The Six Elements Fulfil the Four Satipaṭṭhānas — Overlooked Meditation Instructions

I feel that the Dhātuvibhanga Sutta (MN 140) and its explanation of the six elements meditation has been largely overlooked in modern discourse on Early Buddhist satipaṭṭhāna practice. This essay will attempt to draw out some of the implications and practical instructions found in the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta so as to better understand the scope and progression of the satipaṭṭhāna pericope in the Early Buddhist texts (‘EBTs’).

Most teachers, when discussing the detailed practice of satipaṭṭhāna from the perspective of the EBTs, tend to look to the 16-phase ānāpānassati (mindfulness of in-and-out breathing) instructions for guidance. These can be found principally in the Ānāpāna-Saṁyutta (SN 54) and the Ānāpānassati-Sutta (MN 118). The breath is brought to the foreground as the theme of mindfulness through which the practitioner develops the seventh factor of the noble eightfold path—sammāsati (right mindfulness, defined as the four satipaṭṭhānā contemplations)—culminating in the eighth factor—sammāsamādhi (right unification, defined principally as the four jhānas).

This practice is specifically said to completely fulfill the four satipaṭṭhānā, and is broken into four tetrads of four steps, each corresponding to one aspect of the four contemplations. To fulfill the four satipaṭṭhānā, it is said, naturally fulfills the seven bojjhaṅgā (awakening factors), which culminate in knowledge and liberation. This means that the detailed practice of ānāpānassati provides a clear perspective as to how satipaṭṭhāna meditation is intended to unfold into awakening via a gradual progression and evolution of consciousness via serenity (samatha) and clarity (vipassanā).

How, though, is satipaṭṭhāna practice as described in the early forms of satipaṭṭhāna discourses and saṁyuttas intended to be practiced to fulfillment and completion without the breath? Is it that the breath is the primary and most well-rounded theme for satipaṭṭhāna meditation, and that other practices are mere adjuncts?

A corresponding detailed description of satipaṭṭhāna meditation appears to be found in the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 140), providing an alternative framework whereby kāyānupassanā via the body parts and elements is expanded to unfold into vedanā, cittā, and dhammānupassanā, thereby fulfilling the seven bojjhaṅgā and culminating in full awakening (or knowledge and liberation). This form of practice is likely the primary example of satipaṭṭhāna meditation as described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and Saṁyutta.

Below, I will briefly review satipaṭṭhāna practice in the EBTs as informed by comparative research into the satipaṭṭhāna pericope, supplemented by the understanding gained from the description of ānāpānassati. Then, in the second section, I’ll dive into analyzing the six elements meditation of the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta according to the above framework.

Cattāro Satipaṭṭhānā — The Root Practice

(For a detailed and thorough understanding of satipaṭṭhāna in Early Buddhism, see Bhante Sujato’s ‘A History of Mindfulness’)

The term ‘satipaṭṭhāna’ is a resolution of the phrase ‘satiṁ upaṭṭhapetvā’ which occurs throughout the EBTs in reference to seated meditation. It means literally “application” or “establishment” of sati (mindfulness/recollection). The typical scenario in which the phrase is used is in the gradual training (anupubbasikkhā) at the point in which the trainee goes to a secluded place after their meal and sits down to remove the five hindrances establishing mindfulness at the fore. The cattāro satipaṭṭhānā (four applications of mindfulness), then, are the four ways in which one goes about establishing and rousing mindfulness in the proper way for the removal of the hindrances and cultivation of the seven awakening factors and/or jhāna states (see: DN 2, SN 47.12, etc.).

The main sources for the general practice of satipaṭṭhāna in the EBTs are the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and the Satipaṭṭhāna-Saṁyutta (SN 47). These are supplemented by the Bojjhaṅga-Saṁyutta, Ānāpāna-Saṁyutta, and various auxiliary passages throughout the early discourses that provide nuanced perspectives on satipaṭṭhāna meditation. There is also the Mahāsatipa︎ṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22), which is largely the same as MN 10 but with an extended dhammānupassanā section brought over from the Saccavibhaṅga Sutta (MN 141); this is one of the latest suttas in the Theravāda/Pāḷi canon, likely composed in Sri Lanka and lacking parallels.

