Dhatu: element or property?

i’m interested in the context of 4 elements meditation, such as
MN 62 mahā-rāhul-ovāda-suttaṃ
and MN 140, which contains the exact sutta text on the same 5 elements and then talks about consciousness(vinnana) that remains, and then equanimity.

  1. so first question: thanissaro translates dhatu as property, bodhi uses element (MN 140). my american english tends to think of “property” more as an adverb or adjective, whereas “element” makes me think of a noun first. i like property better. thoughts? better word as translation?

  2. I especially like “property” for wind-property, bodhi in mn 140 calls it “air element”, but under the internal air elements, the items enumerated are “winds”. air seems to confuse with space element, you think of it as static. but the internal wind properties, captures an important part of our meditation experience. “the force” that pushes and fills out our fathom long body when we relax the body and mind, and causes that feeling of water geyser coursing through our veins like liquid pleasure in second jhana.

  3. besides MN 62 and MN 140, what are the earliest EBT passages that talk about 4 or 5 elements? off the top of my head i can only recall under nama-rupa , 4 elements is defined as rupa in SN. under 5 khandhas, 4 elements are defined as “the cause” of rupa (what’s the significance of this?).

MN 115

My impression from browsing the suttas is when the four dhatu are mentioned in relation to ‘rupa’, the context appears related to ‘rupa’ as one of the five aggregates rather than as ‘rupa’ as a visual sense object. Therefore, the significance of the four elements as the “cause” (‘hetu’) of ‘rupa’ is the ‘rupa’ (as an aggregate, i.e., the physical body) is physically/biologically formed/created from the four elements. An example of where ‘rupa’, as an aggregate, is defined as the physical body (rather than as a visual sense object/impression) is as follows:

And why do you call it ‘form’? Because it is afflicted, thus it is called ‘form.’ Afflicted with what? With cold & heat & hunger & thirst, with the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun & reptiles. Because it is afflicted, it is called form. SN 22.79

Similarly, the descriptions in MN 62 of the five elements appear to point to the ‘physical body’ rather than to visual sense impressions since “bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach” etc are not ordinary visual sense-impressions (unless one is meditating upon exposed corpses). Instead, “bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach” are components or ‘elements’ of the physical body, just as in modern science, where oxygen, hydrogen, gold, silver, iron, copper, etc, are ‘elements’ or building blocks of physical things.

Please note: both my points made above appear to result in a contradiction between the ‘nama-rupa’ defined in many suttas (eg. SN 12.2; MN 9; etc) and the ‘nama-rupa’ defined in DN 15.


To me, the word “property” can sound similar to “real estate” that is bought, owned & possessed, including when strongly delighting in (attaching to) the pleasurable effects meditation.

I personally prefer “element” in the scientific sense since it refers to something utterly impersonal & pre-existent (‘sabhava’) independent of mental classification or ‘self’.

After years (decades!) of saying that ‘Dhatu’ was our ‘Data’ and then trying to reconcile this with the usual ‘element’ and lately experimenting with something like characteristic, or attribute, I have finally seen what was in front of my eyes the whole time.
The word means 'data.'
Earth, water, firelight and wind, space and consciousness, figuratively: solidity, liquidity, light and heat, motion, empty space and awareness are really the only things we know. That is the basic information we are given as living beings. This is the data we are given to work with.


1 Like

yes, “property” does have a noun connotation like real estate, but in the context of pathavi-dhatu, apo-dhatu, vata-dhatu, etc, then “property” to me at least was more clearly referring to attribute/characteristic/function , i.e. pointing more towards hardness, wetness, wind-force, which does not necessarily have to have a “personal” connotation.

“element” does have that impersonal feel, but “property” can also be impersonal, and even has a feeling of emptiness, an ephemeral quality, compared to atomic “elements” which can appear to be permanent indestructable substance.

is “element” kind of a universal standard in english buddhist translations for “dhatu”? If so, that’s a good enough reason for me to keep using that term.

I don’t think MN 115 is EBT.

here’s what it says about 6 dhatu
:diamonds: “siyā pana, bhante, aññopi pariyāyo, yathā ‘dhātukusalo bhikkhū’ti alaṃ vacanāyā”ti? “siyā, ānanda. chayimā, ānanda, dhātuyo — pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu, ākāsadhātu, viññāṇadhātu. imā kho, ānanda, cha dhātuyo yato jānāti passati — ettāvatāpi kho, ānanda, ‘dhātukusalo bhikkhū’ti alaṃ vacanāyā”ti.

in MN 140 (and MN 62),
the first 5 are “dhatu”.

in MN 140, it talks about the 6th item vinnana (doesn’t call it dhatu)
:diamonds: 354. “athāparaṃ viññāṇaṃyeva avasissati parisuddhaṃ pariyodātaṃ. tena ca viññāṇena kiṃ VAR vijānāti? ‘sukhan’tipi vijānāti, ‘dukkhan’tipi vijānāti, ‘adukkhamasukhan’tipi vijānāti. sukhavedaniyaṃ, bhikkhu, phassaṃ paṭicca uppajjati sukhā vedanā. so sukhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayamāno ‘sukhaṃ vedanaṃ vedayāmī’ti pajānāti. ‘tasseva sukhavedaniyassa phassassa nirodhā yaṃ tajjaṃ vedayitaṃ sukhavedaniyaṃ phassaṃ paṭicca uppannā sukhā vedanā sā nirujjhati, sā vūpasammatī’ti pajānāti.

how did 4 dhatu become 5 dhatu, and then 6?

ah, re-reading your post a second time i just noticed “data” looks like “dhatu”. is there common etymological root there?

