SuttaCentral

How does kamma ripen when you die?


#1

Continuing the discussion from The mind at the dying moment and rebirth:

I was recently asked to comment on a short article presenting a traditional Theravada exposition of how kamma ripens when we die. This is the article:

When a person is about to die the bhavaṅga is interrupted, vibrates for one moment and passes away. The interruption is caused by an object which presents itself to the mind-door. As a result of this a mind-door-adverting citta arises. This is followed by five javana thought moments which are weak, lack reproductive power, and serve only to determine the nature of rebirth consciousness. The javanas may or may not be followed by two registering thought moments (tadālambana). After this comes the death consciousness (cuti citta), which is identical in constitution and object to the bhavaṅga citta. The cuti citta merely serves the function of signaling the end of life. It is important to appreciate the difference between the cuti citta and the javanas that precede it. The cuti citta is the end of the bhavanga flow of an existence and does not determine the nature of rebirth. The javanas that occur just before the cuti citta arises form a kammic process and determine the nature of the rebirth consciousness.

The object that presents itself to the mind-door just before death is determined by kamma on a priority basis as follows:

  1. Some weighty action performed earlier by the dying person. This may be meritorious such as a jhānic ecstasy, or it may be demeritorious, some heinous crime. Either of these would be so powerful as to eclipse all other kammas in determining rebirth. This is called garuka kamma.
  2. If there is no such weighty action, what has been done habitually — either good or bad — will ripen. This is called ācinna kamma.
  3. If habitual kamma does not ripen what is called death-proximate kamma fructifies. In this case the thought that was experienced at the time of a good or bad action in the recent past recurs at the time of death. This is referred to as aasanna kamma.
  4. If the first three are lacking, some stored up kamma from the past will ripen. This is called katatta kamma.

Dependent on one of the above mentioned four types of kamma, the object that presents itself to the mind-door could be one of three kinds:

  1. The act (kamma) itself, especially if it was a weighty one.
  2. Some sign of the act (kammanimitta); for example, a butcher may see a knife, a hunter may see a gun or the slain animal, a pious devotee may see flowers at a shrine or the giving of alms to a monk.
  3. A sign of the place where the dying person will be reborn (gati nimitta), a vision of heaven, hell, etc.

This brief account of what will happen to us at death should impress on us the urgency of avoiding all evil acts by deed, word or thought and of performing wholesome meritorious acts. If we do not do so now, we cannot do so at the moment of death, which may come quite unexpectedly.

I thought I would post my response here, in case anyone should be interested. This is the essence of what I wrote:

This is all from the Abhidhamma and the commentaries. None of this is found in the suttas.

The first paragraph above describes death from the perspective of developed Abhidhamma thought, that is, Abhidhamma ideas that developed a long time after the Abhidhamma Piṭaka had been completed. I find this sort of analysis uninteresting, since it is only a description of a process and it has no real practical value. (Whether it actually describes what really happens is also open to debate.) This is the problem with the Abhidhamma: it tends to be philosophical, with little or no practical value.

Next we have the description of the ripening of four types of kamma. This part is perhaps more useful than the previous paragraph. The idea that weighty kamma may be responsible for one’s rebirth seems to be in agreement with the idea from the suttas that certain types of actions (such as killing one’s parents) will lead directly to rebirth in a bad destination. That the second type of kamma, habitual kamma, is responsible for rebirth if there is no weighty kamma again agrees with the sutta perspective. A generally well-lived life will lead to a good rebirth. In reality there will be complex relationship between more or less weighty kamma (both positive and negative!) and habitual kamma. The best thing to aim for is habitual, positive, weighty kamma, such as regular practise of the jhānas!

The third type of kamma, death-proximate kamma, is perhaps the one I am most sceptical of. It seems to me that this idea is mostly relevant if we take rebirth to happen immediately after death, in accordance with the traditional Theravada interpretation. I don’t have much doubt, however, that the suttas describe an intermediate existence, a period of time after death during which kamma seems to get ready to ripen in a new birth. If you accept the idea of an intermediate existence, then what happens just before you die will have little effect on your destiny. Your generally accumulated kamma will be much more important. So I doubt that the last thought-moment before death is particularly significant.

