Death and Rebirth | Theravada Buddhism


Introduction and Warning

This is an article dedicated to the teachings on Death and Rebirth and more precisely - to teachings on Death and Rebirth as it is taught and understood in Theravada Buddhism...

First off, this is very important subject and should be treated as such; it is not a castles of sand - it is based on ancient religious teachings of Arahants and Buddhas and sages of very great inner attainments and generations upon generations of is not some recently found science still developing...

and as I personally stand behind everything that is published and taught on this website - and we know this website is dedicated to different religious traditions - using different descriptions and terminology for the same things...

I felt some words of introduction and warning would be in place...

1. While teachings on Death and Rebirth as understood by Theravada Buddhism - are correct in all general lines...and hopefully should make happy all people strictly believing in Theravada Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism only...

still, some details may be missing or left unnoticed to the critical and scrupulous reason of Theras and better revealed in the mystical experience of Tibetan Buddhist teachers....

Hence, for the sake of better research and more profound understanding of the questions concerning Death and Rebirth as such... I would strongly recommend to study also Tibetan Book of the Dead - which decribes the same things more profoundly from the point of view of Tibetan Buddhism.... and also I recommend to study the same subject from Bhagavad Gītā, especially Book 8 to those Hindu - minded... Both places are correct and detailed enough... but terminology differs very much...

2. And now Second Note... on - terminology... I realise - there are many discussions among the educated and snobic public - whether there is no Rebirth but Reincarnation or Rebirth takes place and no Reincarnation - and what is a difference between them... For an average person - if you are not a proffessour of philosophy - the difference is not so great...

or similar question - if Buddhists say- there are no permanent soul and God- and other religions say - there is an eternal and indestructible soul and god - who is right, who is wrong - now what should we do... What does reincarnate if Buddhists say - there is no soul?!

Here, in order to answer the rhetoric questions above - we should remember - that for Buddhists - what really exists - is Nāma-Rūpa exists - all mental and material processes exist, 5 organs of senses and the mind exists and their corresponding objects exist...

and if... somebody is searching for any eternal thing or soul or God - perceivable by organs of senses and mind... they are wrong... ohh ... they are wrong... and Buddhism describes it very well and correct...

But what it refuses to do... is to describe what is behind... what is it that transcends the human senses and mind?! What is it which is left described as "Thus Gone" or "Nirvana" - the end of the world of existing - about which nobody can tell - whether it exist or doesn't exist?!

Yes, in traditional Religious terminology of Hinduism and other religions - that which is behind the borders of human perception and thinking - it is the eternal soul and God.... and - it is again Correct, in it's own way... there are no contradictions... whether you name it - the next moment of Consciousness, as Buddhists do... or you call it Eternal Consciousness, alias Soul, which ends only in Liberation - in merging with the Transcendental God...

So, I hope I have cleared some of your confusions about different terminology. For those seeing the Truth there should not be any confusions and all, and if you still have, you are welcome to ask...

And now we follow with the Main Subject - Death and Rebirth according to Theravada Buddhism...

Death and Rebirth

1. Difference between Rebirth and Reincarnation

All religions believe in an after-life.

However the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth should be differentiated from the transmigration and reincarnation of other systems, because Buddhism denies the existence of a transmigrating permanent soul, created by a God or emanating from a Paramātmā (Supreme or Universal Soul).

Buddhism does not believe in any sort of transmigration. There is nothing that comes out of one body and enters another:

Events take place according to the Law of Dependent Origination or Paṭicca Samuppāda:

Everything comes into existence depending on an instance previous to it and everything must also give rise to an instance, depending on itself.

In the Paṭicca Samuppāda, the Buddha mentioned that Craving gives rise to Clinging, that to Becoming (or the continuity of the life-process actuated by Kamma) and that to Birth.

The Craving of the dying man must give rise to Clinging, that to the continuity of the life-process of Becoming through Kamma (Kammabhava), and that to Birth.

This is in line with the Second Noble Truth whereby craving gives rise to a new being consisting of the five aggregates of clinging which are suffering.

2. How Rebirth Takes Place

Starting with the conception of a human, the Buddha said that a germ of life is planted only when 3 conditions are met: Mother and father must unite, it is the mother’s period (ovum is ripe) and “the being to be born " is present. For a being to be born here, a being with craving for Becoming must die somewhere.

It should not be taken to mean that “a being to be born or soul is waiting for the egg and sperm to unite and then enter it.” Parents only provide us with the cellular material in the rebirth process.

This does not mean that all beings require parents for their birth because there are beings that are reborn spontaneously, depending on their Kamma.

Death according to Buddhism is the cessation of the psycho-physical life of any one individual existence. It takes place by the passing away of the life faculty (jivitindriya), heat and consciousness.

Death is not the complete annihilation of a being, for though that life-span ended, the force that hitherto actuated it is not destroyed.

