Vipassana Bhumi 3
24 August 2004
18 Elements (dhatu) are the third vipassana bhumi (land). The meditator can use contemplation of the elements to be the ground for developing vipassana insight.
The term “dhatu” means maintain, or the nature that can maintain its own condition or character. Whatever conditions they have, they will maintain them without changing to others. They are groups of ultimate dhammas or paramattha dhammas. When one mindfully contemplates the elements, they will show their own natures that these elements are merely elements, not living beings, not self or us.
The elements are the natures that form the body and mind of all living beings. They are not us, they do not belong to us. They are able to maintain their own characters.
There are three groups for each of the 6 sense doors, thus in total 18 elements:
The receiving elements.
The contacting elements.
The knowing elements.
Group 1. The receiving element is the eye element. It has the transparent character to receive the colors. It is the rupa (form) dhamma which is the eye nerve behind the pupil. It can only receive the color, not other input.
The contacting element is the color that can only contact the eye nerve, not the others. It is also the rupa (form) dhamma. It will vanish after the contact. It has no knowing ability.
The knowing element is the eye consciousness that can “see”.
Vipassana practice is contemplating the element when it arises. When the color comes in contact with the eye nerve, seeing arises. Be mindful of seeing. Repeating observations will show the truth that what appears through the eyes are only the color elements that contact the eyes, then seeing arises and vanishes. It is not us, it does not belong to us. Human beings usually do not see this condition. They usually think and interpret the meaning of what they saw as animal, or person, etc. We did not see it as element. We will get attached to the self that “we see”. What is seen is a person, not merely colors. When contemplating the seeing and the colors we will find that they appear and vanish. They are not us. They are elements, or nature. When color, eye nerve, light, intention, come together, seeing arises. When these factors disappear, seeing will also disappears.
GROUP 2. The receiving element is the ear element. It has the transparent character which can receive the sound. It is the form (rupa) dhamma which is the ear nerve inside the ear. It will deteriorate after arisin;, it does not have the knowing ability.
The contacting element is the sound. It can only contact the ears. It is also a form (rupa) dhamma that will vanish after the contact.
The knowing element is the ear consciousness that can “hear”. It is the mind (citta or nama) that has the knowing ability. There are two types of mind due to the effects of the previous acts. One is the wholesome act which results in hearing pleasant sounds. The other is the unwholesome act which results in hearing unpleasant sounds.
When hearing, it is just hearing. We will see that these are only the components of elements that arise and vanish. They are not us, they do not belong to us. If we are not mindful and do not have wisdom, the attachment will hold on to the hearing as “our hearing”. When wisdom arises we will realize that hearing is not us, it does not belong to us. These elements will appear and disappear. This is vipassana insight which will happen after repeated observations at the moment of hearing. After that moment, it will progress into perception of sound, attach the meaning of sound and make it into a story, etc. It becomes pannatti (conventional) dhamma. The paramattha is the sound or other elements that are present right now.
This is the vipassana practice. We will realize that the ear, the sound and hearing are merely elements, they are not self, they do not belong to us.
GROUP 3. The receiving element is the nose element. It has the transparent quality that allows the odor to contact. It is the form (rupa) dhamma which is the nerve in the nasal cavity.
The contacting element is the odor element that can only contact the nose, it cannot contact the others. It is the form (rupa) dhamma that will disappear after the contact.
The knowing element is nose consciousness that can “smell”. It has the knowing ability and is composed of two types of mind. One is from the wholesome act which results in pleasant smell, the other from the unwholesome act that results in unpleasant smell.
When knowing this mindfully, we can benefit from unpleasant smells. The smell will pass away, it is only an element. If we do not get angry and understand the nature of it, we will gain the insight about the smell. It is not us and it does not belong to us. It arises when there is cause and support. So we can turn the effect of past unwholesome acts into a new wholesome kamma, since a mind with mindfulness and clear comprehension is a wholesome mind.
Without training, people with react negatively to bad smells and get angry, which is another unwholesome mind on top of the previous one. So it is important to be mindful all the time so insight can develop.
GROUP 4. The receiving element is the tongue element. It has the transparent quality that allows the taste to contact. It is a form (rupa) dhamma which is the taste buds on the tongue that contain the nerve endings.
The contacting element is the flavor element that comes in contact with the taste bud. It is the form (rupa) dhamma that will vanish after the contact.
The knowing element is the taste consciousness that can taste. It is the mind (nama) that has the knowing ability. It also can be the result of previous wholesome or unwholesome acts that results in perceiving good taste or bad taste.
When food comes in contact with the tongue, tasting will occur. Vipassana practice is observing the knowing of taste. If we are not mindful it will be followed by feeling of liking or disliking . If it is liking we will crave for more. If it is disliking we may be angry. All are unwholesome processes.
But when we are mindful of the taste even if it is a bad taste we can still develop the wholesome mind. Frequent observation will result in insight that tasting is only made of elements that will change; they are not ours and do not belong to us. There is no greed or hatred, only knowing, and they will disappear. So we will not cling to taste.
GROUP 5. The receiving element is the body element. It has the transparent quality that allows the contact. It is the rupa (form) dhamma which is the sensory nerves that cover the whole body. It has no knowing ability.
The contacting elements are the three elements that create varieties of sensation depending on the quantity of each. These are earth element (soft/hard), fire element (cold/heat), wind or motion element (tension/relaxation). The water element which creates cohesiveness cannot be felt on the body, it will need the mind to interpret that sensation (will be in Group 6).
