I am looking for an explanation for my wife about what happens during the dying-death-rebirth cycle according to Buddhist teachings as well as any background readings we can locate.

I was explaining the mourning period after the death of a loved one being based on the average time before rebirth (49 days in Vietnamese tradition), and she had made reference to some reading she had been doing that mentioned the phases that must be passed before a rebirth takes place.

I also recall a teaching by Thich Nguyen Tang that explained the 6 possible states in which a person can be reborn (heaven, human life, asura, hungry ghost, animal, hell).

Is there a unified explanation that exists between the various traditions?

  • Not entirely sure if a unified explanation exists. Since there is a close vote, maybe try asking (in separate questions) "What is the average time before rebirth?" and "What are the different realms?" You will probably get answers with different perspectives based on different traditions.
    – user70
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 19:21
  • This might have an answer if you restrict it to one sort of tradition, or one text, e.g. the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which describes moving thorugh Bardo) Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 20:16

2 Answers 2


In the Pali scriptures there are two theories of the process of re-birth with differing prominence.

The standard view is an elaboration of the chain of dependent origination Pratītyasamutpāda/Paṭiccasamuppāda, where this process happens according to most stand-points, including the abhidhammic, between the elements 2 and 3 - saṅkhāra and viññāna. Three conditions need to come together for a woman to become pregnant and bear a child:

  1. her womb
  2. the semen of a man
  3. the consciousness of a dying person

Combined these three result in the consciousness of a new person and then (number 4) also in a psychophysical entity (still in the womb). Compare for this the Mahanidanasutta of DN.

The other view is that of something of a spirit of the deceased, called gandhabba, that wanders around searching for a locus of rebirth. This is a more 'popular' conception of rebirth and it seems to lie behind the prescribed number of days you mention. I don't recall the scriptural reference for this, it would be great, if anyone could supply that.

Not to mix things up, the states you mention are the six gatis, realms of rebirth, compare my answer here: Is there an equivalent of heaven and hell in Buddhism? for more information and a source.

More or less there should be these two conceptions in all of the traditions, the first one being more scientific, the second one more popular and - if I may add - in this form totally not to be reconciled with 'scientific Buddhism'.

EDIT: The Pudgalavāda or Vatsīputrīya school of Hīnayāna-buddhism claimed that when a person dies, this very person becomes some sort of "intermediate being" - upapāduka sattva - until that person is reborn.


In the Theravada tradition, when one dies, he/she is reborn immediately. There's no gap between death and birth. I think this confusion comes becauses of the stories about people floating around, looking for a suitable womb, after death. But those beings who float around can still see and hear. That means they have a body with functional senses. So they are born already into a new existence.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .