The Four Elements
Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen on the Surangama Sutra on June 14, 1987
In this section of the Surangama Sutra, we learn about the four elements. In Chinese culture, there are two entirely different definitions of the four elements. Most Chinese people are acquainted with only one: drinking, women, money and wrath. You can easily pick these up from Chinese novels and plays, and they have nothing to do with the sutras. The four elements according to the Buddhist Sutras are earth, air, wind and fire.
In Chinese the elements are literally called the four “greats.” In the more popular definition, there is really no reason to consider the elements great, because they lead people to commit karma of a very serious nature. From this perspective, perhaps, it is correct to call the elements great, in that they are greatly hazardous. A monk should view the popular elements as empty, that is, without true, changeless substance; without true meaning. Why is this?
Drinking: When you’re drunk, you lose self-control. You can commit murder or other evils. That’s why monks are prohibited from drinking.
Sexual desire: This refers to “women” as they relate to monks, and “men” as they relate to nuns. What happens when the Sangha breaks the precepts? It creates scandals, which sometimes end up in the newspaper. A sex scandal lost Gary Hart the presidential election. His political career was ruined. He wasn’t a monk, but if he had been, it would have been worse.
Money: Monks and nuns are not supposed to accumulate wealth. If a monk bragged about how much money he had, or the amount of his credit line, he wouldn’t be much of a monk.
Wrath: Monks are supposed to be compassionate. A monk should be ready to accept and tolerate anything. He should maintain a kind demeanor, so that people feel comfortable around him. Of course there are various deities and Bodhisattvas that are sometimes depicted in wrathful poses. Monks, too, may appear angry in order to help sentient beings. Yet wrathful deities do not appear in monk form; they are different. If a monk does assume an angry appearance, you should not take his picture.
During the Buddha’s Birthday celebration recently, many people took pictures of me with their families and friends. In all these pictures, you can see me smiling. If I appeared angry, people would not approach me. On Ch’an retreats I may appear angry, but we don’t allow photographs.
It’s easier to explain why the elements, as viewed in the Buddhist tradition, are called “great.” Taken together, earth, fire, water and wind account for everything in the world, including the environment and our bodies.
To be complete, however, we have to include two additional elements. The fifth is emptiness. The Chinese character for emptiness also means empty space, and both these meanings are indicated in the fifth element. Emptiness is meant because the first four elements are empty of any real existence. Empty space is signified because the first four elements must have a locus in which to intermix and form the world we see around us. The sixth element is consciousness, which is the only element which encompasses the mental realm.
We categorize these elements into the internal, referring to our bodies, and the external, referring to the outside world.
Let’s talk about the body first. What element do you think makes up our hair, our teeth, our muscles and bones, and our nervous system? Earth. The liquid element is blood, urine, and saliva. Even body fat can be of the water element.
A dead body grows cold even in Summer. This means that the living body contains an element of fire, which keeps it warm even in cold weather. We can’t identify any part of the body with the element of heat, but we know it exists.
Breath is associated with wind. There is a story in the sutras which recounts how the Buddha once asked his disciples, “How long do you think life lasts?” Someone responded, “The average person lives fifty years.” Some people answered twenty years. Then one disciple said, “Yesterday I saw a man very much alive, but today he is dead. So life lasts but one day.” At last one disciple said, “Life can end at any moment. Life lasts as long as the span of one breath; without the following breath, you are dead.” Finally, the Buddha nodded.
Without the element of wind, there can be no life. A recent study said the average person would die within three minutes if he stops breathing. One Tai Chi teacher demonstrated that he could hold his breath for up to six minutes. Such ability is rare. Few of us could sustain more than four minutes.
Once one of my disciples was using the counting breath method of practice. He said, “It would be so much easier for me if I could simply give up breathing; then I wouldn’t have to count anymore.” I responded, “I can’t help you with that.”
