Death may be a process, not a distinct moment in time


What are the implications for our dhamma practice and understanding?

With metta

I think very few if any. We all know we consist of five khandhas, right? So, there is no quintessential core of a human being that signifies the presence of life, just as it would be impossible to point out a quintessential core of your laptop (if you take out its details one by one, when exactly does it stop being a laptop?) or of a state (when does a tribal confederation become a state? when is a state so utterly failed that it virtually ceases to exist?). So, if we think through the consequences of this consideration, we should admit it is extremely hard or most likely impossible to pin down the exact moment of a human being’s emergence (when exactly does a mere cellular aggregate become a human being?) or death (when exactly does a human being become a mere cellular aggregate?).

To an extent, words like ‘human being’, ‘being’, ‘person’, ‘table’, ‘death’ are just linguistic concepts, convenient labels we use to describe reality. They don’t refer to nothing, these linguistic signs do have referents that we could describe as really existing. However, the relation between a linguistic sign and its referent are never straightforward; temporal, spacial, and conceptual borders of a linguistic sign (and pretty much any real object) are very fuzzy, there is nothing clear-cut and 100% true in the papanca-ed world we are allliving in. It’s no wonder: understanding something in a mundane context means simpifying it, breaking it down in discrete concepts and ignoring irrelevant ones. Full understanding of something without omitting any information would mean merely one-to-one recreation of the exact same object or concept. Maybe this is why in order to fully understand the Dhamma we have to abandon the I-view: if there is no ego, there is no-one trying to understand, so there is no re-creation of an object, the object itself becomes understanding, so to say.

Everything I said above is (possibly) already implied in the EBTs, and I don’t really see how this research adds anything new to the Dhamma side of the things. However, there can be Vinaya-related consequences (e.g., a monk decapitates a person after they were pronounced clinically dead but still exhibited brain activity, would it be considered a parajika offence?) or just good old legal consequences like those described in the article.


Above all this is a post in the Watercooler section, so no serious Dhamma conversation or analysis was envisaged originally (at least by me!).

Nevertheless, it is an interesting fact the indeed people are trying to find out whether transition from to life to death can be said to be a binary state transition or instead a gradual process. And it seems that the transition is to some extent gradual when it comes to the ceasing of consciousness-correlated brain activities.

Dependent origination allows us to assess our process of becoming, experiencing existence, from a perspective of necessary and sufficient conditioning.

Also, the inter-lifetimes linkage offered by ignorance-sustained (avijja-fueled) informed choices (sankhara) suggest sthat just as birth death is a gradual and dependent originated process.

I can recall that in the Kamma & Rebirth workshops presented by both @Brahmali and @sujato we came to this topic a very similar thing was suggested.

If I am not wrong, Bhante Sujato uses the analogy of how gradual and not instantaneous is the process of moving houses: first you pack everything, then you move it (sometimes all at once or in many trips), then once in your new place you still feel somehow moving in, and once the first meal is had and the first night is spent you think that is becoming your place.

Another note is that whenever I experienced death within my family, with elders getting sick and eventually passing away, I noticed that some sort of gradual process starts occurring long before the event of passing: as the life faculty fades away people have all sorts of reaction but one way or the other they fade away as well as individuals.

A friend who is a doctor says he can as well sometimes smell death coming when a terminal patient’s bodily functions approaches collapse. In his view, it is a combination of severe weakening of one’s immune system and will to live.

An interesting and more serious thread on this topic is this one:

Indeed, yes, I agree. Death is a process; and the unwarranted imposition of the late Theravadin “mind moment” theory here is unhelpful, even harmful.


The interesting aspect of death being a progressive process is the concept of reaching some of the four stages of awakening at the time of death. I’m not sure where this idea comes from ? Can anyone points to some Suttas?
As result of this belief when one of my friend passed away I made sure she was left untouched for at least 12 hours.
Was it a kind of superstition on my part?

Hi @alaber, can you provide more details of what you are referring to here?

Is it somehow related to the Tibetan Book of Dead and the concept of bardo?

If so I once read (cannot find it now) that what is in there has some roots in Commentaries of Abhidhamma.

The key word here would be antarabhāva and it is not to be found in any of the EBTs it seems. A nice article on the topic can be found here.

Similar things apply in the way people deal with corpses in Thailand for example. There they believe something between 3 to 7 days should be given to the corpse before you can cremate it - this small article gives a nice overview of what is usually done.

Bhante Sujato once wrote something on the topic, it is very well written, concise and informative:

Hope you like it!

In his article (link above) Bhante Sujato highlights the following from SN46.3

“Bhikkhus, when these seven factors of enlightenment have been developed and cultivated in this way, seven fruits and benefits may be expected. What are the seven fruits and benefits?

“One attains final knowledge early in this very life.

“If one does not attain final knowledge early in this very life, then one attains final knowledge at the time of death.

“If one does not attain final knowledge early in this very life or at the time of death, then with the utter destruction of the five lower fetters one becomes an attainer of Nibbāna in the interval.

The key word here would be antarā­pari­nib­bāyī.

Interestingly in the SN48.15, unfortunately only available in English here, one finds a relationship between the level of development of the five spiritual faculties and different levels of attainment of release - from arahant to faith-follower (a sort of pre-stream enterer).

"Monks, there are these five spiritual faculties.
What five?
The controlling power of faith,
the controlling power of energy/endeavour,
the controlling power of mindfulness/presence,
the controlling power of concentration/stillness,
the controlling power of insight/wisdom.
These, monks, are the five spiritual faculties.

By the completion and fulfilment, monks, of these five spiritual faculties one is Arahant.

By having them in a less degree, one obtains release midway / in the interval (antarā­pari­nib­bāyī).

By having them in a less degree, he attains release at landing (upahac­ca­pari­nib­bāyī).

By having them in a less degree, he attains release without much trouble (asaṅ­khā­ra­pari­nib­bāyī).

By having them in a less degree, he attains release with some trouble (sasaṅ­khā­ra­pari­nib­bāyī).

By having them in a less degree, he is ‘one who goes up stream,’ one who goes to the Pure Abodes (akaniṭṭhagāmī).

By having them in a less degree, he is a once-returner (sakadāgāmī).

By having them in a less degree, he is a stream-winner (sotāpanno).

By having them in a less degree, he is a Dhamma-follower (dhammānusārī).

By having them in a less degree, he is a faith follower (saddhānusārī).’"

In his article’s conclusion @sujato wrote:

(…) Despite all we have said in support of the ‘in-between’ state, I would still make an important reservation. The idea of a ‘state’ suggests a defined mode of being, but what we have seen suggests rather a lack of being. The in-between state is not a separate realm that somehow stands in the space between other realms. We might imagine it so, but this is just a metaphor to help us make sense of the experience. The references to the ‘in-between state’ do not focus on the objective or cosmological existence of such a realm, and to this extent I think the Kathāvatthu’s objections to the in-between state can be sustained.

Rather the passages focus on an individual’s experience of what happens after death, but before the next life. It is a process of change, of seeking, of yearning to be. To speak of this as an ‘in-between state’ is admittedly a reification of the concept, which already stretches the actual statements from which it is derived.

Nevertheless, it is probably inevitable that we keep using this terminology, which is fine as long as we remember that it is just a convenient way to generalize about individual experiences, not a definite realm or zone of existence. (…)

Hope it helps!

I agree that death is a process.
However there will be a fraction of a second where Choti citta happens.
If you take Parinibbana sutta, it clearly explain the death process.
Even Anananda though Buddha was dead while he was in Nirodha Samapatti. (just before the death)
If you cut a tree, it falls gradually but there is a time it breaks from the main trunk.