Elements
The Buddha spoke about realities as elements, dhātus (74), in order to remind us that they are non-self. When we speak about elements we usually think of elements in chemistry or physics. In chemistry and physics matter is analysed into elements, but it may seem strange to us to regard the eye or seeing as elements. We are not used to considering them as elements because we are inclined to take them for self.
What we take for self are only nāma-elements and rūpa-elements which arise because of their appropriate conditions and then fall away again. Eyesense is only an element which has its own characteristic and is devoid of self; it is rūpa which arises because of conditions and then falls away again. Seeing is only an element which has its own characteristic and is devoid of self; it is nāma which arises because of conditions and falls away again.
In the Buddha’s teachings realities are classified as elements, dhātus, some of which are rūpa and some of which are nāma. There are different ways of classifying realities as elements. When they are classified as eighteen elements, they are as follows:
The five senses:
  1. 1.
    Eye-element (cakkhu-dhātu)
  2. 2.
    Ear-element (sota-dhātu)
  3. 3.
    Nose-element (ghāna-dhātu)
  4. 4.
    Tongue-element (jivhā-dhātu)
  5. 5.
    Body-element (kāya-dhātu, which is the bodysense)
The five objects (experienced through the five senses:
  1. 1.
    Visible object-element (rūpa-dhātu)
  2. 2.
    Sound-element (sadda-dhātu)
  3. 3.
    Smell-element (gandha-dhātu)
  4. 4.
    Taste-element (rasa-dhātu)
  5. 5.
    Element of tangible objects (phoṭṭhabba-dhātu), comprising the
    following three kinds of rūpa: earth-element (solidity), appearing
    as hardness or softness, fire-element (temperature), appearing as
    heat or cold, wind-element, appearing as motion or pressure
The dvi-pañca-viññāṇas (the “five pairs” of sense-cognitions, experiencing the five sense-objects):
  1. 1.
    Seeing-consciousness-element (cakkhu-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  2. 2.
    Hearing-consciousness-element (sota-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  3. 3.
    Smelling-consciousness-element (ghāna-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  4. 4.
    Tasting-consciousness-element (jivhā-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  5. 5.
    Body-consciousness-element (kāya-viññāṇa-dhātu)
In addition, there are three more elements:
  1. 1.
    Mind-element (mano-dhātu)
  2. 2.
    Dhamma-dhātu
  3. 3.
    Mind-consciousness-element (mano-viññāṇa-dhātu)
Thus, in this classification there are eighteen elements in all. The five elements which are the five senses are rūpa and the five elements which are the sense objects experienced through the sense-doors are rūpa as well. The five elements which are the dvi-pañca-viññāṇas, experiencing these objects, are nāma. There are two cittas which are seeing-consciousness-element since seeing-consciousness is either kusala vipāka or akusala vipāka. It is the same with the other pañca-viññāṇas. Thus there are five pairs of citta which are collectively called the pañca-viññāṇa-dhātu.
The element which is mind-element or mano-dhātu is nāma. Mano-dhātu comprises the pañca-dvārāvajjana-citta, five-door-adverting-consciousness, and the two types of sampaṭicchana-citta, receiving-consciousness, which are kusala vipāka and akusala vipāka. Thus, three kinds of citta are mano-dhātu.
Dhamma-dhātu comprises cetasikas, the subtle rūpas (sukhuma rūpas) and nibbāna. Thus, dhamma-dhātu comprises both nāma and rūpa. Dhamma-dhātu is not identical with dhammārammaṇa, mind-objects. Cittas are included in dhammārammaṇa but not in dhamma-dhātu. Cittas have been classified separately as different dhātus. Concepts, which are included in dhammārammaṇa, are not classified as elements, because concepts are not paramattha dhammas; only paramattha dhammas are classified as elements.
Mind-consciousness-element, the mano-viññāṇa-dhātu, is nāma. Mind-consciousness-element includes all cittas except the dvi-pañca-viññāṇas and the three kinds of cittas classified as mind-element, mano-dhātu. For example, santīraṇa-citta (the investigating-consciousness), mano-dvārāvajjana-citta (the mind-door-advertingconsciousness), and cittas performing the function of javana (75) such as lobha-mūla-citta and also bhavanga-citta are included in mind-consciousness-element. Mind-element includes cittas which can experience an object through one of the five sense-doors, whereas mind-consciousness-element includes cittas which can experience an object through six doors as well as cittas which are not dependent on any doorway (76).
