Interpretation of the Tipiṭaka requires much more than translating suttas word by word.
December 30, 2020; revised January 7, 2021; re-written September 1, 2022
Interpretation of the Tipiṭaka
1. The following issues are both important and relevant.
- I need to ensure that I do not distort the teachings of the Buddha. That means I need to provide relevant CRITICAL passages in the Tipiṭaka when I discuss a subject.
- However, the Sutta Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka does not provide details on some aspects. Those details come in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and the three original commentaries in the Tipiṭaka. But still, it requires a jāti Sotapanna like Waharaka Thero to provide detailed explanations.
- Lastly, we are lucky to live in a time where more details, for example, about the brain, are available from modern science. The Buddha could not explain the role of the brain because people knew nothing about the brain then. Further supporting evidence on related subjects is now widely available via the internet (examples are rebirth accounts and Near-Death-Experiences or NDE.)
Depending on the topic, I have used one or more of the above three to write posts. Let me explain by discussing my approach to writing posts on the gandhabba (manomaya kāya,) where I utilized all three above.
Details on the Gandhabba Concept
2. Many details about the manomaya kāya (gandhabba) are unavailable in the Tipiṭaka. However, there is enough essential evidence: “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka.” That is my posts’ first layer.
- We have lost all of the Sinhala Atthakathā (early commentaries.) However, even if we had them, they would not provide details regarding the brain. Most of our knowledge about the brain is from modern science within the past 100 years or so.
- The Buddha only mentioned the brain as part of the body’s 32 parts (Pāli word is matthaluṅga.) See “Dvattiṃsākāra.” I have not seen any details on the brain’s functions in the Tipiṭaka.
3. When a jāti Sotapanna like Waharaka Thero (who had attained the Sotapanna stage in a previous life) is born, we learn important details. Furthermore, not all jāti Sotapannas can provide such information either. One needs to have Paṭisambhidā Ñāṇa to be able to grasp AND explain concepts in detail to others. Therefore, the second layer of information in my posts comes from Waharaka Thero‘s discourses.
- The third layer is due to two sources: First, recent scientific findings on many subjects like the brain, living cells, etc., provide corroborating evidence. For example, I have used such information in the “Origin of Life” series.
- Thanks to the internet, many rebirth accounts, Near-Death Experiences, Out-of-Body Experiences, etc., are now available to anyone. Those also provide invaluable supporting material to complex subjects, including the gandhabba concept.
- Those two resources are the third layer.
- The Buddha advised in the “Araṇavibhaṅga Sutta (MN 139)” that the main task of a bhikkhu (or a lay disciple) is to explain in detail the ideas embedded in the Tipiṭaka without distorting key concepts. I am responsible for ensuring that EVERYTHING is consistent with the first layer or the Tipiṭaka. That is why I welcome comments on any apparent inconsistencies.
Gandhabba (“Mental Body”) Is Primary, and the Physical Body Is Secondary
4. The role of the manomaya kāya is critical. The physical body is just a shell. It dies in about 100 years. The manomaya kāya (gandhabba) may live for thousands of years in the human bhava. See “Antarābhava Discussion in Kathāvatthu – Not Relevant to Gandhabba.”
- A fly lives only about a week. But “fly bhava” (or the existence of a fly) may last many thousands of years. Therefore, between births (as a “visible fly”), that fly would have the gandhabba or the manomaya kāya.
- As we discussed, the specific term gandhabba is used mainly for the manomaya kāya of humans and animals. But living beings in almost all 31 realms are born with a manomaya kāya. Brahmas in 20 realms have only the manomaya kāya.
- Thus, the manomaya kāya (mental body) is primary, and the physical body is secondary.
Importance of the Commentaries
5. The Tipiṭaka was meant to be used with the commentaries. Also, knowledgeable bhikkhus or lay disciples were supposed to explain key concepts in detail. Many Pāli suttās require detailed explanations. See “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
- Most early Sinhala commentaries disappeared in the Anurādhapura era; see “Incorrect Theravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline. “
- Fortunately, three original commentaries provided by the Buddha’s foremost disciples (Ven. Sariputta, Ven. Kaccayaṃa, etc.) during the Buddha’s time have been included in the Tipiṭaka (in the Khuddhaka Nikāya) and have survived.
- The current revival of pure Dhamma by Waharaka Thero in Sri Lanka is partially due to his perusal of these three commentaries of Paṭisambhidāmagga, Peṭakopadesa, and Nettippakarana.
- Even those three commentaries are somewhat condensed. Waharaka Thero was able to expand on those concepts in detail. He provided the basic model of the manomaya kāya (gandhabba) with hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rupa. The terms hadaya vatthu and pasāda rupa appear only briefly in the Tipiṭaka (mainly in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.) I have expanded that model using current scientific findings on the brain. Numerous posts are throughout the website: “Search Results for gandhabba.”
Gandhabba Model – Role of the Brain
6. Waharaka Thero provided the basic model where the brain processes incoming information from the eyes, ears, etc., passing those processed signals to hadaya vatthu via the complex manomaya kāya of the gandhabba.
