Earth, Water, Fire, and Air

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. May 25, 2019.

We're continuing with the constituents of the body from the Satipatthana Sutta. I've updated this translation by removing references to monks and male masculine pronouns, relocating a butcher from the intersection of four crossroads, and using synonyms for observe and awareness to break up repetition.

Again, reflect on this very body, however it is placed or disposed, considering it according to the characteristic of each element: "In this body, there is the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, and the air-element."

Just as if a skillful cow-butcher or his apprentice, after having slaughtered a cow and having divided it into portions, would place them on display for sale; in the same way, reflect on this very body, however it is placed or disposed, considering the material elements: "In this body, there is the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, and the air-element."

Observe the elements of the body internally,

Or pay close attention to them externally,

Or maintain awareness of them both internally and externally.

Contemplate the nature of of arising in the body,

Consider the nature of passing away in the body,

Or ponder arising and passing away in the body.

Establish knowledge: "This is body!"

Develop focus to such an extent that there is mere understanding along with mere awareness.

Dwell detached, without clinging towards anything in the world [of mind and matter].

This is how to observe the elements of the body.[1]

Commentary

I don't usually go to commentaries this quickly, but in this case, Siddhartha Gautama went into more detail with his son. The following has been edited to consolidate repetitive phrases.

The earth, water, fire, and air elements may be internal or external. Whatever is hard, solid, or derived therefrom, such as hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, and various organs, is the internal earth element.

Whatever is liquid and derived therefrom, such as bile, phlegm, pus, and blood is the internal water element.

Whatever is heat, warmth, and derived therefrom, such as that by which one is vitalized, consumed, or burnt up, and that by which the ingested food is digested, this is the internal fire element.

Whatever is motion, wind, and derived therefrom, such as the winds going up and down, winds in the belly, winds that shoot across the limbs, inbreathing and outbreathing, is the internal wind element. Whatever is an internal earth, water, fire, or wind element and whatever is an external earth, water, fire, or wind element are just wind element.[2]

Discussion

To review our meditation objects for the body,

We can start with the breath.

Or we can focus on posture and movement.

Or we can develop constant, thorough understanding of impermanence during all our daily activities.

Or we can considered the unbeautiful parts of bodies that we don't identify with.

What insight do we gain from considering that the body is made of earth, water, air, and fire?

What insight is suggested by the statement "Whatever is an internal wind element and whatever is an external wind element are just wind element?"

Second Hand Insights

The elements provide a useful framework for understanding our felt or subjective experience of the body and the physical world.[3] Physical sensations can all be categorized under these four different elements.[4]

We go from the level of concept of foot or leg or knee or back or body to the level of direct experience: pressure, heaviness, lightness, vibration, etc. We shift from the concept of the body as something solid to the awareness of the body as a fluid or dynamic energy field.

While the cow is still whole, whether alive or dead, you would still refer to it as a cow. Once it is cut into pieces, or meat, the notion of cow is no longer there. When you buy hamburger or milk, you don’t see it as buying “cow.” By carving the body into the four elements, you begin to lose the concept of the body, or being, or person.[5]

Ways to Practice

Do breathing exercises focusing on the abdomen to experience the four elements.

Do choice-less awareness, experiencing the parts of the body in terms of the four elements.

Try to focus on a specific element in terms of how it is experienced in various parts of the body.

On hot days, explore the body for the experience of coolness.

Perform a slow movement of your arm and examine what the felt sensations are.[6]

[1] "Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula" (MN 62), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.062.than.html

[2] "Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula" (MN 62), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.062.than.html

[3] Goldstein, Joseph. “Satipatthana Sutta - Part 10 - The Four Elements .” Dharma Seed - Joseph Goldstein's Dharma Talks, Dharma Seed, 29 June 2004, dharmaseed.org/teacher/96/talk/289/.

[4] Fronsdal, Gil. “Satipatthana Sutta.” Audio Dharma, www.audiodharma.org/series/1/talk/1742/.

[5] Goldstein, Joseph. op.cit.

[6] Fronsdal, Gil. op.cit.

Bruce Cantwell