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Is there such mention in the Sutta about Microbes being predicted by the Buddha?


#1

I somehow have the impression from the many Dhamma talks and books I read that the Buddha once scooped a palmful of water and ask the monks if there is any beings there. Then the Buddha declared there are a lot of beings even in this palmful of water. I am not sure what’s the lesson to be learn here.

This is sometimes used in some Buddhism and Science conversation to say that the Buddha predicted microbes way before microscopes were invented.

Yet, I cannot find the source of that story in the suttas. I am starting to suspect that it’s something which arises later and is likely not a prediction of microbes by the Buddha. Surprisingly, even google turns up empty, so it might have been a small urban legend in Buddhism here.


#2

The closest I can think of is MN 12:

Such was my scrupulousness, Sāriputta, that I was always mindful in stepping forwards and stepping backwards. I was full of pity even in regard to a drop of water thus: ‘Let me not hurt the tiny creatures in the crevices of the ground.’ Such was my scrupulousness.

Some people understand (and translate) this as that he had compassion even toward the tiny beings in a drop of water. But, as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes,

“The idea seems to be that his pity was directed, not towards microbes in a drop of water … but towards the creatures that might be hurt or killed by carelessly discarded water.”

There are also a couple of Pacittiya rules that forbid monastics from using or pouring water containing living beings.


#3

" I was full of pity even for (the beings in) a drop of water thus: ‘Let me not hurt the tiny creatures in the crevices of the ground.’ Such was my scrupulousness."—MN 12

Remember that the Buddha spoke these words in a context critical of his own pre-enlightenment attitude. After enlightenment, his attitude was towards non-diffuseness:

“This Dhamma is for one who delights in non-diffuseness (nibbana), it is not for one who delights in diffuseness.”—AN 8.30

Suttas such as MN 121 show that the direction of mind should be in steps towards spatial expansion.


#4

Well, he maintains this attitude afterwards in the vinaya, so it’s unlikely it changed much!


#5

I also remember read it somewhere. I google in Vietnamese (my mother tongue) and found all reference linked to a Chinese source: (sorry idk Chinese)

book: 毘尼日用切要 (essentials of daily life bhikkhu?)
chapter 13: 飲水 (drinking water?)

佛觀一鉢水 (the buddha sees in the water)
八萬四千蟲 (84000 microbes)

anyone know Chinese can confirm this?


#6

In the metta sutta you get the idea of sending metta to the “seen and unseen” or the “visible and invisible”. But I think that is normally understood to refer to beings in other realms such was devas or hungry ghosts.


#7

Wow, thanks! I think that’s the origin of it then. Ya, I can confirm that the translations are ok. 蟲 is more commonly referred to as worms. But some microbes are worm like in apparences.


#8

@NgXinZhao so is the book a sutta or vinaya? Does it reference to another text? I can’t find any information about its authenticity, nor if it’s canonical


#9

Should be part of vinaya. Dunno about authenticity as well. It’s closest to the sutta where a couple who crosses the desert eat their only son to survive. That’s the attitude the Buddha wants us to have towards food. Eat just to survive, disgusted at what we eat, not seeking delight. I guess the attitude there just transfer to water.


#10

Are microbes sentient beings? I understand that monastics take concern not even to harm plant life, but my understanding of the rationale for that had been that harming plant life would be taking/destroying something owned by another, and not that plants are sentient.

Unlike, say, cows or dogs, I have a very difficult time believing that microbes are sentient.


#11

There are a number of scientific experiments involving e-coli that suggest microbes are ‘sentient’. For example, see here:The biochemistry of memory


#12

But is that what the Buddha meant by a sentient being? Or, if not, is it what the Buddha should have meant, if only he’d known?

Even washing one’s hands destroys microbes. Many medicines would also be forbidden, because they also destroy microbes. The entire teaching seems essentially impossible on this view. Yes, there’s a difficult problem here about line drawing–who’s in the sentience club, and who’s not? But a difficult problem of line drawing is not necessarily well-solved by drawing the line in the hardest possible place.


#13

When you consider that veganism is not an essential part of the noble eightfold path, it’s pretty much ridiculous to worry about microbes.

If you want to worry about microbes, go vegan first.

My own view about eating food is like eating your only son is the long view of rebirth. Having been to so many births, it’s almost impossible to meet someone who wasn’t our relatives in the past. This includes the animals meat eaters eat, and the insects veganism indirectly destroy via the harvesting process. (Meat eaters still cause more beings to be killed because of the crops eaten by the animals). So all these animals which had to die just for us to live is basically like eating our son. Also, the more direct reason is to abandon lust for food.

