Primary elements

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Editornote image from pexelsdotcom 60x40px.png Editor's note: This article mainly presents descriptions of the elements based on Theravadan texts. The Mahayana interpretations might differ in some details.

The primary elements (Sanskrit, Pali: mahābhūta; Tib. འབྱུང་བ་ཆེན་པོ་, jungwa chenpo, Wyl. 'byung ba chen po), in Buddhism, are the basic constituents of the world.

The "four primary elements" (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) are earth, water, fire and air. Some lists include the additional elements of space and consciousness

The Sanskrit term mahābhūta, also referrred to as the major elements or the great elements, is generally synonymous with catudhātu, which is Pāli for the "four elements."

Four primary elements

The four primary elements are elements that are both "external" (that is, outside the body, such as a river) and "internal" (that is, of the body, such as blood). These elements are described as follows:

  • Earth element (pruṭhavī-dhātu)
    Earth element represents the quality of solidity or attractive forces. Any matter where attractive forces are in prominence (solid bodies) are called earth elements. Internal earth elements include head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, organs, intestinal material, etc.[1]
  • Water (or liquid) element (āpa-dhātu)
    Water element represents the quality of Liquidity or relative motion. Any matter where relative motion of particles is in prominence are called water elements. Internal water elements include bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, nasal mucus, urine, etc.[2]
  • Fire element (teja-dhātu)
    Fire element represents the quality of heat or energy. Any matter where energy is in prominence are called fire elements. Internal fire elements include those bodily mechanisms that produce physical warmth, ageing, digestion, etc.
  • Air (or wind) element (vāyu-dhātu)
    Air element represents the quality of expansion or repulsive forces. Any matter where repulsive forces are in prominence are called air elements. Internal air elements includes air associated with the pulmonary system (for example, for breathing), the intestinal system ("winds in the belly and ... bowels"), etc.

Any entity that carry one or more of these qualities (attractive forces, repulsive forces, energy and relative motion) are called matter (rupa). The material world is considered to be nothing but a combination of these qualities arranged in space (akasa). The result of these qualities are the inputs to our five senses, color (warna), smell (ghandda), taste (rasa) and sensation of body (ojha). The matter that we perceive in our mind are just a mental interpretation of these qualities.

Fifth and sixth elements

In addition to the four primary elements, two other elements are occasionally found in the Pali Canon:[3]

  • Space element (ākāsa-dhātu)
    Internal space elements includes bodily orifices such as the ears, nostrils, mouth, anus, etc.
  • Consciousness element (viññāa-dhātu)
    Described as "pure and bright" (parisuddhaṃ pariyodātaṃ), used to cognise the three feelings (vedana) of pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, and the arising and passing of the sense contact (phassa) upon which these feelings are dependent.

According to the Theravadan Abhidharma system, the "space element" is identified as "secondary" or "derived" (upādā).[4]

Sensory qualities, not substances

Rūpa (matter) means both materiality and sensibility—it signifies, for example, a tactile object both insofar as that object is tactile and that it can be sensed. Rūpa is never a materiality which can be separated or isolated from cognizance; such a non-empirical category is incongruous in the context of early Buddhism.

Rūpa is not a substratum or substance which has sensibility as a property. It functions in early Buddhist thought as perceivable physicality. Matter, or rūpa, is defined in its function; what it does, not what it is.[5] As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic.[6] They are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.[7]

Soteriological uses

The Four Elements are used in Buddhist texts to both elucidate the concept of suffering (dukkha) and as an object of meditation. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterisation as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction – instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.[8]

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."

Schematically, this can be represented in reverse order as:

Four Noble Truths → Suffering → Aggregates → Form → Four Elements

Thus, to deeply understand the Buddha's 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," DN 22), in listing various bodily meditation techniques, the Buddha instructs:

"...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...."[9]

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

B. Alan Wallace compares the Theravada meditative practice of "attending to the emblem of consciousness" to the practice in Mahamudra and Dzogchen of "maintaining the mind upon non-conceptuality", which is also aimed at focusing on the nature of consciousness.[10]

Etymology

Note that the Pāli word dhātu is used in multiple contexts in the Pāli canon. For instance, Bodhi (2000), pp. 527–8, identifies four different ways that dhātu is used including in terms of the "eighteen elements" and, as in this article, in terms of "the four primary elements."

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)[11]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[12]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[13]

The Four Elements are also referenced in:

In addition, the Visuddhimagga XI.27ff has an extensive discussion of the Four Elements.[28]

See also

Notes

  1. The traditional list of body parts associated with the earth element are the first 19 of 31 body parts – from head hair to feces – identified in the Pali Canon with the contemplation of Patikulamanasikara, with the catch all phrase of "or whatever else internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, & sustained" (trans. Thanissaro, 2003b) added.
  2. The traditional list of water-element body parts are the latter twelve of 31 body parts – from bile to urine – identified in Patikulamanasikara contemplations, with the catch all phrase of "or whatever else internal, within oneself, is liquid, watery, & sustained" (trans. Thanissaro, 2003b) added.
  3. 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).
  4. Hamilton (2001), pp. 5, 35 n. 9. For more information regarding "primary/underived" and "secondary/derived" matter, see the article Rupa.
  5. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  6. Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 184.
  7. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, 2005, page 56.
  8. Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogacara." He specifically discusses early Buddhism as well as Yogacara. [1].
  9. Walshe (1995), p. 338.
  10. B. Alan Wallace, The bridge of quiescence: experiencing Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Carus Publishing Company, 1998, page 257.
  11. Thanissaro (2003b).
  12. Thanissaro (2006).
  13. Thanissaro (1997c).
  14. Thanissaro (1997b).
  15. Thanissaro (1997a).
  16. Thanissaro (2003a).
  17. Bodhi (2000), pp. 645–50.
  18. Bodhi (2000), pp. 680–1; Thanissaro (2005).
  19. Bodhi (2000), pp. 891–2; Thanissaro (2001).
  20. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1237–9; Thanissaro (2004a).
  21. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251–3; Thanissaro (1998).
  22. Bodhi (2000), p. 1806.
  23. Bodhi (2000), p. 697.
  24. Bodhi (2000), p. 1006; Thanissaro (2004b).
  25. Bodhi (2000), p. 1010
  26. Bodhi (2000), p. 1014; Thanissaro (1994).
  27. Thanissaro (1997).
  28. Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.

Bibliography

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