If we understand kamma-vipaka as the process of creation and perpetuation of habitual volitional deeds, we can see that, in a living being, there's a medium through which behavioral information is stored and expressed: the nervous-system and its constituents. Information is stored through the reinforcement of synaptical conections. If we agree on that, it seems that there's no need for additional explanations for the arising and ceasing of behaviors.

How does this happens after the break-up of the body? How is information transferred from the last moment before death to the newborn? Does that information waits until the formation of the brain? Is it stored in the DNA?

Do the buddhist texts offer any clue to understand this process? Do you know something that could help me to understand this process?

I know DNA and the role of the nervous system are recently known and understood (at least in part) phenomena. I'd be happy to learn about any hypothesis or tentative explanation for this process.

I don't know if this question is a valid one for this site. If it's not, feel free to close it; I'd understand.

Thanks for your time and patience!

Kind regards!


4 Answers 4


I don't know but perhaps I read that later schools (i.e. early schools but later than the Pali suttas) developed the doctrine of "store-house consciousness" -- ālāyavijñāna in Sanskrit -- as an answer to this question (i.e. to explain the phenomenon):

... and finally the fundamental store-house consciousness (ālāyavijñāna), which is the basis of the other seven. This eighth consciousness is said to store the impressions (vāsanāḥ) of previous experiences, which form the seeds (bīja) of future karma in this life and in the next after rebirth.

Something like that has been mentioned a few times on this site: Posts containing 'alaya'

One of the comments to this question claimed that Buddhism is "exclusively an idealistic philosophy, and not materialistic at all" -- in any case I don't know how to understand "store-house consciousness" and whether it is or was seen as a physical/material "medium" (which your question was asking about).

I think the first five consciousnesses are involved in physicality, that the last three consciousness instead have the "mind" as their "cognitive sensor" -- the Wikipedia article translates the eighth as simply "memory", which perhaps isn't assumed to be entirely associated with one body or one person.

There's a book The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Skimming through it, I think it says that the Abhidhamma originally describes mental processes as being a series of moments (thought-moments), and as such it wasn't good at explaining how or what chains those moments together -- and it was for that purpose, i.e. to explain (or "model") that, for which one or two additional types of consciousness (translated as e.g. "memory") were added to Abhidhammic doctrine:

The text is claiming, in other words, that neither samsara nor Nirvana are explicable without the continuity of mind the alaya-vijñana epitomizes – explicating, in effect, the opening verse in MSg I.1:

“As this [alaya-vijñana] exists, so do all the destinies as well as the realization of Nirvana.”

And then

Karma, rebirth, and the alaya-vijñana

The sections called the action defilements (karma-sadkleka) (MSg I.33) and the birth defilements (janma-sadkleka) (MSg I.34–42) largely focus upon the processes of rebirth. These were conceptually problematic because the series of material dharmas is completely severed during these periods of transition from one lifetime to the next. The text addresses both such junctures within the traditional three-lifetime interpretation of the formula of dependent arising: those which occur between the karmic formations (sadskara) and vijñana, and between appropriation (upadana) and existence (bhava). Since vijñana was the only factor explicitly stated, in both the early Pali and Abhidharma traditions, to continue from one lifetime to the next, the continuities of all the factors that must “last as long as samsara” would have to persist in some kind of relationship with this ongoing stream of vijñana – at least at these crucial disjunctions. This much was shared by the various Abhidharma schools, though their explanations of the exact processes involved varied considerably.

MSg I.33, for its part, argues that this form of vijñana must be the alaya-vijñana:

I.33. For what reason would the defilements consisting of action (karmasadkleka) be impossible [if there were no alaya-vijñana]? Because there would be no consciousness conditioned by the sadskaras (sadskarapratyayam vijñanam). Without that [alaya-vijñana], existence (bhava) conditioned by appropriation (upadana) would also be impossible.
(MSg I.33)

(The "MSg" being cited is the Mahayana-sadgraha)

I think that's saying there's rebirth from one moment to the next within a person's life, then at a death the rebirth from one person to another.

I think previous questions on this site have been answered along the lines of, just that there isn't a law of nature which says that consciousness is bound to a specific body -- that saying so would be a materialist view.

