Thanks to Chris' post that refers us to the C2RC conference on "Understanding Death and Beyond," I've copied below the relevant section of Ven Bhikkhu Sujāto's paper, "The Perspective of Early Buddhism," that discusses the "intermediate state" and the gandhabba. (For ease of reading, I've moved the relevant footnotes to the end of the text).
The In-between State
After gaining a general impression of the role of rebirth in a few mainstream contexts in the
Āgama Suttas, we may now have a look at the controverted question of the ‘in-between state’.
The basic problem is whether one life immediately follows another, or whether there is a period
of time in between. This question was disputed among the early Buddhist schools. In their
debates, all parties accepted the Suttas as authoritative, and quoted them in support of their
position. So we usually find that when the early Buddhists could not agree, this was because the
question was not addressed in a straightforward or explicit way in the Āgama Suttas. In this
case the Theravādins denied the in-between state, while many other schools affirmed it.20
It should be noted that many modern Theravādins do in fact accept the in-between state,
despite the fact that it’s ‘officially’ heretical. Popular belief is, so far as I know, on the side of the
in-between state; so is the opinion of the forest monks of Thailand, based on their meditative
experience; and so is the opinions of most monks and scholars I know, whose ideas are based on
The main canonical argument against the in-between state, relied on by the Kathāvatthu,21 is
that the Buddha mentions only three states of existence (bhava): the sense world, the form
world, and the formless world. If the intermediate state exists, it should fit into one of these
worlds, but it doesn’t: therefore, there’s no such thing. This argument, however, rests on mere
linguistic pedantry. If I say my house has three rooms, someone might object that it also has a
corridor, which is an ‘in-between room’. Is this a fourth room, or is it merely a space connecting
the rooms? That simply depends on how I define it and how I want to count it. Maybe my
definition is wrong or confused – but that doesn’t make the corridor disappear!
The Kathāvatthu offers a further argument, based on the idea of the ānantarikakamma. These
are a special class of acts (such as murdering one’s parents, etc.) which are believed to have a
kammic result ‘without interval’: i.e. one goes straight to hell. But again this argument is not
convincing, for the meaning of ānantarika here is surely simply that one does not have any
interceding rebirths before experiencing the results of that bad kamma. It has nothing to do
with the interval of time between one birth and the next.
These arguments sound suspiciously post hoc. The real reason for the opposition to the inbetween
state would seem rather that it sounds suspiciously like an animist or Self theory.
Theravādins of old were staunch opponents of the Self theory: the critique of the thesis that a
‘person’ truly exists and takes rebirth is the first and major part of their doxographical treatise,
the Kathāvatthu; a similar though shorter debate is attributed to the Kathāvatthu’s author
Moggaliputtatissa in the Vijñānakāya of the Sarvāstivādins.22 The idea of an immediate rebirth
seems to me a rhetorical strategy to squeeze out the possibility of a Self sneaking through the
gap. It agrees with the general tendency of Theravādin Abhidhamma, which always seeks to
minimize time and eliminate grey areas. But philosophically this achieves nothing, for
whatever it is that moves through the in-between state, it is impermanent and conditioned,
being driven by craving, and hence cannot be a ‘Self’.
There are some places in the Suttas that tell ‘real life’ stories of people who die and are
reborn. For example, the Anāthapiṇḍika Sutta says that Sāriputta and Ānanda went to see
Anāthapiṇḍika as he was dying, and: ‘Soon after they had left, the householder Anāthapiṇḍika
died and reappeared in the Tusita heaven.’23 While this does not mention any in-between state,
neither does it rule it out. If I were to say, ‘I left the monastery and went to the village’, no-one
would read as suggesting that I disappeared in one place and reappeared instantly in another!
Such narrative episodes are too vague to determine whether they assume an in-between state
The most explicit statement in support of the in-between state is probably the Kutuhalasāla
Sutta, which speaks of how a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn into
‘Vaccha, I declare that there is rebirth for one with fuel [with grasping],24 not for one without
fuel [without grasping]. Vaccha, just as fire burns with fuel, not without fuel, even so,
Vaccha, I declare that there is rebirth for one with fuel [with grasping], not for one without
fuel [without grasping].’
