The concept of Kamma implies that information is stored in the mind (not the brain) and after the being is dead, this mind (or this data "storage") goes on and carries with it the current position of all accumulated Kamma from many previous life.

This clearly creates some scientific questions such as: Where is the information stored if there is no physical "hardware"? How does this information flows? How a new being receives it and change its body accordingly (Imagine a Kamma-Vipaka of a disease for a new born or not having a member)? Etc...

Many people will answer that these doubts represent a fetter and will not help you in the practice, so just forget about it, however I know many Buddhists have great scientific background and could help here.

Is there any detailed description, maybe Abidhamma, of this process of Kamma/information flow? Has anyone ever tried to shed a light on this topic?

  • 1
    I don't know how you come to the identify "karma" and "information in the mind". Other explanations are easily possible, for instance just "imprints" (for instance behaviroual or cultural) in the social environment of a person. Also "epigenetics" comes into mind. If you want express the Buddha's reservation (against allowing/proposing speculation about "kamma") in contemporary scientific lingo, one might say, that the data/pattern/consequences of that "imprints" are way too complex to be analyzed (think alone the difficulties of statistical analysis of economical or climatic data!) Mar 3 '15 at 4:46
  • Maybe related to your question: "How should i understand “Stored up kamma”?".
    – user2424
    Aug 13 '15 at 2:35

The concept of Kamma implies that information is stored in the mind

No, it does not! Information and storage are concepts. Not realities! The issue here is, we make the assumption that for causes to give an effect in the future, something needs to persist in the interim. When you commit a Kamma, the action is done and finished then and there. There's nothing stored. To give an analogy, take a stick and hold it at one end with your left hand and tap at the other end with your right. Your left hand will feel the vibration. But did any molecule travel from right to left? No! It's just that when the molecules at the place you tapped vibrate, the adjacent molecules start vibrating and then the ones next to them and so on. Then we make a concept out of it and call it a wave. But there's no wave in reality! The first molecule vibrated and stopped. It didn't go anywhere. Similarly, Kamma is also a concept given to describe a certain causes and effect process. There's nothing going from this life to the next or this moment to the next.

  • Good answer, though a little over zealous maybe cos the OP could have meant "stored" in a metaphorical sense
    – user2512
    Mar 3 '15 at 4:50
  • 2
    "This clearly creates some scientific questions such as: Where is the information stored if there is no physical hardware?" - That doesn't sound like he meant it in a metaphorical sense. Mar 3 '15 at 13:05
  • I've deleted these comments. Comments shouldn't be used for extended debate and be restricted to clarfications. Meta or chat can always be used for extended debate (chat really but meta for wider issues). Please let me know if you disagree with this action (on meta or chat again). Thanks Sep 8 '15 at 6:30
  • @SankhaKulathantille - I really like your scientific analogy about the stick. But I am struck by the firm certitude with which you speak of Karma. You seem to be rubbishing the entire concept of reincarnation. I am broadly in agreement with your stand, but then you seem to be going against Buddhism's dead-serious (pardon the pun) belief in stories of The Bodhisattva's various animal avatars, and the Dalai Lama's next rebirth etc. So a little clarification here, please? Sep 9 '15 at 17:20
  • @KrishnarajRao There's no conflict with the Bodhisatta teaching. Cultivating Paramitha in Samsara is like a seed becoming a big tree over a period of time. Was there a tree inside the seed in the first place? No! Is there any cell of the original seed remaining in the tree? No! The tree is merely a result of a causes and effects process which started from the seed. Avatar is a Hindu concept and Dalai Lama is Vajrayana. Sep 9 '15 at 17:47

"To a large extent, abhidharma thought is a systematization of the doctrine of karma"

-- Hirakawa akira

So, in this sense, an Abidhamma itself is your "detailed description" [of a particular kamma theory].


I don't know if this has been described in science, but I doubt it.

The closest description I can find is this:

The following article in Wired last year discusses the dependency between entities at a macro level based on quantum entanglement and the arrow of time:

In the new story of the arrow of time, it is the loss of information through quantum entanglement, rather than a subjective lack of human knowledge, that drives a (hot) cup of coffee into equilibrium with the surrounding room. The room eventually equilibrates with the outside environment, and the environment drifts even more slowly toward equilibrium with the rest of the universe. The giants of 19th century thermodynamics viewed this process as a gradual dispersal of energy that increases the overall entropy, or disorder, of the universe. Today, Lloyd, Popescu and others in their field see the arrow of time differently. In their view, information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely. So, they assert, although entropy increases locally, the overall entropy of the universe stays constant at zero.

“The universe as a whole is in a pure state,” Lloyd said. “But individual pieces of it, because they are entangled with the rest of the universe, are in mixtures.”

