Our Mental Body – Gandhabba

December 26, 2016

1. Grasping the message of the Buddha requires two essential ingredients, as I have been stressing throughout the site: (i) It is easier done with a mind that has less defilements (kilēsa or keles or klēsha), (ii) One needs to go beyond learning mundane interpretations of key concepts.

  • If those two conditions are satisfied, grasping deeper Dhamma concepts will not be a difficult task. If one can comprehend — not merely to memorize — the key concepts, it actually becomes easy to avoid getting the “vipareetha saññā” or the “incorrect impression” of a given concept.
  • This process gradually leads to the comprehension of “anicca saññā” that is the key to the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana.
  • In this post, we will start a discussion that will lead to a better explanation of “saññā” (which is one of the five aggregates) normally translated as “perception”.

2. In this subsection, we will discuss how we grasp a given concept that is explained to us via any one of many human languages that are in use today.

  • In order to do that, it is essential to understand why the mental body (manōmaya kaya or gandhabba) is primary — initiating all our thoughts, speech, and actions. The physical body that we value so much is secondary.
  • While our brains help us grasp what is expressed in a given language (and we have to learn a given language), a gandhabba can grasp that message directly — without using a brain or eyes, ears, etc. that are associated with the physical body. The  gandhabba — when outside the physical body — can see and hear without using eyes and ears, and grasp what is expressed by thoughts of other beings directly (where allowed by their kammic potential).
  • gandhabbas — and most living beings — communicate among themselves via “saññā“; there is no language for them in the sense of languages that we use.
  • This is somewhat similar to how we experience dreams. We do not use our ears to hear in the dreams; we just “perceive” what others say in our dreams. This is the closest analogy with how a gandhabba hears when outside a physical body. Seeing is the same way: in dreams, we don’t use our eyes to see; our eyes are closed when we dream. Both hearing and seeing are done with the mind.

3. We crave ourselves physical bodies because we enjoy sense pleasures associated with smells, tastes, and body touches that are available in the human and dēva lōka. 

  • However, in order to experience those three types of sense contacts, our mental bodies need to be trapped inside physical bodies. There is a price we pay for those sense enjoyments, because those physical bodies are subject to rapid and unexpected decay and also have relatively short lifetimes around 100 years.
  • Furthermore, when the mental body is enclosed or trapped inside a physical body, it loses the ability to directly see external objects, hear external sounds, and also grasping dhamma (concepts). Therefore, all six sense inputs now need to be processed by the brain and be converted to a form (“saññā“) that can be grasped by the trapped mental body (gandhabba). 
  • The sense of smell, taste, or body touches are not available to beings in the higher 20 (brahma) realms; those beings just have mental bodies (with just a trace of matter) just like our gandhabbas. Just like those brahmas, the gandhabbas cannot sense smell, taste, or body touches, but can “directly see, hear, and grasp concepts” without the aid of a brain when outside a physical body. 
  • Please contemplate and grasp what is meant by those statements before proceeding further.

4. Another important factor is the difference between the lifetime of a physical body and that of a mental body (gandhabba).

  • A human gandhabba that is born at the cuti-patisandhi moment can possibly live for many hundreds to many thousands of years. Within a given “human bhava“, there can be many repeated births as a human with a human body; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“.
  • When a physical body dies (and if more kammic energy for the human bhava remains), that gandhabba comes out of the dead body and waits for a suitable womb to re-enter and make a new human body. This process can happen many times during a given human bhava. Each time a different physical body is acquired by the gandhabba as discussed below.
  • Therefore, it makes more sense to focus on the well-being of the mental body (gandhabba) than on the short-lived physical body.

