Monday, April 1, 2013

Last Thought Moment


While the Buddha understood the mind  to be a ‘flow’ or ‘stream’ of mental events (vinnanasota), later abhidhamma thinkers speculated that it was actually a string of individual thought moments (cittavithi) arising and passing away at great rapidity. Later still, the theory developed that the last thought moment (cuticitta) a person has before they die will determine their next life. This idea, a part of Theravada orthodoxy, seems to be an unjustified development of the Buddha’s teachings and at odds with his idea of kamma  and the efficacy of morality.
The theory of the importance of the last thought moment is not mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses or even in the later Abhidhamma Pitaka.  The Tipitaka records many occasions where the Buddha counselled people who were either dying or critically ill. If the last thought is really crucial to one’s destiny one would expect such occasions to be the most appropriate time for him to mention it, and yet there is no record of him ever having done so.   Nor did he mention it anywhere else. Mahanama once confided to the Buddha his anxiety about dying at a time when his mind was distressed and confused, thinking it might result in him having a bad rebirth. The Buddha reassured him that because he had for a long time developed faith, virtue, learning, renunciation and wisdom, he had nothing to fear if such a thing should happen (S.V,369).

The theory of the importance of the supposed last thought moment first appears in an undeveloped form in the Milandapanha (aprox. 1st century CE but with parts still being added in the 2/3rd centuries CE) which says: ‘If someone did unskilful things for a hundred years but at the time of death was mindful for one moment of the Buddha, he would be reborn amongst the gods’ (Mil.80). By the time the Visuddhamagga was composed, this apocryphal idea had been worked out in detail and had come to be considered orthodox (Vism.458-60). Apart from not having been taught by the Buddha, there are several philosophical, ethical and logical problems with the theory that the last thought moment is the deciding factor in one’s circumstances in the next life.
If a person had lived a relatively good life but in the anxiety and confusion just preceding their death they have some negative thoughts they would, according to this theory, have a bad rebirth. Likewise, one could have lived an immoral and dissolute life but pass away with ease and in peace and, therefore, have an advantageous rebirth. This negates the whole idea of kamma, the teaching that the sum total of our intentional thoughts, speech and actions conditions our future, both in this life and the next. Further, it is very difficult to understand how just one or two thought moments, each of a millisecond long (khana), can cancel out perhaps many years of good or evil thoughts, speech and actions. This theory also fails to take into account causation. If everything is conditioned, and the Buddha taught that it is, then the last thought moment must be conditioned by the second last thought moment which in turn must be conditioned by the third last thought moment, etc. This means what we are thinking, saying and doing right now will have an impact on what is in our minds at the time we die. Therefore, to emphasise the last thought moment is to give exaggerated significance to the effect and neglect the cause, i.e. how one is living here and now. The theory of the last thought moment does not fit well with other things the Buddha taught. For example, he said (A.II,80) that trying to work out the subtle and interconnected workings of kamma (kammavipaka) would send one mad (ummada). And yet the Visuddhimagga describes in extraordinarily minute detail what supposedly happens in the mind just before death, the past kamma that makes it happen and the kammic consequences it will have in the next life. The Buddha’s comment that thinking about the intricacies of kamma can cause madness should also make one cautious of the Visuddhimaggas theorizing. 
The descriptions of the mind contained in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and its commentaries are sometimes helpful and certainly very sophisticated, considering the period in which they were written. However, they are also speculative, sometimes overly mechanistic and simplistic and occasionally downright wrong. This being so, it is important to distinguish between what the Buddha taught and the ideas that developed from his teachings in the succeeding centuries

9 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. It has been the subject of discussion in our sangha many times. Your post really helps to provide clarity.

Branko said...

"The Buddha’s comment that thinking about the intricacies of kamma can cause madness should also make one cautious of the Visuddhimagga’s theorizing."

Very good advice, Bhante :)

Metta

reasonable said...

Having read a famous late Thai Theravada monk's teaching on how to "cheat" by having the correct mind at the last moment of death, I was having similar questions raised in Bhante's blog. Hence I am glad this issue was addressed here. Very well-explained and supported.

brahmavihara said...

