05 December 2014

Manomaya Kāya: Pali Texts

My essay on the word manomaya outlined how the word was originally used to refer to something made by mental activity (as opposed to 'made of mental activity'). This essay and the next will look at the idea of a body that is made by the mind (mano-maya kāya). This kind of kāya has historically been linked both to the Buddha's nirmaṇakāya (see Radich 2007) and to existence in the antarābhava. It is the latter relationship that interests us here.

As we will see below, kāya is a polysemic word. It is often used to mean 'body', but the PED explains that this is an applied meaning. Literally kāya means 'a collection or group', and suggests that it most likely derives from a verb root √ci 'to heap up', though why or how is unclear. It might be via the perfect form, cikāya 'heaped', with loss of the reduplication. In Pali the body is a conglomeration of the four mahābhūtas or great elements (earth, water, heat, and wind = pṛthivī, āpo, tejas, and vāyu). A body made of these elements is referred to as rūpin 'having form'. The PED definition of kāya covers 5 columns, making it one of the longer entries. Sometimes the different senses are played upon by Pali authors, e.g. kāye kāyānupassī which means 'contemplating the body as a collection of factors.' Equally kāya can mean a group of bodies, or a class of beings, and this combined with manomaya is the most importance sense in the Pali Nikāyas (note: a ni-kāya is also a 'collection') .

Many writers, including some who primarily write about Pali sources, employ the two words manomaya kāya as one, i.e. manomayakāya or hyphenate, i.e. manomaya-kaya. In the Pali Nikāyas and Abhidhamma it is always two words: manomaya kāya. It is not until the 5th century CE commentarial texts that the two words are compounded as one in Pali, though some Sanskrit texts use the compound as well.

A curious feature of early Buddhist cosmology is that it contained homologies between states of meditation and rebirth destinations (drawn from Vedic myth) in what we might call a psycho-cosmology. In early Buddhist texts jhāna (the noun for a particular state of integration achieved in meditation) is sometimes equivalent to rebirth in a devaloka. The verb for entering a jhāna state and for being reborn is upapajjati and its derivatives (upapanno, upapatti). We can imagine that Buddhists sought similes and metaphors to enable discussion about meditative states that tend to defy (literal) words. We can see that these jhāna states characterised by bliss, expansiveness (combined with integration), egolessness, timelessness and light accorded with some Brahmanical accounts of heaven. And while some Buddhist references to Brahmanical cosmology are obviously critical (to the extent of satirising the beliefs, e.g. the Agañña Sutta or the Tevijjā Sutta) at other times Brahmin gods are straight forward protagonists in the narrative. Gombrich (2009) has argued that, in some cases at least, what starts off as parody or metaphor becomes hypostatized and accepted on face value: e.g. the idea of a brahmaloka and dwelling with Brahmā (brahmavihāra). In order to accept brahmaloka as a rebirth destination and incorporate it into the psycho-cosmology, Buddhists had to forget that early positive references to it were ironic. (Compare The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor)

The early Buddhist suttas as preserved, represent an event horizon. We can infer a little about the processes involved in the formation of the Canon and in the composition of the texts, and we can guess at the chronology, but we cannot validate these inferences by external sources. So little survives from that period that we know next to nothing and that's as good as it gets. With this caveat we must, as always in studying Buddhist ideas, start with the early texts and see what they tell us and what we can reasonably infer from it.

