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Analysis of Matter
Dr. Peter Della Santina

The Abhidharma is supposed to deal with four ultimate realities--consciousness (chitta), mental states (chetasika), matter (rupa), and nirvana. Matter shares with consciousness and mental states the character of being a conditioned reality, whereas nirvana is an unconditioned reality. In considering the three conditioned realities, we can simultaneously treat the five aggregates of psycho-physical existence.

This harks back to what we said in Chapter 33 about the relationship between subject and object, mind and matter. Both these schemes can be reduced to two elements: the subjective or mental element, and the objective or material element. On the one hand we have mind and the mental states--consciousness, volition, perception, and feeling--and on the other hand we have the object--form, or matter.

In the context of the Abhidharma, it is important to remember that matter is not something separate from consciousness. In fact, mind and matter can be simply called the subjective and objective forms of experience. We will see more precisely why this is true when we consider the four essentials of matter (earth, water, fire, and air) as qualities of matter rather than as the substance of matter. Because Buddhism has a phenomenological approach to existence, matter is only important insofar as it is an object of experience that affects our psychological being. Whereas certain other systems assert a radical and absolute dualism, a dichotomy between mind and body, in Buddhism we simply have subjective and objective forms of experience.

In the classification and enumeration of matter in the Abhidharma, matter is divided into twenty-eight elements. The four primary elements, or four essentials of matter, are simply called earth, water, fire, and air. However, earth might better be called 'the principle of extension or resistance'; water, 'the principle of cohesion'; fire, 'the principle of heat'; and air, 'the principle of motion or oscillation.' These are the four primary building-blocks of matter. From them are derived the five physical sense organs and their objects.

In this context, as well as in the context of the five aggregates, matter refers not only to our bodies but also to the physical objects of experience that belong to the external world. Beyond organs and their objects, matter is also present in masculinity and femininity, in the heart, or the principle of vitality, and in nourishment. There are also six further elements of matter, which are: the principle of limitation or space, the two principles of communication (bodily communication and verbal communication), lightness, softness and adaptability. Finally, there are four elements that are termed 'characteristics': production, duration, destruction, and impermanence.

There are thus twenty-eight components of matter or, to be more precise, of material experience, in all: the four essentials, the five sense organs and their corresponding objects, the two dimensions of sexuality, vitality, nourishment, space, the two forms of communication, lightness, softness and adaptability and the four characteristics. Let us look more closely at the four essentials in terms of their reality as sensory qualities. It is important to remember that when we speak of the four primary elements of matter, we are concerned not with earth, water, fire, and air in themselves but with the sensory qualities of these elements--the qualities that we can feel and that give rise to the experience of matter. Thus we are concerned with sensory qualities like hardness and softness, which belong to the principle of extension, and warmth and cold, which belong to the principle of heat. We are not dealing with essences. Rather, we are dealing with qualities that are experienced.

This means, in turn, that we are dealing with a purely phenomenological treatment of matter, in which sensory qualities function as the definitive characteristics of matter. It is the sensory qualities that constitute ultimate realities. In other words, it is neither the table nor my body, but the sensory qualities of hardness and softness that belong to both the table and my body, that give rise to the experience of matter. In this context, the objects of my experience (such as the table and my body) are conventional realities, whereas the sensory qualities of hardness, softness, and so forth that give rise to the experience of matter are ultimate realities.

This is what is called in philosophy a 'modal view,' a view that concentrates on the qualities of experience rather than on the essence of experience. To seek the essence of matter is to enter the world of speculation, to go beyond our empirical experience; to deal with the qualities of matter is to confine ourselves to phenomena, to experience. It is interesting to note that this modal view of matter is shared by some modern philosophers, Bertrand Russell perhaps being the best known among them. It is this modal view of reality which also informs much contemporary thought about matter. Scientists have come to recognize matter as a phenomenon, to recognize that it is impossible to arrive at the essence of matter, and this has been substantiated by the discovery of the infinite divisibility of the atom.

This modal view of reality has another important implication: Insofar as we take a purely phenomenological and experiential view of reality, of existence, the question of the external world--in the sense of a reality existing somewhere 'out there,' beyond the limit of our experience--does not arise. Insofar as the external world gives rise to the experience of matter, it is just the objective or material dimension of our experience, not an independent reality that exists in itself.

On a personal level, we find that our psycho-physical existence is made up of two components: the mental component, or the mind, and the physical component, or the body. The mind and the body differ somewhat in their nature--primarily in that the mind is more pliant and changeable than the body. The Buddha once said that we might be more justified in regarding the body as the self than the mind, because the body at least maintains recognizable features for a longer period of time.

We can verify this through our own experience. Our minds change much more quickly than our bodies. For example, I can make a mental resolution to refrain from eating starchy foods and fats, but it will take a considerable amount of time for that mental change to reflect itself in the shape of my body. The body is more resistant to change than the mind, and this is in keeping with the characteristic of earth, as represented in the principle of resistance. The body is the product of past karma, past consciousness, and is at the same time the basis of present consciousness. This lies at the heart of the uneasiness many intellectuals have felt about the body. A famous philosopher, Plotinus, once remarked that he felt like a prisoner in his own body, which he considered to be like a tomb.

Sometimes we would like to sit longer in meditation were it not for the physical discomfort we experience as a result of the body. Sometimes we want to work longer (or to stay awake to watch a particular television program) but cannot do so because of the weariness that accompanies the body. There is a tension between mind and body due to the fact that the body is the materialized form of past karma, and because of the body's characteristic of resistance, it responds much more slowly to volitional actions than does the mind. Thus the body is, in a sense, an impediment that hinders mental development.

We can see this clearly in the case of liberated beings. In The Questions of King Milinda, the king asks Nagasena whether Arhats can experience pain. Nagasena replies that although Arhats no longer experience mental pain, they can still experience physical pain. Arhats no longer experience mental pain because the bases for mental pain (aversion, ill-will, and hatred) are no longer present, but they can experience physical pain as long as the basis for physical pain (the body) remains. Until an Arhat enters final nirvana--'nirvana without residue,' without the psycho-physical personality--the possibility of physical pain remains. This is why, in the accounts of the Buddha's life and the lives of his prominent disciples, there are occasions when they experienced physical pain. The body has a peculiar, intermediate position, in that it is the product of past consciousness and the basis of present consciousness. This intermediate position is also reflected in the fact that some bodily functions are conscious and can be controlled by an act of will, while others are unconscious and proceed automatically. I can decide to eat another plate of food, but it is an unconscious bodily function that digests or fails to digest the meal; I cannot will my body to digest it.

Breathing, too, is representative of this intermediate position of the body, because breathing can be either an unconscious function or it can be raised to a volitional and conscious function for the purpose of concentrating and calming the body and mind. In coping with our existence as a composite of mind and body, we need to remember that the mind represents the dynamic, fluid, and volitional principle, while the body represents the principle of resistance. Because of this, it is not possible for the body to change as quickly as the mind in the process of development and liberation.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 328-332].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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