5. There are a few exceptions to the above process.

  • If one commits an ānantāriya papa kamma (killing a parent, for example), the gandhabba that comes out of a dead physical body “cannot sustain” that strong kamma vipaka and undergoes a cuti-patisandhi moment and will be instantaneously born in an apāya suitable for that strong kamma.
  • If one develops ariya or anāriya jhāna, then this also become a “good” ānantāriya kamma and one will be born in a brahma realm (corresponding to the highest jhānic state attained) by skipping the remaining human births. However, those get to brahma realms via anāriya jhānas will come back to human or lower realms. Any ariya (starting with a Sotapanna) who attains āriya jhānas will never come back to kama lōka. Of course, a Sotapanna (Sakadagami) without āriya jhānas will be reborn human (dēva) realms.
  • This is also why an Arahant is not reborn, even if there is kammic energy left over for the human bhava. The gandhabba that comes out “cannot bear” the mindset of an Arahant, and will instantaneously undergo a cuti-patisandhi moment; but since an Arahant will not grasp a new bhava, he/she will not be reborn.
  • Those above cases — where the human bhava is prematurely terminated — can be compared to the burning of a heater coil used in an immersion heater, when the heated coil is taken out of the water: As long a s the heater coil is immersed in the water,  it can “bear” the heat; but once out of the water, it will quickly burn out. The physical human body has the unique capability of being able to “bear” any of those states discussed above.

6. Even though there is no discussion about the gandhabba in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, it is a critical concept in Buddha Dhamma. The Buddha compared a gandhabba (sometimes also called a Tirōkuddha) coming out of a physical body to a sword being pulled out of the sheath that it is stored in.

  • People with abhiññā powers can move the gandhabba out of the physical body at will.
  • There are also people who had cultivated abhiññā powers in recent previous births and are able to do it at will even though they have less control over the mental body; they can float to the ceiling and watch their inter physical body lying on the bed, for example. Furthermore, during heart operations, the gandhabba can come out and watch the operation from the above, and provide details about the operations later. 

7. The gandhabba has only a trace of matter; it cannot be seen or touched, even though it has a trace of matter. It is our mental body or manōmaya kaya.

  • This mental body can be visualized as fine mesh spread throughout the physical body with the seat of the mind (hadaya vatthu) overlapping the physical heart.
  • If that mental body comes out of the physical body, the physical body becomes as inert as a piece of wood (as a dead body is).

8. Let us start by addressing some key objections that you may have on the concept of a mental body controlling the physical body. First, how can a mental body move a heavy physical body?

  • How an almost weightless gandhabba can move a heavy physical body can be clarified by comparing it to how a human operator controls a heavy military tank from the inside of that totally enclosed tank. This is a very good analogy, where the human operator plays the role of the gandhabba.
  • The human operator of course does not have enough energy to move the tank. He merely controls the direction of the movement by instructing the on-board computer; the energy to actually move the tank comes from the fuel stored in the tank.
  • In the same way, the mental body (gandhabba) instructs the brain to generate required bodily movements or speech; here the brain plays the role of the computer in the military tank analogy. The small amount of energy needed for the gandhabba comes from the kammic energy that led to human bhava; energy for actual bodily movements (including speech) comes from the food we eat.
  • Back in the 17th century, French philosopher Rene Descartes proposed that there is an immaterial mind controlling the material body. But this proposal had a major problem of explaining how an immaterial mind cause a heavy material body to move. The Buddha –2600 years ago — had described how this actually happens, as discussed above. More details will be provided in future posts, and some posts are already in the Abhidhamma section.

9. In the above analogy, the operator is totally shielded from the external world. He can monitor the outside environment only via the audio and video equipment mounted on the tank. The video cameras, for example, feed in videos to an on-board computer, which analyzes and displays it on a monitor for the operator to see.

  • In the same way, our physical eyes send picture to our brain, which analyzes them, converts to a form (“saññā“) that can be “seen” — or comprehended — by the gandhabba inside. So, our brain is the computer that conveys the information to the gandhabba that is really trapped inside the solid physical body; see, “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body“.
  • The gandhabba accesses other four physical sense inputs the same way, with the help of ears, tongue, nose, and the body.
  • Our memories, future plans, etc (all mental) are also “out there” (in the manō lōka) but of course cannot be seen. They are collectively called “dhamma“; see, “What are Dhamma? – A Deeper Analysis“. gandhabba accesses those with the help of the mana indriya in the brain, which is the sixth sense input (like eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, etc), and has not been identified by science yet.
  • The manō lōka co-exists with the rūpa lōka (material world); see, “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental“.

