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.
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.
- 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.
The four primary elements are:
- pṛthivī (earth) - has the property of solidity
- 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
- 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.
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, the list includes:
- the four primary elements, and
- ākāśa (space) - an absence of obstruction that serves at the support for the four primary elements
Six primary elements
When listed as six elements, the list includes:
- the four primary elements
- ākāśa (space)
- vijñāna (consciousness)
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.
- "...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...."
- Primary elements
- Great elements
- Major elements
- Great essentials (Bhikkhu Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma)
References within Pali texts
- Mahahatthipadompama Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint," MN 28)
- Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)
- Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)
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.
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).
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Concretely Produced Matter (18).
- Khenjuk notes
- 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.
- Walshe (1995), p. 338.
- Thanissaro (2003b).
- Thanissaro (2006).
- Thanissaro (1997c).
- Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
- Hamilton, Sue (2001). Identity and Experience: The Constitution of the Human Being according to Early Buddhism. Oxford: Luzac Oriental. ISBN 1-898942-23-4.
- Nyanaponika Thera (trans.) (1981). The Greater Discourse on the Elephant-Footprint Simile. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1994). "SN 27.9: Dhatu Sutta – Properties" in Upakkilesa Samyutta: Defilements (SN 27.1–10). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn27/sn27.001-010.than.html#sn27.009.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997a). Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (MN 119). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.119.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997b). Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta (DN 11). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997c). Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties (MN 140). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.140.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1998). Kimsuka Sutta: The Riddle Tree (SN 35.204). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.204.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2001). Bija Sutta: Means of Propagation (SN 22.54). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.054.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2003a). Anathapindikovada Sutta: Instructions to Anathapindika (MN 143). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.143.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2003b). Maha-hatthipadopama Sutta: The Great Elephant Footprint Simile (MN 28). Retrieved 2008-01-30 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.028.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2005). Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta: A Counterfeit of the True Dhamma (SN 16.13). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn16/sn16.013.than.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2006). Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula (MN 62). Retrieved 2008-03-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.062.than.html.
- Walshe, Maurice O'C. (trans.) (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
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