A scientific error of the Buddha?

Is it a scientific error of the Buddha?

Sāriputta, there are these four kinds of reproduction. What four? Reproduction for creatures born from an egg, from a womb, from moisture , or spontaneously.

And what is reproduction from an egg? There are beings who are born by breaking out of an eggshell. This is called reproduction from an egg. And what is reproduction from a womb? There are beings who are born by breaking out of the amniotic sac. This is called reproduction from a womb. And what is reproduction from moisture? There are beings who are born in a rotten fish, in a rotten corpse, in rotten dough, in a cesspool or a sump. This is called reproduction from moisture. And what is spontaneous reproduction? Gods, hell-beings, certain humans, and certain beings in the lower realms. This is called spontaneous reproduction. These are the four kinds of reproduction

This idea was common in ancient times and was understandable because they had no way of understanding how maggots “appeared” on decomposing bodies, or how eels reproduce, but we now know that it is false.

If it is a scientific error of the Buddha? If so, then how can we understand his omniscience? Couldn’t he see with his supernatural eye that maggots weren’t really born from the decomposition of bodies? His knowledge is supposed to encompass the whole cycle of rebirths, I find it hard to see how he could be wrong about the birth of a whole part of these animal beings.

I was given the idea that this passage was about bacteria and fungi… But I’m not convinced, since the context is about rebirths, bacteria and fungi are not sentient beings concerned with rebirths, and even if it was, bacteria and fungi aren’t really born from moisture…

No matter how hard I look, I see nothing but a scientific error in this passage: explainable, moreover, because this error was common (and logical given the available data) during antiquity. Okay, that’s fine by me, but then how do you explain his omniscience? If the Buddha’s powers did not prevent him from making such an error, how do we know that they are more than subjective experiences? If he made a mistake when he “saw” beings being born from moisture, how can we know that he did not make a mistake when he “saw” the cycle of rebirths?

I’m confused. :thinking:



Hi Satananda,

Things can be explained in various ways. What makes a description/explanation preferable to another, when there is a lack of ultimate truth in one particular description, is purpose.

The purpose of the scientific method is reproducibility through controlling conditions. Was the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings to reproduce certain results under controlled conditions?

Not understanding the rationale of the scientific method turns it into scientism which is another dogma that assumes everything is valid/invalid to the extent it aligns with this particular methodology of knowing. It is also worth mentioning that the separation of science from philosophy is a relatively recent development in the history of human thought. Separating it from its roots makes its past following it as a shadow. A method that works based on associating physicality with causality or artificially separating reason from feelings cannot escape the inherent subjectivity of the question “why”.

More generally, the following article by Ven Buddhadasa makes an interesting distinction between two types of language: everyday language, and the language of the dhamma


I don’t believe the Buddha ever claimed omniscience in the Suttas. If I’m mistaken can you please point it out? From what I understand and have read, he claims to know what he has directly experienced. If he’s not a doctor or scientist it’s understandable why he wouldn’t know how maggots do develop.

As a matter of fact with some quick research I see that there is a sutta where he disputes the claim that he is omniscient and essentially advises how he only claims to know the three truths.

Please see sutta MN71 here: SuttaCentral


Thank you for the sutta reference! MN 71 writes:

For, Vaccha, whenever I want, I recollect my many kinds of past lives. That is: […] a hundred thousand rebirths; […] many eons of the world contracting and expanding. I remember: ‘There, I was named this, my clan was that, I looked like this, and that was my food. This was how I felt pleasure and pain, and that was how my life ended. When I passed away from that place I was reborn somewhere else. […]’ And so I recollect my many kinds of past lives, with features and details.

And whenever I want, with clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman, I see sentient beings passing away and being reborn—inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, in a good place or a bad place. I understand how sentient beings are reborn according to their deeds.

It seems reasonable to suppose that at some point the Buddha was reborn as a maggot or an eel. Would the first knowledge imply that he would remember that?

If he was never reborn as a maggot or an eel, would the second knowledge imply that he understands how they are born and how they pass away?

Or am I misunderstanding the text?

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Hello everyone, I’m a newcomer to this forum, so please excuse me for any mistakes!
As far as the the Buddha’s explanation is concerned, the beings born from eggs would include maggots as well; in fact all the insects, not just amphibians, reptiles, birds. In fact a large chunk of the animal kingdom is oviparous. Beings born from moisture, or rather beings born in dependence of moisture would imply bacteria and fungi , since the breeding ground mentioned (rotten fish, corpse, dough, cesspool and sump) point towards them .
Also, the Buddha never lied, and and he even mentions tiny beings in water in the Greater Discourse on Lion’s Roar (MN 12) Maha-sihanada Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar
In the same sutta, he mentions the four kinds of intrepidity , of which the first is : "Here, I see no ground on which any recluse or brahman or god or Mara or Brahma or anyone at all in the world could, in accordance with the Dhamma, accuse me thus: ‘While you claim full enlightenment, you are not fully enlightened in regard to certain things.’ And seeing no ground for that, I abide in safety, fearlessness and intrepidity. " Hope this helps.

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Welcome to the forum, @Modernupasaka!