As for the fourth type of kamma, I don’t think this is particularly relevant to human beings, since we all do habitual kamma. Perhaps this is meant to describe what happens to animals or beings in other realms where one isn’t making much new kamma, but just experiencing the results of kamma made in past lives.

After describing the four type of kamma, the text above describes various objects that present themselves at the mind-door at death. I am sure some of this is correct, but I am not sure if it invariably has to be these three. For instance, I would think it is possible to simply be mindful of the death experience, as occasionally described in the suttas (e.g. MN123).

I am sure there is much more to be said about this. Some of the most interesting evidence, I think, comes from accounts of near-death experiences, which makes for interesting comparison with the suttas.


#2

Dear Ajahn,

Thank you for your explanation. I have just posted the question, without having seen this post of yours.

Again, thank you for making things so clear for us.

With deepest respect,

Dheerayupa


#3

yet, this is supported by sutta

(i) “Now, Ananda, there is the person who has killed living beings here… has had wrong view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell. But (perhaps) the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him earlier, or the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him later, or wrong view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.

Mahakammavibhanga sutta (MN 136)

it’s wouldn’t be all that easy, just imagine for example the terror of suffocation when the breath stops and no new inhale is possible to make
dying is much more preferreable in an unconscious state


#4

Actually we discussed this in our Kamma and rebirth course. There are a few cases where the kamma at the time of death is mentioned. The passage you quote, the Dhamanjani Sutta, and one about a soldier dying in battle and the main cases I can remember.

The thing is, in each of these cases someone is actually performing a strong, morally meaningful act at the time of death. Converting to or from right view, or dying with the strong wish to kill and slaughter, that kind of thing. This obviously applies in only a small minority of cases.

The vast majority of people die at a time when they’re not making an strong kamma. They’re caught be surprise in a car accident, or they die slowly, on pain killers, while lying in a hospital. In such cases, since no strong, decisive kamma is being performed, the death-proximate kamma is not important.

So the problem is not that kamma made near death is never significant, it’s that the significance is vastly overemphasized in modern Theravada, to a completely irrational degree. There’s zero chance that a stray thought near the time of your death is going to have any effect on your rebirth.

Moreover, the formulation of this—“last thought moment”—depends on the Abhidhamma idea of “mind moments”, which is of course completely absent from the suttas. Even in the cases where death-proximate kamma in the suttas is mentioned, there is no question of it being a “mind moment”. It is a deliberate, conscious, life-changing choice, not a flicker of thought passed before you know it.


#5

I would say this should be regarded as weighty kamma. Whether this view was taken up close to death or he has held it for a long time seems irrelevant in this case.


#6

Thanks, Dheerayupa. It seems I went ahead a bit to quickly. I wasn’t sure whether you would post it or not.


#7

Right. I think one might as well class this as weighty kamma.


#8

I was too slow, ka.

:slight_smile:


#9

Which begs the question, why create an independent classification? The Abhidhamma is far from a neutral analysis, if such a thing is even possible.

As I argued cogently and persuasively, and not at all snarkily, in The Mystique of the Abhidhamma, much of how Abhidhamma is actually used in Buddhist culture is, in fact, magic and superstition. The rationalist terminology creates a think veneer over highly irrational beliefs and practices. And this is no modern innovation, it is fundamental to how the Abhidhamma has always been.

In this case, I think the Buddhists, especially the monastics, had to find a way of catering for the need to provide services for the dead. This means you must have a way to manage and control the taboo of the dead and those near death. By taboo I mean magic power.

The physical dead body is one of, perhaps, greatest source of taboo, and only an individual with comparable taboo, i.e. a monk, can hope to keep that energy within safe confines. Otherwise the death will escape and infect others, or cause all kinds of mischief.

By wrapping the death and post-mortem process up in a container of ritual and doctrine, the celebrant, who technically is a bhikkhu but is in fact acting as a witch-doctor, contains and channels the taboo. Hopefully they can shift it to a higher plane, where the taboo energy, which, like any natural force, is ethically neutral, can have a positive effect.