Medicine is one of the requisites for monks, so I don’t think any Buddhists should stop taking medicines. Just do not use it with the intention to kill the microbes, but to cure yourself.


#14

The only problem with this is that as soon as you are aware that microbes exist, it is impossible to use antibiotics without the intention to kill. The function of antibiotics is to kill bacteria. Personally I would take the antibiotics in the understanding that I am also going to take the results of the mixed bright and dark kamma that comes with the intention to kill them and thereby cure myself. Some Theravada monks I know have in the past taken worming medication to cure intestinal worms in the full awareness that they were killing living beings. I don’t think it is possible to pretend to ourselves in this way to escape the results of kamma.


#15

By your logic, every Buddhists should go vegan as soon as they are aware where the meat comes from.

I kinda like this reasoning, but lots of meat eater Buddhists will argue with you.


#16

Not at all. The difference is that meat eaters are not doing the killing. They are eating dead flesh, they are not taking the life of sentient beings. The transformation from sentient being to dead flesh has been carried out by someone else, that is their kamma, not the meat eaters. By taking antibiotics or worming medicine you are directly doing the killing of a living being.

Although not canonical, the background story to the first verse of the dhammapada has a blind arahant doing walking meditation. He kills some insects because he couldn’t see them and in the morning other monks having seen the blood (haemocoel I guess), complain to the Buddha that the monk has committed the offence of killing. The Buddha explains that it was unintentional because he could not see them. The implication is that had the monk not been blind, saw the ants, and stood on them regardless it would be intentional. This was my reasoning.

I have some thoughts on veganism in this thread: The Dhamma and Veganism/Vegetarianism


#17

If hiring an assassin counts as killing, then it’s obvious that the most important factor is intention. For meat, we just call the assassin butcher and the cook, and all the people you pay for the killing and the meat.

So if meat eaters can separate intention of killing animals when eating meat which they do not link to the killing, then similarly, people who take medicine can just dissociate the killing of microbes and healing. If one is not the case, then neither should the second one be the case.


#18

It doesn’t does it? Not to say that there isn’t any dark kamma involved in encouraging or paying another to kill, there is, but it is not the kamma of killing.

A meat eater usually just pays the shopkeeper, no one else.

The Buddha differentiates between animals (that the bhikkhu suspects have been) killed specifically for that bhikkhu to eat (assassination as you say) - this is not allowed and he contrasts this with animals that are not killed specifically for the bhikkhu (not assassination) - this is allowed.

Actually we don’t know where the shopkeeper got his meat from, it could be road kill for example. The supply chain in the UK is so poor that we don’t even know what animal we might be eating, or indeed if that vegetarian dish might actually contain animal meat.


#19

You might want to recheck the first precept here. Hiring an assassin counts as killing in any commonsensical way you look at it.

5 conditions to break the first precept:

  1. there is a living being (target)
  2. you know it is a living being (of course, or else you wouldn’t want the target dead)
  3. there is intention to kill (yes, it’s there in hiring assassin)
  4. there is an action to kill (the action is hiring an assassin)
  5. The being died as a result of that action. (if the assassin failed, then you didn’t break the first precept).

Who does the shopkeeper pay to get his meat? The money flows back to the butcher.

Be real, who really believes the meat you buy from supermarkets are roadkills?

On MN55, read my post on the threat you sent me. Thanks for sending it. The Dhamma and Veganism/Vegetarianism
At least we agree that road kill meat is ok to be eaten, but hardly practical, common, and have you ever heard of anyone eating road kill meat?


#20

One possibility that I think has been overlooked in this thread, is that instead of any prescience on the Buddha’s part, what if this doesn’t even come from Buddhism?

The practices described in the relevant section of MN12 seem to be very Jaina. Many scholars (most?) have understood the pre-Awakening ascetic practices to be Jainism. The Jains have many prohibitions around water, I think their monastics cannot accept boiled nor unfiltered water. The ahiṃsā (harmlessness) part of Buddhist doctrine, along with a whole host of other doctrine, might be borrowed from Jainism in the same way that the immaterial attainments were borrowed from the Buddha-to-be’s meditation teachers.

The monastic rule about not gardening I think is said to come from a negative reaction by a nearby Jaina community.