> Preliminary Notes > On the Soul > The Nutriments > Consciousness > Controversy: The Liminal State > Kamma (Karma) > Controversy: All Kamma Must Be Experienced > Formations > Latent Tendencies > Defilements > Conclusion
This is part one of a two-part series on Buddhist cosmology - a topic which warrants more attention than it usually receives. The Buddha's teaching rests on a cosmological framework which presents a complex multiverse filled with heavens, hells, gods, and devils. All beings exist in a cycle of birth and death across these realms of existence.
In this essay, I focus on establishing the idea of rebirth, the cessation of which serves as the goal of the Buddha's training. I will also explain kamma - more commonly known by the Sanskrit term "karma" - and how it relates to rebirth.
『I ain't readin' this whole dang page! 』
Here are the highlights:
1. Rebirth is real in a literal sense, and involves one's stream of consciousness becoming established in a new life after death.
2. If a soul exists - a topic the Buddha was uninterested in discussing - it is insignificant in the process of rebirth. There is no static "self" which is reborn; instead, we can only speak of the stream of consciousness which continues as a result of the conditions which cause consciousness to continue arising.
3. Just as the body is fueled by food, the mind is fueled by sensory activity. In the present life, consciousness arises from the meeting of a sense-gate with a sense-object. After death, the remnants of mental forces can serve as the objects which give rise to consciousness during rebirth.
4. The suttas are clear in acknowledging the possibility of a liminal state in which consciousness persists for some period of time after death, but before the conception of the next life.
5. Kamma (or "karma") refers to the volitional actions we perform. They produce results in the present lifetime or in some future lifetime, and these results can manifest in a wide variety of ways.
6. Kamma does not produce its results in a linear fashion - instead, results manifest whenever the conditions (unknowable to us) are right.
7. The suttas are clear that one must experience the results of all the kamma they have performed throughout their rounds of rebirth.
8. Through the mental development which can be achieved through the Buddha's training, we can have a powerful effect on the way we experience the results of our kamma, effectively allowing us to "mitigate" the harshest results.
9. Kamma plays a significant role in rebirth, as do a number of other ideas discussed in the suttas, for example: formations, latent tendencies, and the mental defilements.
The information I present here is based on the Pāli suttas. Any mention of ideas established in the commentaries, the Abhidhamma traditions, and narrative texts such as the Jātakas will only be in the context of explaining how they contradict the suttas. I will be completely ignoring Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna developments, such as the idea of Pure Lands.
The drawbacks of this approach are significant—this information will not reflect the full extent of Buddhist cosmology as taught by any living tradition. Furthermore, the presentation of cosmology in the suttas is often vague, and sometimes inconsistent. The Buddha never taught cosmology systematically - instead, he only discussed it when it was relevant to practical Buddhist doctrines. Relying solely on the suttas may leave some wanting for the rigid, consistent structures introduced by later traditions.
The benefit of this approach is that it leaves us with a perfectly serviceable, yet much less complicated version of the Buddhist cosmos. It likely leaves us with something more authentic to the Buddha’s original teaching. Punnadhammo Mahāthero has pointed out that “the greater part of Buddhist cosmology can be found in the suttas,” including the basic structure of the universe and the general descriptions of the various types of beings which live throughout. He notes that the commentaries add a significant degree of orderliness, but do so by sometimes “taking liberties with the plain meaning of the original texts.” I would argue that this is usually the case (not just sometimes). Bhikku Bodhi has stated that the commentaries “are often defensive and contrived, apologetic against the works of the original texts.” Richard Gombrich has pointed out that the commentaries “stretch across a period of [at least] 800 years, and we must acknowledge that over this time, things were certainly added, subtracted, or otherwise changed in the commentarial tradition.” He critiques them for homogenizing and systematizing the Buddha’s teachings in a way which he never presented, and for often putting forward “an excessively literal reading of the original texts, or [ascribing] too much meaning and technical significance to relatively unimportant or innocent expressions.”
Since restricting ourselves to the suttas leaves us with a cosmological system which is still functional (in that it establishes a framework for the doctrines taught by the Buddha), I believe nothing of significant value is lost by this approach, and we preserve a simplicity which was abandoned in later systems. The only price we pay is a small one: the acceptance of blurred lines and vague details.
Before exploring this cosmology, one should be aware that the Buddha advised against overthinking the topic. He declared that doing so leads only to frustration or can even drive someone to insanity (AN 4.77). Often, the Buddha refused to answer questions about the cosmos if he felt the answers wouldn’t help one work towards enlightenment. When one monk threatened to leave the order over the Buddha’s refusal to answer these sorts of questions, the Buddha explained his folly by likening him to a man who had been shot by a poison arrow, but refused to be helped until getting the answers to a series of trivial questions. Dying all the while, this man stopped his would-be savior, insisting, “Wait, who shot this arrow? From what clan does he hail? How tall is he, and what is the color of his skin? What is the name of his hometown? What sort of bow did he use? What sort of feather was used for the arrow? What shape is this arrowhead stuck in my flesh?” (MN 63)
This strengthens the benefit of a “suttas-only” approach to Buddhist cosmology. There’s no need for us to “get into the weeds” in order to nail down fine points and build thorough theories, when we should simply focus on establishing a framework in which to situate the Buddha’s instructions on escaping suffering.
I want to make this final point emphatically: Buddhist cosmology is not science, and it is not metaphor. Many people with something to sell you, or those they have fooled, may tell you that Buddhism is entirely consistent with scientific consensus, or that the unscientific parts are mere poetry meant to illustrate the nature of our minds and emotions. This is nonsense.
Buddhism puts forward the idea that there are literally gods, speaking serpents, and ghosts. There are heavens, hells, and a wide range of realms in between. Any honest reading of the suttas must acknowledge that this is not symbolic. The Buddha said he recollected innumerable past lives throughout cosmic ages. He described witnessing other beings across the cosmos dying and being reborn, and spoke about gods plainly and as a matter of fact (MN 100).
Some people argue that the various realms are merely metaphors for different stages of mental development. They cite the fact that the Buddha described some realms as parallels to corresponding states of meditation. However, the Buddha explicitly said that these meditative states are not to be mistaken for the corresponding cosmic realms (MN 79).
Likewise, rebirth is sometimes warped into an imaginative way to chart the fluctuations of our states of mind. Feeling angry? That’s hell! Feeling happy? That’s heaven! This is not what the Buddha taught. Rebirth occurs “when the body breaks up, after death” (AN 3.36). The Buddha sometimes spoke of those who had recently passed, revealing where in the cosmos they had gone and what sort of living being they had become (DN 18).
For the Buddhist, rebirth is real. Gods are real. There is a vast cosmos filled with otherworldly beings, and it is governed by principles for which science does not account.
In most religions, the idea of an afterlife is initimately tied to the idea of the soul. What did the Buddha have to say about this? Is there a soul? An oft-repeated answer placed in the Buddha’s mouth is “no.” There’s just one problem here—the Buddha never said this. There is a great deal of nuance in this issue which rarely gets discussed.
The misconception likely results from oversimplified explanations of the Buddhist doctrine of “anattā” (or “anatman” in Sanskrit). This means ”no self,” or perhaps more accurately, “not-self.” Often, “self” (attā, or atman) is presented as analogous to what Abrahamic traditions would call a “soul” or “spirit,” so when the Buddha declared that all things were “not-self,” it’s easy to misconstrue this as a simple rejection of the existence of a soul.
In truth, the idea of “the self” took many shapes and forms in Indian traditions. The Buddha spoke about a wide range of these beliefs, and rejected all of them (DN 1). Some people taught that the self was eternal; others, that it was impermanent. Some taught that the self remains conscious after death, while others taught that it becomes unconscious, while others still insisted it becomes some secret third thing. Some taught that the self becomes completely annihilated after death. Some believed the self was simply the flesh-and-blood body, while others believed it was some divine subtle material.
Whatever the case, generally speaking, the self was understood to be the essential part of a person that, ultimately, is that person. The agency which makes decisions, which thinks thoughts, and feels feelings. The self lords over all the secondary components of the person.
The Buddha rejected all of that. In saying that all things are “not-self,” the Buddha did not say “there is no such thing as a soul,” but rather, the Buddha was declaring that there is no single thing, phenomenon, or aspect of a person that we may point to as that which we truly are. A person can only be reckoned as a mass of interrelated conditions that are constantly involved in a process of change, due to their impermanence and origin as a product of other conditions.
The word for soul is something else entirely: “jīva.” This word in Pāli functions almost entirely like it does in English. It can be used literally, referring to some metaphysical spiritual essence, or poetically as a way to refer to living people (such as the phrase “sabbejīva,” or “every living soul,” simply meaning “everyone” (DN 2)).
A popular debate in the Buddha’s time was whether the soul and the body were two separate things, or one and the same. The Buddha included questions about this in his list of things he refused to answer, seeing this sort of speculation as a waste of time and energy (DN 6, DN 7, DN 9, MN 25, SN 33.1, SN 44.7, AN 10.93, AN 10.95).
Still, we do see discussions of the soul in the suttas. A chieftain named Pāyāsi tried to demonstrate that there was no such thing as an afterlife to a prince-turned-monk named Kassapa. He did so by putting forward a number of macabre “experiments” he could perform, and many of these involved the soul. For example, he said he could execute a prisoner and observe the corpse - no soul could be witnessed escaping, and if they weighed the corpse, it wouldn’t be any lighter (meaning it wouldn’t have “lost” any component like a soul). If he flayed someone alive, and looked inside the living victim, no soul would be visible. These experiments, as far as Pāyāsi was concerned, should demonstrate that people have no soul, and as such, there’s nothing to go on to an afterlife.
Critically, in Kassapa’s arguments with the chieftain, he never once said “well, that’s easy - there is no soul.” He simply deconstructed the king’s logic by demonstrating flaws in his reasoning - the particulars aren’t important here, it’s simply worth noting that the discussion of “the soul” didn’t seem to be an issue for Kassapa, nor do we find a rejection of the soul’s existence elsewhere in the suttas.
