January 17, 2020; revised August 29, 2022 (added #1; other minor revisions)
1. I have been trying to convey the concept of a gandhabba (mental body or manōmaya kāya) for several years. But I don’t think many readers grasp the concept well. One critical problem is that sometimes it is tough to explain a new concept with just words.
- When we see the word “kāya” (body), We immediately perceive a “solid body” like our physical body. But the “manomaya kāya” or the “gandhabba kāya” of a gandhabba has no “matter” as in solid objects.
- In Buddha Dhamma, “rupa” includes energy and “tangible matter.” Modern science has also adopted this after Einstein showed that matter and energy are related by his famous equation, E = mc^2. Also, see “Photons Are Particles Not Waves.” Radio waves are also photons.
- We can listen to a radio in the house because radio waves can go through walls. A gandhabba is like radio waves and can go through walls. That is how those with iddhi powers go through walls, as described in many suttas; see “Pāṭihāriya (Supernormal Abilities) of a Buddha – Part I.”
2. The 1990 movie “Ghost” provides a good visualization of gandhabba. That movie is about the gandhabba of Sam Wheat, who dies tragically.
- A description of the movie and the plot is in the Wikipedia article “Ghost (1990 film).” However, one MUST watch the movie and read the following discussion to understand the gandhabba concept. A free version of the full movie is available online; make sure it is the 1990 version.
The Background (Up to 23 Minutes)
3. From the above article: “Sam Wheat, a banker, and his girlfriend Molly Jensen, a potter, renovate and move into an apartment in Manhattan with the help of Sam’s friend and co-worker Carl Bruner. One afternoon, Sam confides in Carl about his discovery of unusually high balances in obscure bank accounts. He decides to investigate the matter himself, declining Carl’s offer of assistance. That night, Sam and Molly are attacked by a mugger who shoots and kills Sam in a scuffle before stealing his wallet. Sam sees Molly crying over his body and discovers he is now a ghost, invisible and unable to interact with the mortal world.”
- The ghost, of course, is the gandhabba or the manōmaya kāya of Sam. The movie clearly shows some of the features of the gandhabba that I have tried to explain with words. When Sam dies, his gandhabba comes out of the dead body. Initially, he does not even realize that he has died. By the way, if one dies such a sudden death, there is no time to feel physical pain.
- So, Sam is confused when he sees his dead body and his girlfriend, Molly, crying. It takes him a little while to realize what happened. He sees his own bloodied body held up by Molly. He tries to touch the body, and his fingers “go through the dead body.” We can disregard the next few moments showing the “white light” coming to “take him to heaven.” This will be discussed in #12 below.
- When a human dies suddenly by a gunshot, his “bhava” will likely not change. So, Sam probably has more time left in the human bhava, but he now has to stay in the “gandhabba state” until a matching mother’s womb becomes available for his next human birth. See “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”
- According to the movie script, Sam’s mind is focused on Molly, and thus the “white light” goes back without him.
Gandhabba Is Not a “Scary Misty Ghost”
4. Many of you may have imagined that a gandhabba is like a “scary misty ghost,” as in popular cartoons. However, a gandhabba coming out of a body is a “complete imprint” of that human, including the clothes he/she had been wearing.
- Thus, Sam’s ghost or Sam’s gandhabba looks just like Sam when he died, complete with whatever he was wearing. That is part of the “utuja kāya” or the “fine body” around the “mental body.” That mental body by itself is just a few suddhāṭṭhaka.
- However, when that gandhabba is pulled into a womb, the utuja kāya is shed, and only the “pure mental body” of a few suddhāṭṭhaka merge with the zygote in the womb. See “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception” and “Cloning and Gandhabba.”
At the Hospital (Up to 26 minutes)
5. An ambulance takes Sam’s body to the hospital, and he stays by the dead body, trying to make sense of things. Of course, with that “mental body,” he can go anywhere he wishes.
- While sitting by his dead body, another gandhabba (old guy) comes and talks to him. They also watch another patient dying and his “ghost” or gandhabba taken to heaven with the “white light.” As the old guy says, most of the dead go to hell, not heaven.
- Then an attendant takes his dead body “right through him.” That is what I try to say that a gandhabba has a “very subtle fine body.” It is an “energy body” or a “force field.”
- His gandhabba body” has only a trace of matter. Solid objects can go right through, and “he” can go through solid objects!