‘But, master Gotama, when a flame is tossed by the wind and goes a long way, what does
master Gotama declare to be its fuel?’
‘Vaccha, when a flame is tossed by the wind and goes a long way, I declare that it is fuelled by
the air. For, Vaccha, at that time, the air is the fuel.’
‘And further, master Gotama, when a being has laid down this body, but has not yet been
reborn in another body, what does the master Gotama declare to be the fuel?’
‘Vaccha, when a being has laid down this body, but has not yet been reborn in another body, it is
fuelled by craving, I say.25 For, Vaccha, at that time, craving is the fuel.’26
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. During this time, when one has ‘laid down’ this body,
but is not yet reborn in another, one is sustained by craving, like a flame tossed by the wind is
sustained by air. The simile suggests, perhaps, that the interval is a short one; but the purpose
of the simile is to illustrate the dependent nature of the period, not the length of time it takes.
Here, as in the other contexts we shall examine below, it is not really possible to draw any
conclusions about the length of time in the in-between state. While a fire is burning normally, it
is sustained by a complex of factors, such as fuel, oxygen, and heat. But when a tongue of flame
is momentarily tossed away from the source fire, it can last only a short while, and in that time
it is tenuously sustained by the continued supply of oxygen. Similarly in our lives, we are
sustained by food, sense stimulus, and so on, but in the in-between, it is only the slender thread
of craving that propels us forward. The difference is, of course, that the flame will easily go out,
while the fuel of craving propels the unawakened inexorably into future rebirth.
There is a stock description of the various grades of awakened beings, which appears to
speak of one who realizes nirvana in-between this life and the next. This passage starts by
mentioning the one who becomes fully awakened in this life, then one who realizes nirvana at
the time of dying, then speaks of a kind of non-returner:
... with the utter destruction of the five lower fetters, one becomes an attainer of nirvana ‘inbetween’
The next kind of non-returner realizes nirvana ‘on landing’ (upahaccaparinibbāyī). Given the
context – between dying and ‘landing’ in the Pure Abodes – it seems likely that this passage
refers to an individual who, dying as a non-returner, realizes full nirvana in the in-between
state. This is how the passage was interpreted by the Puggalavādins and Sarvāstivādins,28 as well
as in modern studies by Harvey and Bodhi.29
The Purisagati Sutta makes these categories much more vivid with a series of similes,
comparing the antarāparinibbāyī to a spark of hot iron, which when beaten, flies off the block
and ‘cools down’ before striking the ground.30 Again, it seems difficult to interpret this as
anything but an in-between state.31
Like the previous passage, here the description is informed by the metaphor of fire, which
symbolizes pain and entrapment. The ‘going out of the flame’ is the goal of Buddhist practice, so
the fiery imagery associated with rebirth is entirely apt. The fact that nirvana can apparently
occur during this stage suggests that it is of spiritual significance. It might be taken to imply
that the process takes a reasonable length of time, unlike the more ‘instantaneous’ feel we
noted in the ‘tossed flame’ image. Nevertheless, the ‘going out’ here is just the natural cooling
off, the culmination of a process that was already nearly complete, and so it does not imply that
one should give any special importance to the in-between state as a realm for practice of
There is evidently an allusion to the in-between state in the Channovāda Sutta, where Mahā
Cunda instructs Channa the Vajjī, quoting the Buddha thus:
For one who is dependent there is wavering (calita); for one who is independent, there is no
wavering. When there is no wavering, there is tranquillity. When there is tranquillity, there
is no inclination (towards craving or existence) (nati). When there is no inclination, there is
no coming and going (agatigati). When there is no coming and going, there is no passing
away and rebirth (cutūpapāta). When there is no passing away and rebirth, there is neither
here nor beyond nor in between the two (na ubhayaṁ antarena).This itself is the end of
While the terminology used here is perhaps a little too vague to insist on a definitive
interpretation, nevertheless in the light of the previous passages it is reasonable to see this as a
further allusion to the in-between state.