This is a great representation of the Buddhist attitude towards the soul. The Buddha simply didn’t seem interested in discussing it. Do we have a soul? Maybe. Either way, we, as people, are simply an aggregation of many impermanent parts and processes - any soul which may exist would simply be one more of these components. It is not “the self,” and it is not the core part of us that gets reborn. Furthermore, becoming enlightened in no way involves the soul, so the Buddha simply didn’t care to discuss it.
The doctrine of the Four Nutriments (SN 12.11) explains what sustains a living being throughout their lifetime, as well as during the process of rebirth. The Pāli word for “nutriment” is “āhāra,” and could also be translated as “food” or “fuel.” The first is the simplest: literal food, called “bodily-nutriment” (kabalinkāra āhāro). This is what nourishes the body. This food can be coarse (olāriko), which is what you and I eat; or it can be subtle (sukhumo), which is what certain gods or metaphysical beings eat. This is the sustenance of life on a physical level.
The other three nutriments feed our mental processes. There is “contact-nutriment” (phassāhāro), with “contact” (phassa) being a Buddhist technical term referring to the moment when a sense-object meets one of our six sense-gates, and the relevant type of sense-consciousness arises. So, when some object enters our field of vision, and we become conscious of this sensory activity, this is called “contact.” Contact, as a nutriment, feeds the mental processes of “feeling” (vedanā) by leading to the arising of sense-impressions which we experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
We can think of our existence as a back-and-forth exchange between the phenomena we experience, and the ways we engage with them. Sense-objects come to our sense-doors, “knock,” and when we realize something’s there, we have been “contacted” by that experience. All of this is objective. Feeling, then, represents the initial “reception” of that experience - a guest has paid us a visit, and our mind judges this visitation as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is the beginning of the subjective dimension of experience, but the feeling which arises from sense-contact is still, more or less, automatic.
The next nutriment, “volitional thoughts” (manosañcetanā), begins the deliberate part of our response to sense-contact. These are the forces of will and motives which move us to take action. These deliberate acts are called kamma (or karma in Sanskrit), and kamma produces results (vipaka), which manifest either in this lifetime or a future life. The nutriment of volition, then, nourishes life throughout the cycle of rebirth. We’ll expand on this later.
Finally, we have the nutriment of consciousness (viññāna). This term is key in understanding the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth and its framework of cosmology, so let’s zoom in on this idea.
Discussing what consciousness “is” can be tricky, even outside of Buddhism. Inside Buddhism, we have to acknowledge that the Buddha rarely discussed things in terms of ontology; instead of nailing down what specific things “are,” he preferred to look at the way things function, specifically the role they play in the arising of suffering, or the ending of suffering.
For this reason, we should discuss what consciousness does, and not what it is. As Anālayo puts it, it’s better to speak of a continuous process of “being conscious,” instead of “consciousness” as some clearly-defined noun.
There are two primary functions of consciousness:
1. Feeding the process of name-and-form in the present lifetime through sense-contact
2. Feeding the process of name-and-form in the next lifetime by beginning a relationship of mutual conditioning with name-and-form
So, as a nutriment, consciousness feeds name-and-form in two ways. What does that even mean? This term - nāmarūpa - was used throughout various Indian traditions, and in Buddhism it is a technical term referring to the complex of mental and physical processes that work in conjunction with consciousness to make up an individual existence. “Form” simply refers to the body. Consciousness is that part of the mind which enables bare sensory-awareness: “I see something” or “I hear something.” “Name” covers the mind’s more complex cognitive processes, which enable us to classify, identify, or “name” the things we experience, then interact with them.
Five mental factors are specifically included as part of “name” (MN 9 & SN 12.2): feeling, perception, intention, sense-contact, and attention. All of these things are intimately related. The body - form - houses all the component parts involved in the “name” processes. Our senses work because of the physical sense-organs, and the brain facilitates our mind working with the signals sent by the sense-organs. Through sense-contact, our mind “feels” this experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Perception (sañña) is how our mind identifies and classifies sense-experiences that have been “felt.” This is how we recognize, remember, or otherwise come to terms with what has been experienced.
Attention (manasikāra) determines which “signs” (nimitta) of a sense-object we notice. This affects which sorts of feelings we may experience; if we pay attention to pleasing qualities, we will likely feel pleasure, while focusing on repulsive qualities might make us feel unpleasant. The way we feel about an experience will likely color our intentions as we respond to that experience.
This more or less illustrates the mutual relationship of consciousness & name-and-form throughout our life. How, then, should we understand this relationship in the context of rebirth?
In Buddhism, life begins when consciousness “descends” into the womb at conception and begins its relationship with name-and-form.1 This almost sounds like consciousness is the “thing” that gets reborn, as it travels between lifetimes, throughout the realms of existence, like some transmigrating soul. A monk named Sāti believed this, and told people that this is how the Buddha taught rebirth (MN 38). He believed consciousness was “that which roams and transmigrates” from one life to the next, and that consciousness is what speaks, feels, and acts. It’s never said outright, but it seems that Sāti believed consciousness was “the self.”
The Buddha set him straight: “Foolish man! When have I ever said this? Haven’t I always said that consciousness only arises with a cause?” So dire was this misunderstanding that the Buddha warned him, “by misrepresenting me through your wrong view, you hurt yourself, and create lasting harm and suffering.”
In fairness to Sāti, one could be forgiven for reaching this conclusion - some passages from the suttas might carry the implication of Sāti’s belief if the reader isn’t fully-informed of the wider context. Let’s take a brief look at some examples, then situate ourselves in that context so as to avoid making Sāti’s mistake.
Consciousness is described as “descending into the womb” at the moment of conception (DN 15). Those with developed minds are able to remain “mindful and fully aware” as this happens (DN 14, DN 28, DN 33, MN 123, AN 4.127). Consciousness may also “depart from the womb” (DN 15), which seems to refer to premature death of the unborn child. Unenlightened people who die are described as being “reborn in another body” (SN 12.18). Consciousness is described as “entering” other worlds, such as heavens and hells (SN 12.51). When an ethical person dies, they are said to have “left their body behind” but their mind “rises up, headed for a higher place” (SN 55.21).2 Some stories show an evil being named Māra circling the body of a recently-deceased monk, searching for his consciousness “to find where he has gone.” (SN 4.23, SN 22.87)
A surface-level reading of these passages could certainly lead someone to the same conclusion Sāti reached—that consciousness is some essential part of us which transmigrates from body to body, from world to world. Let’s not be like Sāti, though. Let’s penetrate further than a surface-level reading.
When consciousness is described as “descending” or “departing,” the Pāli terms are “okkamati” and “vokkamati,” respectively. These terms are not necessarily conveying the sense of something moving about through space. Okamatti can be used in more abstract senses, like describing someone “falling into slumber” (niddam okkamati) (AN 7.61). It can also describe someone “entering” into a state of meditation (SN 51.22) or “entering” the religious life (AN 3.22).
Vokkamati literally translates to something like “deviating from,” or “turning aside from” something. This can be used to describe disciples turning away from the tradition they studied, or deviating from their practice. It can also refer to someone being inconsistent in their behavior, deviating from the established expectation.
When we see the Buddha using these terms to discuss consciousness, we shouldn’t necessarily visualize some little thing moving around from one body to the next. It’s better to understand consciousness as a constantly fluctuating process. Consciousness only arises when the conditions it depends on are present. As one sutta explains, “that which is called mind, thought, or consciousness arises as one thing and ceases as another, all through the day and night” (SN 12.61).
The venerable monk Sāriputta - celebrated for his deep understanding of the complex nuances of Buddhist doctrines - discussed the “stream of consciousness,” which flows through sequences of lifetimes, as opposed to one static thing called “consciousness.” This stream is kept flowing by the conditions that propel it onward. This poetically demonstrates consciousness as an activity, and not a thing.
While correcting Sāti for his misunderstanding, the Buddha explained that consciousness must be considered in terms of whatever conditions have caused it to arise. We should speak of eye consciousness when discussing visual sense activity. When reckoning auditory sense activity, we speak of ear consciousness.
The Buddha used fire imagery to explain this idea. Imagining consciousness like a fire, we must understand what makes it start. Logs burn and produce a log fire. Trash burns and produces a trash fire. If I took one of those logs and lit a pile of garbage, I wouldn’t say “that log fire became a trash fire!” It isn’t the same fire, is it? It’s not like the first fire from the logs hopped up, strolled over to the pile of trash, and sat down again. However, we must acknowledge that there is some degree of continuity: that second fire didn’t come from nowhere. There is a line of causation we can follow and understand.
Consciousness arises throughout our lives dependent on the sense activity that sustains it. Moment after moment sense consciousness arises, and our minds are able to facilitate all of this through the arising of mental objects that give rise to mental-consciousness. Through engaging with mental objects such as memories and conceptualizations, we are able to construct a sense of continuity throughout this whole process.
How does this stream of consciousness flow into the next life? Sense activity serves as the fuel for the fire of consciousness in life… What serves as the fuel after death? The Buddhist answer to this question is “craving.” The Buddha described this like a flame being “tossed by the wind” (SN 44.9). This is why craving is identified as the origin of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. With the body’s death, if the mental force of craving is still operational, it serves as the object which sustains consciousness as it becomes established in the next lifetime, where it begins anew a mutual relationship with name-and-form as an embryo grows and the other mental faculties develop. Specifically, there are three kinds of craving listed: 1) kāmatanhā, or sensual craving 2) bhāvatanhā, or craving for existence, and 3) vibhavatanhā, or craving for non-existence.
The Doctrine of the 12 Links of Dependent Origination elaborates on this process. From sensory contact, feeling arises; from feeling, craving arises. Pleasant feeling gives rise to sensual craving and the craving for a mode of existence which can provide this feeling. Unpleasant feeling may give rise to craving for non-existence, out of a misguided belief that not existing will allow us to avoid unpleasant experiences.
