Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception

Revised with a new title on November 10, 2018; re-written January 5, 2020

Introduction

This completely revised post is necessary to continue our discussion on Paticca Samuppāda:Paticca Samuppāda – Not ‘Self’ or ‘No-Self’.”

1. Buddhist explanation of conception is in several Tipitaka suttas. Following is a simple account based on those suttas.  It is compatible with modern science but provides more details than science.

  • Moral issues regarding abortion and birth control have clear answers in Buddha Dhamma. In particular, at what stage of pregnancy does a human life first appear in a womb?
  • Modern science cannot determine the “time of conception” or “when a human life starts in a womb.”
  • Let us first review the current scientific knowledge base.
Current Scientific Knowledge

2. First of all, there must be a fertilized egg (zygote) in the womb. The fertilization happens when a sperm from the father combines with an egg from the mother to form a zygote or a fertilized egg.

  • During the mother’s menstrual cycle, one egg (ovum) is usually released from one of the ovaries and swept into the funnel-shaped end of one of the fallopian tubes.
  • After intercourse with the father, If a sperm penetrates the egg there, fertilization results, and the fertilized egg (zygote) moves down the fallopian tube toward the uterus.
  • The “live zygote” enters the uterus in 3 to 5 days. In the womb, the cells continue to divide, becoming a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. Inside the womb, the blastocyst implants in the wall of the uterus, where it develops into an embryo attached to the placenta and surrounded by fluid-filled membranes.
  • See, http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/womens_health_issues/normal_pregnancy/stages_of_development_of_the_fetus.html

3. It is important to note that science does not have an answer to the question of why all zygotes do not result in pregnancies, and why some couples who could not have babies for many years all of a sudden have success.

  • Science cannot explain how an inert zygote (a cell) becomes “alive” and a living baby comes out of the womb.
  • Furthermore, science cannot say WHEN that inert cell, zygote, becomes alive. Some say a live baby is there as soon as a zygote is formed, and others say there is no life there until a heartbeat can be seen.
  • For more details on the controversy on the “time of conception” see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beginning_of_pregnancy_controversy
Buddhist Explanation – Mind is in the “Mental Body” or Manōmaya Kāya

4. We humans have two “bodies.” Manōmaya kāya is the “mental body” (with a trace of matter) born at the beginning of the human existence or human bhava.

A Human Existence Can Last Thousands of Years

5. A human existence (bhava) can last thousands of years, and that is the lifetime of the gandhabba or the mental body.

  • On the other hand, a physical human body lasts only about 100 years. With the death of the physical body, the gandhabba comes out and waits for another womb. Thus, there can be many births (jāti)  as a human within a given human existence (bhava). See, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”
  • In between successive births with “human bodies,” the gandhabba (mental “body”) lives in the “para lōka.” The para lōka co-exists with our human lōka, but we cannot see those subtle “mental bodies” of gandhabbas.

6. A new human existence (bhava) does not start in a womb. It begins at the cuti-patisandhi moment when the previous bhava comes to an end. For example, if a deva dies and becomes a human, a human gandhabba (fine “mental body”) will be formed at the time of death of that deva.

  • Then that human gandhabba will have to wait until a suitable womb becomes available. By “suitable,” it means that the gati (loosely related to character/habits) of the gandhabba have to match those of the parents, especially the mother.
  • Gati is an essential concept in Buddha Dhamma. But it is absent in modern texts. Search “gati” on the top right search box to find about “gati.” I have discussed Tipitaka references in several posts. See, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsava)” and references therein.
A Zygote Becomes Alive When a Gandhabba Takes Possession of It

7. With the above background, now we can make the connection to current scientific understanding and extend that understanding. As science has shown, human life arises with a single cell called a zygote; see #2 and #3 above.