The instant death occurs, a new mental process called the Rebirth Consciousness (patisandhi citta) conditioned by the Reproductive Kamma (or kamma-bhava, the kamma process of becoming) arises together with three kamma-produced material groups constituting the body, sex and base (seat of consciousness). They condition the arising of mental & material processes of the embryo, now called a being in the conventional sense.

The Rebirth Consciousness and the 3 kamma-produced material groups are collectively termed “the being to be born.” This term is used only in this particular connection, and must not be mistaken for a permanent soul waiting to enter a suitable womb to be reborn.

3. The Re-linking or Rebirth Consciousness

According to the Buddha's teaching of Dependent Origination, "Through the Process of Becoming (kamma-bhava), conditioned is Rebirth."

To understand this relationship, we need to realize that in reality, there is no such thing called a being, only mental & material processes called nama-rūpa. Even during one's lifetime, these nama- rūpas arise and pass away continuously.

Death is the extinction of the last consciousness on dissolution of the old nama-rūpa.

Rebirth is the immediate arising of a new consciousness called the rebirth or re-linking consciousness, together with the new nama-rūpa. It is called re-linking consciousness because it joins the new existence with the old one.

The arising, of the rebirth consciousness is conditioned by the last kamma before death:

If this kamma is wholesome, rebirth will take place in a happy existence. If unwholesome, rebirth will take place in an unhappy existence. This is what the Buddha meant when He said that ‘all beings are born of their Kamma (Kammayoni)’.

It is very important to realize that:

(a) There is no soul or permanent entity that leaves the old body and enters another new body. Lack of this understanding usually leads to the belief in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation, namely: the wrong view of eternity.

(b) As Volitional Activities or Kamma depend on Ignorance and Craving, beings that have not completely eradicated these defilements will still accumulate Kamma and undergo rebirth after death. Lack of this understanding usually leads to the wrong belief in annihilation after death, which is held by modern materialists.

4. Modes of Death

Death can occur due to the following four causes.

(a) Exhaustion of the force of the Reproductive Kamma that gave rise to the birth in question.

(b) Expiration of the lifespan.

(c) Simultaneous exhaustion of both Reproductive Kamma and expiration of lifespan.

(d) Action of a stronger Kamma that suddenly cuts off the power of the Reproductive Kamma before expiry of the life-term.

The first three types of death are called Timely Death while the last one is called Untimely Death. An oil lamp, for instance, may get extinguished owing to any one of the following 4 causes:

(1) The exhaustion of the wick,
(2) The exhaustion of oil,
(3) Simultaneous exhaustion of both wick and oil, and
(4) Some extraneous cause like a gust of wind.

The death of a person may similarly be caused by the above- mentioned four ways.

5. Objects Presented to the Mind before Death

To the dying man is presented a Kamma, Kamma Nimitta or Gati Nimitta:

By Kamma is meant some action of his, whether good or bad:

The most powerful are Weighty Kamma. If this is absent, he may recollect the action done immediately before death called Death Proximate Kamma.

If this is also absent, a Habitual Kamma is presented to him, such as stealing in the case of a thief or healing the sick in the case of a good physician.

Failing all these, some casual act, one of the cumulative reserves of the endless past or Cumulative Kamma becomes the object of the dying thought.

Among the skilful actions lay Buddhists are taught to do at their last moments are the performance of the 10 meritorious actions:

such as chanting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts mentally, recalling one’s pilgrimage to the holy places to arouse faith, listening to the Dhamma (tape recording or monks chanting), recollections of the Virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, recollections of one’s Virtues or Generosity, practicing mental culture such as Loving Kindness or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna).

Such wholesome actions will condition the arising of wholesome mental states to determine the last Kamma process before death and lead to rebirth in happy realms. As death can strike at any moment, one should be prepared to face this eventuality.

Kamma Nimitta is any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea which was obtained at the time of commission of the Kamma:

such as knives in the case of a butcher, patients in the case of a doctor, an object of worship such as the Buddha image or Bodhi tree in the case of a devotee, or happy memories of one’s pilgrimage to India.

Gati Nimitta is some sign of the place where one is destined to be reborn, an event that invariably happens to dying persons:

If these indications of future birth are bad, they could be turned into good by influencing the thoughts of the dying man, so that his good thoughts may now act as the Proximate Kamma and influence the type of Reproductive Kamma to condition his rebirth.

These symbols of one’s destiny may be hellish fires, mountainous regions, mother’s womb, celestial mansions, etc.

6. Five Visions of a Dying Person

According to some Theravada teachers, the five visions of a dying person may be:

hellish fires for those who are bound for rebirth in hell,
animals and forests for those bound for rebirth as animals,
dark apparitions for those bound for rebirth as ghosts,
deceased parents and relatives for those bound for rebirth as humans and
celestial mansions and chariots for those bound for rebirth in the celestial realms.

