Book of Analysis, the elements (Vb 3): translator's introduction

By Waltham St. Lawrence

(3) Analysis Of The Elements (Dhātuvibhaṅga).

The third vibhaṅga deals with the subject of elements (dhātū). Here again the three characteristic systems of analysis are used, the Suttanta system dealing with the more apparent, the more everyday conditions, and the Abhidhamma section considering the senses, their stimulation and the arising of conscious states. Elements are judged to be one of the most important and far reaching aspects of Abhidhamma teaching, and the Vibhaṅga on this subject should be considered only as an introductory examination showing the basic nature of the two groups of eighteen elements discussed. As indicated earlier, their full analysis is reserved for a complete volume on the subject, i.e., Dhātukathā.

Briefly, what are elements? In the same way as aggregates and bases are 'things in themselves' and can be appreciated only for their unitary quality, so also are elements to be considered. It will have been noticed that in the section on bases, particularly when dealing with the five senses and their objects, that consideration has been largely of the material nature of the base—however subtle that material may be—and on its function as a support. What is this support for, what arises within it, what is its essential nature? The answer to this is: the element (dhātu). Thus in referring to visible base (rūpāyatana) it is 'visibility' that is supported, that arises within it, that is its essential nature. Therefore it is that this unique quality peculiar to and characteristic of this base, and this base alone, is visible element (rūpadhātu),

In referring to eye base (cakkhāyatana) it is 'sight' that is supported, that arises within it, that is its essential nature. This is the unique quality called eye element (cakkhudhātu) that is peculiar to and characteristic of eye base only.

What then is eye-consciousness-element (cakkhuviññāṇadhātu)? It has been said above that eye base is the frontier between the impact of a sense stimulus and the arising of a conscious state; that in this way the sense base acts as a support or requisite condition for the arising of this active conscious state. The state which [xxx] arises at this stage, being almost the first in the train of conscious states contributing to the final recognition of the bare sense impulse as an object, is of a very simple structure and is related directly to the stimulus received by the base merely by the pure function of 'seeing'; that is, without consideration or discrimination as to the nature of the stimulus. The conscious state which arises at that primitive stage, being of a structure so characteristic of the type of stimulus received that it could not be classified among any other grouping of conscious states, forms its own natural classification and is called 'eye-consciousness-element' (cakkhuviññāṇadhātu). There being visible element (rūpadhātu) which in essence is the stimulus or object; there being eye-element (cakkhudhātu) which in essence is sight; should there then be contact between these two at the eye base (cakkhāyatana) then at that time there arises 'seeing'. This 'seeing' is the elementary conscious state known as eye-consciousness-element (cakkhuviññāṇadhātu). This same general argument may be applied to each of the other senses to demonstrate the function and mode of operation of all the sense bases, and of the appropriate elements.

The mode of arising of mind-element (manodhātu) and of mind-consciousness-element (manoviññāṇadhātu) is analagous to that given above, with the exception that none of the five sense bases is immediately concerned. In the case of the mind-element which follows sense consciousness the object causing its arising is the same as that of the sense consciousness; its proximate cause, however, is the passing away of that sense consciousness which arose as the result of impact between an object and sense base. In the case of mind-consciousness-element the object taken falls into one or other of six categories, and may or may not depend ultimately on the initial presentation of an object of sense.

In both these cases, either of the arising of mind-element or of the arising of mind-consciousness-element in five aggregate existence, the material base acting as support or requisite condition is what is called heart base (hadayavatthu).