- From this very self (ātman) did space come into being; from space, air; from air, fire; from fire, the waters, from the waters, the earth; from the earth, plants; from plants, food; and from food, man.... Different from and lying within this man formed from the essence of food is the self (ātman) consisting of lifebreath.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of breath is the self (ātman) consisting of mind.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of mind is the self (ātman) consisting of perception.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of perception is the self (ātman) consisting of bliss....
Who always encompasses this whole world – the knower, the architect of time, the one without qualities, and the all-knowing one – it is at his command that the work of creation, to be conceived of as earth, water, fire, air, and space, unfolds itself.
The same Upanishad also mentions, "When earth, water fire, air and akasa arise, when the five attributes of the elements, mentioned in the books on yoga, become manifest then the yogi's body becomes purified by the fire of yoga and he is free from illness, old age and death." (Verse 2.12).
These elements are described as follows:
- Internal earth elements include head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, organs, intestinal material, etc.
- Internal water elements include bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, nasal mucus, urine, etc.
- Internal fire elements include those bodily mechanisms that produce physical warmth, ageing, digestion, etc.
- Internal air elements includes air associated with the pulmonary system (for example, for breathing), the intestinal system ("winds in the belly and ... bowels"), etc.
While underived, this does not mean that they are "unconditioned."
Fifth and sixth elements
- 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.
Sensory qualities, not substances
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.
As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic. They are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.
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.
Schematically, this can be represented in reverse order as:
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 as body internally...."
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.
- 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:
- Kevaddha Sutta (DN 11)
- Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22)
- Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10)
- Chabbisodhana Sutta (MN 112)
- Bahudhatuka Sutta (MN 115)
- Kayagatasati Sutta (MN 119)
- Anathapindikovada Sutta (MN 143)
- Catudhatu-vaggo (SN ch. 14, subch. IV), several discourses
- Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta (SN 16.13)
- Bija Sutta (SN 22.54)
- Asivisa Sutta (SN 35.197 or 35.238)
- Kimsuka Sutta (SN 35.204 or 35.245)
- Dutiya-mittamacca Sutta (SN 55.17)
- various brief Samyutta Nikaya discourses entitled, "Dhatu Sutta" (SN 18.9, SN 25.9, SN 26.9, SN 27.9)
- Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61)
- Nivesaka Sutta (AN 3.75)
- Rahula Sutta (AN 4.177)