The above statement that "information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely" resonates with Buddha's middle way teachings for e.g. the discussion of what happens when a person dies. He does not have a permanent soul that transmigrates, according to the Buddha. The newly born person is also not the same person as the one that died, yet not completely independent. However, the "information" is not completely lost and it reappears to a certain extent in the newly born person. This is a middle path between eternalism and annihilationism. There is a description of this in the Acela Sutta and some discussion in an answer to another question. Of course, this part is only my conjecture and rebirth is not described by science.

So, the article from Wired discusses that there is no eternalism (no independent particle and no independent cup of hot coffee), yet there is also no annihilationism ("information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely"). It also says that everything is interdependent (“The universe as a whole is in a pure state but individual pieces of it, because they are entangled with the rest of the universe, are in mixtures"). More detailed quotes from the Wired article in another answer.

  • Best not to borrow the language or concepts of quantum physics, astrophysics etc. to conjecture about Buddhist concepts like rebirth etc. Words like "information", "interdependence", "universe" and "annihilation" make it sound like one may discuss astrophysics in the same breath as Buddhism, but really, one shouldn't yield to such temptation. Because that's like cheerfully tying our left and right shoelaces together, saying, "Hey, they are both shoelaces!" Nope, doesn't work. Sep 9 '15 at 18:24
  • Quantum physics is not like the rest of science. It's rather weird. Einstein described quantum entanglement as "spooky action at a distance" and hated it. The Theravada definition of rebirth involves "pausing" of consciousness in one birth and instantly "resuming" in another birth in the same or different realms. That's very much "spooky action at a distance" too. And Buddhism too is not like other religions. It says that absolutely everything physical and non-physical (except Nirvana) is interdependent or linked. So, by that definition, claims of Buddhist theory borders on physical phenomena.
    – ruben2020
    Sep 10 '15 at 0:25

Yeah I too doubt that there's any science of rebirth in the sense of a flame lighting another torch.

I would actually find it quite depressing if there were. It's a much better metaphor on the gradualism of enlightenment IMHO.

I wouldn't be that surprised if there something on a sort of inheriting of characteristics, that isn't explicable in our normal world view - causal processes that we haven't yet identified in science.

Still minds are unaffected by mental events so maybe their effects go elsewhere; maybe this even works however the mediator is behaving. I mean It seems obvious to me that habits can have physical or real manifestations that have effects even without them creating any actual dispositions in the actor so the question is just: can meditation change our habits without changing our dispositions. If so then that's a real change that leaves us completely unchanged - so must change someone else.

And if meditators can have effects on others independent of action, then why not everyone. This is only some kind of crazy mind reading if it is deliberate or rule based.


This is a very good question that has been answered particularly poorly in the past. The concept of karma in the early Buddhist texts does indeed imply persistence of an effect long after the condition is ceases - in our terms storage of a memory somewhere or other. And dependent arising forbids any effect to outlive the cessation of its conditions.

In my informal (as yet unpublished) writing on this I have referred to this problem as the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. I discovered this problem independently, while study the writings of Prof Collett Cox on Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma texts. However I subsequently discovered that Nāgārjuna has also complained about this in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati
// MMK 17.6 //

If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit? [My translation]

Nāgārjuna's response was to argue that all the components: agent, action, maturation, fruit, sufferer were all "like illusions" - ie. because of śūnyatā these entities have only relative and not ultimate existence. Karma only operates at the conventional level.

Now the Theravādins chose to respond to this one way: They proposed that each short lived citta that arose as a vipāka also became a kamma that was a condition for another identical citta. This introduced a number of other problems, chief amongst was how to account for moments when there was no apparent citta - such as deep sleep, experiences of cessation (nirodhasamāpatti), and (of course) death. To solve this they invented the bhavaṅgacitta to bridge the gap. The Theravādin view was only relevant in Sri Lanka and South East Asia.

The Vaibhāṣikas went about dealing the problem in an entirely different way. They reasoned that if a vipāka could be experienced in the future then the cause (hetu) must still exist as a condition in the future. And similarly for past karmas that we experience in the present. This earned them the nickname Sarvāstivādins because they believed that dharma always (sarva) exist (asti). The Sarvāstivādin view dominated North India and in China.

The Sautrāntikas opted for a similar approach in the form of a metaphor. Karma, they argued, was like a seed. The rice seed grows into a rice plant, but there is no direct connection from one to the other. This is an argument that karma is a "natural" process. Of course such metaphors are superficially pleasing, but explain nothing.

