Please help me understand the Four Elements (matter, stuff)

Hello, Based on Ajahn Brahm’s teachings, i understand that our physical world is mind made. He describes it as a mesh created by minds competing with each other and therefore our ability to create in Kamaloka is limited (as opposed to the higher realms).

In buddhist cosmology, even universes reincarnate because everything that is conditioned is subject of passing away. If matter (the 4 elements in buddhism) is mind made, why does it take the same shape of galaxies, solar systems and universes on a larger scale?

The Buddha mentions thousand fold word systems and numerous universes. If our minds create the universe, why does our universe look more or less like a distant universe created by completely different minds? Do laws of nature apply to how the matter our minds create is arranged in space? On the other hand, if Ananda can walk trough a locked door, those laws of nature aren’t too solid, are they? Many of the psychic powers described in the suttas define those laws of physics.

Ajahn Sujato gave a wonderful talk on the 4 Elements and he says that in the time of the Buddha, Fire, Earth water and Air were considered beings (who have feelings such as happiness and anger…).
Is matter a being or several beings? Do we use their “flesh” for our own creations? Are universes born, age and die because they are beings (with a mind) just like us?

In quantum physics, there has to be an observer, a mind, in order for something to become real instead of just a probability. And that is close to Ajahn Brahm’s take on reality. But what is matter? What is this “stuff” our world is made of?

Would love to read your insights!
May you be happy and well :slight_smile:
I just joined and I already feel blessed being part of this community. Thank you

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I have a typo: difine=defy :slight_smile:
Many of the psychic powers described in the suttas define those laws of physics.

There’s old animist beliefs still preserved in the stories and mythology in early Buddhism. In animism, the forces of natural world are represented by spirits or gods (gods in the world, not in heaven), and we do see four spirits of earth, water, air, and fire in some Buddhist stories. There’s an example in DA 30 that depicts these elemental spirits teaching Dharma to each other.

Animism was the earliest form of human religion or spirituality that divided the world into the ordinary seen world and an unseen spiritual world. Shamans would interact with the spirit world through ceremonies, visions, or meditations to gain special knowledge or powers (such as powers of healing or prophesy). This IMO may be the origin of the idea of magical powers and special knowledges gained by adepts of meditation in early Buddhism.

Later on, Buddhism became more philosophical in the Western sense, perhaps through direct influence by the Greeks. So, the elements cease to have spiritual significance and become the basic substances of matter. This was the way everyone thought of matter until Europeans discovered the elements of chemistry (like hydrogen, helium, etc) a couple centuries ago. Greeks had a theory of atoms, but the atoms were made of one of the four elements. Some later Buddhist writings reference those theories.

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Regarding practice the seven factors of awakening are in the suttas divided into two groups, serenity and insight, likened to water on the one hand and fire on the other. So one is passive and the other active. The Buddha regularly likens practice to crafts such as metalwork, pottery, and cooking, where elements are combined in a controlled way resulting in a workable outcome:

“his mind is pliant, malleable, luminous, and not brittle. It is rightly centered for the stopping of the fermentations.”

—Anguttara Nikaya 3.100 (xi-xv).

Being aware of the different characteristics of the elements is a basic meditation subject (Majjhima Nikaya 140), and a recommended course on which to build a practice.

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Buddha has repeatedly said the universe is material/immaterial/material & immaterial views are unskillful and doesn’t conduct to nirvana.
I think we should consider that Buddha taught to all beings in numerous worlds and not just earth. Since some worlds may be material and others may be immaterial, Buddha didn’t advocate any view as truth. What Buddha teaches apply all the time for all beings(akalika) and Buddha teaches that whatever the world is made of doesn’t matter in our quest to nirvana.
Similarly the contemplation of elements(4 elements , color,space,shape etc) is based on sensory experiences and doesn’t imply a fundamental truth of the universe. It is merely an abstract idea (regardless of material/immaterial universes) that helps us to understand four noble truths and nirvana.


In reference to MN28:

The elements can be external and internal.

