July 19, 2019; revised September 8, 2019; December 3, 2022
1. There are words in Pāli that can have similar meanings. But one word may be better than another word in a particular situation. That is also true in English or any other language.
- In Buddha Dhamma, several Pāli words are used in different contexts regarding the “mental body.” They are manōmaya kāya, kammaja kāya, gandhabba, and paṭisandhi viññāna. I will try to make things a bit clear in this post.
- We must remember that the mind is very complex, and living beings in different realms have different types of “mental bodies.” It is good to have a basic idea of these differences.
2. Most important here is to realize that these “mental bodies” are very different from the “physical bodies” we see in humans and animals.
- In particular, Brahma does not have a physical body at all. Then how can a Brahma see and hear without physical eyes, ears, and a brain to process those signals? These are questions that naturally arise in our minds. That is because we are not used to the concept of a “living being” without a solid body.
- The following discussion lays out a simple picture (with a few omissions to keep it more uncomplicated).
Mental Body and Physical Body
3. All living beings have a “mental body” (“manōmaya kāya“). Living beings in some realms also have a “physical body” (āhāraja kāya).
- So, we first need to realize that such a “kāya” is not the same as a “physical body” that we are used to, weighing tens of kilograms or hundreds of pounds. The Pāli word “kāya” means a collection. Even in English, “body” sometimes implies a collection of parts. Some examples are a “body of evidence” or “a body of water.”
- “Manōmaya” means “made by the mind.” Therefore, a manōmaya kāya is a collection of very subtle/fine parts (hadaya vatthu and several pasāda rūpa) that are necessary for any living being. A manōmaya kāya arises from kammic energy created in our thoughts (citta). Abhidhamma is even more specific and says that our javana citta generates this energy.
- “Kammaja kāya” is the primary component of the manōmaya kāya. That is because it is the first kāya “created by kammic energy.”
4. Now we can look at the two words kammaja kāya and āhāraja kāya. Here each composite word is made from two parts: The common component, in this case, is “ja,” which means “generated by” or “born due to.”
- The parts that arise from kammic energy are “kammaja kāya.” This “kāya” or “body” is very fine. A whole “kammaja kāya” is a billion times smaller than an atom. But as we will see, this “kāya” is the more powerful. That is where the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and the five real sensing elements of “pasāda rūpa” are located.
- Those six elements are the fundamental units of matter (suddhāṭṭhaka) in Buddha Dhamma, which are much smaller than atoms in modern science.
- Therefore, a whole “kammaja kāya” is unimaginably tiny by our standards. One would not be able to see one even with an electron microscope. As we see below, that is all Brahma has!
5. “Āhāra” means ‘food,” and thus āhāraja kāya is the “collection of body parts” that grows via eating food. In humans and animals, this is the “physical body” that we see.
- Therefore, a “āhāraja kāya” is a “collection of heavy body components” like the head, arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc. That is what we call the “physical body.” A physical body grows by using energy intake from the food we eat.
- For beings like us with solid physical bodies, the sensory signals are first received by the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). Then the brain processes those signals and sends them to the manōmaya kāya. The manōmaya kāya senses those signals.
- Eyes and ears, for example, do not see or hear. The eyes and ears pass those signals to the brain. The brain processes those signals send to the corresponding pasāda rūpa in the manōmaya kāya; see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
- As we have discussed in recent posts in this series, a physical body (of a human or an animal) starts with a single cell called a zygote. The development of a complete human body, beginning with that one cell, is another fascinating story. Scientists have no idea how that happens via a program in the DNA of that single cell. Who designed that program? See “Origin of Life.”
Beings in Brahma and Deva Realms
6. Brahmā do not have an āhāraja kāya and just have the kammaja and utuja kāya. The kammaja kāya of a Brahma has only a hadaya vatthu and four other dasaka (bhāva, kāya, cakkhu, sōta.) Still, they can see and hear with that ultra-fine “body” without having any eyes or ears (and brains) like ours. Of course, it is difficult for us to imagine such a living being.
- Therefore, a Brahma with just a manōmaya kāya has a mass of less than an electron. We cannot see a cell (or an atom,) let alone an electron. Now we can understand why we should not think of “Brahma bodies” in the same sense as a “solid body.”
- Those Brahmā cannot taste the food, smell odors, or touch things physically as we do. In other words, they do not have ghāna and jivhā pasāda rūpa. Even though they have the kāya pasāda rūpa, they don’t have a dense physical body to “make physical contact.”