  • 1
    Thank you Chris for such thorough answer. I'm choosing this answer as "the correct one" not because I think it's true or because it makes more sense to me, but because of its sources. I have no way of knowing (at least currently) whethet this is the truth or not. Thanks, again for this answer! Kind regards! Oct 4, 2019 at 2:18
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    IIRC in secondary school they taught in Physics class that descriptions of reality aren't exactly "true", that they are (per "philosophy of science") just "more-or-less good descriptions" -- for example "a photon is a particle" is kind of true, and conversely "a photon is a wave" is kind of true, and so on for every other "physical" description -- a description is a.k.a. a "model", and some models are "good" because they fit what's observed and make useful predictions.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 4, 2019 at 2:33
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    So maybe asking "whether this is the truth or not" is a bit too black-and-white -- perhaps we're meant to ask whether it's a useful theory (i.e. a useful description).
    – ChrisW
    Oct 4, 2019 at 2:34

Questions of King Milinda say, "it is nama-rupa that is reborn". When the King asks whether it is the same nama-rupa, Nagasena says, it is not the same, but this nama-rupa arises in causal continuity with the previous nama-rupa, and thus we talk about "rebirth".

Questions of King Milinda also compare rebirth to a memorized verse passing from one person to another, and to a flame passing from one lamp to another. It is clear that rebirth is about causal continuity and the passage of (some) information.

Japanese Zen patriarch Dogen explained that the underlying nature of mind is not separate from the underlying nature of the rest of material world. In numerous explanation in Zen and Vajrayana there is a rather clear consensus that the nature of mind are dynamically interacting relationships, both inside the person, and between the parts of the world.

So when we are talking about rebirth we are talking about continuity of interacting relationships implicitly "stored" or "encoded" in the fabric of activities happening in the world at large.

So the media that carries the karma after the break-up of the body is the world itself. People, things, activities, relationships carry the imprints of the previous existence into the next.

At least, this is my understanding.

  • Thanks Andrei! In your opinion, how can we connect this interpretation with the idea of arahanta being able to remember "past abodes" when attaining Nibbāna? Kind regards! Oct 3, 2019 at 19:09
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    I do not know ;)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 3, 2019 at 19:54
  • Thanks for the honesty. I really appreciate this. Have a wonderful day, dear Andrei. :) Oct 3, 2019 at 20:40
  • However, remember MN2, Sabbasava Sutta: "This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past?'", also MN131 Bhaddekaratta Sutta: "You shouldn't chase after the past …And how, monks, does one chase after the past? … 'In the past I had such a form (body)'... 'In the past I had such a feeling'... 'In the past I had such a perception'... 'In the past I had such a thought-fabrication'... 'In the past I had such a consciousness.' This is called chasing after the past. "
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 11, 2019 at 0:44
  • Also, in Salistamba Sutra: "Venerable Śāriputra, whoever sees with perfect wisdom this dependent arising, perfectly taught by the Bhagavān, as it actually is … such a person does not reflect on the past thinking, ‘Did I exist in the past, or not? What was I in the past? How was I in the past?’ Nor does such a person reflect on the future thinking … Whichever dogmas … whether they involve belief in a self, a being, a person … such dogmas … are all abandoned at that time. Fully understood as false, these dogmas are severed at the root and wither like the head of a palm tree, never to arise."
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 11, 2019 at 1:24

According to Buddhist teaching, Kamma is the field (hence Kamma itself is the medium) and the citta is the seed. As per Malinda Phanna, thre is no time delay between Citta.


How is information transferred from the last moment before death to the newborn? Does that information waits until the formation of the brain? Is it stored in the DNA?

I haven't seen anything explicitly mentioned in the Suttas, but there's the Abhidhamma's concept of rebirth-linking consciousness/patisandhiCitta which might have something to do with it. About the question of some sort of "storage medium" for kamma info, we don't know for sure if kamma is solely and exclusively stored in the physical/material nervous system that we know of. Afterall, the kind of "material" we know of only takes up ~ 4.5% of all the stuff out there in the universe. What if its store in some combination of dark matter/dark energy which until this day continues to elude all scientific instruments. Dark matter is so subtle that it simply goes right through our bodies and all measuring instruments without leaving any trace! And then there's the possibility of inter-body kamma manifests instantaneously without resorting to info. travel through the speed of light, kinda like the phenomenon of quantum entanglement and its "spooky action at a distance" in modern physics. Obviously all this seem like those forest leaves the Buddha didn't tell us...:-)

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