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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, but we now know that it is false.

If it is a scientific error of the Buddha, 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.

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    Omniscience is not a knowledge of all the details. – user14119 Apr 26 at 10:39
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I could not find any commentaries with a detailed explanation on this.

I'll use the Bodhi translation of MN 12:

What is egg-born generation? There are these beings born by breaking out of the shell of an egg; this is called egg-born generation. What is womb-born generation? There are these beings born by breaking out from the caul; this is called womb-born generation. What is moisture-born generation? There are these beings born in a rotten fish, in a rotten corpse, in rotten porridge, in a cesspit, or in a sewer; this is called moisture-born generation. What is spontaneous generation? There are gods and denizens of hell and certain human beings and some beings in the lower worlds; this is called spontaneous generation. These are the four kinds of generation.

Maggots are egg-born.

For moisture-born, we could apply this to bacteria and maybe fungi.

Bacteria involved in decomposition of the human body after death, usually come from the gut microbiome and other places in or on the body where there is bacteria. The other cases of rotten porridge, cesspit, sewer and rotten fish appear to imply the reproduction of bacteria too.

Bacteria are certainly not egg-born, womb-born or spontaneously generated. So, they can only fall in the category of moisture-born. Moisture-born here simply means that these beings reproduce only when the conditions are favourable for reproduction.

Mold in bread are caused by spores of fungi. They require moisture to reproduce. I don't consider fungal spores to be a kind of egg. But I suppose it could be interpreted as moisture-born (i.e. when the conditions are favourable) or egg-born (i.e. from fungal spores).

Spontaneous generation seem to apply to beings like devas (gods) and those in hell.

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    "bacteria and maybe fungi." It seems to be a well thought answer after investigation, consideration and broad prove of known observed, good householder. Sadhu – Samana Johann Apr 26 at 5:52
  • This passage is about rebirths. Bacteria and fungi are not sentient beings concerned with rebirths, nor are they born of moisture... – Kalapa Apr 26 at 8:18
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    Good point Kalapa, but did Buddha know about bacteria and viruses? – SarathW Apr 26 at 9:45
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Buddha probably based the first three examples of birth from how people understood the origins of life of his time. You are right that he was neither a scientist or a biologist in our contemporary understanding, and i doubt he was looking to outline a biological taxonomy of all life.

Instead - to my understanding - he used these four examples of birth to arrive at the point that "spontaneous generation" of birth is the subject of his teaching.

The word "spontaneous" is translated from the pali word opapatika. Looking closer at the meaning, we see that it also means "being reborn without parents":

https://suttacentral.net/define/opap%C4%81tika

To me, this implies a reference to the form rebirth known as jati:

https://suttacentral.net/define/j%C4%81ti

In other words, buddha is referencing rebirth as described further in the topic of dependent origination.

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  • This is what I thought too, till I took a closer look at the surrounding text in MN 12: "suppose someone were to say this: ‘The ascetic Gotama has no superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones …’ Unless they give up that speech and that thought, and let go of that view, they will be cast down to hell. Sāriputta, there are these four kinds of reproduction. What four? ... Suppose someone were to say this: ‘The ascetic Gotama has no superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones ..." – ruben2020 Apr 26 at 10:21
  • The surrounding text of MN 12 seems to suggest that the knowledge of the four kinds of reproduction is meant to prove that the Buddha has superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. – ruben2020 Apr 26 at 10:22
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"If it is a scientific error of the Buddha, 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?"

Actually from this you can now understand Buddha's omniscience completely and conclude he was not omniscient.

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