11 July 2014

The Antarabhava or Interim State as a Vitalist Concept

Soon after I became involved in the Triratna Movement (the FWBO as was) in 1994, I remember speaking to one of the Dharmacārins about my experience with my father's corpse three years earlier (I mentioned this in my earlier essay on the Life's Breath). In response to my observation that "there was something missing" from Dad's corpse, he replied that what was missing was "consciousness". In retrospect its not at all clear what he meant by that. However, like many of my (now) colleagues in the Order he was particularly influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Tödröl (TBOTD). The TBOTD is openly Vitalist and it is "consciousness" that makes the passage through the bardo. Consciousness is in scare-quotes because I'm not entire sure what is meant and going on early Buddhist ideas it cannot be vijñāna, even though I suspect that it's vijñāna that is meant. In all early Buddhist models vijñāna is an event rather than an entity.

Vitalism and the Interim State.

In the story of the TBOTD, one's "consciousness" leaves the body, hangs around for a bit and then goes through a series of "experiences" (the bardo of becoming) before either being liberated or being reborn in one of the realms of rebirth. Experiences also has to go in scare quotes because the standard Buddhist model of cognition contact relies on the āyatanas and these rely on the nāmarūpa. Nāmarūpa is widely understood to mean a human body equipped with sensory faculties and a mind.

In the bardo between death and life, which can last 49 days, the consciousness appears to have identity and faculties, it is a being, an entity in every respect, except that it lacks a material body. Thus the book is not only Vitalist, but eternalist as well. I suspect that the popularity of the TBOTD is that it forms an interface for the Vitalist views we inherited from Christianity (the idea that each person has a soul that survives death) and the Buddhist view of no-self which is so often interpreted to mean that "there is no self".

Nor are Tibetans the only Buddhists who accept an antarabhāva - an interval between death and rebirth (literally, an in-between or interim state; a liminal existence). Even some Theravādins find the idea attractive even though Theravāda orthodoxy rejects any interim between death and rebirth. See for example Sujato's exploration of the in-between state, where he says:
"From this we can conclude that the Buddha, following ideas current in his time – for Vac­chag­otta was a non-Buddhist wanderer (parib­bā­jaka) – accepted that there was some kind of interval between one life and the next. "
Sujato relies on a self-published study of early Buddhist texts by Piya Tan: 'Is Rebirth Immediate? A study of Canonical Sources.' Tan, a prolific translator and commentator working outside mainstream ecclesiastical and academic establishments, takes the sparse textual nods towards an interim state and combines it with Vitalist accounts of so-called out-of-body (OBE) and near-death experiences (NDE) to find confirmation of the reality an interim state. Here we see the dangers of uncritical emic approaches to religion. Tan has an explicitly and uncritically Vitalist view and thus, with all due respect, the fact that he finds a Vitalist reading of NDE and OBE convincing is not a reason to accept his conclusion. On the contrary it ought to make us suspicious.

We can set aside the Vitalist reading of out-of-body experiences (OBE). They are dealt with in detail by Thomas Metzinger in his book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.Adopting a Vitalist interpretation of such experiences does not account for the phenomenology of OBEs. Metzinger provides a thorough, often first-person, account of OBE's. He highlights faults in Vitalist interpretations, while his Representationalist account provides a deeper understanding of both the phenomena and the mechanisms involved. The fact that Metzinger is able to apply his theory to induce the experience (and variations on it) in a laboratory (where he works with neuroscientist Olaf Blanke) suggests that his is the better explanation by quite a wide margin. The OBE is best understood as a breakdown in the integration of the streams of information that go to make up our first person perspective - the felt sense of self, becomes disconnected from the visual sense of self, and we make sense of how this feels by saying that we float above our body. There is no doubt that the experience is genuine, vivid and compelling. But the Vitalist explanation doesn't do as good a job as the Representationalist explanation. 

The mechanisms of near death experiences (NDE) are hotly debated, as is the definition of "death". There is almost no evidence of what is actually happening physically during the experience and the fact is that only about 10% of people whose hearts stop report such experiences. In all likelihood a combination of physical factors such as anoxia contribute to the NDE. As with other mystical experiences the interpretation depends on the outlook of the interpreter. People of various religions claim that near-death experiences confirm their religious beliefs suggesting that the interpretation of the experience by the person having it is culturally determined. The parallel with OBE suggests we should be looking to neurophysiology for an explanation.

