Elements in the EBTs - noumena or phenomena?

In the EBTs form ( rupa ) is generally described in terms of the four great elements - earth, wind, fire and water. And sometimes ( as in MN140 ) consciousness and space are added as the properties of a person.

But I’m still not clear what the elements are, according to the EBTs. For example, is the earth element objective stuff “out there” ( and “in here” ) or is it merely a subjective tactile experience of hardness?
Or both? Or neither? :yum:

To ask the question another way, are the constituents of form really elements, or merely sense-base impressions? Are they noumena or phenomena?

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

From MN140:
“What, bhikkhu, is the earth element? The earth element may be either internal or external… Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element."


There are many different types of (immaterial) dhatu in the EBT, even nibbanadhatu. When you look at the different examples I think it becomes clear that an immaterial ‘characteristic’ is meant, not a ‘material element’. So I’d go with ‘hardness’ rather than ‘earth’.

Careful also with the ‘four great elements’ - these are not mahadhatu but mahabhuta, an older term for ‘beings’.

See for different sets of dhatu MN 115

See SN 46.2, 46.51, AN 1.18, AN 6.38 for ārambhadhātu (instigation), nikkamadhātu (persistence), and parakkamadhātu (exertion).

See DN 33 for rūpa, arūpa, and nirodhadhātu (cessation).

There are many more but finally see SN 14.16 for a clear example of dhātu as ‘characteristic’


I’ve found it useful to seek the widest and the simplest interpretations that apply in all the suttas. For example, from gardening, I understand that the elements of gardening are “earth, water, fire and air”. Without any one of these there is no gardening or farming and therefore no food. And per DN33 “Sentient beings are sustained by food.” Therefore the four elements together sustain all life.

This understanding requires that the four elements be considered together as a “matched set”.

For example, you mention “hardness”. Hardness can be attributed to ANY of the elements:

  • earth can be hard
  • water can be hard (have you jumped off a bridge?)
  • air can be hard (hear that sonic boom?)
  • fire can be hard (supernova expanding wall of flame?)

Using the matched set interpretation, I think we perhaps can all assign coarse experiences (i.e., form perceptions) to one of the elements in a way that we might all agree with:

  • bone => earth
  • urine => water
  • desire => fire
  • breathing => air

Notice that the elements are a bit “blurry” in this matched set interpretation. Flesh (“earth”) liquefies as it decomposes and we eventually see that flesh also includes the water element. Decomposition also yields heat (i.e., fire) as any one near a compost heap will attest to. And a cow’s digestive decomposing yields…well, let’s just say methane (i.e., air).

So it is odd that we cannot really say exactly what Earth is at any moment but we all know exactly how to split up everyday things into these four elements.


IMO they’re fairly open-ended categories (lots of possible angles). One possible angle (not exactly EBT based :slight_smile: ) is the standard physics states/phases of matter classification: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. It kind of works and does somewhat straddle both subjective and objective. Plasma does loosely and somewhat incompletely link with the fire element in the suttas; plasma is generated by things like stars and very intense flame.


Is there an objective reality that exists independently of our experience? This question can actually never be answered since we have no way of observing things without experiencing them.

A pragmatist approach would be to envision the elements in whatever way helps you make an end to suffering.

Personally, I understand the point of the four elements contemplation to be that the stuff our body is made of is not special; the body stuff is same as the stuff we find just laying around in the environment around us. This seems to be helpful to reduce attachment to the body, as far as I can tell.

So IMO as long as you can put an equal sign between what is internal and external to the body, it does not matter that much exactly what you envision stuff to be ‘made of’, if that makes sense.



Good reminder that this is what all meditation is about.

Ignorance thinks in terms of existence and not existing. If we take the causally arisen phenomena approach even internal and ‘the world outside ‘ is transcended, no?


Do you mean that the divide between the internal and ‘the world outside’ is transcended by taking ‘causally arisen phenomena approach’, i.e. one can use a causal approach for the same goal as the elements contemplation?

Yes, I think that is a good modern equivalent to the four element model, and it’s one that I’ve worked with in the past.

Yes, I can see that a pragmatic approach probably works best here - not getting too bogged down in the philosophy and metaphysics involved. It can be a real can of worms. :blush:

So does this support the idea of dhatu being phenomena rather than noumena? Properties or characteristics?

The sutta SN 14.16 goes like

Mendicants, sentient beings come together and fit because of a dhātu. Those who have a low attitude come together and fit with those who have a low attitude.

What is a straight forward translation for it? How would you in normal every-day psychological language call a “low attitude”? Nobody would call this an ‘element’. People would say ‘characteristic’, ‘trait’, ‘feature’.

Doesn’t the quote you provided supply the answer that it’s both?

I can think of three different contemporary interpretations I’ve heard of the four elements:

I have heard a recording from Ajahn Brahm (?this one, talk 02, otherwise talk 05 ) in which he dismisses the model as being replaced by modern physics and says the point is that the body consists of disparate elements/components and has no inherent identity.