Viññāṇa-dhātu is a collective name for all cittas. When cittas are classified as elements, they are the seven classes of viññāṇa-dhātu, namely:
  • pañca-viññāṇa-dhātu (which are five classes)
  • mano-dhātu, mind-element
  • mano-viññāṇa-dhātu, mind-consciousness-element
It is important to remember this classification of cittas, because in the teachings and the commentaries, and also in the Visuddhimagga, different types of cittas are often denoted as the elements which are classified above. If we do not remember which cittas are mind-element and which cittas are mind-consciousness-element, we will not know which citta is referred to in the texts.
Sometimes the Buddha spoke about six elements; or he classified realities as two elements. There are many different ways of classifying realities, but no matter in which way they are classified, as khandhas, by way of objects, ārammaṇas, as āyatanas, as dhātus, or in any other way, we should remember the purpose of classifying realities: understanding that what we take for self are only nāma-elements and rūpa-elements.
In the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (Discourse on the Applications of Mindfulness, Middle Length Sayings I, no. 10) we read in the section on “mindfulness of the body”, that the Buddha spoke about the body in terms of elements. The text states:
And again, monks, a monk reflects on this body according to how it is placed or disposed in respect of the elements, thinking: “In this body there is the element of extension (77), the element of cohesion, the element of heat, the element of motion.” Monks, even as a skilled cattle-butcher, or his apprentice, having slaughtered a cow, might sit displaying its carcase at a cross-roads, even so, monks, does a monk reflect on this body itself according to how it is placed or disposed in respect of the elements, thinking: ”In this body there is the element of extension, the element of cohesion, the element of heat, the element of motion”. Thus he fares along contemplating the body in the body internally ...and he fares along independently of and not grasping anything in the world. It is thus too, monks, that a monk fares along contemplating the body in the body...
The Visuddhimagga (XI, 30) states:
What is meant? Just as the butcher, while feeding the cow, bringing it to the shambles, keeping it tied up after bringing it there, slaughtering it, and seeing it slaughtered and dead, does not lose the perception “cow” so long as he has not carved it up and divided it into parts; but when he has divided it up and is sitting there, he loses the perception “cow” and the perception “meat” occurs; he does not think “I am selling cow” or “They are carrying cow away”, but rather he thinks “I am selling meat” or “They are carrying meat away”; so too this bhikkhu, while still a foolish ordinary person - both formerly as a layman and as one gone forth into homelessness - , does not lose the perception “living being” or “man” or “person” so long as he does not, by resolution of the compact into elements, review this body, however placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements. But when he does review it as consisting of elements, he loses the perception “living being” and his mind establishes itself upon elements...
It may not be appealing to see the body as elements. We think of people as “this man” or “that woman”. We are not used to analysing what we take for a “person” just as we analyse matter, for example, in physics. We might find it crude to think of a body which is carved up and divided up into parts, just as a cow is carved up by a butcher. However, if we consider the body as it is, there are only elements. Isn’t it true that there are solidity, cohesion, temperature and motion? Are these realities “self”, or are they elements devoid of “self”?
Do the four elements of solidity, cohesion, temperature and motion have anything to do with our daily life? We can find out that these elements arise all the time. Temperature can appear either as heat or cold; do we not feel heat or cold very often? When we are stung by an insect we can experience the characteristic of heat. We can feel impact of hardness or softness on our body when we are lying down, sitting, walking or standing. That is the element of solidity appearing in our daily life. If we are mindful of the characteristics of the elements more often, we will see things as they are.
The Buddha reminded people of the truth in many different ways. Sometimes he spoke about the body as a corpse in different stages of dissolution. Or he spoke about the “parts of the body” and he explained that the body is full of impurities, in order to remind people that what they take for “my body” are only elements which are devoid of beauty, which are impermanent, dukkha and not self.
We read in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, in the section on “mindfulness of the body”:
Monks, it is like a double-mouthed provision bag that is full of various kinds of grain such as hill-paddy, paddy, kidney beans, peas, sesamum, rice; and a keen-eyed man, pouring them out, were to reflect: “That’s hill-paddy, that’s paddy, that’s kidney beans, that’s peas, that’s sesamum, that’s rice.” Even so, monks, does a monk reflect on precisely this body itself, encased in skin and full of various impurities, from the soles of the feet up and from the crown of the head down...