Tan also cites Ian Stevenson. I've dealt with the flaws in the methods of one of Stevenson's colleagues, Dr Jim Tucker (in Rebirth and the Scientific Method), and the Skeptic's Dictionary provides a succinct critique of Stevenson himself. I think Buddhists ought to think twice about citing Dr Stevenson et al because what they seem to show the same being reincarnating again and again in the different bodies. In other words, Stevenson's work supports the idea of an ātman inhabiting different bodies. I'm surprised that so few Buddhists seem able to get beyond the fallacies and biases and assess this work critically from a Buddhist point of view. When religieux cite science as proof of their supernatural beliefs we should always be deeply suspicious. Science inevitably disproves supernatural beliefs. Which is part of what makes Naturalism so compelling as a worldview. 

Which brings us to the few hints at an anatarabhāva in the Pāḷi suttas. Some of the references are dubious at best. The infamous reference to the gandhabba in the Mahātaṇhasaṅkhaya Sutta (M 38) and the Assalāyana Sutta (M 93) is open to all kinds of interpretations. No one really knows what it means. Tan translates as "being-to-be-born" but we have no idea why or how the word would mean that. My own opinion is that gandhabba here is an early typo for gabbha (Skt garbha) meaning "embryo", but the truth is that no one knows. Only a Vitalist would read it as "being-to-be-born" and we would class this as a form of eternalism similar to the pudgalavāda. However later in his text Tan equates gandhabba with sambhavesī which is, as he says, a rare future active participle meaning 'to/will be born'. For example in the Karanīya Metta Sutta we find the line:
Bhūtā va sambhavesī va, sabbasattā bhavantu sukhitattā.
born or will be born, may all beings have happiness.
But there's no need here to propose that sambhavesī means or even implies "in an interim state" unless we already believe that this is what it means. The clear intention here is beings who were born in the past (alive and dead) and beings which will be born in the future. There's nothing spooky about this. I don't have to believe in an interim state, or any afterlife belief, to think that human beings will be born in the future. And yet Tan concludes: "As such, sambhavesī here clearly refers to the intermediate being." No, that is not clear.

More interesting is the Kutūhalasāla Sutta (S 44.9). In Tan's translation of the final paragraph Vacchagotta (of the unanswered questions fame) asks about what fuels (upādāna) a being (satto) between bodies (kāya). The answer is:
“Vaccha, when a being has laid down this body, but is not yet been reborn in another body, it is fuelled by craving, I say. For, Vaccha, at that time, craving is the fuel.”
We know that Vacchagotta is a Brahmin, from his surname if nothing else, and anyway his question is framed in Brahmanical terms (what happens between bodies?). Interestingly the Buddha here also answers him in Brahmanical terms, but gives it a Buddhist kink: between bodies "a being" is based on/fuelled by craving. In the very next, well known, sutta (Ānanda Sutta SN 44.10) Vaccha asks about the self (attan) and whether it exists or not and does not receive an answer. Leaving both him and Ānanda puzzled. What the Kutūhalasāla Sutta represents is a partially digested lump of Brahmin theology with a touch of skilful means. It's inconsistent with the sutta that follows it and with many other suttas. How we deal with inconsistencies is important. The first step is acknowledge that it is an inconsistency, which neither Tan nor Sujato seem to do. Then we have to explain the inconsistency as an inconsistency, not as a standalone feature. Context is important.

What does this mean in practice? The general view in Buddhist texts is that vijñāna is an event that arises on the basis of sense object (ālambana) and sense faculty (indriya); but the models of dependent arising argue that sense faculties arise in dependence on nāma-rūpa, i.e. on the basis of a physical body endowed with mental faculties. To the best of my knowledge no parallel description occurs of the process in the interim state. Certainly craving fuels the process of becoming, so if someone were unshiftably wedded to their views (and Vacchagotta represents this type) then the only thing to do is introduce a Buddhist moral undertone. If someone, like Vacchagotta, believes in disembodied consciousness existing in an interim state and won't be talked out of it, then the best we can do is try to make them see that any existence in saṃsāra is based on craving. The idea that the Buddha always shares his interlocutors views, even when he uses their language, is doubtful. In the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) the Buddha claims to know God, God's kingdom and the way to God's kingdom, but he's talking to Brahmins who understand a religious life in these terms. Also other parts of the text are clearly satirical.

Next in his text, Tan tries to get at what a "non-returner" is. Tan cites an argument by Peter Harvey that concludes that "The antarāparinibbāyī must thus be one who attains nibbāna after death and before any rebirth." But these rather abstruse beings, like the Paccekabuddha, are the product of abstract theology rather than being based on experience. Later Theravādin Ābhidhammikas allow no space between cuticitta and paṭisandhi citta. They seem to have rejected the theology inherent in the idea of existence in an interim state, and I imagine they did so because it completely mucks up their unbroken sequence of cittas. Since cittas arising are dependent on nāmarūpa and the interim state demands that we remove rūpa from the equation for a period. Unfortunately the five khandhas are all required for there to be experience. And rūpa refers to a body endowed with senses. So we might accept Tan's view here, but it involves embracing a contradiction that the Theravāda tradition itself later rejected. The non-returner is a hypothetical being invented for the same of completeness of a taxonomy, not because they are observed in the wild. 

