How Do We See? – Role of the Gandhabba

December 22, 2020; revised September 22, 2022; January 2, 2024

 The question “How do we see?” remains unanswered by science. The short post by the National Eye Institute, “How the Eyes Work,” concludes: “These electrical signals travel from the retina through the optic nerve to the brain. Then the brain turns the signals into the images you see.” That does not explain the important part, the EXPERIENCE.

How Do We See?

1. Let us systematically see what happens when we “see” a tree. Please don’t just read through, but stop and think about each point.

  • Light reflected off the tree falls on our eyes, forming an image of that tree on the retina. As you can imagine, that image is tiny. That image then goes to the brain through a nerve as a chemical/electrical signal.
  • Scientists are stuck on what happens next: How does the brain “SEE” the tree using that chemical/electrical signal?
  • Furthermore, we “see” that tree in great detail: leaves, individual flowers, fruits, etc. How is that possible? The images that land on the back of the eyes are TINY.
  • Someone who has thought a lot about this issue is Jeff Hawkins, who is actively engaged in artificial intelligence (AI). In his book, “On Intelligence,” he discusses current scientific knowledge on vision and other sensory inputs (Ref. 1.)
Jeff Hawkins’s Book “On Intelligence”

2. Starting on p. 55 of his book, Hawkins discusses how the image that falls on the back of the eye gets to the brain: “But let’s take a closer look. Visual information from the outside world is sent to your brain via a million fibers in your optic nerve. .”

  • “You can visualize these inputs as a bundle of electrical wires or a bundle of optical fibers..” he writes, “The inputs to the brain are like those fibers, but they are called axons, and they carry neural signals called “action potentials” or “spikes,” which are partly chemical and partly electrical..”.
  • As discussed in that book, visual signals and all sensory inputs (sounds, taste, smell, and body touch) to the brain are similar. You hear a sound, see the light, and feel pressure, but there isn’t any fundamental difference among these neural signals inside your brain. An action potential is an action potential.
  • Scientists have not figured out how the brain distinguishes those different types of signals. Moreover, they have no idea how the mind “sees the light” or an image of that tree. Same for the other senses.
  • They will never figure that out because it is NOT the brain that “SEES.” It is the “hadaya vatthu” (seat of the mind”) on the “mental body” (gandhabba) that feels the “seeing sensation.” Of course, “gandhabba” is an “energy body” trapped inside the physical body. It can come out sometimes, especially during heart operations (Google “Near-Death Experiences.”)
How Are Electrical/Chemical Signals Sensed or Experienced?

3. To quote more from that book (p. 56): “Your perceptions and knowledge about the world are built from these patterns. There is no light inside your head. It is dark in there. There is no sound entering your brain either; it is quiet inside. The brain is the only part of your body that has no senses. A surgeon could stick a finger into your brain, and you would not feel it. All the information that enters your mind comes in as spatial and temporal patterns on the axons”.

  • It is a mystery to science how the mind differentiates those chemical and electrical signals from the brain as vision, sound, taste, smell, and touch.
  • For example, how do “pictures” materialize from those chemical and electrical signals? How does another set of signals lead to the sensation of sound?
  • These are kammic effects that are not amenable to our minds. How kamma vipāka leads to various effects (including sight, hearing, etc.) is one of the four things that are unthinkable/incomprehensible to us and only comprehensible to a Buddha: ” Acinteyya Sutta (AN 4.77).”
All Existing Scientific Theories Are Speculations

4. Scientists are trying to solve this puzzle by looking for answers in the brain. They have come to the end of the line here.

  • Jeff Hawkins wrote that book in 2004. He posted the video in Ref. 2 (which discusses the brain) in 2006. He and many other scientists have done much work since that time. Yet they have made NO PROGRESS on the vital issue of “how those sensory events are EXPERIENCED.”
  • There are, of course, many THEORIES on that connection. For example, some have suggested that consciousness (EXPERIENCE) arises in brain nerve cells; see Ref. 3. However, plants also have microtubules. But plants, of course, cannot think.
  • No matter how much they try, scientists WILL NOT be able to find a way to say that mental phenomena can arise in inert matter. 
  • Before discussing Buddha’s description, we review relevant findings from recent scientific studies.
Science Will Never be Able to Figure Out How We See

5. Even though eyes (and the brain) play significant roles in vision, actual “seeing” does not happen at either place. 

  • Vision (and all other sensory EXPERIENCES) happen in the “mental body,” which the Buddha called “gandhabba” or “manomaya kāya” in Pāli.
  • Thanks to the internet, an abundance of evidence is emerging of situations where people were able to while their physical bodies were temporarily inoperative, i.e., while they were “medically unconscious.” The following video is just one example given by a physician who is now actively pursuing such “Out-of-Body Experiences” (OBE), also known as near-death experiences (NDE) in the medical field.

