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The Four Elements


Since time immemorial, or at least since the arising of the first traces of mind, what the mind pays attention to, is what we now call matter. Thus, since in here we hope to not just comprehend anything, but a whole universe of things, our search for ultimate truth is commenced best with this element of existence, called matter.

Hence, we might start our journey, by asking ourselves ‘What is matter?’.

For most people what matter is, seems to be so obvious a thing that probably only a few will bother thinking further about it. Consequently this blog is probably for the most part, written for the few only.

Nevertheless, throughout this blog, I will try to show, how an understanding of a certain thing is the first step in the direction of improvement. Accordingly, if a person is in any way dissatisfied with his experience of matter, to study matter may prove indeed quite useful a thing to progress out of the situation of this his dissatisfaction.

In the Buddhist system of thought, matter is divided into four primary elements. And consequently we start our exploration of the nature of matter with these four elements.

Four elements

Keeping an eye on the practical relevance of the exposition, the thing of primary importance regarding understanding the four elements, is to first understand their nature or characteristics, and secondly to learn how to balance them.

Commencing thus, anything material which is experienced as solid, as weight and/or as texture, we take to pertain to the earth element. Anything that is experienced as liquid, as clearness or as depth is grouped under the element of water. All forms of heat, radiation and light are taken as expressions of the fire element. While fluctuation or change, movement and anything which is subtle, is categorised under the wind or air element.

This is the first dissection of matter, which allows for a greater comprehension of what matter is.

When this can be done, various other forms of matter and phenomena belonging to the category of matter may become comprehensible. For example may forces such as magnetism, electricity, gravity, and others, equally be deduced through the comprehension of this basic form of classification and through a study of how these, arising in conjunction, will interact with one another to form all the variations of things pertaining to matter.

Accordingly we can consider a material force as electricity as a combination of the qualities of the fire and the air element. Magnetism, on the other hand may be said to arise due to the interaction of the qualities of water with those of fire. A force as cohesion or binding, comes about through the interaction of water with earth. Physical maturation arises through the interaction of the fire, the earth and the water element. The quality of expansion arises through the interaction of the element of fire with the air element, while the quality of pressure can be seen to come about through the interaction of the elements of air and earth.

But then, as has been said, not only is it important to learn to distinguish matter thus by means of the four elements, but as the experience of matter by itself very often is rather disagreeable an experience, a person will also have to learn how to balance these four elements out against one another. For that end he might try to recognise, that each element has a certain counter element to it. Thus, earth, being the most substantial of the elements, has as a counterpart the air element. An understanding which will suggest, that the best way to remove an excess in the earth element (i.e. too much heaviness), is through an increase in the air or wind element (i.e. increasing movement). A similar thing can be seen with the other pair. In that, an excess in fire (i.e. too much heat) for example, might best be balanced by an increase of the water element, etc.

And this then will be the first step in mastering matter.

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