These discourses provide the framework for mindfulness meditation practice and the various means one can use to develop it according to Early Buddhism. The four kinds of satipaṭṭhānā are kāyānupassanā (observation of the body), vedanānupassanā (observation of feelings), cittānupassanā (observation of mind), and dhammānupassanā (observation of principles).

Comparative research on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and its parallels, as well as the formulas and definitions that accompany satipaṭṭhāna practice in other suttas and collections, has narrowed down the core of satipaṭṭhāna according to the earliest strata of Buddhist thought and practice. The conclusions of these comparisons are that the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas are sectarian compilations which provide lists of what the various schools came to understand as fitting into the practices of each section. By assessing the evolution of formulas and passages in the various recension texts, we can find the set of root practices which characterized early Buddhist satipaṭṭhāna meditation.

The vedanānupassanā and cittānupassanā sections remain mostly unchanged, and are about growing sensitive to the refined feelings one experiences in meditation, and in collecting and composing the mind into samādhi as consciousness becomes more subtle and pliable. We can see with the ānāpānassati meditation that this involves growing sensitive to how the mind reacts and processes mental experiences of joy, bliss, and other mental processes (perceptions, etc.) and gradually calming them into deeper equanimity and composure.

Vedanānupassanā makes a distinction between sāmisā feelings — those born of the flesh via sensual stimulation — and nirāmisā feelings — spiritual feelings born of mental cultivation apart from sensuality. These correspond to jhānic feelings (see SN 36.31) as well as pre-samādhi awakening factors, such as pāmojja, pīti, passaddhi, sukha, etc. Cittānupassanā describes a process of understanding the nature of awareness itself as colored by various mind-states or in higher consciousness. The ānāpānassati instructions for cittānupassanā and the section within the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta(s) themselves mention unifying the mind (samādhi), liberating the mind (from hindrances and obstructions), gladdening or brightening the mind, etc. This also corresponds to what the Buddha calls adhicitta — a synonym for samādhi and refined textures of awareness.

The kāyānupassanā and dhammānupassanā sections, on the other hand, vary quite a bit in the various recensions. These sections tended to be dumping grounds for a variety of practices. Nonetheless, a core of the earlier components can be clearly established with comparison.

The practice of reviewing the various parts of the body — sometimes called paṭikūlamanasikāra — is undoubtedly the principal, core practice of kāyānupassanā. The Theravādin Abhidhamma text, the Vibhaṅga, seems to have been composed at a time in which only the contemplation of body parts made up the kāyānupassanā section; it does not know of a Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta with more kāyānupassanā practices. Secondarily, there is the meditation on the four elements, found in all but one collection of early kāyānupassanā practices, followed by the charnel ground contemplations. Both of these latter two are quite well established across the traditions, are very similar to the 31 parts of the body meditation, and are referenced in many other suttas in the early canon about meditation.

Secondary evidence from within the early discourses supports the above evidence that the contemplation of body parts is the earliest and most essential form of kāyānupassanā in the satipaṭṭhāna pericope. The analysis of the iddhipādas (bases of psychic power) at SN 51.20 describes the cultivation of deep samādhi in detail. It mentions a recurring refrain referring to meditation—as above, so below; as below so above—which is defined as the contemplation of body parts. This means that body part contemplation was understood to be a meditative practice leading to deep immersion when accompanied by right effort and various mental qualities of the iddhipādas, and this is precisely where satipaṭṭhāna or sammāsati would come in.

The Sarvāstivādin Dharmaskandha knows of a Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in which the kāyānupassanā practices included are only (1) reviewing the body parts, and (2) reviewing the six elements. What is interesting here is the inclusion not of the four or five elements — said to comprise the body at e.g. MN 28, MN 62, MN 140, etc. — but of six, including consciousness. It seems then that here the six elements were likely added to the section on body contemplation (though it is possible that the Sarvāstivādins simply added the other two elements to an original set of four).

