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DEATH AND DYING.

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I did not attend pre-death or near-death rituals in the course of this fieldwork, nor did I conduct interviews with recently bereaved people. Unlike the following chapters, this one is, therefore, not based on personal observation.

Contemporary Sri Lankan practice In the particular case that served as the basis for my description of a funeral (‘A Laywoman’s Burial’) Ven. R. (the abbot of the local Siam Nikaya temple in T.) was called to the deathbed. He later stressed in his sermons, especially at the baWa preaching that despite her old age (mid-nineties) and frail condition she was conscious and able to hold a conversation. He told me that he had preached a little sermon, reminding her of meritorious deeds she had performed in her lifetime and had then chanted protective Pali suttas (Pali: paritta; Sinhala: pirit): MahAma}galasutta (Sn 258–

269), KaraWCyamettasutta (Sn 143–152) and Ratanasutta (Sn 222–238). He also said that he had provided her with a protective ‘chanted’ piece of string (pirit nEla) and given her protective ‘chanted’ water (pirit pän) to drink. To get a clearer picture of the ‘last rites’ and the underlying beliefs I included questions about the moment of death in a questionnaire, which I had devised:


Questionnaire C.1: What do people do if someone is about to die in the home? Are there special customs?


The answers will be analysed with regard to the role of monks and that of laypeople and I will look at the answers of monks and those of laypeople separately.

The role of monks (questionnaire C.1) All the monks I interviewed agreed that a visit to a dying person’s house on the invitation of the family is customary. The invited monk speaks to the

ill person and reminds him/her of past, meritorious deeds (such as taking the eight precepts, a pilgrimage, donations, etc.). He then chants pirit, ties a ‘protective string’ around the wrist of the dying person (and everyone present) and gives ‘protective water’ to drink. The suttas named by all the monks in this context were: MahAma}galasutta, KaraWCyamettasutta, Ratanasutta, but one interviewee added the MahAsatipaVVhAnasutta (D II 290–315) to this standard list. All interviewees mentioned that the chanting is done when someone is still conscious and able to take part in the ceremony. The dying person often

makes a gift to the sa|gha (called dahampEjAva), which might be a set of eight requisites (aVa pirikara) or just a packet of tea or sugar, according to the financial means of the family. It is hoped that the memory of this last meritorious deed at the moment of death will take away the fear. One interviewee

said that in the case of a monk nearing death sometimes a bodhipEjAva1 or a dAnaya is performed on his behalf and that the other monks in the temple might chant in Pali for an hour. It was, however, not entirely clear if this chanting was part of the bodhipEjAva he had mentioned before, or a separate event.

The answers of the laypeople relating to the role of the monks largely conformed with those given by monks with one exception: three of the interviewees (all from Colombo) mentioned that it might actually be counterproductive to call a monk to the deathbed. It would make the dying person realise that his death was near and cause agitation rather than calm.


The role of laypeople (questionnaire C.1) It is generally regarded as a meritorious deed to visit a sick neighbour or relation, but it seems to be a must when someone is considered to be close to death. It is customary to bring small presents or even money to support the family who might be under

considerable financial strain to meet the costs of hospital treatments, medication, and eventually, funeral expenses. Let us again look at the monks’ answers first: most stated that there were no special customs, but two of the interviewees (and one former monk), all three belonging to the Ramañña Nikaya, did mention the custom of placing a Buddha image (buddhapratimAva) or a tray with flowers near the dying person as a visual aid to remember meritorious

deeds in the hour of death.2 They further mentioned that family members would read from a so-called ‘book of merit’ (pinpota), in which important meritorious deeds are recorded. One of the interviewees remembered a monk actually handing out small notebooks to laypeople (approximately 35 years ago)

encouraging them to keep such a ‘merit diary’. It was, however, not widely known among the people I interviewed, which suggests that the custom has either gone out of fashion altogether or is practised in other parts of the island. The custom of reading a pinpota at the deathbed has its origin in the story of King Duvvhagamawi and is frequently referred to in secondary literature.3

Laypeople, too, generally agreed that there were no special near-death rituals or customs besides providing physical comfort. One interviewee mentioned

that the dying person should be given some water to drink. This custom is well documented in secondary sources4 and, of course, is reminiscent of the Hindu custom of putting pañcagavya into the dying person’s mouth.5 Another interviewee mentioned pomegranate juice or bees’ honey which is meant to give the

dying person a pleasant sensation.6 Frequently it was mentioned that it is important to remind a dying person of meritorious deeds to make him happy (satuVu) and to influence his mind in a positive (religious) way. It is generally believed that to think of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sa\gha or a meritorious deed

is conducive to a better rebirth. And most people said that laypeople can say the five precepts, chant pirit or read from a baWa book in the likely case that there is no monk around. One person told me that she recited the KaraWCyamettasutta for her father who died in her arms of a sudden stroke. Another

interviewee said that the family had played a tape of protective chanting (pirit) when death was imminent. Yet another person told me of an elderly relation of his, who took donations to the temple on his birthday and died while listening to the monks praising his meritorious deed. This was considered ‘the perfect death’ and it was generally agreed that he must have been reborn as a god. The fact that someone died while listening to chanting seems to be

a great comfort for family members and friends and is frequently mentioned in a funeral house. Excursus: jcvadanaya In the context of death preparation, a further two practices should be mentioned: the last alms giving and the releasing of animals. A

terminally ill person might express the wish to invite a number of monks for a last dAnaya before passing away, and one interviewee, who was very knowledgeable with regard to Sinhala customs (past and present), referred to this as jCvadAnaya.7 Another interviewee told me that jCvadAnaya was rarely practised when he was a child and that it had become more popular in recent years. Other interviewees, however, did not mention the custom (or the term

jCvadAnaya) and I did not find evidence that it is a lively tradition in the village. Ample evidence is, however, found in the secondary literature and according to Ariyapala (1968, 360) the custom goes back to at least mediaeval times in Sri Lanka as it is mentioned in the SaddharmaratnAvaliya and

referred to as Asanna karman (lit. ‘[[[death]]] proximate kamma’):8 What is known as jCvadAna (alms-giving when still alive) in certain parts of the island today, seems to correspond to what is meant here. JCvadAna is known in some parts of the island as godAna (lit. offering of cattle), e.g., in Hatara and Hat Korales, and refers


to the offering of a piece of cloth to a monk in some places while in others this offering is preceded by an alms-giving. The term godAna suggests that cattle were gifted. Whether this was the actual practice it is difficult to surmise.


The above quoted passage is of further interest as it equates the terms jCvadAna and godAna. Dickson, too, uses both terms synonymously and gives a more detailed description of what is involved under the heading ‘The “JCvadAna|,” or Pinkama by a man whose end is approaching’. Dickson’s description shows

some interesting features that deserve to be mentioned. First, the pinkama he describes seems to be quite an elaborate affair, lasting for over two days. It starts with a buddhapEjAva at the temple, an evening dAnaya for the invited monk, and a sermon (baWa) lasting for six hours into the night. On the

second day there is an alms giving (dAnaya), when both morning and midday meals are provided, as well as certain utilitarian items including a ‘piece of calico’ are given. Second, Dickson’s description of the jCvadAna is very similar to that of the matakadAnaya and both are said to be given by the relations

of the dying person on his behalf, rather than by the person himself. Finally, the offering of a ‘piece of calico’ is reminiscent of the matakavastra offered at funerals. The term godAnaya, which is used as a synonym of the jCvadAnaya, points to Hinduism/Brahmanism as its possible origin. Tillakaratne

(1986, 158) points out that there is evidence in a ‘large number of olas [palm leaves] of gift styled godAna patra, which point to the conclusion that cattle were among the presents given to the monks at this ceremony’. In support of his assumption that cattle were actually given as part of a near-death

donation to the sa|gha he quotes a godAna patraya dated A.D. 1803. And even if no cattle were offered—in fact very often a substitute is given so that the gift is a godAnaya only in name—it seems worthwhile looking into the Hindu ritual close to death which was named godAnaya. Dubois (1906, 483) describes the ceremony as follows:


The cow is led up to the sick person, who takes her by the tail, and at the same time the purohita recites a mantram praying that the cow may lead the dying Brahmin by a happy road into the other world. The latter then makes a present of the animal to some other Brahmin, into whose hand he pours a few

drops of water in token of a gift. This gift of a cow is called godana, and is indispensable if one wishes to arrive without mishap in Yama-loka, or the kingdom of Yama, the king of hell. Bordering Yama-loka there is a river of fire which all men must cross after they have ceased to live. Those, who have

made the godana, when they come to their last hour, will find on the banks of this river a cow which will help them to pass on to the opposite bank without being touched by the flame.


Pandey (1969, 246), too, describes the godAna as important part of the Hindu ceremonies performed when death is near. He points out that in earlier times, what he refers to as the ‘sEtra period’, the cow was ‘either sacrificed and burnt with the corpse or let loose to run away from the cremation ground’. The custom of presenting the cow to the brahmin and the belief that it will help the dead person to cross the river is, according to Caland (1896, 8), already

found in the texts of the Vedic schools. According to Firth (1997, 62) the godAna, though in decline, is still practised today, and her description is remarkably similar to the accounts of Dubois and Pandey. She further adds that a ‘silver surrogate image of a cow, or money of equal value, with a ritual

statement of intention, is an equally meritorious gift’. The other near-death custom mentioned above is the releasing of animals, usually birds, but even cows, which is regarded as a very meritorious deed. A vow is often made to free an animal in exchange for one’s own life (or the life of a relative or

friend).9 The technical term for the ancient practice of ceremonial releasing of animals is abhayadAnaya (lit. ‘giving of fearlessness’).10 However, in upcountry Sri Lanka (Kandy) it is referred to as jCvadAna ‘gift (or giving) of life’.11 The same is true for Nepal where jCvadAnas are regarded as

meritorious and in some way as life prolonging.12 To sum up, the near-death customs discussed here have a long tradition and go back to pre-Buddhist rituals. The Buddhist dAnaya by someone close to death (called jCvadAnaya or godAnaya) also involves gifts (even though not cows), but places emphasis on

the making and giving of merit, which brings it very close to a matakadAnaya indeed. The custom of releasing animals (called abhayadAnaya or jCvadAnaya ‘gift of life’) by someone who is near death also has a long tradition and is regarded as highly meritorious. It is not quite clear to me how both customs

came to be known under the name of jCvadAnaya in different parts of the island, but it is clear that they have more in common than the name.


Commentary on the practice


The importance of the moment of death (questionnaire C.2 & 3) In Theravada doctrine special significance is given to the quality of the last conscious moments at the time of death as determining the circumstances of the next rebirth. The concept of good and bad deaths is found in other religions as well

and it might be more accurate to speak of an Indian concept of good and bad death. One of these concepts is ‘untimely death’ (akAlamaraWa), which is regarded as inauspicious and can result in certain problems for the departed or his family. On the other hand, it is regarded auspicious to die with a religious thought, which in the case of a Hindu might be directed at, say, Vishnu, and in the case of Buddhists at the Buddha, Dharma, and Sa\gha.


Two questions (C 2 and 3) aimed at establishing a clearer picture of ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ death in contemporary Sri Lanka.


Questionnaire C.2: Is it better to die with a clear mind? What happens if someone dies with an angry mind or in a sudden accident?

Questionnaire C.3: Can a bad person go to a good place because he had a good thought at the moment of death, or can a good person go to a bad place because of a bad thought at the moment of death?


The monks unanimously agreed that the quality of the last conscious moment is the determining factor as to the form or place of the next rebirth. The pre-death customs were explained to me as reminding the dying person of meritorious deeds and to serving in ‘purifying the mind’, as one Englishspeaking interviewee put it. It is preferable to die consciously or unconfused, and one monk pointed out that to die unconfused (asammEXho kAla| karoti) is one of

the eleven advantages of practising benevolence (mettA).13 So, provided some meritorious deed comes to his mind at the crucial last moment by force of some previous good kamma (Sinhala: karmaUaktiya, puWyaUaktiya), even a bad person can be born in a good place. The example quoted for this by one of the monks

was the case of King Duvvhagamawi, who, after having killed many Tamils, was born in the Tusita heaven.14 An elderly, exceptionally learned monk mentioned the ‘sign of kamma’ (kammanimitta) and illustrated this with a story: an alcoholic on his death bed saw bottles of soft drinks in his room which were meant

for the invited monks (as gila|pasa).15 Due to his previous bad kamma he mistook these for liquor bottles, died overcome with greed and was reborn in a miserable place. His bad lifestyle and bad habitual kamma had brought about an unfavourable frame of mind at the moment of death.16 Laypeople, too, said

that it is better to die consciously and two of the interviewees said that people who die in sudden accidents go to an intermediate state before they can be reborn. Again it was unanimously agreed that the frame of mind at the moment of death is the determining factor for the place of rebirth. To die in an

angry frame of mind might—even for very virtuous people—result in rebirth as a perBtayA or in another low or unpleasant existence. One example for this case was King Auoka, who was allegedly born as a snake due to anger (kBntiya) arising at the moment of death, but was again reborn in a devalokaya after

only seven days due to his generally good kamma.17 Similarly, to die in a good, happy frame of mind, remembering meritorious deeds or a word of the Buddha, could, even for a bad person, result in a good rebirth. One interviewee related the story of the mass murderer A]gulimala, who had killed 999 people before

he became not only a follower of the Buddha, but an arahat.18 Here one interviewee objected by saying that a truly bad person can never be reborn in a good place straight away.19


Moreover, an ex-monk living in Colombo questioned this concept altogether, judging that it was ‘unfair’ that the dying thought would be the one determining factor for the place of rebirth. Others said that bad people are more likely to die filled with fear, which would bring about a bad dying thought. On the other hand, it was occasionally mentioned that a good dying thought can even cancel out past bad kamma, making it disappear (näti venavA). In Abhidhamma

terms, however, it is not a question of good kamma ‘cancelling out’ bad kamma, but rather of certain kamma (good or bad) not coming to fruition, as for example all the kamma of an arahat becomes defunct on his passing away.20 However, the general opinion, both on the part of the monks as well as of the

laypeople, was that previous kamma will come to fruition eventually, which is in agreement with the Abhidhamma. One monk illustrated this with a simile: the dying thought is like an air ticket to a nice place, but without money (i.e., sufficiently good kamma) one will not be able to stay there for very long.

Interestingly, one interviewee, a middle-class woman from a suburb of Colombo, told me, ‘We pray (prArthanA karanavA) every day that our thought at the moment of death may be good.’21 She explained this to me as a kind of meditative reflection on death and repeatedly used the term prArthanA. However, this

was not mentioned by anyone else, and I doubt that it is common practice in the village. Looking at the interview material as a whole, it was striking that there was very little diversity in the replies, which generally conformed very closely to traditional Theravada doctrine. If we assume that the knowledge of Buddhist matters of ordinary village people is mainly acquired in the dharma school and from sermons, we can conclude that this is a topic extensively taught to laypeople.


