Kamma and Rebirth

According to the Buddha, the continual process of being born, dying and being born again, which he called saṁsāra, is fraught with pain and suffering. Even if in this life we were able to avoid all the pain and distress that embodied existence is susceptible to, there is no guarantee that we will be able to avoid it in the next. Thus the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teaching is to stop being reborn.

There are three ideas about what happens after death. Materialism say that we cease to exist. The major theistic religions maintain that we go to either everlasting paradise or damnation according to our beliefs and/or our actions. Buddhism, Jainism, some versions of Hinduism and several minor religions and spiritual movements say that at death we reincarnate, or to use Buddhist lingo, we are reborn. The terms the Buddha used for rebirth are “re-becoming” (punabbhava, D.II,15), “moving from womb to womb” (gabbhā gabbhaṁ, Sn.278), or sometimes “existence after existence” (bhavābhavaṁ, A.III,69; Sn.1060).

Like kamma, the idea of rebirth or reincarnation was not a widespread one at the time of the Buddha. The Vedas do not mention it nor do most of the early Upaniṣads. The Taittirīya Upaniṣad for example, teaches that “after departing from this world his self becomes food, the life-principle… the mind understanding or bliss” (Tai.3.10.5). The idea of rebirth seems to have been current mainly amongst some of the non-Vedic unorthodox teachers, although others rejected the idea in favour of either materialism or heaven.

As well as imparting moral value to our actions and conditioning the quality of our experience, the other important effect of kamma is causing us to be reborn. From one point of view it could be said that kamma is of two types – positive or negative. From another point of view all kamma is negative in that it causes us to be reborn. At the deepest level all our intentional actions are rooted in clinging and craving (upādāna and taṇhā) and so kamma is equivalent to craving (30a,b,c) Craving creates the energy that both compels and propels us into a new life. Kamma keeps us going through a succession of lives just as material food keeps us going through the present life. (31)

How does rebirth take place? According to the Buddha, death can be said to have occurred when vitality (āyu), heat (usmā) and consciousness (viññāṇa) leave the body.(32) The conditions necessary for rebirth to take place are the parent’s coitus (sannipatita), the mother’s fertility, (utunī) and the presence of the consciousness to be reborn (gandhabba). (33) This consciousness “moves upwards” (uddhagāmi), then “descends” (avakkanti) unconsciously (asampajāña) into the mother’s newly fertilized egg (D.III,103; S.V,370), and “settles down (okkamissathā, D.II,63) in the womb. These spatial description are probably only metaphorical.

The In-between State

Some schools of Buddhism teach that after death, consciousness hovers or pauses in an in-between state (antarabhava) for a certain period before being reborn. Others assert that rebirth takes place the instant consciousness disengages from the body. The Buddha’s words suggest that there is an interval between death and rebirth. He spoke of the situation “when one has laid down the body (i.e. died) but has not yet been reborn” (S.IV,400). On several other occasions he said that for one who has attained Nirvana there is “no here, no there, no in-between” (e.g. S.IV,73; Ud.8), referring to this life, the next life and presumably, the in-between state. While the gandhabba is in this in-between state apparently the thing that sustains it is the latent craving (taṇha), which is described as its fuel (upādāna). (34)

Stopping Kamma, Ending Rebirth

As a person’s practice of the Dhamma matures they gradually learn to become more detached from contact (phassa), i.e. the various pleasant and unpleasant experiences that impinge on them in the normal process of living. (35) In the early stages of spiritual practice, guarding the sense doors (indriya-saṁvara), moral restraint (sīla) and mindful attention (sati) are useful to enhancing detachment. But even if a person is serene at the time they die and apparently without any anxiety, fear or apparent clinging or craving, they will still be reborn. This is because at the deepest level, we might say, at the unconscious level, residual craving and the propensity for craving are still present. The Buddha described craving as manifesting itself sometimes as craving for sensual experiences (kāmāsava), craving for becoming (bhavāsana) and craving for not knowing (avijjāsava). Sometimes he also mentioned craving for non-existence (vibhavāsava), i.e. annihilation. Ultimately, it is seeing the futility of continually being pushed by this desirable experience, recoiling from that undesirable one, constantly hankering for ever more intense and novel contact and its subsequent feelings, that results in complete detachment. It is only when one attains awakening or freedom (bodhi or vimutti) that one sees and is able to neutralise the propensity for craving. (36) Sometimes the Buddha likened craving to seeds (bīja) that may lie dormant for an extended period but germinate and spring into life given the right conditions.(37a,b) An awakened person’s insight has destroyed even the tiniest seeds of this craving and thus is no longer reborn. They no longer react, they just act; without desire, ego or self interest. They have “done what had to be done”. Being without desire they no longer create kamma and thus when their life-span finishes they are no longer reborn, they attain Nirvana. The obvious next question is: “What or where is Nirvana?” To answer this would require another book. In the meantime it will be sufficient to quote the Buddha: “Nirvana is the highest happiness” (Dhp.203).

