According to the Pali Canon, how are intentions and habits passed on from one existence to another without any material support? What do the texts tell us about rebirth and the transference of these material phenomena into inmaterial phenomena, and the back to material ones?

More specifically, how is kamma transmitted from one life to the next. If we consider 'kamma' as intention and habits, how are these transfered from a brain which, as you observed, is destroyed and dissolved after the breakup of the body? Aren't intention and habits a function emerging form the conjuncted activity of brain cells?

Thanks in beforehand.

  • What do you mean by "transference of these material phenomena into inmaterial phenomena". Are you asking if the body of this life goes to next life? The body rots and become soil and dust. It goes nowhere! Or are you simply asking how the mind and body in this life result in the mind and body in the next left? Nov 21, 2018 at 17:36
  • Thanks for your time and patience! I'm asking about how kamma is transmitted from one life to the next. If we consider 'kamma' as intention and habits, how are these transfered from a brain which, as you observed, is destroyed and dissolved after the breakup of the body? Nov 21, 2018 at 17:47
  • Could you update the question with that? "If we consider 'kamma' as intention and habits, how are these transferred from a brain to next life when the brain is going to rot?" Nov 21, 2018 at 18:09

5 Answers 5


To understand this you need a complete paradigm shift in the way you are thinking. Stop looking at the world in terms of entities. Drop everything that you think is real involving entities and start looking at the world in terms of experiences arising and dying. In this world you have six types of experiences: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling(tactile) and thinking. You have firsthand knowledge that arising of these experiences is real because they can be sensed. Once you make this paradigm shift, you will understand that the brain is not an experience. The brain cannot be sensed. It is nothing more than a concept fabricated in a thought. No direct knowledge can be gained by building theories based on fabrications. So the question of what happens to the mind when the brain is dead does not arise as it doesn't exist in the first place.

Karma is not a thing that is transmitted anywhere. Karma is simply the volitional action involved in each experience. That volitional action dies with the experience. But it can give a result immediately or in the future. You need to do Satipatthana meditation to see this happening. Ex: if a pleasurable experience arises and you get attached to it, suffering follows when it dies. This is the immediate Vipaka(result) of the Karma you just committed. In the future also if you cannot get this experience, suffering will arise. This attachment also creates a habit of doing things to get similar experiences. This gives rise to new experiences involving fresh Karma.

It is impossible to understand the complete dynamics of Karma unless you become a Buddha yourself, but when you start looking at the world through meditation, you will see that this continuous arising of experiences goes on and on until you cut off what is fueling them to arise. I.e. craving. Even though we do not have complete comprehension, this understanding of Karma is enough to work towards ending of suffering.

In this framework, the medical definition of death becomes just another concept involving entities. You will see that as long as there is craving, the arising of new experiences will never stop. Once the thought pattern makes this paradigm shift, questions like how the mind is transferred to a new body after death etc. do not arise as there is no constant thing called the 'mind' and there is no constant thing called the 'body'. The reality is made up continuous arising of experiences. These experiences have a physical aspect and a mental aspect. They arise due to causes. Read the Paticcasamuppada to get an intellectual understanding and do Satipatthana meditation for direct knowledge.


If person A tells person B a message, person B then gets this message, understands it and remembers what he understood of it. But we cannot say that this message was physically transferred from A to B. All that was physically transferred were movements of air molecules as sound waves. The message was conceptually transferred and not physically transferred. The message is a conceptual entity and not a physical entity. We also cannot say that the message that B had and the message that A had are exactly identical, because B might have understood the message slightly differently. Also, we are able to trace the history of the transmission of the message, for e.g. from A to B to C etc.

Also, similar is the transfer of a flame from one candle to another. Physically, the heat from one burning candle ignited another candle's wick, causing it to start burning. But we cannot say that the flame itself transferred from one candle to another. The flame here as something that moves from one candle to another is again a conceptual entity and not a physical entity. We created the concept of the flame. In physics, it's simply plasma emitting from a burning wick. As the candle burns, the plasma ions get replaced. There is no single physical entity as the flame. The flame from one candle is also not identical to the flame of another candle that it ignited. We can also trace the history of transmission of the flame from one candle to another. So, the transfer of the flame from one candle to another is also a conceptual transfer and not a physical transfer.

So too is "rebirth" in Buddhism. It's not a physical rebirth or physical transfer, but a conceptual rebirth or conceptual transfer. Similarly what a "being" or "person" or "self" is, are also concepts. If person C is reborn and now becomes person D, person D and person C are not exactly the same, yet not completely different, just like the message that transferred from A to B. And it is possible through attainments of meditation, to trace the history of transmission from C to D.

Instead of using the term "rebirth", I prefer to say that suffering or dukkha continues beyond physical death, and that suffering or dukkha is only ended by Nibbana, and not ended by physical death.

  • 1
    Very good. Conceptual transfer, or as I say, information.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 22, 2018 at 13:40
  • @ruben2020 Hi! So, could one say that from a "single" individual ("single", if we considered "an individual" as the causal sequence of states of some khandas, from birth from the womb, to death at the cease of vital functions), multiple "rebirths" are possible, since one can influence on many people during one lifetime? I'm not sure if I've explained myself clearly enough. Kind regards! Sep 23, 2020 at 14:55
  • @ruben2020 I have one more question: based on the same ideas as before, could we also say that "rebirth" is possible even when the one "generating" the influence still lives? Sep 23, 2020 at 15:13
  • @BrianDíazFlores Yes. The Abhidhamma view appears to be that of a moment to moment rebirth of one's personhood (idea of the self), and at no two moments is one exactly the same. At each moment, the mind generates new or different states of mind, dependently originated. Just like a river that appears to be single but each time you step into it, it's different from the other times that you've stepped into it - the water molecules and other characteristics of it have changed (e.g. flow rate, temperature, pH, sedimentation, number of fish etc.).
    – ruben2020
    Sep 24, 2020 at 15:21

Aren't intention and habits a function emerging form the conjuncted activity of brain cells?