  • A gandhabba may have to wait for even many years until a suitable womb becomes available. Then, kammic energy will pull it into that womb. And the gandhabba will merge with the zygote in the womb that was created by a sperm fertilizing an egg.
  • A gandhabba entering a womb is sometimes referred to as “patisandhi viññāṇa descending to a womb” as stated in the Mahā Nidāna Sutta (DN 15.) In the Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (MN 38) it is stated as, “a gandhabba descending to a womb.”
  • As we saw above, Nature automatically matches the “gati” the parents (we can say that matching the zygote that was formed by the union of the mother and father), and a “matching”  gandhabba will be “pulled in” by the kammic energy.
  • However, the gandhabba concept is different from the idea of a “soul.” A gandhabba will keep changing during its lifetime. Furthermore, it will make a drastic change when the lifetime of the human bhava comes to an end. At that time, it can become an animal, a Deva, a Brahma, etc.

8. Therefore, a zygote just provides the “material basis” (zygote) for the gandhabba to form a physical body. (That zygote develops when an egg combines with a sperm.)

The ‘Time of Conception” is Precise

9. A gandhabba can take hold of that fertilized egg (zygote) any time after its formed.

  • Therefore, the conception of a new baby happens when the life-less zygote becomes “alive” with the merging of the gandhabba. That is the time of conception, and it happens very early, generally within a day after intercourse. 
  • Once a gandhabba merges with the zygote, the cells of the zygote start repeatedly dividing as the zygote moves down the fallopian tube. Thus cell division and the formation of a baby DOES NOT start unless and until a gandhabba merges with the zygote.
Effects of Condoms/Birth Control Pills

10. Now let us see what happens with a condom or with birth control pills.

  • With the use of a condom, an egg will not be able to come to contact with a sperm to form a zygote. Thus there will be no “material basis” or a zygote in the womb.
  • If the mother is taking birth control pills, again, that will prevent the formation of a zygote for a gandhabba to start a new life.
  • Thus it is clear that there are no moral issues involved in either of those two cases. Terminating a life does not happen in either case.
If a Gandhabba Is in the Womb, There Is a Human There

11. On the other hand, once a gandhabba “is in the womb,” then there is a living being in the womb.

  • Any procedure to remove the live gandhabba after this “real conception” is equivalent to killing a human. The exact time of the removal procedure does not matter. It could be a month before the birth of the baby or just a day after the gandhabba came into the womb.
  • The only uncertainty about the “time of conception” is a few days. Conception happens when the gandhabba takes hold of the zygote. That could happen immediately after intercourse or a few days after sex.
  • Thus Buddha Dhamma provides an unambiguous picture of the moral issues involved in the birth control process.
Other Aspects

12. The death of a physical body of a human does not mean its existence as a human has ended. If there is remaining “kammic energy” for the human bhava left, the mental body (gandhabba) will come of the dead physical body and will wait for another suitable womb.

  • However, if the “kammic energy for the present human bhava” is exhausted at the time of death, then the transition to the next “bhava” or existence happens at the dying moment.  If that new existence is that of a cat, a “cat gandhabba” will leave the dead body.
  • Here again, the “cat gandhabba” will have to wait until a suitable “cat womb” becomes available. At that time it will go into the womb of the “cat mother.” And a baby cat will be born later on.
  • However, except for humans and animals, a gandhabba is not involved in most other realms. That is true, for example, in Deva and Brahma realms.

13. Sometimes the child may have different “gati” compared to the parents. For example, a “fairly moral” couple may have a child with violent character qualities. That could be due to a drastic change in the mindset of the mother during that “conception window.” (Between the formation of the zygote and a gandhabba “descending” to the womb.) Violent rape is one possibility.

  • Furthermore, this is also why mothers who could not get pregnant for years, suddenly get pregnant. This happens during a time when the mother most likely has a “personality shift” or a significant change in her mental state.
Cloning – A Detailed Analysis

14. I have revised and updated another relevant post, “Cloning and Gandhabba.”

  • More details on the formation of the zygote are discussed there, before the discussion on cloning.
  • We will make the connection to Paticca Samuppāda in the next post.
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