Shozan Jack Haubner: “The Pregnancy Test Koan”

Shozan Jack Haubner is funny, willing to be outrageous, but also tender and meaningful. See for yourself as Shozan takes on abortion.

Shozan Jack Haubner
21 August 2009
moon, sun, change
Photo by Mark Tegethoff

Abortion is one of those loaded terms, like “physician-assisted suicide” or “Ryan Seacrest,” that few people can remain neutral about. People have strong opinions about abortion, which reminds me of Shade, an older black factory worker I worked with one summer in college. After giving him my uninvited opinion on the topic, he shrugged and sucked the drool off the filter of his smoldering Winston and told me, “Well chump, opinions is like farts – everybody’s stinks but your own.”

That remains one of the wiser things I’ve heard with regards to the abortion debate.

My own journey into the heart of the abortion question is analogous to that of the Zen Buddhist practitioner who struggles seemingly against all hope to solve his koan, the paradoxical metaphysical riddle provided to him compliments of his maddeningly savvy and sagacious Zen master. The searching, open-ended nature of koan work yields the kind of answer, however, that frustrates easy analysis, not to mention that most exquisite of all human pleasures: being “right.” For, ultimately, koan practice teaches that as long as a question is alive in the world around us, it should not – indeed, cannot – be settled once and for all within us. Koan practice does not put life’s deepest issues “to bed.” It wakes these issues up within us, waking us up in the process.

I dove headfirst into the “abortion koan” not too long ago, after an abortion doctor was murdered in Kansas as he stepped into church one morning. The event dislodged long-buried memories of an anti-abortion activist I knew at my highly conservative (like, Mel Gibson conservative) Catholic college in Texas. How radically “pro-life” was this peer? She built her senior philosophy thesis around the question: Is It Morally Acceptable to Kill an Abortionist? Conflating abortion MDs with Nazi concentration camp doctors, her thought process went something like: If you had Dr. Mengele in your crosshairs, wouldn’t you pull the trigger?

Frankly, I doubt that she would have pulled the trigger. Therese was the kind of character that would have baked Dr. Mengele a batch of snickerdoodles and tried to charm him out of his role in the holocaust. “Now, Dr. Mengele – may I call you Josef? How ‘bout Joey? Now, Joey…” As far as pro lifers go, Therese had cred. This wildly popular, befreckled brunette (a childhood actress, she was the runner-up behind Soleil Moon Frye for the titular role in the TV show “Punky Brewster”) made it safely out of the womb solely because an anti-abortion activist just like her had once talked her birth mother out of the procedure. (She was then adopted by a loving family of philosophers and lawyers, the patriarch of which was and is the President of Texas Right to Life.)

Using her own life – the very fact of it – as the basis for her investigation, the answer she came up with to the question posed by her philosophy thesis was, emphatically, No: it is not morally justifiable to kill an abortionist. Like her namesake, St. Therese of the Little Flower, she felt that life was precious. “What business do you have telling me not to get an abortion?!” a student peer – oddly enough, a man – once hollered at her. She just stood there, calmly embodying herself. “Because someone told my mother not to, and here I am today.”

Therese and I dated for all four years of college. We were like twins, nearly identical in every way – matching big ears, scrawny limbs, astrological signs (Sagittarius), and views on abortion. Lying in bed after doing “everything but”, we often engaged in pro-life pillow talk: “Hey honey, what do you think the karmic and cosmic consequences are of all those hundreds of thousands of medical waste bags in our landfills teeming with thwarted human lives?” And yet there I was, just a few short years later: a Hollywood screenwriter penning a musical satire of the pro-life movement. It included a chorus line of fetuses kicking their blobbed legs in unison as a cute little fetus stepped forward (think: Little Orphan Annie, but preborn) with all its earthly possessions tied up in a bandana at the end of a broomstick. The chorus cried, “Take a goooood look now cos you’ll probably never meet us…” To which the little embryo added, “Evicted from the womb, I’m a hobo fetus.”

By then I was fed up with Young Christian America: all those grinning, narrow-minded virgins in overlong denim skirts, and their stern-but-neutered, “Dittohead”/Limbaugh-quoting boyfriends, who touched them “nowhere a soccer uniform covers.” After graduating from college and leaving Therese, Texas, and my conservative Catholic faith in one fell swoop, I relocated to – where else? – LA, where I got busy reinventing myself as a sophisticated left-coast liberal. It didn’t take long before I became intimate with the whole pro-choice side of the abortion debate via Jenn, my Bronx-bred, Jewish-Italian OB-GYN girlfriend. Instead of “everything but,” Dr. Jenn and I did “everything and.” Dark and compact, like a Camus novel, sexually all over the map, her mouth slightly deformed into a cocksure sneer from a childhood big-wheel accident, Dr. Jenn specialized – she reveled – in providing abortions for East LA women, most of whom were crack- or meth-addled prostitutes.