Patrick Kearney says we can understand the elements in terms of their qualities: hardness, wetness, temperature, movement and that these are relevant internal to the body and outside it. There’s a dhamma talk of his here.

Ven Anālayo (see his two books on the Satipatthāna) suggests (my interpretation after hearing his talks on retreat) that there are basic correspondences between hard parts of our bodies with the earth, wet parts with the water, temperature with fire (heat) and breath with wind. My own simplistic memories of highschool chemistry allow me to accept/extend this with relative ease: like, there’s carbon and H2O in our bodies and in the natural world. His guided meditations are along the lines of “Don’t take your body to be anything permanent or important, it’s just going to dissolve back into the elements.”

With regard to the number of elements, a friend of mine who’s something of a vedic scholar says that in ancient Indian philosophy the number of elements was variously 4, 6, or more, and that the point isn’t to identify them prescisely but to realise that ‘neither the external world nor this body of mine are solid entities, they have shifting, impermanent components’.

(Elements in the EBTs - noumena or phenomena?)


body stuff is same as the stuff we find just laying around in the environment around us


Yup, exactly. I have fun from time to time making artworks that try to say this.


Dhātu means ‘primary element’ or ‘essential fundamental characteristic’, or that which is required for there to be an experience.

They are not something that you can perceive /sanjanati in experience, but can only be ‘indirectly known’/ abhijanati. MN1.
They cannot be found within your experience, because they are the nutriments for it.

Imagination would still be an assumption in regards to the elements i.e upādānapaccayā bhavo / with assumption,being is. The elements gain a footing within experience, they will be assumed to be ‘for me’,or in regard to me.

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Form+eye [arises and passes-a&p] give rise to eye-consciousness; which in turn (coming together of those 3) gives rise to eye-contact. This is pure phenomena. The internal/external demarcation of the external (form) and internal (eye) blurs as these are sensed even before ‘consciousness’ or contact arises. And it occurs between existence and non-existence. This becomes apparent with an EBT based mindfulness of the actions of the senses. It’s said that the external cannot be proven to exist as phenomena can reach Cessation; and that it cannot be said to not exist as it does arise.

This reminded me of the formula for contact, ie consciousness arises in dependence upon eye and visible form, for example. I take this to mean that there has to be something “out there” ( ie rupa ) for experience to be possible. Though I think it is actually derived form that we experience, eg colours, shapes, pressures, temperatures, etc?

I think we might be thinking slightly the same then? Is this what you mean?
Eye-consciousness,eye and forms are all dhātu. They are not to be found within your experience. They are the necessary foundations for your experience.
So what is seen, within experience,is visible-form, or perceived-form, not just ‘form’.
One cannot perceive the ‘out there’, where those three elements are, one can only ‘abhijanati’ them.

Olivelle has pointed out referring to Upanisadic literature that it is not the physical eye that is meant but ‘seeing’. Pali uses the same word.

It’s a basic everyday experience that Buddhists for some reason seem to have forgotten. We don’t need the eye to see dreams, fantasies… Yet, seeing in dreams still triggers the whole chain of feelings etc.


Sure, though I think that “ability to see” makes most sense in the context of how eye-consciousness arises in the EBTs - it depends upon the ability to see, and something to see. I think dreaming is different because it arises at the mind-base, rather than that at eye-base.

You mean we cannot perceive noumena, only phenomena? As for “visible form”, I take that to be colour, shape and movement, those characteristics being derived from the four elements in combination.

I think this is the model that works best for me. Partly because I’m sciency, and partly because the states of matter framework gives that sense of instability, and continual change.

I came across this Wiki article which IMO explains things pretty well: Mahābhūta - Wikipedia


I am reluctant to use the term noumena, just because I am unaware of the views that are associated with it, but suspect that there are many.

Yes, we cannot perceive, ‘that because of which we perceive’.
We cannot even think, ’ that because of which we perceive’.
We can only ‘know’ that there is ‘that because of which we experience’.

As someone else put it, it is pre-phenomenal.

As for what you take as ‘visible form’, colour,shape,movement ,being derived from the four elements. I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as you don’t take your ‘thought-of-the-four-elements’, to be the four elements which is ‘that because of which’ you are having a thought of the four elements.

The pre-phenomenal domain is beyond ones perceptual scope, and that can be known. One can know that that inaccessible domain is the very determinant/nutriment for this domain of ‘my’ experience. It is inaccessible, thus my life is founded upon that which is ‘not mine’.

The eye cannot see itself; yet I know there must be an eye because there is sight. The 'sign’of an eye appears through sight perception,but that ‘sign’ is also not the eye( i.e a sight means eye), and that’s as close as you can get to the pre-phenomenal eye.

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Assumptions. You assume there is an external and therefore there must be an internal. However if the external is an assumption, why do we think of anything as an internal?

MN140 does make the distinction between internal and external, and so does MN10. I don’t see why the distinction should be a problem, providing one realises that it’s all the same stuff. Is there anything in the EBTs which specifically contradicts the internal/external distinction? I’m not talking about self-view etc, just the basic “physical” distinction which arises from having having a body, and senses which receive information about the “outside” world.