Sam’s Ghost (Gandhabba) Learning About the Gandhabba World (Para Lōka) – (Up to 54 minutes)
6. Sam sees another “gandhabba woman” walking through a tombstone at his funeral. Later, at Molly’s place, he goes “through a door” for the first time. Sam’s killer comes to Molly’s apartment, and Sam follows him back to the killer’s apartment. On the subway train ride, Sam meets a violent “subway ghost” who has learned to move physical objects with mind power. Later on, Sam would learn from him how to focus on mental energy and move physical objects.
- That is possible per Buddha Dhamma. Even though most gandhabbā do not have such an ability, a few of them may also get such capability due to “puñña iddhi” or due to exceptional past kamma vipāka.
7. Anyway, Sam finds out that the name of his killer is Willie. In Willie’s neighborhood, Sam also meets psychic Oda Mae, a charlatan pretending to communicate with the spirits of the dead. However, it turns out that Oda’s mother had such capabilities, and after the meeting with “Sam’s ghost,” Oda can also hear his voice.
- That is also possible per Buddha Dhamma. Some humans are born with puñña iddhi to be able to hear and/or see gandhabbā. Such accounts (over long periods) may be responsible for the “cartoon versions” we come across in books and movies such as this.
- Sam persuades Oda Mae to help him. They still have a hard time convincing Molly. But Molly is convinced by the personal details Sam provides through Oda.
At this point, you may want to watch the movie. I will be revealing the storyline from this point. If you want to enjoy the film, it is a good idea to finish watching it and then read the rest of this post.
Sam’s Friend Carl – (Up to 72 minutes)
8. Molly decides to contact Carl, a friend and co-worker of Sam. She tells him that Sam’s ghost discovered his killer was Willie. Carl promises to check on that.
- Molly goes to the police, and they don’t believe the story either. The detective says there is no record of Willie, but Oda Mae has a history of deceiving people.
- Meanwhile, Carl goes to meet Willie, and Sam follows him. Sam is shocked to find out that it was Carl who hired Willie. It turns out that Sam had a bank code in his wallet for an account that had four million dollars, and Carl wanted Willie to get Sam’s wallet. But things did not go as planned, and Willie shot and killed Sam.
- Later on, Carl goes back to Molly and tries to seduce her. Sam gets into a rage and lunges at Carl. Of course, he could not make contact, but he was astonished to see that he could knock a picture off a table.
Sam’s Ghost Learns How to Make Bodily Contact – (Up to 78 minutes)
9. Sam remembers the “subway ghost” who can move physical objects with mind power. He returns to the subway and learns how to focus the mind’s power to move physical objects.
- In Buddha Dhamma, that is possible via cultivating jhāna. As we discussed before, there are rare cases where a gandhabba would be able to make physical contact via puñña iddhi. However, this movie aspect is unlikely to happen in real life.
- This is why it is not fun to be a gandhabba. Some gandhabbā (ghosts in the movie) can see and hear humans. But they are frustrated that they cannot touch, eat food, or smell scents like humans do. There is a scene in the movie where the “subway ghost” says he would give anything to smoke a cigarette (@ 76 minutes.)
- (I have mentioned in previous posts that a gandhabba can “take in various types of scents” and become a bit denser. That is a different mechanism than inhaling through the nose (a gandhabba only has an imprint of a nose and not a real nose.)
Mind Power – (Up to 78 minutes)
10. The “subway ghost” explains to Sam that he has no physical body even though he seems to be wearing clothes etc. He says, “you’ve got no body (meaning no physical body), son. It is all up here” and points to the head. (But of course, the seat of the mind is not in the head. It is close to where the physical heart normally is.)
- Subway ghost says, “If you want to move something, you’ve got to move it with your mind. You’ve got to focus all your anger, love, and hate and push from all the way here, from the middle of your stomach. And let it explode like a reactor.” (That turns out to be the right place!)
- That is a CRITICAL point. Even from our own experience, we know that when we try to do something hard, the “push” comes from the heart area and not the head.
- The real power is in our thoughts (specifically javana citta.) That power can be highly focused on when one is in a jhāna. But when one is in jhāna samapatti, one can focus the mind power and even CREATE matter! See “Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism?.”
Oda Mae Is Now a Genuine Psychic Reader – (Up to 80 minutes)
11. Oda Mae is no longer a fake. She can make contact with many “ghosts” or gandhabbā in the para lōka. As you see, the para lōka co-exists with our lōka; it is just that we cannot see those in the para lōka.
- However, she is now in trouble since Carl knows her identity. The story gets interesting now, and there are no more “technical details” that need to be discussed here.
- If there are questions, we can discuss them at the discussion forum. This is a very complex subject, but I hope you get a general idea.
