Ordinarily we begin meditation by focusing on the body, in particular, the breath. This is known as “mindfulness of breathing” and we learn about it at the beginning of the Buddha’s sutta on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 10. I use the Ñaṇamoli/Bodhi translation).

The Buddha suggests a few other body-oriented meditations, which may be of particular interest to those of us of a more scientific or materialist bent. As the seat of the mind, the body, and particularly the brain, should be our primary locus of interest. Each body meditation has a separate purpose, however in this post I would like to focus on the meditation on the four elements.

Meditation on the Four Elements

In this meditation, one is to contemplate the body as composed of the four main elements: earth, air, fire, and water,

Just as though a skilled butcher or his apprentice had killed a cow and was seated at the crossroads with it cut up into pieces; so too, a bhikkhu reviews the same body up from the soles of his feet and down from the top of his hair, bounded by skin, by way of elements thus: ‘In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’ (12)

The Buddha expands upon the four elements meditation in discussion with his son, Rāhula, in the Mahārāhulovāda Sutta (MN 62):

Rahula, any kind of material form whatever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ (3)

What is the point of seeing material form in this way?

“When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with [each element in turn,] and makes the mind dispassionate towards [each element]. (8). Thus, “… arisen agreeable and disagreeable contacts will not invade your mind and remain.” (13)

The point, then, is to reduce craving and repulsion for the body, and by extension, all physical things, by seeing them as they really are: mere agglomerations of four physical elements. The elements by themselves lack emotional attachment, and so the body should lack attachment as well.

Make no mistake: in this sutta the Buddha claims we are seeing how things really are by doing this contemplation. Thus his repetition of the phrase, “that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom”. When we contemplate the body as an agglomeration of elements, we contemplate it as it actually is, rather than as we might like it to be: for example, made of some special, magical, ‘us-stuff’.

Meditation on the Sixty Elements

The problem, though, is that in fact the body isn’t made up of these four elements, because these elements are a relic of an outdated, pre-scientific chemistry. True, they can be shoehorned into a modern understanding by treating them variously as metaphorical or epistemological. When we perform a four element meditation we can take, for example, “earth” to mean the solid parts of the body, “water” the liquid parts, “air” the gaseous parts, and perhaps “fire” as cellular mechanisms of combustion, such as the oxidizing of glucose to create heat energy.

But in so doing, we aren’t seeing things “as they actually are”. We aren’t analyzing the body into its elements, at least not in the way a butcher would cut up a cow into its component parts and display them at a crossroads, following the Buddha’s simile.

Fortunately, there is no reason why we must follow the letter of the Buddha’s system. We have available to us the tools of modern biochemistry, and so we can find out what chemical elements, and in what proportions, the human body is in fact made up of: in fact, our bodies are made up of sixty chemical elements, in precise ratios.

But of course our bodies are more than just piles of material. What gives them life is their internal organization: our bodies are exceedingly complex molecular machines. To contemplate their intricacy is to contemplate what makes them do what they do. Intricate, evolved over billions of years, yet basically piles of mud.

Nobody I know has put this as well as Carl Sagan, in a famous scene from Cosmos, his masterwork, here in a clip from YouTube:

Is there a better meditation on the elements of the body?

We can go further: those elements themselves were created. They are not eternal, nor indivisible, nor everlasting. They were cooked up in the interiors of massive stars, whose titanic explosions scattered them to the universe. In Sagan’s famous phrase, we are star stuff, our parts conditioned by events billions of years passed and billions of miles distant.

This view of our past may sound grandiose, even exalted, but it is quite literally down-to-earth. Basically, we are made up of humble parts, $160 worth at current prices.

We are perishable and impure, materially no different from the muck at our feet.

We fetishize the body, we see it as authentically ours in a way nothing else is. Often this leads to pride and clinging, disappointment and disgust. How different it would be to bring mindfulness to the awareness of our own body: to see it “as it actually is with proper wisdom”. That is, to see it as something worthy of protection and interest, but neither reverence nor permanency.

The meditation on the elements is particularly apt for those of a scientific, materialist bent, since it contemplates the base essence of our nature. And in contemplating it in all its thrilling ordinariness, it sees that our existence is only vaguely bounded. I am not the coffee I drink, nor the urine I excrete; in what sense then am I the 0.78 kg of phosphorus that makes me up today and will be scattered to the winds tomorrow? Whatever that stuff is, it is not something I can ever truly cling to as my own. It is something to which clinging can only cause me disappointment and loss.

