According to the words of the Buddha, sentient beings take birth in four different ways. Karma, or actions of body, speech, and mind are propelling causes that determine birth in three realms of existence. Within those realms, sentient beings appear in four modes.
- Birth from an egg.
- Birth from a womb.
- Birth from heat and moisture.
- Spontaneous or miraculous birth.
This explanation is given by the Buddha in a number of discourses, as well as in the tantras. An example in the Pali Canon can be found in the Maha-sihanada Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lion’s Roar“. The Buddha states,
“Sariputta, there are these four kinds of generation. What are the four? Egg-born generation, womb-born generation, moisture-born generation and spontaneous generation.”
“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 dough, 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.”Maha-sihanada Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lion’s Roar (MN 12), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.
Spontaneous birth is said to apply to all gods, all beings born in the hell realms, and also all beings in the bardo, or intermediate state. Some classes of preta (starving spirits) are also born spontaneously. And bodhisattva emanations may appear miraculously or spontaneously in the human or other realms for the benefit of beings.
The image on this page depicts the Buddha’s miraculous birth. According to the scriptures, the Buddha emerged from his mother’s side rather than from her womb.