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AN 11.9: does the Buddha say you should NOT meditate on the elements?

In the Saddhasutta (Sandhasutta) there is a comparison between someone who meditates like a wild colt and someone who meditates like a well-bred horse. The wild colt part describes how one should NOT meditate, and in this section it says: He [wrongly] meditates dependent on earth, water, etc. Later on in the sutta is described how one should meditate, and here it says: So neva pathaviṃ nissāya jhāyati - he does not meditate dependent on earth, etc.

The only way I can explain this would be that someone would concentrate on the earth for the sake of the earth, and that this is what is said to be wrong.

Could anyone comment on this?

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My first go at this, and I welcome feedback.

AN11.9 describes absorption, and how the perception of the meditation subject vanishes as the meditator nears absorption. In breath meditation, for example, as one nears jhana, the perception of breath drops out before the nimitta appears.

The key word in the passage you pasted is “dependent.” Contrast the section you posted with the section below, where the thoroughbred person describes absorption, after the perception has faded away.

“Sandha, for a fine thoroughbred person, the perception of earth has vanished in relation to earth. […] And the perception of what is seen, heard, thought, known, attained, sought, or explored by the mind has vanished.

A wild colt meditates dependent on earth, but for a thoroughbred who has achieved absorption, the perception of earth has vanished.

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If I understand correctly, and this seems perfectly in line with the text mentioned, one should not hold on to the meditation object for the sake of the object, just like you have to let go of the raft once you are on the other side…

Thanks you very much Elisabetta!

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In my understanding. This needs to be interpreted, meaning the person don’t have to meditate with attachment to elements.

The way Buddha taught his son is the way Buddha taught of meditation on elements. The idea is to make your meditation as the sea. Make your meditation like earth.

But there is also just learning elements. Just for the sake of seeing them as impermanence and non-self.

One can contrast AN11.9 with suttas like MN140 or, here, MN62:

“Rāhula, the interior earth element is said to be anything hard, solid, and organic that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, undigested food, feces, or anything else hard, solid, and organic that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior earth element. The interior earth element and the exterior earth element are just the earth element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

It sounds like a person at more advanced level (a " thoroughbred") will detach the mind from the elements. IMO that doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that, for a colt in training, looking at the elements in meditation is a bad thing.

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Thanks. Yes. Your right. It starts with learning the different elements. And then it’s seeing those elements as not yours. I remember in Agamas it mentions the sort of training Rahula was training in already. I love MN 140 my favorite sutta.

So the trainee level first. And then Higher Training.

I think this sort of training also was Probably something like it was done to the duality earth elements. With the not me not mine.

"But herein, Cunda, effacement should be practiced by you:

  • (1) Others will be harmful; we shall not be harmful here — thus effacement can be done.[[17]]
  • (2) Others will kill living beings; we shall abstain from killing living beings here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (3) Others will take what is not given; we shall abstain from taking what is not given here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (4) Others will be unchaste; we shall be chaste here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (5) Others will speak falsehood; we shall abstain from false speech here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (6) Others will speak maliciously; we shall abstain from malicious speech here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (7) Others will speak harshly; we shall abstain from harsh speech here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (8) Others will gossip; we shall abstain from gossip here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (9) Others will be covetous; we shall not be covetous here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (10) Others will have thoughts of ill will; we shall not have thoughts of ill will here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (11) Others will have wrong views; we shall have right view here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (12) Others will have wrong intention; we shall have right intention here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (13) Others will use wrong speech; we shall use right speech here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (14) Others will commit wrong actions; we shall do right actions here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (15) Others will have wrong livelihood; we shall have right livelihood here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (16) Others will make wrong effort; we shall make right effort here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (17) Others will have wrong mindfulness; we shall have right mindfulness here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (18) Others will have wrong concentration; we shall have right concentration here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (19) Others will have wrong knowledge; we shall have right knowledge here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (20) Others will have wrong deliverance; we shall have right deliverance here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (21) Others will be overcome by sloth and torpor; we shall be free from sloth and torpor here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (22) Others will be agitated; we shall be unagitated here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (23) Others will be doubting; we shall be free from doubt here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (24) Others will be angry; we shall not be angry here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (25) Others will be hostile; we shall not be hostile here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (26) Others will denigrate; we shall not denigrate here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (27) Others will be domineering; we shall not be domineering here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (28) Others will be envious; we shall not be envious here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (29) Others will be jealous; we shall not be jealous here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (30) Others will be fraudulent; we shall not be fraudulent here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (31) Others will be hypocrites; we shall not be hypocrites here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (32) Others will be obstinate; we shall not be obstinate here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (33) Others will be arrogant; we shall not be arrogant here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (34) Others will be difficult to admonish; we shall be easy to admonish here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (35) Others will have bad friends; we shall have noble friends here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (36) Others will be negligent; we shall be heedful here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (37) Others will be faithless; we shall be faithful here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (38) Others will be shameless; we shall be shameful here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (39) Others will be without conscience; we shall have conscience here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (40) Others will have no learning; we shall be learned here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (41) Others will be idle; we shall be energetic here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (42) Others will be lacking in mindfulness; we shall be established in mindfulness here — thus effacement can be done.
  • (43) Others will be without wisdom; we shall be endowed with wisdom — thus effacement can be done.
  • (44) Others will misapprehend according to their individual views, hold on to them tenaciously and not easily discard them;[[18]]we shall not misapprehend according to individual views nor hold on to them tenaciously, but shall discard them with ease — thus effacement can be done.

