What does the Chinese term for 'dhātu' mean literally?

Maybe our Chinese speakers could take a look at it - dhātu is usually translated as ‘element’ which comes with certain philosophical implications. And I wonder if the Chinese term has more or less the same meaning.

I ask because I came to read rather ‘characteristic’ from the many contexts and compounds it appears in, which is less material and ontological. B. Analayo doesn’t seem to discuss the term and gives ‘element’ in his comparative studies, but I don’t know if this is literal or pragmatic.

We have dozens of dhātuyo - e.g. tejodhātu for fire, but also nibbānadhātu and many more

I’m not Chinese, but, I think it means “border” or “(the) border (of)” in the sense of the border of a country, the defining “border” between different fields of crops, or the border of an even more abstract entity, like a thought.

1 Like

huh, interesting - the term must be embedded then in some other semantic framework…

Hi @Gabriel

I don’t know about the Chinese reading of dhātu; but the common excerption “sa naḥ stuto - vīravad dhātu gomad” (RV. 1.190.8c, 7.23.6c; AV. 20.12.6c; GopBr. 2.4.2), usually translated as “May he thus praised - make us possessed of progeny and cattle”, denotes a certain form of desire and granting.

avīra a-ví̄ra - sonless
vīravant vīrá-vant - possessed of son (cf. Macdonell)

This is also found in:
RV. 10.11.2c & AV. 18.1.19c
iṣṭasya madhye aditir ni dhātu no bhrātā no jyeṣṭhaḥ prathamo vi vocati
May Aditi accomplish all that we desire, and may our eldest Brother tell us this as Chief.

RV. 10.056.02a
tanūṣ ṭe vājin tanvaṁ nayantī vāmam asmabhyaṁ dhātu śarma tubhyam
Bearing thy body, Vajin, may thy body afford us blessing and thyself protection.

In the pre or post Buddha’s KaṭhUp. (definitely contemporary) many translators (like Radhakrishnan below) translate dhātu as “mind and the senses”, which seems to imply desire.
aṇor aṇīyān mahato mahīyān, ātmāsya jantor nihito guhāyām: tam akratuḥ paśyati vīta-śoko dhātu-prasādān mahimānam ātmanaḥ.
Smaller than the small, greater than the great, the self is set in the heart of every creature. The unstriving man beholds Him, freed from sorrow, through tranquillity of the mind (mano) and the senses (he sees) the greatness of the self.

Finally, in the late PraśnaUp. (around the common era), Bṛhaspati is the one who grants dhātu (desire)
svasti no bṛhaspatir dadhātu.
द da [agt. dā] = who grants.

Therefore, there seems to be an underlying meaning of “desire to be granted” beneath the usual definition of dhātu as “element or constituted elements making up a particular phenomena” - (might it be sort of elemental, or constituted of more of these elements).

“He (the Sambuddha) then taught me the Dhamma:
Aggregates, sense bases, and elements”.
So me dhammamadesesi,
SN 8.12

1 Like


It might be also of interest to note that if dhātu is not just an element (mahābhūtāna rūpa or upādāya, or else) - but that it includes the desire for that (existing) element - it is also a stable element (in time).

The difference between a dhātu and a dhamma might then be, that the dhātu is a stable stuff; while the dhamma (ध dha - √ मन् man,) is a "performed & established “thinking” - viz. a “created” stuff by the Self/self (“cosmic”, as well as worldly) - and both paradoxically anatta - that is to say "not continuous ("impermanent).
Another way to see things, as not always arising “in a jiffy”; as well as impermanent in time (long or short).

1 Like

As always I appreciate your pre-Buddhist investigations! But I can’t quite follow the ‘desire’ aspect. Also the dhatu-chapter here (p.117ff.) doesn’t list it. How do you come to see it as a consistent theme?


If Ajo is the unborn - kāma it’s desire (RV. 10.129.4) - Dhamma (paṭiccasamuppāda with its khandhas,) the result.
Then dhātu must be satta’s kāma - and satta’s dhammas the result.

Just speculating on Indian philosophy at large, and one of its school in particular.
Again, I base myself on the underlying meaning of dhātu, across pre-and-post Buddhist Indian philosophy, as seen above.

  • Note that I am not equating RV. 10.129 with Buddhism. There are too many differences between both. For instance, mano is considered as an encomapssing spirit throughout the Brahmanical Dhamma, in late Vedism - while in Buddhism it is circumscribed to a sensory (worldly) āyatana only (as in SN 22.47). - Etc.
    Yet the kama/dhātu stuff (as both desire - cosmic and worldly), remains quite steady in late Vedic interpretations. And It fits pretty well the Buddhist Dhamma (viz. paṭiccasamuppāda).

Then there is MN140: Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties

I forgot to actually mention the specific character I was actually talking about. It was 界.

Thanks for that sutta @mat

When one feels a pleasant feeling, one understands: ‘I feel a pleasant feeling.’ One understands: ‘With the cessation of that same contact
to be felt as pleasant, its corresponding feeling—the pleasant feeling that arose in dependence on that contact to be felt as pleasant—ceases and subsides.’

What I get from that sutta, is that the nonsense of “letting go” - that is to say, as accepting feelings thoroughly - gets a dent here.
What Buddha says here, is “stop that same contact; stop that feeling (experience); so you can get to equanimity”.

See also what I found interesting below.

1 Like


Dhātu seems always an “extraneous” element to satta.
MN 140 (dhātuvibaṅga sutta) insists on conceiving with mano.
‘I am’ is a conceiving (with mano); ‘I am this’ is a conceiving.
“I” and “mine” are a conceiving with mano. And the existence and desire of the “I”, comes from the desire for the “mine”.
An important sutta to understand the “mine” and the “I” is SN 22.89. (also SN 22.47).
Dhātu is that element that is in the “mine”. That extraneous thing, and the desire for that extraneous thing, that I conceive as “mine”. Then as the “I”. (see also SN 22.47).
Dhātu can be an “extraneous” external, as well as an “extraneous” internal.
People usually misunderstand what āyatana means. For instance, the eye āyatana is not the physical eye, but the ground or field of sensory experience of the eye. While dhātu is more of the elemental congregation, that forms the physical eye + the “desire” aspect of it.
It is the desire to be that “extraneous” external form - a form that is desire in itself; as well as the desire to be that “extraneous” internal eye (“extraneous internal”, for nothing is ours).
We wish to be that “I”, when all is asked is to be conscious of the feeling we feel - (for we are made to be felt) - but also to make an end with the contact that triggers that feeling (see MN 140).
Dhātu conveys desire within its element, or its congeries of elements. And that triggers the “mine” (the desire for that thing (full of desire,) to be mine). And that triggers contact (the appropriation of the experience by the internal).

MN 140 ends with:
"… the tides of conceiving (with mano, the internal āyatana) no longer sweep over him he is called a sage at peace. Bhikkhu, bear in mind this brief exposition of the six elements."

Note also that the desire in dhātu is not the same desire as chando. Chando results from thoughts and papañcas. Dhātu is just the desire we get from the"extraneous" thing that is dhātu (as elemental “stuff” + desire) .

Coëmgenu tells us that dhātu is spelled as 界.
In modern Chinese it is translated by: sector/sphere/field.
Dhātu is indeed a field. Not a field of sensory experience like āyatana - but a field of elemental stuff(s) [material or not], packed with desire.

maybe @llt or @Sylvester could take a brief look at it?
I think another character that is used for dhatu is 性 which would mean what I suspected it to mean in Pali in the first place, i.e.: characteristic, property, attribute

was there a relative consistency for the sign or were many used?

O, we are really delving into pure philosophical concepts here.
Ground ( 界) & Quality (性)

Dhātu is more than just a field. It is a philosophical ground. That is to say, it is an antecedent of a conditional, which is the ground of its consequent.
Buddhism approaches more a Kantian or Hegelian idealistic philosophy, than a Lockean or Humean purely sensory one. (Note that modern science has shifted explicit analytic towards a non-explicit analytic one - and that we might even, scientifically speaking, head back to a more idealistic philosopphy - a more “informational” one).
Anyway, this ground that is dhātu, is a deadly “a priori” one, by its own quality. It can only be an explicit analytical concept, if we say that “desire is universal” (or multiversal, if you wish).

The issue here is to understand what is the quality of that ground.
What is the real property of this object that is dhātu?
Is it the cosmic “Notion” of that desire - or is it the worldly “Reason” of that desire? - Does the “absolute” potential and notional desire, corresponds to the logical developments of its subjective actuality? - Is the quality of the notional (cosmic) absolute, the same than its rational quality?
Is dhātu part of formal, or part of concrete logic?

The sufficient ground has been posited (determined) by the saṅkhāra nidāna.
But reason has its intrinsic and immanent ground, through viññāṇā.
The Essence of the Notion, is constantly reactualized by the feedback of Chando, etc.
In other words, a new somewhat notional, but indeed rational dhātu (desire), is served by nāmarūpa to satta’s fields of senses (saḷāyatana), through viññāṇa, on account of chando, manosañcetana, etc. (https://justpaste.it/1695d)

I actually checked 性 , but it is not used for “dhatu” as far as I can tell in Chinese EBTs hosted here. Though my search was far from completely exhaustive. It is the “nature” in Buddha-nature though.

Not quite right @Coemgenu.

SN 14.15 & EA 49.3 are talking about dhātu and 性 (nature). About the quality of each type of Bhikkus. Qualities that are bound to their desire.
Evil wishes for Devadatta; desire for great spiritual knowledge for Moggallāna; desire for ascetic practices for Kassapa, etc.

Once again, desire is the common denominator of the different qualities (nature, properties) of these Bhikkhus. (See what “desire” means for Mahakassapa in SN 16.5).

I have the least idea and understanding of the Chinese :), just took that character from Analayo’s comparative discussion of dhatu - but just in a footnote. Unfortunately he doesn’t discuss the dhatu-matter in detail (at least I haven’t come across a passage)

I’m still very far away from seeing dhatu either as a philosophical concept nor from seeing the connotation or meaning of desire. Thanissaro btw also translates as ‘property’ (and sometimes as ‘element’). So for me tejo-dhatu simply means ‘the characteristic or property of fire’ - vanna-dhatu ‘the characteristic of beauty’ etc.

The isolated usage of ‘dhatu’ without context, e.g. in dhatu-khandha-ayatana, would then refer to the six essences (earth, water, fire, wind, space, consciousness) and the dis-identification from their characteristics.

I see of course that the pali can be understood in other ways as well, so that’s why I was looking for some hints from the chinese characters.


While the Chinese certainly does have “something” about passion (人根情性), I am not sure if the section of the Chinese that has 性 is in direct parallel with the Indic text.

EA is something of a black sheep āgama. It has, for instance, substantial Mahāyāna passage, as opposed to other āgamāḥ. Compounding with this is a different layer of Buddhist Chinese language-usage. I am not skilled enough to know, but I would not be surprised if the Chinese of EA was closer to Ven Kumarajiva’s than that of the early EBT translators.

The SN section with “dhātu” is here

Dhātusova, bhikkhave, sattā saṃsandanti samenti. Hīnādhimuttikā hīnādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandanti samenti; kalyā­ṇādhi­muttikā kalyā­ṇādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandanti samenti. Atītampi kho, bhikkhave, addhānaṃ dhātusova sattā saṃsandiṃsu samiṃsu. Hīnādhimuttikā hīnādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandiṃsu samiṃsu; kalyā­ṇādhi­muttikā kalyā­ṇādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandiṃsu samiṃsu.

Anāgatampi kho, bhikkhave, addhānaṃ dhātusova sattā saṃsandissanti samessanti. Hīnādhimuttikā hīnādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandissanti samessanti; kalyā­ṇādhi­muttikā kalyā­ṇādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandissanti samessanti.

Etarahipi kho, bhikkhave, paccuppannaṃ addhānaṃ dhātusova sattā saṃsandanti samenti. Hīnādhimuttikā hīnādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandanti samenti; kalyā­ṇādhi­muttikā kalyā­ṇādhi­mutti­kehi saddhiṃ saṃsandanti samentī”ti.

My Pāli is far from workable, and the English translation that SuttaCentral links us to is in an older format with a different numbering system, so I am unsure as to how to read it.

This passage though, the only part of SN 14.15 directly mentioning this as a vocabulary element, comes from the very end of the sutta. In contract, this is the section of EA that contains 性:

爾時,世尊見諸神足弟子,各 將其眾而自經行。爾時,世尊告諸比丘:「人根情性各各相似,善者與善共并,惡者與惡 共并,猶如乳與乳相應,酥與酥相應,糞 除屎溺各自相應。此亦如是,眾生根源 所行法則各自相應,善者與善相應,惡者與 惡相應。汝等頗見舍利弗比丘將諸比丘 經行乎?

It occurs almost immediately after the exposition of the āgama, the end of the āgama also seems to not line up exactly with the Indic text. One thing also to note is the abundance of dhātavaḥ in the Indic, and the sparsity of 性 in the Chinese.

That being said, it is a usage of 性, but reconstructing the Indic original that this was translated from, as to be sure that it is definitely translating dhātu exactly, is a heavy task, since it seems clear that the parallel is a very “loose” one between these texts, IMO at least.

Alternatively, someone with a better knowledge of Chinese than I may have a look at that passage and see if it lines up with the section of the SN-parallel that features the word ‘dhatu’.


人根情性 here means character / personality or inherit nature not passion (strong feelings) .

1 Like

Hi Gabriel

I really can’t improve on @Coemgenu 's identification of 界. Based just on its DDB entry, it carries the basic meaning of “realm”, probably stemming from the usage of dhātu­ in AN 3.76, which suggests it is a synonym for or related to bhava of the 3 varieties. This usage of 界 in the MA and SA seems fairly consistent for dhātu­ (assuming that the Indic sources for these 2 Agamas used a cognate of dhātu­ ).

However, I should mention one case of a Chinese translation where dhātu­ does not appear; instead, the sutras explain what it means about “beings coming together”. T 111, a parallel for SN 14.12, appears to have 相(appearance/characteristic) where the Pali has element; that is how I read the title 相應相可 to correspond to the issue of dependency. SA3 20, a parallel for SN 14.17 - 24 also appears to use 相 in the context of “相類相聚相應相可”, somewhat similar to T 111’s “相類、相聚、相應、相可”. It’s just guesswork on my part, as I’m unfamiliar with the style and idiom of these 2 collections, and am not sure from the Chinese syntax if I should furnish what sort of preposition or post-position to the word 相. I should caution that DBB does not give “element” as any meaning associated with 相, but if we consider things such as āpodhātu etc (eg MN 28), I understand such dhātu to mean 'property", which brings us very close to the DDB entry for 相.

1 Like

Thanks for your reflections! Just to check, if you didn’t know Pali and read the two main Chinese characters for ‘dhatu’ in context, how would you translate them back into english - would you come anyway near ‘element’ or ‘property’ just from the Chinese texts, or would you arrive at another common denominator?