Harming the Machine

A final note on ethics: we contemplate our body, perhaps our very being, as a robustly ordinary machines made of mud. Mud with an interesting history, expertly thrown together by evolution, but mud nonetheless. A danger lurks in this identification, which the Buddha often termed “nihilism”, though in truth it is a danger for any reductionist theory of lived reality, including the Buddha’s own. Namely, we may become so unattached to the body that we become unconcerned with our treatment of ourselves and other people. After all, they too are just mud machines, thrown together for a time.

This is why, I believe, the Buddha began his teachings with ethics, and emphasized that right speech and action were essential parts of the path towards true well being. We may be piles of mud, complex organizations of chemical elements, but we are also beings to whom ethical properties inhere. It is only behaving with that in mind that we can ourselves become truly happy.

No Comments

  1. mufi on December 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Doug: Nicely put.

    I suppose that it’s possible for me to overlook the “mud” aspect of my self and instead fixate on a more unique characteristic, such as the precise organization of mud that comprises “me”. Yet this, too, is clinging and avoids the reality that the Buddha encouraged us to confront – that each of our lives is a process, so even that organization of mud is inconstant.

    By “ethical properties”, I assume that you refer to something along the lines of a natural (or at least common) urge to survive and flourish, which entails certain mutual responsibilities and obligations, but I’m not certain. Would you elaborate a bit there?

    • Doug Smith on December 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks, mufi.

      Re. ethical properties, I was leaving that intentionally vague, since the precise way they are worked out is less important than that they are part of the picture. But in general I think the Buddha’s notion that one should not inflict unnecessary suffering on others by means of speech or action is a pretty good start.

  2. Candol on December 20, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Its not that i want to be contentious for the mere sake of it. There is something you’ve overlooked here…

    “Often this leads to pride and clinging, disappointment and disgust.”

    The Buddha did encourage his monks and nuns to develop a sense of disgust for the body. But this was his way of encouraging people to let go the clinging to our own body and that of others to whom one might be lustfully drawn.

    I’m sorry i can’t point you to a sutta on this but i know they are there. As you said in the beginning there are other meditations on the body given by the buddha apart from mindfulness of breathing.

    • Doug Smith on December 20, 2012 at 4:42 am

      Hello Candol,

      Of course, you are right that the Buddha encouraged us to meditate on the ugliness of the body. For example, he did so in the meditation after the Four Postures in the body meditation series, which Ñaṇamoli and Bodhi translate “Foulness” but which Bodhi later says he would prefer to translate “On the Unattractive Nature of the Body”.

      But this is not intended to get us to the true nature of the body: unlike in, say, versions of Western philosophy and religion, the Buddha never said that the body was literally ugly, nor evil. Instead these meditations are instrumental: they are meant only to combat sense desire. Otherwise one is to care for one’s body with food, clothing, lodging, medicine, following the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism.

      What I was trying to say, above, is that we aren’t supposed either to adore bodies (pride, clinging) nor hate bodies (disappointment, disgust). We are supposed to approach them dispassionately, like everything else.

      • Candol on December 21, 2012 at 11:13 pm

        Yes its just that i thought since the buddha was explicit in teaching disgust of the body that your suggestion seemed to be contradicting that. Yes i agree we are supposed to be developing a more healthy “dispassionate” view of it.

        I understand the buddha never taught that the body is ugly etc. Just that he did teach disgust of the body – albeit at the level of pus and other slimy nasty things.

  3. mckenzievmd on December 20, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Beautifully and poetically expressed. Thank you.

    I am still a bit stuck on the ethics part, which we discussed after an earlier article. The genesis and justification for particular ethical principles still puzzles me, though I accept the basic tenet that they serve a pragmatic purpose, to organize our behavior in ways that meet our goals. And the goal in Buddhism, the elimination of suffering, works well enough for me. Still “nihilism” seems to have a pretty strong argument in that the goals we pursue, regardless of the tradition they come from, have no greater claim to being anything other than the products of a mud machine than the body.

    • Doug Smith on December 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks very much, Brennen. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Well, I know we’ve had this discussion several times in the past. It just seems to me that if we are to accept that there are certain outcomes preferable to others, such as the promotion of happiness and the minimization of suffering, then we must accept the reality of ethical claims.

