This post is about the 4 Great Elements of Theravada Buddhism aka Mahābhūta. They share commonalities with Ayurveda and Hinduism, too.
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I am passionate about reading holistic medicine literature and ways to connect the ancient knowledge of health to our modern living.
Classical elements have been in existence throughout ancient cultures to explain the nature and complexity of all matter. They usually range from 4 to 6 elements.
Modern science’s atomic theory has now classified more than a hundred different elements, which can combine to form chemical compounds and mixtures. Also they adopt different states of matter under different temperatures and pressures.
How to use the four elements for better health, according to Buddha
In canonical Buddhist texts, the 4 Great Elements refer to elements that are both external and internal (of the body).
According to Buddha,
地水火風和合成人 Earth, water, fire, and air (wind) harmonize to form a human 筋骨肌肉皆屬乎地 Sinew, bone, skin, flesh all are categorized as earth 精血津液皆屬乎水 Essence, blood, and all bodily fluids are categorized as water 呼吸溫煖皆屬乎火 Breath and warmth are both categorized as fire 靈明活動皆屬乎風 Spirit and movement are both categorized as air (wind) 是以風止則氣絶 Therefore, once the air (wind) dies down, energy is cut off 火去則身冷 Once the fire is extinguished, body turns cold 水竭則無血 Once water is depleted, there is no blood 土散則身裂. Once earth is scattered, the body is split.
Earth, water, and fire are nearly ubiquitous among schools of classical elements. Wind (air) is also very common, except it’s not included in the Five Phases.
The thought that these elements intertwine themselves within our body influenced subsequent generations of philosophers and doctors across the world.
How to use the four elements for better health, according to Daoist scholar
In particular, one Daoist scholar from 14th century Yuan dynasty expounded on what it means for these elements to be in a healthy state inside our body.
He was a practitioner of “Golden Alchemy” which is best described as a form of meditation using energy within (Qi circulation) to cultivate the original state of being and the attainment of that state (i.e. uniting with Dao).
Daoism is based on the principles of Yin Yang and the Five Phases. Yet this scholar seemed to have merged Daoist and Buddhist dogmas of element theory.
四大假合而生也 The Four Greats are united temporarily for birth 地之盛也骨如金 Prospering earth makes bones akin to metal 水之盛也精如玉 Prospering water makes Essence akin to jade 火之盛也氣如雲 Prospering fire makes energy akin to clouds 風之盛也智如神 Prospering air (wind) makes wisdom akin to the spirit
His take on the prosperous “wind” element being beneficial to our wisdom is refreshing to me. As wind being the generator of all activities, cultivating this element is crucial for maintaining proper movement of energy as seen in cosmos (because as above, so below!).
I wonder why wind is not part of the Five Phases. Is it because wind is seen as energy (Qi) itself? After all, they share many parallels.
If you have further insights, please share with us in the comments.
Thank you for reading!
eternal student of life