Pali Suttas

Michael Radich's PhD dissertation (2007) counts nine contexts relating to manomaya kāya in the Pali suttas (2007: 229). We will have to compress this list considerably for brevity's sake (his dissertation runs to 1500 pages!). Describing one of the fruits of the ascetic life (samaññaphala) the Buddha describes the various benefits of dwelling in the fourth jhāna. Amongst which:
DN i.77 So evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe vigatūpakkilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte manomayaṃ kāyaṃ abhinimmānāya cittaṃ abhinīharati abhininnāmeti. So imamhā kāyā aññaṃ kāyaṃ abhinimmināti rūpiṃ manomayaṃ sabbaṅgapaccaṅgiṃ ahīnindriyaṃ.
So with mind integrated, purified and cleansed, unblemished, corruptionless, malleable, workable, firm, and steadfast, he turns his thought (citta) and applies it to the magical creation of a mind-made body. From this body he magically creates another body, possessing form, mind-made, complete in limbs and with functioning senses.
The word I am translating as "magical creates" is abhinimmināti (abhi-nir√mā). The underlying verb √ means 'measure, mark out', while both nir√mā and abhinir√mā have the sense of miraculous or magical creation; a creation by supernatural powers. This seems to be related to the word māya as well, which originally referred to the creative power of the devas, but came to mean something magically created and thus 'an illusion'. Elsewhere I've pointed out that in legend the Buddha's mother was called Māyā and that it probably meant creatrix. The creation of this kāya is followed by some similes which describe the result as like pulling a sword from a scabbard. The whole passage is repeated at DN i.209 (The Subha Sutta is largely made up of repetitions of passages from Samaññaphala Sutta) and again in the Mahasakuludāyi Sutta  (MN 77 where I translate somewhat more literally than has been the fashion):
MN ii.17 Puna caparaṃ, udāyi, akkhātā mayā sāvakānaṃ paṭipadā, yathāpaṭipannā me sāvakā imamhā kāyā aññaṃ kāyaṃ abhinimminanti rūpiṃ manomayaṃ sabbaṅgapaccaṅgiṃ ahīnindriyaṃ.
Furthermore, Udāyi, the practice of the disciples instructed by me, is such that practised, my disciples magically create from their body, another body, having form, made by the mind, with a complete set of limbs and functioning senses.
Seyyathāpi, udāyi, puriso muñjamhā īsikaṃ pabbāheyya; tassa evamassa – ‘ayaṃ muñjo, ayaṃ īsikā; añño muñjo, aññā īsikā; muñjamhātveva īsikā pabbāḷhā’ti.
Just as if, Udāyi, a man would remove a shaft from muñja grass. He would know this is the muñja, this is the shaft. Muñja is one thing, and the shaft is another. The shaft has been removed from the muñja. [See my article on arrow making materials in Pali]
Seyyathā vā panudāyi, puriso asiṃ kosiyā pabbāheyya; tassa evamassa – ‘ayaṃ asi, ayaṃ kosi; añño asi aññā kosi; kosiyātveva asi pabbāḷho’ti.
Or just as if a man were to remove a sword from its scabbard. He would know: this is the sword, this is scabbard. The sword is one and the scabbard another. The sword has been removed from the scabbard.
Seyyathā vā, panudāyi, puriso ahiṃ karaṇḍā uddhareyya; tassa evamassa – ‘ayaṃ ahi, ayaṃ karaṇḍo; añño ahi, añño karaṇḍo; karaṇḍātveva ahi ubbhato’ti.
Just a man would lift a snake from a basket. He would know: this is the snake, this is the basket. The snake is one, the basket is another. The snake has been lifted from the basket.
Snake charmer with cobra
in wicker basket on a train.
Maharashtra, 2003.
my photo.
The Chinese counterpart Madhyāgama 207 does not contain this passage. Note that karaṇḍa is a general word for a container, typically a small wicker basket. It doesn't mean 'skin' or 'slough' in any dictionary I have access to. Indeed the Critical Pali Dictionary says "the meaning 'slough' is erroneously assumed...". Practically, the idea of "pulling a snake from its slough" is deeply unlikely. Snakes do shed (or slough) their skins from time to time, but people don't go around pulling them out. People avoid handling snakes! The more likely word for a snake's skin is taca (Skt tvac). Indeed PED sv taca says "Of the cast-off skin of a snake: urago va jiṇṇaŋ tacaŋ jahāti". The 'slough' idea is a mistake based on the commentary which at MNA 3.263 says "karaṇḍa: this means the 'jacket' (or 'armour' = kañcuka) of a snake (ahi) rather than a basket [woven from] of bamboo" (Karaṇḍāti idampi ahikañcukassa nāmaṃ, na vilīvakaraṇḍakassa). The term ahikañcuka (armour of a snake) only occurs in the commentaries. Anyone who has been to India has probably seen a wandering snake charmer, with a snake in a small wicker basket.

The muñja grass and sword similes are cited in the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṅga 2.1 (Jacobi 1895: 340) or in Prakrit Sūyagaḍaṃga, along with a few similar images. The Sūtrakṛtāṅga is thought to date from the 2nd century CE (making it contemporary with Nāgārjuna) and according to Johannes Bronkhorst it shows considerable influence from Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma (2011: 131). The similes given in a discussion on whether the jīva or soul, which is the same as the ātman, and the body are different.
Those who maintain that the soul is something different from the body, do not see the following (objections):
'As a man draws a sword from the scabbard and shows it (you, saying): "Friend, this is the sword, and that is the scabbard," so nobody can draw (the soul from the body) and show it (you, saying): "Friend, this is the soul, and that is the body." 
The Sūtrakṛtāṅga warns against people who hold such views: "This murderer says: 'Kill, dig, slay, burn, cook, cut or break to pieces, destroy! Life ends here; there is no world beyond.' (Jacobi 340)

In the Pali example the other body (aññaṃ kāyaṃ) is made from this body (imamhā kāyā - the ablative case) and it has form (rūpin). In the description of manomaya, Sue Hamilton emphasised that manomaya is not intended to convey an ontological difference. Both the originating body and the created body are rūpin i.e. 'possess form'. This means that any body created by this process is accessible to the five senses (it can be seen, heard, touched etc). The idea of an immaterial "subtle body" which is made of different stuff seems not to be intended at any point in the Pali texts.