The heart pumps blood through the body but how does it do this? In China we ascribe this to ch’i, literally “wind.” Usually people who practice meditation find that their ch’i improves.
The external four elements: Everything around us can be divided into these four categories. Gold, diamonds, sapphires, rubies and other precious gems are of the earth element. Of course rocks, bricks, grass roots, tree bark, dried wheat, soy beans are also of the earth element. In Buddhist classification, all these things, both precious and common, are no different from one another.
Once I spoke about supernormal powers: Some people can point to a rock and turn it into gold. People in the audience asked me if I would tell them more.
I said, “It really depends upon the person. There are varying degrees of accomplishment. There are some who can touch a stone and turn it to gold only momentarily. The stone turns to gold, but immediately reverts to its original state. Others can turn a stone to gold for a day, a month, or a year. Deities and Arhats can turn a stone to gold for 100 years or more. A Buddha turns a stone to gold for good.
Particular mantras develop the ability to change stones into gold temporarily. This might make you famous and people would think your attainments were greater than they really are, but you would be an impostor. In ancient China there was said to be a gang of people that gained mastery in this art. They cheated many people.
This is nothing more than changing one earth element into another. The element hasn’t changed, even though it may look different. A stone is still a stone, even though someone has used his mind to make it appear as gold. An even greater accomplishment is to make something out of nothing, or to make something that is cease to exist.
Once there were two people traveling on foot. One had developed transformative powers and the other bad not They came upon a deep and wide river which blocked the road. There were no boats or bridges around and they wished to cross the river. So the one with supernormal powers picked up a leaf, blew onto it, and said, “This will be our boat.” His companion looked and suddenly he saw a boat in place of the leaf. So they set off. Now, the man with the supernormal power felt tired, so he lay down and let his friend guide the boat. As soon as he started dozing, the boat reverted back to a small leaf. The other man began yelling to his sleeping friend, who immediately woke up, refocussed his mind, and changed the floating leaf back into a boat. Supernormal powers do not change the basic nature of things.
The element of water: Anything with the property of wetness — water vapor, rain, rivers, the ocean. People and animals need water to survive. Water helps plants grow. With sunlight, trees create oxygen which further sustains life. However, too much of any elements is fatal. Great floods and forest fires are of course very destructive.
Earth, water and fire are visible, material things. Is wind also material? In a vacuum, or in outer space, there is no wind. Wind is the flowing of gaseous matter and therefore it is material.
Someone once proposed this odd idea to me: Hurricanes are a manifestation of the anger that fish feel when they are caught. Their souls have no chance to be delivered, so they travel around the sea angrily causing gales and hurricanes in order to avenge themselves. If Buddhist monks say prayers and recite mantras, there would be fewer hurricanes.
What do you think? Does this theory make sense?
Someone in the audience: Not to me. There are some oceans where considerably more hurricanes occur than others. The Pacific Ocean is stormier than the Indian Ocean.
Shih-fu: Apparently, there’s less fishing in the Indian Ocean. Or it may be that there’s just as much fishing in the Indian Ocean, but the Indians work hard to delivered all the fish souls.
Actually, this may not be the worlds’ most convincing theory. Buddhadharma, however, addresses this question in two ways. First, natural disasters like typhoons, floods, and great fires are the consequence of the collective bad karma of sentient beings.
Second, the fifth element, emptiness, is important in understanding the nature of such catastrophes. If we attach to a sense of self, we perform actions motivated by vexation, and we experience the karmic retribution of those actions. On the other hand, if we are free of attachment to self, there’s no karmic retribution because there is no self which can experience that retribution. There’s no fear of disaster, no fear of death. All that remains is the four elements, and what harm can come from the interaction of the four elements, one with the other?
If the four elements seem real to you, you will experience the consequences of your previous actions and vexations will follow you day after day wherever you go. On the other hand, as soon as you perceive the four elements as empty, you are free of all vexation. That is liberation.