This craving, then, gives rise to “upādāna.” This term is often translated as “clinging” or “grasping,” and conveys the idea of “taking up” something that is “the basis for the continuation of an ongoing process.” The term can even be translated as “fuel” in some contexts. Throughout the texts many things are identified as that which one may “take up,” but in brief, it’s enough to say that the driving force of craving moves us “take up” a mode of existence in which our bodies and minds continue being fueled by the four nutriments. This is why the Buddha said that the four nutriments all have “craving” as their source (SN 44.9) - thirst for pleasing sensory experiences, or hunger for a type of existence which might enable such experiences, drives us to continue “feeding” on the fuels which keep the stream of consciousness flowing. Craving causes us to seek gratification through contact with sense-objects, which gives rise to sense-consciousness and feelings. Feelings give rise to further craving, and we develop volitions to pursue that imaginary satisfaction. We “cling to” or “take up” this mode of existence because, out of ignorance, we believe it is the way to experience the gratification we seek. From such clinging, we give rise to "bhavā" or "continued existence." Our "taking up" of this process leaves us "clinging" to a cycle where we are driven by craving and give rise to further craving. When we die, the force of craving propels the stream of consciousness in such a way that allows it to become re-established in another existence with the conception of another being. In the case of the craving for non-existence, one develops the volition to end their own life or otherwise attain a state which they believe will terminate the possibility of unpleasant experiences. Such a person also dies with craving still fueling their stream of consciousness, ironically leading to continued existence.
I want to stop here to go on a tangent. The suttas clearly indicate that there can be a period of time where consciousness persists after the death of the former body, but before becoming established in the next life. The Pāli word for this is “antara bhāva,” and is usually translated as “intermediate existence.” I call this “the liminal state.”
For some reason, this is a point of controversy, especially within Theravādin orthodoxy. Piya Tan, quoting Sujato, explains how this is discussed in the Kathāvatthu - a Theravādin text which records their doctrines alongside those from rival sects, which are declared as heretical. It uses two arguments to support the claim that there is no liminal state during rebirth: first, that the Buddha only spoke of three kinds of existence; second, that the Buddha spoke of “kamma without interval.” Both of these arguments are weak.
The three states of existence mentioned in the first argument are in the sense world (where we live), the form sphere (where certain gods live), and the formless sphere (where highly-refined beings live). According to the Kathāvatthu, this leaves no room for a liminal state of existence between death and rebirth. Sujato brilliantly points out the folly of this understanding: if one speaks of a house with three rooms, this in no way implies that there are no hallways or corridors.
“Kamma without interval,” mentioned in the second argument, is translated from “ānantarikakamma.” It refers to actions that produce kammic results “without delay,” and refers to any of a set of especially heinous acts that invariably lead to one’s next life being in a hell realm. The Kathāvatthu seems to take the existence of this concept as evidence against the possibility of the liminal state. The problem with this is that nothing about the way this term is used precludes a state of transition between lives; it simply means that the results of this kamma take effect in the subsequent rebirth, precluding only the possibility of these results being “delayed” until some later lifetime. Furthermore, even if we understand this term as implying immediate rebirth after death, this does not preclude the possibility of transitional existence in other cases.
So, the evidence against the possibility of a liminal state is weak. Let’s look at evidence in support of this possibility. In the suttas, we find the idea of the anāgāmī - the “non-returners,” or individuals so spiritually advanced that they will never again be reborn in any of the worlds below the “Suddhāvāsa” realms, otherwise known as the Pure Abodes. Non-returners attain enlightenment at some point during their sojourn through the Pure Abodes.
There are seven types of non-returners, three of which are called “antara-parinibbāyī,” or “those who achieve full enlightenment in between.” A plain reading of the texts (for example, AN 7.52) conveys the fact that “in between” here refers to the period of time after one has died, but before being born in the Pure Abodes. The subtle difference between the three types is explained using the imagery of a spark flying off of a piece of metal: the first type is like a spark which cools just after flying off of the metal, referring to one who becomes enlightened almost immediately after death; the second is like a spark which cools as it flies up into the air, referring to one who becomes enlightened more or less in the middle of the liminal state; the third is like a spark which cools off while falling to the ground, just before it lands, referring to one who becomes enlightened right at the end of the liminal state, just before they would have been reborn in some Pure Abode.
In the Puggala Paññati, the 4th book of the Abhidhamma, we see how Theravadins tried to wrestle with this idea using linguistic gymnastics. They interpreted “antara-parinibbāyī” as “one who attains full enlightenment either immediately after rebirth in a Pure Abode, or at some point in the first half of their lifespan.” This ignores the fact that the word “antarā” literally means “in between,” and cartoonishly inflates the meaning of that one term in order to make it consistent with Theravādin orthodoxy.
The Buddha discussed how beings may persist “after having laid down their body, but before being reborn in another” (SN 44.9). This plainly implies the possibility of the liminal state. This state is also referenced when the suttas declare how, for one who becomes enlightened, there is no “here,” no “beyond,” and no “in between” (MN 114, SN 35.95).
Several passages even give a name to the sort of being which exists between two lifetimes. One is “sambhavesī,” or “beings about to be reborn.” It is important to note here that, in Buddhism, life is understood to begin at conception. “About to be reborn,” then, doesn’t mean “about to be delivered,” but “about to be conceived.” MN 38 lists the types of nutriment which sustain beings “about to be conceived,” as well as “beings that have already come to be” (bhūta). Throughout the suttas these two terms are contrasted with one another (also seen in SN 12.64). In the well-known Metta Sutta (Sn 1.8), we see the terms in a formula meant to be recited while wishing for the well-being of all living beings - “be they seen or unseen, near or far, already born or those to be conceived - may all beings be happy!”
Another name used is “gandhabba.” This can be confusing, since this word usually refers to a sort of celestial nymph associated with music and incense, but in the context at hand, this is clearly not what is being referenced. In the suttas, the term used in the present sense seems to be associated with Brahmins, possibly suggesting that in the Buddha’s time they used “gandhabba” as something akin to the word “soul” or in some other way used it to discuss rebirth; the Buddha may have simply borrowed the term as a convenient way to communicate with them.
The Buddha claimed three conditions needed to be fulfilled for conception to occur: 1) the union of mother and father, 2) the mother being fertile, and 3) the gandhabba being present (MN 38). In a debate with Brahmins regarding their classism, he asked if Brahmins were capable of determining the social standing of “that gandhabba” when a Brahmin mother became pregnant. In other words, he was forcing Brahmins to acknowledge that they had no way of knowing whether or not the baby being conceived had previously been a Brahmin, or some “lower” class of person, calling the entire purity of Brahmin lineages into question (MN 93).
One more doctrine conveys the possibility of the liminal state: the Four Modes of Conception (DN 26 & DN 33). Here, we see three stages in the process of rebirth, and that beings may possess different levels of awareness in these three stages. First, there is “descent into the mother’s womb.” Second, “staying in the womb.” Finally, “leaving the womb.”
The first mode of conception involves a being who remains unaware during all three stages. The second involves one who is aware during “descent,” but unaware while “staying” and “leaving.” The third involves one who is aware during “descent” and “staying,” but unaware while “leaving.” The final involves one who is aware during all three stages.
Other suttas (DN 24, MN 123, AN 4.127, and AN 8.70) apply this idea to the birth of a bodhisatta - a being who dies in a heavenly realm called Tusita and is reborn in the human world, where they will become the Buddha.3 The bodhisatta experiences the fourth mode of conception, remaining “mindful and fully-aware” during all three stages of rebirth. That a being may remain “mindful and aware” before becoming established in a mother’s womb clearly implies the possibility of the liminal state.
Consciousness isn’t the only process involved in rebirth. Above, I mentioned the third nutrument, “volitional thoughts” (manosañcetanā). It is said to nourish rebirth in the various realms of existence. This is where we need to discuss kamma, or “karma” in Sanskrit—a term you’ve probably heard before. Unfortunately, the common usage of this word fails to capture its nuanced meaning in Buddhism, so let’s unpack this term.
Usually when people talk about karma, they’re referring to some cosmic justice which gets doled out in short order. You’ve probably heard someone say “karma’s a bitch,” anticipating with bated breath the comeuppance of someone who has wronged them. In truth, kamma means “action” - kamma isn’t what happens to you, it’s what you do. Specifically, it’s what you do deliberately. The Buddha said “intention itself is kamma” because our intentions move us to perform actions (AN 6.63). Without volitions, there would be no performance of good or evil deeds.
The Buddha said these actions - our kamma - “ripen” in the various realms of rebirth. This means we experience some kind of result which stems from our actions. This can happen in the present lifetime, upon being reborn, or at some later point in time (AN 6.63). These kammic results (kammavipaka) or kammic fruits (kammaphala) are what most people mean when they say “karma” in common parlance.
Continued existence (bhāva) requires some kamma ripening in some realm of rebirth (AN 3:76-777). In the renewal of life, consciousness is said to be like a seed - craving, like the moisture which nourishes the seed - and kamma, like the field in which the seed takes root (ibid). To carry this metaphor further, the results of our kamma determine what sort of conditions the seed of consciousness becomes “planted in,” and the quality of the soil which provides the nutrients as it grows. Wholesome, moral kamma allows consciousness to become planted in a field rich with nutritious, fertile soil - a pleasurable rebirth. Unwholesome, immoral kamma causes consciousness to become situated in less ideal conditions, leading to unpleasant existence.
Because kamma works this way, the Buddha said we are “the heirs of our kamma” (MN 135). We are said to originate from our kamma, bound by it, and have it “as our refuge.” There is a wide range of things which can be determined by kammic results. For example: the realm where we are reborn (MN 135); our lifespan (AN 3.24, AN 3.27, AN 4.197, AN 5.157); our physical appearance (ibid.); the material conditions into which one is born (MN 135, AN 4.197); one’s intelligence (ibid.); and how influential or amicable someone is (ibid.).
Kamma can also cause things to happen to us throughout our lifetime. One of the Buddha’s disciples, Angulimāla, had been a vicious serial killer before becoming a monk. One day, while begging for donations, he was assaulted with stones, and returned to the Buddha battered and bloodied. The Buddha encouraged him to stay strong and remain dedicated, explaining he was merely experiencing the results of his past kamma (MN 86). However, we should understand that not everything is caused by kamma. The Buddha said there are eight causes for the things we experience, only one of which is kamma (SN 4.21).
The Buddha used several different schemes to classify kamma. The most basic is a twofold system: akusala kamma, or “unwholesome actions,” and kusala kamma, or “wholesome actions” (AN 10.176). There are other terms that appear in different suttas, but clearly point to the same twofold dichotomy: unprincipled, immoral conduct (adhammacariyā asamacariyā) vs principled, moral conduct (dhammacariyā samacariyā) (MN 41); blameworthy actions (sāvejjena kammena) vs blameless actions (anavajjena kammena) (AN 4.263), etc.
For the sake of simplicity, we can just say “bad kamma” and “good kamma.” Often this dichotomy appears alongside an idea known as “the three roots,” which are the motivations in which kamma is rooted.
Some bad actions listed in the suttas are: killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies, engaging in divisive speech, saying harsh words, speaking nonsense, being covetous, having ill-will towards another, and possessing wrong view (MN 9.4). The three roots for bad kamma are lust (rāga), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). Sometimes greed (lobha) appears instead of lust (MN 9, SN 3.23, AN 3.69), and ignorance (avijjā) instead of delusion (Iti 68). For all intents and purposes the terms function as synonyms in these cases.
Elsewhere, these forces are called “the three fires” (Iti 93). Lust is described as “burning” one who is infatuated by sense-pleasures (kāma). It arises when we give improper attention (ayoniso manasi karoto) to the beautiful qualities (subhanimitta) of the sense-objects we experience. Lust, in this sense, is not necessarily sexual; it includes anything that makes us feel pleasure through any of the six senses, including pleasurable thoughts. It is considered to be only “mildly blameworthy,” but “slow to fade.” The idea seems to be that the sorts of immoral actions which are rooted in lust are relatively less harmful than ones rooted in hatred, but lust lingers and remains influential for longer, making it more likely to influence us throughout our lives.
Hatred is described as that which moves a person to kill living beings. It arises when we give improper attention to “harsh features,” or qualities we find disagreeable. It is considered to be “very blameworthy,” but “quick to fade.” This is the opposite of the case with lust; hatred influences our most dangerous impulses, but tends to pass quickly when we allow ourselves to settle down and regain composure.
Delusion is described as that which bewilders us and causes us to “miss” the instructions of enlightened teachers. In other words, delusion is why we fail to fully apprehend the truth revealed by the Buddha. It arises through improper attention in general. As such, it plays a role in the operation of the other two “fires” as well. It is considered to be “very blameworthy” and “slow to fade,” making it the most insidious of the three.
As the three fires, these roots of bad kamma cause us to get caught up in our skewed sense of self, and in turn, we either “fill the ranks of hell,” or become reborn as animals, asuras, or ghosts (petas). These beings will be explained in the next essay of this series.
Good kamma is often explained simply as the opposite of bad kamma - not killing, not stealing, etc. Likewise, the three good roots are “non-greed,” “non-hatred,” and “non-delusion.” When the suttas get more granular, we find three things listed as counteractive forces to the three bad roots (Iti 93). The counter to lust is “asubhasañña,” or “perceiving the unattractive.” This is also described as giving “proper attention” to the “unattractive features” (asubhanimitta) of a sense-object (AN 3.68). Doing so allows us to avoid becoming intoxicated by the allure of sensual pleasures. The counter to hatred is loving-kindness (mettā). In Buddhism, this is a quality cultivated through a meditative practice where one extends deep, impersonal love to all living beings in every direction. The counter to delusion is wisdom (pañña) which leads to a penetrative understanding of the way things are. Alternatively, delusion is described as being countered by “proper attention” (AN 3.68).
The “bad/good” dichotomy gets expanded with the “paths of kamma” scheme (kammapatha) (MN 41, AN 10.176). Both types of kamma are explained with 10 actions each, using the same lists mentioned above, but here they are put into the subcategories of the “doors of kamma” (kammadvāra).4 These “doors” represent the ways we perform kamma: with our body (kāyakamma), with our speech (vacīkamma), and with our mind (manokamma).
The 10 Paths of Bad Kamma are as follows:
Three Bodily Actions:
1) Killing living beings
3) Sexual misconduct
Four Verbal Actions:
2) Speaking divisively (gossiping and causing conflict)
3) Speaking harshly (saying cruel, hurtful things)
4) Speaking nonsense (saying things in an untimely manner, or saying useless things)
Three Mental Actions:
1) Being covetous of another’s belongings
2) Having ill-will and malice towards another
3) Having wrong view (false beliefs, counter to the truth revealed by the Buddha - specifically: believing ethics are useless; not believing in other realms and rebirth; believing one has no obligation to their parents; not believing in the possibility of the “spontaneous rebirth” of certain beings; not believing that some people have realized the truth regarding other worlds and states of birth)
The 10 paths of good kamma are as follows:
Three Bodily Actions:
Giving up the bad ones listed above
Four Verbal Actions:
Giving up the bad ones listed above
Three Mental Actions:
1) Being content instead of covetous
2) Having kindness and loving intentions towards others: “may they live free of enmity and ill-will, untroubled and happy”
3) Having right view (specifically: knowing that moral acts are beneficial; knowing there are other worlds and rebirths; knowing one has an obligation to their parents; knowing certain beings can be reborn spontaneously; knowing that some people have realized the truth regarding other worlds and states of birth)
Mental kamma is considered “the most blameworthy” (MN 56). Since kamma is ultimately a force of volition, all actions begin first as mental kamma. To paraphrase the first verse of the Dhammapada: “the mind precedes all things. If one speaks or takes action with an impure mind, suffering will follow them like a cart follows the ox which pulls it. If one has a pure mind, happiness will follow them like their own shadow.”
The most nuanced explanation of kamma is a fourfold scheme, where we see the following categories: dark kamma with a dark result, bright kamma with a bright result, kamma that is both dark and bright with a dark and bright result, and kamma that is neither dark nor bright with a result that is neither dark nor bright (DN 33).
“Dark” comes from the Pāli term “kanha,” and can literally refer to the color black, but often appears as a metaphor in the sense of “wicked,” or “evil.” Bright comes from “sukka,” which likewise can mean “white” or “pure” or “virtuous.” These terms demonstrate the moral gravity of kamma; “evil” isn’t some stuck-out-of-time force in the universe that imposes on us. Evil is the result of unethical choices that people make.
Again, we may simply use “bad” and “good” in place of “dark” and “bright” respectively. One sutta explains that bad kamma refers to “hurtful” (sabyāpajjha) choices made with body, speech, or mind (MN 57). Another specifies that bad kamma is an action that violates one of the five most basic Buddhist precepts: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or drinking alcohol. Good kamma refers to “pleasing” (abyābajjha) choices made with the body, speech, or mind. This means upholding the Buddhist precepts: not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not lying, and not drinking alcohol.
The second half of this scheme introduces the nuance. First, there is kamma which is both bad and good, and produces a result which is likewise both bad and good. Buddhist ethics aren’t “black and white” - pun intended. As far as I’m aware, the suttas never list specific actions that fit this category, which we can call “mixed kamma.” However, there is a story in SN 3.20 which can probably serve as an example. A wealthy man ordered his servants to donate food to an enlightened man, but he immediately regretted it, wishing he had kept that food for his own servants and workers. As a result of his charity, he experienced seven heavenly lifetimes, in addition to the “residual result” of seven lifetimes as a wealthy man on earth. However, because of the bad mental kamma from his miserly regret, his mind struggled to enjoy the worldly pleasures into which he had been born.
Finally, we have kamma that is neither bad nor good, and produces results which are likewise neither bad nor good. This, in the Buddha’s teaching, is the ideal sort of kamma—it comes from the determination to abandon both bad and good kamma, eventually leading to the cessation of kamma altogether. Specifically, this is explained as adherence to the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path (AN 4.237). Elaborating on the Noble Eightfold Path is beyond the scope of this essay.
This is a point that shouldn’t be understated: even good kamma is something that Buddhists should seek to go beyond. AN 3.34 explains that kamma rooted in “non-greed,” “non-hatred,” and “non-delusion” - in other words, good kamma - is abandoned when one has overcome the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion as a result of religious training. Someone who achieves this no longer accumulates good or bad kamma, leading to the cessation of causes for future rebirth. MN 41 further clarifies that “principled and moral conduct” can lead either to a favorable rebirth or to the attainment of enlightenment, and thus the end of all rebirth, depending on one’s intentions.
What we see here is a devaluation of good kamma in light of the possibility of performing actions that take us beyond the rigid dichotomy of “good” and “bad.” Mere adherence to ethical practice is imperfect if it isn’t accompanied by insight into the Buddha’s teachings and an earnest intention to follow the path he revealed to us.
There is one last category of kamma we should discuss: ānantariyakamma, which means something like “grave actions,” or “severe actions.” This term only appears rarely: we see it in AN 6:93, and in the Vinaya (Vin ii 193:37). This type of kamma is described as being so evil that it produces “an immediate result,” without much elaboration. The traditional understanding of this, based on context from other texts, is that they necessarily lead to rebirth in a hell realm in the next lifetime.
The specific “grave actions” are: (AN 5.129, 6.87, 6.94)
1) Murdering one’s mother
2) Murdering one’s father
3) Murdering an enlightened person
4) Shedding the blood of a Budda5
5) Causing a schism in the sangha (The Vinaya clarifies that this specifically refers to causing a split by deliberately misrepresenting the teachings and causing a schism maliciously)
None of the texts that list these acts use the term “ānantariyakamma.” AN 5.129 calls them “the five fatal wounds” and says they lead to hell. AN 6.87 includes them in a list of things that preclude one from “entering the sure path," even if one is taught the Dhamma. AN 6.93 doesn’t feature the list of actions, but speaks of “grave kamma with fixed results in the next life” in a list of things which “one accomplished in view” simply can’t do, because they lack the prerequisite moral weakness. The very next sutta (AN 6.94) does feature the list, and though it doesn’t use the term “grave kamma,” it similarly explains the actions in that list can’t be performed by one accomplished in view. Furthermore, in the Vinaya, we see the Buddha explaining that his cousin Devadatta - who had just attacked him and drawn his blood - had performed his “first grave kamma with fixed results in the next life.” The Vinaya goes on to explain that Devadatta was eventually swallowed down into the earth, to be reborn directly in a hell realm.
All the overlapping points of these texts allow us to accept the traditional understanding of “grave kamma” as a category of actions which necessarily leads to rebirth in a hell realm in one’s next lifetime.
The suttas are clear: kamma leads to rebirth. The results of the kamma we perform are described as “fruits” which “ripen” either in the current lifetime, or in some future existence (AN 3.34). Beings are found in “bad places” and “good places” because of kamma (AN 10.176). The Buddha explained how one’s conduct leads to rebirth after death (MN 41), and how the results of one’s kamma determine where one is reborn (MN 57). He described that kamma is the way “a being is born from a being."
However, it’s important to understand that kamma is not a simple process of linear cause-and-effect. With the exception of “grave kamma,” it’s not possible to say for certain whether or not some type of action will produce a corresponding fruit in this life or the next in a way that is easily-discernible. That’s why the Buddha advised us not to overthink the nature of kamma and rebirth - it’s so befuddling that it boggles the mind.
The suttas demonstrate the complexity of kamma’s subtle functions and how it produces results. The belief that all evil-doers will be reborn in hell in their next life, and that all righteous people will be reborn in heaven after death, is explicitly called “wrong view”. We find a scheme of four types of people (MN 136):
1) Evil-doers who go to hell
2) Evil-doers who go to heaven
3) Righteous people who go to heaven
4) Righteous people who go to hell
The reason for these different possibilities is because any particular kamma will “ripen” and produce its results whenever conditions - unknowable to us - are favorable. The effects of any particular act could manifest within this lifetime, immediately upon rebirth, or at any point in future lifetimes (AN 3.34). The cycle of birth and death has no discernable beginning, and throughout our innumerable lives, we have accumulated so much kamma - good, bad, and mixed - that there is no shortage of any kind ready to ripen and produce its results at any given point. This is why someone who has lived a moral life may experience an unfortunate rebirth, and vice-versa.6
This isn’t a total crapshoot, however, and we aren’t powerless in the way we experience kamma. We have the potential to greatly influence our “kammic trajectory,” and the Buddha taught us how to do this.
The Buddha used a salt metaphor to demonstrate the way that the same evil kamma can affect different people in different ways (AN 3.99), depending on the over all moral quality of those people. Imagine dropping salt into two bodies of water: a small cup, and then the Ganges River. The amount of water in the cup is small enough to allow us to clearly taste the salt. In the Ganges River, however, the salt wouldn’t make a discernible difference. Likewise, a “trifling evil deed” committed by someone who lives an immoral life will produce a much more profound effect, such as rebirth in a hell realm. That same action, when committed by someone established in ethical conduct, would produce mitigated results which would instead manifest “here and now” in the present lifetime, and “for the most part, barely appear for even a moment.” In this way, we can see how it’s possible to lessen the impact of kamma through the way we live our lives.
We may also retroactively diminish the effects of kamma we have already performed, when we have not yet experienced their results. Above, I mentioned mettā, or loving-kindness, which is cultivated through a meditation in which one visualizes spreading impersonal love throughout every direction. The suttas tell us this practice allows us to expedite the fruition of certain kinds of kamma in a way that lets us experience their results “here and now,” without that kamma “following us” into future lives (AN 10.219). It’s reasonable to assume that the severity of the results of this kamma would be mitigated, as described in the salt metaphor.
Possessing “right view” or “wrong view” at the moment of death can also affect how we are reborn (MN 136). In addition, “going to the Buddha for refuge” - or declaring one’s faith in the Buddha and his teachings, and living your life in accordance with this faith - also has an impact on the results of kamma we experience. One sutta shows a god outright declaring that “anyone who has gone for refuge in the Buddha won’t go to an unfortunate realm; after abandoning their body, they will fill the ranks of gods” (DN 20). The redemptive power of earnest faith is demonstrated in the story of Sarakānī the Sakyan (SN 55.24). Sarakānī was one of the Buddha’s fellow clansmen, both hailing from the republic of Sakya. He was a renowned drunkard, but when he died, the Buddha declared that he had become a “stream-enterer” (sotāpanna), meaning he had achieved the first stage of the path towards irreversible enlightenment.
This ruffled the feathers of some of the other Sakyans. Drinking alcohol is considered bad kamma, after all. “If that old lush Sarakānī is a stream-winner, I suppose everyone is a stream-winner!” One such skeptic, Mahānāma, went to the Buddha for an explanation. The Buddha explained that any layperson who “has, for a long time, gone for refuge” can’t be reborn “in the underworld.” He went on to break down the different levels of attainment that can be achieved by one who has gone for refuge, and the different types of possible bad rebirths they prevent as a result. I won’t go into the details here. I simply want to note that this sutta demonstrates that being a devout layperson alone is enough to have an impact on the way we experience kamma and are reborn.
This raises a question… since we have an unfathomable amount of kamma built up over innumerable lifetimes, and we have some control over how it ripens, do we have to experience the results of all the kamma we have performed? For some reason, this is a point of controversy, despite the fact that the suttas are very clear: yes, we do.
I want to go on another tangent in this section to make my argument: the suttas teach that we must experience the results of all past kamma, and we cannot become enlightened without having experienced the fruits of all accumulated actions. The traditional position which developed later, holding that all of one’s kamma need not ripen, is an innovation that clearly contradicts the Buddha’s word.
Buddhists and scholars much smarter than me, throughout time and around the globe, have disagreed with this conclusion. I will be addressing the works of three such men in particular: Bhikkhu Anālayo, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Piya Tan. Despite the vast difference between the pedigrees of these individuals and myself, I sincerely believe they’re mistaken on this point, and I think I can make a good case for my own position.
In a series of suttas from the Anguttara Nikāya (beginning with AN 10.217), the Buddha makes two emphatic statements: first, “for accumulated kamma to be terminated, its results must be experienced, either in this very life, upon rebirth, or at some later time” and second, “one cannot make an end of suffering if they have not experienced the results of volitional kamma which has been accumulated.”7
This passage clearly supports my claim and invalidates the claims of the other scholars and later Buddhist tradition at large, so what’s the issue? Well, across the relevant works of these scholars, there seem to be three reasons they believe the plain meaning of this passage should be dismissed. None of these arguments are convincing.
The first argument, weakest of all, is that the second of the above statements - that we must experience the results of all accumulated kamma before making an end of suffering - contradicts a fundamental teaching of the Buddha. That fundamental teaching, they claim, is that the Buddha taught it is not only unnecessary, but it is impossible, to reap the fruits of all the kamma we have accumulated throughout the rounds of rebirth. Bodhi argues that because the cycle of birth and death is without a discernible beginning, we have a virtually infinite store of kamma and it would require a virtually infinite amount of time to be exhausted by coming to fruition and producing its results. Piya Tan likewise declares the impossibility of experiencing all the results of one’s accumulated kamma.
There’s one BIG problem here: the Buddha never taught this. I’m not aware of any place in the suttas where the Buddha made such a claim. This idea seems to be rooted entirely in the commentarial distinction between “vipākaraha-kamma” and “ahosi-kamma.” The first term means “kamma which remains capable of producing a result,” and the second term means “kamma which no longer has potential [to fruit].” As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the commentaries are often unreliable. The commentators had a habit of introducing problems into the suttas in attempts to reconcile passages from the Buddha’s sermons which contradicted the more complicated doctrines that had developed over time after the Buddha’s death. For some reason, the Buddhist tradition grew in such a way that took umbrage with the idea that all kamma will produce results.
Again, the suttas themselves state plainly that kamma works this way. Of course, there are the two statements found in the Anguttara Nikāya passages I mentioned above. This would be a “smoking gun,” but our scholars believe these texts have been corrupted - something I’ll address later - so for now, let’s look elsewhere.
Two texts mention how someone’s spiritual achievement can lead to the destruction of some amount of kamma through forcing its results to manifest. The first text is one of the Anguttara Nikāya suttas which features the two statements in question, AN 10.219. After the passage our scholars claim is corrupt, the Buddha declared that a disciple who practices any of the brahmavihāras - four meditation practices, one of which is the cultivation of mettā mentioned earlier in this essay - attains a “limitless, well-developed mind” and that “any measurable kamma they’ve performed doesn’t remain or persist there.” This term “measurable kamma” comes from “pamānakatam kamma,” an obscure Pāli term. The commentary explains it refers to kamma limited to the “sense-sphere” plane of existence (kāmavacarakamma), which can only produce its results in the realms of the lowest of the three planes of existence. Obviously I have betrayed my anti-commentarial bias by now, but this is one instance where the commentarial explanation seems completely unproblematic. The Buddha went on to discuss how the disciple would reflect on their achievement: “whatever bad kamma I have performed in the past with this kamma-produced body, I will experience here. It will not follow me to my next life.”
Next, in the story of Angulimāla (MN 86), we see how the murderer-turned-monk was assaulted one day as he was begging for food - presumably by angry villagers who remembered him as the bandit that killed many of their kinsmen. He returned to the Buddha dripping blood from his split head, with his robe tattered and begging bowl broken. As he drew near, the Buddha called out, “Stay strong! You’re simply experiencing, in this life, the results of kamma which would have caused you to be tormented in hell for many hundreds or thousands of years.” Later, in a poetic verse, Angulimāla reflects, “I’ve done many acts which would have lead to an unfortunate realm. The results of my kamma have already struck me; I enjoy my food free from debt.”
Both texts leave open the possibility that this process does not involve the entirety of one’s accumulated kamma - something which our scholars take as evidence for their own positions. If these examples existed in a vacuum, I would be willing to accept this. I will demonstrate below that this isn’t the case. Regarding the story of Angulimāla specifically, Anālayo argues that there’s no way he would have had enough time to fully experience the fruits of his murderous kamma from his lifetime as a bandit - if we accept this, we would certainly have to accept the impossibility of experiencing the results of all his kamma from past lifetimes as well. Therefore, Anālayo wants us to conclude that Angulimāla only experienced a partial exhaustion of his kamma, with the rest of it “lapsing” after his death, never to “fruit” and produce results. I want to reiterate: the suttas do not say this. Nowhere is the Buddha recorded as saying “You’ve got too much kamma! There’s no way you can reap all these fruits! Some of them will just expire without being experienced!”
In the Dhammapada, we find a poetic statement: “not in the sky, nor in the middle of the ocean, nor in the heart of a mountainous cave, nor anywhere else is there a place where one may escape the results of bad kamma.” Piya Tan argues that this verse “clearly” does not imply that we must experience the results of all our kamma. I argue that this is not clear at all, and a plain reading of this verse clearly implies the opposite, especially in light of other examples from the early texts.
For instance, one sutta (AN 3.74) records a debate between Ānanda - the Buddha’s cousin and primary-attendant, celebrated for his memory in recollecting the Buddha’s sermons - and a devotee of a rival religious group, the Niganthas, now known as Jains. The Nigantha believed that liberation from suffering was achieved by stopping the production of new kamma and destroying all past kamma through extreme asceticism. He called this “purification by wearing away [kamma].”
Ānanda explained that, in the Buddha’s teaching, there are three sorts of “purification by wearing away [kamma],” none of which involve extreme asceticism. Here, Ānanda presents “the threefold training,” a motif used throughout the Buddhist scriptures as a pithy summary of the path to enlightenment. The details aren’t important here - I just want to note Ānanda said each of the three stages causes the results of “old kamma” to be experienced gradually, in a way that is “visible in this very life” and “immediately effective.” He concluded by saying that these three sorts of “purification by wearing away [kamma]” were taught by the Buddha as the way to achieve enlightenment.
A key point here lies in context not provided explicitly in the sutta, but would have been understood at the time: the Niganthas believed that “old kamma” entails all of one’s kamma from every lifetime. Buddhists were familiar with the beliefs of their Nigantha rivals, and there’s no reason to assume Ānanda would have been unaware of this. It’s telling, then, that Ānanda made no attempt to clarify that the Buddha meant anything different when he mirrored the use of the term “old kamma.” Both men seemed to be using this term to refer to the entirety of one's accumulated kamma, and not just that which had accumulated in the present lifetime.
In another debate (AN 4.195), we see Mahāmoggalāna arguing with a Nigantha named Vappa who believed that bad kamma from past lives which has not yet ripened leads to defilements which cause painful feelings in the next life, even in one "who is restrained in body, speech, and mind" and has overcome ignorance with the attainment of knowledge. The Buddha showed up and offered to speak on the issue, and Vappa agreed. Using the same language as Ānanda in the previous text, the Buddha said that one who is "restrained" and has attained knowledge may cease the production of new kamma and eliminate “old kamma” by experiencing their results gradually. In this instance, it is even more evident that the Buddha used “old kamma” to refer to kamma from past lifetimes, because Vappa previously said “kamma from past lives” and the Buddha did not protest. This sutta explicitly demonstrates that the Buddha did not take issue with the belief that one must experience the results of all their kamma. Instead, he taught that ethical training and religious knowledge allows one to avoid the negative experiences of kammic results in future lifetimes by bringing it to fruition gradually within this very lifetime.
These two instances support my argument, but verses from the Theragatha make my point outright. One (Tha 1.81) records the monk Samitigutta reflecting on his enlightenment, saying “any bad things I’ve done in previous lives will be experienced right here, not in any other place.” A previous verse (Tha 1.80) records the monk Ugga saying “any kamma I have performed, whether it be much or little, has been completely exhausted; now, there will be no future lives.”
All of these passages together demonstrate plainly that the Buddha taught all kamma must be experienced before one finally escapes the cycle of rebirth. All kamma will produce results, and those results must be experienced. In the case where someone’s religious training takes them beyond the typical experience of kammic results, that kamma does not “lapse” or become ineffective. Instead, those results manifest in a way that is mitigated “here and now,” in one’s current lifetime. The opposing argument, which rejects this idea, rests on pure conjecture and commentarial innovation.
Our scholars claim that this idea about kamma’s function is actually a Jain doctrine which is explicitly denied elsewhere in the Buddhist texts. Anālayo and Piya Tan (the latter citing the former) point to MN 101 as evidence that this is a Jain doctrine, not a Buddhist one. Anālayo also points to AN 9.12 as an example of a Buddhist text which denounces this doctrine. Then, he analyzes other texts in the canon which seem to betray a high degree of Jain influence, leading to his conclusion: we should dismiss the Buddha’s statement about the necessity of experiencing all of our kamma as a corruption which placed a Jain belief in the Buddha’s mouth. Bodhi also points to MN 14 as evidence that this understanding of kamma is a Jain belief, and not a Buddhist one.
Careful readings of the suttas in question show that these arguments don’t hold up. In MN 14, we see a story recounted by the Buddha from a time before his enlightenment. At the time of this story, he had been living on Vulture Peak, a location on a mountain which became a holy site in Buddhism due to how often he gave sermons there. Other spiritual seekers were residing there at the time, including Niganthas. The Buddha witnessed their excessive austerities, watching as they inflicted pain on themselves - for example, by refusing to sit down - all in an attempt to burn away their past kamma.
Even before his awakening, the Buddha thought this was foolish, and questioned them on their beliefs. He got them to admit that they had no personal knowledge that they had ever existed in the past, much less that they had accumulated any bad kamma, and much much less that they were burning any of it away by standing up all day. They were just accepting their leader’s claims on blind faith. He also pointed out that, since they believed all of the feelings someone experiences are caused by past kamma, all Niganthas must have been grave sinners in past lives, since all day long they experience pain.
They countered the Buddha by declaring that true pleasure is gained through painful asceticism, and not gained by indulging in lowly sensual pleasures. If he disagreed, they claimed, he would have to acknowledge that a worldly king enjoys truer pleasure than he does. The Buddha, not swayed, corrected the Niganthas: there is a type of pleasure beyond worldly sensuality, and it’s gained by following the religious training he practiced, which has no need for subjecting oneself to painful austerities. This pleasure is far beyond that of any king. Without inflicting pain on himself, and without indulging in base sensual lust, the Buddha enjoyed the joys of the Middle Path, able to dwell in spiritual pleasure for seven days and nights, without so much as moving or speaking.
Let’s pull back and look at what was conveyed here. Our scholars have concluded that this sutta presents the Buddha taking issue with the fact that the Niganthas believed all of their accumulated kamma could be burned away. A close reading lets us see this isn’t the case. Instead, what we see is a disagreement on two points:
1. That the Niganthas accepted their beliefs without any firsthand knowledge or experience
2. That they believed extreme asceticism was in any way effective towards achieving liberation, instead of being immersed in the spiritual pleasures which lead to disillusionment with unwholesome sensuality
At no point in this story did the Buddha tell the Niganthas that they were wrong about the possibility of all of one’s kamma coming to fruition, nor did he make this claim to the audience of his sermon. When he brought up this belief, he was taking issue with the fact that the Niganthas accepted all of their beliefs through blind faith in their leader. After all, he also pressed them in the same way on their blind belief that they had existed in past lives - are we to understand that the Buddha did not believe in past lives? Should we take this as evidence that the belief in past lives is merely a Jain doctrine, and not a Buddhist one? Of course not. Again, the issue wasn’t that the Niganthas held these beliefs - it was that they held them without knowledge and experience.
In AN 9.13, we see a conversation between two monks, namely Sāriputta and Mahākotthita. They were discussing the purpose of the religious training taught by the Buddha. Sāriputta declares definitively that manipulating how one experiences the results of their kamma is not the aim of the Buddhist path. This includes several possibilities, such as making kamma which would have produced results in the future produce its results in the present life instead, and making kamma which would have been experienced instead not come to fruition. Sāriputta states that the purpose of following the Buddha’s teaching is to achieve insight into the Four Noble Truths, which leads to enlightenment.
Anālayo presents this sutta as a contrast to the Jain belief in burning away past kamma, but again, a careful reading of this sutta shows that this possibility is not rejected. As I’ve already demonstrated clearly, the doctrine found in the suttas acknowledges that the results of kamma can be manipulated in the ways mentioned in this conversation between Sāriputta and Mahākotthita. The point the former monk made here is simply that such manipulation of kamma is not itself the end goal. Liberation is achieved through insight into the Four Noble Truths, and the ways we develop the mind in pursuit of this goal affect the way we experience kamma simply as a byproduct.
MN 101 records another instance of the Buddha recounting an encounter with the Niganthas. He once again brought up their belief that all feelings are caused by past kamma, then pointed out to them that when they pause their ascetic practices, their painful feelings stop. This demonstrated that one’s experiences can be caused by present behavior, and not merely past kamma.
He then questioned them on the possibility of affecting the results of kamma through “exertion and striving.” He got them to acknowledge that it was impossible to change how we experience the fruition of past deeds through such “exertion and striving.” A surface-level reading of this passage would invalidate my own argument, but crucially, it would also invalidate the argument put forward by our scholars. The possibility of “kamma to be experienced in the next life” being made to produce its results “here and now” through exertion and striving is refused; this would invalidate my position. However, the possibility of “kamma to be experienced” becoming “kamma not to be experienced” through exertion and striving is also refused, which would preclude the possibility of “lapsed kamma” or any such idea which serves as support for the argument of our scholars.
When reading this passage, we must understand how the Buddha used the phrase “exertion and striving” here to refer specifically to the asceticism of the Niganthas. Again, we can know this because of the myriad examples from other suttas demonstrating how kamma can be prevented from producing results in future lifetimes by bringing it to fruition “here and now” in a mitigated capacity.
Not one of these suttas denounces the idea that one must experience the results of all their accumulated kamma. The Buddha disagreed with the Niganthas on other points, but never took them to task over their belief in the possibility of bringing all kamma to fruition, and since this idea is found throughout other early Buddhist texts, there’s no reason to conclude that this was not a doctrine taught by the Buddha.
Finally, these scholars argue against the authenticity of the Anguttara Nikāya passages by claiming that they show signs of textual corruption as a result of mistakes in oral transmission. This is certainly the strongest of the three arguments, and Anālayo makes a great case for the likelihood of corruption. I won’t attempt to cover the entirety of his analysis; doing so would necessitate reproducing lengthy parts of his work which are irrelevant to my own argument here. Instead, I will simply grant that there is likely some degree of corruption in these passages and attempt to demonstrate that this corruption in no way serves as evidence that the statement about experiencing the results of all kamma is problematic, especially in light of the evidence I’ve already presented above.
Anālayo analyzes the series of Pāli Suttas from the Anguttara Nikāya (AN 2.17-2.19) by comparing them with a parallel text in the Chinese Canon, sūtra 15 of the Madhyama Āgama (MĀ 15). This text most closely resembles AN 2.19, though some of its passages mirror the other two suttas as well. Anālayo points to this (among other indicators) to suggest that the three Pāli suttas were originally one text that splintered into three sequential suttas through transmission mistakes within the oral tradition.
All three Pāli suttas begin with the same passage, in which the Buddha makes two statements: first, that the results of accumulated kamma must be experienced before it is “eliminated,” and second, that the results of all accumulated kamma must be experienced before suffering comes to a complete end. In MĀ 15, only the first statement is made. Instead of the second statement, we find a declaration that unintentional actions will not necessarily produce kammic results. This is another indication that the Pāli texts were corrupted.
Let’s proceed by looking at MĀ 15 exclusively. The first statement made by the Buddha here is, “if someone performs actions intentionally, I say that he will inevitably have to experience their fruits, either in this life or in a later life.” The word “inevitably” here should lead us to the conclusion that this statement is perfectly in accordance with the second statement found in the Pāli suttas: one will inevitably have to experience the results of their kamma before they finally escape the cycle of suffering. The Buddha did not say “if someone performs actions intentionally, I say that he will maybe have to experience their fruits - except sometimes when he doesn’t!”
Later in MĀ 15, after detailing the brahmavihāras, the Buddha instructs monks who have developed their minds through those meditations to reflect as follows: “Formerly I was negligent and performed unwholesome karma. Let the fruits of these be experienced entirely now, not in a later world.” Again, this passage clearly demonstrates that Buddhist practice involves affecting the way kamma produces its results. Nowhere in this sūtra is it stated, or even implied, that enlightenment allows us to avoid the “inevitable” results of kamma.
Even if we accept that the Pāli texts have been corrupted, there is nothing about the second statement - despite its absence in MĀ 15 - that is contradictory to the first statement, much less to Buddhist doctrine at large. A person will inevitably experience the results of their kamma. The only difference is that in the second statement in the Pāli texts, the suttas emphasize that this applies to those who have attained enlightenment. This is supported by other texts in the canon which are not of questionable authenticity.
I believe the suttas are clear on this aspect of the doctrine of kamma: actions performed by someone who is not an arahant inevitably produce results, either in this lifetime or a future one. Enlightenment does not exclude someone from this inevitability by causing any amount of accumulated kamma to “lapse” or “expire.” Becoming an arahant merely removes the possibility of future lifetimes, causing all accumulated kamma to manifest results in one’s final lifetime. The severity of these results can be mitigated as a result of one’s mental development, even to the point of being barely perceptible. This understanding of kamma is only problematic to someone committed to maintaining the position introduced by the commentarial tradition.
Let’s discuss another factor of kamma and rebirth: sankhārā, or “formations.” This term has many meanings across a wide variety of contexts, so let’s restrict ourselves to the contexts of kamma and rebirth.
The later tradition would come to define formations explicitly as kamma; some scholars say this is not found in the suttas, but the two terms are so closely related that I think the operation of one necessarily implies the operation of the other, even if the Buddha never said they were the same “thing.” For example, formations are made “by way of body, speech, and mind” just like kamma (SN 12.2). They are also associated with intention (cetanā), which elsewhere is equated with kamma (AN 6.63). Just like kamma, formations are said to lead to rebirth in the cycle of suffering (SN 56.42). Perhaps most significantly, in certain passages discussing the “dark/bright kamma” scheme, these two categories of actions are explained as “hurtful/pleasing sankhārā,” translated in these passages as “choices” (MN 57).
Having established why we’re covering “formations,” let’s establish what they are. Tilmann Vetter identifies two aspects of the term: the process of forming or preparing something, and the product which is formed or prepared. He says the etymology of this term comes close to “states/things being formed or prepared [to do something in the future].” For our purposes, we should understand formations as various forces of volition and will, along with dispositions that influence these volitions just as they become reinforced by them. In other words, our volitions cause mental dispositions to “form,” which go on to make us more likely to have those sorts of volitions in the future.
The Buddha said formations should be understood as intentions regarding the six sense-objects (sights, sounds, odors, tastes, tactile experiences/touches, and thoughts) (SN 22.57). Anālayo, in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, summarizes this succinctly by saying that the aggregate of formations is “that which reacts to experience.” This is why Sujato translates the term as “choices.”
Anālayo points out that formations seem to represent, specifically, the beginning stages of mental activity which then lead to taking action (or performing kamma). This is demonstrated in DN 28, where it is said someone who can read the mind of another does so by detecting the way the “mental formations” are being “directed,” allowing them to determine what sort of thought will follow. “Mental formations” here comes from “manosankhārā,” which Sujato translates as “intentions.”
This idea of formations appears in two formulas: the 5 Aggregates and the 12 Links of Dependent Origination. The difference between the meaning of “formations” in these contexts is a subtle one. As an aggregate, the focus is on how volitional formations operate from moment to moment in response to sensory experiences, working with the other aggregates to construct our subjective existence in the present life; as a link, the focus is on the role formations play in constructing continued existence in the cycle of birth and death.
As Anālayo points out, the scope of the aggregate is wider than that of the link. The formations-aggregate includes volitional responses which are not kammically active and do not produce kammic results. The formations-link are specifically those involved in producing results which condition consciousness in the process of rebirth. The former context can apply to arahants; the latter cannot.
That formations play a part in rebirth is a point made clear throughout the suttas. The Buddha said that those who do not understand the Four Noble Truths will “delight in formations (choices) which lead to rebirth” (SN 56.42) and we are reborn as a result of bodily, verbal, and mental formations (MN 57). He also recommended contemplating how “all suffering is caused by formations (choices)” (Sn 3.12). In addition, he delivered an entire sermon about “intentional rebirth” (sankhārupapatti), discussing how it’s possible to “aim” for a certain type of rebirth by developing the aspiration - described as a formation - to achieve that state of existence in the next life.
If our intentions, choices, and actions lead to our stream of consciousness becoming established in future lifetimes, doesn’t this allow for the possibility of stopping rebirth by ceasing to make choices and stopping the performance of new actions? As I’ve already mentioned, the Buddha disagreed with the Niganthas, who believed they could become liberated through eliminating old kamma and stopping future kamma. Why isn’t that much sufficient if kamma and formations are what produce rebirth?
The Buddhist answer to this dilemma is because of the presence in the mind of the “anusaya,” or “underlying/latent tendencies.” Damien Keown describes them as “latent negative tendencies that lie dormant in the mind.” He explains that they function as “dormant predisposing conditions for corresponding forms of manifest conduct.” In other words, they are subtle mental qualities that make us behave in unwholesome ways. Anālayo explains that they influence us by triggering unwholesome reactions, particularly in response to the three types of feeling: pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant.
The fact that the anusaya are “underlying” and “latent” should be emphasized. Even in the absence of volitional activity, the underlying tendencies by themselves can serve as the object which fuels our stream of consciousness as it becomes established in the next life (SN 12.38). This is why merely eradicating kamma isn’t sufficient for liberation. Until we achieve the penetrating insight which destroys the underlying tendencies, the process of consciousness still has “fuel” to continue arising. They are even present in newborn babies (MN 64), who are otherwise innocent of immoral behavior and cannot even entertain the thought of immorality.
Like the deliberate actions of kamma and the subtle volitional forces of sankhārā, they keep us moving along through the cycle of suffering. The anusaya, however, are so insidious that they operate regardless of our will and intentions - often without us even being aware of their presence. As is often the case with Buddhist formulas, there are multiple lists with varying numbers and names. Anālayo points out that the term sometimes appears without any list or further explanation, serving as a general allusion to any of our mind’s bad inclinations. When they are listed, they often correspond to other formulas.
Piya Tan explores the various formulas. When the list is threefold (SN 36.3), we see the latent tendencies of: greed (rāgānusaya); aversion (patighānusaya); and ignorance (avijjānusaya). These correspond closely to three “unwholesome roots” (akusala mūla) we discussed with kamma. The latent tendency of greed underlies our unwholesome reactions to pleasant feelings. The latent tendency of aversion underlies our unwholesome reactions to unpleasant feelings. Finally, the latent tendency of ignorance underlies our unwholesome reactions to neutral feelings (the idea seems to be that we rarely notice neutral feelings, remaining unmindful of the impermanent nature of all phenomena).