Hi all and thanks Bhante for another challenging post. I think your conclusions about the last thought at or about one's death are probably correct and I think the best way to understand it is to pose it's corollary. What is our first thought or thought moment? Seems to me that many cannot remember before the age of five even though the thought processes and the activities of the five aggregates have been pretty much business as usual for years before. I was watching a documentary about how much of one's physical and mental health during later life are at least influenced in utero. They posted a longitudinal study from of all places Mumbai in India to prove that volitional and emotional, perceptive and conscious activities were at work not only conditioned by the mother but also independant of the mother of the unborn infant. If not many of us can remember before age four or five, then only a very few can recall before this age and very, very few can recall in utero experiences. I propose that the last thought moment is probably unlocateable even in cases of sudden death for the simple reason is that there is no first or last thought. It's just business as usual for the five aggregates 24/7 wether its the apprehension of imminent death or the approaching trauma of birth, those who overcome all the fetters are unruffled by change. "to sleep, perchance to dream" for the rest of us.

Soe am i said...

Dear Bhante,

I see how you have pointed out that logically it does not go with what the buddha emphasised about kamma. It may be for some buddhist thinkers they take the logical leap that a last thought condition if strong enough will allow for a pleasant rebirth but all the collected negative kamma will still manifest in the future lives as conditions align.

However even this logic seems incredulous, that last(even last few) thought's ability to temporarily ward off past kamma. It would be akin to building a temporary dam even as the flooded river(of kamma) rages on.

Ariyakumara said...

Dear Bhante,

I think you forget about MN 136 Mahakammavibhanga Sutta which discussed about how: the evil-doer who goes to hell (or some other low state of birth), the evil-doer who goes to heaven, the good man who goes to heaven, and the good man who goes to hell (or other low birth).

Here I copied some text from the sutta:

15. (i) "Now, Ananda, there is the person who has killed living beings here... has had wrong view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.[7] But (perhaps) the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him earlier, or the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him later, or wrong view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death.[8] And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell. But since he has killed living beings here... has had wrong view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence.

16. (ii) "Now there is the person who has killed living beings here... has had wrong view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.[9] But (perhaps) the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him earlier, or the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him later, or right view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in a happy destination, in the heavenly world. But since he has killed living beings here... has had wrong view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence.[10]

17. (iii) "Now there is the person who has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.[11] But (perhaps) the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him earlier, or the good kamma producing his happiness was done by him later, or right view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in a happy destination, in the heavenly world. But since he has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence.

18. (iv) "Now there is the person who has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view. And on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell.[12] But (perhaps) the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him earlier, or the evil kamma producing his suffering was done by him later, or wrong view was undertaken and completed by him at the time of his death. And that was why, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappeared in the states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell. But since he has abstained from killing living beings here... has had right view, he will feel the result of that here and now, or in his next rebirth, or in some subsequent existence.[13]

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.136.nymo.html

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ariyakumara, thanks for the quote. I had not forgotten this sutta or other related ones. But if you read my post again you will see that I say am looking at the mechanics of rebirth, how it actually takes place, rather than rebirth destinies.

Alessandro S. said...

I already liked a previous post of yours about the Abidhamma and how one is to doubt it reports the Buddha's utterances (http://sdhammika.blogspot.it/2008/06/buddha-didnt-go-to-heaven.html). This one further confirms the views that one of the most revered books of "the Buddha's teaching" is actually the product of minds more prone at philosophical speculation than the cultivation of the Path. I remember a sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya, "The Peg" (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn20/sn20.007.than.html):

"In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won't listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won't lend ear, won't set their hearts on knowing them, won't regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

"In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.

Unknown said...

Dear Bhante,


With all respect, I have to say that the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta seems to contradict your key point -- that what the Buddha himself taught is at odds with the idea that the final moment of life is of pivotal importance. This is not to blindly accept the mechanics of the process given in the Visuddhimagga. I think your suggestion that somehow one's kammas are all summed up at the end of life and that one's rebirth is determined accordingly is at odds with what the Buddha states in the sutra. It is readily observable in our lives that the fruits of kamma take time to mature and it may well take many lives for bad kammas to bring their results. In the grand scheme of things one life is but a few moments and trying to see the logic and "justice" of the law of kamma in the context of a single life is probably vain. The emphasis on the final moment of one life stems from the fact that it is considered to condition the first moment of the subsequent life, and the Buddhas delineation in the sutta clearly points to this.

Sincerely, Gulab