A somewhat mysterious usage of the term gandhabba has also been taken as referring to the
in-between state.33 By the time of the Buddha, gandhabba had almost entirely reached its
classical meaning of a class of celestial musicians. But earlier Vedic usage varied, and it seems to
have been as vague as our ‘spirit’.34 This quasi-animist meaning appears in the following
Bhikkhus, the descent of the being-to-be-born (gabbhassâvakkanti) takes place through the
union of three things. Here, there is the union of the mother and the father; but the mother
is not in season, and the being-to-be-born (gandhabba) is not present. In this case, no descent
of a being-to-be-born occurs. But when there is the union of the mother and father; the
mother is in season; and the being-to-be-born is present, through the union of these three
the descent of the being-to-be-born occurs.35
The Assalāyana Sutta attributes the same doctrine to brahmans of the past, showing that the
Buddha had no objection to adopting current views on rebirth into his teaching, as long as they
did not postulate a Self.36 The acceptance of the conventional term gandhabba suggests that
whatever is in the in-between state is in some sense a functioning ‘person’, not just a
mechanistic process or energetic stream devoid of consciousness. However, the use of the term
is so casual and uncertain that it would be unwise to make much of it.
A stock passage on the four ‘foods’ (i.e. four physical or mental supports for life) introduces
the term sambhavesī. Interpreted by the commentary to mean ‘one seeking rebirth’, modern
grammarians prefer to construe the term as ‘one to be reborn’.37 In either case it appears to
refer to the being in the in-between state.
Bhikkhus, there are these four kinds of food for the maintenance of beings that already have
come to be (bhūtā) and for the support of beings seeking a new existence (sambhavesī). What
are the four? They are physical food, gross or subtle; contact as the second; mental volition
as the third; and consciousness as the fourth.38
While the early Suttas do not give us any further information, the fact that the sambhavesī is
contrasted with the bhūta, which clearly means one in a state of being (bhava), suggests that the
sambhavesī is in a state of potential.39 The in-between state is truly ‘in-between’, it is only
defined by the absence of more substantial forms of existence, and one in that state, so it seems,
is exclusively oriented towards a more fully-realized incarnation.
We have already noted the use of similes to render the in-between state more vivid. A stock
passage found in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta in explaining the recollection of beings faring
according to their kamma (cutūpapātañāṇa) employs this simile:
‘Great king, just as if there were a palace in the central square [of a town where four roads
meet] (siṅghāṭaka), and a man with good eyesight standing on the top of it were to see people
entering (pavisanti) a house, leaving (nikkhamanti) it, wandering (sañcaranti) along the
carriage-road, and sitting down (nisinnā) in the central square. The thought would occur to
him, “These people are entering a house, leaving it, walking along the streets, and sitting
down in the central square.”’40
Of course, a simile can only ever be suggestive. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why
the Buddha would use such a description of the process of rebirth if he wanted to exclude the
possibility of an in-between state. Peter Harvey interprets this passage on the basis of the
Here the usage of entering (pavisanti), leaving (nikkhamanti) and wandering (sañcaranti) refers
respectively to one being reborn, dying, and seeking a new birth. The house represents the
body or form of rebirth, and sitting down (nisinnā) in the central square [where four roads
meet] refers to the consciousness finding a new birth in the sense-world (the four roads
representing the four elements, earth, water, fire, wind). Here, the sitting down of the simile
refers to the discernment [consciousness] coming to be established in a new personality, after
wandering in search of ‘it’.42
20 According to Thich Thien Chau, The Literature of the Personalists of Early Buddhism (Motilal Banarsidass, 1999), pg.
208, note 764, certain Mahāsaṅghika branches and the early Mahīśāsakas rejected the in-between state, while
the Puggalavādins, Sarvāstivādins, certain Mahāsaṅghika branches, later Mahīśāsakas, and Darstantikas
21 Kathāvatthu 8.2 (Points of Controversy, pg. 212-3)
22 T XXVI, no. 1539. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vijnanakaya
. A recent discussion of the argument on time
in the Vijñānakāya is at http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT ... bastow.htm
23 MN 143: Atha kho anāthapiṇḍiko gahapati, acirapakkante āyasmante ca sāriputte āyasmante ca ānande, kālamakāsi
tusitaṃ kāyaṃ upapajji.
24 Upādāna can mean either ‘fuel’ or ‘grasping’, and this passage puns on the two meanings.
25 Yasmiṃ kho, vaccha, samaye imañca kāyaṃ nikkhipati, satto ca aññataraṃ kāyaṃ anupapanno hoti, tamahaṃ
26 SN 44.9. The Chinese parallel SĀ2 190 at T II 443b04 is similar: 身死於此。意生於彼。於其中間。誰為其取
(When this body dies, and there is desire to be born elsewhere, what sustains the interval between?) However
SĀ 957 at T II 244b4 is not so explicit: 眾生於此處命終。乘意生身生於餘處. (When one ends one life, desire is
the means by which one grasps hold of a another body.) This passage is not noticed in the Kathāvatthu’s
27 DN 33.1.9, SN 46.3, SN 48.15, SN 48.24/5, SN 48.66, SN 51.26, SN 54.5, SN 55.25.8, AN 3.86.3 (only last & first kinds
mentioned), AN 3.87.3, AN 4.131, AN 7.16, AN 7.17, AN 7.52, AN 7.80, AN 9.12, AN 10.63, AN 10.64. A Chinese
parallel SĀ 736 at T II 196c16 is similar: 而得五下分結盡。中般涅槃.
28 See Thien Chau, pp. 208-9.
29 Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind (Curzon Press, 1995), pg. 100; Bhikkhu Bodhi, Connected Discourses of the Buddha
(Wisdom, 2000), pg. 1902, note 65.
30 AN 7.52
31 Harvey, The Selfless Mind, pg. 101; Peter Masefield, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (Allen & Unwin, 1986), pp.
116, 120; cf Alex Wayman ‘The Intermediate-State Dispute in Buddhism’ in Buddhist Studies in Honour of I.B.
Horner, ed L. Cousins et al. (Dordrecht & Boston:D. Reidel, 1974), pp. 227-239.
32 MN 144.11 = SN 35.87 = Udāna 81; cf SN 12.40. See also Māluṅkyāputta Sutta, SN 35.95.
33 MĀ 201 at T I 769b24 has 香陰 ‘fragrance’, evidently deriving from Indic gandha (vl. 生陰 ‘birth aggregate’),
while EĀ 21.3 at T II 602c19+20 has 外識 ‘external consciousness’ or 欲識 ‘desiring consciousness’. The EĀ
version is translated by Thích Huyên-Vi and Bhikkhu Pāsādika in collaboration with Sara Boin-Webb, originally
published Buddhist Studies Review 20.1, 2003, p 76-80. Available athttp://ekottara.googlepages.com/ekottaraagama21.22
34 See Oliver Hector de Alwis Wijesekera, R.N. Dondekar, M. H. F. Jayasuriya. Buddhist and Vedic Studies: A Miscellany.
(Motilal Banarsidass, 1994), pp. 175-212.
35 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta, MN 38.26.
36 MN 93.18.
37 See Bodhi, Connected Discourses, pp. 730-1, note 17.
38 SN 12.11, 12.12, 12.63, 12.64, MN 38.15/1:261. Cf Metta Sutta, Sn 1.8 = Kh no 9.
39 In the Abhidharmakoṣa, a Sanskrit Buddhist work, the term saṁbhavaiśinis one of the five names for the
intermediate existence, along with manomaya, gandharva and (abhi)nirvṛtti (Abhk:P3.40c-41a/2:122),
40 DN 2.96. Sanskrit parallel in Konrad Meisig, Das Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra (Otto Harrassowitz, 1987), pg. 352. Cf MN
39.19, the two Chinese versions of which, MĀ 182 at T I 724c-725c and EĀ 49.8 at T II 801c-802b, however lack
the section with this simile.
41 SN 35.204.
42 Harvey, The Selfless Mind, pg. 103.
"We had the experience, but missed the meaning" T. S. Eliot