Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “four great elements (mahabhuta)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 1 - The four great elements (mahābhūta)

Note: This Appendix is extract from the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra Chapter XLIX:

By cultivating the Prajñāpāramitā, this great earth (mahāpṛthivī) is reduced to its subtle atoms (paramāṇu).

– Because the earth element (pṛthivī) possesses color (rūpa), odor (gandha), taste (rasa) and touch (spraṣṭavya), it is heavy (guru) and does not have activity (kriyā) on its own.

– Because the water (ap-) element has no taste (rasa), it is superior to earth by means of its movement (calana).

– Because the fire (tejas) element has neither odor (gandha) nor taste (rasa), it is superior to water in its power (prabhāva).

– Because the wind (vāyu) element is neither visible (rūpa) nor has it any taste (rasa) or touch (spraṣṭavya), it is superior to fire by means of its movement (īraṇa).

– The mind (citta) which has none of these four things [color, taste, smell and touch] has a still greater power.

According to the Pañcavastuka, ed. J. Imanishi, p. 6–7, reproduced at the beginning of the Prakaraṇapāda (T 1541, k. 1, p. 627a; T 1542, k. 1, p. 692b), matter (rūpa) is the four great elements (mahābhūta) and the material derived from the four great elements (mahābhūtany upādāyarūpa).

The four great elements (mahābhūta) are the elements (dhātu):

  1. earth (pṛthivī),
  2. water (ap-),
  3. fire (tejas),
  4. wind (vāyu).

Derived matter, also called bhautika rūpa, is:

i) the five derived organic materials, namely: the organs (indriya) of the eye (cakṣus), ear (śrotra), nose (ghrāṇa), tongue (jihvā) and body (kāya).

ii) the five inorganic derived materials, namely, color (rūpa), sound (śabda), odor (gandha), taste (rasa), part of touch (spraṣṭavyaikadeśa) and non-information (avijñapti).

The Traité adds here that, taken in abstracto and individually, the four great elements (mahābhūta) do not support the same number of inorganic derived materials: earth (pṛthivī) supports color, odor, taste and touch (cf. Kośa, IX, p. 288); water (ap-) has no taste; fire (tejas) has no odor or taste; wind (vayu) has no color, no taste and no touch.

A great element is the more subtle and the more powerful the smaller the number of derived substances it supports: the wind, which supports only odor, is the strongest of the four great elements.

But all of this is theoretical, for the great elements never appear in the form of isolated subtle atom (paramāṇu) but in the form of conglomerates of atoms (saṃghātaparamāṇu) or, if one wishes, molecules. The molecule into which sound does not enter, into which no organ enters, involves eight substances (aṣṭadravyaka) at least, namely: the four great elements (catvāri mahābhūtāni) and four derived substances (catvāry upādāyarūpāṇi): color, odor, taste and touch (cf. Kośa, II, p. 144–145).

The mind (citta), which is non-material (arūpin) and has no derived substance to support, is infinitely more subtle (sūkṣma) than the most subtle of the four great elements (mahābhūta). That is why the Buddha said that its power is very great.