Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….

Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….

Early on my Buddhist path I came across the teaching of Anatta (Not-self).  I have to say that I didn’t (or couldn’t) understand the concept at all at first.  If there was one thing I was sure of it was “me”! 🙂  If the Buddha was teaching that I didn’t really exist then who or what was it that was learning this teaching? What was I made up of it it wasn’t a “self”. Well after searching for the answer I came across the teaching on the 5 Skhanda’s.  It seemed that what we thought of as ourselves was really a collection of mental aspects.  As it turns out the idea of an eternal soul or “self” that we so strongly feel is caused by us mistakenly identifying some number or all of these aggregates as our “self”.  They are also called “aggregates of attachment” because they are a means in which we have pleasurable experiences which cause desire and attachment.  The Buddha also taught that if you examine each of the Skhanda’s you will find that there isn’t an abiding or individual permanent self in them.


Five Skhanda’s – (heaps, aggregates)

  • Form (Rupa) – Refers to the particular patterns of mentality that arise when we come into contact with physical objects.


  • Feeling (Vedanna) – The responses of mind when coming into contact with life situations which generate characteristics described as being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.


  • Perception (Samjna) – The aspect of mind that perceives mental or sensory data, and recognizes or categorizes it into distinctive features.


  • Mental Volitions (Samskara) – Represents the trait of consciousness which creates and perpetuates various motivations and impulses of consciousness.


  • Consciousness (Vijnana) – The collective habit and patterning’s of those factors of consciousness that perceive and discriminate between the fivefold sense data and a purely mental sense.

These five patterns of mental activity make up the totality of the nature of our mind/body experience. Most are present, to a greater or lesser degree, within the others, they exist in a mutually interactive manner, and constitute that which we generally call our mind.

Nagaboshi Tomio, The Bodhisattva warriors


The teaching on the 5 Skhanda’s helped my understanding but for some reason left me still a bit confused.  Then one day I came across something on the elements.  In the Theravada teachings they taught about the four elements Earth, Water, Fire, and Air.  These elements were supposed to be what constituted the makeup of all the physical things we come into contact with. The Elements form the primary basis for our sense of form.  It is this very sense of form which is described by the “Form” Skhanda. Well that sounded nice.  All matter was made up of these different elements. The elements form the primary basis for our sense of form.  It is this very sense of form which is described by the Form Skhanda. It wasn’t unlike what I had been taught in science class.  The only problem was that these elements did not show up on any periodic table I had ever seen.  So what gives?  Hum……still confused!


A good while later I was fortunate to come across the teachings of a Japanese monk named Kukai.  Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi) was an incredibly talented and scholarly monk that went to China from Japan 804 to try to find the true Esoteric teachings of Buddhism.  He came back to Japan and founded the Shingon (True Word) school of Buddhism.  The Esoteric Buddhism that Kukai learned in China also spread to Tibet. It then developed independently in each country after that. There are many differences in terms of outward practice and trappings between Shingon and the Tibetan schools but much of the philosophy behind them is very similar.

Well as it turns out Buddhism recognizes two types or classes of elements, that which helps form the basis of mind (called Mano Dhatu, the basic mental element) and those existing outside of the mind within natural phenomena (called Maha Bhuta, Great Primary).  So we are made up of a combination of the Skhandas and the Elements or physical matter and Consciousness.  Kukai taught something called the Six Great Elements.  The Esoteric Buddhism that he learned in China primarily followed two very early Esoteric Tantras. One call the Dainichi-Kyo (The MahaVairocana Tantra) and the other called the Kongocho-kyo (The Vajrasekhara Tantra).  His teacher Hui-kuo had combined the principles of these two Tantras into one coherent teaching.  This is reflected in the teaching of the Six Great Elements.  These elements are not to be thought of as the elements in the periodic table.  They each represent all things characterized by them.


The Six Great elements are:


Earth – Characterized by solidity and hardness.

Water – Characterized by fluidity, liquid

Fire – Characterized by heat, activity, light

Air – Characterized by motion, gases.

Space – Characterized by the space between the elements, emptiness.

Mind – Consciousness

So all matter that is solid is of the Earth element.  All matter that is liquid is of the Water element and so on.  So as you can see all matter in the universe falls into one of these categories.  An important aspect in the Esoteric teachings is that the last one, Consciousness, exists on its own but is also contained in (or part of) all the others.  Both animate and inanimate matter have Consciousness as a component.  It is just inactive when it is in inanimate objects but it is the “life force” that animates living things!  Suddenly a bunch of light bulbs went off in my head!  It was like in the old days when all the photographers waited for a celebrity to come out and then all those bright flash bulbs start going off!


For me suddenly this just brought together so many of the basic Buddhist teachings that I had never really seen connected in this way.

Dependent Origination (Interdependence) – All of these Elements and Consciousness exist and have always existed.  They are all Interdependent.  When conditions are right all or some number of them come together and “we” are formed (Birth).

Impermanence – All things are under constant change.  So all these Elements that have come together are all constantly changing and can only stay together a period of time (Life).

Not-Self – “We” exist as a combination of these Elements for a period.  When the conditions are no longer right “we” return to all of our component parts (Death).  There never was a “self” as we think of it.  What we call our “self” was an illusion.  What constituted “us” was always here and always will be.  It just will never be in exactly the same form again.  The form that we called Bob, Paul, or Fred will never exist again.  But all that Bob, Paul, or Fred were made up of still exists, including their Consciousness.  So if the conditions are right we may get another Bob, Paul, or Fred but they won’t be exactly the same, but they won’t be totally different.  Kind of like that flame when you light the match, and then use it to light the candle, and then use the candle to light the incense, every time you worship at your Buddhist altar (and likely think nothing of it).  The flame in each case is not the same but it isn’t totally different either.  Each flame is interdependent on the other and has no abiding, permanent, individual “self” or existence.


Emptiness – We are Empty of an abiding, individual, permanent “self ” but at the very same time we are full (made up of) of everything else in the universe. We are not separate, the universe is “us” and “we” are the universe.


If we regard the mind as an unchanging feature (or possession) , rather like an object we may own, we will often fail to perceive that, unlike an object, the mind alters when we begin to observe it’s activities. It becomes very difficult, to say the least, to observe something that we are trying to observe!  There is a Japanese saying that “The sword which cuts, cannot slice itself”.

Nagaboshi Tomio, The Bodhisattva warriors


To be continued……..

2 thoughts on “Buddhism, Its Elemental my dear Watson….

  1. A lovely description of the Buddhist perspective. I hadn’t grasped it quite so clearly until now. I’m also fascinated about how we can feel whole and special by breaking ourselves down into nothing. Sounds strange but beautifully liberating. Thank you for your eloquence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I feel that one very important thing is that to break ourselves down like this can reduce our fear and anxiety. What do most people fear most? Death or the end of the self. Well if you can realize the truth of Anatta (Not-self) there is no self to end. If you understand that all that we are currently will never go away and has always been here it takes away the fear. It also helps when we lose a loved one to know that they are still right here with us. I hope that you will come back again! Thanks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s