I believe that the elements meditation is simply one possible approach to body part meditation rather than an entirely separate practice. As will be clear in the exegesis of the dhatuvibhaṅga meditation, the bodily properties are consistently defined in terms of the same list of 31 body parts, with additional examples of the other properties. This could explain the early addition of the elements meditation to the plain body part passage at a rather early stage.

Dhammānupassanā is primarily about cultivating the awakening factors — the seven bojjhaṅgas — and understanding them in terms of their conditionality, that is, how they arise, cease, remain, etc. It is the process of evolving the meditation up to samādhi and into the most refined upekkhā where one can look onto the meditative experience itself with wisdom and equanimity. This is what makes up the common core of dhammānupassanā in the early recensions of this practice; other contemplations — such as the sense-fields, truths, or aggregates — are later additions. Although later, the addition of these contemplations does reveal the understanding of dhammānupassanā by the slightly later community of Buddhists: it is understanding the principles and nature of experience, especially in terms of conditionality. While the earlier descriptions focus more exclusively on the meditative process itself, this of course includes an understanding of the nature of the mind and existence by extension. This observation of conditionality endowed with the supportive qualities for letting go is what makes dhammānupassanā unique across all early recensions of satipaṭṭhāna. Observing the perceptions and feelings the mind is aware of fall under vedanānupassanā in both the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Ānāpānassati Sutta.

Secondarily, dhammānupassanā includes understanding the five hindrances in terms of conditionality (something, again, found in most editions of the text but not always under dhammānupassanā). Therefore, whereas cittānupassanā is about refining and establishing the mind into samādhi, dhammānupassanā is about understanding this meditative evolution in terms of dependent origination, as well as reviewing it in terms of seclusion, impermanence, dispassion, and relinquishment — qualities found in the ānāpānassati formula and inherent to the proper cultivation of the seven bojjhaṅgas. (said to be developed in dependence on seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in relinquishment). One uses their purified equanimity from meditation to reflect on the conditionality of the mind/mind qualities themself, and to relinquish the grounds for the hindrances or āsavās permanently. All of this will be reviewed in more detail below.

The satipaṭṭhāna refrain emphasizes that these practices be done internally, externally, and both internally-and-externally. This is found in all recensions of the text, and matches very closely with the understanding of kāyānupassanā gained from comparative analysis. One contemplating the parts of the body and/or elements contemplates them within one’s own body, in relation to other’s bodies, and in terms of their general nature both in oneself and others. The elements passages consistently emphasize that the elements are both internal and external, leading to an understanding where the elements are understood as such — properties of existence equivalent both internally and externally. The charnel ground contemplations emphasize focusing on one’s own body (internal) as of the same nature as an (external) decomposing body.

The Sarvāstivādins understood two main meditative practices, called the “doors to the deathless” (amṛta-dvārā), as standing above all others in leading all the way to awakening: ānāpānassati and asubha (contemplation of the body parts/decay). As we have reviewed in the above material, it seems that this understanding may go back to what is a very early scheme of practice: satipaṭṭhāna as cultivated via the breath, or via body part contemplation brought to fulfillment with the other three satipaṭṭhānā. Ultimately, though, both of these forms of practice (and many others) fulfill sammāsati: the breath is an aspect/part of the body (‘kāyesu kāyaññatarāhaṁ, bhikkhave, evaṁ vadāmi yadidaṁ—assāsapassāsā’; MN 118), and the division of body parts into elemental properties includes wind, which includes the breath.

The Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta and Six Elements Meditation

With an understanding of what satipaṭṭhāna meditation is meant to look like and how it is to unfold according to the early discourses, we can turn to the meditation description offered by the Buddha in the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 140). This practice is based on the description of kāyānupassanā in the core of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta — namely, the division of the body into its parts and properties.

I will quote the relevant sutta passages, interjecting with commentary as to the relationship to satipaṭṭhāna practice.

The instructions are as follows:

There are these six elements: the elements of earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness.

The additions here are space (ākāsa-dhātu) and consciousness (viññāṇa-dhātu). While specifically the four elements are attested to in the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas, we will see that the consciousness element ends up going outside the scope of just kāyānupassanā and therefore poses no problem.

And what is the earth element? The earth element may be interior or exterior.

Here we see a phenomena which can be contemplated internally and externally as prescribed in the satipaṭṭhāna refrain. This will apply to all five of the elements/properties of the body.

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.

A series of body parts identical to those found in the list of thirty-one parts, focusing solely on the solid ones under the category of earth. In this way the elements contemplation fulfills the parts of the body contemplation.

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.’

After contemplating an ‘aspect of the body’ (kāye kāyānupassanā) internally and externally, one is instructed to contemplate it both internally-and-externally, as is fulfilled by the above description. One understands the general nature and principle of the bodily phenomena for the purpose of understanding and calming of the hindrances:

When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

The practice unfolds by gradually releasing desire and interest in the sensual sphere (kāmacchanda), as well as aversion or resistance to it (byāpāda) — primary aims of kāyānupassanā. One develops a joyful, hindrance-free relationship to the bodily experience opening the doors for contemplation of feelings and into samādhi. The same contemplation repeats with all five elements, filling in the other parts of the body and other aspects (such as internal heat, winds, orifices, etc.). I will abbreviate these partially.

And what is the water element? The water element may be interior or exterior. … 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. 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? … that which warms, that which ages, that which heats you up when feverish, that which properly digests food and drink …
And what is the air element? … winds that go up or down, winds in the belly or the bowels, winds that flow through the limbs, in-breaths and out-breaths
And what is the space element? … 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. …
When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the space element, detaching the mind from the space element.

It is noteworthy that the properties progress by gradation of resistance (paṭigha) and subtlety. First is the property of earth, which includes solid parts of the body with clear boundaries and obvious points of contact. Then follows the water element: much more subtle than the solidity of earth, but still rather coarse. The fire element can become very powerful in the body, especially when extremely warm or sick, but is much less physical or tangible than the previous two properties. The wind element is characterized more by motion and subtle internal movements, as well as the motion of the other properties (such as the chest rising or lungs expanding and deflating with the breath), and even the direct perception of contact with the breath tends to be less pervasive in the body than radiating warmth and heat. Finally, the space element is hardly resistant if at all, being an example of derived matter, in that it is the resultant shape/form from what is not filled in by the other elements.

This progressions reflects the evolution of the mind during the process of meditation. At first, a more solid and grounding experience can be necessary to settle the mind into its experience and contemplate coarse objects. Gradually, awareness and mindfulness become more refined to a point of noticing and calming even subtle hindrances in regards to the body, such as the heat or space within.

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

After contemplating the body with the previous five elements, there is the consciousness element (viññāṇa-dhātu). Despite alternative forms of approaching element meditation which focus on perceiving the viññāṇa-dhātu as an expansive awareness, the sutta description defines contemplation of this property in terms of feeling (vedanā) and its three manifestations (sukha, dukkha, adhukkhamasukha). Here, then, we are turning to vedanānupassanā, equivalent to the second tetrad of ānāpānasati. Consciousness is qualified as “pure and bright” (parisuddha and pariyodāta)—signifying the arising experiences of elated joy and bliss free of coarse hindrances. As the coarse bodily experience grows more and more calm, the mind follows suit in becoming more steady, enraptured, and alert. Leaning into this sharp, bright awareness and joy marks the transition into the remaining property of awareness that is “pure and bright.”

Considering all of the above, it seems that the viññāṇa-dhātu is here a stand-in for the refined, evolving experience of the mind and awareness as meditation progresses, in addition to the general mental aspects of experience. This is the movement of mind away from the realm of the coarse body and senses and instead towards the subtle feelings and radiant awareness apart from the physical (nirāmisā) that leads to jhāna (the move of sammāsati into sammāsamādhi).

So, although only feelings are described below, this would also seem to include early stages of cittānupassanā. This becomes more clear with references to the bright mind as one is understanding the arising of experiences and cultivating equanimity towards them, as well as the liberation of the mind from subtle tendencies towards reactivity, dullness, agitation, craving, or aversion. Observation of the viññāṇa-dhātu following the bodily elements leads the practitioner into a complete understanding of the evolution of consciousness and corresponding body-mind experience arising in dependence on it.

Pleasant feeling arises dependent on a contact to be experienced as pleasant. When they feel a pleasant feeling, they know: ‘I feel a pleasant feeling.’ They know: ‘With the cessation of that contact to be experienced as pleasant, the corresponding pleasant feeling ceases and stops.’ … When they feel a painful feeling, they know: ‘I feel a painful feeling.’When they feel a neutral feeling, they know: ‘I feel a neutral feeling.’ They know: ‘With the cessation of that contact to be experienced as neutral, the corresponding neutral feeling ceases and stops.’
When you rub two sticks together, heat is generated and fire is produced. But when you part the sticks and lay them aside, any corresponding heat ceases and stops. In the same way, pleasant feeling arises dependent on a contact to be experienced as pleasant. …

The bolded sections above are identical to the terminology used in the vedanānupassanā section of the Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas. This affirms that this part of the practice is indeed vedanānupassanā, and that what is described is the full unfolding of satipaṭṭhāna meditation as described in the early Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The passage includes a simile for the nature of contact (phassa) and the conditionality of feelings, and seems to be used for refining the mind to see feelings and cultivate stronger equanimity (upekkhā — a term encompassing both a feeling experience and ‘looking on’ or understanding the nature of things, as in the final bojjhaṅga).

The calming of the mind’s reactivity and entanglement with mental experiences/contacts also mirrors the final stages of the vedanānupassanā tetrad of ānāpānassati: experiencing and calming the cittasaṅkhārā (mental activities/processes). These are defined as feelings and perceptions (MN 43, etc.), and are the surface-level phenomena which the mind generates, processes, and acts upon. It is by becoming aware of this process in its most subtle form — deeper meditation with purified mindfulness, tranquility and clarity — that the mind can let go and settle into a state of oneness and unity informed by a deep understanding of conditionality (as described in the above passage). The mind/awareness itself (citta) is developed as a result of this process, and the hindrances are gradually being abandoned at more subtle levels, implying still the fulfillment of cittānupassanā along the way.

There remains only equanimity, pure, bright, pliable, workable, and radiant.
It’s like when a deft goldsmith or a goldsmith’s apprentice prepares a forge, fires the crucible, picks up some gold with tongs and puts it in the crucible. From time to time they fan it, from time to time they sprinkle water on it, and from time to time they just watch over it. That gold becomes pliable, workable, and radiant, not brittle, and is ready to be worked. Then the goldsmith can successfully create any kind of ornament they want, whether a bracelet, earrings, a necklace, or a golden garland. In the same way, there remains only equanimity, pure, bright, pliable, workable, and radiant.

The above is a clear description of the mind in samādhi, most characteristic of the fourth jhāna. The simile of the goldsmith and refining gold is a recurring image for the development of the higher mind (adhicitta) and samādhi in meditation, and the terms characterizing the equanimity are standard descriptions of the mind which has been immersed in samādhi for cultivating wisdom. This then encompasses the cittānupassanā section. This was not detailed as specifically as in the third tetrad of ānāpānassati, as it was here described more from the perspective of vedanānupassanā. Nonetheless, the simile of the goldsmith informs us that the mind was observed, felt, adjusted, and purified into samādhi up to this point via a process of mutual tranquility and discernment characteristic of all Early Buddhist satipaṭṭhāna meditation.

The simile and description of the goldsmith is found verbatim at AN 3.102 — a discourse describing the development of the mind into deep samādhi so as to realize the higher knowledges and awakening with a radiant, pliable mind. This discourse emphasizes the timely development of meditation via exertion, unification, and equanimity/looking on at the mind. The practitioner is encouraged not to rely on developing only one of these qualities without a proper balance of the others, and to know when to apply each one for proper mental development. It provides practical advice for the dhātuvibhaṅga meditation found here, which includes a dynamic process of investigation, exertion, mental unification, and equanimous reviewing.

