Human Life – A Mental Base (Gandhabba) and a Material Base (Cell)

July 15, 2019; revised July 16, 2019

Current Scientific Understanding of a Human Birth

1. Of course, science assumes that life is only associated with a physical body, and when the physical body dies, that is the end of the story. This is what we called “ucchēda diṭṭhi” in the post, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – Getting Rid of Deeper Wrong Views“. Here is a summary of the current scientific understanding of the beginning of human life.

  • During the mother’s menstrual cycle, one egg (ovum) is usually released from one of the ovaries and is swept into the funnel-shaped end of one of the fallopian tubes.
  • After intercourse with the father, If a sperm penetrates the egg there, fertilization results, and the fertilized egg (zygote) moves down the fallopian tube and ends up in the uterus. This zygote divides into two cells, those two to four cells, etc.
  • This collection of cells enters the uterus in 3 to 5 days. In the uterus, the cells continue to divide, becoming a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Inside the uterus, the blastocyst implants in the wall of the uterus, where it develops into an embryo attached to placenta and surrounded by fluid-filled membranes; see Stages of Development of the Fetus.

2. This cell division is what causes that baby to grow (first inside the womb and then outside the womb) to become a full-grown human with trillions of cells. It is that first cell (which cannot even be seen with the naked eye) that eventually multiplied to a mass of trillions of cells in a grown human!

  • However, there is much confusion about WHEN that zygote becomes alive, i.e., when it can be called “a human”. This “time of conception” varies widely based on personal and religious beliefs.
  • Some people believe life starts at the moment of the merger of the egg and sperm (to form the zygote). On the other end, some say the actual birth of the baby (i.e., coming out of the womb) is the start of human life! Some others define life as starting when the embryo’s heart starts beating.
  • This confusion goes away when one understands the complete process described by the Buddha.
Buddhist Description of a Human Life – Bhava and Jāti

One needs to understand the concepts of bhava, okkanti, and jāti in order to know how a human being is conceived in the womb (conception) and is born nine months later.

3. According to the suttās and Abhidhamma in the Tipiṭakaa new human existence (bhava) does not start in a womb. It starts at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment when the previous bhava comes to an end. For example, if a dēva dies and becomes a human, a human gandhabba (fine mental body) will be formed at the time of death of that dēva; see “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”

  • A human bhava can last thousands of years. On the other hand, a physical human body lasts only about 100 years. In between successive births with “human bodies,” the gandhabba (mental body) lives in what is called “para lōka“. The para lōka co-exists with our human lōka, but we cannot see those fine mental bodies of gandhabbā; see “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage. “
  • It must be noted that all living beings have a mental body called “manōmaya kāya.” Gandhabba is a specific case of a manōmaya kāya; see #12 below.
  • That human gandhabba will have to wait until a suitable womb becomes available. By “suitable,” it means that the gati (loosely related to character/habits) of the gandhabba have to match those of the parents, especially the mother. Gati is an important concept in Buddha Dhamma that has been ignored for a long time; search for “gati” using the search box on the top right to find about “gati. “ A starting post is “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas)“.
  • Anytime after the egg and sperm are merged to form the zygote, a “matching gandhabba” can descend to the womb. A new human life starts with a mental body and the seed for a physical body (zygote).

4. Therefore, the time of conception is very precise in Buddha Dhamma: It happens at the time when the life-less zygote becomes “alive” with the merging of the gandhabbaThat is the time of conception, and it happens very early, normally within a day after intercourse. 

5. What happens in a womb (when an egg is fertilized with sperm) is to provide the “material basis” (zygote or the “first cell”) for the gandhabba to start a new “human being” that will eventually grow to become an adult with trillions of cells.

  • The “blueprint” for that physical body (i.e., the gandhabba) was created at the dying moment in the previous life. The gandhabba brings his/her own gati and a set of kamma vipāka that would come into play during the existence of that human body.
  • However, the physical body will also take into account the features of the mother and father via that zygote; see #1 above.
  • Therefore, the new baby will have a complex mixture of physical and mental characteristics of all three.
  • All this is discussed in  more detail in several posts, including “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“, “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body,” and a more technical description in “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description“.
Connection to Sakkāya Diṭṭhi

6. I will take this opportunity to point out that it is only a series of events that lead to a “new human being.” That gandhabba which led to a new life arose due to a “paṭisandhi viññāna,” which is nothing other than a “packet of kammic energy” created in a previous life. Therefore, it was NOT an existing “living being” that “became the new human being.”

