Advice on MN1 please - being apart from water

I would appreciate your help in understanding this passage from MN1:

“He perceives water as water. Having perceived water as water, he conceives himself as water, he conceives himself in water, he conceives himself apart from water, he conceives water to be ‘mine,’ he delights in water. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say."

As it happens I walk by the sea every day. Sometimes I just sit and watch the waves, and after a while I have a clearer sense of what water really is. I don’t conceive myself as water, or in water, or the water to be mine, or delight in it - but I do conceive myself as being apart from water. What I don’t get is how I would not conceive myself as being apart from water, since my body and water are physically different things. Or to put it another way, there is a subject ( me ) observing an external object ( water ). Any thoughts?


This sutta is of utmost importance, because it says that the very things by which I experience the world are unknown to me
It is saying that your perception is rooted in ignorance. No matter what you perceive, you will perceive wrongly, you will conceive things to be that which they are not.
It is saying that one does not even understand one’s own perception and thus what one perceives is also not understood.

The uninstructed ordinary person, Having perceived internal or external water with ignorance, he conceives internal and external water with ignorance.

If you read further, you should note that the description is different for the ariyasavakas and arahant.

Also, the ‘water’ in the description is one of the four great elements, which is one of the bases for your existence. It’s not just water that you see out there.

The ordinary person conceives the water as the water through his ignorance.
The Buddha’s disciple Directly knows (discerns ) the water for what it is. Note the absence of the word perception.
He discerns it and reflects properly on it,and cleans himself further of ignorance in regard to it.
The arahant also directly knows but has finished the work that needs to be done i.e he has discerned it far enough.

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Hmm, let me mention some further resources to explore (for the OP and others interested in The Root of All Things).

Hope this helps.


I suspect if the Buddha was teaching in modern times, he might not be using the four-element framework as much (or even at all), but was pretty natural to use in those times given its seeming ubiquity (seemed to be the standard explanation of what bodily “stuff” or “stuff” in general was made of).

Therefore, I’d tend to view the use of “water” here as being a particular aspect of the body or a constituent of bodily “stuff”. Substitute “body” or “bodily stuff” instead of “water” and the passage does make reasonable sense to me. It’s also not clear that the opening line, perceiving “water as water”, is the perceptual error. Certainly what follows on afterwards from that does seem to be labelled that way. Of course, perhaps the misunderstanding also encompasses perceiving earth as earth etc. However, that’s not inevitable from the way the passages are written and it’s not obvious to me why perceiving fire as fire etc. would be a perceptual misunderstanding.

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Your body consists to a considerable degree of water: muscles about 75 %, blood 90–95 %, fat 25 %, bones 22 % (just saw it here in German).


Yes, I know, but I was referring specifically to the external water element ( see MN140 ).

Good point. It looks to me like the problem here is not the perceiving itself ( that’s just recognition ), but the conceiving which follows, ie the self-referential bias. So for example, if I can’t swim I might be a bit averse to deep water. :blush:

Sure, but how would this apply practically to water? Given that water is just water, what would be the practical difference if I was seeing it clearly, without ignorance? What precisely is ignorant about my current perception of water?

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We can certainly substitute water with body, but the same problem remains. One perceives body, as that which is body.
One assumes/conceives that body.

That body is perceived, and you cannot see the body without the perception, thus it is a PERCEIVED-BODY, not just a body.
( Excuse the capital letters, I’m not shouting)

One cannot ‘ACCESS’ the body without perception.
Can you imagine a body, without in some way perceiving it?
No matter how fanciful ones imagination of a body, it’s still perceived through thought.

The body (not the perceived-body) cannot even be thought; i.e the thought of body is also not that body, it still is perceived-body( which is being perceived because of the inaccessible body).

The body is inaccessible to you, even in thought. It is thus inconceivable when one directly knows/remembers the understanding/abhijanati of this.

But one must always also be careful not to assume that "the thought that the body is inaccessible"is that body.

The inaccessible-body-knowledge reveals what anicca-dukkha-anatta means i.e it appeared, and it will disappear without your ability to do anything about it; it persists in an inaccessible situation beyond my control; it increases and decreases without concern for ‘me’.

As regards the basic elements, these are a description of the most general elements,in an unproliferated sense. Modern science has discovered many more particular elements but they are all constitutes of the general basis.
Modern times are more proliferated into the world of particulars, and therefore we are further away from discerning these GENERAL phenomena, whereas , in the time of the Buddha,the general background phenomena were more easily discerned and that would explain the perfect conditions for the appearance of a Buddha and the ease by which some others understood him.