They understand: ‘If I were to apply this equanimity, so pure and bright, to the dimension of infinite space, my mind would develop accordingly. And this equanimity of mine, relying on that and grasping it, would remain for a very long time.
If I were to apply this equanimity, so pure and bright, to the dimension of infinite consciousness, my mind would develop accordingly. … dimension of nothingnessdimension of neither perception nor non-perception

This passage continues and finalizes the description of cittānupassanā. There is an understanding (pajānāti) of the state of the mind in various forms: unified, exalted, abundant, etc. as well as an understanding of the current equanimity of the mind. This is a practice of understanding the potential and general nature that the mind can have in various forms of awareness. Already it begins to subtly progress into the territory of dhammānupassanā, and then shifts to reflecting on these potentials of mind in terms of conditionality:

They understand: ‘If I were to apply this equanimity, so pure and bright, to the dimension of infinite space, my mind would develop accordingly. But that is conditioned. … dimension of infinite consciousness … nothingness … neither-perception-nor-non-perception, my mind would develop accordingly. But that is conditioned.’

Here, there is clear reference to understanding the conditionality and principles of nature that govern awareness and corresponding body-mind (nāmarūpa) experiences.

They neither make a choice nor form an intention to continue existence or to end existence. Because of this, they don’t grasp at anything in the world. Not grasping, they’re not anxious. Not being anxious, they personally become extinguished.

These final descriptions of the meditative process conclude with full awakening and the fruits of the practice. There is a looking on at the mind with equanimity upekkhā, done in dependence on seclusion, dispassion, cessation, and evidently ripening in relinquishment — the final culmination of the cultivation of the bojjhaṅgas and observation of conditionality: dhammānupassanā. This also matches with the final tetrad of ānāpānasati, similarly culminating in relinquishment and in understanding the nature of the mind via the strong samādhi and meditative experience cultivated beforehand.

Having seen with wisdom the giving up of covetousness and displeasure, they watch over closely with equanimity. That’s why at that time a mendicant is meditating by observing an aspect of principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of covetousness and displeasure for the world.
MN 118

The description of this step — emerging from the experience of the fourth jhāna and applying the mental equipoise developed therein — also matches with the description of noble sammāsamādhi at AN 5.28. This sutta describes the four jhāna formulas, followed by the fifth factor of right samādhi: grasping the sign of reviewing the stilling of the mind and relinquishment of experience (paccavekkhaṇānimitta). The simile given is of someone standing looking at someone sitting: one looks on at the previous state of mind with equanimity so as to understand the principles of it.

Moreover, there is a reference in this final section of MN 140 to the refrain in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta regarding not grasping anything in the world and knowledge and vision: the products of successful satipaṭṭhāna practice.

na kiñci loke upādiyati (MN 140)
anissito ca viharati, na ca kiñci loke upādiyati (MN 10)

Each step of the way, there is a cultivation of tranquility (samatha) and discernment (vipassanā) via all four applications of mindfulness. The meditator cultivates sustained awareness and recollection (sati), empowered by an investigative mind (dhammavicaya) and increasing ardency/energy in removing unbeneficial mind states and deepening one’s samathavipassanā (vīriya). The progress one makes with these qualities leads into an observation and transformation of feelings, leaning evermore into an elated joy (pīti), a strong tranquility of body-mind (passaddhi), and on into mental unification (samādhi). Ultimately, one purifies samādhi to a state of pure equanimity and looks on to the mind and its evolution with absolute clarity (upekkhā) for the liberating knowledge (vijjā) that culminates in freedom from suffering (vimutti).

The above practice, then, is of much fruit and great benefit; it fulfills the four satipaṭṭhānas, which fulfill the seven bojjhaṅgas, which fulfill knowledge and liberation. It matches with the earliest, core descriptions of satipaṭṭhāna practice and the development of ānāpānassati which is explicitly said to fulfill the same function.


Based on the Buddha’s description of elements meditation and early descriptions of satipaṭṭhāna, kāyānupassanā involves reviewing the body parts and properties of the body internally, externally, and internally-and-externally to develop a firm basis in calm, equipoise, and non-attachment. It involves detaching the mind from entanglement with the body for freedom from the hindrances, and understanding the nature of the body with sustained observation and investigation. The sustained and refined mindfulness collects the mind into deeper calm (samatha), making the way for mental clarity in regards to the body and one’s experience (vipassanā). This clarity then allows the mind to reach further into peace and unification, which again sharpens the profound capacity for clarity and insight.

