Does Gandhabba Mean “Semen”?

Gandhabba (manomaya kāya), related to paṭisandhi viññāṇa, is a cornerstone concept in Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma.) This essay critiques a recent online discussion with the above title.

November 4, 2022; revised November 16, 2022 (#15 added with other revisions)

Introduction

1. I wrote this essay after reading an essay by Bhikkhu Sujāto and the ensuing discussion: “Does gandhabba mean “semen”?” It is truly saddening to read the essay and the follow-up discussion. There are so many problems with this essay. I will address only three glaring issues.

  1. The first mistake is to define a sentient being with just the rupa aggregate (in this case, semen.) 
  2. Trying to make sense of the term “gandhabba” using Vedic literature.
  3. Not comprehending paṭisandhi viññāṇa (and even the general concept of viññāṇa.)

The essay was written on October 24, 2022, and the mindless discussion (based on “semen” as the “seed of life”) continues as of today, November 4, 2022. We will first look at the three items listed above.

Rupa (or Rupa Aggregate) Alone Cannot Define a Lifestream in Rebirth Process

2. A sentient being (lifestream) is ALWAYS associated with five aggregates of rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.

  • All five aggregates may not arise at all times for a living being. For example, only a rupa manifests for a being in the asañña realm because no thoughts arise there.
  • However, “past components” of all five aggregates are associated with that asañña satta (being.) Five aggregates DEFINE a living being who has been in the rebirth process from a “beginningless beginning.”
  • Semen has only the rupa aggregate. Where is the connection to paṭisandhi viññāṇa in semen?
Trying to Explain Buddha Dhamma with Vedic Literature

3. Vedic literature uses the Sanskrit word “gandharva.” The author of the essay that started the discussion, Bhikkhu Sujāto, spends most of his essay quoting the Upanishads. See “Does gandhabba mean “semen”?

  • That leads to more confusion than clarity. It is like explaining Paṭicca Samuppada in Buddha Dhamma by discussing “Pratītyasamutpāda,” the Vedic version.
  • The Buddha spent much time trying to dispel wrong views like those. So, why even discuss Vedic literature?
  • I think I know the answer. The author cannot connect paṭisandhi viññāṇa and gandhabba (manomaya kāya.) Thus, he is trying to incorporate things he has learned about gandharva from the Vedas, trying to make sense!
Does the Author Understand Viññāṇa and Paṭisandhi Viññāṇa?

4. The third point is the following. Bhikkhu Sujāto, as well as most English translators of the Tipiṭaka, first need to understand that Pāli words in the Tipiṭaka can have very different meanings depending on the context. To take just one example, viññāṇa SHOULD NOT be translated as “consciousness” in all the suttās. They are still doing it to this date! See “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.”

  • They should first understand the difference between vipāka viññāṇa (one of the six types of consciousness: cakkhu, sota, ghāna, jivhā, kāya, mano) and kamma viññāṇa, which is more than “consciousness”!
  • Paṭisandhi viññāṇa is a special type of a kamma viññāṇa.
  • Now, let us discuss some key concepts in Buddha Dhamma that can shine some light on this issue.
Any Viññāṇa Cannot Exist by Itself Without a Rupa

5. Viññāṇa (including the paṭisandhi viññāṇa in this case) CANNOT arise or be sustained without a rupa.

  • Several suttās in SN 22 clearly state “coming and going of (kamma)viññāṇa, its passing away and reappearing, its growth, increase, and maturity” cannot happen in the absence of the other four aggregates (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra). See the “Upaya Sutta (SN 22.53)” I have linked to the specific verse.
  • Therefore, a rupa (made of suddhāṭṭhaka) MUST be present to accompany the paṭisandhi viññāṇa, i.e., “a paṭisandhi viññāṇa cannot descend to a womb” without accompanied by a rupa. That is the requirement for a gandhabba!
  • Another specific reference is “1.6. Gatikathā” of the Paṭisambhidāmagga, which states, “Paṭisandhikkhaṇe pañcakkhandhā sahajātapaccayā honti,..” or “At the moment of Paṭisandhi all five aggregates (pañcakkhandhā) arise together (sahajāta)..”
  • Translating “paṭisandhi viññāṇa descending to a womb” literally as “rebirth-consciousness descending to a womb” is similar to the error of translating viññāṇa as consciousness in all situations, as pointed out in “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.” One needs to have a clear understanding of the fundamentals of Buddha Dhamma to correctly translate “succinct (uddēsa) verses” in some suttas. See “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
Gandhabba (Manomaya Kāya) Is Related to Paṭisandhi Viññāṇa

6. Gandhabba (or manomaya kāya) is born when a being’s present existence (bhava) ends, and a new existence is grasped at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. Cuti means the end of the current existence, and paṭisandhi is grasping another. 

  • For example, the moment of the end of human existence is the end of a lifetime for that human gandhabba (manomaya kāya) which could be many thousands of years. That gandhabba may be born with many such physical bodies within its lifetime. Between “two consecutive human bodies,” that lifestream is in the gandhabba state, with an invisible “manomaya kāya.”
  • A manomaya kāya of a human has seven suddhāṭṭhaka-size rupa: hadaya vatthu, five pasāda rupa, and bhava dasaka. When that human has a physical human body, the gandhabba is inside it. As explained in the “Mahārāhulovāda Sutta (MN 62),” the physical body itself is lifeless unless a gandhabba is inside; see “Mahārāhulovāda Sutta and Ānāpānasati.”
  • The cuti citta is immediately followed by the paṭisandhi citta that grasps the next existence. Thus, that paṭisandhi citta is the paṭisandhi viññāṇa (viññāṇa arising at the moment which grasps the next existence.)