One could say that in fact, we have descended/proliferated further into the senses and so it will be harder to ascend.

The mind is a general background phenomena, thoughts are more particular, but are more general than what you see or touch.
The body is also a much more general thing, our perceptions of it are more particular. Therefore we cannot know the general body through the particular perception, for wherever we look, we find a perception.

Thus, having such knowledge repeatedly, one stops even trying to conceive the body.
If the general inaccessible body is understood and no longer conceived as accessible (mine in whatever way), what is to say for all the more particular things based on body.

If the very base of my existence is not mine, then all other things cannot possible be mine. They never were and never will be.

I just gave an answer to that above.

In other words, you cannot have a PURE experience of water, you only have a perception of it through a sense

And how, exactly, is the “internal water element” any different? :wink:

Thanks, that’s interesting. I must admit that I’ve actually been practicing four-elements meditation regularly enough for the last while. In spite of what I said about the four-element division, I find the scheme is a nice broad categorization of fairly general things with the body (liquidity/cohesion, solidness/hardness, heat/energy, movement/vibration/expansion) and works well as an investigative framework (atoms as constituents would be just a little too abstract :wink: ). I’m finding it tends to have quite a deconstructive impact on perceptions of self (driving home that I have about as much fundamental control over external water in rivers as internal water/fluids in the body etc.). You seem to be taking this deconstructive light and shining it on perception itself, which seems good to me. Though, on the other hand, I guess while there’s still a body there’s still going to be perception going on.


Sure, perception will be there,if the body allows, if it doesn’t get sick,if I don’t go blind etc, if the elements do not change too drastically.

We cannot get rid of perception, even if we block our ears etc it would still be an ear perceiving a blocked sound and even a thought of a sound belongs to the ear. (There would be no thought of sound if there wasn’t an ear).

The problem of course is not with perception but our NON-knowledge in regard to it.

I also have enjoyed and found useful the four element contemplations. The thoughts, “THAT external water and THIS internal water, are just water”,is a thought headed in the right direction i.e one gets to see and know that there is a more general water element (the mental concept )than just the more particular external or internal( five sense experiences).
There is a heiarchy (general and particular structure) within perception also.
The five senses are all lower than the mind sense, the five senses converge in mind. Mind is higher, more general.

Notice also that All the different phenomena that are listed in the sutta, goes from general to even more general until the most generalist Nibbana.

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The Buddha does not say that water is one of the bases for the existence of a self.

Conceiving oneself as water would mean – I think – “taking water as the basis for the existence of a self.” Thoughts of this type might run: “All humans are made in part of water. Perhaps what makes us so special is based on some property of water that manifests in humans.”

Conceiving oneself apart from water would mean – I think – “All humans are made of things other than water. Perhaps what makes us so special is found in those parts of us that are not water.” Thoughts of this type might run: “All humans are made in part of some things that are not water. Perhaps what makes us so special is based on some property of these things that are not water.”

The truth is more like this – again, I think – there is nothing subject to sense verification that makes us special or set apart in any way at all, at least not in the way that you desire.

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Although the beauty of MN1 is its multiple consistent interpretations, the simplest interpretation is that the physical body (earth, water, fire and air) is not one’s self. The breakdown into each element is an answer by analysis for those who identify with the body or any physical thing (e.g., “As a sailor, my life is water”). Since you don’t identify with water, you pass on to the following verses that deal with other attachments such as thoughts, etc.

Where MN1 gets truly marvelous is that oneness and diversity and extinguishment are tossed in there as well. MN1 traverses the entirety of the conceit, “I am.”


What I meant was, that water element is a necessary condition (bases) for the world /experience, a nutriment for body etc.
It is the ignorance and craving which is the necessary base for Self. I should not have used the word ‘existence’, thanks.

One who takes experience for granted, not-knowing his situation, misperceives: “this water is mine, or this water is not mine , or both, or neither” , he conceives “I am” in regard to water and water is such and such etc either way he is conceiving.

When there is perceiving of something, there is already conceiving happening. This is the ordinary persons situation
He is born of conceiving, and so in a way, he must reverse engineer by Understanding the elements, for example; and by trusting what the Buddha says, which is that we start from a position of 'mis’perceiving and conceiving.

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Also note how, the ordinary person actually perceives (misperceives) Nibbana. He actually experiences it.

I think its about building up a sense of self and thinking there is an existence apart from water.
An arahant does not have this quality.

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How interesting! I never noticed that!

Ordinary people can know about (e.g., “perceive”) extinguishment.

But I think you are referring to the direction that trainees who experience extinguishment should not get caught up in the experience:

50.3So that they may completely understand it, I say

Thank you!

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