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The Four Great Elements quite literally translate to Earth, Wind (Air), Fire, Water.

It is often taught that these are really descriptions of first person experience, and the monikers are just analogies.

These first person experiences are something like:

  1. Earth - the felt sense of solidity
  2. Water - the felt sense of "squishiness" or liquidity
  3. Air - the felt sense of light motion in the body, and also wind on the skin, and sensations from breathing
  4. Fire - the felt sense of temperature

Is there any evidence in the Sutta Pitaka that this teaching is accurate? In other words, what Suttas seem to imply that when these terms were used, the above interpretation is what was had in mind.

In contrast to the "first person experience" interpretation, one might just understand the appearance of these terms in the Sutta Pitaka as referring to material objects and reflecting the understanding of chemistry at the time.

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4 Answers 4

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In Longer Advice to Rahula Buddha details all the elements including space.

It is a long discourse so I will only quote a portion here:

Rāhula, the interior earth element is said to be anything hard, solid, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, undigested food, feces, or anything else hard, solid, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior earth element. The interior earth element and the exterior earth element are just the earth element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

You can go and read it yourself. And it was also given as an answer in the link you provided.

Other suttas include:

'A boil,' monks, is another word for this body composed of the four elements, born of mother & father, fed on rice & porridge, subject to inconstancy, rubbing & massaging, breaking-up & disintegrating. It has nine openings, nine un-lanced heads. Whatever would ooze out from it would be an uncleanliness oozing out, a stench oozing out, a disgust oozing out. Whatever would be discharged from it would be an uncleanliness discharging, a stench discharging, a disgust discharging. For that reason, you should become disenchanted with this body.

AN 9.15

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it form? ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold, deformed by heat, deformed by hunger, deformed by thirst, deformed by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and serpents. ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form.

SN 22.79

"If the permutations, signs, themes, and indicators by which there is a description of name-group and form-group were all absent, would designation-contact or resistance-contact be discerned?

“Yehi, ānanda, ākārehi …pe… yehi uddesehi nāmakāyassa ca rūpakāyassa ca paññatti hoti, tesu ākāresu …pe… tesu uddesesu asati api nu kho adhivacanasamphasso vā paṭighasamphasso vā paññāyethā”ti?

DN 15

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The four elements of earth, water, air and fire, is just one way to classify physical matter, roughly corresponding to the physical states of being solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

The Buddha was not a chemist or physicist. Contrary to popular thought, he was also not a philosopher. He was an ancient psychologist, trying to solve the problem of ending (mental) suffering.

His classification of psychological elements was incredibly detailed, and psychologists and psychiatrists of today are still trying to make use of his teachings on mindfulness to devise therapies. However, his classification of physical elements, were rudimentary, and just sufficient to suit his needs.

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In contrast to the "first person experience" interpretation, one might just understand the appearance of these terms in the Sutta Pitaka as referring to material objects and reflecting the understanding of chemistry at the time.

Exactly here is your wrong view. The whole BuddhaDhamma is about removing first person experience(sakkay ditthi). The 'I' is virtual, unreal, worthless. Abandon that. and be sotapanna.

When you say object, there is a subject which again is virtual. Drop both subject and object. In buddhas words internal and external earth element are just same. buddhas words are not mare intellectual understanding. Even if you understand it intellectually, the question should be how do i practice this.

Calm your mind(it may take years of practicing Sila and Sense restrain)then put aside your question. and see as it is. In that seeing let the 'I' drop. and see what remains. Thats earth element, there is no internal no external. just that.

Until you tame your mind(The I) by Sila and sense restrain these thing will look complex and weard.

There is no chemistry here, no electron, proton, or periodic table. because all that is knowledge arises from concepts. On experience level it is just hardness /softness. just like breath is a concept, based on sensation at nose. you can feel the sensation but can never feel the breath. similarly you will never feel atom,electron, proton. etc. but you can feel hardness/softness. Just rest on that experience and be watchful of arising and passing away of 'the I'.

Also study suddhastaka, or attakalapa, where these 4 element are explained together with their quality becomes 8.

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  • I did not ask for practice advice or presumptions about my view. First person point of view just means the quality and texture of the perceptions/consciousness/formations/feelings or alternatively of the data presented at the six sense doors. Arahants still experience such things, but they dwell independently without craving.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 15, 2023 at 11:23
  • Again you are rotating around person my dear. Arhant is not a person. contemplate on that. but any way I wish you get answer from someone else then .best luck.
    – enRaiser
    Oct 15, 2023 at 11:29
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In Longer advice to Rahula Buddha details all the elements including space.

It is a long discourse so I have not quoted it here. You can go and read it yourself. And it was also given as an answer in the link you provided.

Earth is understood as Earth. Water is understood as Water. Fire is understood as fire. Air is understood as air. And space is understood as space. There are no analogies. Body is made up of those 5 elements. When meditating on body we discover those elements as bones , blood , inner heat , breath and space of nostrils.

There is no need to complicate matters further(such as saying knowledge of chemistry is important etc)as everything is made up of those 5 elements.

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  • I did not say that knowledge of chemistry is important, nor is what I am saying unduly complicated. My point was rather that the four great elements were taken to refer to the different types of material objects that existed, and because they understood all material objects to be composed of four elements, they would refer to material objects in general as "the four great elements." Nowadays we would instead just say, "material objects" (which are made of atoms, electrons, protons, etc). It should be noted that this does not diminish the utility of the teaching.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 13, 2023 at 19:03
  • @Jbag1212 The great elements are sufficient to explain all including atoms. Because there is no need to delve into the composition of atoms from this point of view , we leave it at that. (What are electrons ,protons,neutrons made up of and where does this composition problem ends ? With Strings ? Moreover I do not identify with atoms in any way ,as it is too generalised therefore problem of Anatta doesn’t arise) Oct 13, 2023 at 19:13
  • The great elements can sufficiently explain atoms, really? The things listed in the discourse you linked include bodily fluids, organs, hair, skin, digestions, warmth, the breath, etc. None of these can explain atoms. And regardles of where the composition problem ends it is quite clear that the answer is not "fire, water, air, earth" because those things are emergent phenomena of other fundamental units.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 13, 2023 at 20:21
  • It is perhaps worth mentioning again that the advice given to Rahula, even though it was framed according to a model of material reality that we now know is innaccurate, is still useful from the point of view of practice.
    – Jbag1212
    Oct 13, 2023 at 20:23
  • @Jbag1212 For your kind information, reality as explained by Buddha is accurate. Oct 13, 2023 at 20:34

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