In a fivefold list (MN 64), the latent tendencies are explicitly correlated with the scheme of “the five lower fetters” - a formula designed to explain mental factors which keep us “fettered” to the lower realms of rebirth. The list is as follows:
1. The latent tendency of the identity-view (sakkāyaditthānusaya)
2. The latent tendency of doubt (vicikicchānusaya)
3. The latent tendency of attachment to rituals and vows (sīlabataparāmāsānusaya)
4. The latent tendency of sense-desire (kāmaragānusaya)
5. The latent tendency of ill-will (vyāpādānusaya) (This is essentially a synonym for #2 in the threefold list.)
There is also a list of seven underlying tendencies (found in various suttas, like DN 33, MN 148, and AN 17). This is probably the most common, and the one which became most prominent in the tradition. This list begins with the first two items of the threefold list, then breaks the pattern, including “ignorance” as the final item. It also includes #2 from the fivefold list - doubt, here appearing as the 5th item. The full list is as follows:
1. The latent tendency of sensual lust (kāmarāgānusaya)
2. The latent tendency of aversion (patighānusaya)
3. The latent tendency of conceit (mānānusaya)
4. The latent tendency of holding views (ditthānusaya)
5. The latent tendency of doubt (vicikicchānusaya)
6. The latent tendency of lusting for existence (bhavarāgānusaya)
7. The latent tendency of ignorance (avijjānusaya)
This set corresponds closely (but not precisely) to “the five higher fetters” which, combined with the five lower fetters, make up “the fetters of becoming” or “the fetters [which bind us] to existence.” I won’t discuss the 10 fetters here - that formulation requires an understanding of information I’m holding for part 2 of this series of essays. Since it corresponds so closely to the underlying tendencies, there’s no need to elaborate here.
Instead, let’s briefly expand on the list of 7 latent tendencies, using Piya Tan’s work. We’ve already mentioned sensual lust and aversion, so let’s start with the latent tendency of conceit. Ultimately, this is our mind’s inclination to construct an illusory sense of identity, specifically in a way that draws a hard divide between “oneself” and “others” and invites unhealthy comparisons between ourselves and others (this function of the term “māna” is seen, for example, in SN 1.20).
This is closely related to a separate threefold set: the underlying tendencies of “I-making,” “mine-making,” and “conceit” (ahankāramamankāramānānusaya, ex: MN 72). Conceit, specifically, is the cause for unwholesome thoughts gathered in a formula that appears throughout the texts called “the three discriminations” (for example, DN 33): “I am better than,” “I am equal to,” and “I am worse than.” These judgmental thoughts, rooted in conceit, are merely “a failure to truly see” the impermanent, dissatisfactory nature of all aspects of our personalities (SN 22.49).
The latent tendency of holding views refers specifically to the mind’s tendency to reach incorrect conclusions and hold harmful, deluded convictions. The idea of “wrong view” is so important that one entire branch of the Noble Eightfold Path is its opposite: Right View. The first sutta of the Pāli Canon is all about the various types of wrong view which keep people trapped in the cycle of suffering.
All wrong views are rooted in the “identity-view” (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) (SN 42.3), which explains why the latent tendency of the identity-view is the first item in the 5-fold list of underlying tendencies. Identity view is the result of misapprehending any of the 5 Aggregates as “the self,” instead of seeing them as impermanent, conditioned phenomena.
The latent tendency of doubt is our mind’s proclivity to disbelieve the Buddha’s teaching and the habit of being skeptical regarding the true nature of things as impermanent and dissatisfactory.
The latent tendency of lust for existence is our inclination to remain caught up in the experience of life, attached to the existence we know as the means of experiencing pleasure and satisfaction. It can also manifest as “lust for material existence” (rūparāgo) or “lust for immaterial existence” (arūparāgo), which correspond to higher states of existence and more subtle realms of rebirth, due to a misguided belief that therein would lie some permanent satisfaction. We’ll discuss these types of existence in Part 2. Again, lying at the core of all of this is the “identity-view,” the belief in an enduring self which is the agent of existence.
Finally, we have the latent tendency of ignorance. Ignorance is a key concept in Buddhist doctrine - the word “avijja” technically means “non-knowledge” or “an absence of knowledge,” but often in the suttas the term specifically conveys a failure to understand the Four Noble Truths. Ignorance, in the 12 Links formula, is what conditions the sankhārā that lead to the establishment of consciousness in the process of rebirth. Ignorance causes us to develop the intentions and dispositions which lead us to perform kamma which come to fruition in the various realms of rebirth. When we incline to ignorance, we go further into the cycle of suffering and build up the very conditions which will continue to propel us from one lifetime to the next.
The latent tendencies, then, are deep-seated weaknesses that lie in our minds, and leave us vulnerable to sense-experiences in a way that makes us sow the seeds of rebirth. On a more subliminal level, these qualities in the mind themselves can be the fuel for consciousness in the process of rebirth. No matter how spiritually advanced we are, the presence of the anusaya leaves us susceptible to rebirth. Until they have been eliminated through the insight gained in enlightenment, our stream of consciousness will continue to be established in future lifetimes.
There is one final idea I want to mention briefly before concluding: the āsavas. The term āsava can be translated as “outflow,” “discharge,” “defilement,” or even “alcoholic spirit.” In Buddhism, the term is used as another way to identify mental forces which cause us to sow the seeds of rebirth.
The different meanings can convey the function of these mental qualities. As “outflows” or “discharge,” they are sores that produce the conditions for our continued existence in the cycle of suffering. As “defilements,” they suggest the imperfect quality of the untrained mind. Like “spirits,” they intoxicate us, and under their influence we act foolishly.
In the suttas, the term is often used generally, but sometimes appears in one of two schemes: a list of three defilements, and a list of four. Both of these schemes overlap with the underlying tendencies, so I won’t elaborate with definitions. The threefold scheme features the defilements of: sensuality (kāmāsava), [lust for] rebirth (bhavāsava), and ignorance (avijjāsava). The fourfold scheme adds the defilement of (wrong) views (ditthāsava).
In a common formula found throughout the suttas, the “destruction” of the āsavas is presented as the final achievement in the Buddhist training, and represents the attainment of enlightenment and one’s becoming of an arahant. These mental qualities are described as “corrupting, leading to future lives, hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death” (MN 36). They are destroyed through the achievement of insight gained through the progressive meditation practices expounded by the Buddha.
In Buddhism, rebirth is real, and involves one’s stream of consciousness being made to continue arising between and across lifetimes. The “fuels” which “feed” this process are various dispositions, impulses, activities, and subliminal mental qualities which cause results to come to fruition in future existences and serve as objects that produce the further arising of consciousness and the continuation of the subjective living experience.
This stream of consciousness, and the sequence of subjective lifetimes, continues without the operation of any one essential “self.” There is no agent that transmigrates from one life to the next. Instead, the “individual” is merely an ongoing chain of causation, where impermanent phenomena interact with one another and cause further phenomena to arise. The sense of self and the idea that there is an enduring personality underlying this process is merely the result of mental activity which “connects the dots,” constructing a sense of self out of the interplay of these phenomena.
The seeds of kamma we sow before enlightenment produce results which manifest in a wide variety of ways. These results may take effect in the present life or in some future lifetime. We must experience the results of all the kamma we have performed throughout all of our lifetimes, but training the mind as the Buddha taught allows us to mitigate the impact of these results.
The process of rebirth can be brought to an end by removing the “fuels” that feed the stream of consciousness. This is the goal of Buddhist practice. Attaining enlightenment removes the most insidious of these fuels.
In the follow-up to this essay, I will cover the various realms of rebirth and the types of living beings that the suttas describe as inhabiting these worlds.
 In wider Buddhist cosmology, some beings are born spontaneously and asexually, so the idea of consciousness "descending into the womb" doesn't apply to all forms of rebirth; even in these cases, however, rebirth involves the stream of consciousness becoming reestablished in another existence.
 The term for mind here is “citta.” This is one of several terms the suttas sometimes use interchangeably to refer to the mind in a general sense. Consciousness/viññāna is also used in this way. In other contexts, these terms are used more technically to refer to different mental functions.
 The idea of the bodhisatta - or bodhisattva in Sanskrit - became greatly expanded in later Buddhist traditions. In Early Buddhism, the bodhisatta was simply understood as a being that would eventually become the Buddha of their particular cosmic age during their final lifetime.
 I believe this is a late term which doesn’t appear in the suttas, but it’s useful and perfectly applicable to the scheme presented in the suttas, so I don’t mind using it here.
 Traditionally, it's believed that a Buddha can only be injured, not murdered. That's why "killing a Buddha" is not accounted for in the list of grave actions.
 It's important to understand that none of these states of rebirth are permanent. It may seem "unfair" that a good person could be reborn in a hell realm, but that hellish lifetime itself will eventually come to an end, and the good kamma they had previously performed will eventually produce its results.
 I paraphrased these lines for clarity - in the original, the Buddha presents these declarations in the negative, saying “I do not teach (the opposite of the things I wrote above).
 Analayo, Bhikkhu : Madhyāma-āgama Studies
 Analayo, Bhikkhu : "The Underlying Tendencies" (Article)
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu : Does Rebirth Make Sense? (Essay)
 Bodhi, Bhikkhu - In the Buddha's Words (Book)
 Gombrich, Richard - What the Buddha Thought (Book)
 Nyanaponika (Thera) : The Four Nutriments of Life: An Anthology of Buddhist Texts
 Punnadhammo (Mahāthero) : The Buddhist Cosmos: A Comprehensive Survey of the Early Buddhist Worldview according to the Theravada and Sarvastivada sources (Book)
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 6.15 - M 72/1:483-489 - Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta
Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 17.6 - The 5 aggregates 4: Formations
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 18.1 - Karma
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 19.2a - “Me”: The nature of conceit
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 23.13 - A 3.76 Bhava Sutta 1 & 2
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 23.15 - S 44.9 On the Debating Hall (1)
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 31.3 - Anusaya, Latent tendencies
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 39.11 - A 9.13/4:382-385 - (Kamma) Mahā Koṭṭhita Sutta
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 48.2 - Death: An early Buddhist perspective
 Tan, Piya : Sutta Discovery 50.19 - A 4.131(Catukka) Saṁyojana Sutta
 Tan, Piya : Translation - M 101 Devadaha Sutta
 Vetter, Tilmann : The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism