How to understand "element" in SN 14.12?

The Core Issue: I don’t understand the meaning of the word “element”/dhatu when it’s modified by “malice/good-will” or “cruelty/harmlessness” in SN 14.12. So far, I understand “elements” only in terms of the senses, and using the word more broadly has me confused.

When the the word “Byāpādadhātuṁ” is highlighted, these alternate definitions appear at the bottom that may apply:

  • a principle (?)
  • an element, a conditioned constituent, of experience
  • a domain of experience or existence; sometimes a very general abstraction: ~hood; ~ness
  • a psychological element; a disposition; constitution

So, does that mean that the “element of malice” is an aspect of one’s experience that comes prior to and gives rise to perception? If so, what might that be and how does that work?

Or does it mean that malice is a whole domain of experience from which perception arises…what would that really mean?

Or that a person has a disposition (does this mean ‘kammic tendency’?) to malice, and this disposition is the basis for the perception arising?

It’s likely answering the question about malice will point the right direction to understand the elements of good-will, cruelty, and harmlessness.

I’d appreciate any help. The rest of the sutta makes sense (I think!), I’m just struggling with this first part.

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Hello Jeane. I personally have the disposition to interpret SN 14.12 as you have suggested above.

Suttas, such as MN 115, AN 7.11 , MN 64, SN 14.15 and MN 12, seem to support this point of view.

There are these six elements:

Chayimā, ānanda, dhātuyo—

the elements of sensuality and renunciation, malice and good will, and cruelty and harmlessness.

kāmadhātu, nekkhammadhātu, byāpādadhātu, abyāpādadhātu, vihiṁsādhātu, avihiṁsādhātu.

MN 115

“Mendicants, there are these seven underlying tendencies.
“Sattime, bhikkhave, anusayā.

What seven?
Katame satta?

The underlying tendencies of sensual desire, repulsion, views, doubt, conceit, desire to be reborn, and ignorance.
Kāmarāgānusayo, paṭighānusayo, diṭṭhānusayo, vicikicchānusayo, mānānusayo, bhavarāgānusayo, avijjānusayo.

These are the seven underlying tendencies.”
Ime kho, bhikkhave, satta anusayā”ti.

AN 7.11

For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘identity,’ so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to identity view lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘teachings,’ so how could doubt about the teachings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to doubt lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘rules,’ so how could adherence to rules and observances arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to adhere to rules and observances lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘sensual pleasures,’ so how could sensual desire arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to sensual lust lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings,’ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him.

MN 64

Sentient beings come together and converge because of an element (dhātu). Those who have bad convictions (ādhimuttika; attitudes; dispositions) come together and converge with those who have bad convictions. Those who have good convictions come together and converge with those who have good convictions.

In the past, in the future, and also in the present, sentient beings come together and converge because of an element. Those who have bad convictions come together and converge with those who have bad convictions. Those who have good convictions come together and converge with those who have good convictions.”

SN 14.15

Furthermore, the Realized One truly understands the world with its many and diverse elements (anekadhātunānādhātulokaṁ).

Furthermore, the Realized One truly understands the diverse attitudes (dispositions; nānādhimuttikataṁ) of sentient beings.

Furthermore, the Realized One truly understands the faculties (indriya) of other sentient beings and other individuals after comprehending them with his mind.

MN 12

Also, MN 62 contains what seems to be a useful description of the elements (dhatu):

Rāhula, the interior earth element is said to be 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.

And what is the water element? The water element may be interior or exterior. And what is the interior water element? Anything that’s water, watery, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, snot, synovial fluid, urine, or anything else that’s water, watery, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior water element. The interior water element and the exterior water element are just the water 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 water element, detaching the mind from the water element.

And what is the fire element? The fire element may be interior or exterior. And what is the interior fire element? Anything that’s fire, fiery, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: that which warms, that which ages, that which heats you up when feverish, that which properly digests food and drink, or anything else that’s fire, fiery, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior fire element. The interior fire element and the exterior fire element are just the fire 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 fire element, detaching the mind from the fire element.

And what is the air element? The air element may be interior or exterior. And what is the interior air element? Anything that’s wind, windy, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: winds that go up or down, winds in the belly or the bowels, winds that flow through the limbs, in-breaths and out-breaths, or anything else that’s air, airy, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior air element. The interior air element and the exterior air element are just the air 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 air element, detaching the mind from the air element.

And what is the space element? The space element may be interior or exterior. And what is the interior space element? Anything that’s space, spacious, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: the ear canals, nostrils, and mouth; and the space for swallowing what is eaten and drunk, the space where it stays, and the space for excreting it from the nether regions. This is called the interior space element. The interior space element and the exterior space element are just the space 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 space element, detaching the mind from the space element.

MN 62

Also, MN 140 says:

‘This person has six elements.’
‘Cha dhāturo ayaṁ, bhikkhu, puriso’ti—

There are these six elements:
Chayimā, bhikkhu, dhātuyo—

the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness.
pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu, ākāsadhātu, viññāṇadhātu.

There remains… consciousness, pure and bright. And what does that consciousness know? It knows ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ and ‘neutral’.

MN 140

Or AN 3.61 says:

There are these six elements:

Chayimā, bhikkhave, dhātuyo—

the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness.

pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu, ākāsadhātu, viññāṇadhātu.

Supported by the six elements, an embryo is conceived.

Channaṁ, bhikkhave, dhātūnaṁ upādāya gabbhassāvakkanti hoti;

AN 3.61 :slightly_smiling_face:

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Dhatu bedevils us translators precisely because it’s put to these various uses without much context to resolve the intended meaning. Sometimes it means a realm or domain (realms of desire, form, and formlessness, e.g.), sometimes an element (as in a constituent part like the six elements), and sometimes it seems to mean an abstract category like a domain in mathematics except applied to conceptual ranges instead of numbers. It’s impossible to translate only one way as a result, at least not meaningfully.

In Abhidharma, there are dozens and dozens of dhatus like these that are defined in some texts.

I think in this case it’s more the third meaning, as an abstract category akin to the way dhamma (dharma) is sometimes used by Buddhists. I could think of it as a disposition, but more the disposition of the mind in general to have things like desire, malice, and harmfulness, not that a particular person is more or less predisposed to them. Something along those lines is the way I would read it.

An interesting thing to bear in mind, though, is that early Buddhists weren’t nearly as abstract as modern people are after the enlightenment era. So, it could also mean that being in a physical realm with desire or malice leads to people having those kinds of thoughts. E.g., in the form realm, the gods have no sensual desire at all.

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That is correct.

SN 46.53 describes the seven factors of awakening as two groups, relating one to fire (insight group) and the other to water (tranquillity group).
AN 2.30 states:

""When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

"When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

Anger and desire are emotional/passion defilements.

Once a practitioner has a basic knowledge of the noble eightfold path, ‘the elements’ is one legitimate avenue to higher understanding.

Following is taken from Abhidammasamuccaya.

“Why are there only eighteen elements? Because, due to two things, the body(deha)and appropriation (parigraba) there is support for the past and present** sixfold experience {atitavartamanasadakaropabbogadharanata)

Deha means the six indriyas (faculties): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental organ.

Parigraha means the six visayas (objects): visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangibility and mental objects.

Atitavartamanasadakaropabbogadharanata means the six vijndnas(consciousnesses).”

“Why are there only twelve spheres/ Ayatanas? Because, due to two things, the body and appropriation, there is an entrance to the future sixfold experience (anagatasadakaropabhogayadvara).”

I think knowing Elements in comparison with Ayatanas will make this clearer.

I take to mean a mental factor or constituent.

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Thank you for your thoughtful and expansive reply…many more avenues to explore…

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That makes so much sense…thank you.