There is a sutta I recall reading that refers to Nibbana happening after death (in the intermediate state) but I cannot recall where it was. It was likely in the Anguttara Nikaya as it was part of a numbered list on when Awakening can happen. Does this ring a bell for anyone?
It appears more than once across the AN and SN. An example is SN54.5:
"When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way you can expect seven fruits and benefits.
You attain enlightenment early on in this very life.
If not, you attain enlightenment at the time of death. If not, with the ending of the five lower fetters you’re extinguished in between one life and the next …
you’re extinguished upon landing …
you’re extinguished without extra effort …
you’re extinguished with extra effort …
you head upstream, going to the Akaniṭṭha realm …
When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way you can expect these seven fruits and benefits.
Other suttas containing it include: SN48.15, AN7.55, SN48.24, AN7.19, AN7.16, AN7.95, SN48.66, SN51.26, AN10.63, AN10.64, AN3.88, AN3.87, AN4.131, SN46.3.
Interesting that the traditional Theravada teachings (I believe in commentaries) state that there is no intermediate state. Makes one wonder if there is something akin to the Tibetan “phowa” teachings also sort of implied in these suttas…
Any thoughts on that?
One rationalization I’ve heard some Theravadins make is that people are briefly reborn as a peta after they die, and that explains the “in between” Bardo state that Tibetans talk about.
Though I think that presents a problem, because it would mean that noble disciples couldn’t be born in this bardo state, since noble disciples are freed from “bad” rebirths and the peta is a bad rebirth….
Yes, there is a disconnect between the Theravadin textual orthodoxy and these passages.
The reality is that Theravada Buddhists, ordained or not, do observe a number of rites and practices around the time of death that imply an assumption of gradual and faded process of shift from this life to the next.
These have already been discussed here. Have a try using the search function.
Theravada view on immediate rebirth is influenced by Abhidhamma need for consciousness mind stream to be continuous. There’s sufficient evidence in the sutta to abandon such requirement of immediate rebirth. Although it doesn’t gives an alternative to the Abhidhamma conundrum of how come rebirth consciousness doesn’t immediately follows death consciousness, I think surely it’s possible to think of other models of afterlife to fit in the data from the suttas.
The Christians are creative enough to invent Limbo, Purgatory etc other than Heaven and Hell.
IMO this is an interpretation issue. As far as I understand this statement does not say that there is an intermediate state. Let us clarify.
In order to be fully extinguished, one needs to get rid of all ten fetters. If someone dies only after getting rid of the first five, the Sutta says that the other five fetters are got rid of in the next life.
The problem appears to come from the words “in between”. But if we take “in between” as the time it takes to get rid of the last five fetters after being immediately reborn, there is no problem.
I describe rebirth for someone who grasps fuel, not for someone who doesn’t grasp fuel. It’s like a fire which only burns with fuel, not without fuel. In the same way I describe rebirth for someone who grasps fuel, not for someone who doesn’t grasp fuel.”
“But when a flame is blown away by the wind, what do you say is its fuel then?”
“At such a time, I say that it’s fueled by wind. For the wind is its fuel then.”
“But when someone who is attached has laid down this body and has not been reborn in one of the realms, what does Master Gotama say is their fuel then?”
“When someone who is attached has laid down this body, Vaccha, and has not been reborn in one of the realms, I say they’re fueled by craving. For craving is their fuel then.”
This sutta makes it very explicitly clear that there’s an in between death and rebirth.
The image that comes to my mind is the one of sutta AN7.55. It describes seven kinds of rebirth for non-returners, as well as extinguishment by not grasping. It uses the image of striking a hot iron pot and sparks flying off. Some sparks go out in mid air and some land on the grass.
Suppose you struck an iron pot that had been heated all day. Any spark that flew off and floated away would be extinguished on landing.
The idea of an intermediate existence between rebirths was a sectarian controversy. The Theravada and Mahāsāṃghika both agreed on this one that there was no intermediate existence. The Sarvâstivāda, however, did hold that there was an intermediate period in the desire and form realms. Later Mahayana traditions like those in Tibetan Buddhism today are built on a Sarvâstivāda foundation because Asaṅga and Vasubandhu took their Abhidharma tradition as their doctrinal starting point. Many of their positions are actually Sarvâstivāda in origin, as a result.
The traditional Theravada position on the intermediate parinibbāna of an anāgāmin was that they attained parinibbāna during a life (presumably in the Pure Abodes) rather than between lives according to the Kathavatthu.
Yeah, it’s interesting that the Kathavatthu takes a position that doesn’t seem well supported by the Theravada canon itself, and it specifically dismisses the sutra stating that some anāgāmins achieve parinirvāṇa “in-between,” seemingly before birth.
It’s even clearer in the Madhyama Agama version because it names the type of parinirvāṇa that’s like a spark going out when it lands “parinirvāṇa at birth.” So, the three “in-between” parinirvāṇas would logically be prior to birth.
We also see those same names in the Dharmaguptaka’s Saṅgīti Sutra, which lists five kinds of parinirvāṇa: in-between, at birth, without practice, with practice, and upstream at Akaniṣṭha. So, it wasn’t just Sarvâstivādins who had that version of the names.
Perhaps the Theravadins changed it to something less clear to try to support their position? The parables still imply the same thing, though.
What a superb essay! Thanks for sharing, @Adutiya.
@sujato Sorry to tag you Bhante, but I felt compelled to after reading the essay. I can imagine you exclaiming “Doesn’t anyone read what I have written?!” when we start topics on SC that you have already written extensively about.