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:
- 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.
- If there is no such weighty action, what has been done habitually — either good or bad — will ripen. This is called ācinna kamma.
- 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.
- 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:
- The act (kamma) itself, especially if it was a weighty one.
- 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.
- 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.