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Human Existence in Terms of Six Elements (Cha-Dhaatu)
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

In denying the metaphysical and empirical theories of self (aatman), the Buddha analyses human existence or personality into six elements (cha-dhaatu) [M. III. 216, 239; A. I. 175]. Six elements are the earth-element (pa.thavii / p.rthivii-dhaatu), water-element (aapo / aap-dhaatu), fire-element (tejo-dhaatu), air-element (vaayo / vaayu-dhaatu), space-element (aakaasa-dhaatu) and the consciousness-element (vi~n~na.na-dhaatu). Of these, the first four are called great elements (mahaabhuuta), as in the case of ruupakkhandha of five personality factors (pa~ncakkhandha). The main difference between this analysis and five personality-factors analysis is that in the latter more emphasis is laid on the psychological aspect while in the former, on physical aspect, of a living being. The purpose behind these analyses is that while the former aims at refuting an eternalist theory of self, the latter, a materialist view of human personality. These elements represent both the factual phenomena and the world of experience relating to it, which a being can have. The are distinguished in two forms, namely, internal (ajjhattika) referable to human body and external (baahira) referable to the physical world.

1. The earth-element (pa.thavii-dhaatu). This element first represents the fact of extension, rigidity or hardness in matter or of/in a human body, then the experience of roughness and solidity, etc. [M. III. 240. Cf. Dhs. 177; Vbh. 62, 82]. Referable to human body, it is internal including hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow of the bones, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestine, mesentery, stomach, excrement, etc. [M. III. 240]. Having extension (pattha.tattaa pa.thavii) as its characteristic, this element becomes the ground or support of the other three elements (i.e. water, air and fire) [Vism. 306].

2. Water-element (aapo-dhaatu). This element represents the fact of fluidity or viscidity, and the experience of cohesion or binding together in matter (bandhanattaa, aabandha-dhaatu, sa"ngraha) or in human body [M. III. 241. Cf. Dhs. 177; Vbh. 83]. As to it is referable to human body is concerned, it consists of bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, serum, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine or whatever other thing is liquid or fluid [M. III. 241].

3. Fire-element (tejo-dhaatu). This element represents the fact of heat or warmth, and the sensation on temperature of heat and cold in general. It is described as that by which one is vitalized, consumed, burnt up, and that which one has munched, drunk, eaten and tasted which is properly transformed in digestion. As a supplier of heat or temperature, it functions as ripening or maturing (paripaacana / pakti) [M. III. 241. Cf. Vbh. 63].

4. Air-element (vaayo-dhaatu). This element represents the fact of motion or mobility (thambhitatta) of the body and inside the body such as winds going upwards, downwards, winds in the abdomen, in the belly, winds that shoot across the limbs, the in-breathing and out-breathing, and whatever in motion referable to the body [M. III. 241. Cf. Vbh. 63]. Having motion and distension as its characteristics, vaayo-dhaatu happens to be the supply of strength to the body giving rise the feeling of smooth mobility to a living beings.

5. Space-element (aakaasa-dhaatu). This element represents the fact of delimited space, such as holes, apertures, interstices, etc. As regards human body is concerned, it is the space between or lack of ruupa, a visible or bounded space, such as the auditory and nasal orifices, the door of mouth and that by which one swallows what is munched, drunk, eaten and tasted, and where this remains, and where it passed out of the body lower down [M. III. 241-2]. Referable to the external world, it is both delimited space and empty space or invisible space. Buddhaghosa remarks that it is dependent on or established by (vyavasthaapitaa) or manifested as the confines of matters (ruupa-mariyaada-paccupa.t.thaanaa) and that it has its proximate cause in matter delimited by it [Vism. 379; EB. s.v. dhaatu (1). IV. 569b]. Unlike the scientists admitting space as absolute and unconditioned, the Buddha recognizes the conditionality of space, for the experience of space is dependent on the experience of material bodies.

6. Consciousness-element (vi~n~naa.na-dhaatu). This element represents psychological and rational functions of sentient beings as opposed to the first five inanimate elements. Only with this element, man is a rational and thinking being, discriminating facts and value, such as pleasure, pain and indifference. This follows that a variety of feelings and experiences arises [M. III. 242-3]. This conscious element, therefore, stands for four psychological personality factors, viz., feeling, perception, disposition and sixfold perceptual consciousness.

Of these, the first five elements constitute the physical body of living beings as well as the material world, whereas, the consciousness-element constitutes mental faculty or intellect of living beings. The universe is made of four great elements and space, whilst mankind and other sentient beings of all these five plus consciousness. As to sentient beings, consciousness-element, as the most important factor, by which he is recognized as conscious being and differentiated from matter and inanimate things.

In the same manner, O Prince, when this body is associated with vitality, heat and consciousness, it can perform the action of walking, standing, sitting, lying down, seeing the visible with eyes, hearing sound with ears, smelling smells with noses, tasting flavours with tongue, touching the tangible with body and knowing objects and ideas with mind (mano) [D. II. 338].

It is therefore superior to the other five, as the canonical passage runs as follows:

Consciousness is unextended, infinite and radiant all around.

In it neither water, nor earth, nor fire, nor air can find a place.

In it, length, shortness, subtlety, coarseness, beauty, ugliness and name-and-form cease completely.

When consciousness ceases, all things ceases. [D. I. 223].

These six psycho-physical factors serve as the ground for conception in the process of rebirth: "based on these six elements, there is descent into the womb. This descent taking place, psycho-physical personality (naamaruupa) comes to pass. Conditioned by psycho-physical personality is six sense organs. Conditioned by six sense organs is contact. Conditioned by contact is feeling . . ." [A. I. 175].

The six elements are, in fact, not substantial entities subject to no-change and permanence. Like the psycho-physical personality (naamaruupa) and fivefold personality factors (pa~ncakkhandha), none of these elements is considered as an eternal and substantial soul/ self/ life-principle. The Buddha teaches us that each of these elements should be seen as it really is, thus "this is not mine (netaa mama), this I am not (neso aham asmi), and this is not myself (nam eso attaa)" [M. III. 241-4].

Abbreviations and References

A. = A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V, ed. R. Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900)

D. = Diighanikaaya, I-III, ed. T. W. Rhys David and J. E. Carpenter, (London: PTS, 1889-1910)

Dhs. = Dhammasa"mnga.nii, ed. E. Muller. (London: PTS, 1885)

EB. = Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, I-V, ed. G. P. Malalasekera. (Ceylon: 1945-1994)

M. = Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed. V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902)

Vbh. = Vibha"nga, ed. and tr. by S. K. Mukhopadhyaya. (Santiniketan: 1950)

Vism. = Visuddhdimagga, ed. H. C. Warren and D. Kosambi. HOS.41. (1950)


Updated: 3-5-2000

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