Some suttas mention some elements teaching. But they are not long like this.

Just the main elements. But it can be longer. Imagine bacteria etc :joy: go deeper

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As I understand it, the sutta indicates in the beginning that the first meditator described is meditating with a mind obsessed with the hindrances. The second meditator described is the arahant in the meditative experience of nibbāna.

What leads me to think that an awakened one is intended here is the verse following the section on the one who meditates without dependence. Purisuttama , highlighted below, here and elsewhere refers to an arahant. (see also DN 32, SN 22.79, Snp 3.6)

"‘Homage to you, O thoroughbred person!
‘Namo te purisājañña,

Homage to you, O supreme person!
namo te purisuttama ;

We ourselves do not understand
Yassa te nābhijānāma,

What you meditate in dependence on.’”
yampi nissāya jhāyasī’”ti.

For example, SN 22.79 describes what, from the context of the sutta, is clearly an awakened one and uses the exact same verse:

“When, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu is thus liberated in mind, the devas together with Indra, Brahma, and Pajapati pay homage to him from afar:

“‘Homage to you, O thoroughbred man!
Homage to you, O highest among men [ purisuttama]!
We ourselves do not directly know
Dependent upon what you meditate.’”

So it seems to me that it’s describing the meditative experience of nibbāna, fruition attainment for the arahant (this state being one without dependence of any kind).

To echo what @suaimhneas said, I think all meditators must meditate in dependence on something until they reach the state of no-dependence (i.e., nibbāna). In other words, consciousness is dependent on name-and-form until that dependence is cut with the attainment of nibbāna.

The first type of meditator is described as a “wild colt”, which I take to mean that they are as yet untamed, still immature in their development (and thus subject to hindrances). The “thoroughbred”, on the other hand, is fully tamed and mature. I see this sutta as the Buddha encouraging Sandha, who he might have felt was ripe, to direct his mind toward nibbāna.

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Wrong immersion on an element such as earth would be to identify with earth, from an “I am” basis. To understand this, it helps to consider the “internal earth element”, which consists of skin, bones and flesh, etc. When a mosquito lands on our skin, wrong immersion would be to think, “that mosquito landed on my skin”. Identifying with an element introduces a dependency that is hard to let go of. That mosquito ITCHES!

Right immersion on an element such as earth would be to not identify with earth.

MN140:14.7: The interior earth element and the exterior earth element are just the earth element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

Detaching the mind requires mindful attention and letting go. When a mosquito lands, a thought arises, “a mosquito has landed”. When the mosquito leaves, a thought arises, “a mosquito has left”.

In both cases, perception arises and fades. However with wrong immersion, there is grasping and a frantic craving that perpetuates the initial contact: “that mosquito is driving ME crazy! I will be STOIC and FIGHT the itch!”. Indeed, it’s hard to even consider that immersion, but it is wrong (in the “pointless” sense).

Also the fading of perception itself isn’t a good gauge of “thoroughbred-ness”. Wrong immersion can also be improper attention to another element. For example, consciousness is the sixth element. And if we are wrongly immersed in Mario Kart, we probably won’t feel the mosquito land since our mind is unified with Mario Kart.

Because of this, we shouldn’t infer that fading perception implies “thoroughbred”. MN140 suggests that thoroughbreds meditate independent of earth. Thoroughbreds have zero identity investment in the elements but they do perceive them to varying degrees according to the depth of their immersion. If you stepped on an arahant’s toe during alms round, there would definitely be a painful feeling. But there would be none of the hysterical squawking that normally accompanies such an injury.

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I think you guys post can get us Enlightenment. :slight_smile: :pray:t4:

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Thank you Karl for this very useful link to the Dhātuvibhaṅgasutta (MN 140). For me it is clear now why the elements are mentioned in the way they are in the Sandha sutta (AN 11.9)

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What about MN10 the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta:

1.5. Focusing on the Elements

1216Furthermore, a mendicant examines their own body, whatever its placement or posture, according to the elements: ‘In this body there is the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’

17It’s as if a deft butcher or butcher’s apprentice were to kill a cow and sit down at the crossroads with the meat cut into portions.

1318And so they meditate observing an aspect of the body internally …

That too is how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body.

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