- Just as the nervous system connects the brain to the other parts of the physical body, gandhabba‘s body has a “ray-like” (or electromagnetic) system that connects the brain to hadaya vatthu/pasāda rupa. It can quickly pass information generated in the brain to the hadaya vatthu/pasāda rupa.
- That model is very much consistent with recent scientific findings. I have referred to such recent scientific discoveries in my posts. See, for example, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body” and the posts referred to there.
- I realize that many people have a hard time visualizing the gandhabba concept. They may want to re-read the post.”Ghost 1990 Movie – Good Depiction of Gandhabba Concept,” which I recently revised; see especially #1 there.
Brain Analyzing “Data Packets”
7. In several posts, I have utilized recent scientific findings on the brain to explain our sensory experience. I hope such explanations provide a way to visualize the sensory recognition process more easily. Such posts include “How Do We See? – Role of the Gandhabba” and “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy.”
- Also, consistent evidence has been accumulating in several areas, including rebirth accounts, Near-Death Experiences (NDE), and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE); see “Evidence for Rebirth,” “Origin of Life,” and “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.”
- Hopefully, both developments will help more people understand Buddha’s teachings.
- In the days of the Buddha, people accepted Buddha’s explanations without such detailed explanations. That society was vastly different from the “materialistic society” of today, where recent scientific and technological advances have given a dominant platform to “materialism.”
- That is why many people have a deeply embedded wrong view that the “physical body” is all there is and that mental aspects (thoughts) arise in the brain.
Scientific Knowledge Is Limited
8. Even a few hundred years ago, science had many conflicting issues with Buddha Dhamma on even the “material world.” Of course, science is far behind in understanding “mental aspects” like consciousness, feelings, perceptions, etc.
- However, science has made much progress, resolving several significant inconsistencies about the universe’s material aspects.
- For example, just 400 years ago, “science” believed in the geocentric model of the universe, i.e., Earth was the center of the universe, with stars embedded in a celestial sphere far above. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocentric_model
- At that time, science and religion tried to attune their beliefs to that model. Most religions still adhere to those concepts; see the same Wikipedia article above.
- But 2500 years ago, the Buddha described our Solar system as a “cakkavāla,” or a planetary system. Not only that, but he also said there are uncountable such systems in the universe. He was well ahead of science because he had discovered the ultimate truths about this world.
- Here is a video from Carl Sagan to get an idea of how vast our “detectable universe” is:
Scientific Knowledge Is Expanding
9. Through the years, and mainly since the beginning of the 20th century, science has “re-discovered” some aspects of the Buddha’s more expansive world, including the existence of billions of galaxies, EACH OF WHICH contains billions of planetary systems like our Solar system.
- But someone living in the 19th century is likely to have ridiculed the idea of innumerable planetary systems (cakkavāla) and could have said, “Where is the evidence from science?”. That aspect of Buddha Dhamma was not amenable to “science” at that time.
- Like that, many aspects of Buddha’s Dhamma are not amenable to science at the current time. But science will accept more of the concepts in Buddha Dhamma with time.
- Details in “Buddhism – Consistencies with Science” and “Buddhism – Inconsistencies with Science.”
My Explanations of the Gandhabba Are Consistent With the Tipiṭaka
10. The detailed descriptions I have provided on the workings of the gandhabba are not in the Tipiṭaka. The Buddha could not have offered such explanations when ordinary people were unaware of the brain’s functions.
- However, those descriptions are entirely CONSISTENT with the contents in the Tipiṭaka. Furthermore, they are also consistent with current scientific knowledge.
- Despite their intense efforts, scientists have reached an impasse in explaining how consciousness (and feelings like joy and sadness) can arise in the brain. See the post, “How Do We See? – Role of the Gandhabba.” The pure materialistic model of science WILL NOT be able to explain such mental phenomena as consciousness, feelings, perceptions, etc.
- The main point of that previous post was that such mental phenomena CANNOT arise without a mental body (or manomaya kāya or gandhabba.) Reviewing the post Brain – Interface between Mind and Body is a good idea to understand the relationship between the brain and gandhabba. Other pertinent issues relevant to gandhabba are in “Antarābhava and Gandhabba.”
11. Interpreting the Tipiṭaka requires more than translating suttā word-by-word (which is a terrible way to teach Buddha Dhamma.) See “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.” There are more problems with current explanations discussed in the “Elephants in the Room” section.
- One needs to explain concepts in a way that the audience can understand.
- When one COMBINES information from Tipiṭaka AND other resources, such as modern science, one can better understand certain complex concepts.
- That statement holds for many posts on this website but is particularly true in the sections “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach” and “Origin of Life.”
12. This post concludes the section on “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.” The main point was to illustrate that the manomaya kāya is of utmost importance. In human and animal bhava, that manomaya kāya has a unique name, gandhabba.
- That manomaya kāya is just a trace of energy, but it can sustain a whole existence. Just as an oak seed has the blueprint for a giant oak tree, that bit of energy is all that is needed to maintain our dense physical bodies. See #5 of “How Do We See? – Role of the Gandhabba.”
- Kammic energy sustains the manomaya kāya. The food we eat grows and supports our physical bodies.
13. All posts in the “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach” section.