July 19, 2019; revised September 8, 2019
1. There are words in Pāli that can have similar meanings. But one word may be better than another word in a particular situation. That is also true in English or any other language.
- In Buddha Dhamma, several Pāli words are used in different contexts regarding the “mental body”. They are 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 the 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, Brahma does not have a physical body at all. Then 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. That is because we are not used to the concept of a “living being” without a solid body.
- The following discussion lays out a simple picture (with a few omissions to keep it more uncomplicated).
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 is 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, the word “body” sometimes implies a collection of parts. Some examples are, a “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 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 our javana citta generates this energy.
- “Kammaja kāya” is the primary component of the manōmaya kāya. That is because it is the first kāya “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 made of the 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.” A physical body grows by using energy intake from the food we eat.
- For beings like us with solid physical bodies, the sensory signals are first received by the five physical senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). Then the brain processes those signals and sends them to the manōmaya kāya. The manōmaya kāya senses those signals.
- Eyes and ears, for example, do not see or hear. Eyes and ears pass those signals to the brain. The brain processes those signals send to the corresponding pasāda rūpa in the manōmaya kāya; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
- 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, beginning with that one cell is another fascinating story. Scientists have no idea how that happens via a program that is in the DNA of that single cell. Who designed that program? See “Origin of Life.”
Beings in Brahma and Deva Realms
6. Brahmā 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 tough 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 same sense as a “solid body.”
- Those Brahmā cannot taste the food, smell odors, or touch things physically as we do. In other words, they do not have ghāna, jivhā, and kāya pasāda rūpa.
- By the way, Brahmā do not need food. Kammic energy sustains their lives. 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 finer, and we would not see a dēva if we come face-to-face with one.
- They have all five physical senses. Their food is just a drink called “amurta.” That is probably not the correct Pāli word, but that is the Sinhala and Sanskrit name for it.
- Therefore, we need to be careful not to carry over our perceptions of “heavy bodies” to bodies of other beings in other realms. Millions of dēvas and Brahmā were present to hear the first discourse by the Buddha, according to the Vinaya Pitaka. However, those five ascetics probably did not even realize that at that time.
What is Gandhabba?
8. A human (or an animal) has 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 denser (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.
- Normal humans cannot see that relatively dense “body” of a gandhabba. They are 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 suttā 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 a matching womb becomes available, gandhabba is drawn to that womb. That is in the post, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.”
- The Mahā Tanhāsankhaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 38), describes “descending of the gandhabba to the womb.” The Maha Nidana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 15) describes that as “patisandhi viññāna descending to the womb.” That is because a patisandhi viññāna created that gandhabba. That is discussed in detail in the post, “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka.”
The Physical Body shields Manomaya Kaya of Humans and Animals
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 Brahmā can do that?
- The dense physical body shields the manōmaya kāya of the gandhabba. As long as the gandhabba is inside the physical body, it is unable to get those “sense inputs” directly. Those sensory inputs come through our “sense doors,” eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the body. The brain processes those signals and transmits them to the gandhabba (manōmaya kāya). See, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
- We can compare this situation to a human operator inside an enclosed military tank. That operator cannot see or hear anything outside. Audio and video equipment mounted on the tank sends those signals to an on-board computer, which analyzes and displays them for the operator.
- In that analogy, video camera and audio equipment mounted on the tank act like the eyes and ears of a human. The computer is like the brain. Without getting those signals, the operator is blind and deaf to the outside world. In the same way, the manōmaya kāya cannot receive those sense inputs if the eyes and ears are damaged, or the brain is damaged.
- 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 claims are “out-of-body experiences” (OBE). In such cases, some patients have reported being able to see doctors perform operations on their bodies from the ceiling (with their manōmaya kāya).
- It may also happen to people whom the doctors thought had died, but “come back to life” within a short time. They report being able to travel with their manōmaya kāya. Such cases are “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).”