When things go wrong: on prbtas Most people I interviewed agreed that under certain circumstances people can be reborn (or return) as ‘ghosts’, but it took further probing to get more detailed information. My information about spirits haunting a house, etc., derives almost exclusively from interviews conducted

in Sinhala, as there seemed to be a certain reluctance on the side of English-speaking interviewees to talk about this topic. This might be for a number of reasons. First, it is rather difficult to translate the various Sinhala terms for ‘ghost’ (and the underlying concepts) into English. Second, it might be

felt that it is difficult for a foreigner to enter the world of cosmology with its gods, demons, higher and lesser deities. And thirdly, the English speakers amongst the interviewees tended to be more Western educated and orientated and took a more ‘rational approach’ to the questions posed. In interviews conducted in Sinhala, on the other hand, the picture was very different and much more in favour of ‘ghost stories’. This made it desirable to stick to Sinhala as much as possible.

Terminology: Sinhala yaka/bhetaya/prbtaya/perbtaya. The terminology applied in the context of these ‘ghost stories’ does not seem clearly defined. A rather general term for ‘ghost’, which is frequently used in conversation, is bhEta. There are, however, two terms, which are more specifically used in the context of death: maXayakA (pl. maXayakku) and prBtayA/perBtayA or even maXaprBtayA. The maXayakku are the most powerful and can actually harm or help people

according to their inclination. One needs a certain amount of merit to gain such a powerful position and not every bhEtayA makes it. Merit given to a dead relative who happens to be a maXayakA will actually strengthen his/her position. PrBtas on the other hand are usually regarded as rather weak and depend

for their very sustenance on merit given to them by their living relatives. They can, however, make a small child ill by looking at his food, as one informant told me.22 This seems to be the basic hierarchy most people agreed on, but, as Gombrich (1991, 188–196) points out, the distinction between these

classes of beings is somewhat blurred, and there are differences with regard to usage and understanding of these terms in up country and low country.23 My informants talked in the context of a troublesome ghost who needed to be dealt with, only occasionally of bhEtayA and yakA (or maXayakA), but most often of pretas.

Terminology: Sanskrit preta/pit[; PAli peta; Sinhala prbtaya/perbtaya. Let me briefly outline the development and various stages beginning with Sanskrit: the past participle from the root pra √i, preta (mfn.), which literally means ‘gone away’, came to mean ‘departed, deceased, dead, a dead person’.24 In the

course of time the term acquired another, more specialized meaning, namely, ‘the spirit of a dead person (esp. before obsequial rites are performed), a ghost, an evil being’ and ‘a newly dead’ as opposed to ‘ancestor’ (pit{, m.).25 Preta can be used generally to mean ‘dead’, or in a more technical sense, ‘newly dead, ghost’. The Pali term peta seems to have preserved some of the ambiguity of Sanskrit preta, (‘dead’ and ‘ghost’), and might even have retained

traces of the Sanskrit term pit{. However, the fact that two terms might be conflated linguistically does not necessarily mean that the underlying concepts are conflated as well. Without the UrAddha rites, the deceased would remain pretas and dangerous for the living, and Holt (1981, 6) points out that the

‘pattern of ritual activity designed to promote the deceased from the status of pretas to pit{ was prevalent before the emergence of specifically Buddhist conceptions’. It is therefore difficult to argue that the distinction between preta and pit{, which is of great importance in the Indian context, would not have been known as well. Besides, even though peta sometimes only means ‘dead’ (possibly with the connotation of ancestor), in the majority of cases it refers to a hungry ghost


belonging to a particular Buddhist gati. It appears that peta has historically developed out of the preta (‘newly dead ghost’) and retained certain of its

features (perpetual hunger, misery, and need of support). According to Clough’s Sinhala English Dictionary (1892), all the connotations discussed so far (‘dead, spirit of a dead person, fathers’) were still to be found in Sinhala prBta at the end of the nineteenth century.26 However, as Sinhala

prBtayA/perBtayA is a loan word from Sanskrit, one might suspect that either Clough (or his source) was influenced by the Sanskrit connotations, or else, some of the connotations may have been lost since the late 19th century. Whatever the case may be, people referred to prBtas frequently, either in a rather

general way as ‘ghosts’ or in the more technical meaning of the specific class of beings (gati).None of my informants used prBta/perBta as meaning ‘dead’ and there seemed to be no trace of the connotation pit{. As far as the connotation of the Sinhala term prBta is concerned, the case seems to be reasonably

clear cut. Unfortunately, the underlying notions and ideas are more complex as these prBtas are grouped together or associated with rather different beings (gods, crows, yakku) and treated in a variety of ways depending on the context, as we shall see later.27


Different types of prbtas. When speaking about troublesome ghosts I will only use the term prBta unless the specific context requires a distinction. A prBtayA (or maXayakA for that matter) can cause disturbances in the house like opening drawers, carrying things (pens, etc.) through the room; they are

often said to throw stones at a house and even chew betel and spit the red juice into the house. They are usually angry with a member of their family, and follow the person around, making their presence felt. Wirz (1941, 202) distiguishes between three types of prBtas according to their dwelling place and

behaviour: the ñati-prBteo (ñati, ‘relative’) cannot let go of their loved ones; the maXa-prBteo (maXa, ‘dead’) have as prefered dwelling places cemeteries and crossroads; the gevala-prBteo (geval, ‘houses’) are ghosts who cannot bring themselves to leave their previous homes. Wirz (1941, 202) not only

provides detailed descriptions but also drawings of male, female, and infant prBtas. According to Tillakaratne (1986, 130), prBtas can cause diseases, which they do if neglected by their relatives, but are generally easy to please. I was frequently told by people that prBtas are always hungry and thirsty

and cannot feed or clothe themselves. Some informants added that this is reflected in their outer appearance as they have long, thin necks and huge bellies.28 This concept of hungry ghosts is, of course, not confined to Sri Lanka, but found all over South Asia.29 How to become a prbta. Most people said that being overly agitated, angry, greedy, envious or malicious at the moment of death is thought to lead to


a rebirth in a ‘bad place’ (naraka täna). Some interviewees, however, were more specific and mentioned the possibility that the departed might return as a bhEtayA, maXayakA or prBtayA to haunt a house or a specific family member. The most frequently mentioned cause for becoming a prBta was a greedy disposition at the time of death.30 Being overly attached to loved ones, too, can lead to becoming a prBtayA or prBtC, and the classic example here is a mother who dies a sudden, untimely death leaving behind a small child.31 Obeyesekere 1984, 69 reports the case of a woman who had died failing to say her farewell to

her granddaughter and turned into a troublesome ancestor. Tillakaratne (1986, 154) mentions another possible cause for becoming a prBta: elderly people seeking revenge after death when they feel they have been neglected during their lifetime. PrBtas are regarded as particularly pitiable, but nevertheless

have to be dealt with as they can cause trouble (see also III.2.1.2). Excursus: pirit chanting in contemporary Sri Lanka The custom of pirit chanting seems to be the most important feature of the pre-death rituals.32 It is,

however, by no means confined to the death context, and indeed, Gombrich (1991, 242) remarks on the ‘extremely unspecific nature of the ceremony’: Pirit is used at a sick bed, to commemorate a death, to consecrate a new building, to avert a public misfortune, to celebrate the opening of Parliament, or simply to acquire merit.

According to the occasion, pirit ceremonies also vary greatly in length (ranging from one hour to one week) and the number of suttas recited. The above-mentioned three suttas (MahAma}galasutta, KaraWCyamettasutta, Ratanasutta) followed by a few stanzas from the MahAjayama}galagAthA form what is referred to

as maha pirita in Sri Lanka, and either constitutes a complete pirit ceremony in itself or the beginning and end of a longer ceremony. As Gombrich points out (1991, 240), the use of certain suttas as pirit is canonical. Even accounts of the use of piritnEla and pirit water, are old, though not canonical, and

already found in the commentarial Pali literature.33 Three suttas are connected with a specific purpose. The first one, the A}gulimAlasutta, is recited for a pregnant woman with the intention of easing her labour pains.34 The rationale behind this is the concept of ritual power (Pali, Sinhala: AnubhAva) created

by way of uttering an important truth (satyavacana/satyavAkya), which is repeated nowadays by the monks reciting this sutta. The concept of satyavacana (the same idea is expressed in Pali as saccakiriyA) is, of course, an old one, dating back to Vedic times as has been pointed out by various scholars.35


Palihawadana (1997, 505f.) investigates the Vedic origins and traces back the pirit chanting to the practice of svAdhyAya/sajjhAya: The same idea about the power of truth utterance is found in Buddhist texts. An early instance of this is the Majjhima NikAya reference (II 102 f.) to

A]gulimala relieving a woman’s pains of birth by the simple invocation of the truth of his desisting from violence ‘since I was born by the Aryan birth

(i.e., his conversion by the Buddha). But specifically ‘truth’ in the Buddhist case is the Buddha-word as expressed in the Buddhist Suttas. Re-telling that is a source of protection. That is why bhikkhus recite Suttas. . . . A specifically Buddhist theory of validating ritual recitation is that it has power

because it is recited by monks with mettA (kindness/friendliness) towards beings, or because it invokes the ‘power of mettA’ of the Buddhas.36 The ‘ritual efficacy’ of truth, which is inherent in the suttas can be applied to various situations, as the example of A]gulimala shows.37 However, one of

the main functions of pirit chanting is that of protection (rakkhA), especially from evil influences of non-human beings. The FVAnAViyasutta (D III 194ff.) is the second sutta, which is connected with a specific purpose: protection from ghosts (pretas or yak2as) (see III.2.1.2.). Schmithausen (1997, 36, n.75) observes

It is interesting that, e.g., in the FVAnAViyasutta . . . —a text called ‘protection’ (rakkhA) consisting of a laudatory hymn and intended to protect monks, nuns and pious lay followers (and especially such as have retired into the wilderness) against malevolent spirits, who are doubtless dangerous to

humans but not on their part endangered by them—friendship or friendliness is not mentioned as a means to pacify them. It is rather by reminding them of the superiority of the Buddha(s) and because they will otherwise be dishonoured, excluded from their community and even have their heads split by fellow-spirits...that these spirits are dissuaded from molesting or attacking pious Buddhists.38


Thirdly there is a group of three so-called Bhojja}gasuttas; Mahakassapattherabojjha]ga (S V 79), Mahamoggalanattherabojjha]ga (S V 80), and Mahacundattherabojjha]ga (S V 81) which are associated with relief from illnesses. They are found in all the paritta collections, constitute part of the

overnight recitals and are, according to some informants, recited at the sick bed of a patient.39 After quoting a number of examples from the Suttas de Silva (1993, 33) concludes: ‘There seems to be a belief that attention paid to doctrinal topics, especially the recitation of virtues which one has already cultivated in one’s personality, is endowed with healing properties.’


Besides the ritual efficacy of satyavacana there is another aspect: pirit chanting and listening to pirit are meritorious deeds according to the Abhidhamma (in the category of desanA).40 Gombrich (1991, 242) points out that the belief in the positive effect of chanting at someone’s sickbed is problematic:

To earn merit in any way, including this, will improve one’s karma, but karma is a long-range affair, and there is no reason why the merit just gained should take immediate effect, so as to make a sick man well. To say that pin can cancel out pav is in fact a heresy, discussed at the beginning of Chapter

5. Indeed, if one is thinking in terms of karma the presumption must be rather the other way: if a man is ill because of a past sin he will go on being ill till the sin is expiated, despite any ad hoc remedial action. In the case of misfortune, to explain pirit as ‘merit in a hurry’ will therefore not wash.


The problem of how the chanting of pirit can be explained as effective is intrinsically an Abhidhamma problem, and we shall, as suggested by Gombrich, turn to the Buddhist tradition itself in search of an answer.41 Cancelling out past bad kamma or acquiring ‘merit in a hurry’ are not the only way to improve

one’s karmic conditions instantly. According to the Abhidhamma, every being has a store of good and bad kamma, and it is rather a question of which particular kamma comes to fruition at any given time. By chanting pirit or venerating the Triple Gem (which is in a sense the most basic form of pirit) one can therefore tip the balance in favour of good kamma, which is, according to the Abhidhammatthavibhavincpcka, conducive to warding of dangers, etc. That is to say, favourable conditions are being set up so that good resultants of past deeds can arise.


Therein teachers elaborate in many ways on the usefulness of venerating the Triple Gem, but they predict in particular the preventing of dangers. Hence the authors of the summaries have stated that by its power dangers are stopped. As to its meaning, veneration of the Triple Gem is the wholesome volition that

produces the act of venerating. It is to be experienced in this life as the success of the store of meritorious kamma of those venerated and those venerating: by virtue of supporting the kamma that is the ground for accomplishments already gained, it inhibits ‘obstructive’ and ‘destructivekammas,

which are obstacles to the flow of the results produced by that [[[wholesome]]] kamma, and brings about the non-occurrence of the obstacles of disease, etc., which block the aforementioned success and have their origin in that [[[unwholesome]]] kamma. (Gethin 2002, 3; Abhidh-s-mhv 54)


Based on this passage I can see no grounds for assuming that the idea that chanting at a sick bed can bring about improvement is non-doctrinal. However, I am not sure how widespread it is in Sri Lanka to call a monk to chant pirit at the sick bed with the intention to make the patient better. The chanting of pirit at the deathbed is, on the other hand, very popular. According to the Abhidhamma, cancelling kamma is not the issue, but rather which particular kamma comes to fruition at the moment of death. Gethin (1994, 11–35 (21)) explains—mainly, but not solely, based on the Abhidhammatthasa]gaha (p. 24) and Abhidhammatthavibhavinc pc ka (pp. 130–31)—the karmic process at the moment of death:

Essentially the nature of bhava}ga for a given lifetime is determined by the last full consciousness process of the immediately preceding life. This last process is in turn strongly influenced and directly conditioned by—though it is, of course, not its result in the technical sense of vipAka—the kamma

performed by the being during his or her life. Relevant here is a fourfold classification of kamma according to what will take precedence in ripening and bearing fruit. The four varieties are ‘weighty’ (garuka), ‘proximate’ (Asanna), ‘habitual’ (bahula, AciWWa), ‘performed’ (kaVattA). This list is explicitly

understood as primarily relevant to the time of death. In other words, it is intended to answer the question: at the time of death, which of the many kammas a being has performed during his or her lifetime is going to bear fruit and condition rebirth? The answer is that if any ‘weighty’ kammas have been

performed then these must inevitably come before the mind in some way and overshadow the last consciousness process of a being’s life. But if there are no weighty kammas then, at least according to the traditions followed by the Abhidhammattha-sa}gaha, some significant act recalled or done at the time of death

will condition the rebirth. In the absence of this, that which has been done repeatedly and habitually will play the key role. Failing that, any repeated act can take centre-stage at the time of death.