  • This is why the Buddha said there is no “self” traveling from life to life. Any living being CREATES energy (kammic energy in terms of a paṭisandhi viññāna) to start a new “life form.”
  • However, there is a “continuity of life” that was CAUSED in a previous life (when a strong kamma was done, and this paṭisandhi viññāna was created). Therefore, it is also incorrect to say that a new life arises without a previous life making causes for it. There is a causal connection between adjacent lives.
  • If one can grasp this critical point, that will help to remove sakkāya diṭṭhi (which is the key to the Sotāpanna stage).

7. There is no NEW living being, and there has not been a FIXED living being (i.e., a “soul” or an “atma“) either. Life moves from one existence to another based on what types of paṭisandhi viññāna have been created in the past!

  • For example, one may be born many times with a human body while in the “human bhava.” Still, when the energy for that “human bhava” runs out, that lifestream gets hold of a new bhava (as a Brahma, Dēva, animal, etc.) which is the strongest paṭisandhi viññāna, i.e., the strongest kamma (good or bad) done in the past.
  • If one is able to follow that “chain of past lives,” one will go through billions of past lives per minute but will never be able to find a “beginning” life!
  • According to the Buddha, life has no traceable beginning. “Gaddulabaddha Sutta (SN 22.99)” is about how long the rebirth process is. At the very beginning of the sutta: “Anamataggoyaṃ, bhikkhave, saṃsāro” means bhikkhus, there is no discernible beginning to the rebirth process.” This verse is in many suttā, including all the suttā in the “Anamatagga Saṃyutta“.
A Mental Base (Gandhabba) and a Material Base (Cell)

8. A human life requires two basic components: a mental body (gandhabba/paṭisandhi viññāna) and a physical body (consisting of cells).

  • A mental body or gandhabba (in different forms) has existed forever with any existing life form, as explained in #6 and #7 above.
  • The material body starts with a single cell created by the union of mother and father; that single cell (zygote) multiplies over time, and the body of an adult has trillions of cells.

9. As I pointed out towards the end of the previous post, a cell is the basic building block of a live physical body. All living things (sentient beings and plants) are made of cells.

  • Each of these cells comes into existence from pre-existing cells! No new cells are produced individually. This is a very important point.
  • However, the first cells that appeared on the Earth were created by kammic energy (in javana cittā); I will discuss this below.
  • Therefore, both mental and physical components of human life have origins in the MIND. 

10. Of course, there are many scientists today with the view that a “first cell” was created solely with inert matter early in Earth’s history, within a billion years of the formation of the Earth.

  • This “first formation time” comes just from archeological studies. As new studies find fossilized cells returning to earlier rocks, the time it took to form the “first cell” has now been pushed back within 300 million years of the formation of the Earth!
  • However, a living cell is too complex to be formed via random combinations of inert molecules, no matter how long a time is given. It not just forming complex molecules of DNA, but those DNA strands have a built-in program for life, just like a computer program.
  • Random re-arrangement of inert molecules CAN NOT lead to the formation of a “programmed cell”—more on that in “Clarification of “Mental Body” and “Physical Body” – Different Types of “Kāya”
All Life on Earth is Made of Cells

11. All life we see (whether sentient or not, i.e., whether they have a mind or not) is made of cells. To be more precise, human and animal bodies — and plants —  are made of cells.

  • Some of them (plants) are not conscious, i.e., they do not have a mind.
  • On the other hand, humans and animals are also made of cells, but they have a mind too.

12. So, we must realize that being alive and conscious are two different things. Plants are alive, but they cannot think: plant cells mechanically perform “pre-programmed” functions. On the other hand, humans and animals are also made up of cells, but there is an additional entity associated with them: gandhabba, or the mental body!

  • (It must be noted that all living beings have a mental body, and it is called manōmaya kāya. A manōmaya kāya of a human or an animal is called a gandhabba because it can inhale aroma — gandhabba comes from “gandha” + “abba” or “taking in aroma or scents” –, and become dense; see, “Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) and Manōmaya Kāya).
  • Incredibly, even plant cells are very active, buzzing with activity. All cells are programmed for various functions. Of course, different types of cells are programmed to carry out different tasks. This is an exciting topic that we do not want to get too involved in, because that can be a real distraction to the main task of learning Dhamma and following the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • However, having at least a rough idea about the complexities of life can be a motivation to learn more about Buddha Dhamma.
Complex Structure of a Cell

13. Here are two videos that explain the current status of understanding cells. I will get to more relevant aspects in the next post, “Clarification of “Mental Body” and “Physical Body” – Different Types of ‘Kāya‘”

14. Energy for ALL cells come from Solar energy. Plant cells first convert Solar energy to forms of energy that can be used by animal cells. Therefore, plant cells play a major role in sustaining human and animal life!


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