for the ordinary man, and with meditation and a well‑developed mind man can enter salvation. According to the Lord Buddha's belief, man is a rational animal who has the potential for learning and possesses moral shame or dread. This is man's ‑conscience which distinguishes what is right and what is wrong.

4) The moral principles, which are the basis for ethical rules, can be classified into three levels as follows:

4.1 The basic ethical level, which consists of the five moral precepts and the five‑ennobling virtues.
4.2 The middle ethical level, which consists of the wholesome course of action.
4.3 The high ethical level ‑ the Noble Eightfold Path ‑ which is the main component.

5) Moral Judgement. Two Criteria for moral judgements can be provided as follows:

5.1 The main criterion is wholesomeness, which includes non­-greed, non‑hatred, and non‑delusion. The right means of action and the right consequences of action lead one to gain what is good both for oneself and for others.

5.2 Sub‑criterion for moral judgement, which includes moral distinctions, wholesomeness/ unwholesomeness, usefulness /unusefulness, admirability/blameworthiness, troublesomeness/ untroublesomenes.


6) Moral Reasoning: Moral reasoning in Buddhism is operative at three levels. These are:

6.1 The preconventional level. Right conduct stems from the advice of good friends and of a favourable social environment.
6.2 The conventional level. Thinking in term of causal relations as a method of problem‑solving leads to Right Action.
6.3 The post‑conventional level. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to righteous and just decisions.


To return to the issue of Population Control, the first thing we have to do is to define the word "Control" dearly. According to the Seventh National Development Plan (1991 ‑ 1995), the target of population policy is to reduce the population growth rate to 1.2 percent by the year 1996. The reason for this goal is to avoid a variety of problems, which affect the economic, social and environmental situation. It is therefore important to encourage and educate people to have families with only a small number of children. Ideally each family should have only 2 children, and the span between them should be three years.

From the details given above, we can say that the meaning of "Control" is planning to have only a certain number of children, and to prevent an excessive number of pregnancies. The next matter for consideration is the method of prevention of pregnancy. Methods of Contraception can be divided into two types:


1) Natural Family Planning (NFP) including with­drawal, periodic abstinence or use of the safe period.

2) Non‑Natural Family Planning, including.

2.1 IUD 2.2 Pill 2.3 Female Sterilization 2.4 Vasectomy
2.5 Injection
2.6 Norplant
2.7 Condom
2.8 Others

Of the various kinds of contraceptive methods described in the second category, are there any which involve the taking of life? In Buddhism, life is inherently precious; so the first precept prohibits the taking‑of life. Within this precept, all killing for whatever reason is forbidden. But allowance is made for taking life for a just reason. A story in the Jartika tales concerns the Bodhisatta, the future Buddha, killing a bandit in order to save 500 merchants. The exception also includes self‑defence and suicide in some circumstances. Self‑defence is acceptable only when all alternatives have been exhausted. The precepts uphold the sanctity of life of all human beings regardless of the conditions of their lives. Suicide is also not allowed, yet in some case, according to the Buddhist scripture taking one's own life is allowed for noble ends.

The precept against the taking of life is not limited to human life but includes animal life as well, irrespective of the size of the animal. Animal life is valued because animals share with human beings many of the same qualifies like suffering, pain, pleasure and consciousness. Other living things, which do not share human qualities, such as plants, are not included in the precept.

When does human life begin? According to explanation in the Buddhist Scriptures, human life begins at the moment of conception. Three factors are combined: a mother is in ovulation, there is sexual intercourse, and a sperm meets the ovum. Then by this belief, abortion is prohibited at every stage of pregnancy and abortion, as a method of family planning is unacceptable.

Let us consider again the methods of family planning described above. None of those methods involve the taking of life. Even in those cases in which spermicidal agents may be included we can discuss these in relationship to Buddhist Ethical Subcriteria for moral judgement, i.e. is it a form of animal life, is it useful or useless, troublesome or un‑troublesome, admirable or blameworthy.

The answer is that though spermicidal agents are killing sperm, this is not a heinous crime.



We come to the conclusion that in Buddhism, wholesomeness is the main criterion for moral judgement. Moral decisions should be based on non‑greed, non‑hatred, and non‑delusion. Beside this main criterion, other components, which are subcriteria for moral judgement, are also required. The attitude toward sex must be governed by the third precept: to abstain from sexual misconduct. Though sexual intercourse is a natural need, we should not view it as mere enjoyment or carelessness. Another thing related to this is the Buddha's teaching about the duty of the parent. To be a parent, humans must take care of their children. So that they will grow up with a good quality of life. This means providing them with affection, a balanced diet, good education, good health, and a religious basis for living.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this paper, Buddhism focuses on human‑beings. Man is his own master. One is one's own refuge. From this standpoint, training for wisdom or systematic thinking (Yonisomanasikara‑Pali) or wise consideration as it is often referred to, is significant for Buddhists. By wise consideration, the performer is able to avail him/her self of various benefits and avoid from taking wrong action.

Another important Buddhist view concerning family life is that one's treasures such as son, daughter or wife can also be one's fetters. They can bring suffering because of the clinging to the notion of "mine" that is also the heavy burden. The words that the Buddha is reported to have said to Visakka, are relevant here. This lady was one of his female‑lay‑followers who had attained the first stage of holiness. She also had a very large family of sons and daughters, with a number of nieces and nephews. One day, one of her beloved nieces passed away with an unexpected illness. After the funeral she went to see the Buddha with her sorrowful looks. The Buddha taught her: "Whoever has many beloved things, receives much suffering. One with less beloved things gets less suffering. The person without beloved things, gains no suffering or oppression."

To end the discussion, although some controversial questions, such as family planning, are areas that traditionally are not clearly defined in Buddhism or other religions, we should consider these issues in relation to moral principles, and the religious scholars should make pronouncements on these issues.

In Thailand, population control is not a serious moral problem. Only abortion and forms of contraception, which involve abortion, can be objected to, on moral grounds. It is necessary that government health policies should be drafted with a clear understanding of what the relevant Buddhist teachings are.



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