Other Relevant Points – Births in Different Realms
12. A human gandhabba (ghost in the movie) comes out of a dead body ONLY IF that person has more kammic energy left for human bhava. That is the case in many instances, especially if one dies by a gunshot, as in this case.
- However, if the kammic energy for human bhava runs out at the moment of death, then an entirely different event occurs. Let us consider specific cases of a human dying and grasping an animal, Deva, and Brahma bhava.
- If the dying human grasps an animal bhava (say a dog), then instead of a “human ghost,” it is a “dog ghost” or a “dog gandhabba” that comes out of the dead body. That “dog gandhabba” will not stay in that vicinity. It will be attracted to somewhere there are dogs with matching gati. Then it will stay there until a suitable womb becomes available, and at that time, it will be drawn into that womb.
- A very different thing happens if a dying human grasps a Deva bhava. In that case, no “ghost” or gandhabba will come out of the dead body. Instead, a full-blown Deva will appear in a matching Deva realm instantaneously. If a Brahma bhava is grasped, a Brahma will appear in the matching Brahma realm.
- What we discussed in that last bullet is a critical point. There is no “being” going from here to the Deva or Brahma realm (located far above the Earth.) The human dies here, and Deva (or Brahma) is born there. Due to a past cause (kamma), a Deva or a Brahma is born at the appropriate location.
Other Misconceptions in the Movie
13. The movie shows that “good people” like Sam get to go to heaven (though the white light) and “bad people” like Carl and Willie are taken to hell by “hell beings.” But Buddha Dhamma has a different picture of rebirth.
- First, hell and heaven (Deva realms) are not the only two “destinations.” One can be born among any of the 31 realms, including the animal realm we see.
- The second is that one’s human bhava does not normally end at death. A human bhava can last thousands of years, and unless one has used up all kammic energy for the human bhava, one could be reborn with a human body again. In that case, the “mental body” corresponding to the human bhava (i.e., human gandhabba) comes out of the dead body and has to wait until a matching womb becomes available.
- There is an exception to the rule in the last bullet. If one has done a ānantariya kamma (like killing a parent or cultivating a jhāna), then one’s human bhava will end at the death of the physical body even if there is more kammic energy left. In the first case, one will be born in hell, and in the second (jhāna), one will be born in a Brahma realm.
- There are a few other inconsistencies in the movie, but those are the major ones.
Pāli Word for Ghost is “Bhuta“
14. Another interesting point is that the Pāli word for “ghost” is “bhūta.”
- Bhūta in Pāli (and Sinhala, බූත) means an entity that one cannot grasp.
- For example, scientists are trying to figure out the fundamental “blocks” that all matter is made of. They initially thought an atom would be the smallest unit of matter. Then they discovered that an atom is made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. They kept probing deeper and now are down to levels where it is hard to distinguish between “matter” and “energy.”
- The four great elements (cattāri mahābhūtāni) in Buddha Dhamma are paṭhavi, apo, tejo, and vāyo. But they can NEVER be detected individually. They ALWAYS come in packets called “suddhāṭṭhaka.” A suddhāṭṭhaka has those four great elements and four more elementary units. Even that unit cannot be “seen” and is said to be at the “bhūta stage.”
- A gandhabba (ghost in the above discussion) has only three suddhāṭṭhaka (they are called dasaka because when vibrational and rotational “modes” are added to become “ten units each.”
- To be visible to our eyes, billions and billions of such suddhāṭṭhaka need to be piled up. We can see that a gandhabba hardly has any “tangible matter.” That is why it is called a “ghost” or a “bhūta.”
One Last Thing
15. At 109 minutes, Oda Mae “lets” Sam get into her physical body so that Molly will be able to “touch him” for the last time.
- That is possible according to Buddha Dhamma. A gandhabba can “get into” that physical body of a willing human.
- Even if the human is not willing but has a “weak mind,” a rogue gandhabba can “get in.” It is said that human is now “possessed.” Such cases are still reported in Sri Lanka, and the human is said to be “possessed by a demon.” But it is usually a gandhabba with bad character and not a demon.
- By the way, I was very much moved by that last scene. This is part of the suffering we tend to be unaware of or even disregard. It is a good example of “piyehi vippayogo dukkho” OR “separation from what is loved is suffering.” We will all face that, at least at the moment of death. We will have no choice but to leave all that we love.
There are many more details like that. But the above discussion should provide the basic ideas involved with a gandhabba. As the Buddha admonished, we will never be able to uncover and sort out all such complexities. But it is good to be aware of the general ideas involved.