The implication would be that bacteria and fungi are sentient beings as well, right?

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The argument is only valid if you assume that the “many features and details” necessarily include acquisition and retention of scientific knowledge and understanding into the biological processes involved in taking such births.

I do not assume that. Even in this human birth, what I know about the circumstances of my conception and birth have to do with what I learned in school having gone myself through all primary, secondary and tertiary levels of modern western education.

An inconsistency would only exist if the text read instead:

And so I recollect my many kinds of past lives, with all its features and details.

But that is not the case…

I recall acquiring the understanding from Dhamma talks that the sort of recollection and memory accessed in the three super human knowledges (tevijjas) that may come up as part of the awakening process is of a very specific kind.

These are memories of a very particular and personal nature, and hence very instrumental and necessary to the direct understanding of all suffering and pain encountered through a span of time, for which a beginning cannot be discerned by the way.

And these memories have just the amount of detail and the emotional flavor needed for one’s heart to make the obvious decision of dropping the dependent origination of suffering which involves rebirth, letting it cease, bringing it to an end.



I may be missing something but nowhere the MN12 I read the Buddha is saying explicitly this is the whole of the story - i.e. it is not affirming these beings arise magically and spontaneously from moisture, as Aristotle believed.

In fact, it explains that these types of beings reproduce where there is moisture. And that is it.

To that point, isn’t it an remarkable thing that insects like flies, which in their final form are themselves so light and dry, depend on a very specific combination of moisturized nutrients (usually rotting organic material) to have their eggs laid and larvae thrive. This is what I take this passage is all about.



The words “in accordance with the Dhamma” (not omnipotence) mean the Buddha could not be accused of not being enlightened in every aspect of his Dhamma, which his antagonist was dissatisfied with. See notes 1 and 3, ( Nanamoli & Bodhi translation).

Note 1. The story of Sunakkhatta’s defection is found in the Patika Sutta (DN 24). He became dissatisfied with the Buddha and left the Order because the Buddha would not perform miracles for him or explain to him the beginning of things.

Note 3. Sunakkhatta believes that being led to the complete destruction of suffering is, as a goal, inferior to the acquisition of miraculous powers.

The Buddha’s dhamma was limited to the penetration of the four noble truths and did not seek to answer wider questions:

MN 63:
"And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.

“So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared.”


@nanavippayutta Yes, of course! I mean, such beings, even though primitive in nature, have something called Taxis, which is their ability to respond to stimuli e.g. chemotaxis, phototaxis, barotaxis,etc which can be an example of body (tactile sensation ) consciousness. These beings constantly try to preserve themselves by mutating some of their genetic material,which can be seen in antibiotic resistance. Hence, they crave for existence !


Greetings @paul1

So the knowledge connected with the four kinds of generation of living beings is concerned with Dhamma, hence it exists in EBTs. This knowledge could be conducive to right view ,hence the Buddha includes it in his attainments, else he would have left it out of the “handful of leaves”.

The sutta here is about the four unthinkables/ inconceivables - knowledge of which is neither conducive to Dhamma nor conceivable by anyone other than the Buddha. Also, penetration of noble truths is dependent on Right view.
Metta :pray:

I think this is one of those imponderables that really are not conducive to the path. I’m not one for arguments. There are tons of variables, views and points that everyone could make or point out, such as maybe “from moisture“ is an ancient phrase that means born from a sac or an egg etc.

But to be honest I would rather put my focus on strengthening my faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha rather than questioning it, over a reference to maggots.

I’m not trying to put down or dismiss people who are intrigued by this debate. I just don’t see the value for my practice to think too deeply about it going forward.

May you all be well :slight_smile:

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I think this touches on some interesting assumptions about science and knowledge.

What is science? Is it a list of objectively true facts? Is omniscience then having such a list available in memory?

To me, science is an evolutionary process where the least bad theories get weeded out and the less bad theories gain prominence over time. We particularly prefer theories that let us control and explain phenomena.

For example, the theory of spontaneous generation is good enough for some purposes. I.e. you can reason that you should dry or salt your meat to draw out moisture to preserve it.

Spontaneous generation is in a sense more “scientific” than a theory that says “sometimes meat goes bad, sometimes it doesn’t, nothing you can do about it”; it identifies a relevant condition (moisture) and gives you an explanation for why drying, salting etc. food works.

It’s not as good as our current theories of course. We can also explain why pickling works, we can prevent milk from spoiling for a medium amount of time.

50 years from now, maybe we have knowledge that allows us to preserve food almost indefinitely. Maybe we’ll look back at our current 2020 knowledge and feel the same way we do now about spontaneous generation.

Regarding omniscience, even if the Buddha did have access to the best knowledge available through remembering past lives, IMO it would be very confusing to reference that in a culture that had not evolved the concepts to understand it.

So when I read e.g. AN 7.66, I read that as the Buddha using the concepts of the time, in a way that the audience could understand, to make a point about impermanence.

And in MN 12, IMO it would be very confusing to his audience if the Buddha suddenly started using unknown theories to explain natural phenomena. It would also detract from the overall message of the sutta. :slight_smile: