Four elements meditation

I’m hearing more and more about the 4 elements meditation with in Pali traditions. Are these teachings actually in the Canon. I know the Buddha tells his son to “be” as the earth. But I thought that teaching was more parabolic.

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Hey Joe. MN 62 is where the the Buddha tells his son to “be” as the earth. MN 140 is similar. Then there is MN 115 and the whole Chapter 24 of the Samyutta Nikaya.

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The contemplation of the four elements is given in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta along with the instructions of how to approach the theme in the same way as all the other meditation subjects in the sutta.

Furthermore, 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.’
>
>It’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.
And so they meditate observing an aspect of the body internally, externally, and both internally and externally.
They meditate observing the body as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate and vanish.
Or mindfulness is established that the body exists, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. They meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.

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

I love doing this mediation. The version I teach uses some information from the commentaries about the qualities of each property and then utilises the instructions of the sutta to analyse the elements.

If you want to check it out:

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Doug Dharma has been making videos about 4 elements meditation recently.

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Meditation on the elements is an integral part of kayanupassana (contemplation of the body) in the practice of satipaṭṭhāna (MN 10) that is shared by all transmission lineages and is therefore an Early Buddhist practice (for a detailed comparative analysis and practical implications see “Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna” by Bhikkhu Anālayo).

The main idea of the practice is to understand that there is no difference between the qualities of earth (solidity), water (cohesion), fire (temperature) and wind (movement) that are found internally (within the body) and externally (outside the body), in order to correct the misperception that our bodies are somehow “special” or “essentially different” from the outside environment.
The internal elements and the external elements are just elements.
All elements, whether internal or external are to be seen as they really are (yathābhūtaṃ) as “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.”

This can have a huge impact on our understanding of conditionality (idappaccayatā) in the sense of understanding how our sense of identity is simply constructed and misconceived on the basis of our perceptions, in this case, of the elements, which are then appropriated due to craving and incorrectly reified to absolute ontological status (see MN 1).

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As of June 8th, Ajahn Sona has been conducting an online retreat on the elements on his YouTube channel:

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Yes, I think the idea is to see our bodies as nothing special or unique, thereby reducing attachment and identification. It’s just a bag of elements.
Identification with the body does seem to be a major source of dukkha. Worrying about how it looks, then worrying about it getting injured or diseased, then worrying about old age and death. The second arrow of the Arrow Sutta is relevant here.

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Thanks for all the input everyone, but shouldn’t one be weary of Doug’s dharma in it being secular Buddhism, I used to follow him until I realized this

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@dougsmith is kinda secular, yes, but it is just a matter of believing in rebirth or not.

In the matter of meditation, jhana, etc, he refer much to the sutta. I presume he believed it because he discuss them extensively.

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As already mentioned above by @Giovanni, Bhikkhu Analayo has discussed these as part of his writings on satipatthana in general. There is a rather practice-oriented discussion of four elements meditation in chapter IV of his downloadable Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: A Practice Guide (see also the 2nd guided meditation in the audios for that book).

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In practice it is best to approach the meditation by way of awareness of the element earth through the skeleton. This is because the body is always in contact with some surface and the bone can be literally felt with a body scan. In this it is essential to have a knowledge of the makeup of the skeleton from anatomy on the internet, then the network of relevant bones can be successfully visualized. Once the practitioner has a sensation of say the skull, this can be connected through an effort of concentration with the feeling of external earth elements like stones. In this way a strong sensation of the hardness of earth is developed and through practice becomes what is known in Buddhism as a ‘faculty.’ This means in times when the mind is weak it is able to readily summon this sensation because it has been previously developed. Negative faculties can also be unwittingly developed through lack of mindfulness.

Vanitas paintings:

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It seems the Buddha has never taught the four elements meditation.

Thomas it’s difficult to agree! Did you see the links offered above? Here’s a couple of excerpts, with the teaching instructions bolded.

From MN140:

And what is the earth element?
The earth element may be interior or exterior.
And what is the interior earth element?
Anything hard, solid, and appropriated 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 appropriated 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. …etc for other elements …

From MN10:

1.5. Focusing on the Elements

Furthermore, 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.’

It’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.

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

That too is how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body … etc for other elements …

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Q1

In MN140

This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’
‘Taṁ netaṁ mama nesohamasmi na meso attā’ti—evametaṁ yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṁ.

Literally: in its real essence - by right knowledge - should be considered. I see an implication that we should come to this knowledge through contemplation and meditation.

In MN10 it is clearer:

That too is how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body.
evampi kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati.

Literally: contemplate/regard - dwells. Which can be taken as synonymous with meditation.

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As I am not a scholar of the ancient texts, I take on trust what scholars such as Sujato, Brahmali, and Anālayo say, that the suttas are as close to what the Buddha said as we can get.

The Buddha’s words
SuttaCentral contains early Buddhist texts, known as the Tipiṭaka or “Three Baskets”. This is a large collection of teachings attributed to the Buddha or his earliest disciples, who were teaching in India around 2500 years ago. They are regarded as sacred canon in all schools of Buddhism.

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And that’s exactly what Rahula does after receiving instructions from the Buddha:

Then Rāhula thought, “Who would go to the village for alms today after being advised directly by the Buddha?” Turning back, he sat down at the root of a certain tree cross-legged, with his body straight, and established mindfulness right there. (MN 62)

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Thanks for your reply.

“kāye kāyanupassī viharati” (as shown in SN 47.2) is not the “four elements meditation”.

Correct. The four elements are missing from the different aspects of the body listed in SN47.2 that “kāye kāyanupassī viharati“ refers to there. However, they are in the similar MN lists that people have mentioned above.

I have a daily walk by the sea, and often watch waves breaking. But I don’t usually make the connection between the water in the sea (external water element) and the water in my body (internal water element), which is surely the point of the four elements section in MN140.
Note to self… :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

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