This process is quite effective, but has one slight flaw. There’s no such thing as taboo, it’s just a supersition. So to justify this tradition, we use the time honored method of explaining the whole thing in psychological terms. Instead of containing and channeling taboo, you contain and channel emotions. Which is fine, it works just as well.

The only thing is, we’re left with these odd echoes in ancient Abhidhamma texts, which are insisted on as “ultimate truth”, instead of accepted for what they are, records of different ways Buddhist have understood the Dhamma.


#10

Dear Ajahns,

Some follow-up questions:

No. 1. In Thailand (the land of seemingly credible hearsay), we are told that at the time of death if the dying person’s beloved one shows great signs of distress, the dying person will feel distressed too and so worried about their loved one that their ‘citta’ will not go anywhere, but remain near the loved one.

We are told to be all smiling and comforting the dying person so that they can go to their rebirth peacefully.

No. 2. Though the word ‘soul mate’ was invented less than a century ago, in Thailand, when a couple get married, we would say that they are soul mates (destined to be together).

Since our modern society (especially in big cities like Bangkok) contributes to complicated lifestyles and thoughts, more women in their 40s or even 50s remain single than in the previous century. Many look upon this situation as ‘bad luck’ or ‘bad kamma’, thinking that they have done something un-conducive to having a partner in this life, or that they haven’t met their soul mate.

Several articles are found to advise women on how to have a partner in their next life, if not this life, so that they will not be lonely.

I would be grateful if Ajahns could please clarify these two beliefs, which are, you may not believe this, generally dominant topics of conversations when witnessing deaths and weddings.

With gratitude and deep respect,

Dheerayupa


#11

@LXNDR [quote=“LXNDR, post:3, topic:2748”]
it’s wouldn’t be all that easy, just imagine for example the terror of suffocation when the breath stops and no new inhale is possible to make
[/quote]

I think this is why we train, while alive, to face death and to let go. So that when it actually happens (and often under much more difficult conditions that we probably face most of the time on a day to day basis) we might have the possibility of doing just that, ie. letting go, without a conditioned mental response of terror.

dying is much more preferreable in an unconscious state

I don’t know about this. Personally I would rather be conscious, and to have cultivated through practice enough mindfulness and other supportive & wholesome qualities that I might have a hope of facing death, despite whatever the actual physical conditons might be at the time, with some degree of equanimity, and letting go.


#12

So just to add a comment and then ask if people don’t mind providing examples from their lives or from stories they’ve heard etc.

I’ve heard at least one anecdotal story, detailing how someone who was unconscious and not in possession of their faculties (as you might be if you’re suffering from dementia) - and you had been in this state for a very long time - moments, before their death, opened their eyes, looked meaningfully at their loved ones, responded at least non-verbally to them, and then, peacefully passed away.

I’ve heard Ajahn Brahm basically state that death is a process whereby the mind lets go of the body gradually. I’ve also heard him say that even if you’re full of painkillers and quite dull, when it’s time to finally let go, your mind has incredible clarity.

Perhaps others have anecdotal evidence to support this? For instance, NDEs or meditation stories (even from the EBTs) about how it is when the mind separates from the body?

Actually, on that, I’ve remembered how people sometimes asked about why the lights that appear in their mind during meditation are dull or dirty looking…and I remember Ajahn Brahm saying that is because of poor virtue. So perhaps the level of clarity depends on how the person has been using their mind.


#13

but why would it then be specifically mentioned?


#14

i’m skeptical about viability of such training for this purpose, in my view ability of detachment at the moment of death takes nothing short of a degree of awakening
because death is such an extraordinary experience which only happens once during a memorable lifespan that one can never really get properly prepared for it just like one cannot be prepared enough for swimming for the first time regardless of the time spent in training ashore, or for parachuting, and there’s no second chance, which only aggrevates the pressure


#15

here’s Ayya Khema’s account

There were two days in the hospital, when I had that feeling, that the energy was leaving, through the feet actually. There was a collapse of the whole system… Losing one’s life energy is actually a very pleasant state, because there’s less self-assertion, I mean you haven’t got the energy to assert yourself. So things are more acceptable, everything is acceptable, it’s fine the way it is… One could say that action of dying, if there’s no resistance, is extremely pleasant… That seemed to be less and less life energy within the body, and I just was relaxing into that. I was perfectly willing to let it happen, but then these doctors came round… My blood pressure just went way down, waaay down, I mean like almost not happening, and that’s when you lose all your energy… It was a very interesting experience and now I can see it’s extremely pleasant. It’s just letting go and disappearing, and it’s very nice.


#16

You seem to have such a sober, humble and down to earth view. Although we can ‘rehearse’ for death, there is only one take and the chance of getting it right?..well for me, I would be inflated to think I would get it right the first time. But, you, I imagine would be just fine. :relieved:


#17

@Linda @LXNDR @stuindhamma

Perhaps it’s a bit of both? Perhaps it needs a mind that has been training to let go and open up to awakening. So perhaps Linda is right and Lxndr is right also? And perhaps, it’s not so much the case that Linda and Lxndr’s views are at two ends of a continuum, but rather, as (I think) Homer Simpson said, “a little bit from column A, and a little bit from column B”! :wink:

Keepin it chilled :sunglasses:


#18

That rare neutral analysis … :wink:

And the unfortunate thing is that it has real effects on how people live their lives, even among those who don’t necessarily subscribe to it. One of these effects is how people approach death. It is a common belief among Buddhists that one should not take any medication, especially mind-altering medication such as pain-killers, as one approaches death. The idea behind this is that one should be mindful of the process of dying so as to keep the mind as clear as possible and thereby effect a good rebirth or none at all. This ideas may make sense if (1) the rebirth happens immediately after death, and if (2) death-proximate kamma is as powerful as seems to be assumed. But once you abandon these Abhidhamma ideas, the rationale - which may not have been very good even within the Abhidhamma system - for not using painkillers as you die becomes even more dubious, and I would say outrightly detrimental.

The effects of the physical body on the mind cease the moment you leave the body behind. This means that, even if you use mind-altering pain-killers, mindfulness is regained as the person moves on to the intermediate existence. It is this mindfulness that will be part of what determines the next birth, not the lack of mindfulness you had during the dying process. In fact, this mindfulness is likely to be more pure than any mindfulness you might have had while in great pain. You have been properly cared for and pain-free as you were dying, and you are likely to feel good about that. The quality of your mindfulness is likely to reflect this, since mindfulness is primarily a function of the purity of one’s mind. If, on the other hand, you die in great pain, it would not be surprising if you felt a bit resentful about it afterwards, especially if treatment was available. It is as if nobody really cared for you. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that so much suffering would affect you in a negative way.

In this case I would say that Abhidhamma ideas lead to all sorts of unnecessary suffering for dedicated Buddhists, and this at a time when they would really want to be at ease. And, if death-proximate kamma has a smidgen of truth to it, it may even affect the rebirth process in a negative way.


#19

MN136 is all about why the apparent kamma one makes during life does not always decide one’s rebirth. Thus, if you make a lot of good kamma during the course of your life but you take up some serious wrong view shortly before you die, this may over-ride the good kamma you have made and lead to a bad rebirth.

By the way, I am not really denying the idea of death-proximate kamma altogether. What I am concerned about is the focus on this sort of kamma in traditional Theravada circles. I think it is fair to say that kamma made close to death will have more effect than kamma made a long time before, simply because it will be more clearly present in the mind. However, this should not be overstated, especially in the light of the leveling effect of an intermediate existence.


#20
  1. I think there is something to be said for this. At the very least it makes the dying process easier, as if it is not difficult enough as it is. Whether it will actually affect one’s rebirth (whether one might end up being a ghost haunting one’s previous family, as you imply!), is difficult to say. It may, perhaps, have a slight effect, but it is one’s accumulated good kamma that really matters.

  2. The idea that not finding a partner is due to bad kamma is typical of the popularisation of this teaching. As far as I am concerned, kamma works on a very general level and rarely, if ever, at this degree of specifics. When you are born as a human, you can expect all sorts of things, including the possibility of remaining single for life. This is just life. Or you could say it has to with personality, which is not exactly the same as kamma. Certain personalities are just less likely to attract a partner, e.g. monks! :grinning: