Our Mental Body – Gandhabba

December 26, 2016; revised February 1, 2020; July 14, 2022


1. Grasping the message of the Buddha requires two essential ingredients. (i) It is easier done with a mind that has fewer defilements (kilēsa or keles or klēsha), and (ii) One needs to go beyond learning mundane interpretations of crucial concepts.

  • If those two conditions are satisfied, grasping deeper Dhamma concepts will not be difficult. If one can comprehend — not merely memorize — the key concepts, it becomes easy to avoid getting the “viparīta saññā” or the “incorrect impression” of a given concept.
  • This process gradually leads to the comprehension of “anicca saññā,” which is the key to the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.
  • In this post, we will start a discussion that will lead to a better explanation of “saññā” (which is one of the five aggregates) generally translated as “perception.”
Mental Body Is Primary and Physical Body Is Secondary

2. We will discuss how we grasp a given concept using any of the many human languages in use today.

  • It is essential to understand that the mental body (manōmaya kāya 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 understand that message directly — without using a brain or eyes, ears, etc. 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).
  • gandhabbā — and most living beings — communicate among themselves via “saññā.” No “spoken language” is involved since they cannot “talk” like we do. See “Ghost 1990 Movie – Good Depiction of Gandhabba Concept.”
  • That is somewhat similar to how we experience dreams. We do not use our ears to hear in our dreams. We “perceive” what others say in our dreams. That is the closest analogy to 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 remain closed when we dream. Both hearing and seeing are done just with the sōta and cakkhu pasāda rupa and the mind.
Why Do We Highly Value Our Physical Bodies?

Of course, until a Buddha comes to this world and explains the existence of a mental body, we would not even be aware of that distinction. Even today, scientists believe that the physical body is all we have and that our thoughts arise in the inert brain!

3. We highly value our physical bodies because we enjoy sense pleasures associated with smells, tastes, and body touches.

  • However, to experience those three types of sensory contact, our mental bodies need to be trapped inside physical bodies. We pay the price for those sense enjoyments because those physical bodies are subject to rapid and unexpected decay and 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 see external objects directly, hear external sounds, and recall dhammā (memories/concepts). All six sensory inputs now need to be processed by the brain and converted to a form (“saññā”) that can be grasped by the trapped mental body (gandhabba). For a more in-depth analysis, see “Brain – Interface between Mind and Body.”
  • The sense of smell, taste, or body touch is unavailable to beings in the higher 20 (Brahma) realms. Those Brahmā have mental bodies (with just a trace of matter) like our gandhabbā. Just like those Brahmā, the gandhabbā 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.
The “Mental Body” Lives Much Longer!

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

  • A human gandhabba born at the cuti-patisandhi moment can live for hundreds to 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.
Some Exceptions To The Above Rules

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

  • If one commits a ānantariya papa kamma (killing a parent, for example), then gandhabba that comes out of a dead physical body “cannot survive.” Because of that strong kamma vipāka, it undergoes a cuti-patisandhi moment and will be instantaneously born in an apāya suitable for that strong kamma.
  • If one develops Ariya or anariya jhāna, it also becomes a “good” ānantariya kamma. One will be born in a Brahma realm (corresponding to the highest jhānic state attained) by skipping the remaining human births. However, those who get to Brahma realms via anariya jhānā will return to human or lower realms. Any Ariya (starting with a Sōtapanna) who attains Ariya jhānā will never come back to kāma lōka. Of course, a Sōtapanna (Sakadāgāmi) without Ariya jhānā will be reborn in human (dēva) realms.
  • That 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. Still, since an Arahant will not grasp a new bhava, they will not be reborn.
  • Those above cases — where the human bhava prematurely terminates — are similar to the burning of a heater coil used in an immersion heater when the heated coil comes out of the water. The heater coil can “bear” the heat as long as it is in the water. But once out of the water, the heater coil will quickly burn out. The physical human body can “bear” any of those states (ānantariya kamma) discussed above. That is why a person who killed their mother will not be born in an apāya immediately; only when the gandhabba comes out of the body will it be burnt, and new birth in an apāya will start.
Why Are Most People Not Aware of The Gandhabba Concept?

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 coming out of a physical body to a sword coming out of its sheath. The gandhabba is sometimes called a Tirōkuddha in Suttas.

  • People with abhiññā powers can move the gandhabba out of the physical body at will.
  • Some people had cultivated abhiññā powers in recent previous births and can do it at will even though they have less control over the mental body. One can float to the ceiling and watch one’s physical body lying on the bed, for example. Furthermore, during heart operations, the gandhabba can come out and view the process from the above, and provide details about it later. See “Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) and Manōmaya Kāya.”

7. The gandhabba has only a trace of matter even hard to imagine.  It is our mental body or manōmaya kāya.

  • To give an analogy: A barely seen dust particle may have millions of atoms. The “material stuff” in a gandhabba is million-fold smaller than an atom! The gandhabba is more like an “energy field.”
  • This mental body is like a 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).
How Can a “Mental Body” Control a Heavy Physical Body?

8. Let us start by addressing some fundamental objections to the mental body’s control of the physical body. First, how can a “mental body” move a heavy physical body?

  • A good analogy is to compare it to how a human operator controls a heavy military tank from the inside of that enclosed tank. There, 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 onboard computer. The power to move the tank comes from the fuel stored in the military 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 power that led to human bhava. The energy required for bodily movements (including speech) comes from our food.
Details of The “Operator Analogy”

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, can feed videos to an onboard computer, which analyzes and displays it on a monitor for the operator to see.

  • In the same way, our physical eyes send a picture to our brain, which analyzes them, and converts them 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 the other four sensory inputs the same way, with the help of the ears, tongue, nose, and body.
  • Our memories, 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.”
How Does A Gandhabba Hear When Outside a Physical Body?

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, living beings communicate directly via saññā, one of the five aggregates (pancakkhandha). While not all living beings can communicate with all other (it depends on each realm), where it is possible, communications take 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. In a dream, we perceive what they are saying. 
  • That is how those with abhiññā powers (even a few of us with gati from previous lives where they had such abhiññā skills in recent lives) can communicate with beings in other realms.
Why Do People Have Different Physical Bodies in Successive Human Lives?

11. It is the “same” gandhabba that is born with human bodies in successive human lives. Then another question may arise, “Why do people look different in successive rebirths?”. That is because the physical body in each human birth (within the same human bhava) arises 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 each birth has significant 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 needs to match the gati of the parents.
One Can Travel to Deva or Brahma Realms With the Manōmaya Kāya

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 kāya. Here the physical body is left behind (the physical body does not die in this case and is kept alive by the rūpa jivitindriya). Upon returning, the manōmaya kāya can re-enter the physical body.

  • Those who attain the fourth jhāna can develop iddhi powers can separate the manōmaya kāya from the physical body. Then they can travel far with that manōmaya kāya. Just as a sword comes out of its sheath, those with iddhi powers can pull the manōmaya kāya out of the physical body.
  • Suttas state that the Buddha visited dēva or Brahma lōkas “within the time that takes a bent arm to be straightened.”
  • It is also possible for some of those with iddhi powers to travel with their physical bodies. That involves a different mechanism that is not relevant to this discussion.
Connection to “Astral Travel”

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

  • 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.
  • Also, the gandhabba can come out of the physical body under stressful conditions, particularly during heart operations. Many such accounts by a cardiologist have been documented in the book, “Consciousness Beyond Life,” by Pim van Lommel (2010).
Explanation of the “Time Gap” Between Two Successive Human Births

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

  • In rebirth stories, there is always a “time gap” between successive human births (jāti). That time gap can be several years or at least a 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 taṇhā as āhāra. Some gandhabbā can “inhale” aroma from plants, fruits, etc., too.
Further Information

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

  • One aspect of realizing the anicca nature is to see the futility of expecting a “future happy life” by trying to make one’s physical body the “main focus.”
  • It is essential to keep one’s body in good condition by eating well and engaging in a good exercise program. It is ALSO important to realize that this body will only last about 100 years. On the other hand, the mental body or the gandhabba can last many hundreds of years.
  • Thus one should try to improve the condition of the mental body (gandhabba) by cultivating good gati and getting rid of bad gati.
  • A detailed analysis of life, in general, is in the “Origin of Life” section.

Next, “Saññā – What It Really Means.

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