Another thing to note about the meditator creating a mind-made body is that they do not abandon their regular body. At no point do the texts say that someone who creates a mind-made body and leaves the kāmadhātu forever. Thus the creation of a mind-made body is, at best, like an out-of-body experience. I've previously discussed how OBEs might have been interpreted: Origin of the Idea of the Soul.

This sense of concentric layers, like Russian dolls, conveyed by the similes is reminiscent of the Upaniṣadic model of the universe centred on ātman. For example in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad:
tasmādvā etasmāt prāṇamayāt | anyo'ntara ātmā manomayaḥ | tenaiṣa pūrṇaḥ || 2.3 ||
Therefore, from this [self] made of breath, there is another self made of mind which fills it.
For the Upaniṣads there are more subtle selves within each self (anyo ātmā = añño attā) with brahman underlying all. We'll come back to this passage in more detail below.

As with the snake 'skin' there is another area in which we need to roll back some of the contemporary scholarship. Sometimes this creation of a new body is linked to the subsequent accomplishments such as the development of supernatural powers (iddhi) (Lee 2014:76, Radich 2007: 230-1). In the text however the two are not linked, they are two distinct benefits of fourth jhāna. In fact the section on manomaya kāya is definitely finished by the stock phrase before the discussion of iddhi begins.
Idampi kho, mahārāja, sandiṭṭhikaṃ sāmaññaphalaṃ purimehi sandiṭṭhikehi sāmaññaphalehi abhikkantatarañca paṇītatarañca. (DN i.77)
This too, Majesty, is a visible fruit of the ascetic life, more excellent and perfect that previous fruits of the ascetic life. 
Radich (232) argues that a manomaya kāya "constitutes a necessary precondition for [iddhis]", for example, the supernatural power of travelling to Brahmā's world "in the body'" (as he puts it) must refer to the manomaya kāya in the previous section. So at DN i.77 the Pāli reads:
Yāva brahmalokāpi kāyena vasaṃ vatteti. 
At will, he also goes as far as the realm of Brahmā with a body.
This is another fruit of the ascetic life and though it is presented sequentially, there is no explicit prerequisite except attaining the fourth jhāna. Elsewhere, as Radich (237-8) notes, we do find the Buddha recalling going to the Brahmāloka with a manomaya kāya.
Abhijānāmi khvāhaṃ, ānanda, iddhiyā manomayena kāyena brahmalokaṃ upasaṅkamitā ti. 
Ānanda I do recall, going to Brahmā's realm with a mind-made body using supernatural powers.
Radich however stops his reading at that point which is a mistake. Because the next statement that the Buddha makes is:
Abhijānāmi khvāhaṃ, ānanda, iminā cātumahābhūtikena kāyena iddhiyā brahmalokaṃ upasaṅkamitā ti. 
Ānanda, I do recall, going to Brahmā's realm with a body of the four major elements using supernatural powers.
In other words there is no need for the Buddha to assume a manomaya kāya to visit Brahmā's world, he can do it in his ordinary body composed of earth, water, heat and wind! This considerably weakens Radich's argument that supernatural powers require a manomaya kāya. As the Buddha says (SN v.282):
Acchariyā ceva, ānanda, tathāgatā acchariyadhammasamannāgatā ca, abbhutā ceva, ānanda, tathāgatā abbhutadhammasamannāgatā ca.
Ānanda the tathāgatas are awesome and endowed with awesomeness; the tathāgatas are amazing and endowed with amazingness.
This is also consistent with the Buddha's idea of "dwelling with Brahmā here and now" (brahmam etaṃ vihāraṃ idhamāhu) at the end of the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta. I follow Richard Gombrich (2009) in considering this part of a re-purposing of Vedic religious ideas (specifically worship of a creator god called Brahmā) for Buddhist ends. The peak experience of being full of mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā, is just like being in Brahmā's world (brahmavihāra) or just like (re)union with Brahmā (brahmasahavyata) as described by Brahmins. In the Tevijjā Sutta the Buddha asserts:
brahmānaṃ cāhaṃ, vāseṭṭha, pajānāmi brahmalokañca brahmalokagāminiñca paṭipadaṃ. 
I know Brahmā, Vāseṭṭha, and Brahmā's domain, and the way leading to Brahmā's domain.
In other words the Buddha is seen to assert that Heaven can literally be experienced here and now, that heaven really exists and he (the Buddha) knows the way to Heaven, but he does this without any commitment to the idea of "Heaven" as understood by theists. He uses the Brahmanical word but uses it with a private meaning without explaining to the audience that he is doing this. The context, and the metaphorical and didactic nature, of his remarks seems to have been lost however and later Buddhists simply took these words on face value. Despite clear satirical intent in mentions of the Brahmaloka and other Brahmin cosmological ideas, Buddhists understood there to be a place (in the sense of somewhere one would be (re)born) called brahmaloka and that the Buddha could go there at will. (See also A Parody of Vedic Belief)