10. Another possible question is: “How does the gandhabba see and hear when outside the human body?”

  • It is only in the human (and animal) realms that beings communicate via speech (and bodily gestures). In other realms, beings communicate directly via saññā, one of the five aggregates (pancakkhandha). While not all beings can communicate with all other (it depends on each realm), where it is possible, communications takes place via saññā generated in one’s thoughts.
  • This experience is similar to one’s experience with dreams. In a dream, we do not “hear” what others say in the same way when we hear speech normally, but we just perceive what they are saying. 
  • In fact, this is how those with abhiññā powers (even a few of us with gati from previous lives where they had such abhiññā powers in recent lives) can communicate with beings in other realms.

11. Then another question may arise, “Why do people look different in successive rebirths?”. That is because the physical body in each human life (within the same human bhava) arise with contributions from the parents for that life.

  • Even though the gandhabba brings in his/her gati (habits), asava (cravings), kilēsa (mental impurities), etc from the previous life, the physical body for the new life has major contributions from the new parents.
  • Therefore, the DNA of the physical bodies of two successive lives could be different due to this reason. The building of a new physical body is described in the post, “What does Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) say about Birth Control?“.
  • Even then, a gandhabba normally is matched with parents that have similar gati.

12. Another interesting piece of information comes from how the Buddha (and others with iddhi bala) traveled to dēva or brahma lōka with the manōmaya kaya (which is the same as gandhabba), leaving the physical body behind (the physical body does not die in this case, and is kept alive by the rūpa jivitindriya). Upon returning, the manōmaya kaya can re-enter the physical body.

  • Those who attain the fourth jhāna can develop iddhi powers to be able to separate the manōmaya kaya from the physical body and travel far with that manōmaya kaya. The Buddha stated that just as a sword can be pulled out of its sheath, those with iddhi powers can pull the manōmaya kaya out of the physical body.
  • In the suttas it is said that the Buddha visited dēva or brahma lōkas “within the time that takes a bent arm to be straightened”.
  • As an aside, it is also possible for some of those with iddhi powers to travel with their physical bodies. That involves a different mechanism which is not relevant to this discussion.

13. Even today, there are some ordinary people who can dissociate their mental body from the physical body and can “astral travel”. That manōmaya kaya can then go to distant places within very short times (this is what is called astral travel in the present day; see the Wikipedia article, “Astral projection“.

  • In fact, a gandhabba is the same as an “astral body” that is described in such accounts; see, for example, “Journeys Out of the Body: The Classic Work on Out-of-Body Experience”,  by Robert Monroe (1992). There are two sequels to that book, as well as books by others; accounts in at least some of those books are consistent with the above mechanism.
  • In addition, the gandhabba can come out of the physical body under stressful conditions, in particular during heart operations. Many such accounts by a cardiologist have been documented in the book, “Consciousness Beyond Life”, by Pim van Lommel (2010).

14. Many rebirth account features can be explained by the  correct interpretation where the manōmaya kaya (gandhabba) inherits many successive (but time separated) physical bodies.

  • In rebirth stories, there is always a “time gap” between successive human births (jati). They are always separated by several years or at least few years. In between those successive lives, that lifestream lives as a gandhabba, without a physical body.
  • In most rebirth stories, the previous human life was terminated unexpectedly, like in an accident or a killing. Therefore, the kammic energy for the human bhava had not been exhausted, and the gandhabba just came out of the dead body and waited for another womb to enter.
  • The Buddha told Vacchagotta that the gandhabba survives that intervening time by using tanha as ahara. Some gandhabbas can “inhale” aroma from plants, fruits, etc, too.

15. If one has been following — and trying to “live” the moral life recommended in the previous posts in this “Living Dhamma” section — it would be easier to follow the upcoming posts as we will be diving a bit deeper.

  • One aspect of realizing the anicca nature is to see the futility of expecting to have a “future happy life” by trying to make one’s physical body to be the “main focus”.
  • While it is essential to keep one’s body in good condition by eating well and by engaging in a good exercise program, it is even more important to realize that this body will only last about 100 years, and the latter part of that could be burdened with unexpected physical ailments.
  • Thus one should try to improve the condition of the mental body (gandhabba) by cultivating good gati and getting rid of bad gati.

Next, “Saññā – What It Really Means“, ..

Print Friendly, PDF & Email