June 4, 2016; revised October 3, 2019; October 17, 2022; December 9, 2022 (figure in #3 revised)
Difference Between Bhava (Existence) and Jāti (Births)
1. Many posts on the critical concept of gandhabba are in this series. More are scattered throughout the site, especially in the “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)” section. These posts discuss how a living-being goes through rebirths without having an unchanging “soul.” But they maintain (ever-changing) personal characteristics or gati (pronounced “gati”) between two adjacent lives.
- It all started with a post on this basic concept at the start of this website: “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
- While it is good to get an idea of the nature of all living beings in the 31 realms, it is unnecessary to learn those in detail. I want to provide a complete and inter-consistent picture compatible with the Buddha’s original teachings in this section.
- However, the concept of the gandhabba is essential to understand how we are reborn with physically different bodies — multiple times — in a single human existence (human bhava.) A human bhava may last thousands of years; see “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” Unlike devas and Brahmās (born just once,) we live and die to be reborn human multiple times before switching to another realm.
This World Has Thirty-One Realms of Existence
2. We will first review two significant aspects of the 31 realms. Then we will discuss the concept of a gandhabba (which applies only to human and animal realms) in more detail.
- First is that the transition from one existence (bhava) to another is ALWAYS instantaneous; it happens at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment (“cuti” pronounced “chuthi”); see, “Patisandhi Citta – How the Next Life is Determined According to Gati” and “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description.”
- The second aspect is that in the 20 higher-lying realms, those beings (Brahmā) weigh less than a billionth of an atom in modern science!
- All beings with dense bodies are in the 11 realms of the kāma lōka. Even there, the six deva realms have less-dense bodies compared to humans.
Death of Physical Body Different From the End of an Existence
3. The following chart shows the major features of what happens at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. That is when a transition occurs from one bhava (existence) to another, e.g., from being a human to a Brahma.
Click to open the pdf file: Births in Different Realms
- Without exception, at each such cuti-paṭisandhi moment, a new kammaja kāya is generated by the kammic energy fueling a new existence. That kammaja kāya ALWAYS has a hadaya vatthu. That is the seat of the mind (the quality of which depends on the realm).
Types of “Bodies” In Different Realms
4. Thus, it is essential to realize that the critical thing that happens at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment is the generation of the unbelievably small kammaja kāya, which contains the blueprint for the new existence. At that point, the mechanism of “birth” can be roughly divided into three categories, as shown in the chart.
- The Brahmā in the rupi and arupi realms (top 20 realms) are instantaneously born with very little else other than several suddhāṭṭhaka-size “material elements.” Their body features are discussed below. The main feature here is that they are spontaneously born in those realms and live long until death. Then another cuti-paṭisandhi moment takes that being to a new bhava.
- The only difference in the six deva realms (in kāma lōka) compared to the Brahmā is that they do have well-defined physical bodies (karaja kāya) like us. However, those bodies are much less dense, and we cannot see them even if they stand right before us.
- A deva is born with the body equivalent of a 16-year-old, and their food is a drink called amurtha. Devas have all five sense faculties like us and are said to have the optimum sense pleasures available in kāma lōka. They also live that one life until death and then switch to a new existence (bhava) at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment.
- That completes the discussion on the green box to the right.
5. What happens in the green box to the left is a bit more complicated. That is because each realm in the apāyā (lowest four realms) is somewhat different. We will discuss the animal realm together with the human realm (middlebox) below. Let us first discuss briefly the lowest three realms indicated by the green box on the left.
- The lowest is the niraya (hell), where beings are born with full dense bodies like ours instantaneously. They undergo ceaseless cutting, burning, and various other forms of torture. They die innumerable times, only to be reborn promptly. Only when the kammic energy for that existence is exhausted (usually after millions of years) that they encounter the next cuti-paṭisandhi moment.
- Beings in the preta (peta) realm also are born instantaneously and can have subtle or dense bodies. The distinguishing feature there is suffering due to hunger.
- Beings in the asura realm are beings with massive, very inactive bodies. They are also born instantaneously and live those miserable lives until the next cuti-paṭisandhi moment.