This issue highlights the metaphysical problem of allowing supernatural agents and forces. Such things demand an explanation and we try to explain them, but natural explanations are insufficient, so we tend to do so using more supernatural agents or forces. Reductive explanations short-circuit this tendency to proliferation and bring the whole thing down to earth. However they tend to discount miracles rather than account for them and many religieux find this objectionable.

A more interesting and important occurrence of manomaya kāya is at AN iii.50, where a Vesālī layman called Ugga is very generous towards the Buddha. My translation here follows Bodhi (2012) for reasons that will become apparent.
Kālakato ca uggo gahapati vesāliko aññataraṃ manomayaṃ kāyaṃ upapajji.
And having died, the landlord Ugga was reborn amongst a group of the mind-made [devas].
Here as Bodhi notes (2012: 1727-8, n.1033) kāya is taken by Buddhaghosa to mean 'group' rather than personal body (this nuance seems to be lost on Radich and Lee). As noted before, 'group' is the literal meaning of kāya. The commentary on this passage says:
"Aññataraṃ manomayan" ti suddhāvāsesu ekaṃ jhānamanena nibbattaṃ devakāyaṃ.
"Something mind-made" [means] one group of devas (devakāya) in the pure abodes created by mental activity (manas) in jhāna.
The reading is confirmed at AN iii.348 "tusitaṃ kāyaṃ upapanno" (reborn in the Tusita group); and at AN iii.122. This raises an interesting possibility. We've seen in discussing manomaya that it is most often associated with the deva realms. The Aṅguttara Nikāya also has a version of the discussion with Udāyī we discussed above. In the Nirodha Sutta (AN 5.166, iii.192f) we discover a conflict in progress. Udāyī maintains that having been reborn amongst a group of the mind-made (aññataraṃ manomayaṃ kāyaṃ upapanno) that is it impossible to emerge from the cessation of mental activity and experience (saññāvedayitanirodhaṃ). In other words Udāyī is claiming that rebirth amongst the rūpa devas is tantamount to vimutti.
[Buddha] kaṃ pana tvaṃ, udāyi, manomayaṃ kāyaṃ paccesī ti?
               What then, would you call "manomaya kāya"?
[Udāyī]   Ye te, bhante, devā arūpino saññāmayā ti.
               Sir, those formless devas that consist [only] of mental activity.
[Buddha] Kiṃ nu kho tuyhaṃ, udāyi, bālassa abyattassa bhaṇitena!
               What are you saying, Udāyī, is foolish and ignorant!
So on face value (see Bodhi n.1161) Udāyī is confusing devas who are formless (arūpa) with devas who have form (rūpa), though more precisely he is mistaken about the significance of attaining the formless jhānas (or their cosmological equivalents) in which mental activity and perception ceases. Thus we might read Udāyī as one who practised the arūpāyatana (formless realms) just like the Buddha's former teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Udaka Rāmaputta. He came into conflict with orthodox Buddhists who focussed on the jhānas. Perhaps at this point the two approaches to meditation were not entirely integrated into Buddhism? The AN narrative then drifts off into a side story about respecting elder monks (i.e. it loses the plot). But it makes it certain that manomaya kāya here is "a group of the mind-made devas".

