Abhidhamma Series, no 13. the Four Great Elements.
- Dear friends,
The four Great Elements.
Ruupas, material phenomena, are not mere textbook terms, they are
realities that can be directly experienced. Ruupas do not know or
experience anything; they can be known by naama. Ruupa arises and
falls away, but it does not fall away as quickly as naama. When a
characteristic of ruupa such as hardness impinges on the bodysense it
can be experienced through the bodysense by several cittas arising in
succession within a process. But even though ruupa lasts longer than
citta, it falls away again, it is impermanent.
Ruupas do not arise singly, they arise in units or groups. What we
take for our body is composed of many groups or units, consisting
each of different kinds of ruupa, and the ruupas in such a group
arise together and fall away together.
There are four kinds of ruupa, the four �Great Elements� (Mahaa-
bhuuta ruupas), which have to arise together with each and every
group of ruupas, no matter whether these are ruupas of the body or
ruupas outside the body. The types of ruupa other than the four Great
Elements depend on these four ruupas and cannot arise without them.
They are the following ruupas:
the Element of Earth (pa.thaviidhaatu) or solidity
the Element of Water (aapodhaatu) or cohesion
the Element of Fire (tejodhaatu) or heat
the Element of Wind (vaayodhaatu) or motion
Earth, Water, Fire and Wind do not in this context have the same
meaning as in conventional language, neither do they represent
conceptual ideas as we find them in different philosophical systems.
In the Abhidhamma they represent ultimate realities, specific ruupas
each with their own characteristic. The element of earth, pa.thavii
dhaatu, translated into English as �solidity� or �extension�, has the
characteristic of hardness or softness. It can be directly
experienced when we touch something hard or soft. We do not have to
name this ruupa �element of earth� in order to experience it. It is
an element that arises and falls away; it has no abiding substance,
it is devoid of a �self�. We take softness and hardness of the body
for self, but these are only elements arising because of conditions.
It may seem that hardness can last for some time, but in reality it
falls away immediately.The hardness that is experienced now is
already different from the hardness that arose a moment ago.
The element of earth appears as hardness or softness; the element of
fire as heat or cold; the element of wind as motion or pressure.
These three elements can be experienced by touch. The element of
water cannot be experienced through touch, but only through the mind-
door. When we touch what we call water, cold which is the element of
fire, or hardness, which is the element of earth, can be directly
Every day we experience a great variety of sense objects, but they
fact, only different compositions of ruupa elements. When we touch a
cushion or chair, tangible object may appear, such as hardness or
softness. We used to think that a cushion or chair could be
experienced through touch. When we are more precise, it is hardness
or softness that can be experienced through touch. Because of
remembrance of former experiences we can think of a cushion or chair
and we know that they are named �cushion� or �chair�. This example
can remind us that there is a difference between ultimate realities
and concepts we can think of but which are not real in the ultimate
Viewing the body and the things around us as different combinations
of ruupas may be new to us. Gradually we shall realize that ruupas
are not abstract categories, but that they are realities appearing in
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