It is interesting to note that while the awakened person does not make any new kamma, either positive or negative, they are still able to experience the vipāka of any kamma they made earlier; what might be called residual vipāka. However, in the lead up to their awakening experience it is unlikely that they would have done any kamma the vipāka of which would be unpleasant, because while they had been developing wisdom and detachment they would have also at the same time been developing the positive states, particularly love, kindness, empathy and compassion.(38)

Rebirth and Special Attainments

An individual who has developed meditation and purified their mind to a very high level can apparently have a degree of control over the process of rebirth. Although such abilities are rare and not accessible to the vast majority of people, they are still worth mentioning. Rebirth is a process that usually takes place unconsciously and apart from the individual’s will. However, some individuals are apparently able to be conscious and fully aware (sampajañña) during the whole process. (39) Some are even able to attain awakening while suspended in the in-between state. The Buddha called such a person “a Nirvanaized in-between type” (antarāparinibbāyī, S.V,69). Although no details are given, it is clear that only someone who was already very close to awakening at the time of their death would have such an ability.

The Last Thought Moment

Let us now examine some developments of the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma and rebirth that may well distort them rather than be in harmony with them. While the Buddha understood the mind to be a “flow” or “stream” of mental events (viññāṇasota), later thinkers speculated that it was actually a string of individual thought moments (cittavīthi) arising and passing away with great rapidity. Later still, the theory developed that the last of these thought moments (cuticitta) before a person dies will, not condition, but determine their next life. The theory of the importance of the last thought moment is not mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses or even in the later Abhidhamma Piṭaka. The Tipiṭaka records many occasions where the Buddha counselled people who were either dying or critically ill and yet he never bought up the idea of the last thought moment, the most appropriate time to do so one would think. Mahānāma once confided to the Buddha his anxiety about dying at a time when his mind was confused and bewildered (musati), thinking it might result in him having a negative rebirth. The Buddha reassured him that because he had developed various spiritual qualities for a long time, he had nothing to fear if such a thing should happen. (40) (S.V,369).

The theory of the importance of the supposed last thought moment first appears in an undeveloped form in the Milindapañha (approx. 1st century BCE/2nd century CE) which says: “If someone did unskilful things for a hundred years but at the time of death was mindful for one moment of the Buddha, he would be reborn amongst the gods.” (Mil.80). By the time the Visuddhimagga was composed (5th century CE), this idea had been worked out in detail and had come to be considered orthodox in Theravada (Vism.458-60). Apart from not having been taught by the Buddha, there are several philosophical, ethical and logical problems with the theory that the last thought moment is the deciding factor in one’s circumstances in the next life.

If a person had lived a relatively good life but in the anxiety and confusion just preceding their death they had some negative thoughts they would, according to this theory, have a negative rebirth. Likewise, one could have lived an immoral and dissolute life but pass away with ease and in peace and therefore have an advantageous rebirth. This negates the whole idea of kamma, the teaching that the sum total of our intentional thoughts, speech and actions conditions our future, both in this life and the next. Further, it is very difficult to understand how just one or two thought moments, each of them supposedly a millisecond long (khaṇa), can cancel out perhaps many years of good or evil thoughts, speech and actions.

This theory also fails to take into account causation. If everything is conditioned, and the Buddha taught that it is, then the last thought moment must be conditioned by the second last thought moment which in turn must be conditioned by the third last thought moment, etc. This means what we are thinking, saying and doing right now will have an impact on what is in our minds at the time we die. Therefore, to emphasise the last thought moment is to give exaggerated significance to the effect and neglect the cause or causes, i.e. how one is living here and now.