Provided no bad garuka-kamma (such as killing a parent, etc.) comes in the way, and provided the dying person responds by turning his mind to the pirit, this could actually make a difference with regard to the next rebirth. The chanting of pirit, of course, can only create conditions conducive to a

‘positive’ dying thought, which in itself qualifies as kamma (under the category of Asanna). Ultimately, it depends on the dying person himself which kamma comes to fruition at the moment of death. Gombrich (1991, 257) describes a ‘positive dying thought’ as a prArthanA, a religious or earnest wish. These prArthanAs are part of most religious and merit-making activities and usually ‘granted’ by a monk at the end of a


ceremony with the formula ‘May your wishes be fulfilled . . .’ (icchita| patthita| . . . ). In this case the wishes for oneself are not made publicly and they are not necessarily of a religious nature. They can be made in private as well, without a monk as mediator and even outside the context of a religious

ceremony either for oneself or for someone else. Someone might make a religious wish without articulating it after returning from a pilgrimage. However, in the ceremonies I attended the wish seemed to be preformulated by a monk and differed very little from ceremony to ceremony, always wishing for rebirth in

pleasant human and divine existences and eventually attainment of nirvAWa in the company of the Buddha Maitreya.42 This wish was formulated first for the dead, then for the gods (usually the appropriate verse was chanted as well), and finally for everyone present. This was confirmed every time by people saying

sAdhu, sAdhu, sAdhu, and sometimes, but not always, followed by the monk reciting the above-mentioned verse (icchita| patthita| . . . ) to which again everyone responds with sAdhu, sAdhu, sAdhu. Gombrich (1991, 257) suggests that the prArthanAs might have originated from the death wish as ‘an attempt to

mitigate the rigour of karma’. Again, as in the case of pirit chanting at a sickbed, he raises the question of how far it is justified to assume that the death wish can bring about ‘sudden improvement’. Death, like childbirth, is a potentially dangerous transitional period for which the people involved need

protection and guidance. Even if it could be proved that no ‘sudden improvement’ can be experienced, the listening to chanting might still be ritually effective in the sense of satyavacana. Or it might be hoped that the protective aspect (rakkhA) of the pirit chanting might ward off evil influences from

the side of non-human beings (such as yak2as and pretas) at a particularly vulnerable moment in one’s life.43 It seems to me more likely that the various aspects are present as a complex whole in people’s minds (with stress on one or the other depending on the occasion) and that it is precisely this

complexity that accounts for the high popularity of pirit chanting. Some historical roots: time of death Inscriptional evidence indicates that the practice of actively preparing for death goes back at least to the time of Auoka (third century BC), probably further. Auoka granted a period of three days between the death sentence and the execution of the prisoner specifically for that purpose:

My order goes even so far that a reprieve of three days is granted by me to fettered persons who are convicted and sentenced to death. Their relatives will plead with someone for their life, or if


they do not plead, they will offer alms or undergo fasting for their next world. My desire is indeed thus: That they may accomplish the next world, even when the time expires, and that different dharmapractices, self-discipline and distribution of alms increase among people also.44 (Guruge 1997, 274, Auoka’s pillar edict IV)

The term ‘different dharma practices’ (vividhe dhammacalane) may refer to different Buddhist practices, or those of other religious groups and in fact nothing in the wording of Auoka’s edict indicates that his ruling is meant for Buddhists only. The most natural reading of this passage seems to be that Auoka responded to a common need in his subjects to prepare for death, whatever their beliefs. A post-canonical piece of evidence for the actual customs and ceremonies is found in the Visuddhimagga:

In another’s case, relatives present [[[objects]] to him] at the five sense doors, such as a visible datum as object, perhaps flowers, garlands, flags, banners [sic!], etc., saying ‘This is being offered to the Blessed One for your sake, dear, set your mind at rest’; or a sound as object, perhaps, preaching of the

Dhamma, offerings of music, etc.; or an odour as object, perhaps incense, scents, perfumes, etc.; or a taste as object perhaps honey, molasses, etc., saying ‘Taste this, dear, it is a gift to be given for your sake’; or a tangible datum as object, perhaps Chinese silk, silk of Somara, saying ‘Touch this, dear, it is a gift to be given for your sake’.45 (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli 1956, 634; Vism 550) This passage is particularly interesting because it seems very close to what my Sri Lankan informants had told me (presenting flowers, incense, etc.,

recitation of the Dhamma, etc.). Two former monks had even mentioned honey should be placed on the tongue of a dying man, but could not recollect, where this piece of information had come from. This suggests that my interviewees were partly describing normative behaviour and if this is indeed the case, the

Visuddhimagga as a source cannot be excluded. Buddhaghosa’s chief work is one of the main reference books that monks in Sri Lanka turn to, and its influence on the Buddhist monks and lay people who listen to the sermons in the temples or on the radio and television in Sri Lanka cannot be overestimated.46 There

are, of course, other sources for sermons and stories, but these are not always easy to trace. Aggacitta Bhikkhu (1999, 37) relates a story which is set ‘in Sri Lanka during the heyday of Theravada Buddhism, when there were reputedly many arahants still around’. The story runs as follows: an exhunter is haunted by visions of a fierce black dog on his deathbed. To calm him down, his son, an Arahant,


orders that flowers be offered to the Buddha and has his dying father carried to the temple to rejoice in the offering.47 The Tibetan tradition, too, has a

long history of giving special significance to the time of death (and beyond). Most people will have heard of the socalled ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, a translation of a body of teachings known in Tibetan as Bardo Tödrol Chenmo (lit. ‘great liberation through hearing in the bar do’).48 Sogyal Rinpoche, a

contemporary incarnated Lama (sprul sku) of the Tibetan rnying ma tradition and founder of a number of Rigpa centres in Europe and North America, put these teachings in a wider context in a readable guidebook for contemporary Buddhists.49 On a theoretical level Sogyal Rinpoche (1992, 223) seems to go a step

further when he talks of actually ‘transforming’ and ‘purifying’ one’s kamma at the moment of death.50 Death is depicted as providing a unique opportunity to change our fate and make a new start with a better, purer kamma.51 A similar motif of death as an opportunity for radical change in karmic conditions is

found in the Japanese Pure Land tradition, where the reciting of the Buddha’s name (Nianfo) throughout one’s lifetime, but particularly when death is near, is conducive to being reborn in the Pure Land. However, according to Stevenson (1995, 368), not only the recitation, but also meditation (samAdhi) is

crucial in ensuring rebirth in Sukhavatc, the Buddhist paradise.52 These examples show how much importance and weight were given to the time of death by the various Buddhist traditions.53 However, the picture would not be complete without mentioning another, far less prominent, strand of Indian thought

which placed the emphasis on the moment of conception. Here it is the kamma of the parents that plays the main role in determining the nature of the being, which is about to be conceived, or to ‘enter the womb’. Doniger O’Flaherty (1980, 22) sees this as a ‘variant’ of the belief described above and observes that the GaruRa PurAWa:


places more emphasis upon the consciousness of the father himself: ‘Whatever a man has on his mind at the time of impregnation, a creature born of such a nature (svabhAva) will enter the womb.’ . . . just as, in the Upani1ads, a man is exhorted to meditate appropriately while begetting his offspring in order to get the kind he has in mind.54


However, as this is not a concept, which I came across in Sri Lanka, I wish to return to the more common concept that one’s dying thought determines the quality of one’s next rebirth. From this originate a number of questions: How far can this concept be traced back? What is the relationship between death

and the force of karman? What picture can we gain from the canonical and post-canonical Pali material? How does the Abhidhamma interpretation of the death process relate to these questions?55


The Vedic and brahmanical material When I was searching the Sanskrit texts for material, two things become apparent: first, rebirth, central as it is to Indian philosophy, is not found in the earliest texts; and second, rebirth and karman do not appear to be linked together from the beginning. In fact, originally karman seems to have been only one of several concepts connected with rebirth, but in the course of time it proved to be more popular than

others.56 One of these ‘other concepts’ linked with rebirth is a curious notion of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’, sometimes referred to in the texts as kAmacAra. The wish—variously referred to in the texts as kAma or kratu—is directed to a particular form or place of rebirth and can be spontaneous (at the

time of death) or cultivated for a long time. This understanding seems to have some affinity with the Buddhist notion that a mental effort, a positive state of mind, can bring about a good rebirth. The earliest evidence for the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ is found in the Brahmawas (3B 10.6.3,

GB 1.1.15 and 1.3.22, and JUB 3.28) and Upani1ads (BfU 4.4.4, ChU 3.17.6, PU 3,9 and 10), and there is also evidence in the later epic literature (Bhagavadgcta 8.5 and 6). As dating of Indian texts is rather uncertain, I will concentrate on the possible development of the concepts rather than attempt

to present the material in a strict chronological order. A number of scholars have touched upon the problem of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’. Edgerton (1924) deals briefly with it in the context of his comparative study on the time of death in all the major religions. Frauwallner (1953, 65) mentions the

concept in passing in the context of the history of the various Indian systems and doctrines.57 Both authors mainly refer to 3B 10.6.3.1 for the earliest evidence and Bhagavadgcta 8.5 and 6 for the later period. As for the somewhat more recent literature, Horsch (1971, 106) and Schmithausen (1995) both utilize the same set of passages: JUB 3.28, GB 1.1.15 and 1.3.22, SamavBr 3.8.1, as well as BfU 4.4.4 and ChU 3.17.6 for a discussion of karman. These few examples will suffice to demonstrate that first, scholars seem to rely on the same set of passages for early evidence, and second, they agree that the

concept survived and left traces in the Epos (Bhagavadgcta) and (more importantly for the present study) in Buddhism.58 I will attempt to trace the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ from the Brahmawas and Upani1ads to Buddhist literature, and finally, to the contemporary Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka.

Vedic background In earliest Vedic times, as Horsch (1971, 106) points out, burial was customary amongst the Indians and Iranians,59 and presumably one’s destiny after death


was thought of as a dark and shadowy underworld, comparable to the Greek Hades. There seems to have been only one underworld without differentiation in terms of rich/poor, initiated/uninitiated, etc. As an alternative to this dark shadowy underworld, the return to one’s own family was desirable. It was,

according to Schmithausen (1995, 50), widespread not only outside but inside India in pre-Upani1adic times and the return was believed to occur automatically and not dependent on special sacrifices or knowledge.60 According to Horsch (1971, 107) the picture changed when the belief in a lighter,

brighter afterlife (modelled very closely after happier aspects of this life), as expressed in the myth of Yama, came up. He further suggests that this shift is connected with a change in funeral customs from burial to cremation. It is not quite clear, however, if only those who can afford a cremation and

the associated rituals ascend to heaven, while those who cannot afford them descend into the underworld.61 Besides, the fact that heaven was modelled after this life (and more generally after the cycles of nature) led to the idea that eventually the dead had to ‘die again’. The concept of redeath historically

precedes the doctrine of rebirth, and it has been commonly assumed so far that there is a historical connection between the concepts of redeath (punarm{tyu) and return (punarAv{tti).62 Bodewitz (1996, 35), however, doubts that such a causal and historical connection exists. Logically, of course,

rebirth can only happen on the basis of redeath, whereas redeath does not necessarily imply rebirth. After examining the passages where punarm{tyu occurs, Bodewitz (1996, 46) concludes:


It is evident that the concept of punarm{tyu, which is almost exclusively found in passages where its defeat is described, should be interpreted in the context of an antagonism between ritualism and other paths leading to final bliss. The defeat of punarm{tyu is the answer of the ritualists (the Brahmins)

to the challenge of the nonritualists who say that ultimately everybody will die in the heaven promised by the Brahmins. Whatever the solution (ritual or non-ritual), the common problem was to avoid return (or possibly several returns?) to this world. Alternating between this

and the other world constitutes the older stratum of the doctrine of rebirth.63 Only now the return to this world is not desired any more, but endured as an intermediate state between heavenly existences. Besides, the return to one’s own family was only desirable for the few who were comfortably well off,

and with the class system becoming more rigid, it became common to aspire to return into a family of higher social status than one’s own.64 People aspired to return to places of their choice and one of the goals for the afterlife was the free choice of and movement between various places of rebirth in both this and the other world. This is, according to


Schmithausen, the first strand of Indian belief, but before I investigate its goal, ‘free movement’ (kAmacAra), I will briefly outline another strand of Indian philosophy.65 When the alternating between here and there came to be regarded as unsatisfactory, a new goal finds its expression in the Upani1ads:

the final escape from the suffering of redeath. Here two models are found, both involving a ‘doorman’ guarding the entrance to eternal freedom from death. Frauwallner (1953, 52–55) named the first doctrinewater doctrine’ (Wasserlehre), because it is largely modelled after the water cycle in nature. According

to this doctrine, which is found in the first chapter of the Kauuctaki Upani1ad, the dead have to get past the moon by answering various questions in order to be allowed into the Brahma world where there is no more death.66 An extension of this doctrine is the well-known teaching of the two (or three) paths (ChU 5, BfU 6.2): the dead follow different paths from the start and no guardian or ‘doorman’ is needed. Only the ones who know or who practise asceticism in the forest will follow the path of the gods (devayAna) that leads them by way of the flame of the funeral pyre to the sun and the Brahma world. Those who

do not have the required knowledge and those who live in the village follow the path of the ancestors (pit{yAna), which leads by way of the smoke to the moon and back to earth (via wind, rain, and the food chain). The third path is for those who cannot achieve either of the other two and leads to repeated

rebirth as worms, insects, etc. In the second model, named ‘fire doctrine’ (Feuerlehre) by Frauwallner (1953, 60ff.), the sun (the cosmic equivalent to body heat)67 has the function of being the door to and guardian of the other world, and only those who know are allowed through into eternal bliss and light. To

sum up, there are two broad strands of belief concerning the afterlife found side by side in the Upani1ads. The first (JUB 3.28, BfU 4.4.4) is the belief that the dead go through various stages to the sun or moon, but not beyond that, and the goal of this path lies in freedom of movement between these

various places according to one’s wish. The second strand (JB 1.17–18; JUB 3.14.1–6 and 4.14; KU 1.1; ChU 5, BfU 6.2) now opens up the possibility of going beyond the sun or moon, and the goal here is to enter the eternal bliss of the Brahma world. BrAhmaWas and older Upani2ads As mentioned above, the earliest evidence seems to be a passage in the 3atapatha-Brahmawa, which shall, therefore, serve as a starting point:


Now, man here, indeed, is possessed of understanding [kratu], and according to how great his understanding is when he departs this world, so does he, on passing away, enter the yonder world.68 (Eggeling 1966, 400; 3B 10.6.3.1)


And in another 3atapatha-Brahmawa passage it is said (albeit without explicit reference to rebirth): Mitra and Varuwa, forsooth, are his intelligence and will; and as such belonging to his self: whenever he desires anything in his mind, as ‘Would that this

were mine! I might do this!’, that is intelligence [kratu]; and whenever that is accomplished, that is will. Now intelligence indeed is Mitra, and will is Varuwa; and Mitra is the priesthood, and Varuwa the nobility; and the priesthood is the conceiver and the noble is the doer.69 (Eggeling 1966, 269; 3B 4.1.4.1)


The key term kratu is well documented from the times of the mgveda and the Monier Williams Sanskrit English Dictionary gives a wide range of meanings including ‘plan, intention, resolution, determination, purpose’, but also ‘desire, will, power, ability’, and ‘intelligence, understanding’. Edgerton (1927, 223) comments on Eggeling’s translation of kratu:


Eggeling translates it ‘understanding’, but with an alternative, ‘will, purpose.’ which is more in accord with the Hindu commentator on the passage, who says kratu means niUcaya, adhyavasAya, that is, ‘fixed determination’. It seems to mean man’s mental constitution as a whole, his total ‘frame of mind’, but with a strong flavour of will, conscious purpose, or determination.70


Schmithausen (1995, 55f.) defines kratu as ‘[meditatively cultivated] will or resolve [to become (or do) something]’, and Horsch (1971, 131), too, opting for ‘will’, interprets the above-quoted passage in terms of an internalisation of ritual, a shift from ritual activities to the underlying intention. The

will (kratu) seems to be the driving force in acquiring a particular form of existence from which various questions arise: First, when is the wish made? Would it be effective if one were to cultivate it only on one’s deathbed? How long before death does one have to cultivate that will? And second, are there

any other conditions or restrictions? Who can cultivate the will and who cannot? What happens to those who have not cultivated a wish? The Samavidhana Brahmawa prescribes a chant (sAman) for those who wish to ‘wander consciously through all existences’,71 which has to be practised always (sadA) and has to be remembered at the time of death (antavelAyA| rendered by the commentary as prAWaniryAWakAle).