I can’t say. The source of that interpretation is a very out of the box website. Give it a check, maybe there is a practical point to it.

Another interesting reading material on the topic can be found here:

(7.2) (Sariputta) Darukkhandha Sutta - The Dharmafarers

Though it’s not a perfect fit, I quite like property, as in characteristic. I don’t like element much. It gives the impression that the body, etc, is constructed from these dhatus, rather than that the dhatus are a way of describing.

If the body is not constructed from elements then what is it constructed from?

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used. SN 5.10

…this body composed of the four properties, born of mother & father, fed on rice & porridge… AN 9.15

If there are no elements or parts that comprise of the body then what is actually being described? Is it just a dream or mind created hallucination? If that is the case, do all arahants have the same dream or hallucination of ‘earth’, ‘wind’, ‘fire’, ‘water’, ‘space’ & ‘consciousness’?

I personally love ‘Element’. How can the following from MN 62 be simply be regarded as “a way of describing”?

kesā, lomā, nakhā, dantā, taco,
head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin,

maṁsaṁ, nahārū, aṭṭhī, aṭṭhimiñjā, vakkaṁ,
flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys,

hadayaṁ, yakanaṁ, kilomakaṁ, pihakaṁ, papphāsaṁ,
heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs,

antaṁ, antaguṇaṁ, udariyaṁ, karīsaṁ -
intestines, mesentery, undigested food, excrement -

For me, to give preeminence to the mind ‘describing’ is Brahmanism, i…e, ‘naming-of-forms’, such as the describing & naming described below: :confused:

The First Day—Light
3 Then God said, “Let there be light!” And light began to shine.[b] 4 He saw the light, and he knew that it was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light “day,” and he named the darkness “night.”

There was evening, and then there was morning. This was the first day.

The Second Day—Sky
6 Then God said, “Let there be a space[c] to separate the water into two parts!” 7 So God made the space and separated the water. Some of the water was above it, and some of the water was below it. 8 God named that space “sky.” There was evening, and then there was morning. This was the second day.

Genesis 1 Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)


Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. DN 11


Nāmarūpa-vyākaraṇa (Sanskrit: नामरुपव्याकरण ), in Hindu philosophy, refers to the process of evolution of differentiation into names and forms i.e. to the unfolding of the primal state into the manifest world prior to which unfolding there was nothing that existed; it refers to the conditioned reality. In the Upanishads this term is used to indicate the self-willed manifestation of Brahman under visible and nameable aspects, to the said manifestation into the fictitious plurality of the phenomenal world owing to maya, the unreal adjunct. According to Hindu scriptures the world in each age emanates from Brahman mirrored upon maya

For me, ‘elements’ (dhatu) are a synonym for ‘emptiness’ (sunnata) since there is no self within an element (dhatu). The ‘sabhava’ of a ‘dhatu’ is emptiness (sunnata). :slight_smile:

I think you are missing my point.

Please explain in what sense you think the body is constructed from earth, water, fire, and air (and space and consciousness in some suttas) and we can continue.

“What, bhikkhu, is the air element? The air element may be either internal or external. What is the internal air element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to, that is, up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in the belly, winds in the bowels, winds that course through the limbs, in-breath and out-breath, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is air, airy, and clung-to: this is called the internal air element.

That doesn’t sound like a description of components of the body.

1 Like

Well, this morning I was required to eat breakfast & unfortunately, since it would have been far less costly, I could not eat for breakfast mere ‘descriptions’ (papanca-sankhara). :worried:

I had to eat solid food, the same as the Buddha-To-Be who nearly died believing he could live on mere mental ideas (papanca-sankhara).

[quote=“mikenz66, post:10, topic:3391”]
Please explain in what sense you think the body is constructed from earth…[/quote]

Explained already. These photos may help since often a picture is worth a 1,000 words:


[quote=“mikenz66, post:10, topic:3391”]
Please explain in what sense you think the body is constructed from air…[/quote]

No air (kaya-sankhara per MN 44), no life. ‘Kaya-sankhara’ literally means ‘body-constructor’.

What more can I explain? :neutral_face:


Breathing is the process that moves air in and out of the lungs, or the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the external environment into and out of the blood through other respiratory organs such as gills. For organisms with lungs, breathing is also called pulmonary ventilation, which consists of inhalation (breathing in) and exhalation (breathing out). Breathing is one part of physiological respiration required to sustain life. Wikipedia

Since I don’t see what your post has to do with my question — nothing.

I once heard there was a Buddhist school of thought that believed in only one khandha. I would guess or speculate that one khandha was consciousness. Everything or ‘The All’ is only manifestations of consciousness, so consciousness is like the One God, the Great Brahma, monotheism or advaita. :rabbit:

Fortunately, the Buddha did not include consciousness in his description of ‘The All’ (which sounds like it could have possibly been one of those Brahmanistic ideas like ‘nama-rupa’ that Buddhist-wanna-be-Brahmans struggled to abandon or adjust to).

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. SN 35.23