June 4, 2016; revised October 3, 2019
Difference Between Bhava (Existence) and Jāti (Births)
1. There are many posts on the critical concept of gandhabba not only in this series, but scattered throughout the site, and especially in the section, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya).” These posts discuss the details on how a living being goes through the rebirth process 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 not necessary to learn those in detail. I want to provide a complete and inter-consistent picture per original teachings of the Buddha 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.) That human bhava may last thousands of years; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” Unlike devas and Brahmā who are 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-patisandhi 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-patisandhi moment. That is when a living being makes a transition from one bhava (existence) to another, say from being a human to a Brahma.
Click to open the pdf file: Births in Different Realms
- Without exception, at each such cuti-patisandhi 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-patisandhi 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 discussed below. The main feature here is that they are spontaneously born in those realms and live very long times there until death. Then another cuti-patisandhi 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 are not able to see them even if they stand right in front of 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 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-patisandhi 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-patisandhi 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-patisandhi moment.
Kammaja Kaya (Gandhabba) Can Last Thousands of Years With Many Human Rebirths
6. That brings us to the middle green box, which represents 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-patisandhi 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 that of a deva in density.
- A gandhabba could be in that state for many years until a suitable womb becomes available. A suitable womb (more precisely the mental state of the mother 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 there is more kammic energy 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-patisandhi moment to receive a new bhava; see the chart above.
- In addition to going into a womb, (in some animal species), gandhabba enters an egg inside a female animal. Upon growing to a full animal and death, gandhabba comes out 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 in helping remove the wrong view that “I am my physical body.”
- In 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 touch (most of all, sex) require a dense human body. Unfortunately, a human body can last only about 100 years. Even that body is in the “decay mode” after 50 years or so. Thus, those sense pleasures start diminishing, and eventually, that body dies.
- Then the gandhabba comes out of 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 human bodies may look very different from one birth to another (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, and those evolve too.
- That is a brief explanation of the above chart.
Brahma “Bodies” Have Only a Trace of Matter
8. As we mentioned in #4 above, most lifeforms in the 31 realms have unbelievably tiny physical bodies. They are more like “energy bodies.” Any individual being in the 16 rupa lōka realms and the four arupa lōka realms weighs less than a billionth of an atom! They may be thought more as energy packets.
- In case it was not clear 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 of these Brahmā 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 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 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. As soon as the kammaja kāya forms at the cuti-patisandhi moment, the mind becomes active. The thought stream (cittaja kāya) starts, and the mind will be mostly 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-patisandhi 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 is unable to 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, many years if a suitable womb does not become available.
- In some cases, they may spend the kammic energy for the human bhava and undergo another cuti-patisandhi 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 dying. 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 human cultivated. But the kammic energy for the human bhava does not change; if it had 1000 years worth of kammic energy at the cuti-patisandhi moment, that would deplete with time.
- Of course, there is no cuti-patisandhi 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 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 takes some features from the new parents too. Thus the new physical body is a trade-off between those three influences. It may keep some distinguishing features (birthmarks or gunshot wounds, for example, as we have encountered in rebirth accounts. But it will acquire new features also from the new parents (skin color, size, etc.).
- The gandhabba that comes of the dead body is just a “misty, fine version” of the person at death. Most times, they come out with imprints of the clothes they were wearing at death and may look just like that (in a ghostly, misty form) until going into 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 real physical clothes.
14. Since the cittaja kāya also continues, their thought streams continue. So, if someone dies in an accident, he may not realize that he is dead for a little while. If he died from a gunshot instantly, the gandhabba comes out of and will be looking 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 of course, 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 start forgetting about the previous life when they grow older. Furthermore, it is harder to remember from past life compared to this life.
- Another point is that most such rebirth accounts are from people who died while young in accidents. Those gandhabbā who come out of the bodies of people dying at old age are not likely to remember that life. That is because even during that life, they might have lost their memories.
Next in the series, “Body Types in 31 Realms – Importance of Manomaya Kaya“, ………..