External elements i.e. earth, fire, water and wind are earth, fire, water and wind as you know them in general terms.

Internal elements are anything solid, heat, anything liquid and gases found in your physical body.

Please read the sutta (MN28) for more details.

Should the question be in the vein of, how did they think of matter?


How deep was there experience, how sharp was their discernment?

For example, even to someone just sitting there, experience of the body can resolve in to a whole lot more happenings than one is normally aware of , heart beating, blood pumping, Peristalsis movements etc etc. But how deep does this go?

Can it be, experienced, have knowledge of, have no doubts about, that this is a incredibly profound utterly complex happening of, play of, four elements or qualities or what ever one wishes to call them?

How can I experience what they experienced? How can I discern what they discerned? This is the kind of understanding that I am interested in.

[d] A distinction approximating to that between nāma and rūpa , under the names 'forme ’ and 'matiére ', is made by Gaston Bachelard in his book L’Eau et les Rêves, Essai sur l’imagination de la matière (José Corti, Paris 1942). Bachelard regards matter as the four primary elements, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, and emphasizes the resistant nature of matter (which would correspond to patigha ). This book (there are also companion volumes on the other elements) is written from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view, but its interest lies in the fact that Bachelard makes these fundamental distinctions quite independently of the Buddha’s Teaching, of which he apparently knows nothing. He is concerned, in particular, with the various 'valorisations ’ of the four elements as they occur in literature, that is to say with the various significances that they may possess. These are examples of sankhārā (as cetanā ): rūpam rūpattāya sankhatam abhisankharonti (‘Matter as matter is the determined that they determine’ (See Additional Texts 6.)) (cf. A NOTE ON PATICCASAMUPPĀDA [f]). The philosophical distinction between primary and secondary qualities also seems to approximate to that between rūpa and at least certain aspects of nāma . (Here is Bradley [op. cit. (A.&R.) , Ch. I]: ‘The primary qualities are those aspects of what we perceive or feel, which, in a word, are spatial; and the residue is secondary.’ But see RŪPA [e].) These indications may serve to assure the apprehensive newcomer that the technical terms of the Suttas do not represent totally strange and inaccessible categories. But it is one thing to make these distinctions (approximately, at least), and another thing to understand the Buddha’s Teaching.

In the Kevaddhasutta (Dīgha i,11 <D.i,223>), it is said that the question ‘Where do the four mahābhūtā finally cease?’ is wrongly asked, and that the question should be ‘Where do [the four mahābhūtā ] get no footing? Where do nāma and rūpa finally cease?’ Matter or substance (rūpa ) is essentially inertia or resistance (see Dīgha ii,2 <D.ii,62>[9]), or as the four mahābhūtā it can be regarded as four kinds of behaviour (i.e. the four primary patterns of inertia—see NĀMA). Behaviour (or inertia) is independent of the particular sense-experience that happens to be exhibiting it: a message in the Morse code (which would be a certain complex mode of behaviour) could be received in any sense-experience (though seeing and hearing are the most usual). In any one kind of sense-experience there is revealed a vast set of various behaviours, of various patterns of inertia; and in any other contemporary sense-experience there is revealed a set that, to a great extent, corresponds to this first set.[a] (One particular group of behaviours common to all my sense-experiences is of especial significance—it is ‘this body’, ayam kāyo rūpī catummahābhūtiko (‘this body composed of matter, of the four great entities’) [Majjhima viii,5 <M.i,500>].) Thus, when I see a bird opening its beak at intervals I can often at the same time hear a corresponding sound, and I say that it is the (visible) bird that is (audibly) singing. The fact that there seems to be one single (though elaborate) set of behaviours common to all my sense-experiences at any one time, and not an entirely different set for each sense, gives rise to the notion of one single material world revealed indifferently by any one of my senses. Furthermore, the material world of one individual largely corresponds to that of another (particularly if allowance is made for difference in point of view), and we arrive at the wider notion of one general material world common to all individuals. (…)

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