The births at this hospital of horrors were worse than the abortions. Nothing saddened Jenn more than passing an infant she’d just delivered into the black and blue arms of its mother, and then watching as the woman disappeared down the hall with the man who had beaten her senseless the night before. “Some people are just not quite ready to welcome a child into this world!” Jenn would rant in my arms. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting should not be taken in the form of a question, as in: ‘You’re pregnant. That knock on the door is your mother-in-law with a gift basket of prenatal tinctures? – or your drunken monster of a hubby warming up his knuckles…?’”

And so, at this point a quick glance at the scoreboard reveals that in the Ethical Wimbledon within, my Inner Therese and my Inner Jenn are still at love – love –  not such a bad place to be, metaphorically speaking. On that note, I find myself wondering not Am I pro- or anti- life or choice?, but rather, which of these captivating and powerful women I loved more – the “right wing zealot” or the “baby killer”? Such a deep and poignant query can be answered only by applying that most timeless test of true love: Which one had your ATM pin number?

Neither. That honor belonged to a third girlfriend.

I met Dana at a cross-dressing party in Venice Beach, which is to say that when the sparks first began to fly, I was wearing a black satin sequined number with matching pumps, and she was in a suit, tie, and fedora – loud and yellow, like Jim Carrey in The Mask, if Jim Carrey had cleavage. This set the tone for who would wear the pants in the relationship. Curvy, mean, and irresistible, with shimmering, cornflower blue eyes that you all but needed welding goggles to look into directly, Dana was a strong, heady, bisexual blend of Therese and Jenn: measured and thoughtful in spirit, envelope-pushing and extemporaneous in deed – which I guess is just a fancy way of saying that we had a lot of unprotected sex. Which led to the inevitable pregnancy scare. A test was taken. Negative. But when I fished that damnable “wand” out of the trash an hour later just to be sure, it had changed its mind – now it read Positive!

Standing in line at Rite Aid to buy test number two, I experienced a small pregnancy-scare satori: “If she is preggers I will finally be a card-carrying member of the human race – connected to all who came before me and all who will arrive after…” Angsty and lonerish, I’d always felt cut off from the natural order; now I was potentially its latest standard-bearer.

But I also found myself simultaneously thinking I can’t have this child right now – no way José. Both impulses were equally strong: my connection to the idea of life within Dana, and my determination that I could not be responsible for it, not now: it just wasn’t meant to be. If she gets an abortion, I wondered, what will we be nipping in the bud? A son or a daughter? Or a life of forced fatherhood I never wanted and would probably stink at? Would it be evil of me to choose a destiny that did not include children; or merely responsible?

On the one hand, I reasoned, you can’t equate a glob of cells that has the potential to become, say, Einstein, with just any old glob of cells: a tapeworm, for example, or Michael Moore. On the other hand, a fetus is not really “human” in the same way the rest of us are, is it? For one thing, it can’t vote on American Idol. So how, then, do we classify it? Depending on the situation, as a blessing or a burden, it would seem. It is an entity unto itself, yet inextricably part of its mother. It is a koan; a riddle of life.

That evening, as I basically struggled to make sense of the fetus, I had a vision of my older brother Jeff. A preemie born the size of a chipmunk, Jeff died moments later as my sobbing father cupped him in one palm. As a kid I imagined that the unborn souls of Jeff and I had once duked it out on some metaphysical plane for the right to be born the “big brother” in my family. I not only won, but in crushing him in our time- and dimension-less “cage-match,” I inherited (or stole) all his “mojo”, consuming his life force and essentially becoming two men in one. It’s a ridiculous theory, of course, probably spawned from watching too many movies like Highlander. (“There can be only one!”) But is it really that much more absurd than any of our theories about the pre-life?

None of us has a clue about what happened on the greatest journey any of us has ever taken: the journey from nothingness to somethingness. Part of what makes the abortion question so difficult is that on some level the fetus is still making that journey. On the one hand, it’s easy to grant it saintly status; on the other, it’s easy to dismiss it entirely: for in either case we just aren’t sure what exactly it is. It is something like an inkblot, upon which we project our fears and fantasies; our beliefs and worldviews; ourselves.

Alas, the foundation of life is largely a mystery. Back in the Dana days I knew nothing of the classical Zen koan that addresses this problem: “What did your original face look like before your parents were born?” Since taking up Zen practice I’ve presented numerous answers to koans like this to my teacher during our private interviews. And countless times I’ve failed to hit the mark, as signaled by his ringing his bell, an effect fortunate only in that it drowns out his laughter. Through this process I have come to see that the stumbling-block nature of life’s deepest questions is not necessarily an obstacle to understanding the human condition — rather, it speaks to the very heart of it.