There are one or two other points in the discussion, but we've got the gist. The Paḷi text readings which supposedly support the idea of an antarabhāva are all rather vague and open to other interpretations. Tan and Sujato happen to chose a Vitalist reading from amongst the possibilities and we suspect that it's because that is what they expect to find. But even if we stipulated the Vitalist reading and ignored the internal contradictions, this would leave us with many unanswered questions: what is this interim state? Where is it? Clearly it is not one of the six realms of rebirth. So one is not reborn in the interim state. and we wonder just what is in the interim state? Why is it not more explicitly dealt with in texts? Why did the Theravāda orthodoxy reject the idea even while other early Buddhist schools embraced it?

I want to be clear that I like both Piya Tan and Sujato and I admire the translation work of Tan. His personal contribution is outstanding. My disagreement with him is focussed on this specific matter of history and doctrine. As far as I can see there is no necessity for an interim state in the Buddhist afterlife. The interim state only complicates an already difficult picture. Why would Buddhists introduce this extra step? The interim state is terrible theology. If anything it makes it karma and rebirth even less workable and less plausible. And this begs the question: why even have an interim state?

Origins for the Interim State?

One answer might be that it derives from the Vedic antarikṣa (= Pāḷi antalikkha). Buddhist cosmology evolved from parodies of Vedic cosmology (and the sense of satire was replaced by credulous acceptance by humourless bhikṣus). In Vedic cosmology (and eschatology) there are three realms: earth (bhumi), heaven (svargaloka) and between them the sky or in-between realm (antarikṣa). Going to the afterlife involved your soul travelling through the antarikṣa in the form of smoke from the funeral pyre and up into heaven. Similarly when one expired in heaven and fell back to earth, sometimes as rain, they fell through the antarikṣa to get back. The Pāli verb cavati 'to fall' metaphorically means 'to die' and in Buddhist texts is often used of devas who fall from the devaloka. Translating devā cavanti 'the gods die' is one of the first exercises in Warder's Introduction to Pali. The Vedic afterlife required each person to traverse the antarikṣa in an immaterial state (as smoke). And this sounds like nothing so much as the Buddhist antarabhāva. The ending -bhāva is often slightly ambiguous but seems to mean 'state' or 'state of being'. If one were in the Vedic antarikṣa, suspended between earth and heaven, then one would be described (temporarily) as antarabhāva. Since we know that Buddhist cosmology is broadly an adaptation of Vedic cosmology it would make sense if Buddhists included the idea of the antarikṣa as well, and we do see the idea of the "sky" in the Pāli equivalent: antalikkha.

Perhaps even more plausible is a relation to the accounts of the afterlife in the Purāṇas. These texts were  mostly composed in common era, but are thought to rely on older oral traditions. In the Purāṇic account, after death the departed (preta: literally 'gone before' deriving from pra√i) exists in a subtle form in an interim state for ten or twelve days. The pretas must be fed through performing food sacrifices, where again the fire transforms material food into an immaterial form (smoke) than can be consumed by pretas. Having been sustained in this interim state for the required time, the preta was reborn in heaven (svargaloka). This afterlife mythology is almost certainly the source of the Buddhist pretaloka. Our starving hungry-ghosts, sustained by craving (taṇhupādāna), unable to eat ordinary food, are a caricature of this mainstream Hindu afterlife story. Thus it is not fanciful to suppose that the same myth might also be the source of the interim state idea. As Naomi Appleton recently blogged:
"... the pretas are a unique rebirth state in Buddhist terms, in that they cannot seem to benefit themselves, but they can benefit greatly from merit transferred to them by humans. It has long been recognized that this is linked to their association with the liminal state between death and the ritual feeding of the dead in the Brahmanical Hindu calendar; the latter ritual, which involves the offering of rice-balls to the deceased, allows the departed one to go onwards to the realm of the ancestors." (Pretas and the śrāddha rite: Matthew Sayers’ Feeding the Dead)
Thus it may be that some Buddhists believe in the interim state because it is a legacy of the Vedic cosmology which was adopted and adapted by pre-sectarian Buddhists. My understanding is that this Vedic myth was not meant to be taken seriously, but that parody became mistaken for truth. And we know how often stories from the satirical newspaper The Onion get taken seriously and picked up by the media. 

