The first Buddhists regarded life as a process of consciousness moving through a succession of bodies, death being only a momentary event to this process. This phenomenon is sometimes called `existence after existence' (Sn.1060), `moving from womb to womb'(Sn.278,) or more precisely, `re-becoming' (punabbhava, D.II,15). While later abhidhamma thinkers explained the process of rebirth in complex and minute detail, the early Buddhists dealt with the subject only briefly and with relatively simplicity. The Buddha considered death to have taken place when bodily, verbal and mental activities stop, when vitality and heat cease, so that consciousness disengages from the body and is suspended (acetana, M.I,296). He said that the consciousness `moves upwards' (uddhagàmi) and then `descends' (avakkanti) into the womb, i.e. the mothers newly fertilized egg (D.III,103; S.V,370), finding `a resting place' (patiññthà, D.II,63) there. These spatial description are probably only metaphorical.
Some Buddhist schools teach that after death, consciousness hovers or pauses in an in-between state for a certain period before being reborn. Others assert that rebirth takes place within moments of consciousness disengaging from the body. The Tipiñaka suggests that there is an interval between death and rebirth (S.IV,73; 400; V,69). When the consciousness is in transition between one life and the next it is referred to as gandhabba (M.I,265). For most people the whole process between death and actually being re-embodied is unconscious (asampajà¤a), although a few spiritually evolved individuals can remain fully aware during the transition (D.III,103).
In traditional Buddhist countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka young children occasionally come to public attention after claiming that they can remember their former life. Some of these children have been carefully studied by Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His researches have been published by the university as Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol.I,1975; Vol.II,1978; Vol.III, 1980 and Vol.IV,1983. According to the Buddha, just before attaining enlightenment some individuals have an experience called the knowledge of former lives (pubbe nivàsànussati, D.I,81). During this experience, vivid and detailed memories of one's former lives flash through the mind. See Anattà and Rebirth, Reincarnation, Knowledges, the Three and Wager Argument.