Ever wonder why so many of the conflicts at the heart of life seem to be logically and ethically “unsolvable” one way or another? Could it be because they are the very conflicts that generate life? Think of the sun and the sea, which embody certain traits or “values” that when looked at separately contradict and negate each other, but when brought together, in just the right measure, create a natural balance that sustains, nourishes, and produces life. If either the sun or the sea “won” the respective arguments they embody we would have a very dry, or a very wet — and an essentially unlivable — planet indeed. Perhaps when we de-anthropomorphize “culture clashes” like pro-life vs. pro-choice, they operate on essentially the same principle: endlessly renewing and replenishing each other with arguments, both sides of any debate energize and move a people forward — or into a kind of dizzying dance of life; this, by matching each other step for step in what appears to be the effort to stomp each other out.

Arguably, the emotional and intellectual ecosystems that are our inner lives need a similar balance of opposing energies to thrive. In my experience, hearts and minds open only through an active engagement with, rather than one-sided resolutions to, life’s deepest, most meaningful questions. In Zen you learn to sit with “impossible” questions or koans, letting them work on you – transforming you from within – while you work on them. Instead of resolutions that narrow your focus, some of life’s most interesting problems – like, Where does the fetus end and the mother begin? – open the other way, towards an abundance of meanings. The more you consider them, the richer with contradictions they become. The result is wild, fertile, teeming; an inner life activated and not crippled by opposites.

Ultimately, the “middle way” is not about “not choosing” one way or another. It’s about embracing both sides, bringing them together within you, and letting the sparks fly. Yes, I’ve elevated the defining negative traits of my generation – political apathy, slacker indecisiveness, an allergic reaction to ultimatums – into spiritual virtues. So be it. I used to look for a definitive, set-in-cement answer to the abortion question. That was a mistake. Both sides of the debate are right and both sides are wrong. This isn’t to say that I don’t vote a certain way on the issue. But ultimately my Zen practice is not political, and my politics are beholden to and part of the bigger picture that is my practice. I try and see both sides of the issue, then, and look for a personal resolution not in a logical argument for either, but an unspoken and embodied synthesis of the two–

Yeah yeah yeah, you interrupt, but what about those moments when life forces you to choose one way or another? You are angling, of course, to find out whether or not I knocked up Dana.

When I arrived at Dana’s place that evening with the second pregnancy test, she was in bed with her sleeping mask on; her collie on one side of her, her overweight butterscotch tabby on the other. None of them were happy to see me.

“What the fuck,” she said.

I explained the situation.

“You fished the pregnancy test out of the trash?” The collie began to growl.

“Just pee on the new stick,” I begged, holding it up like a lollipop. “What harm can come of it?”

Moments later, I was standing beside Dana in the bathroom. Her blowtorch-blue eyes were too powerful to stare into directly, and so I was regarding her reflection in the mirror. The sleeping mask was pushed up on her forehead, half covering one eye. Suddenly she turned from the toilet and fixed me with her one visible eye. Never good with words, she had a real gift for finding the right ones when it came to what was wrong with me:

“When life forces you to choose, you better be clear. And to be clear means to know both sides; and to know yourself. Then you can make the right decision – either way.” The wand now peed upon, she encased it in its cap and set it on the sink, as though giving it some space to make up its mind.

“And buddy? You ain’t clear. Cos if I am pregnant there are only two options. And you’re at peace with neither – much less either. You keep searching for ‘the formula’ to solve all of life’s problems one way or another, this way or that way, but baby, life’s like me – it goes both ways.”

She’d recently shaved her head on a whim or a dare, I can’t remember which, and I often think back on her, sitting on the throne with her underpants at her ankles, ranting baldly, as being my very first Zen master, failing me at my very first koan: “the pregnancy test.” On the upside, I also had my very first deep and undeniable insight into my “true self”:

“I’m an idiot,” I realized.

“You’re a child,” she sighed.

She became soft now, as she often did after she’d broken me. “What makes you think I’d want to have your little monster anyway,” she gently chided, sliding her hand in mine. “It’d probably come out with a tail, smelling of sulfur.”

“Would you?” I asked her for the first time. “Would you have it?”

She looked at me. “How could I kill your baby, baby?” Then she kept looking. “But could I do anything but?”

Our eyes drifted together to the EPT wand, busy tabulating our fate beneath its plastic hood. The moment was pregnant with possibility; several futures could emerge. I imagined waving goodbye to Dana, as there was no way our relationship would survive an abortion. I also imagined myself in an apron breastfeeding our child as she went off to club wildebeest. She was right: I was at peace with neither option. But most crucially, I was not at peace with myself.

Time slowed as the results of the pregnancy test became clear. Dana held it up to the light, and in that moment I came to know one thing with absolute certainty: I will never ever ever have sex again, I thought.

As always, the only thing I was really wrong about that evening was that of which I was most convinced.

Shozan Jack Haubner

Shozan Jack Haubner

Shozan Jack Haubner is a Buddhist monk in the Rinzai tradition and author of Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk (Shambhala). He writes under a pseudonym.