Vitalism and Eternalism

The vast majority of humans since about 100,000 years ago seem to have believed in an afterlife. Burials obviously constructed with continued existence after death in mind appear around this time (and perhaps 30,000 years earlier for Neanderthals). Any belief in continued personal existence after death is by definition an eternalist view. So most people who ever lived and had any kind of view about it have been eternalists. True nihilism is in fact rare. Even now I suspect most people who believe in a "one and only life", wish it would go on forever. This was for example the position of physicist Sean Carroll in arguing against the proposition that "death is not final" in a recent debate.

Vitalism is eternalist. The life essence, or jīva, precedes our present life and will continue to exist after our death, whether the jīva is part of something larger, or specific to us. If something is not arising and passing away on the basis of conditions, then it is eternalist in the Buddhist view. Nāgārjuna makes this argument against the Sarvāstivāda solution to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. If a dharma does not cease when it's conditions cease then it is, by (Buddhist) definition, eternal. (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Chp 17)

So Vitalism is certainly compatible with the medieval (14th Century) Tibetan Buddhism of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But generally speaking Buddhists have tried to disrupt this fundamental eternalism that pervades human culture and specifically rejected any notion of jīva.

Philosophically there are two problems with eternalism. Buddhists identified that all experience is impermanent, and that unhappiness comes from treating it as graspable or sustainable. The worldview most people have is one in which we unconsciously believe that if we can just continually repeat pleasurable experiences, or make one kind of pleasant experience last forever, then that is ultimate happiness. Thus most traditions of Heaven depict it as a place of constant and unending pleasure (and by contrast Hell is constant and unending pain). Paradise is a pleasure that never ends. This idea influenced how Mahāyāna Buddhists imagined the Pure Land as well. But early Buddhists realised that this is a fundamentally wrong view of how experience is. In fact experience is constantly changing — arising and passing away — and thus constantly frustrating our expectations of it. Hence the second characteristic of all experiences is duḥkha - dissatisfaction, disappointment, dysphoria, unhappiness, misery. And dissatisfaction is important because it can lead to disenchantment and that can lead to disentanglement which is equivalent to liberation.

The second problem (often seen as the main problem by Buddhists) is with our orientation to the world. Consciousness endows us with a first person perspective, and this perspective is maintained on the basis of particular kinds of experiences. We identify with certain aspects of the first person perspective as "I", "me", or "mine". However the first person perspective is an experience and thus subject to the limitations on all experiences. This also creates conditions for unhappiness because we divide the world up in terms of me/them and mine/theirs. Immoral actions are associated with this kind of self-centredness. Of course humans are social so in fact we have circles that are involved in our sense of self. Our close friends and family are often as much "us" as we ourselves are. This is more true in some cultures than others, but always true to some extent. The boundaries between me, and the inner them and the outer them are sometimes difficult to define precisely, but we do have a different set of behaviours in relation to the extent to which we empathise with each. And the vast majority of people are outside our circles. Humans, like other territorial animals, often treat outsiders and trespassers very badly indeed.

The third characteristic of all experience is that it is anātman or essence-less, self-less, lacking in substance, insubstantial. There's nothing substantial no essence to identify with. And thus at this basic level Buddhism ought to be incompatible with any kind of Vitalism. But this is not always a happy thought and, so, many Buddhists do embrace vitalism, even Theravādins.


The really fundamental problem that all self-conscious living beings face is that one the one hand we want to continue to live (life at all levels is characterised by activities aimed at persistence of life; at maintaining homoeostasis); and on the other hand, as self-aware beings, we are aware of our own eventual (or even impending) death. Holding on to life in the face of inevitable death is a great source of pain.

While life itself is incredibly robust, 3.5 billion years of unbroken continuity and counting, a living being is a tenuous thing. In the Buddha's day infant mortality would have been high. If the monsoon's failed thousands of people would have died from starvation. Disease would have taken most people before the age of 40. A simple thorn in the foot could mean death from septicaemia. Snakes still kill 10,000 people a year in India. Tigers and other large predators were common before the jungle was cleared. There were no labour laws. Most children would have worked. Education was the preserve of a privileged few. Burgeoning caste rules meant escaping the life you were born into was very difficult, unless one renounced the world and became an ascetic, though that was also a difficult life.

Vitalism, with it's intimations of life beyond death and a pure essence that is untouched by worldly sorrows, clearly meets a need or it would not continue to be ubiquitous, even amongst those who follow the Buddha and ought to know better. But it's extremely unlikely to be true. If there is an animating entity, substance, or force, then we have yet to see any sign of it, and our best models of how things work don't require one in order to be accurate. The substance dualism that accompanies Vitalism is just not a very good theory by any standards.

Life is what it is. Experience is what it is. Seeing them for what they are, is enough. Speculation about the afterlife or our existence after death, or about a vital essence (ātmanjīvapudgala, or bhāva), is superfluous and counter-productive. Or so the Buddha is supposed to have said.

Related Posts with Thumbnails