  • More accounts of OBE/NDE are discussed in, for example, “Near-Death Experiences (NDE): Brain Is Not the Mind.” Type “OBE” or “NDE” in the “Search box” on the top right to locate other posts.
  • The manomaya kāya (mental body) is the “building block” formed by kammic energy. It enters a woman’s womb and merges with a fertilized egg (zygote). That is when conception occurs. For details, see “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”
  • Once that “seed of life” takes hold in a womb, it grows into a baby by absorbing food from the mother. Once outside the womb, that baby grows by eating food.
  • That is much like an oak seed growing into a mighty oak tree by absorbing food from the soil.
Tiny Oak Seed Has the Blueprint for an Oak Tree

6. A tiny oak seed has the blueprint for the giant oak tree. That seed extracts necessary “materials” from the soil and “builds” that tree! Think about how complex that process is, i.e., oak seed giving rise to an oak tree!

  • The video does not show the latter stages of growing into a giant oak tree over many years.
  • As we can see, all necessary “materials for the tree” come from the soil. The seed only has the blueprint for the tree!
Gandhabba Has the “Blueprint” or the “Master Plan” for a Human Body

7. A baby’s growth inside a womb (and then outside the womb) is not different from a seed growing into a tree. The gandhabba (created by kammic energy) has the “blueprint” for the physical body.

Vision Is Not Continuous

8. Vision or “seeing” appears to us as continuous. We see people moving around, vehicles moving, animals running around, etc. However, “seeing” happens due to a series of “snapshots” our physical eyes take. Those chemical and electrical signals mentioned above come in packets of about 10-millisecond duration. 

  • As an example, let us take the case of seeing a tree. The eyes send a series of “data packets” (chemical and electrical signals per #2, #3 above)  to the brain. It is NOT a continuous stream of data that arrives via the optic nerve in the brain. The signal comes in “packets.” Similar “data packets” come in from the other four physical senses. They are processed (in parallel) by the brain.
  • Recent scientific studies show that a human needs at least 10-20 milliseconds (1000 milliseconds = 1 second) to look at the picture to recognize it. Similarly, a “sound packet” of about 30 milliseconds can be detected and identified. Thus, the brain processes sensory data in packets of about 10-30 milliseconds duration.
  • Some of those processes may happen in parallel in different brain regions. Further details in “Vision Is a Series of “Snapshots” – Movie Analogy.” It is essential to read this post if one needs to understand Buddha’s explanation fully.
  • However, scientists have no idea how those “data packets” lead to seeing, hearing, etc. (actual sensory experiences)!
  • Now we can start discussing Buddha’s explanation.
Sense Experience Happens in the “Mental Body” (Gandhabba)

9. Actual “seeing” (and hearing, smelling, etc.) goes on at the hadaya vatthu located in the gandhabbā or the mental body. That is the critical point.

  • In the case of “seeing a tree,” the brain processes the data received from the eyes to a level that scientists CAN NOT probe. They are reduced (or “broken down”) to the suddhāṭṭhaka level below the elementary particle level reached by scientists. At that stage, that signal gets transmitted through the mental body of the gandhabba to the hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind). That is where the sensory experience takes place!
  • As discussed in #7, the brain takes about 10-30 milliseconds to PROCESS data from each sense door. For example, when watching a movie, the brain must work non-stop to analyze visual and sound data for the movie’s duration. That strains the brain, so watching more than one movie at a time is impossible without a headache.
  • The brain consumes about 25% of the energy intake for the whole body!
  • Such details could not be transmitted in the Tipiṭaka. Furthermore, during Buddha’s days, people knew nothing about the brain. The Buddha could not provide this kind of detail at that time. We will discuss that in the next post.
Science Will Never be Able to Create “Artificial Life” or “Artificial Intelligence”

10. That is also why science will NEVER be able to succeed in AI (Artificial Intelligence.) Note that AI differs from making efficient robots, which are purely mechanical. They can’t THINK!

  • Note that “artificial insemination” is not creating a new life. Scientists use DNA from humans (or animals) to form a zygote. That is not any different from a zygote produced in a womb. See “Cloning and Gandhabba.”
  • The bottom line is the following: Without a human gandhabba, sensory experience is not possible. The physical body is just a shell.
  • That gandhabba can be created ONLY by kammic energy, based on a previous strong kamma (deed.) The laws of kamma work automatically. It is a natural process, like an oak seed giving rise to an oak tree.
The difference Between a “Live Human” and a “Dead Body” Is Gandhabba

11. The gandhabbā is like a delicate mesh (or an “energy field”) overlapping the physical body, with the hadaya vatthu located close to the physical heart. That is what gives life to the physical body.

  • At the physical body’s death, fine gandhabbā comes out of the physical body like a ghost. It is so fine that we cannot see it. But we all know that a body can be alive for one second and become inert (like a piece of wood) at death.
  • Have you touched a dead body (human or animal)? Touching it, you can immediately sense the difference between a dead body and a live person/animal.
  • At death, the body starts to get cold as soon as the gandhabba comes out permanently from that body. The “life force” is no longer there! That life force is the gandhabba or the “mental body”!
Transfer of Data from the Brain to Pasāda Rūpa/Hadaya Vatthu

12. Another critical point is that in the “energy body” of the gandhabbā, there are five “pasāda rūpa” located around the hadaya vatthucakkhu, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya, that correspond to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touch. Those ” sensing units” overlap the physical heart located far from the brain. Scientists will never be able to solve the problem just by analyzing brain processes! 

  • We have discussed related essential concepts in the sub-section “Brain and the Gandhabba.” As I remind you frequently, understanding these concepts takes a real effort. With this post, we are going back to continue that discussion.
  • The brain is like a sophisticated computer that analyzes those chemical and electrical signals discussed in #2 and #3 above.
  • It converts those chemical/electrical signals to a form that the “hadaya vatthu” can “understand.”  That is where the “magic of seeing sensation” takes place.
  • That transfer of “information” from the brain to pasāda rūpa around the hadaya vatthu happens in the “energy-body” of the gandhabba that overlaps the physical body.
Only a Buddha Can Figure Out the Complex Connection Between Mind and Matter

13. That is what the Buddha taught 2500 years ago. Until scientists accept that mind and matter are two different entities, they will not proceed too far from where they are now. Of course, I have tried to express those ideas in terms of current terminology as much as possible.

  • Someone who has studied Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) may realize that it starts with saṅkhāra (ALL mental) generated due to avijjā. The PS cycle ends with an entity’s jāti (birth). Of course, that also entails creating a bit of “matter” (a set of suddhāṭṭhaka or “elementary particles” in Buddha Dhamma).
  • The ultimate realities of this world are citta, cetasika, and rupa. Thoughts encompass citta and cetasika. They are in a separate category from rupa. Citta and cetasika CANNOT arise out of an inert rupa! Hadaya vatthu is not merely a suddhāṭṭhaka; it has kammic energy to give it “life.”  Stop and contemplate that. That is why Abhidhamma is important.
  • That is the origin of “matter” with “mental energy” or “kammic energy”: See “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka.”
  • The “connection” between mind and matter is “defiled consciousness” (or kamma viññaṇa), and viññaṇa arises ONLY in a hadaya vatthu (seat of the mind) in a gandhabba created ONLY by kammic energy.

14. That is a fascinating account that is amenable to inquiring minds. It is NECESSARY to live a moral life and be willing to “listen to reason.” As the Buddha warned, not everyone can understand the profound Dhamma. It takes effort and faith (not blind faith but faith built on one’s own experiences and seeing the self-consistency of Buddha Dhamma:Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”) 

  • The deep connection between mind and matter is discussed in detail in “Brain and the Gandhabba.”
  • Of course, many details in this post are not available in that form in the Tipiṭaka. That holds for many of my posts on gandhabba.
  • However, those descriptions are fully compatible with the Tipiṭaka. That is discussed in “Interpretation of the Tipiṭaka – Gandhabba Example.”

1. Jeff Hawkins, “On Intelligence” (2004).

2. Jeff Hawkins: “How brain science will change computing.”

3. “Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness? One Scientist Thinks It Might.”

4. Following is the English translation of the critical passage at Sutta Central:Mendicants, when three things come together an embryo is conceived. (Tiṇṇaṁ kho pana, bhikkhave, sannipātā gabbhassāvakkanti hoti.)

In a case where the mother and father come together, but the mother is not in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the spirit being reborn is not present, the embryo is not conceived. (Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca na utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca na paccupaṭṭhito hoti, neva tāva gabbhassāvakkanti hoti.)

In a case where the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, but the spirit being reborn is not present, and the embryo is not conceived. (Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca na paccupaṭṭhito hoti, neva tāva gabbhassāvakkanti hoti.)

But when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the spirit being reborn is present—an embryo is conceived. (Yato ca kho, bhikkhave, mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti—evaṁ tiṇṇaṁ sannipātā gabbhassāvakkanti hoti.)

  • Note that the translator has translated “gandhabbo” as “spirit.” It is not a “spirit” as a “ghost.” It is the “mental body,” or the essence of the human being born! Why don’t people ask that translator what that “spirit is”? This is why Buddha Dhamma has been hidden for all these years.
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