Wer wünscht [kAmayeta]: ‘möchte ich mit Bewußtsein alle Existenzen durchwandern’, der soll immer das Saman zu ‘erwecke uns heute zu Großem’ anwenden und in der Todesstunde daran denken: mit Bewußtsein wird er alle Existenzen durchwandern.72 (Konov 1893, 76; SamavBr 3.7.1)


In this passage the term kratu is not mentioned and the element of wish is expressed in the finite verb form kAmayeta. The quotation is interesting for

several reasons: it confirms the aspect of ‘rehearsal’ by repeated use of a particular chant. Besides, it says explicitly that the chant has to be evoked and remembered at the time of death, and finally, it places the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ in the realm of ritualistic and esoteric

knowledge. Let us now turn to what is probably the most quoted passage in the context of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’: ‘To what?’ ‘To the world of brahman.’ It carries him forth to the sun. 2. He says to the sun: ‘Carry me forth.’ ‘To what?’ ‘To the world of brahman.’ It carries him forth to the moon. He thus wanders to and fro between these divinities. 3. This is the end. There is no carrying forth beyond this [limit]. And all the worlds beyond this [limit] of which we have spoken, they are all obtained, they are conquered, in all of them there is unrestricted movement

[kAmacAra] for him who knows thus. 4. If he should wish: ‘May I be born here again,’ on whatever family he might fix his thoughts, be it a Brahman-family, be it a royal family, into that he is born. ‘He keeps on ascending to this73 world again fore-knowing.’74 (Oertel 1894, 188; JUB 3.28)


Whereas the previous passage spoke of preparation for the time of death, the scene described here takes place after death. The dead person reaches the sun and moon (presumably by way of the funeral pyre or sacrificial fire) and his quest for the Brahma world remains unanswered (unless sun and moon are

representing the Brahma world here), but he has ‘unrestricted movement’ to go where he wishes (kAmacAra, from the root kam). However, wish alone is not sufficient; a knowledge referred to in a previous passage (ya eva| veda) appears to be the prerequisite for this achievement.75 Those who do not possess

this special knowledge have to return to this world in the form of rain, according to JUB 4.14. It is also possible that those who cannot afford a cremation are excluded from having a chance to achieve ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’, as well, but the text does not say so in this passage. To get a

step closer to the possible nature of that knowledge, let us take a look at another passage: Verily this same syllable is the firm stand of the three-fold knowledge. [Saying] om the hotar stands firm, [saying] om the adhvaryu, [saying] om the

udgAtar. 7. Verily this same syllable is the triple heaven (?) of the Vedas. The priests having placed the sacrificer in this syllable carry him up together into the heavenly world. Therefore he should recite the afterverse [saying] om only. (Oertel 1894, 180; JUB 3.19.6–7)


Threefold ritual knowledge is the cause for ascending to heaven, but it is guarded carefully from humans by the gods and is only accessible with the help of the three priests. Again, it is possible that the symbolism of the sacrificial fire indicates a funeral pyre, which would exclude those who are not

cremated, from the ascent to heaven. To sum up the findings from the Brahmawas: first, the achievement of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ was based purely on ritual knowledge and action (Samavidhana Brahmawa 3.7.1; JUB 3.28; JUB 3.19.6–7) and the involvement of priests. Ethical criteria for one’s destiny in

the afterlife have not come into the picture yet, and the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ appears to predate the concept of ethical karman.76 It is, however, possible that both concepts coexisted in different traditions for a long time. Let us now turn to two passages in the Upani1ads: (1) BfU

4.4.5, ‘A man resolves in accordance with his desire, acts in accordance with his resolve, and turns out to be in accordance with his action.’ (2) ChU

3.14, ‘Now, then, man is undoubtedly made of resolve. What a man becomes on departing from here after death is in accordance with his resolve in this world. So he should make this resolve.’77 ChU 3.14 makes clear reference to the departure from this world (pretya), and even though death is not mentioned in BfU 4.4.5, the preceding paragraph suggests it as the context:


It is like this. As a weaver, after she has removed the coloured yarn, weaves a different design that is newer and more attractive, so the self, after it has knocked down this body and rendered it unconscious, makes for himself a different figure that is newer and more attractive —the figure of a forefather, or of a Gandharva, or of a god, or of Prajapati, or of brahman, or else the figure of some other being. (Olivelle 1998, 121; BfU 4.4.4)


In passages such as Samavidhana Brahmawa and BfU 4.4.5, the wish or resolve has to be cultivated before death; in other passages (such as JUB 3.28) a wish for a particular form of rebirth can even be made after death. It is clear from the various contexts, however, that it takes effect after death with regard

to the next rebirth. The question of possible other conditions requires looking into the wider context of the two Upani1adic passages (BfU 4.4.4, BfU 4.4.5 and ChU 3.14). BfU 4.4.5 seems to be concerned with death in general, not just death of the initiated (or cremated), and physical death alone seems to be

sufficient to realise the desired existence, as Schmithausen observes.78 So if it is not knowledge (as in JUB 3.28) that serves as a prerequisite of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’, what does? BfU 4.4.5 introduces another factor, namely karman. It seems worthwhile comparing the two Upani1adic passages BfU 4.4.5 and ChU 3.14 more closely.79


To start with, in BfU 4.4.5, the emphasis seems to be on desire or wish (kAma) rather than on will or resolve (kratu). One gets the impression that kAma has the connotation of a deep psychological motivation that cannot be controlled here, unlike earlier passages where kAma seem to refer to ‘choice’. The passage introduces yet another element, e.g., karman in the key phrase (sa yathAkAmo bhavati, tatkratur bhavati; yatkratur bhavati, tat karma kurute; yat karma kurute, tad abhisa|padyate). In ChU 3.14, on the other hand, wish (kAma) does not feature very prominently and is only mentioned as being contained

in Atman together with karman, gandha, rasa, etc. Here, will or resolve (kratu) seems to be seen as the driving force in the rebirth process (atha khalu kratumayaS puru2o yathAkratur asmi|lloke puru2o bhavati tathetaS pretya bhavati).80 This raises the question of the relationship between kAma and kratu. A

number of possibilities come to mind: the two terms might be quasi-synonymous; or kratu could be a concrete expression of kAma (as psychological motivation); or kAma might be a more general term whereas kratu is a more technical term for the same process. Looking at the two phrases, however, one

notices first of all that BfU 4.4.5 (linking kAma, kratu, karman, abhisa|padyate) reads like a more elaborate version of ChU 3.14 (naming only kratu and bhava), and second that causal connections are expressed in a style somewhat suggestive of the Buddhist formula of dependent origination (pratCtyasamutpAda). Arranged in the form of a table the different stages look as follows:


pratCtyasamutpAda BfU 4.4.5 ChU 3.14


t{2WA kAma upAdAna kratu kratu bhava karman bhava (as vipAka) jAti abhisa|padyate jarA-maraWa


The two descriptions of the rebirth process show similarities:

1. thirst or desire to be reborn;

2. grasping or resolve;

3. actual becoming (bhava).


According to the commentarial tradition bhava has two aspects:

1. karmic conditions for becoming (like karman in BfU 4.4.5), which bring the actual conception into the realm of birth (jAti);81 and

2. the result (vipAka) of these karmic conditions, i.e., bhava serves as the first moment of the new existence (like bhava in ChU 3.14). However, the Buddhist interpretation would be that thirst (taWhA) is responsible for the fact that a being is reborn, and kamma i.e., merit or demerit, responsible for

the quality of the rebirth.82 I do not wish to suggest that the commentarial interpretation is in any direct way based on the Upani1adic material or vice versa, I wish to merely make an observation of similarity here which may merit further investigation.83


In BfU 4.4.5. ‘rebirth according to ones wish’ is no longer a direct result of a wish (kAma, kratu), but of karman, which is caused or prompted by the wish. Schmithausen (1995, 57) cautiously interprets BfU

4.4.5 as an attempt to harmonize the concept that wish determines the after life destiny with the doctrine of karman, which in BfU

4.4.5 might still have the connotation of ritually positive and meritorious deeds. In the later Upani1ads a shift from ritual and sacrificial karman to ethicised karman is apparent, but passages like BfU

4.4.5 are far from being unambiguous, and karman could equally be interpreted as ritual or as retributive action. G. Flood (1996, 86) says: ‘In the B{hadAraWyaka Upani2ad retributive action first appears to be a secret and little-known doctrine.’ The passage Flood refers to is:


Yajñavalkya replied: ‘My friend, we cannot talk about this in public. Take my hand, frtabhaga; let’s go and discuss this in private.’ So they left and talked about it. And what did they talk about? They talked about nothing but action. And what did they praise? They praised nothing but action. Yajñavalkya told him: ‘A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action.’ (Olivelle 1998, 80; BfU 3.2.13)


Schmithausen (1995, 56ff.) agrees that what is presented here is indeed the doctrine of ethicised karman. Once ethicised karman was firmly connected with the rebirth process a number of problems arose, such as the relationship between karman and kAma (or free-will). W. Doniger O’Flaherty (1980, 13) speaks of karman as the ‘straw man in the Purawas: it is set up to be knocked down’and explains its popularity:


In the first place, one must not underestimate the value of karma (and fate) as a plot device; karma ex machina explains what cannot otherwise be justified. Thus inconsistencies in character, such as the sufferings of a good man, are explained by reference to karma accumulated in unknowable previous lives—and this also gives the Paurawika a chance to drag in another good story, often bei den Haarn [sic].


We find similar patterns in Buddhist stories. There is, however, an understanding that the most serious offences (harming a Buddha, killing a parent, etc.) produce so-called ‘weighty karma’ (garuka-kamma), which cannot be superseded, but inevitably comes to fruition at the end of the offender’s lifetime. Another question to arise was what serves as the carrier of karman from one existence to another. Doniger O’Flaherty (1980, 13) comments:


At this point, in the classical medical and philosophical texts, the parents are said to retain their role in providing the substance, but the merit is attributed to the soul’s previous existence(s); the substance is split off from the code. The Hindus and Buddhists were now forced to postulate a series of mediating elements to connect the body (given by the parents) with its karma (given from the previous life), now that these had been split apart. To return to ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’, one more passage from Prauna Upani1ad should be quoted:


The up-breath is fire. Therefore, when one’s fire is extinguished, one returns again to the life breath with the faculties uniting in the mind and whatever thought one then has. United with heat, then, the life breath, together with the self, leads him to the world that accords with his conception.84 (Olivelle 1998, 464; PU 3.9–10)


Here the context is clearly the time of death, and the ‘thought’ or ‘thoughts’ (citta), rather than the wish (kAma) or the will or resolve (kratu), are the deciding element here when it comes to the place of rebirth. The thought leading to the next place of birth sounds rather Buddhist, and considering that Prauna is said to be post-Buddhist, there might well have been cross influences.


Summary In the early Vedic period death meant going to the dark underworld, and accordingly, the goal in the afterlife was to return to one’s own family. In the course of time the vision of a brighter and more pleasant afterlife destiny came up and the return to this world was seen as an involuntary interim

stage. In the Upani1ads we find two strands with two distinct goals in the afterlife: ascent to the sun and ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’85 and the two or three paths (devayAna, pit{yAna) with the ultimate goal of going to the world of Brahman to escape redeath and rebirth.86 The voluntary intended rebirth

in a chosen existence is not to be interpreted as inferior and the means of achieving it was knowledge (most probably ritualistic) imparted by the priest to the sacrificer. This element of an earnest, sometimes rehearsed, wish for a particular existence is referred to in the texts as kratu or kAma. Some texts

(ChU 3.14, 3B 10.6.3) seem to suggest that the wish for a particular form of rebirth had to be cultivated before death; some texts (JUB 3.28) do not appear to exclude the possibility of making the wish or choice after death.87 According to Horsch (1971, 144) and Edgerton (1927, 234), ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ is historically the older concept and was only later connected


with the concept of karman (BfU 4.4.5). At some stage karman took on ethical implications and began to be more firmly connected with the rebirth process at the expense of other, competing concepts such as the automatic return into one’s family and ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ proved extraordinarily resilient, as the textual evidence and contemporary practice show.


The PAli nikayas and some stories from the commentaries The continuity of the concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ from the Upani1ads to Buddhism and beyond into the epics has already been pointed out. The textual evidence for this concept on the Buddhist side: Majjhima-nikaya (M III 99f.), Jataka (J

I 48), Mahavastu (MVu I 1), Lalitavistara (Adhy. 3) and Milindapañha (Mil 3,7,2), and for the non-Buddhist side the second-century BC epos Mahabharata (Bhagavadgcta 8.5 and 6). Considerably more evidence is scattered in a variety of Buddhist texts, but not always easy to locate. The term kAmacAra does not

seem to occur, nor are there any other obvious key words or technical terms that would facilitate the search. My findings, however incomplete, will suffice to demonstrate that the concept was alive at the time when these texts were composed. For the Buddhist texts the logical starting point seems to be

instances of death in a positive frame of mind followed by a favourable rebirth (in short good death), assuming that was what beings wish for. There are, however, also stories about people getting swept away by emotions and catapulted into a bad existence. I shall, therefore, investigate passages that

describe a death accompanied by a bad frame of mind followed by a rebirth in an unpleasant destiny (in short ‘a bad death’) next. I am particularly interested in finding evidence and explanations of direct causal connection between a person’s frame of mind at the time of death and the resulting rebirth. The Abhidhamma interpretation will be investigated in a separate chapter as it represents a particular style and technical language that sets it apart from the Suttas.