      I recall reading awhile back something I can’t quite put my finger on now. But the gist of it was that it’s all well and good to hear nihilist or ethically relativist sentiments coming from people we know are good-hearted. I know that you have your ethical head set on straight, and indeed that the focus of your efforts on your website and elsewhere are directly ethical, aimed at countering ignorance and fraud, and hence improving health and true well-being.

      But how would we feel hearing nihilist or ethically relativist claims from someone of more uncertain ethical scruples, particularly someone in a position of power, such as a hedge-fund manager, politician, or general in the military?

  4. mufi on December 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Doug to mckenzievmd: …it’s all well and good to hear nihilist or ethically relativist sentiments coming from people we know are good-hearted….But how would we feel hearing nihilist or ethically relativist claims from someone of more uncertain ethical scruples, particularly someone in a position of power, such as a hedge-fund manager, politician, or general in the military?

    Sounds to me like we should worry less about which meta-ethical theory these folks espouse and more about how they actually behave, relative to our values, cares, and interests.

    That said, there may some sense of nihilism that I’d feel obliged to admit – e.g. that morality is grounded in embodied experience and/or is a social construct – read: not objective in any eternal, transcendent sense (more like: inter-subjective).

    Whether or not it’s wise to advertise that view as “nihilism” – lest it mislead some naive folks into thinking that “anything goes” (even though no functional & enduring human society works that way) – is another matter – e.g. a question of prudence or pedagogy.

    • Doug Smith on December 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Sounds to me like we should worry less about which meta-ethical theory these folks espouse and more about how they actually behave, relative to our values, cares, and interests.

      Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good approach, mufi.

      (Though FWIW the Buddha pretty clearly did believe in an eternalist — or better put, an everlasting — ethical picture, expounded in the theory of kamma).

      My hypothesis is that ethical norms are universalizable to cognitively advanced (i.e. sentient) creatures such as ourselves, wherever and whenever they may occur. I suppose that any such creatures will be the product of evolution, and will have broadly similar aims as ours. But I admit that this is a hypothesis.

      • mufi on December 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm

        Doug: I suppose that any such creatures will be the product of evolution, and will have broadly similar aims as ours.

        I basically agree, although there are still enough conflicts of interest and fuzzy borderline cases to keep things “interesting.”

        (Though FWIW the Buddha pretty clearly did believe in an eternalist — or better put, an everlasting — ethical picture, expounded in the theory of kamma).

        I don’t much doubt it (especially now that I’m digging into Gombrich). What can I say? That’s Buddhism 1.0 for ya!

  5. Mark Knickelbine on December 21, 2012 at 11:17 am

    The value of the four elements meditation is that it permits us to observe experientially the continuity between the stuff that makes up our bodies and the stuff that makes up the world. The Sagan clip presents the same idea, but it is ideation — I can know and believe everything he says and still essentially experience myself as an isolated being alienated from my environment. I need a way to internalize that insight on a deeper level. I can observe the solidity, moisture, gas and heat of my body; I can’t observe its carbon molecules. Therefore, I’d say that whoever came up with the four elements meditation attributed to Gotama, it’s still a valuable way to experience the not-self of the body, despite being scientifically obsolete.

    • Doug Smith on December 21, 2012 at 7:42 pm

      I’ll tell you, Mark, I think this is one place where a scientifically oriented secular Buddhist practice can make a real advance over traditional Buddhism. I think an investigation into biochemistry could become an essential precursor to satipaṭṭhāna practice. Sagan’s example shows one way to begin: the carbon in our bodies is charcoal, the iron is that in nails, and so on. The more we know about how the body is constructed and works, the more refined our contemplation can be.

      This approach may not be for everyone, but for those who are interested, I think it’s exciting.

    • Candol on December 21, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      That’s an intersting point that hadn’t particularly occurred to me. I mean i have no trouble seeing our bodies as just matter which is why i don’t find Doug’s article particularly striking . It seems a fairly basic idea that we are ultimately matter. But i hadn’t thought of the notion of the four elements in the way you describe. I guess for many people it would be a useful thing to contemplate more often. Mostly for people who focus too much on their souls and theirselves as spiritual beings.

      I don’t know why you think the buddha himself didn’t come up with the meditation of the four elements. I thought it seems pretty basic to his philosophy but not exclusively to buddhist philosophy either. I mean that all matter is reduced to those four elements was pretty standard thinking for that time.

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