Introduction to Abhidhamma

Death and Rebirth

What is birth, and what is it actually that is born? We speak about the birth of a child, but in fact, there are only nāma and rūpa which are born. The word “ birth” is a conventional term. We should consider what birth really is. In order to understand what causes birth we should know what conditions the nāma and rūpa which arise at the first moment of a new lifespan. The citta which arises at that moment is called the rebirth-consciousness or paṭisandhi-citta. Paṭisandhi means relinking, it “ links” the previous life to the present life. It is usually translated as rebirth-consciousness, but, since there is no person who is reborn, birth-consciousness would be more correct. Since there isn’t any citta which arises without conditions, the paṭisandhi-citta must also have conditions. The paṭisandhi-citta is the first citta of a new life and thus its cause can only be in the past. One may have doubts about past lives, but how can people be so different if there were no past lives? We can see that people are born with different tendencies and talents. Cittas which arise and fall away succeed one another and thus each citta conditions the next one. The last citta of the previous life (dying-consciousness) is immediately succeeded by the first citta of this life, without there being any interval. That is why tendencies one had in the past can continue by way of accumulation from one citta to the next one and from past lives to the present life. Since people accumulated different tendencies in past lives, they are born with different tendencies and inclinations. Rebirth-consciousness is the result of kamma, it is vipākacitta. Our life starts at the moment the paṭisandhi-citta arises together with the rūpa which is at the same time produced by kamma. A lifespan ends when the last citta, the dying-consciousness (cuti-citta) falls away. Kamma produces rūpa not only at the first moment of life but throughout our life. Kamma produces the vip ākacittas which experience pleasant and unpleasant objects through the sense-doors, and it also produces throughout our life the rūpas which can function as the sense-doors through which these objects are received. Some kammas produce results in the same life in which they have been performed, some produce result in the form of rebirth-consciousness of a future life, or they produce result in the course of a future life. We have performed deeds in past lives which could produce rebirth but which have not yet come to fruition. We cannot know which kamma will produce the next rebirth. If akusala kamma produces the rebirth of the next life there will be an unhappy rebirth. In that case the cittas which arise shortly before the dying-consciousness are akusala cittas and they experience an unpleasant object. The paṭisandhi-citta of the next life which succeeds the cuti-citta (the dying-consciousness), experiences that same unpleasant object. If kusala kamma produces the rebirth there will be a happy rebirth. In that case kusala cittas arise shortly before the cuti-citta and they experience a pleasant object. The paṭisandhi-citta of the next life experiences that same pleasant object. The object experienced shortly before the dying-consciousness may be a sign of kamma one performed, or a sign of one’s future destiny, or it may be any object experienced through one of the senses. The kamma that will produce the next rebirth conditions the last javana-cittas arising before the cuti-citta to experience that object.

There is no self who transmigrates from one life to the next life; there are only nāma and rūpa arising and falling away. The present life is different from the past life but there is continuity in so far as the present life is conditioned by the past. The Visuddhimagga (XVI, 164-168) explains by way of similes that although the present is different from the past there is continuity. The being who is born is not the same as the being of the past life, but it is conditioned by the past. There is “neither absolute identity nor absolute otherness”, as the Visuddhimagga explains. We read with regard to the paṭisandhi-citta:

“An echo, or its like, supplies The figures here; connectedness By continuity denies Identity and otherness. And here let the illustration of this consciousness be such things as an echo, a light, a seal impression, a looking glass image, for the fact of its not coming here from the previous becoming and for the fact that it arises owing to causes that are included in past becomings. For just as an echo, a light, a seal impression, and a shadow, have respectively sound, etc., as their cause and come into being without going elsewhere, so also this consciousness.”