What Is the World?

Ajahn Amaro

What Is the World?

When we consider the fragile and fleeting biosphere that we live in, these changes we are seeing and experiencing all around us can easily lead us to fear: What is going to happen? Will my home be destroyed by flood or fire? Will the droughts lead to food shortages? Will all the birds and fishes die? Will our children and grandchildren – and we humans – survive? And is there anything I can do in response to this crisis that will truly make a difference?

[One] way chosen to approach the topic is, essentially, by first asking the question, ‘What is the world?’ Then, secondly, ‘How can we best handle the world’s unstable and uncertain nature?’ This particular approach is not intended as definitive; rather it should be regarded as simply one way of considering the issues and finding out whether such contemplations lead us to a greater sense of understanding and well-being, or not.

When picking up the first of these two questions – ‘What is the world?’ – it seems natural first to look at the material realm which is both around us and which makes up our own bodies. What is this world made of? How is it formed?

From a Buddhist perspective, the most obvious way of relating to this material form is to explore what are known as the ‘Four Elements’ or ‘Great Elements’, or in the Pali language of the Southern Buddhist scriptures, the Mahā-dhātu or Mahā-bhūta. Just as it did in mediaeval Europe, the word ‘elements’ in Buddhist philosophy evokes images of earth, water, fire and air. Scientists of today would most likely scoff at the quaint and antiquated notion that there are only four elements. When we read or hear the word ‘elements’, we tend to think of carbon, oxygen, iron, mercury, etc. or perhaps an image of the Periodic Table comes to mind.”

In Western science the word refers to the unique forms that matter takes according to the number of protons in the nucleus of its atoms. In Buddhist philosophy, however, the word is being used differently. The ‘Four Elements’ refer rather to the essential properties of all matter, which can be summarized as:

Earth element (pathavī-dhātu): Solidity, hardness, the crystal structure and formed quality of any matter.

Water element (āpo-dhātu): Cohesion and fluidity, that which both holds things together and shapes the flow of their movement.

Fire element (tejo-dhātu): Temperature, the degree of heat possessed by all matter, even at absolute zero; also, in living things, ripening, the life force or jīvita.

Air or wind element (vāyo-dhātu): Vibration, the oscillatory quality of all matter, especially at its most fundamental level.

When we redefine the terms in this way, no modern student of chemistry or physics would deny that all matter is imbued with these four qualities in various ways, shapes and forms.

The Four Elements thus describe our world – the mountains, clouds, sands and streets that we stand on and which surround us and also these very bodies that we call our own. They are a particular set of lenses through which we can contemplate and come to understand the material world.

This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the book, For the Love of the World, (pdf) pp. 12, 13-14.