The six elements meditation provides a firm framework for this practice, specifically with the first five properties of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The first two are defined with the exact same list of body parts as found in the body contemplation section of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, and the latter three expand on this list of body parts. This seems to be sufficient grounds for seeing the bodily elements meditation as a mere variation of the fundamental kāyānupassanā meditation on the body parts.

Vedanānupassanā and cittānupassanā lead to continued understanding and calming of the feelings arising during this practice—especially the intense joy, rapture, and bliss—culminating in deep samādhi. The mind progressively refines its awareness to pure equanimity as exemplified by the fourth jhāna. In the context of the elements meditation, these are two aspects of the viññāṇa-dhātu — the element/property of awareness. Vedanānupassanā is concerned with the mental phenomena consciousness is aware of, and cittānupassanā is concerned with the refinement of that awareness accordingly into a state of radiance and unity.

Dhammānupassanā reviews the conditionality and evolution of the mind into these states based on the direct experience gained in the evolution of consciousness thus far — that is, the abandoning of the hindrances and evolution of the seven awakening factors — so as to culminate in a clear understanding of the mind and relinquishment of all assets (vossagga). This aspect of satipaṭṭhāna meditation is most exemplified by the description of upekkhā in the elements meditation and the awakening factors, which looks on at the clarified property of consciousness to understand its peak potential and the ultimate conditionality of it all.

While I’m certainly aware that many practitioners and scholars have praised and taught this passage, it is curious that, to the best of my knowledge, very few have discussed it in detail in reference to satipaṭṭhāna practice, let alone from the perspective of Early Buddhism. Please let me know if you have heard people discussing it in terms of satipaṭṭhāna before!

Any thoughts on this practice or the cultivation of the four satipaṭṭhānā in Early Buddhism?

Much Mettā and Happy Practicing.


I agree. I had similar views of the sutta myself, but I never put it as eloquently.

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Buddhism in the West is in an embryonic stage, and the reality of the power of the path yet to be realized. When the elements are introduced to path interactions it signals raising the level of understanding to a dynamic approach as often suggested by the Buddha in using examples of metalwork and other crafts, where fire, earth, air, and water interact in a controlled way. When elements are placed together there are reactions. This is indicated in Samyutta Nikaya 46.53 where the seven factors of awakening are divided into two groups representing insight and tranquillity, likened to fire and water. From the secular discipline of astrology the conclusion can be drawn that the four satipatthanas are based on the four elements, earth- water- air- fire in that order (earth= body). In Majjhima Nikaya 28, earth is given special consideration as having a property of stability not possessed by the other elements, (see Note 2, Thanissaro).

Equinimity alone is not sufficient to eliminate the causes of stress, both active and passive methods are necessary, just as two groups in the seven factors of awakening are required for function, the noble eightfold path being conditioned:

“So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. Thus the stress coming from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the fabrication of exertion is exhausted & the stress resulting from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the development of equanimity is exhausted.”

—Majjhima Nikaya 101

Thanks for the detailed discussion. That sutta is very inspiring and I reached a similar opinion, but without such a detailed analysis. After using Ven Analayo’s Satipattana approach for a while, MN140, and other discussions by Ven Analayo, inspired me to include external as well as internal elements and to adding space and consciousness, which, as you say, in MN140 leads naturally into feeling.

In more general terms, one or two guided meditations I’ve heard from Bhante Sujato have pointed out that many suttas can be taken as a basis for meditation, particularly the sequences of SN suttas on aggregates, sense bases, etc. This can be more useful than thinking of those suttas as logical arguments.

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Here is a guided meditation on the fire element by Ajahn Sujato.

I’ve always thought of the elements in a more analytical way. E.g. the heat in the body is just the same as the heat in a radiator, so it doesn’t really make sense to identify with the heat or to think it’s special, it’s just plain old heat.

But from the guided meditation I can see how the elements can also be used for samatha. It was surprisingly calming to focus on the feeling of heat in the body :fire:

Anyways, thanks for this interesting post on this topic. I hope it generates some discussion.


Body heat is a legitimate subject in the context of the first tetrad, third step. Without the breath it would soon be not there.