Intermediate Existence: The Gandhabba
Having illustrated the impossibility of the karmic energies without a body and the difficulties with the “instantaneous” transfer of karmic energies, is there a way to get around this?
Well, yes and it is called the gandhabba.
Translators from ancient times to today have been wrestling with what exactly this gandhabba is. Some scholars have put forth that the gandhabba is a celestial musician of the lower deva word, “re-linking consciousness,” “sperm," or even a “ghost” or “spirit.”
While it is not clear what exactly the gandhabba is from the suttas, conjectures from ancient and recent sources have postulated the gandhabba as an intermediate being that appears to not just have a consciousness but also a very subtle invisible body. The view of some type of intermediate being was first conceived by the early buddhst Sarvāstivāda school.
Peter Harvey in his book, The Selfess Mind, describes in more detail what the gandhabba is:
Despite the obscure nature of the gandhabba the basic point is that the gandbhabba is a being that contains the karmic energies of the entity that died. It does have a body, it is subject to impermanence like everything else, and requires food for its continued existence (Harvey 106).The appeal of such an intermediate being is that it solves, at least in part, some of the objections I raised with the notions of instantaneous rebirth and of consciousness only being able to exist with the aid of a body. With the gandhabba the consciousness or karmic energies can in a way exist outside of the dying body and the new body-to-be because it has an intermediate body to sustain it. With this intermediate body, there is no need for instantaneous rebirth because with the support of a body the intermediate entity now has time to find a suitable new being-to-be. As such, it removes the possibility that the karmic conditioning energies of a dying being could be lost due to the lack of a suitable future being-to-be present at the time of death.
While the gandhabba seems to solve a lot of problem areas, it raises some new problems of its own. From the start where did the gandhabba get the subtle body from? I don’t think it got it from, for example, a dying human body as none of the suttas say that the human body has a separate subtle part to it that can exist on its own without the gross corporeal body of form. Now if this is not the case, then the gandhabba can only be some separate entity that is a container, as such, for the karmic energies of the dying entity. This then raises the question whether the independent gandhabba has to be in close proximity to the dying body or not. If so, then it appears that there is the possibility that the karmic energies could dissipate if the gandhabba is not within a certain distance of the dying body. What more, there is the issue of the gandhabba itself dying prior to finding the right being-to-be (nothing, according to Buddhism, is not subject to death).
The only explanation I can see is if a gandhabba dies it has its own gandhabba to carry on its existence.
But if we allow for this, we still run into the major problem of infinite regress because to guarantee that all beings will be able to achieve an intermediate existence (including the gandhabbas as well) each entity must have one gandhabba ready for it. And if a gandhabba needs to have an intermediate existence as well when it dies, then its intermediate gandhabba will need its own and so on and so on.
If we remove the possibility that the gandhabba has no possibility of dying and thus infinite regress, we have a non-dying being that wanders around for a new being-to-be. At this point the gandhabba has in effect turned into an indestructible self or atman (soul) that the Buddha denied (see “The Brahmajala Sutta” where a view of a self that is perceptive with a formless body is seen as a wrong view).
In order for the gandhabba idea to work at all, the reintroduction of many atman like properties needs to be introduced.
In fact, due to the similarity between atman and this interpretation of the gandhabba, many early schools of Buddhism rejected this view of the gandhabba.
Even if this impasse can be resolved the previous issues dealing with how an intermediate being is able to locate a suitable being-to-be that meets socio-economic, genetic and destiny requirements still needs to somehow be met.
So have I refuted rebirth? No, not really. I can refute rebirth no more than I can refute that fairies or pink elephants do not exist. Hopefully, I have raised some significant issues as to the logical problems and unanswered questions related to rebirth so as to make people think instead of giving such a belief more credence than I believe it justifies.
The bottom line is that literal rebirth as laid out in the Pali canon suttas can be only approached as a belief and not something that can be experienced or empirically verified. While I admit that there are some case studies that seem to suggest the possibility of rebirth, there is nothing in those case studies that indicate that rebirth is a universal phenomena that occurs for everyone. Also of significant note, is that in these such studies there is nothing to suggest that an individual’s kamma has anything to do with the newly being being (see Shroder’s Old Souls: The Scientific Search for Evidence of Past Lives 173).
The one thing that I can know and can experience is that of suffering or unsatisfactoriness. I can experience the movement of the mind, and the death and rebirth of every moment as to what I see as “me.” To me this is what is really important; not the unknown future of my rebirth, what my previous lives were. What is important to me is this very life and this moment which holds the possibility of release from everything, and that includes any notions or ideas of literal rebirth.
Ultimately, given the Buddha’s teaching of anatta or not self, there is no one that dies and there is no one that is reborn. What we call any permanent persisting entity is just a conventional way of talking about what amounts to a dynamic process that forms itself in a particular organized configuration.
Even if rebirth was true and I could remember my previous state of existence, what spiritual use would it be? Sure I could remember that in a previous life, I did this and that, and experienced this and that. It may be interesting, but it would just be like another memory in this life. I am sure many of the memories would be rather banal and nothing special. Just because a person had a previous life does not mean all them were Caesars or Cleopatras. Most likely they would remember some kind of life as an average person doing average things not a whole lot different than we do today.
The important point is that all memories of rebirth are all in the past and do nothing to advance a person’s spiritual progress. They are simply another source for clinging and attachment that should be abandoned.
In the Sabbasava Sutta the Buddha explicitly relates that such speculations of what a person was in the past or what they shall be in the future are inappropriate musings that simply leads to “fermentations” which ultimately lead to suffering (translation by Bhikkhu Thanissaro):
This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'It can be argued from this passage, that the views of rebirth can really detract one from the ultimate goal of nirvana. For the Buddha, any source of attachment, especially to speculative views, was to be abandoned.