I haven't ran across any Sutta that says Nama (name or immateriality like feeling, perception, mental formation) are properties that emerge out of Rupa (form or materiality). In Buddhism, the Five Aggregates can be said as operating together, but it'd be invalid to say that the mental part arises or "emerge" out of the material part. A crude analogy is like electricity and the light bulb. While the operation of various light bulb components allow for the manifestation of electricity, it'd be invalid to say that electricity "emerges" out of the light bulb. Another example is the radio wave and the physical radio. Its components allows the manifestation of sound and music, but it'd be invalid to say that the radio "creates" the sound and music. It's due to this certain degree of independence between Name and Rupa that makes it's possible for the Kammic stream to carry on from life to life.

  • Thank you for your time. My problem with these explanations is that they seem to be justified just by the analogies. In bulb simile, the electricity is the flow of electrons through the wires, but electrons and wires exist independently. Does that happens with nama-rupa? Do they both exist independent one of the other? Nov 21, 2018 at 23:35
  • Even by assuming nama-rupa are inter-dependent, the key point is that there's still a degree of independence (ie. one does not "emerge" out of the other) that makes it possible for Kamma to go on. If there's absolutely Zero independence, it'd be impossible for Kamma to operate as it is (ie. the Kammic stream automatically terminates at the end of a person's life, which is obviously not what the Suttas say). Without this light bulb, electricity can always manifest in a different light bulb.
    – santa100
    Nov 21, 2018 at 23:38

To phrase traditional Mahayana understanding in modern words, Mind and tendencies ("samskara" & "karma") are not "inside" the brain, instead they are media-independent informational/causational phenomena.

They exist "in" and underlie the very fabric of material processes at all organizational levels (dhatu).

Human beings, as well as inanimate objects, and also group entities, and other biological and social phenomena, serve as media or carriers or agents for the informational processes spanning many such carriers (as e.g. brains, books, computers) across space and time.

Mind is not "inside", matter/energy and information/mind are two sides of the same coin. I claim that this is the traditional perspective of Mahayana, whether many active practitioners can articulate it like this or not.

Intention and habits do not "originate" from the brain cells of course. They exist as latent tendencies in the realm of information and manifest via action mediated by a living organism with a brain (usually) or sometimes by other means at other organizational levels.

  • I think I get your point. But I'm not saying intention and tendencies are inside the brain, but rather that from certain group of brain cells working in a specific way emerges the function of kamma. It's like saying that the extension of the elbow is a function that appear thanks to the cojointed work of the triceps and the articulated bones of the arm. Saying that the flexion of the elbow lies independently of the anatomical parts mentioned is a strange way to put it. Nov 22, 2018 at 4:20
  • That's because we're stuck in the habit of materialism. But in the information-first perspective it is understood that mind (information) is the forerunner of action (karma) and that the chain of information does not start in the brain.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 22, 2018 at 10:18
  • Thanks for your time. I'm asking this because I'm honestly curious, not to be rude: why should I abandon materialism when it has shown to tell us most of the things we bear as knowledge of the world? If this view is (the one of letting go materialism) so clear to the buddhist trainee, why do everyone seem to have different opinions (even monks with years of training) on this topic? Nov 22, 2018 at 13:09
  • For an alternative to materialism, try reading Pierce or any of the modern philosophers of semiotics studying Peircean approach to cosmogony. Your mind will be blown! There's a whole different way of looking at reality that we are only beginning to tap into in the West. There's a nice collection of essays published by Springer in 2014 called "Pierce and Semiotics. A guess at the Riddle of Life".
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 22, 2018 at 13:23
  • 1
    I started reading about Peirce a few months ago, and you were right: my mind was blown. Now I understand (in general) most of your answers. Buddhism and peircean philosophy complement each other almost perfectly; they explain the same phenomena only changing words and concepts, but underneath them lies -apparently- very similar world-views. I'm really thankful for this recommendation. Kind regards! Aug 2, 2019 at 4:23

The texts say nothing because "rebirth" in original Buddhism does not mean "reincarnation". "Rebirth" means the "re-arising" of "self-belief" based on acts of kamma and their results.

The original Buddhist scriptures say mind cannot exist without a material body:

Were someone to say, 'I will describe a coming, a going, a passing away, an arising, a growth, an increase, or a proliferation of consciousness apart from form (materiality), from feeling, from perception, from fabrications,' that would be impossible.

SN 22.53

It's good, monks, that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in this way, for in many ways I have said of dependently co-arisen consciousness, 'Apart from a requisite condition, there is no coming-into-play of consciousness.'

Consciousness, monks, is classified simply by the requisite condition in dependence on which it arises. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the eye & forms is classified simply as eye-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the ear & sounds is classified simply as ear-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the nose & aromas is classified simply as nose-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the tongue & flavors is classified simply as tongue-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the body & tactile sensations is classified simply as body-consciousness. Consciousness that arises in dependence on the intellect & ideas is classified simply as intellect-consciousness.

MN 38

Very well then, Kotthita my friend, I will give you an analogy; for there are cases where it is through the use of an analogy that intelligent people can understand the meaning of what is being said. It is as if two sheaves of reeds were to stand leaning against one another. In the same way, from mind-&-body as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes mind-&-body.

SN 12.67

The four great elements, bhikkhu, are the cause and condition for the manifestation of the body aggregate.... Mind-and-body is the cause and condition for the manifestation of the consciousness aggregate.

SN 22.82

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