Buddhism Embryology in Buddhist Thought
Anna Andreeva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0228


Ideas about the origins of life and the development of the human body in utero have been part of Buddhist discourse since the time of its inception. Inheriting some of the notions seen also in the Jain, Puraṇic, and Āyurvedic sources, Buddhist embryological thought was linked inextricably with the idea of death and rebirth. The questions of how the consciousness emerges and what residues are left over after an individual’s death to continue the cycle of transmigration, or how the human being precisely develops in the mother’s womb, constituted the vital avenues of inquiry for Buddhist thinkers and practitioners. Thus, numerous descriptions of conception and embryological growth appeared in the Buddhist sutras, religious commentaries, and medico-religious manuals, but their perception and use varied according to the cultural and historical contexts. In locations as diverse as India, Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet, China, and Japan, the embryological descriptions were linked to the ideas of suffering, karmic debt, and filial piety; in some cases, the schematic models of fetal gestation were used as a template for ritual or spiritual progress or in tantric practices of self-cultivation. Such descriptions appeared also in medical treatises and, to a much lesser degree, vernacular Buddhist rituals related to women’s bodies and women’s health. The general overview below will introduce scholarly writings that have made prominent forays into this topic within specific cultural contexts or those that examine in depth the notions critical for understanding the embryological motifs embedded in Buddhist thought.

General Overviews

There are few general overviews of this topic, but a growing number of studies offer detailed treatments of embryological themes found in different corners of the Buddhist cultural sphere. This section lists a number of useful introductions to embryological thought in several cultural and historical contexts, as well as studies that highlight the processes of transmission and reconfiguration of Buddhist teachings, medical thought, and ideas about gender. Regarding the medical sources, Harper 1998 discusses the earliest pre-Buddhist embryological sources discovered in China. Wujastyk 2003 introduces the classic Indian medical texts containing embryological descriptions, while Das 2003 analyzes such descriptions in depth. Chen 2005 and Deshpande 2008 cast light on the importance of the Sino-Indic exchanges in early medicine, including gender formation of embryos. Williams 1997 discusses different concepts of the body in Mahāyāna texts known in Tibet. As for the religious embryologies appearing in Buddhist sources, there is a growing number of studies that deal with such cases in each cultural context. Law and Sasson 2009 offers several important essays dealing with Buddhist embryological thought in the contexts of India, Thailand, and Tibet. Crosby 2000 surveys the embryological sources of Tantric Theravāda studied earlier by François Bizot. For the East Asian contexts, Sanford 1997 provides an early introduction to the theme of embryology in medieval Japan, while Andreeva and Steavu 2016 build on this theme and offer a collection of essays dealing with embryological themes in the contexts of Daoist practice in China and esoteric Buddhist practice in Japan.

  • Andreeva, Anna, and Dominic Steavu, eds. Transforming the Void: Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    The twelve essays discuss embryological ideas in the context of Daoist and esoteric Buddhist teachings and practices as they developed in China and Japan. The editors’ introduction provides an overview of Indian and Chinese sources that form backdrops and parallels to the diverse case studies taken up in each essay.

  • Chen Ming 陳明. “Zhuan Nü Wei Nan (轉女為男), Turning Female to Male: An Indian Influence on Chinese Gynaecology?” Asian Medicine 1.2 (2005): 315–334.

    DOI: 10.1163/157342105777996647

    Focuses on the issues of fetal gender determination and transformation seen in early medieval Chinese and Indian medical texts. Also highlights the possibility of a historical transmission of Indian medical knowledge to China, one of the key yet unresolved issues in the study of medical thought in premodern Asia.

  • Crosby, Kate. “Tantric Theravāda: A Bibliographic Essay on the Writings of François Bizot and Others on the Yogāvacara Tradition.” Contemporary Buddhism 1.2 (2000): 141–198.

    DOI: 10.1080/14639940008573729

    An annotated bibliography of the works by the French scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhism François Bizot. It offers an overview of embryological esoteric texts and meditational practices, such as “forming the Buddha within one’s body,” present within the Theravāda tradition of mainland Southeast Asia.

  • Das, Peter Rahul. The Origins of the Life of a Human Being: Conception and the Female according to Ancient Indian Medical and Sexological Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.

    Written in a style traditional for a German Habilitation thesis, this study provides a wealth of information on embryology resulting from a thorough philological study of the four Indian medical treatises, the Caraka Saṃhitā, Suśruta Saṃhitā, Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya, and Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha, considered to be representative of the Āyurvedic tradition.

  • Deshpande, Vijaya. “Glimpses of Āyurveda in Medieval Chinese Medicine.” Indian Journal of History of Science 43.2 (2008): 137–161.

    This article by an Indian scholar of Āyurvedic and Chinese medicine highlights the case of the transcultural interpenetrations of different streams of medical and medico-religious thought between India and China, with the focus on ophthalmology and a cursive treatment of primary sources dealing with pregnancy and women’s health.

  • Harper, Donald. Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. London and New York: Kegan Paul, 1998.

    Analyzes some of the early pre-Buddhist Chinese sources that feature embryological thought. It focuses on the Mawangdui manuscripts excavated from the tombs of Western Han (206–220 BCE), including the Taichan shu (Book on the embryo and childbirth) that discusses fetal development.

  • Law, Jane Marie, and Vanessa Sasson, eds. Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Introduces a broad range of religious sources and oral traditions from the cultural and historical contexts across the world that feature embryonic symbolism and metaphors. Of particular note are the chapters related to the Buddhist discourses on the embryo in India, Thailand, and Tibet. (See also Garrett 2009, cited under Tibetan Sources; Kritzer 2009 and Sasson 2009, cited under Indian Sources; and McDaniel 2009, cited under Pāli/Theravāda Sources.)

  • Sanford, James H. “Wind, Waters, Stupas, Mandalas: Fetal Buddhahood in Shingon.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 24.1 (1997): 1–38.

    A widely cited article that introduced the topic of embryology into the study of Japanese religions. It surveys the theory of tainai goi (the “five stages of embryo in the womb”) and its ritual dimensions, as well as the so-called Tachikawa lineage with which this theory was initially associated by 20th-century Japanese scholars.

  • Williams, Paul. “Some Mahāyāna Perspectives on the Body.” In Religion and the Body. Edited by Sarah Coakley, 205–230. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    Clarifies the key Mahāyānic terms signifying the physical body through the lam rim (the stages of the path) tradition developed by Tibetan scholar Tsong kha pa (b. 1357–d. 1419). It offers a survey of different models of the body as seen in the Mahāyānic sutras, with brief treatment of the embryological discourse emerging from the Tibetan Tantric sources.

  • Wujastyk, Dominic. The Roots of Āyurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. London: Penguin, 2003.

    Explains the historical background, literature, and terminology of classical Indian medicine, including the embryological development. It offers the English translations of the treatises Caraka Saṃhitā (Charaka’s compendium); Suśruta Saṃhitā (Suśruta’s compendium on surgery), on the uses of garlic (from the Bower Manuscript); Kaśyapa Saṃhitā (Kaśyapa’s compendium); Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya Saṃhitā (Vābghaṭa’s heart of medicine); and Śārṅgadhara Saṃhitā (Śārṅgadhara’s compendium).

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