Kammaja Kaya (Gandhabba) Can Last Thousands of Years With Many Human Rebirths
6. That brings us to the middle green box, representing the human and animal realms. A little bit more complicated process takes place here. Here also, a being with a subtle (energy) body is produced at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, just like in the rupa lōka realms. It is called a gandhabba.
- A gandhabbā has the basic thrija kāya of a rupi Brahma: kammaja kāya, cittaja kāya, and utuja kāya, which we will discuss in detail below. Besides, a gandhabba may acquire a very fine karaja kāya (physical body) by inhaling the aroma. Thus a gandhabba is denser than a rupi Brahma. It has a “body” more like a deva in density.
- A gandhabba could be in that state for many years until a suitable womb becomes available. More precisely, the mother’s mental state at that time must match the gati of the gandhabba. The evolution of the gandhabba in the womb is discussed in “What does Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) say about Birth Control?“. Then it is born as a new baby, grows, and eventually, that physical body also dies. If more kammic energy is left for the bhava, then the gandhabba leaves that dead body and waits for another womb. That process continues until the bhava energy is exhausted, and then it goes through the cuti-paṭisandhi moment to receive a new bhava; see the chart above.
- In addition to going into a womb (in some animal species), gandhabba may enter an egg inside a female animal. At the death of an “egg-born” animal, gandhabba comes out of the dead body and waits for another egg. It is the same procedure as above.
Physical Body is Just a Temporary Shelter
7. One of the main benefits of learning about the gandhabba is helping remove the wrong view that “I am my physical body.”
- On the contrary, a physical body is a temporary shelter that the gandhabba uses to experience the much-coveted “sense pleasures.” In particular, smelling, eating, and touching (most of all, sex) require a dense human body. Unfortunately, the human body can last only about 100 years. Even that body is in the “decay mode” after about 50 years. Thus, those sensory pleasures start diminishing, and eventually, that body dies.
- Then the gandhabba emerges from that dead body and waits for a suitable womb. If and when it gets into a womb, the new physical body is influenced by the new parents. Thus the new body can be very different from that in the previous birth. Even during this same “human bhava,” our bodies may look very different from birth to birth (as confirmed by rebirth stories).
- Of course, the gandhabba does not stay the same either. The only things that can be called “personal” to that gandhabba are its gati, which also evolve.
- That is a brief explanation of the above chart.
Brahma “Bodies” Have Only a Trace of Matter
8. As mentioned in #4 above, most lifeforms in the 31 realms have unbelievably tiny physical bodies. They are more like “energy bodies.” Brahmās in the 16 rupa lōka realms and the four arupa lōka realms weigh less than a billionth of an atom! They may be thought of more as energy packets.
- In case it was unclear from previous posts, we recall that an arupa lōka Brahma has a kammaja kāya consisting of just a vatthu dasaka.
- Rupa lōka Brahmā have vatthu dasaka (seat of the mind) and two pasada rupa for seeing and hearing. They also have kāya dasaka and bhava dasaka. Thus their kammaja kāya has five suddhāṭṭhaka-size elements. A rupa lōka Brahma also has a cittaja kāya (thought stream) and a utuja kāya (very fine).
- Thus, any Brahmās cannot be seen with the most sophisticated microscope we have today.
- More details in “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya“. A manomaya kāya, when referred to the human and animal realms, is the same as gandhabba.
Kammaja Kāya of a Human Gandhabba
9. Let us again summarize the make up of a kammaja kāya of a human gandhabba. It has a hadaya vatthu (consisting of a vatthu dasaka), bhava dasaka, and kāya dasaka, and four pasada rupa (cakkhu dasaka, sota dasaka, gandha dasaka, jivaha dasaka).
- This kammaja kāya consists of 7 suddhāṭṭhaka in different bramana (spin) and paribramana (rotation) modes. That is how they become dasaka (units of ten or decads); see “31 Realms Associated with the Earth“.
