Clarification of “Mental Body” and “Physical Body” – Different Types of “Kāya”

July 19, 2019


1. There are words in Pāli that can have similar meanings. But one word may be better than another word in a certain situation. This is also true in English or any other language.

  • In Buddha Dhamma, there are several Pāli words used in different contexts regarding the “mental body”: manōmaya kāya, kammaja kāya, gandhabba, and patisandhi viññāna. I will try to make things a bit clear in this post.
  • We need to keep in mind that mind is very complex, and living beings in different realms have different types of “mental bodies”. It is good to have a basic idea of these differences.

2. Most important here is to realize that these “mental bodies” are very different from the “physical bodies” we see in humans and animals.

  • In particular, a brahma does not have a physical body at all. The how can a brahma see and hear without physical eyes and ears, and a brain to process those signals? These are questions that naturally arise in our minds, since we are not used to the concept of a “living being” without a tangible body.
  • The following discussion lays out a simple picture (with a few omissions to keep it simpler). I am writing this post because based on the discussions at the forum, I can see that I may have inadvertently use the “wrong term” to refer to the “mental body” in a few cases. I will try to stick to this format in future posts.
Mental Body and Physical Body

3. All living beings have a “mental body” (“manōmaya kāya“). Living beings in some realms also have a “physical body” (āhāraja kāya).

  • So, the very first thing we need to realize that such a “kāya” is not the same as a “physical body” that we are used to, weighing tens of kilograms or hundreds of pounds. The Pāli word “kāya” means a collection. Even in English “body” is sometimes used for a collection: “body of evidence” or “a body of water”.
  • Manōmaya” means, “made by the mind”. Therefore, a manōmaya kāya is a collection of very fine parts (hadaya vatthu and several pasāda rūpa) that are absolutely necessary for any living being. A manōmaya kāya arises out of kammic energy created in our thoughts (citta). Abhidhamma is even more specific, and says that this energy is created in our javana citta.
  • Therefore, the manōmaya kāya is sometimes referred to as “kammaja kāya“: This is because “created by the mind” is the same as “created by kammic energy”.

4. Now we can look at the two words kammaja kāya and āhāraja kāya. Here each composite word is made from two parts: The common component in this case is “ja“, which means “generated by” or “born due to”.

  • The collection of parts that arise due to kammic energy is “kammaja kāya“. This “kāya” or “body” is very fine. A whole “kammaja kāya” is a billion times smaller than an atom. But as we will see, this “kāya” is the more powerful one. That is where the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) and the five real sensing elements of “pasāda rūpa” are located.
  • Those six elements are at the magnitude of smallest units of matter (suddhāshtaka) in Buddha Dhamma.
  • Therefore, a whole “kammaja kāya” is unimaginably small, by our standards. One would not be able to see one even with an electron microscope. As we see below, that is all a brahma has!

5. “Āhāra” means ‘food”, and thus āhāraja kāya is the “collection of body parts” that grows via eating food. In humans and animals this is the “physical body” that we see.

  • Therefore, a “āhāraja kāya” is a “collection of heavy components of a body” like the head, arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc. That is what we call the “physical body”. Sometimes it is called a “karaja kāya“.
  • A physical body grows by using energy intake from the food we eat. Eyes and ears, for example, do not see or hear. They just pass those signals to the brain, where those signals are processed and sent to the corresponding pasāda rūpa in the manōmaya kāya; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“.
  • In other words, for beings like us with physical bodies, the sensory signals received to the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body) are processed by the brain and those data are sent to the manōmaya kāya. Those signals are sensed by the manōmaya kāya.
  • As we have discussed in recent posts in this series, a physical body (of a human or an animal) starts with a single cell called a zygote. The development of a complete human body starting with that one cell is another fascinating story. Scientists have no idea how that happens via a program that is encoded in that single cell. Who designed that program? We will discuss this in the next post.
Beings in Brahma and Deva Realms

6. Brahmas do not have an āhāraja kāya and just have the kammaja kāya. The kammaja kāya of a brahma has only a hadaya vatthu and TWO pasāda rūpa (cakkhu and sōta) for seeing and hearing. Still they can see and hear with that ultra-fine “body” without having any eyes or ears (and brains) like ours. Of course, it is very hard for us to imagine such a living being.

  • Therefore, a brahma with just a manōmaya kāya has a mass less than that of an electron. We cannot see even a cell or an atom, let alone an electron. Now we can understand why we should not think of “brahma bodies” in the sense that we are used to.
  • Those brahmas do not have the ability taste food, smell odors, or to touch things physically like we do (i.e., they do not have ghāna, jivhā, and kāya pasāda rūpa).
  • By the way, brahmas do not need food; their lives are sustained by kammic energy (only the hadaya vatthu and the two pasāda rūpa of cakkhu pasāda and sōta pasāda need to be maintained).

