The four births

When writers in the Sino- Buddhistic tradition want to say "everywhere and everywhen," they often use the phrase "六道四生" (rokudō shishō in Japanese). This literally means "six ways [and] four births." The "six ways," also known "realms" or "domains," consist of one "way" each for celestials, humans, ashura, animals, and "hungry ghosts" (餓鬼), plus hell to round things out.

Note that these aren't realms in the sense of physical places. After all, humans and animals share the same physical realm, and Trent Reznor released several albums in the 1990s despite being in hell. Me, I like to think of the six ways as a spiritual version of Uexküll's umwelten.

Anyway, that's the six ways. What are the "four births"? This is another division of the inhabitants of the "six ways", into the following four categories: viviparous (strictly speaking, "placental") (胎生 taishō), oviparous (卵生 ranshō), caloriparous umidiparous ("born of humidity", 温生 湿生 shisshō), and mutatiparous ("born of change", 化生 keshō). (I coined "caloriparous" and "mutatiparous" just now. Latin scholars are invited to better them.)

I'm sure everyone reading this knows about oviparous and viviparous animals, and any student of the ancient world should be able to guess that it was bugs and worms and so on that were alleged to have been "born of warmth humidity." That leaves "born of change." Turns out this refers to beings who are born spontaneously and supernaturally, usually as a result of deeds in previous lives: this includes, for example, both inhabitants of celestial realm and their less fortunate brothers in hell. (It also traditionally includes the very first human beings.)

In Japan, keshō has since expanded in meaning to also include "appearance of a supernatural being in the mundane world, or the form so assumed." The phenomena so described might be good or evil — although in the absence of context, always bet on evil — and there's also a metaphorical application, to bewitching women (化生のもの, keshō no mono).

Note: 化生 keshō is not to be confused with 化生 kasei, which means, er, birth or assumption of new form in general, but without the Buddhist connotations. (It appears in much older Chinese texts, like the I Ching, e.g.: 天地感而萬物化生,聖人感人心而天下和平, "Heaven and earth attract each other and thus all creatures come into being. Through such attraction the sage influences men's hearts, and thus the world attains peace" in the Wilhelm translation.)

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Does the Buddha count as mutatiparous, since he came out of his mother’s armpit? Or that still placental?

g faust:

Do you think the phrase 四六時中 has some connection to this idea of everywhere and every time, or did it evolve on it's own?
I suppose, at least, that 六道四生 must have some bearing with time, calendars and such.

Leonardo Boiko:

I thought bugs and worms would be mutatiparous, as in being pieces of decaying matter that somehow came alive.


I get the "everywhere", but it's interesting that the phrase has taken on the connotation of "everywhen" as well -- there doesn't seem to be a temporal aspect to the births/realms as such (at least to me, in my largely complete ignorance of all things Buddhist).

By the way, the Reznor gag made me spray things out of my nose.


In my Ecology of Buddhism class, keshō was explained as "spontaneous manifestation". I think this is suitably spooky to tie to the appearance of horrible yōkai and so forth. Brr...


Carl: I don't know, but I got five bucks says that a distinction is made in this area between his physical body and his greater meaning.

g faust: Unfortunately 四六時中 is unrelated. It comes straight from the (non-Buddhist) Chinese way of measuring time. But they do have common roots in humanity's endless urge to subdivide and classify things, I suppose.

Leo: Oh, interesting point. Hmm. I guess I was shooting off my mouth without thinking about it much.

Aragoto: I guess I interpret it as meaning "under any circumstances" or "no matter what", thus, time, place, incarnation, etc. are all important. It mostly gets used as extreme hyperbole after all (e.g. in Mumon's comment on the first chapter of the Mumonkan: "如奪得關將軍大刀入手、逢佛殺佛、逢祖殺祖、於生死岸頭得大自在、向六道四生中遊戲三昧")

Avery: That sounds like an intriguing class. What else did they cover?


温生 shisshō
The correct orthography is "湿生", born of aquiferous air.


Oh, embarrassing! Thanks, minus273.


Matt: Unfortunately so much of the class was dedicated to demonstrating that Gary Snyder's "Buddhism" was only the Western interpretation, because many people come to it with certain assumptions... but the prof is Japanese and loves depictions of Hell, so of course we got to see women's hell and meat-eater's hell. (I shared your etymology of "danna" with her.) Also we talked about tree ordination in Thailand, Green Tibetans, and so forth.

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