- By the way, Brahmās do not need food. Kammic energy sustains their lives. Only the five suddhāṭṭhaka-size dasaka need to be maintained; that is done by kammic energy until that kammic energy is exhausted.
7. Dēvās do have āhāraja kāya, but that is much finer, and we would not see a dēva if we came face-to-face with one.
- They have all five physical senses. Their food is just a drink called “amurta.” That is probably not the correct Pāli word, but that is the Sinhala and Sanskrit name.
- Therefore, we must be careful not to carry over our perceptions of “heavy bodies” to the bodies of other beings in other realms. Millions of dēvas and Brahmās were present to hear the first discourse by the Buddha, according to the Vinaya Piṭaka. However, those five ascetics probably did not even realize that then.
What is Gandhabba?
8. A human (or an animal) has both a manōmaya kāya and a āhāraja kāya. But the manōmaya kāya of a human has a special name of gandhabba due to the following reason.
- A human bhava starts with generating a manōmaya kāya (or kammaja kāya) by kammic energy. For example, if an animal dies and gets a human bhava (extremely rare), a human manōmaya kāya will come out of that dead animal. If a dēva dies and gets a human bhava, a human manōmaya kāya will appear in the human realm.
- That human manōmaya kāya has a hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rūpa, as mentioned above. However, it can absorb aroma (scents from plants and food) and get denser (unlike a Brahma). Thus the name gandhabba (“gandha” + “abba” or “inhaling aroma”) is for the manōmaya kāya of a human (or an animal).
- Therefore, the name gandhabba is used only for the manōmaya kāya of humans and animals.
- Normal humans cannot see the relatively dense “body” of a gandhabba. They are in the “para lōka” (which is within the human realm).
What is the Connection of Gandhabba to Paṭisandhi Viññāna?
9. Another phrase used in some suttā to indicate a manōmaya kāya of a human or animal (i.e., a gandhabba) is paṭisandhi viññāna.
- As we had discussed before, a human gandhabba could live for thousands of years until the end of that human existence of “human bhava.” It can give rise to many “human lives” (jāti) with different physical bodies during that time.
- For example, suppose one of those human jāti ends. At that moment, the gandhabba comes out of the dead body and waits for another “matching womb.” (gati of the gandhabba has to match those of the parents, especially the mother). When a matching womb becomes available, gandhabba is drawn to that womb. That is in the post, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”
- The “Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (MN 38)” describes the “descending of the gandhabba to the womb.” The “Mahānidāna Sutta (DN15)” describes that as “paṭisandhi viññāna descending to the womb.” That is because a paṭisandhi viññāna created that gandhabba. That is discussed in detail in the posts “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka” and “Cuti-Paṭisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description.”
The Physical Body shields Manomaya Kaya of Humans and Animals
10. A question may have come up in the mind of some readers. Why cannot a gandhabba in a human physical body directly sense the outside world without the help of the five physical senses (eyes, ears, etc.) if the Brahmā can do that?
- The dense physical body shields the manōmaya kāya of the gandhabba. As long as the gandhabba is inside the physical body, it cannot get those “sense inputs” directly. Those sensory inputs come through our “sense doors,” eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. The brain processes those signals and transmits them to the gandhabba (manōmaya kāya). See “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
- We can compare this situation to a human operator inside an enclosed military tank. That operator cannot see or hear anything outside. Audio and video equipment mounted on the tank sends those signals to an onboard computer, which analyzes and displays them for the operator.
- In that analogy, the video camera and audio equipment mounted on the tank act like the eyes and ears of a human. The computer is like the brain. Without getting those signals, the operator is blind and deaf to the outside world. In the same way, the manōmaya kāya cannot receive those sense inputs if the eyes and ears are damaged, or the brain is damaged.
- A detailed discussion at: “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba.”
11. But that manōmaya kāya can be “kicked out of the physical body” in a traumatic situation, mainly in cases of heart operations; such claims are “out-of-body experiences” (OBE). In such cases, some patients have reported being able to see doctors perform operations on their bodies from the ceiling (with their manōmaya kāya).
- It may also happen to people whom the doctors thought had died but “come back to life” quickly. They report being able to travel with their manōmaya kāya. Such cases are “near-death experiences” (NDE).
- Some others report being able to do “astral travel” with their manōmaya kāya whenever they like; see “Astral projection.” At least some reports in this category seem valid, as I pointed out in the post referred to below. Reports of OBE and NDE are more trustworthy because doctors and nurses confirm the accounts of those patients.
- These are discussed in the post “Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) and Manōmaya Kāya.”