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KMU : Death and Rebirth

by Dr. Khin Maung U

By death is meant the extinction of psychic life (jivitindriya), heat (tejodhatu), and consciousness (vinnana), of an individual in a particular existence.

Death occurs with the ceasing of the death-consciousness, (cuti citta). Then, no materials born of mind (cittaja rupa) and food (aharaja rupa) are produced. Only a series of material qualities born of heat (utuja rupa) goes on till the corpse is reduced to dust.

Death occurs immediately after the cuti citta (death-consciousness). With death the physical body ceases to function, and the consciousness (citta) ceases, but the life-stream is not annihilated because the kamma force that propels it remains.

Death is not the complete annihilation of a being. Death in one place means birth in another place. Death is thus the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.

Types of advents of death

Death occurs through the following four advents:

(1) Through the expiration of the term of life, commonly understood as natural death due to old age.

(2) Through the extinction of the kamma force. In this case, the thought, volition or desire which was extremely strong during life-time becomes predominant at the moment of death and conditions the subsequent birth. In this last thought-moment is present a special potentiality when the potential energy of this kamma is exhausted, the activities of the material form in which the life force is corporealised cease even before the approach of old age.

(3) Through the simultaneous expiration of both of the above. These first three types of death are called kalamarana (timely death).

(4) Through the intervention of a destructive kamma (akalamarana or untimely death). Premature death may be due either to the action of the past-life or to that of the present life. A very powerful kamma force of the past is capable of nullifying the potential energy of the dying thought-moment (javana), and thus destroy the life of a being (Upacchedaka kamma).

Thought processes (javanas) at the time of death

At the time of death, the person’s bhavanga consciousness is interrupted, vibrates for two thought-moments, and passes away. Then comes the javana processes which, being weak, run at this time for only five thought-moments instead of the normal seven. Thus, it lacks all reproductive power, its main function being mere regulation of the new existence – abhinavakarna.

If, because of some good kamma, the person is to be born in the human realm, the consciousness he experiences is kusala (moral), automatic and prompted, accompanied by pleasure, and associated with wisdom or not. The tadalambana consciousness, which has for two thought-moments a registering or identifying function of the objects so perceived, may or may not follow.

After this, death-consciousness (cuti citta) occurs, which is the last thought-moment to be experienced in this present life.
There is a misconception that the subsequent birth is conditioned by the last death-thought. What actually conditions rebirth is not this death-thought, which in itself has a special function to perform – but that which is experienced during the javana process.

Indications regarding the gati to where the person will go after death

The death-consciousness (Cuti citta) takes as its object one of the three following:

(1) Kamma: This is the “vision of action”. At the last moment, the person thinks of something that is most prominent in his mind (e.g., a pious man may think he is worshipping the Buddha or listening to a sermon, a murderer may think he is going to commit a crime, etc.).

(2) Kamma nimitta: A person may see an article generally associated with his action. It may be presented to any of the six senses as any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea which is obtained at the time of commission of the kamma (e.g. a pious man may see a yellow robe, a murderer may see a knife, etc.).

(3) Gati nimitta: A person may get a vision of the sign of his next existence. This appears always as physical sight, and is presented as a dream or vision giving some sign of the place where the dying person will take birth (e.g., forest for a person to be reborn to peta realm, fires for hell, etc.) When a gati nimitta occurs and indicates a bad gati, it can be turned to good by influencing the thoughts of the dying person so that his good thoughts may act as the proximate kamma and counteract the influence of the bad gati nimitta.

Factors determining gati at the time of death

The following four factors or kammas that occur at the dying thought-moment determine where the rebirth would take place for the dying person:

(1) Garuka kamma: This may be a meritorious kamma (e.g., a jhana) or demeriterous (e.g., parricide, matricide, etc.). It is so powerful that it totally overwhelms all other actions.

(2) Asanna kamma: If there is no garuka kamma, then a person may take for his/her object of the dying thought a kamma done or remembered immediately before death.

(3) Accina kamma: One’s lifelong practice which may be good (e.g., dhana, sila, vipassana meditation), or bad (e.g., a livelihood as a butcher, hunter) may be taken as the object of the dying thought that arises immediately before death.

(4) Kattata kamma: The kamma that has followed the person throughout the stream of life and rebirth may get an opportunity to arise and become the object of the dying thought that arises immediately before death.

Two types of Gati (transmigration)

Gati (transmigration) is the change of existences. Gati is not the same as “transmigration of soul” that is current in non-Buddhist philosophies. Gati, here, simply means “going”.

(1) Puthujjana gati: For the ordinary person the transmigration is vinipatana or dispersive. This means that one cannot transmigrate into whatever existence one might wish, but is liable to fall into any one of the thirty-one kinds of abodes or existences in accord with one’s past kamma. The four realms of misery (animal, peta, asura, and nivaya down to Avici hell), stand wide open to a puthujjana who departs from the abode of man. Because death is followed by dispersion into any realm of existence, every being fears death. If one could take rebirth in any existence one chooses, no one would fear death so much.

(2) Ariya gati: In this case, the dispersion of existence which is conjoined with inevitable death in every existence disappears. Though the Ariya may die unexpectedly without aiming to be reborn in any particular existence, the Ariya will always be re-born in a better or higher existence, or in existences of their choice and are entirely free from rebirth into the four miserable realms.


Immediately after the death-consciousness (cuti citta) there arises in a subsequent rebirth the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi citta) at the moment of conception.

Immediately after the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi citta) which lasts for only one thought-moment, sixteen bhavanga (life-continuum) consciousnesses arise, impelled by its craving for existence, and then sinks into the passive state of mind.

Bhavanga is an essential factor of life. During the life-time, whenever no thought processes arise (e.g., during sleep), this bhavanga consciousness exists – being experienced many times in the course of a life-time. At the time of dying, this bhavanga-consciousness again arises as death- consciousness (cuti citta) and perishes.

After the sixteen bhavanga thought-moments, the mind-door apprehending consciousness (manodvara vajjana) arises to be followed by five javana thought-moments developing a liking to the new existence (bhava nikanti javana).

The three types of consciousness -Cuti, patisandhi and bhavanga – of one particular existence are identical, having the same mental states. They differ only in name and in function.

Just as in this life, so also in the subsequent existence they arise relinking rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi citta), life-continuum (bhavanga) thought processes and death-consciousness (cuti citta).

Thus, rebirth – life continuum – and death turns around like a wheel.1

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