Not only the body, but also the mind should be considered as elements. There is nothing in our life which is not an element. Our past lives were only elements and our future lives will only be elements. We are inclined to think of our future life and wish for a happy rebirth. We should, however, realize that there is no self which in the future will have another existence; there are and will be only elements. We have learnt to classify citta in different ways and this can remind us that cittas are only elements. Not only cittas are elements, but cetasikas too are elements. We are attached to happy feeling and we dislike unpleasant feeling. Feelings, however, are only elements which arise because of conditions. When we are tired or sick we take tiredness and sickness for self and we have aversion. Why do we not accept unpleasant things as they come to us, since they are only elements? One might not be inclined to see realities as elements, but it is the truth. One might not like to remember that things are impermanent, that birth is followed by ageing, sickness and death, but it is the truth. Why do we not want to see the truth?
In the Discourse on the Manifold Elements (Middle Length Sayings III, no. 115) we read that the Buddha, while he was staying in the Jeta Grove, in Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery, said to the monks:
“Whatever fears arise, monks, all arise for the fool, not the wise man. Whatever troubles arise, all arise for the fool, not the wise man. Whatever misfortunes arise, all arise for the fool, not the wise man ...Monks, there is not fear, trouble, misfortune for the wise man. Wherefore, monks, thinking, ‘Investigating, we will become wise’, this is how you must train yourselves, monks.”
When this had been said, the venerable Ānanda spoke thus to the Lord: “What is the stage at which it suffices to say, revered sir: ‘Investigating, the monk is wise’?”
“Ānanda, as soon as a monk is skilled in the elements and skilled in the sense-fields (āyatanas) and skilled in conditioned genesis (78) and skilled in the possible and the impossible (79), it is at this stage, Ānanda, that it suffices to say, ‘Investigating, the monk is wise.’ “
“But, revered sir, at what stage does it suffice to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’?”
“There are these eighteen elements, Ānanda: the element of eye, the element of visible object, the element of visual consciousness; the element of ear, the element of sound, the element of auditory consciousness; the element of nose, the element of smell, the element of olfactory consciousness; the element of tongue, the element of taste, the element of gustatory consciousness; the element of body, the element of tangible object, the element of body-consciousness; the element of mind, the element of mind-objects, the element of mental consciousness. When, Ānanda, he knows and sees these eighteen elements, it is at this stage that it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements. ‘ “
“Might there be another way also, revered sir, according to which it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’?”
“There might be, Ānanda. There are these six elements, Ānanda: the element of extension, the element of cohesion, the element of radiation (heat), the element of mobility, the element of space, the element of consciousness. When, Ānanda, he knows and sees these six elements, it is at this stage that it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements.’ “
“Might there be another way also, revered sir, according to which it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’?”
“There might be, Ānanda. There are these six elements, Ānanda: the element of happiness, the element of anguish, the element of gladness, the element of sorrowing, the element of equanimity, the element of ignorance. When, Ānanda, he knows and sees these six elements, it is at this stage that it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’.”
The Buddha then explained still other ways of being skilled in the elements and further on we read that Ānanda asked again:
“Might there be another way also, revered sir, according to which it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’?”
“There might be, Ānanda. There are these two elements, Ānanda: the element that is constructed (80) and the element that is unconstructed (81). When, Ānanda, he knows and sees these two elements, it is at this stage that it suffices to say, ‘The monk is skilled in the elements’.”
The element which is “constructed” (sankhata), is all conditioned realities (the five khandhas), and the element which is “unconstructed” (asaṅkhata), is nibbāna. Also nibbāna is an element, it is not a person, it is devoid of self, anattā. We read in this sutta about the monk who knows and sees the elements. Knowing and seeing the elements does not mean only knowing them in theory and thinking about them. One knows and sees the elements when there is paññā which realizes nāma and rūpa as they are: only elements, not self. This knowledge will lead to the end of fears, troubles and misfortunes, to the end of dukkha.

Questions

  1. 1.
    When realities are classified as eighteen elements, what element is
    cetasika?
  2. 2.
    Which paramattha dhammas are viññāṇa-dhātu (consciousness-element)?
  3. 3.
    Is mind-consciousness-element (mano-viññāṇa-dhātu) included in
    viññāṇa-dhātu?
  4. 4.
    Through how many doors can mind-element (mano-dhātu) experience an
    object?
  5. 5.
    Why is also nibbāna an element?
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