Chinese folklore, too, abound with stories about dying people who claim to hear the sound of chains or see visions of King Yama’s guards with hideous faces resembling horses or bulls coming with chains to take them to the underworld for judgment.

Gati-nimitta, being always a physical sight, is presented to the mind-door as a dream:

Psychologically these mental stages may be termed as illusion, hallucination or delusion. Therefore people whose minds are lucid and unconfused at their dying moments may not experience any death-bed vision at all.

7. The Dying Consciousness

Taking for the object an action (kamma) or sign of action (kamma nimitta) or sign of destiny (Gati nimitta), the dying consciousness runs its course even if the death is an instantaneous one.

In Abhidhamma, a normal thought process runs for 17 thought- moments (citta), in which the Javana process lasts for 7 thought-moments:

This Javana stage is the most important from an ethical standpoint. It is at this psychological stage that good or evil is actually done i.e. kamma is performed.

Commentators say that within the brief duration of a flash of lightning, there may be billions of cittas or thought-moments.

In the thought process before death, the Javana process is weak and runs for only 5 thought- moments. This last Javana-process is very important as it determines the reproductive kamma of the next life.

Next the registering consciousness which identifies the object may or may not follow. After this, occurs the death-consciousness (cuticitta), the last thought-moment to be experienced in the present life.

On death the last consciousness passes away conditioning the arising of a new consciousness called Rebirth Consciousness (Patisandhi) in a new body or form of birth.

And that new consciousness, too, immediately passes away and subsequent consciousness arise one after another in a stream, like a flux, like the flow of a river.

This renewed life-flux inherits all past experiences. This new being is neither absolutely the same as the past one owing to its different composition, nor totally different, being the identical stream of Kammic energy.

The transition of the flux is instantaneous. There is no room for an intermediate state or antarabhāva.

According to the Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) certain sects such as Pubbaseliya and Sammatiya held that there is an interim stage where a being awaits re-conception for a week or longer:

The counter argument is based on the Buddha’s dictum that there are 3 states of becoming (bhava) only the Sensual, the Form and the Formless Worlds.

Hence Buddhists do not believe that the spirit of the deceased person takes lodgement in a certain intermediate state until it finds a suitable place or womb for its reincarnation.

Rebirth takes place immediately, and there is no difference in time whether one is born in a heaven or in a state of misery, as an animal or as a human.

What actually conditions rebirth is not the death consciousness (cuticitta) but the last Javana process described earlier. If it is wholesome, rebirth takes place in a happy realm; if unwholesome, rebirth takes place in a woeful state of existence.

Understanding this and the fact that death can strike at any moment in one’s life, one should always be heedful and practise as many skilful actions as possible to face this eventuality before it is too late.

8. Modes of Birth

There are four modes of birth, namely:

(a) Egg-born creatures such as birds, reptiles and fish.
(b) Womb-born creatures such as humans, mammals and some earth-bound deities.
(c) Moisture-born creatures such as certain insects that take moisture as material for their growth.

(d) Creatures having spontaneous births. They are generally invisible to the human eye. Conditioned by past Kamma, they appear suddenly, independently of parents. Brahmas, devas, petas, asuras and hell-beings belong to this class.

There are 9 material groups that are produced by Kamma, namely:

base or seat of consciousness, life principle, male sex, female sex and five sensitive material qualities of eye, ear, nose, tongue and body. They are fully developed in beings that are born spontaneously. As such, beings of spontaneous birth do not need parents to provide the material layer or cells for their birth.

9. Four Planes of Existence

The 4 planes of existence are:

a) Sensual plane of misery (apāya or kamaduggati bhūmi)
b) Sensual plane of bliss (kamasugati bhūmi)
c) Fine material or form plane (rūpa bhūmi)
d) Non-material or formless plane (arūpa bhūmi)

• The sensual plane of misery comprises 4 states, namely: niraya or hell, animal kingdom, peta or ghost world and the host of asuras or demons. Rebirth in any of these 4 woeful states is conditioned by unwholesome reproductive kamma that predominates at the moment of death.

• In all 7 sensual states of bliss comprising the human world and the 6 heavenly realms, rebirth as a normal human being or deva, is conditioned by superior wholesome reproductive kamma.

However, rebirth as a degraded human being who is blind, deaf, dumb, retarded or deformed by birth, or as an earth- bound degraded asura of the lower realm of Four Great Kings, is conditioned by inferior wholesome reproductive kamma.

• In the form or rūpa plane, rebirth in one of the 16 states of Brahma gods that possess form is conditioned by the type of mental absorption of the form plane (rūpa jhāna) that one has attained to.

• In the formless or arūpa plane, rebirth in one of the 4 states of Formless Brahma gods is conditioned by the type of mental absorption of the formless plane (arūpa jhāna) that one has attained to.

• In total, the 4 planes comprise 31 states of existence.