Primary elements

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The primary elements (Skt. mahābhūta; P. mahābhūta; T. 'byung ba chen po འབྱུང་བ་ཆེན་པོ་; C. dazhong/sida), in Buddhism, are the basic constituents of the world. In English, they are also referred to as: major elements, great elements, great essentials, etc.

Both the Sanskrit and Pali Abhidharma traditions identify "four primary elements" as the basis for all other types of rupa (form) to arise. These four elements are: earth, water, fire and air.[1][2]

In addition to the four primary elements, some texts (from both the Pali and Sanskrit tradition) identify five or six "primary" elements.

Four primary elements

A list of four primary elements is identified in both the Sanskrit and Pali Abhidhama traditions. These four elements are the basis for all other types of rupa (material substances/matter) to arise.[2]

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.[1]

The four primary 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.[1]

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

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

Five primary elements

When listed as five elements, there are:

  • the four primary elements, and
  • ākāśa (space) - an absence of obstruction that serves at the support for the four primary elements[3]

Six primary elements

When listed as six elements, there are:

  • the four primary elements
  • ākāśa (space)
  • vijñāna (consciousness)

Soteriological uses

Understanding suffering

The Four Elements pertinence to the Buddhist notion of suffering comes about due to:

  • The Four Elements are the primary component of "form" (rūpa).
  • "Form" is first category of the "Five Aggregates" (khandhas).
  • The Five Aggregates are the ultimate basis for suffering (dukkha) in the "Four Noble Truths."

Thus, to deeply understand the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, it is beneficial to have an understanding of the four primary 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...."[4]

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)[5]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[6]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[7]

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.[8]

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 1.2 Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Concretely Produced Matter (18).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Khenjuk notes
  3. In the Pali Abhidharma system, the "space element" is also identified as "secondary" or "derived". For more information regarding "primary" and "derived" matter, see Rupa.
  4. Walshe (1995), p. 338.
  5. Thanissaro (2003b).
  6. Thanissaro (2006).
  7. Thanissaro (1997c).
  8. Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.


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