- Six of these define the sense faculties of the gandhabba: vatthu dasaka is the mind, and kāya, cakkhu, sota, gandha, and jivha dasaka) are the “fine senses” that correspond to the body, eyes, ears, nose, and tongue in the physical body. Gandhabba can interact with the external world directly via them when outside the physical body. It can smell and inhale aroma giving rise to a very fine and subtle material body. However, that body is not solid enough to physically touch anything or be able to eat.
- The seventh dasaka is bhava dasaka, which — together with the kāya dasaka — defines what kind of a physical body it will start building once inside a womb. For example, bhava dasaka determines sex.
10. The mind becomes active as soon as the kammaja kāya forms at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. The thought stream (cittaja kāya) starts, and the mind will be mainly in the bhavaṅga state. Simultaneously, an utuja kāya forms by the suddhāṭṭhaka generated by both the kammaja kāya and cittaja kāya.
- Thus immediately after the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, gandhabba has three “bodies” or thrija kāya. However, the cittaja kāya is all mental, and both the kammaja kāya and utuja kāya are very fine. They are more like “energy bodies.”
- Soon after this “initial formation,” the gandhabba can build a “subtle, misty” body (karaja kāya) by inhaling aroma (from fruits, trees, etc.). Still, an average human cannot see it since it is not “dense enough.” However, some people (especially those with abhiññā powers) can see “sufficiently solidified” gandhabbā.
The desire for a Dense Human Body
11. But this gandhabba is continuously under stress because it cannot enjoy the most coveted sense pleasures of those with dense human bodies, i.e., eating and sex. It can see people enjoying these sense pleasures and is very much frustrated not being able to acquire a “real physical body.” Some can stay in this state for many years if a suitable womb is unavailable.
- Sometimes, they may spend the kammic energy for the human bhava and undergo another cuti-paṭisandhi moment without inheriting a human body. That is why one is indebted to one’s parents, no matter how bad they may be.
12. The story of the gandhabba gets more interesting (and complicated) after it goes through the first birth as an average human, and that human body dies. The gandhabba that comes out of that dead body is, of course, different from the original gandhabba. Its kammaja kāya has changed due to whatever abhisaṅkhāra that the humans cultivated. But the kammic energy for the human bhava does not change; if it had 1000 years’ worth of kammic energy at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment, that would deplete with time.
- Of course, there is no cuti-paṭisandhi moment when a human dies with extra kammic energy for the human bhava. Death is the death of the physical body. The gandhabba comes out of that dead body and awaits a new womb; see the above chart. Thus all three components of the thrija kāya continue after the “death of the human.”
New Physical Body Incorporates Characteristics of New Parents Too
13. Let us consider some important features of this gandhabba that comes out of that dead body after its birth as a human.
- The kammaja kāya still has a copy of the previous physical body. However, when it starts a new physical body in the new womb, it also takes some physical features from the new parents. Thus the new physical body is a trade-off between those three influences. For example, it may keep some distinguishing features (birthmarks or gunshot wounds), as we have encountered in rebirth accounts. But it will acquire new features also from the new parents (skin color, size, etc.).
- The gandhabba coming from the dead body is a “misty, fine version” of the person at death. They often come out with imprints of the clothes they wore at death and may look just like that (in a ghostly, misty form) until entering a new womb. My teacher Thero has seen gandhabbā of people who died hundreds of years ago “wearing” those old costumes. Of course, they are not actual physical clothes.
14. Since the cittaja kāya also continues, their thought streams continue. So, if someone dies in an accident, he may not realize he is dead for a while. If he died from a gunshot instantly, the gandhabba comes out and will look at the dead body, trying to figure out what happened. He may wish to go home and finds himself instantly at home. And he will try to shout to others, but they don’t hear. He may try to touch them, but he cannot. It takes seven days for a gandhabba to comprehend what happened entirely and to resign to his/her new life.
- That is also why children can recall their past life. But just like we start forgetting things from years ago, those children forget about their previous life when they grow older. Furthermore, it is harder to remember from a past life than this.
- Another point is that most such rebirth accounts are from people who died while young in accidents. Those gandhabbās who come out of the bodies of people dying in old age are not likely to remember that life. That is because they might have lost their memories even during that life.
Next in the series, “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya“, ………..