At AN v.337 the Buddha instructs Nandiya on devānusati, the practice of reflecting on devas:
Seyyathāpi, nandiya, bhikkhu asamayavimutto karaṇīyaṃ attano na samanupassati katassa vā paticayaṃ; evamevaṃ kho, nandiya, yā tā devatā atikkammeva kabaḷīkārāhārabhakkhānaṃ devatānaṃ sahabyataṃ aññataraṃ manomayaṃ kāyaṃ upapannā, tā karaṇīyaṃ attano na samanupassanti katassa vā paticayaṃ.
Just as if, Nandiya, a Bhikkhu timelessly-liberated perceives nothing to be done for themselves or any need to add to what has been done. Just so, Nandiya, those devas who surpass the devas that eat solid food, reborn in companionship with a group of the mind-made, they perceive nothing to be done for themselves or need to add to what has been done.
And the Buddha recommends that Nandiya establish "this internal mindfulness" (ajjhattaṃ sati upaṭṭhāpetabbā). This idea is not without its problems. Firstly, Buddhist cosmology is unequivocal in treating devas as inhabiting saṃsāra and thus fundamentally unlike the liberated. If the devas mentioned consider themselves free, then they are, by definition, deluded. But the Buddha is still recommending this reflection as a positive quality. The other recollections or reflections involve the tathāgata, the Dhamma, kalyāṇa mittas, and one's own generosity, which are all unambiguously positive. So we must presume that these devas are also seen positively. These reflections are recommended once one has established faith, virtue, vigour, mindfulness, integration and understanding (saddhā, sīla, viriya, sati, samādhi & paññā). But still manomaya kāya is a group of devas, not the subtle body of an individual.

In a single (repeated) passage the Buddha assumes a manomaya kāya to teach a disciple (Theragāthā 901 = AN iv.160) :
mama saṅkappamaññāya satthā loke anuttaro manomayena kāyena iddhiyā upasaṅkami.
Comprehending the drift of my thoughts, the unsurpassed teacher in the world approached by magical power with a body made of mental activity.
For Radich, with his interest in precursors to the nirmaṇakāya (reflecting D T Suzuki's comments on the Laṅkavatara Sūtra - see next essay), this verse is especially interesting. We can simply note that as the Buddha was accomplished in jhāna and otherwise capable of any number of miracles, the mention of a manomaya kāya in this context is not as astonishing as he seems to find it. In fact here two we could read the Buddha as appearing with a retinue of mind-made devas.


To summarise, manomaya kāya most often means 'a group of the mind-made' with reference to a group of devas. Secondarily it can mean a fully-formed (sabbaṅgapaccaṅgiṃ) and functioning (ahīnindriyaṃ) body, visible to the senses (rūpin), that is created from one's body (kāyā: ablative case) by mental activity in the fourth jhāna. For Buddhists entering (upa√pad) jhāna is functionally equivalent to rebirth (upa√pad) in the homologous deva realm. Everything points to association of this phrase with devas in one way or another.

We can now confirm from Pali sources that manomaya does not mean that they consist of mental activity because their bodies are rūpin, i.e. possess rūpa, but that they are created by mental activity (as opposed to being born presumably). Hamilton emphasises that the difference in bodies made by mental activity is a matter of varying density of form and that no distinct ontology seems to be implied in the Pali texts when the word manomaya is used. 

We might called the mixing of psychological (meditative states) and cosmological (rebirth realms) in the Buddhist worldview "psycho-cosmology". In the Buddhist psycho-cosmology there is no strong distinction between jhāna and a devaloka. While some Buddhist hypostatize this relationship and treat the devalokas as literal realms of rebirth, it's possible that the relationship was more abstract or metaphorical in the past. And this is the context within which manomaya is mainly used.

Clearly the cosmological ideas of devas and Heaven derive from the Vedic tradition, but they underwent a series of transformations. In the received tradition we find manomaya kāya associated with the antarābhava and the gandharva in explaining the transition from one life to another. Having looked into the history of the various ideas, we can see that this conjunction is far from being intuitive. The Pali texts show no sign of it, so having surveyed them we must look beyond the Theravāda tradition to the traditions which accepted an antarābhava, because it is precisely where the antarābhava requires explanation that we find other more marginal terms (like manomaya and gandharva) being co-opted into larger narratives of the afterlife.


Aurobindo (2004) The Upanishads: Kena and other Upanishads. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Dept. 
Bronkhorst, Johannes. (2011) Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Brill.  
Bucknell, Roderick S. (2011) ‘The Historical Relationship Between the Two Chinese Saṃyuktāgama Translations.’ Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal. 24:35-70.
Lee, Sumi. (2014) 'The Meaning of ‘Mind-made Body’ (S. manomaya-kāya, C. yisheng shen 意生身) in Buddhist Cosmological and Soteriological systems'. Buddhist Studies Review. 31(1): 65-90.
Jacobi, Hermann. (1895) Jaina Sutras, Part II (Sacred Books of the East, 45). http://www.sacred-texts.com/jai/sbe45/sbe4565.htm#page_340 
Radich, Michael David. (2007) The Somatics of Liberation: Ideas about Embodiment in Buddhism from Its Origins to the Fifth Century C.E. [PhD. Dissertation]. https://www.academia.edu.

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