The knowing element is body consciousness that can “feel the touching” (soft/hard, cold/heat, tension/relaxation). The feeling can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on the effect of wholesome or unwholesome acts. It can be too hot or too cold, if there is too much tension it will cause pain, etc.
The painful sensation can be from accident, injury or illness. These may be the result of the unwholesome acts. The vipassana practice is done by focusing on these sensations or the sensations in the internal organs. When breathing in the air is cool, but the heat will be generated after the air is used so the outbreath air will be warm. When breathing in the air will create tension in the lungs, relaxation will occur with breathing out. When you make a fist and then open the hand, you will feel the tension and relaxation as well.
The body sensations are clear and easier to contemplate. It is recommended to start with being mindful with the body. Observing seeing and hearing are harder. The smelling and tasting do not occur all the time, but body sensation is there all the time when you are awake. The earth and fire elements are also major forms (mahabhuta rupa) so they are more prominent. They are easy to observe. Seeing and hearing are harder because they will rapidly progress into perception/cognition(sanna) and interpretation (sankhara), etc.
After you gain more experience with observing the body, you can continue to observe the mind which also is a paramattha dhamma. Focus on where the touching is, knowing the sensation is the nama (mind) dhamma. The body elements, the contact elements as well as the sensation will arise and vanish right there. There will be new contacts arising to replace the old ones but not at the same time. For example, the cold sensation at the wrist and the elbow happens at different moments. If you are not mindful you will think that the whole arm is cold. In fact, they are multiple tiny spots of contact and feeling that occur spontaneously and quickly. So the mind interprets it as a mass that we presume to be our arm, and our body. If we look at only one spot or one location we will see that one arises and vanishes, then the other arises and vanishes. It does that all the time no matter whether you look at it or not. So we need to watch these sensations often until clear understanding develops.
GROUP 6 . The receiving element is the mind element. The previous groups 1-5 are form (rupa) dhamma that do not have the knowing ability. The mind element is composed of three different types of mind. One is the mind that perceives the sensations from the other five door senses (the previous 5 groups). They are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. The other two are the minds that process the information afterward. One is the result of wholesome acts, another is the result of unwholesome acts.
The contacting elements are the mind factors (cetasika) that appear within the mind. These are 52 kinds of cetasika (mind factors), 16 refined forms (sukhuma rupa) and nibbana. Cetasika is the dhamma element that can belong to the wholesome group, the unwholesome group or both.
The refined forms cannot be perceived through the other sense doors. Water is one example. It has the quality of “cohesiveness” that can be felt only by the mind. If you look at the water, what you see is the color not the cohesiveness. When you pour the water on the body you feel the cold sensation that flows from one spot to the other spot. It is the heat/cold element. The mind is that which interprets it as the flowing character of water. The others are living form, nutrient form, etc. The mind has to be concentrated enough to perceive these refined forms. But it does not matter, we can first contemplate the body sensation which is easier.
The knowing element is the mind consciousness. It has vast knowledge that can perceive the contacts from the 6 sense doors. It can interpret what is what. It can tell that what is seen is a human, is a man or woman, etc. It can progress into conventional interpretation. At the other end, when insight develops it is also the function of the mind consciousness. So they include all the wholesome and unwholesome minds, the jhanic minds, the activity minds (kiriya citta), etc.
When thought arises, know that there is a thought. When feeling is pleasant or unpleasant, know it. All the wholesome and unwholesome mental states are mind elements. When the mind is peaceful know it, when it is unpeaceful also know it. When applied thought, sustained thought, doubt, satisfaction arise, know it. The mind with mindfulness also know the mindfulness, or also know that insight arises. It is the nature that has the knowing ability. “The knower can know the knower”.
The knowing mind is the mind with mindfulness and clear comprehension as mind factors (cetasika). So it does not only know the others, it also knows the other knower that just passed by. This is called the continuation of present moment (paccupanna-santati). The real truth is that these are all natural processes, these are not beings, not persons. There is nothing else in life beside these natural processes.
Our whole life can be divided into three different elements: 6 receiving, 6 contacting and 6 knowing elements. These elements appear and vanish. Without insight we proclaim them to be us, belong to us. With frequent observation, we will gradually gain understanding and clear comprehension that these are natural processes. They arise, change and disappear. Seeing disappears, hearing disappears, smelling disappears, taste disappears, touching disappears. The same process also occurs with the mind. Thought disappears, scattered or concentrated mind disappears, etc. They are impermanent, they change all the time. Whatever is impermanent, is it pleasant or unpleasant? The answer is, “It is suffering” , because it cannot be sustained (dukha character). Whatever is suffering, should we hold onto it as self? Whatever cannot be sustained, will vanish, should it be held onto as us?
Insight will see that thing that is out of control, arises and vanishes according to the cause, that is not self (anatta). This insight will reduce the attachment and can let go of it. These dhamma conditions will go on the way they are and we have no control over them. So we should stop, know, and accept that it is out of our control. The practice is to observe it very briefly, try to be in the present moment, and then let go of it. Contemplate the vanishing with the neutral mind. This is the way of vipassana practice that can be done after listening to the dhamma and understanding about the elements. It is one of the vipassana bhumi (land) as taught by the Buddha.
This concludes the talk. I wish you happiness, prosperity and progress in the dhamma.
Photo courtesy of Nick Kenrick.