7. Simultaneous with grasping the new existence (with paṭisandhi viññāṇa), kammic energy creates the manomaya kāya of the next existence. Regardless of the next existence, certain essential constituents are in that manomaya kāya, including a hadaya vatthu, the seat of mind for the next existence. It is “an energized suddhāṭṭhaka.” See #4 of “Manomaya Kāya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body” and “Gandhabba – Only in Human and Animal Realms.”

  • For example, if the next existence is an arupāvacara Brahma, its manomaya kāya will have only a hadaya vatthu. That is the only rupa that Brahma would have. A rupāvacara Brahma will have hadaya vatthu and two pasāda rupa (cakkhu and sota), thus enabling it to see and hear. Devās will have seven suddhāṭṭhaka-size rupa, just like humans. But they also have instantaneous births (just like the Brahmās); thus, the term gandhabba is not used for any of those (Brahmās and Devās.)

Click to open the pdf file: Births in Different Realms

  • Animals are more similar to humans, with the arising of an “animal gandhabba” at the paṭisandhi moment. That gandhabba will be born with a physical body by getting into a womb in the case of apes, dogs, etc., or an egg as in the case of chickens.

8. Everything within the Pāli Tipiṭaka is self-consistent. There is no need to resort to numerous ancient literature just because they exist. Many people believe that expanding to Vedic literature will show one’s scholarship. But for those who are interested in learning the actual teachings of the Buddha, those are distractions. 

  • If people find contradictions within the Tipiṭaka (as many do in discussion forums), it is due to a lack of understanding of basic concepts.
  • I laid out the problem in translating viññāṇa as consciousness in the post “Distortion of Pāli Keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.” 
  • How can anyone explain deeper concepts like gandhabba or many suttās on deep concepts without understanding viññāṇa
Comparison to Author’s Previous Translations

9. Bhikkhu Sujāto starts the essay by quoting a verse in the “Assalāyana Sutta (MN 93)” (I have linked to that verse)

Idha mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti; evaṁ tiṇṇaṁ sannipātā gabbhassa avakkanti hotī’ti.”

His translation: “An embryo is conceived 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.”

  • So, he has translated “gandhabba” as “the spirit being reborn.”

10. The second sutta that he mentioned in his opening essay, “Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (MN 38)” (I have linked to the same verse as in #9 above)

  • His translation is the same as in #9 above.
  • Note that there is no explanation of what that “spirit” is!  

11. But after discussing the Upanishad‘s description of “gandharva” he has now changed his mind. To quote from the end of the essay (posted on October 24, 2022):

“Thus we should translate something like: 

An embryo is conceived 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 virile spirit is potent.”

  • Note that he has now changed his mind about the translations of MN 93 and MN 38 of the Pāli word “gandhabba” from “the spirit being reborn” to “the virile spirit is potent.”
  • What made him to change his mind?

12. During the discussion, Bhikkhu Sujāto wrote: “The biggest single problem with the later Buddhist idea that “gandhabba = rebirth consciousness” is that there is then little role for the man.”

  • He got a resolution from the Upanishads
  • To quote from that essay: “Rebirth has a cosmic and organic dimension that is absent from Buddhism. The Kausitiki says “the soul is produced from semen”. The atman is a complex and many-facted idea in the Upanishads, but it is crucial to understand that there is an important thread that sees the individual atman as a quasi-physical entity that is passed to the mother through the semen. It goes without saying that the mother is regarded as merely the incubator of the embryo, not as the source of its atman.”
Conclusions

13. To summarize Bhikkhu Sujāto’s essay: The “three things” needed for an embryo to be conceived are – the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and semen (virile spirit) from the father!

  • He may still believe that paṭisandhi viññāṇa needs to “get in” for the conception (even though he left out paṭisandhi viññāṇa in the essay.) However, that still is not compatible with #5 above. It is a gandhabba that “gets in” or “merges with” the zygote produced by the mother’s egg and father’s sperm; see “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception.
  • As discussed in #8 of “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka“ the bhāva dasaka – an indicator of the sex of the baby — also “descends to the womb” at the moment of conception. A gandhabba kāya consists of 7 suddhāṭṭhaka; see #9 of “Gandhabba – Only in Human and Animal Realms.”
  • Thus, the correct summary is: The “three things” needed for an embryo to be conceived are – the mother and father come together to produce a zygote, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and a gandhabba created by paṭisandhi viññāṇa! That gandhabba may have been created by kammic energy (in paṭisandhi viññāṇa) even years ago!

14. To illustrate this critical point, let us consider the following case. Suppose a Deva dies (at the end of Deva bhava) and is reborn a human in New York.  That Deva grasps the human bhava while in that Deva realm (far above the Earth) with a paṭisandhi viññāṇa. Is he saying that the paṭisandhi viññāṇa then “descends” to the womb in New York at the moment of death of the Deva?

  • No. All five aggregates must arise simultaneously at the moment of paṭisandhi (see #5 above.) A human gandhabba (with rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa) shows up in the human realm at the moment that Deva dies (Here, rupa means the hadaya vatthu (seat of mind) and a set of pasāda rupa in the manomaya kāya of gandhabba.) Getting into a womb can happen even years later. Uncountable Gandhabbas are waiting for a womb!
  • Conception in New York can occur precisely at that moment of paṭisandhi (unlikely) or much later (usually).
  • The problem is not understanding that grasping human bhava happens at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment (with the creation of a gandhabba by kammic energy). In contrast, birth with a human body (jāti) starts later when that gandhabba enters a womb. See  “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.” 
  • For a Tipiṭaka-based discussion on gandhabba with many sutta references, see “Gandhabba State – Evidence from Tipiṭaka.“ 

15. Note: Forum thread is “Post on “Does Gandhabba Mean “Semen”?

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