Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception

Revised with a new title: November 10, 2018; revised November 14, 2018

1. Buddhist explanation of conception is clearly explained in several Tipitaka suttas. Following is a simple account based on those suttas.  It is also compatible with modern science.

  • Moral issues regarding abortion and birth control have very clear answers in Buddha Dhamma. In particular, at what stage of pregnancy does a human life first appear in a womb?
  • A human bhava can last thousands of years. On the other hand, a physical human  body lasts only about 100 years. In between successive births with “human bodies”, the gandhabba (mental body) lives in what is called “para lōka“. The para lōka co-exists with our human lōka, but we cannot see those fine mental bodies of gandhbbas; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“.

2. According to the suttas as well as Abhidhamma in the Tipitaka,  a new human existence (bhava) does not start in a womb. It starts at the cuit-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 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 important concept in Buddha Dhamma that has been ignored for a long time; do a search for “gati” on the top right search box to find about “gati“.

3. First of all, in order for a gandhabba to enter a womb, there must be a fertilized egg (zygote) in the womb.

  • During mother’s menstrual cycle, one egg (ovum) is usually released from one of the ovaries and is 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.
  • A gandhabba can take hold of that fertilized egg (zygote) any time after its formed.

4. Once a gandhabba merges with the zygote, the cells of the zygote start dividing repeatedly as the zygote moves down the fallopian tube.

  • Therefore, conception  happens at the time when the life-less zygote becomes “alive” with the merging of the gandhabba. In Buddha Dhamma, conception is called “okkanthi” of a gandhabba or a gandhabba entering a womb.
  • The “live zygote” enters the uterus in 3 to 5 days. In the uterus, the cells continue to divide, becoming a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. Inside the uterus, the blastocyst implants in the wall of the uterus, where it develops into an embryo attached to a 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

5.  A gandhabba may have to wait for a few days or even a many years until a suitable womb becomes available; at that time, it will be pulled into the womb by the kammic energy, and the gandhabba takes hold of the zygote in the womb that was created by a sperm fertilizing an egg.

  • 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, gandhabba concept is different from the concept 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.
  • This “human gandhabba” has a very fine body and thus cannot be seen.

6. 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 emerge from the dead body; of course this gandhabba has a very fine body that cannot be seen.
  • Here again the “cat gandhabba” will have to wait until a suitable “cat womb” is ready, and that time it will get of the newly formed “cat zygote” in 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, for example, in deva and brahma realms.

7. Therefore what happens in a womb (when an egg is fertilized with a sperm) is just to provide the “material basis” (zygote) for the gandhabba to form a physical body.

8. Now let us see what happens when a condom is used and when birth control pills are used.

  • If a condom is used, then obviously 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 for a gandhabba to take hold of.
  • If the mother is taking birth control pills, again that will prevent a zygote being formed for a gandhabba to start a new life.
  • Thus it is clear that there are no moral issues involved; terminating a life is not involved in either case.

9. On the other hand, once the gandhabba “is in the womb” and has taken possession of the zygote, then there is a living being in the womb.

  • Any procedure done after this “real conception” is equivalent to taking a human life; it does not matter whether the procedure was done a month before birth of the baby or just a day after the gandhabba came into the womb.
  • The only uncertainty is when the gandhabba takes hold of the zygote after it is formed; this could happen immediately after intercourse or a few days after intercourse. By the time the zygote arrives at the womb, there is a living being there; see #10 and #11 below.
  • Thus Buddha Dhamma provides a fairly unambiguous picture of the moral issues involved in the birth control process.

10. 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 some couples who could not have babies for many years all of a sudden have success. The actual conception time is also controversial; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beginning_of_pregnancy_controversy

  • If the mother (and father) are prevented from having a child due to a previous kamma vipaka, the resulting zygote will be a “dud” and thus no gandhabba can “descend to the womb”, i.e., pregnancy is not possible.

11. 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. This is likely to be due to a drastic change of the mindset of the mother during the time the gandhabba “descended” to the womb.

  • furthermore, this is also why mothers who could not get pregnant for years, get pregnant during a time period when the mother most likely had a “personality shift” or a significant change in her mental state.

12. A clear account of the conception process is given in the suttas, and a comprehensive review of those accounts are at: “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipitaka“.

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