The Sautrāntika version was taken up by Vasubandhu and proposed as the solution to Action at a Temporal Distance in his Abhidharmakośa and it's autocommentary the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (incidentally this is also the only extant source for the Sautrāntika view). And this became the Yogācāra view as well. Yogācāra exegetes did two things. They invented the alāyavijñāna as the repository of karma "seeds" and they reified the metaphor taking these images as facts. This version of karma overtook Nāgārjuna and became the standard Mahāyāna version.

Links above are to a series of essays I wrote on this problem that will also appear in my forthcoming book on Karma & rebirth.

Now unfortunately for us moderns, none of these proposed solutions really solves the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. Karma cannot work with dependent arising. The ancients actually knew about this and we have their records of trying to fix the problem, but innovation simply stopped at some point and most of the theories died with the decline of Buddhism in India.

Discussion of this major problem in Buddhist doctrine simply ceased. The Theravādins retreated into formalism - an uncritical acceptance of whatever Buddhaghosa said and are leading the world in the production of apologetics for karma and rebirth. Similarly in the rest of the world the Mainstream became Mahāyāna and the Yogācāra view was taken on uncritically. The spirit of inquiry and problem solving simply went out of Buddhism and has yet to resurface in any major way. Regrettably not even academics seem to engage critically with Buddhist doctrine - they are in love with Buddhism it seems and reluctant to critique it. So while we get ever more refined views of history we see very little in the way of disagreement with the views in Buddhist texts - despite the fact that Buddhists of an earlier age are on record and thinking many of them demonstrably wrong.

  • Persistence is a concept. So is memory. None of them require rupa or cittas to stay without ceasing. So I don't see a conflict with Paticcasamuppada. Sep 7 '15 at 11:41
  • (1/3) Speaking of metaphors, my preferred one is that of sound: how do sounds spread? Each air wave raises the surrounding air in a new wave, and so on. Each wave raises and dies, still its effects persist till the sound ceases. Many waves sum up their effects, so the final timbre enjoys all the single wavelet contributions. So, in reference to your blog post (really interesting, thank you) those wavelets would not perish "as a water drop [which] loses its identity if it falls into the ocean"; instead think of additive sound synthesis: each drop gives a "tone" to the final citta, ...
    – robermann
    Sep 10 '15 at 13:56
  • (2/3) which then "ripen" in a sound quality (vipaka). That would be a sort of "cummulative conditionality" which saves morality. Furthermore your thought experiment ("I can kill this kitten and, as long as I make appropriate offerings to the monks, I can still come out ahead") is not workable, because of course nobody knows the respective "weight" of each action. Anyway wouldn't a Buddhist agree that a moment of kusala citta is better than many akusala citta?
    – robermann
    Sep 10 '15 at 13:57
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    (3/3) Buddha himself said: "Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live as hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things".
    – robermann
    Sep 10 '15 at 13:57

I believe we are coming closer to an answer to this question Daly. The double slit experiment shows us that are mere perceptions actually determine the property of matter. Thus we find our tie between the physical world and the world of consciousness. But we also see evidence of this in the current multiple universe theory where in all probabilities exists around us and the universe we encounter is the one that follows our choices and Karma.

I believe these choices and the resultant Karma may actually have a physical component in the quantum world and this may be the source of consternation regarding rebirth. What happens to the chain of events created by our choices or probabilities we have affected if our body passes way before we may be affected by them? According to the Hindus and some Buddhists this is the source of rebirth. That is if we die with a karmic imbalance or resultant then it must somehow be played out in another life.

I am in the process of studying The Vedas and the upanishads as well as the dhammapada and comparing them two modern scientific theories regarding consciousness. I believe at this point we may find a scientific basis to support the original philosophies of Eastern mysticism from 4000 years ago.


"The concept of Kamma implies that information is stored in the mind (not the brain) and after the being is dead, this mind (or this data "storage") goes on and carries with it the current position of all accumulated Kamma from many previous life."

Correct. Here you are explaining the concept of the soul existing and travelling from body to a new body after death.

"Where is the information stored if there is no physical "hardware"?"


How could that be?

"Information" is just a mere concept.

"Store" is just a mere concept.

"Soul" is just a mere concept.

EVERYTHING is just a dream ... an echo ... not truth.

Information is never ever stored. It's just a dream ... an echo ... not truth.

"How does this information flows?"

It does not flow.


EVERYTHING is just a dream ... an echo ... not truth.

"How a new being receives it and change its body accordingly?"

By not knowing the truth a new being receives it and changes its body accordingly.

What truth?

EVERYTHING is just a dream ... an echo ... not truth.

By not knowing the truth, volition arises and after it, everything else arises ... the mind, body and universe.

"Imagine a Kamma-Vipaka of a disease for a new born or not having a member"


And who/what is the cause of the Kamma-Vipaka of a disease of a new born?

Not knowing the truth, a being is born in such a future destiny striken by disease after being born.

Not knowing the truth leads to suffering.

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