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mahābhūta (P. mahābhūta; T. 'byung ba chen po འབྱུང་བ་ཆེན་པོ་; C. dazhong/sida 大種/四大) are the basic constituents of all matter, according to the Abhidharma sources of both the Sanskrit and Pali traditions. In English, they are also referred to as: "great elements," "major elements," "great essentials," etc.

The early Abhidharma sources identify "four great elements": earth, water, fire and air.[1][2][3]

Later sources identify five or six "great elements."

Four great elements

A list of four great elements is identified in the early Abhidhama sources. These four elements are the basis for all other types of rupa (material substances/matter) to arise.[3]

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics states:

In the very early sources what is material (rūpa) is described simply as comprising the “four great natural elements” (mahābhūta) and things derived from such elements. The earth element performs the function of supporting, the water element cohesion, the fire element maturation, and the wind element performs the function of extension. Apart from this, one sees little in the earliest texts in the way of rigorous definition of what matter is. They are “great” (mahā) in that they are found in all matter, and they are characterized as “elements” (bhūta) for they are the ultimate constituents of everything within the physical world.[1]

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

The four great essentials (mahābhūta) are the primary material elements—earth, water, fire, and air. These are the fundamental constituents of matter which are inseparable and which, in their various combinations, enter into the composition of all material substances, from the most minute particle to the most massive mountain.[2]

The four great elements are:

  • āpas (water) - has the property of fluidity
  • tejas (fire) - has the property of heat or warmth
  • vāyu (air or wind) - has the property of movement or motion

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

Taken together, the four great essentials are founded upon the earth element, held together by the water element, maintained by the fire element, and distended by the air element.[2]

Within the Pali tradition, the four elements are also referred to as:

  • cattāro mahābhūtāni ("four great elements"), or
  • catudhātu ("four elements").

Five great elements

When listed as five elements, there are:

  • the four great elements, and
  • ākāśa (space) - an absence of obstruction that serves at the support for the four great elements[4]

Six great elements

When listed as six elements, there are:

  • the five great elements, and
  • vijñāna (consciousness)

Soteriological uses

Understanding suffering

The great elements relate to suffering (dukkha) as follows:

  • The great elements are the primary component of "form" (rūpa).
  • "Form" is first category of the five aggregates.
  • The five aggregates are the ultimate basis for suffering (dukkha) in the "Four Noble Truths."

Thus, to deeply understand the Four Noble Truths, it is beneficial to have an understanding of the great elements.

Meditation object

In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness"), in listing various bodily meditation techniques, the Buddha states:

"...Just as if a skilled butcher or his assistant, having slaughtered a cow, were to sit at a crossroads with the carcass divided into portions, so a monk reviews this very body ... in terms of the elements: 'There are in this body the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, the air-element.' So he abides contemplating body in body internally...."[5]

In the Visuddhimagga's well-known list of forty meditation objects (kammaṭṭhāna), the great elements are listed as the first four objects.

Alternate translations

References within Pali texts

In the Pali canon, the Four Elements are described in detail in the following discourses (sutta):

  • Mahahatthipadompama Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint," MN 28)[6]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[7]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[8]

The Four Elements are also referenced in many other Pali suttas.

In addition, the Visuddhimagga XI.27ff has an extensive discussion of the Four Elements.[9]

Regarding the space element and consciousness element: in the Pali Canon, the "space element" is encountered more frequently in the canonical discourses than is the "consciousness element." Examples of discourses that include both of these latter elements are DN 33 (Walshe, 1995, p. 500, para. 16), MN 140 (Thanissaro, 1997c), and SN 27.9 (Thanissaro, 1994).

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Thupten Jinpa 2017, s.v. Part 2. Knowable Objects.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Concretely Produced Matter (18).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Khenjuk notes
  4. In the Pali Abhidharma system, the "space element" is also identified as "secondary" or "derived". For more information regarding "great/primary" and "derived" matter, see Rupa.
  5. Walshe (1995), p. 338.
  6. Thanissaro (2003b).
  7. Thanissaro (2006).
  8. Thanissaro (1997c).
  9. Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.


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