7. Dēvās do have āhāraja kāya, but that is much more fine and we would not see a dēva if we come face-to-face with one.

  • They have all five physical senses and their food is just a drink called “amurta” (this is probably not the correct Pāli word, but that is the Sinhala — and probably Sanskrit — name for it).
  • Therefore, we need to be careful not carry over our perceptions of “heavy bodies” to bodies of other beings in other realms. It is said that millions of dēvas and brahmas were present to hear the first discourse by the Buddha. However, those five ascetics probably did not even realize that at that time.
What is a Gandhabba?

8. A human (or an animal) has a both a manōmaya kāya and a āhāraja kāya. But the manōmaya kāya of a human has a special name of gandhabba due to the following reason.

  • A human bhava starts with the generation of a manōmaya kāya (or kammaja kāya) by kammic energy. For example, if an animal dies and gets a human bhava (which is extremely rare), a human manōmaya kāya will come out of that dead animal. If a dēva dies and gets a human bhava, a human manōmaya kāya will appear in the human realm.
  • That human manōmaya kāya has a hadaya vatthu and five pasāda rūpa as mentioned above. However, it can absorb aroma (scents from plants and even food), and to get a bit more dense (unlike a brahma). Thus the name gandhabba (“gandha” + “abba” or “inhaling aroma”) for the manōmaya kāya of a human (or an animal).
  • Therefore, the name gandhabba is used only for the manōmaya kāya of humans and animals.
  • This relatively dense “body” of a gandhabba still cannot be seen by normal humans, even though they live among us. They are said to be in the “para lōka” (which is within the human realm).
What is the Connection of Gandhabba to Patisandhi Viññāna?

9. Another phrase used in some suttas to indicate a manōmaya kāya of a human or animal (i.e., a gandhabba) is patisandhi viññāna.

  • As we had discussed before, a human gandhabba could live for thousands of years until the end of that human existence of “human bhava“. During that time, it can give rise to many “human lives” (jāti) with different physical bodies.
  • For example, suppose one of those human jāti ends. At that moment, the gandhabba comes out of the dead body and waits for another “matching womb” (gati of the gandhabba has to match those of the parents, especially the mother). When such a womb becomes available, gandhabba is drawn to that womb. This is described in the post, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception“.
  • In the Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 38), this is stated as, “descending of the gandhabba to the womb”. In the Maha Nidana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 15) it is stated as “patisandhi viññāna descending to the womb”. This is because that gandhabba was created by a patisandhi viññāna. This is discussed in detail in the post, “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipitaka“.
Manomaya Kaya of Humans and Animals is Shielded by the Physical Body

10. A question may have come up in the mind of some readers: Why cannot a gandhabba in a human physical body directly sense the outside world without the help of the five physical senses (eyes, ears, etc), if the brahmas can do that?

  • When a manōmaya kāya is trapped inside a heavy physical body, that manōmaya kāya is shielded from the external world. As long as the gandhabba is inside the physical body, it is unable to get those “sense inputs” directly. Those sense inputs come through our “sense doors”, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the body. Those signals are then analyzed by the brain and sent to the gandhabba (manōmaya kāya) to be sensed; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“.
  • We can compare this situation to a human operator inside a totally enclosed military tank. That operator cannot see or hear anything outside. Audio and video equipment mounted on the tank send those signals to an on-board computer, which analyzes and displays them for the operator.
  • In this analogy, the video camera and the audio equipment mounted on the tank are like the eyes and ears of a human. The computer is like the brain. Without getting those signals, the operator is totally blind and deaf to the outside world. In the same way, if the eyes are ears are damaged, or the brain is damaged, the manōmaya kāya cannot get those sense inputs.
  • A detailed discussion at: “Our Mental Body – Gandhabba“.

11. But that manōmaya kāya can be “kicked out of the physical body” in a traumatic situation, mostly in cases of heart operations; such cases are categorized as “out-of-body experiences” (OBE). In such cases, those people report being able to see doctors perform operations on their own bodies from the ceiling (with their manōmaya kāya).

  • It may also happens to people whom the doctors thought had died, but “come back to life” within a short time, and report being able to travel with their manōmaya kāya. Such cases are categorized as “near-death experiences” (NDE).
  • Some others report being able to do “astral travel” with their manōmaya kāya whenever they like; see, “Astral projection“. At least some reports in this category seem to be valid, as I pointed out in the post referred to below. Reports of OBE and NDE are more trustworthy because doctors and nurses confirm the accounts of those patients.
  • These are discussed in the post, “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE)“.
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