Good death The Sa]gcti Sutta of the Dcgha-nikaya (D III 207–72) which lists, amongst numerous other categories, ‘eight kinds of rebirth due to generosity’ (aVVha dAnuppattiyo) shall serve as a starting point for an examination of good death:


[There are] eight kinds of rebirth due to generosity: Here, someone gives an ascetic or Brahmin food, drink, clothes, transport, garlands, perfumes and ointments, sleeping accommodation, a dwelling, or lights, and he hopes to receive a return for his gifts. He sees a rich


Khattiya or Brahmin or householder living in full enjoyment of the pleasures of the five senses, and he thinks: ‘If only when I die I may be reborn as one of these rich people!’ He sets his heart on this thought, fixes it and develops it. And this thought, being set (adhimutta|) at such a low level (hCne),88 and not developed to a higher level, leads to rebirth right there. But I say this of a moral person, not of an immoral one. The mental aspiration of a moral person is effective through its purity. (Walshe 1995, 505; D III 258ff.)


One could, of course, argue that this passage is merely about the effect of kamma. However, the strong emphasis on the thought (citta) of being reborn in a particular existence, which has to be cultivated and developed (bhAveti), seems to indicate that this passage is in essence about ‘rebirth according to

one’s wish’. The core is reminiscent of the BfU and ChU passages discussed above: someone sees an appealing form of existence, such as a rich K1atriya, etc. (kAma in BfU 4.4.5 and ChU 3.13), he puts his mind to it (kratu in BfU 4.4.5), and is reborn in that very existence after his death. In the Sa]gcti Suttarebirth according to one’s wish’ is embedded in the Buddhist ethical framework with good kamma—in the shape of meritorious deeds or generosity (dAna)—as the basis or starting point and morality (sCla) as condition. As we shall see when comparing various passages, generosity may be mentioned before or after formulation of the wish but in any case some form of ethical base seems indispensable.

Resolve: analysis of the Sa}gCti Sutta. I will analyse the structure of the Sa]gcti Sutta and identify the various stages of the ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’: (a) condition(s); (b) prompting the resolution; (c) resolve; (d) assertion of achievement; (e) [additional] condition. This framework will also serve as a base for a comparison with a number of other suttas89 dealing with the same topic. First, it seems necessary to give a brief introduction to the Sa\yutta-nikaya as its structure is not always easy to unravel. We are looking at different sets of nearly identical suttas describing how one comes

to be reborn as a particular type of nAga, supaWWa, or gandhabba. For easy reference and greater clarity I have grouped these as follows:


— nAga set 1 (S III 243, i.e., S 29.7–10): describes in almost identical terms how rebirth as one of the four types of nAga (egg-born, etc.) is caused merely by seeing and admiring a nAga and wishing to be reborn as one. — nAga set 2 (S III 244, i.e., S 29.11–50): consists of almost identical suttas and differs from the first set only in that generosity is practised after wishing for rebirth as a particular nAga.


Similarly the Suttas concerning supaWWas:

— supaWWa set 1 (S III 247, i.e., S 30.3–6): describes how one might become one of the four types of supaWWa merely by wishing to. — supaWWa set 2 (S III 24–49, i.e., S 30.7–46): differs from supaWWa set 1 only in that generosity is practised after wishing for rebirth as a particular supaWWa. The situation is slightly changed for the gandhabbas:

gandhabba set 1 (S III 250, i.e., S 31.2): a short Sutta speaks in general terms of becoming a gandhabba merely by wishing to. — gandhabba set 2 (S III

251f, i.e., S 31.3–12): acts of generosity (corresponding to the aspiration) are mentioned after the wish, e.g., to become a ‘gandhabba who dwells in fragrant roots, heartwood, etc., one has to give fragrant roots, etc. — gandhabba set 3 (S III 252f, i.e., S 31.13–22): resembles closely nAga and supaWWa sets 2 in that generosity is mentioned in the form of the standard items that are offered to ascetics.

To facilitate the task of comparing the above mentioned suttas, the different stages that were identified for the Sa]gcti Sutta will serve as a guideline:


(a) The conditio sine qua non for ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ in the Sa]gcti Sutta is generosity (the standard list of items to be offered to ascetics are enumerated: anna, pAna,...seyyAvasathapadCpeyya) and rebirth in the desired existence is presented as a pay off (so ya| deti ta| paccAsCsati).

In M I 289ff. the condition is right behaviour and acting in accordance with the Dhamma (dhammacArC samacArC); whereas the Sa]kharuppatti Sutta (M III 99ff.), literally the sutta about ‘rebirth according to one’s volitions’,90 which is, interestingly, directed towards bhikkhus, has a list of five qualities

(saddhA,sCla,suta,cAga,paññA) required.91 At S IV 302–304, various tree deities try to persuade the householder (gahapati) Citta to make a resolution to become a Cakkavattin (Universal Monarch). They argue that he is sClavA kalyAWadhammo, and thereby entitled to make such an earnest wish. At nAga sets 1 and


2 and supaWWa sets 1 and 2 the assumption (or condition?) is that the person in question is one ‘who acts ambiguously’ (dvayakArC) through body, speech, and mind. On the other hand, the three gandhabba sets take as a starting point a person of ‘good conduct (sucarita|) of body, speech, and mind’.92 (b) An

element of prompting the resolve follows next in the Sa]gcti Sutta: someone sees a rich k2atriya, brAhmaWa, etc., or hears wonderful things about a certain divine form of existence. Almost identical phrasing is found in M III 99, as well as in both nAga sets, both supaWWa sets, and


all three gandhabba sets. The exception here is M I 289ff., which does not contain such an element. (c) The resolution proper is either called paWidhi or cetopaWidhi, or simply citta, sometimes glossed as patthanA (in the commentaries).93 In the Sa]gcti Sutta the resolve is expressed in a formula which is

repeated verbatim for all eight forms of existence up to the four kings. A similar formula is found in all the suttas, but the lists of the forms of existences differ considerably in length. M I 289 and M III 99 are not only much more detailed in listing different types of devas, but Nirvawa is named as

the final achievement. Other suttas concentrate on only one class of beings (as in gandhabba set 1), or even on a particular type of a class of beings (as in nAga sets 1 and 2, supaWWa sets 1 and 2, gandhabba sets 2 and 3). S IV 302, too, is rather specifically aiming for rebirth as a cakkavatti (rather than a

k2atriya). The formulation of the resolve in the Sa]gcti Sutta is followed by a phrase emphasising the cultivation of the thought (see also M III 99ff.). The importance of the resolve is also emphasised in the commentary to the Sa]kharuppatti Sutta, where it is stated that the patthanA is essential for the

achievement.94 However, none of the suttas explicitly mention the wish as being made at the time of death. Nevertheless, almost all the suttas (with the exception of the Sa]gcti Sutta, and S IV 302) explicitly state that the fulfillment of the wish takes place at death. (d) Then follows an assertion in the

Sa]gcti Sutta, that the rebirth in a particular form of existence, is indeed achieved. The same expression is found at M III 99,95 while M I 289 merely states that such a ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ is possible, and the nAga,supaWWa, and gandhabba sets again just repeat that the goal is achieved

(upapajjati rather than upapajeyya). In S IV 302, however, the story takes a different turn in that Citta refuses to take the paWidhi and preaches instead to the friends before he dies. (e) Finally, almost like an afterthought, comes an additional condition in the Sa]gcti Sutta: the resolve cetopaWidhi only

works for morally good people due to its96 ‘purity’ (suddhattA). This formula only changes for the brahmakAyikA devA, the lowest of the rEpadhAtu realms, where overcoming of passion (vCtarAgattA), which is a requirement for entrance into rEpadhAtu, is added. The two Majjhima suttas, nAga set 1, supaWWa set 1, and gandhabba set 1 do not add any final conditions. However, in nAga set 2, supaWWa set 2, and gandhabba set 3 the standard declaration of generosity (so annam deti...pad Cpeyya|deti) which occurred at the beginning of the Sa]gcti Sutta is here inserted between the actual resolve and the affirmation.

Furthermore, we find an interesting variation in gandhabba set 3, where it is said that someone who wants to be reborn amongst the gods who live off scented roots has to give scented roots, which is reminiscent of mimetic magic. One gets the impression that in these last


cases the act of generosity is motivated by the ambition to be reborn in a certain form of existence. Furthermore, the fact that generosity is sometimes mentioned and sometimes not might suggest that the formula was added later.


Let us briefly sum up: the framework for ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ are the three pillars of Buddhist practice: (a) generosity97 (dAna), (b) cultivation of mind (bhAvanA) expressed in the resolution, and (c) morality (sCla) as additional condition. This suggests ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’

has acquired an ethical twist, as it is said in the Sa]gcti Sutta: ‘The mental aspiration of a moral person is effective through its purity’.98 The Sa]gcti Sutta stops with the attainment of the Brahma world, but other Suttas (such as Saleyyaka Sutta, M I 289ff.) not only enumerate many more forms of heavenly existence, they actually end with the attainment of Nibbana. The phrasing changes in the context of Nibbana:

If, householders, one who observes conduct in accordance with the Dhamma, righteous conduct, should wish: ‘Oh, that by realising for myself with direct knowledge I might here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints!’ it is possible that, by realising for himself with direct knowledge, he will here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints. Why is that? Because he observes conduct in accordance with the Dhamma, righteous conduct. (Bhikkhu Ñawamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, 384; M I 289)


There are, however, also passages such as S III 154 (=A IV 125–26), which seem somewhat at odds with the concept of a wish with regard to achievements (Asavakkhaya). In fact, the simile of the hatching hens seems to illustrate the exact opposite:


Suppose, bhikkhus, there were eight or ten or twelve hen’s eggs that were not properly sat upon, not properly warmed, not properly nurtured by the hen. Although the wish might arise for the hen, ‘O that the chicks should pierce the eggshell with the points of their claws or with their beaks and break out safely’, still those chicks would be unfit to break out. (Gethin 1992, 245f.; S III 154)


The Sutta makes the point here that the wish is utterly irrelevant to the outcome of the hatching. Other similes follow, illustrating precisely the same point.99


The Sa]kharuppatti Sutta (M III 99–103), too, works its way up the cosmological ladder and finally comes to the attainment of the ‘deliverance of mind’. The wording is almost identical with the Saleyyaka Sutta, but the fact that the final stage is ‘non-rebirth’ is emphasised. One gets the impression here that in the cosmological hierarchy Nibbana followed naturally as the final pinnacle. However, as it cannot be achieved without overcoming the hindrances, etc., this caused a break with the formula.100 There is, however, another dimension to this. Schmithausen talks about two distinct strands and religious goals

coexisting in the Upani1ads: free movement between the different forms of existence (kAmacAra-eschatology) on the one hand, and escaping re-death and re-birth for good (highest-placeeschatology) on the other hand. The Sa]gcti Sutta can be interpreted as a continuation of the Upani1adic concept of kAmacAra,

which was characteristic for the first strand. The concept of nibbAna, on the other hand, would come rather close to the goal of the second strand, the escape from re-death and re-birth. By beginning with ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ and finishing with Nibbana as final achievement, the Sa]kharuppatti

Sutta seems to combine these two strands in a whole. So far we have only assumed that the wish must also be present in the person’s mind at the time of death, but it is not explicitly said that this is a necessary requirement. It is, therefore, worth looking at other passages, which are more explicit with

regard to the time of death even though they might not mention a formulated wish (pannidhi). In S V 375ff. we find the story of Sarakawi, who, despite being partial to drinking, was declared a stream enterer by the Buddha as a result of his vigorous efforts on his deathbed. At Dhp-a III 170–77 a weaver’s

daughter was advised by the Buddha to meditate on death and was reborn in Tusita as a result of her efforts. Sometimes the last words take the form of a prophesy about the next rebirth. At Dhp-a I 151–154 Anathapiwrika’s daughter Sumana (destined to be reborn in Tusita) addresses her father as ‘younger

brother’ (kaniVVhabhAtika) on her deathbed. The Buddha explains to Anathapiwrika that she had surpassed him spiritually, which made him ‘junior’ to her. The implication seems to be that a sign indicating her next rebirth, a gatinimitta, had appeared to Sumana, even though the term is not mentioned here.


Overcoming remorse. At Dhp-a II 203–209 a public executioner offers alms to Ven. Sariputta on the day of his retirement after 55 years of service but cannot concentrate on the sermon as he keeps remembering all the people he had killed. Ven. Sariputta tricks him into listening by making him falsely

believe that he was not responsible for his bad deeds as he only followed the king’s orders. As a result he attains a calm state of mind and when he is killed later that day (by a cow) is reborn in Tusita. This story states two important aspects: first, remorse is spiritually undesirable because it prevents concentration on what is important; second, the importance


of a spiritual friend, a kalyAWamitta, is emphasised, and even an element of trickery is condoned. A more famous example of overcoming remorse is that of King Auoka (ca. 247–207 B.C.),101 who ascended to the Mauryan throne in approximately 264 B.C. and waged a brutal war against Kali]ga.102 He later became deeply affected by Buddhism and turned into one of its strongest and most generous supporters. According to the Buddhist tradition he was haunted by bad thoughts on his deathbed:


He gave with joy a hundred millions after conquering all the earth, till in the end his realm came down to less then half a gall-nut’s worth. Yet when his merit was used up, his body breathing its last breath, the sorrowless Asoka too felt sorrow face to face with death.103 (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli 1956, 250; Vism 232)


The text does not reveal his afterlife destiny, but according to a popular legend in Sri Lanka King Auoka was reborn as in the nAga realm as a result of regret and ascended to Tusita heaven after seven days.104 The description of the death of another king who is legendary in Sri Lanka, King Dutthagamawc (ca. 101–77 B.C.), is rather more detailed.105 As death drew near six gods were waiting in their carts ready to whisk the king away to their respective heaven and the king, following the monks’ advice, chooses Tusita:


74. When the most wise king heard these words of the thera, he, casting a glance at the Great Thepa, closed his eyes as he lay, 75. And when he, even at that moment, had passed away, he was seen reborn and standing in celestial form in the car, 76. that came from Tusita-heaven. And to make manifest the

reward of the works of merit performed by him he drove, 77. showing himself in all his glory to the people, standing on the same car, three times around the Great Thepa, going to the left, and then, when he had done homage to the thepa and the brotherhood he passed into the Tusita-heaven.106 (Geiger 1912, 226; Mv XXXII 74–77)


Both the versions of King Duvvhagamawi’s death (Mahava\sa and Manorathaperawc) describe the king as having only positive visions but according to another popular legend in Sri Lanka he was tormented on his deathbed by regret.107 The source for this legend might lie in the Mahava\sa itself.


In the last sixteen verses of chapter XXV there is the well-known story that Duvvhagamawi expressed remorse at having killed so many people and was reassured by arahats that all of them except for one and a half were nonbelievers.108 This legend with its death/remorse theme might have been modelled after the death of the Great Auoka.109 Indeed, a modern commentary from Myanmar (Paramatthadcpanc-anudcpanc) treats King Auoka’s death together with that of King Duvvhagamawi.110 There is no indication that King Duvvhagamawi’s ascent to Tusita had been a long cultivated wish of his: he had to seek advice

from the monks on that issue. His rebirth in Tusita heaven appeared, nevertheless, to be a direct result of his directing the mind there. This seems to indicate that concentration on, or possibly visualisation of, a divine existence might fulfil a function similar to the rehearsed wish. Schmithausen (1987, 356) sees a development here (comparing Sa]kharuppatti Sutta and Saptadhatu Setra). The mere intention to be reborn in a particular form of existence is no longer sufficient, but a state of mind which is on a level with that form of existence has to be achieved. It seems worthwhile looking into the various

stages of King Duvvhagamawi’s death preparation, even though they are likely to represent an ‘ideal death scenario’ rather than a realistic picture of the customs at the time. First, he ordered his younger brother to complete the building work on the Mahastepa but legend has it that he failed to do so and

instead covered the unfinished dome in white cloth to avoid disappointment (Mv 32.1–6). Duvvhagamawi was then taken to pay his respects to the Mahastepa (Mv 32.7– 9), which seems to have been his last observable act of merit recorded in the Mahava\sa.111 Next he requests the company of a particular monk, Theraputtabhaya who comes flying through the air to his deathbed with 500 bhikkhus and preaches (Mv 32.11–23). Next, the king ordered his scribe to come and read out his meritorous deeds from a ‘merit book’ (Mv 32.25).112 The scribe begins to read (verses 26–32), then the king takes over and relates in the first

person his meritorious deeds (verses 33–47), and at last Thera Abhaya relates two instances of alms giving (verses 48–55). Finally, the king gives instructions regarding his cremation and the worship of the Great StEpa. The function of this elaborate reading of an impressive list of meritorious deeds

is found in the Abhidhamma: to remember past meritorious deeds can be an act of merit in itself, and to die with one’s mind fixed on a meritorious deed is conducive to a positive rebirth. I have not come across any other evidence in the Pali material for this practice, but the legend of King Duvvhagamawi is very popular in Sri Lanka. This might account for the fact that ‘merit books’ (Sinhala: pinpot) were known to my informants even though they did not seem to play any role in contemporary Sri Lankan practice. Giving up attachment. It is only a small step from acknowledging the importance of the last moment of life to the attempt to influence it for oneself (by


way of cultivating a resolve) and for someone else. In the Mahasudassana Sutta (D II 169–199) the dying king admonishes his queen, who reminds him of all his worldly possessions, of the ‘correct’ way of speaking at someone’s deathbed:


This is how you should speak: ‘All things that are pleasing and attractive are liable to change, to vanish, to become otherwise. Do not, Sire, die filled with longing. To die filled with longing is painful and blameworthy. Of your eighty-four thousand cities, Kusavatc is the chief: abandon desire, abandon the longing to live with them.’ (Walshe 1995, 288; D II 189)


The repetitiveness of the Sutta, which goes over the long list of royal possessions one by one again and again throughout the Sutta has an almost meditative quality. The keyword here is apekkhA (affection, desire, longing) with regard to possessions and life in general, which is encouraged by the

queen and rejected by the king. As it happens, most people will not be struggling through long lists of cities, palaces, etc. (84 000 of each!), at the end of their lives, but the basic principle is the same. The way to help a dying relative is to encourage him or her to give up longing as it is not conducive

to a good death. At S V 408 the layman Mahanama asks the Buddha how one should talk to someone who is dying. Interestingly, the Sutta is very clear that the hypothetical situation involves two laypersons (upAsaka), not monks. The Buddha’s reply shall be analysed stage by stage, as it might illuminate the

contemporary Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka. At first (S V 408) the ill person should be reassured of his trust in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sa\gha as well as of his own ability. Then he is admonished to withdraw his mind from his relatives (starting with his parents, wife and children, etc.) and his

‘possessions’, or rather responsibilities. Thirdly, he is encouraged to give up aspirations for future existences one by one, starting with attachment to human pleasures, in favour of the next highest form of divine existence, and so on (S V 408f.). In this fashion, applying the mind to a particular form of

future existence only to let go of it, the dying person works his way up the cosmological ladder to the Brahma world (cf. M I 289 and M III 99). In effect by emphasising the embracing and the letting go (citta| vuVVhApetvA) of every form of existence individually, the Sutta seems to imply an indirect acknowledgement of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’. Finally, he is admonished to direct his mind towards cessation (nirodha), which results in liberation of mind equaling that of a monk (S V 410). In other words, he gives up ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ in favour of Nibbana. We are not told in this Sutta how a monk should talk to a layperson, or indeed to a fellow monk, but one might venture to guess that it was felt inappropriate for monks to engage in ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’.113


At Vin III 79 some monks speak to a very ill fellow monk and praise death, as they felt sorry for his great suffering. As a result the sick monk starves himself to death and his fellow monks feel regret and doubt. And, according to both the Vinaya text and the commentary, the Samantapasadika, they were right to feel bad, as they had committed a pArAjika offence:

Out of compassion: seeing that he was in great pain as a result of his illness, those monks felt compassion and, wanting his death yet not realizing that his death is what they wanted, spoke in praise of death, saying, ‘You are virtuous and have done wholesome deeds. Why should you be afraid of dying? For someone who is virtuous certainly the only thing that can follow from death is heaven.’ And as a result of their praising death, that monk stopped taking his food and died prematurely. Therefore they committed the offence....However, a sick monk should be given the following sort of instruction, ‘For one who is virtuous the path and fruit can arise unexpectedly, so forget your attachment to such things as the monastery, and establish mindfulness of the Buddha,

Dhamma, Sa\gha and the body, and pay attention to [the manner of] bringing [things] to mind’. (Gethin 2004, 11; Sp 464) Again the structure is that of ‘wrong advice’ versus ‘right advice’, as we had in the Mahasudassana Sutta. The good advice, the encouragement to let go of

attachment, the recollection of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sa\gha, is reminiscent of the advice Mahanama (S V 408). The interesting issue here is that wrong advice, the ‘praise of death’ (maraWa-vaWWa), even if originally motivated by pity and compassion,114 could constitute an offence of the gravest class, if

the sick monk decided to end his life. A monk when called to a deathbed is, consequently, in a rather precarious position: he has to encourage the sick person to abandon desire but at the same time he must not provoke depression that might lead to suicide.115 If a layperson in the hour of death can achieve

Nibbana assisted by another layperson, how much greater would be the chances if one could listen to the Buddha himself preaching the dhamma? This is precisely the case at A III 380ff., where the monk Phagguna who is in great pain and agony, was visited on his deathbed by the Buddha and attained Nibbana

(as in the Sutta S V 410). Prompted by fnanda the Buddha explains the advantages of ‘timely hearing of Dhamma’ (kAlena dhammassavana):


There are six advantages, fnanda, in hearing the Dhamma in time, in testing its goodness in time. What six? Consider, fnanda, the monk whose mind is not wholly freed from the five lower fetters, but, when dying, is able to see the Tathagata: the Tathagata teaches him Dhamma, lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely in the


end, its goodness, its significance; and makes known the godly life, wholly fulfilled, perfectly pure. When he has heard that Dhamma teaching, his mind is wholly freed from the five lower fetters. This, fnanda, is the first advantage in hearing Dhamma in time. (Hare 1934, III 271; A III 380)


We are not told what precisely the Buddha said, whether he preached about letting go of better forms of existence, or whether his dhammadesanA to the monk Phagguna was on a different, more technical level. Again, it is possible that hearing the dhamma from the Buddha himself would produce an effect almost automatically, with only a minimum of effort on the part of the dying person. After all, Phagguna’s great suffering cannot have been particularly conducive to insight and meditation and is not commonly associated with a good death or with higher achievements.


Dying with faith. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta it is said that those who die in a place of pilgrimage associated with the Buddha will be reborn in heaven: Monks and nuns, lay men and lay women will come thinking, ‘Here is where the Tathagata was born, and here is where he awakened to unsurpassed full awakening, and here is where he turned the unsurpassed wheel of truth, and here is where he attained nirvana by the element of nirvana without any remnant of attachment.’ All those who die with faithful hearts while they are on pilgrimage to a shrine will at the breaking up of the body after death be born in a happy realm, a heaven world. (Gethin, unpublished; D II 140)

Here the key factor seems to be in the compound, pasannacitta, (lit. ‘glad at heart’) which Gethin translates as ‘those with faithful hearts’, following the commentarial tradition.116 Incidentally, there is evidence (albeit not in a Sutta) that hearing the Dhamma and being full of faith at the time of death is not only beneficial for human beings but indeed even for animals. One morning while staying in Campa near a lotus pond, the Buddha uttered the following cryptic prediction:


Tonight, when I am teaching the Dhamma, a frog, while taking my voice as an object (nimitta), will die by the works of others and will come with a great retinue of gods while a big crowd is watching; for many there will be a realization of the Teaching. (Vv-a 217) And a bit further on we learn about the events, which take place on that evening just as the Buddha begins his sermon:


At that moment a frog came out of the lotus pond and [[[thinking]]] ‘This is dhamma spoken’, with the idea of dhamma, he took [my] voice as an object (nimitta) and sat down at the outer edge of the assembly. [Just] then a cow-herd arrived at the place and saw the Teacher teaching the dhamma and the congregation

listening very peacefully to the dhamma. With his mind on that he stood [there], leaning on his stick and [because] he did not see the frog he stood on its head, crushing it. The frog with a happy mind because of the idea of dhamma died instantly and was reborn in the sphere of the thirty-three gods, in a gold celestial palace twelve yojanas in size, as if awakened from sleep and saw himself there surrounded by a group of nymphs. As he was reflecting: ‘From where

did I come to be reborn here?’ he saw his former existence. And as he was thinking ‘What did I do, that I [of all frogs] was reborn here, that I obtained such success?’ he did not see anything other than the taking the Blessed One’s voice as object. He immediately came with his celestial palace, stepped down from it and, while a big crowd of people was watching, approached with a great retinue and great divine power, bowed down with his head at the feet of the

Blessed One, greeting him with cupped hands and stood there paying respect. (Vv-a 217) The crucial point for us seems to be that the frog did not make a resolution to be reborn in the realm of the thirty-three gods, he did not have any deep insight nor did he make any special effort. He was, however, pasannacitta, ‘glad at heart’ at hearing the dhamma. This seemingly involuntary act of faith

coincided with the last moments of his existence as a frog, so the Buddha’s voice became his kammanimitta, the decisive element at the time of his death (see the chapter on Abhidhamma). A similar story is found in the Dhammapada-avvhakatha where it is said that 500 young bats happened to overhear two monks

chanting the Abhidhamma in their cave: We are told that in the dispensation of the Buddha Kassapa they were little bats. On a certain occasion, as they hung over a mountain cave, they overheard

two monks reciting the Abhidhamma as they walked up and down and took their voices as an object. As for the expressions, ‘These aggregates of being, these elements of being,’ they did not know what they meant; but solely because they had taken their voices as an object, when they passed from that state of existence they were reborn in the World of the Gods. There, for the space of an interval between two Buddhas, they enjoyed celestial glory; afterwards they were reborn in Savatthc in the households of families of distinction. (adapted from Burlingame 1921 III 52; Dhp-a III 223)


The bats did not all die at the same time while listening to the recital (at least it does not say so) but the fact that they ‘took the voices as object’ seems to have been the deciding element that caused rebirth amongst the gods. There is yet another animal story, this time from the commentary to the

Mahasatipavvhana Sutta that deals with the topic of recollecting the teaching at the time of death: A dancer took on a baby parrot and walked about teaching it. After he had stayed in a nunnery he went away, forgetting the little parrot at the time of his leaving. The novices took him and looked after him. They gave him the nameBuddharakkhita’. Then one day the principal nun saw him sitting in front of her

and said: ‘Buddharakkhita?’ ‘What is it, honorable One?’ ‘Do you pay any attention to [[[mental]]] cultivation?’ ‘I do not have one, honorable One.’ ‘It is not right to live as a diffused personality, especially when staying in the vicinity of ascetics, some form of fixed thought is to be desired. If you cannot do anything else, then repeat [to yourself] “aVVhi, aVVhi”.’117 Abiding by the nun’s instruction he moved about repeating ‘aVVhi, aVVhi’ [to himself]. One day

early in the morning while the morning sun was shining, a bird sat on top of an arch and grabbed him with his claws. He shouted ‘Kiri, kiri!’ The novices heard that and said: ‘Honorable Ones, Buddharakkhita has been grabbed by a bird. Let us free him’. They grabbed clods of earth and such and followed [the bird] and freed Buddharakkhita. The nun brought him back, sat him down in front of her and said: ‘Buddharakkhita, when you were grabbed by the bird, what

was on your mind?’ ‘Honorable One, [I had nothing other on my mind than] “Just a heap of bones is leaving having grabbed a heap of bones. Where will he scatter them?” Thus, Honorable One, only a heap of bones was on my mind.’ ‘Very good, very good, Buddharakkhita, in the future you will have the right condition for the destruction of birth!’ (Sv III 742)


Luckily the little parrot lived to tell the tale, but had he not, one might on the basis of the previous two stories assume he would have been reborn amongst the gods and after intervals in heaven and as a human, become an arahat, as predicted by the principal nun. The commentary is rather precise here in emphasising that this will happen in the future (anAgate), as it is impossible for animals to attain arahatship. Again, there might be more stories

reporting the events surrounding the death of animals, but these three examples will suffice. Bad death I will next examine bad death followed by rebirth in one of the unfortunate states.


Resolve. I have not found any evidence of a bad resolve in the Nikayas, but there are examples in the commentaries and the Abhidhamma. A particular type of wrong view (or rather clouded vision) seems to be represented at Dhp-a I 47f. Two women, one barren and one fruitful, share one husband and are locked in a battle of hatred. The fruitful wife, now pregnant again, realises that it was her barren co-wife who had previously caused her two miscarriages and is now

about to kill her and her unborn third child. She makes a patthanA on her deathbed to become a yakkhinC and as a result is reborn as a cat and her rival as a hen.118 Thereby a cycle is started that continues with respective resolutions and killings until the Buddha intervenes.119 In this story the main

motivation for a resolve to be reborn in a powerful, but nevertheless unhappy, form of existence, is revenge. This is, of course, totally different from the Bodhisattva’s conscious decision to be reborn in bad existences in order to relieve the suffering of his fellow beings there as, according to

Kathavatthu XXIII 3, the Andhakas claim he does: You maintain that he entered the womb of his own free will. Do you also imply that he chose to be reborn in purgatory, or as an animal? That he possessed

magic potency? You deny. I ask it again. You assent. Then did he practice the Four Steps to that potency— will, effort, thought, investigation? Neither can you quote me here a Sutta in justification. (Shwe Zan Aung and Mrs. Rhys Davids 1915, 367; Kv-a 623f.)


Here the Kathavatthu makes the interesting point that being reborn according to one’s wish would be due to special power (iddhi). The opponent agrees that the Bodhisattva can exercise his choice of where he is reborn on the grounds of special powers (iddhi) which are resulting from meritorious deeds in the

past (puññiddhi), rather than from meditation (bhAvanAmaya). The Theravadins, however, seem to have upheld the view that a Bodhisattva does not consciously decide to be reborn in a bad existence, as that would bypass his kamma.


Remorse. We have already cited two famous examples of overcoming remorse before death, and as we shall see, Auoka and Duvvhagamawi might have had a narrow escape. In the Dhammapada-avvhakatha is is said that Queen Mallika, despite having shown great generosity and support for the Sa\gha, was reborn in the

Avcci hell due to the incident of indecent sexual behaviour (with her pet dog in the bath) and subsequent deception of the king who had witnessed the act.120 The reason for her rebirth in Avcci is, according to the commentary, not the incident itself, but the fact that she remembered it at the moment of death (presumably reliving her regret and shame). On the seventh day,


however, she is reborn in Tusita due to the amount of merit accumulated by her in the present life.121 Another story in the Dhammapada-avvhakatha about regret at the time of death reports longerlasting consequences. The monk Erakapatta once went in a boat and tore off a leaf holding onto an Eraka tree. He registered his deed but thought it was unimportant until many existences later:


Although for twenty thousand years he performed meditations in the forest without confessing his fault, yet, when he came to die, he felt as though an Eraka leaf had seized him by the neck. Desiring to confess his fault, but seeing no other monk, he was filled with remorse and cried out, ‘My virtue is impaired!’ Thus he died. Having passed out of that state of existence, he was born a dragon king, the measure of his body being that of a dug-out canoe. At the moment of rebirth he surveyed his person, and was filled with remorse as he thought to himself, ‘After performing meditations for so long a time, I have been reborn in a causeless state, in a feeding place for frogs.’ (Burlingame 1921 III 56f.; Dhp-a III 230ff.)


Compared to Queen Mallika’s misbehaviour and deceit, Erakapatta’s misdeed seems trivial and the resulting fate rather grim (for the interval between two Buddhas he was reborn as a nAga king) considering that the monk in question is a meditator of long standing (twenty thousand years to be precise). The imagery is quite strong and evocative (fast moving boat, the leaf grabbing the monk by the throat) and is reminiscent of the stream of sa|sAra.122 One would be hard pressed to make sense of the story in a literal sense, but the moral of Erakapatta’s story is clearly monastic: even the slightest fault left unconfessed might haunt you at the time of death.123


Attachment. A rather touching example of the bad consequences of attachment to objects at the time of death, is related at Dhp-a III 341–344. An earnest monk named Tissa takes a liking to his brand new robe, but alas, he dies before he had a chance to wear it. The other monks decide to cut it up and divide

it amongst themselves, but the Buddha intervenes and orders them to leave the robe for seven days. Eventually he explains to the puzzled monks: Monks, Tissa was reborn as a bug in his own robe. When you set about to divide the robe among you, he screamed ‘They are plundering my property.’ And thus screaming, he ran this way and that. Had you taken his robe, he would have cherished a grudge against you, and because of this sin would have been reborn in Hell. That is the reason why I directed that the robe should be laid aside. But now he


has been reborn in the Abode of the Tusita gods, and for this reason I have permitted you to take the robe and divide it among you.124 (adapted from Burlingame 1921 III 121; Dhp-a III 343)


The danger of dying with attachment to an image on one’s mind is vividly illustrated in the Nikayas:


It would be better, bhikkhus, for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin burning, blazing, and glowing, than for one to grasp the sign through the features in a form cognizable by the eye. For if consciousness should stand tied to gratification in the sign or in the features, and if one should die on that occasion, it is possible that one will go to one of two destinations: hell or the animal realm. Having seen this danger, I speak thus. (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000 II 1234; S IV 168)


This passage illustrates just why it is so important to assist a dying person in giving up attachment at the time of death.


Wrong view. A number of Suttas deal in a more general way with karmic retribution and it is often repeated that wrong view (micchAdiVVhi) leads to rebirth in either hell or the animal realm. I will, however, concentrate here on two passages that deal with the time of death. At S IV 308ff. a mercenary holds the wrong view that a soldier dying in battle will be reborn amongst the so-called battle-slain gods (parajitAna|125 devAna| sahavyata|). The Buddha explains that the mind of a soldier in battle is already low and evil as it is intent on killing beings, but to further hold the wrong view that he will be reborn amongst devas makes it doubly wrong:


But should he hold such a view as this: ‘When a mercenary strives and exerts himself in battle, if others slay him and finish him off while he is striving and exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the battleslain devas’—that is a wrong view on his part. For a person with wrong view, I say, there is one of two destinations: either hell or the animal realm. (Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000 II 1335; S IV 308ff.)


One gets the impression here that the hateful thought at the time of death might have sufficed to cause rebirth in hell and that the wrong view is only an additional factor. Furthermore, it is not actually said explicitly that the micchAdiVVhi occurs at the time of death.126 However, as a result of the Buddha’s preaching the soldier takes refuge for life, but does not ordain or become an arahant.127


General explanation An entire Sutta, the Mahakammavibha]ga Sutta (M III 207–215), is devoted to the workings of kamma. The Buddha explains that there are four categories of people:


(a) those who do not keep the precepts, etc., hold a wrong view and find a miserable after life destiny; (b) those who do not keep the precepts, etc., hold a wrong view and find a happy after life destiny; (c) those who do keep the precepts, etc., hold a right view and find a happy after life destiny; (d) those who do keep the precepts, etc., hold a right view and find a miserable after life destiny.


In categories (a) and (c) kamma is presented as cause for bad or good results, whereas in categories (b) and (d) the exact opposite is proclaimed, which appears to override kamma.128 This description of the four categories of people is then repeated with slightly different emphasis (a recluse or brahmin

with a divine eye observes the above four cases). The following explanation centers around two main aspects: first, the quality of the next rebirth might be caused either by deeds in the present existence or by right or wrong views at the moment of death (maraWakAle); and second, good or bad kamma will not

necessarily come to fruition in the very next existence. The first part of the explanation seems to suggest that wrong or right view at the time of death can override a lifetime of good or bad kamma respectively. The fault with this suggestion is that the brahmin watching with a divine eye only sees a

certain moment in peoples’ life. This snapshot might give him the completely wrong idea about the moral quality of the person in question and the seemingly unfitting rebirth. Similarly, the death moment is like a snap shot of the mental disposition of a person at any particular moment: it is likely to be in

keeping with someone’s general disposition, but might reflect a momentary lapse and appear ‘unfitting’. The second part of the explanation then is a straightforward assertion that there is indeed karmic retribution and right or wrong view at the time of death can only temporarily override (but not eradicate) kamma. The commentary on the Mahakammavibha]ga Sutta quotes a rather interesting example of micchAdiVVhi (‘Skanda is the best! 3iva is the best! Brahma is the best!’ or ‘The world is created by huvara, etc.’).129 The belief in a creator God, even though not included in the standard formula of the

ten wrong views as it appears in the Nikayas and Abhidhamma, is nevertheless not out of keeping with it.130 It is just possible—but this is pure speculation—that there might be a hint of a warning here. Even those who turned to Buddhism during their lifetime might on their deathbed instinctively revert to the god(s) of their childhood.


At least that seems to me more likely than getting entangled in wrong views such as ‘natthi aya| loko, natthi paro loko’ on the deathbed. At A I 31 wrong view and right view in general (not necessarily at the time of death) are singled out as by far the most important factor in determining the quality of the

next rebirth. In the next two Suttas (A I 32f.) micchAdiVVhi and sammAdiVVhi serve as the basis on the one hand for kamma and on the other hand for cetanA, patthanA, paWidhi and sa}khAra. The latter must refer to wishes for a specific afterlife, which might become acute as death draws near (see Sa]kharuppatti

Sutta). At A I 8–9 the death context is explicit, but the terminology is slightly changed as the Sutta speaks more generally of a person with a corrupt mind and with a pure mind (paduVVhacitta|/pasannacitta|):


Now here, monks, with my own thought embracing his, I am aware of a monk whose mind is corrupt. If at this very time he were to make an end, he would be put into Purgatory according to his desserts.131 Why so? Because of his corrupt mind. In like manner, monks, it is owing to a corrupt mind that some beings

in this world, when the body breaks up, after death are reborn in the Waste, the Woeful Way, the Downfall, in Purgatory (and similarly for good destinies).132 (Woodward 1932, I 6; A I 8f.)


This should suffice to demonstrate that there is evidence in the Nikayas and commentaries that the frame of mind at the time of death is one of the factors influencing the next rebirth. So what should be aimed for is a frame of mind that is pure (pasanna), free of hate (adosa), and firmly grounded in sammAdiVVhi. One method of achieving this is the cultivation of friendliness (mettA) throughout one’s lifetime: Monks, eleven advantages are to be looked for from the release of the heart by the practice of amity, by making amity grow, by making much of it, by making

amity a vehicle and basis, by persisting in it, by becoming familiar with it, by well establishing it. What are the eleven? One sleeps happy and wakes happy; he sees no evil dream; he is dear to human beings and non-human beings alike; the devas guard him; fire, poison or sword affect him not; quickly he

concentrates his mind; his complexion is serene; he makes an end without bewilderment; and if he has penetrated no further [to Arahatship] he reaches at death the Brahma-world.133 (Woodward 1936, V 219; A V 341f.)


The connection between ‘friendliness’ and conscious death is not immediately apparent. Perhaps cultivating mettA towards unpleasant or dangerous beings prepares one for the death moment in that it prevents hatred, fear,


regret etc., coming up at that crucial time. There is, however, yet another aspect to this: the ritual efficacy of mettA in warding off evil spirits at the time of death, when one is particularly vulnerable. As mentioned above, the Karawcyametta Sutta (Sn 25–26) is always amongst the Suttas chanted by monks at

the deathbed. At A III 84, ‘mindfulness of death’ (maraWasaññA) is recommended amongst other meditation practices, such as ‘perceiving the foulness of the body’.134 The terminology is similar to that of the previous sutta, but the tone is rather different. The advantages of ‘cultivating mettA’ reflect

engagement with the world and society in an attempt to gain happiness here. Cultivatingmindfulness of death’ on the other hand, aims at the opposite: the final liberation, disengagement from society, which, of course, does not necessarily happen at death.

Summary On the one hand, people strive to improve their situation in this or the next life; on the other hand, the highest goal is to escape this sa|sAra altogether. This tension which is reminiscent of the two strands in the Upani1ads, seems to run through Buddhist scriptures and has frequently been

commented on by Buddhist scholars.135 I would not exclude the possibility that there is a certain continuity (even though not in terminology). The Upani1adic concept of ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ seems to have become embeded into the ethical framework of Buddhism. However, the picture is

changed somewhat when we look at instances of bad death, which mostly stem from the stories in the commentaries. The general mood is one of warning, almost threat, and the listeners are told to keep striving in order to avoid disaster. While it would be dangerous to make general claims, it might still be

worthwhile to share ideas about possible developments or shifts in emphasis from the Nikayas to the commentarial literature. First, the passages dealing with good death could belong to an earlier stratum which is still close to the Upani1ads and not yet systematised, whereas passages describing bad death might be in some way secondary, either logically derived from, or construed in parallel to the instances of good death. Second, change in tone might have to do with a different target audience: the positive tone of the ‘rebirth according to one’s wish’ for ordinary laypeople and monks, a more systematised

approach aiming at liberation for highly accomplished forest monks. Unfortunately it is not always mentioned in the suttas who is addressed and who is spoken of. And finally it might simply be a matter of a carrot-and-stick approach: a positive rebirth as the reward of ethically good behaviour, bad death being used as a warning. The intention in both cases is to incite behaviour


in accordance with the ethical norm of Buddhism, which is conducive to a better rebirth and eventually Nibbana. The Abhidhamma interpretation In the previous chapters I used the term ‘time of death’ rather loosely in a non-technical sense because the texts I was quoting (Nikayas and commentaries) did so. However, in this chapter I will speak of either final ‘conscious moments’ (plural) or the consciousness process (cittavCthi) to reflect the language of the Abhidhamma. In order to gain some understanding of the thought process at the crucial time of death, let us first take a look at ‘normal’ thought processes.136


Ordinary thought processes In the Abhidhamma understanding a ‘thought process’ (citta-vCthi) refers to the process by which the mind becomes aware of a particular object and reacts to it in some way with greed or with aversion or with wisdom and compassion, for example.137 Each thought process consists of

a series of separate (yet connected) ‘arisings of consciousness’ (cittuppAda) or ‘moments of consciousness’ (citta-kkhaWa). A typical thought process comprises seventeen such moments and involves the mind in changing from its karmically passive state, known as bhava}ga, to a karmically active state, known as ‘impulsion’ (javana) which makes up seven of the seventeen moments. What a being would consciously experience as a particular memory or feeling of

desire, greed, or remorse, is understood to be made up of an unspecified number of these ‘thought processes’ (each with seventeen moments of consciousness). In the course of even the simplest experience or ‘thought’, the mind flicks back and forth between the ‘active’ (javana) and ‘passive’ (bhava}ga) mode a number of times, or, to put it differently, by various stimuli the mind is continually shaken out of its passive mode only to lapse back into it. Gethin 1994, 15 explains:


This basic switching between passive and active state of mind is understood to apply not only to the consciousness of human beings but to that of all beings in the thirty-one realms of existence, from beings suffering in niraya to the brahmAs in the pure abodes and formless realms; the only exception is

the case of ‘unconscious beings’ (asañña-satta), who remain without any consciousness (acittaka) for 500 mahAkappas. In other words, to have a mind, to be conscious, is to switch between those two modes of mind. In both modes the mind has an object, but whereas the object of the mind in ‘active’ mode changes all the time depending on the stimulus and


beings are generally aware of what it is, the object of the mind in bhava}ga remains the same throughout a given lifetime, and beings are unaware of its nature. The question is: What is the relationship between these active and passive modes of mind, and what determines the nature of one’s bhava}ga? As for

the first question, we have already seen that the mind rests in bhava}ga as its ‘natural abode’, and it is continually shaken out of that state. Again, according to Gethin (1994, 19) this means:


[I]t is the nature of bhava}ga that defines in general what kind of being one is—it gives one’s general place in the overall scheme of things. However, as the implications of this understanding are drawn out, I think it becomes clear that we need to go further than this: bhava}ga does not simply define what

one is, it defines precisely who one is. If bhava}ga represents what and who we are, our nature and character, it also defines our potential and limits or shortcomings, which means that however

hard some beings may try, they may never achieve certain attainments in their given existence, as they are ‘simply beyond their capabilities’.138 The fact that the nature of one’s bhava}ga does not change during one’s lifetime and defines one with all its limitations makes it all the more crucial to explore

the second question: How and by what is the nature or object of one’s bhava}ga determined? According to developed Abhidhamma theory, bhava}ga and its object only change substantially in the process of death and rebirth: a new bhava}gacitta (with a new object) arises at the moment of ‘relinking’ (paVisandhi) to a new life and will remain the same throughout the next existence. The new bhava}ga-citta is the immediate result (vipAka) of the kamma constituted by the final thought process (citta-vCthi) of one’s previous life, which in establishing the new bhava}ga-citta sets the tone for the new life

(Gethin 1994). In technical terms, the last bhava}ga moment of the old existence is called cuti-citta or ‘decease consciousness’ and still takes the ‘old’ object. This cuti-citta is immediately followed by the first bhava}ga moment of the new existence termed paVisandhi-citta or ‘relinking consciousness’ and

already takes the ‘new’ object. The object of the new bhava}ga is that of the last ‘impulsions’ (javana)—active moments of consciousness that constitute kamma—of the final consciousness process of the previous existence. What is crucial in determining the nature of rebirth is the frame of mind immediately

preceding the actual moment of death (cuticitta). On the basis of this La Vallée Poussin (1911) suggests: ‘Death, then, is the transformation of this “fundamental thought” called bhava}ga, “limb of existence,” into “emigrating thought” (chyutichitta).’ Even though the paVisandhi strictly reflects only the nature and content of the five (identical) ‘impulsions’ (javanas) of the final consciousness process,


it is perhaps understood that in most cases the general quality of the experience close to the time of death is likely to be more or less consistently of

one type and that this general quality is what will be reflected in the new bhava}ga. However, it should be noted that strictly speaking, although such

images as a ‘reflection’ and ‘echo’ are used for relinking (Vism 554), the new bhava}ga, even in the case of a being reborn in an unhappy destiny (duggati) as an animal or hungry ghost, is not understood to be directly associated with such qualities as greed (lobha) or regret (kukkucca); in such cases the

function of bhava}ga is said to be performed by some form of the mind consciousness element (mano-viññAWa-dhAtu) that is the result of unwholesome kamma (akusala-vipAka) and in normal circumstances performs the function of investigating (santCraWa) (see Abhidh-s 23). This is conceived of as a rather basic

form of consciousness, only associated with ten ‘mental factors’ (cetasikas): the seven universals and three of the particulars, namely ‘thinking of’ (vitakka), ‘examining’ (vicAra) and ‘decision’ (adhimokkha) (see Abhidh-s chapter 2). Indeed, while it seems to be implied that bhava}ga is in some way the

vehicle for latent unwholesome tendencies, even in the case of someone reborn in a happy destiny, the precise mechanisms for this do not seem to be specified in the aVVhakathAs (Gethin 1994, 30), though it is possible that more is said on this matter in the largely unstudied (in the West) Abhidhamma VCkAs.


Near death thought processes The analysis of the thought process near death differs very slightly from the analysis of the ‘normal’ thought processes that occur during one’s lifetime, in that the former has five instead of seven javanas. This variation is, however, not unique to the death process, but also occurs in dreamlike states of diminished consciousness, etc., and need not concern us here. We shall concentrate here on the thought process as occurring

near death.139 As mentioned before, every consciousness process begins with an ‘object’ (ArammaWa)—typically a sense impression, past thought, or concept (paññatti)—that, as it were, shakes the mind out of bhava}ga, and brings it into active mode. As the last thought process is crucial in that it determines

the next bhava}ga, it is treated with special attention in the Abhidhamma, and the objects at the time of death are divided into three different technical categories, namely kamma or ‘action’, kamma-nimitta or ‘sign of action’, and gati-nimitta or ‘sign of destiny’. These expressions are only used for the

specific purpose of describing the objects of mind processes near death. Herein, kamma is always a past complex of citta and cetasika; kammanimitta is either a past or present sense impression (a visible object or sound, etc.), or a concept; and gatinimitta is a present sense impression and only occurs for beings in the kAmadhAtu.140 The Sammohavinodanc defines kamma, kammanimitta and gatinimitta as follows:


In brief, rebirth-linking has three kinds of objects, kamma, the sign of kamma and the sign of destiny. Herein, kamma is accumulated profitable and unprofitable volition; the sign of kamma is that thing (vatthu) by taking which as its object kamma was accumulated. Herein, although the kamma was

performed a hundred thousand koVis of aeons ago in the past, yet at that moment the kamma or its sign comes and makes its appearance. (Bhikkhu Ñawamoli 1987, I 190; Vibh-a I 156f.)


This is immediately followed by a story illustrating kammanimitta: Here is a story concerning the appearing of a kamma sign. Gopaka Scvali, it seems, had a shrine built in the Talapivvhika monastery. The shrine appeared to

him as he lay on his deathbed. Taking that sign, he died and was reborn in the divine world.141 (Bhikkhu Ñawamoli 1987, I 190; Vibh-a 156f.) The Visuddhimagga treats kamma and kammanimitta together:


For example, first in the case of a person in the happy destinies of the sense-sphere who is an evil-doer, when he is lying on his deathbed, his evil kamma according as it has been stored up, or its sign, comes into focus in the mind door. For it is said, ‘Then [the evil deeds that he did in the past]...cover him [and overspread him and envelop him]’ (M III 164), and so on.142 (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli 1956, 631ff.; Vism 548)


And indeed the difference between kamma and kammanimitta is very subtle, as one gets the impression that kamma is a non-conceptualised memory of a past deed, whereas kammanimitta is a memory based on or prompted by a concrete image or object. This is why the Visuddhimagga devotes another paragraph to kammanimitta:

In another’s case, relatives present [[[objects]] to him] at the five sense doors, such as a visible datum as object, perhaps flowers, garlands, flags, banners, etc., saying ‘This is being offered to the Blessed One for your sake, dear, set your mind at rest’; or a sound as object, perhaps, preaching of the Dhamma,

offerings of music, etc.; or an odour as object, perhaps incense, scents, perfumes, etc.; or a taste as object perhaps honey, molasses, etc., saying ‘Taste this, dear, it is a gift to be given for your sake’; or a tangible datum as object, perhaps Chinese silk, silk of Somara, saying ‘Touch this, dear, it is a gift to be given for your sake’.143 (Bhikkhu Ñanamoli 1956, 634; Vism 550)


It is difficult to determine if this passage, which has been discussed in some detail in the introductory part of the present chapter, reflects the actual

practice at the time the Visuddhimagga was composed, or if it described an ideal situation, which was, and possibly still is, aspired to. An example for a

kammanimitta for someone to be reborn in a bad destiny is an object that might trigger greed (rAgAdihetubhEta| hCnArammaWa|).144 Gethin (1994, 22) interprets the somewhat difficult concepts of kamma and kamanimitta as follows:

What seems to be envisaged, though the texts do not quite spell this out, is that this memory prompts a kind of reliving of the original kamma: one experiences again a wholesome or unwholesome state of mind similar to the state of mind experienced at the time of performing the remembered action. This

reliving of the experience is what directly conditions the rebirth consciousness and the subsequent bhava}ga. A kamma-nimitta is a sense-object (either past or present) or a concept. Again what is envisaged is that at the time of death some past sense-object associated with a particular past action comes

before the mind (i.e., is remembered) and once more prompts a kind of reliving of the experience. Another point that seems worth mentioning here is that the Sammohavinodanc (156) goes to some length to assert that even in cases of ‘dying in confusion

(sammEXhakAlakiriyA) and ‘rapid death’ (lahukamaraWa) there is an object of death consciousness, namely either kamma or kammanimitta.145 And finally the signs for rebirth (gatinimitta) are described in the Visuddhimagga (for the bad forms of rebirth):


In another’s case, owing to kamma of the kind already described, there comes into focus at the mind door at the time of death the sign of the unhappy destinies with the appearance of fire and flames, etc., in the hells, and so on. (Ñawamoli 1956, 632; Vism 549f.) And (for the good destinies):

In another’s case, owing to blameless sense-sphere kamma, there comes into focus in the mind door at the time of death the sign of a happy destiny, in other words, the appearance of the mother’s womb in the case of the human world or the appearance of pleasure groves, divine palaces, wishing-trees, etc., in the case of the divine world. (Ñawamoli 1956, 633; Vism 550)


To sum up the main points: all three categories of objects (kamma, kammanimitta and gati-nimitta) involve a kamma occurring at the time of death by way of

‘reliving’ some past experience. The object of this experience can be a past action (kamma), or some ‘sign’—a past or present sense-object, or a concept—that is associated with or reminds one of a past action (kammanimitta); or it can be a present vision (gati-nimitta) of the fires of hell or the mansions of

heaven. It is not arbitrary what comes to mind at the time of death: it is affected by one’s past tendencies and actions, but can also be influenced by the actions of friends and relatives.

Kamma at the time of death Various Abhidhamma works describe (with regard to the moment of death) a classification of four types of kamma arranged in an hierarchical order according to which one takes precedence at the time of death. In the Visuddhimagga this reads:


Another fourfold classification of kamma is: weighty, habitual, death-threshold, and kamma [stored up] by being performed. Herein, when there is weighty and unweighty kamma, the weightier, whether profitable or unprofitable, whether kamma consisting in matricide or kamma of the exalted spheres, takes precedence in ripening. Likewise when there is habitual and unhabitual kamma, the more habitual, whether consisting in good or bad conduct, takes precedence in ripening. Death-threshold kamma is that remembered at the time of death; for when a man near death can remember [[[kamma]]], he is reborn according to that.

Kamma not included in the foregoing three kinds that has been often repeated is called kamma [stored up] by being performed. This brings about rebirth- linking if other kinds fail.146 (Ñawamoli 1956, 697; Vism 601) To put this in perspective, garuka-kamma takes absolute precedence over all other categories of kamma and cannot be superseded. However, this will effect

only very few beings as we can gather from the examples given in the above extract from Visuddhimagga. Unwholesome garuka-kamma is matricide, for example, and wholesome garuka-kamma is attainment of jhAnas, neither of these types being particularly common occurrences. At the other end of the spectrum is

‘performed’ kamma (kaVattA), which seems rather vague and only comes into play as a kind of last resort in case no other kamma comes to mind, which, again is unlikely. In practical terms this leaves a choice of either ‘habitual kamma’ (bahula AciWWa) or ‘proximate kamma’ (Asanna) for most beings. If the

habitual kamma (either good or bad) is sufficiently strong, it will define the time of death, and rebirth will then be more or less in keeping with one’s character or nature. Only if that fails and no strong


habits have been developed during one’s lifetime will the first thing that comes to one’s mind at the time of death come into play.147 The question of what

takes precedence is, as we have seen above, rather crucial for the individual at the time of death, as it will define the new bhava}ga, which in turn sets the tone for the future existence. But it seems that the question of what kamma comes to mind at the time of death is not merely a personal one but one

which has been discussed in Abhidhamma literature. Both the Visuddhimagga (601) and Abhidhammavatara (117) follow the order given above: weighty (garuka), habitual (bahula AciWWa), death-threshold or ‘proximate’ (Asanna) and finally (in the absence or the other three) kamma [stored up] or ‘performed’

(kaVattA). However, the Abhidhammatthasa\gaha (24) seems to give death-threshold or ‘proximate’ kamma (Asanna) precedence over habitual kamma (bahula AciWWa). This is acknowledged and illustrated by a rather nice simile in the Abhidhammatthavibhavincpc ka:


As when the gate of a cowpen full of cattle is opened, although there are steers and bulls behind, the animal close to the gate of the pen, even if it is a weak old cow, gets out first. Thus, even when there are other strong wholesome and unwholesome kammas, because of being close to the time of death, that

which is proximate gives its result first and is therefore given here first. (Gethin 1994, 21 n. 35; Abhidhammatthavibhavincpc ka 131) In giving precedence to ‘habitual’ kamma, the Visuddhimagga and Abhidhammavatara seem to advocate that it is one’s good or bad habits, one’s nature and, in

a way, the sum total of one’s good or bad deeds that carries the weight at the time of death. The Abhidhammatthasa\gaha and Abhidhammatthavibhavinc pc ka, on the other hand, in giving precedence to ‘proximate’ kamma, open the way for ‘out of character’ dispositions of mind at the time of death. To be sure, there is still a chance that habitually practised good or bad acts might also be the ones that feature at the time of death but precisely because they have

become second nature, it is no longer certain. There is a real possibility that a long life of good habits might be overridden by a bad thought process at the end, or vice versa (‘the weak old cow’ being in the right place at the right time).


Summary Even though the texts are not explicit, it seems to be the case that the concept of bhava}ga has been perceived at a later stage as serving as the carrier of the kammic blue print of a person, a ‘balance sheet’ to use Gethin’s term.148 However, this description does not tally with the stories of

unexpected and atypical rebirth (such as Mallika, Erakapatta), which precisely thrive on the fact that the quality of the next rebirth, and therefore the new bhava}ga,


is ‘out of character’. It is precisely this snapshot idea that is exploited as a narrative device to encourage (it is never too late) or to warn people

(you never know when death might strike). How does this relate to the contemporary Sri Lankan practice? Flowers, incense, chanting, etc., at the time of death may trigger the memory of, say, a visit to a Buddhist temple. As such it could provide an object of class (a) kamma or class (b) kamma-nimitta, and

would either come under the category of ‘habitual’ (for a religious person) or of ‘proximate’ kamma (someone remembers one visit to a temple). Here the need to help a dying relative or friend takes over and the rigid law of karmic retribution and the self-responsibility is pushed into the background.

Aspiring to or visualising a certain form of existence (‘rebirth according to one’s wish’) could be interpreted as an attempt to induce a certain kammic experience at the time of death. The bhava}ga/cuticitta/paVisandhi theory of the Abhidhamma gives authority to the notion of the importance of the last

moment of one’s life as determining the future rebirth, but this is not without problems. The tension between the desire to assist loved ones at the time of death and the rigid law of kamma is still there as reflected in the different orders of kammas.


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