Ledi Sayadaw

Alin-Kyan: The Manual of Light

Alin-Kyan: The Manual of Light

This treatise begins by pairing the five great forms of ignorance with the five types of light needed to destroy them.

Take ignorance of the Dhamma. This form of ignorance is responsible for the following three distortions: distorted perception, distorted consciousness and distorted view.

Even though everything in an ordinary human life seems to be in order these distortions occur.

This ignorance cannot be corrected by reading a book. You yourself will have to actively start working on your mental world, putting forth your best energy, to slowly take the necessary steps towards liberating insight.

A big but beautiful task.

Another important part of the treatise concerns the four elements: earth (hardness or softness), fire (heat or coldness), water (cohesiveness or liquidity) and air (support, tension or motion).

It is made clear to us in a penetrating way that objects must be viewed in a different light then our ordinary everyday perception of suggests.

Every physical object always consists of these four elements, and these elements cannot exist without each other.

But, even though a large mountain would immediately disappear completely without the earth element, there is no substance in the earth-element itself, not even a millionth part of an atom. It’s an aspect of reality without consisting of what we call “matter”. This is often misunderstood.

All in all this treaties is meant for the real enthusiast.

There is a lot of beauty to be found here for the reader looking close enough, so we invite and encourage you to patiently work through it.

And then maybe again after every few years of meditation.

– The Editors of buddho.org

Table of Contents

  1. Editor’s Foreword to Alin-Kyan
  2. Alin-Kyan: The Manual of Light
  3. Five Kinds of Start Ignorance and Five Kinds of Light
    1. The Five Kinds of Stark Ignorance
    2. The Five Kinds of Light
    3. Stark Ignorance of Kamma
    4. The First Light: Knowledge of Kamma Ownership
    5. Detailed Exposition on the Knowledge of Kamma Ownership
    6. Stark Ignorance of the Dhamma
    7. The Second Light: Knowledge in Comprehending the Dhamma
    8. The Stark Ignorance of Causality
    9. The Third Light: Knowledge in Comprehending the Law of Causality
    10. Three Kinds of Grave Wrong Views
    11. Why the Wring View of No-Cause is Partially Right
    12. The Future Stream-Enterer
    13. Stark Ignorance of the Three Characteristics of Existence
    14. The Fourth Light: Knowledge in Realizing the Three Characteristics of Existence
    15. Stark Ignorance of Nibbāna
    16. The Fifth Light: Knowledge in Realizing Nibbāna
  4. The Four Lights of the Buddha’s Teaching
    1. The Six Elements and Ultimate Truth
    2. The Four Great Elements
    3. Analysis of the Earth Element
    4. Analysis of the Water Element
    5. Analysis of the Fire Element
    6. Analysis of the Wind Element
    7. The Interdependent Nature of the Four Great Elements
    8. Analysis of the Space Element
    9. Analysis of the Element of Consciousness
    10. A Brief Exposition of the First Light of the Buddha’s Teaching
  5. Detailed Exposition of the Knowledge in Comprehending the Law of Causality
    1. The Four Causes for the Arising of Materiality
    2. The Element of Consciousness
    3. How Consciousness Arises
    4. Further Explenation and Examples
  6. A Detailed Explanation of the Knowledge in Realizing the Three Characteristics
    1. The Three Characteristics
    2. Examining the Fire Element
    3. The Origination and Character of the Four Great Elements in Combination
    4. Practical Method to Comprehend the Three Characteristics in the Four Great Elements
    5. The Three Characteristics in the Six Kinds of Consciousness
    6. Mind-Consciousness
    7. On Eye-Consciousness
    8. On Mind-Consciousness
    9. The Purpose of Insight
  7. Notes

Editor’s Foreword to Alin-Kyan

In the Manuals of Buddhism (first published in 1965), there is reference to a translation, by the editors of the Light of the Dhamma, of the first 2 Chapters of Alin-kyan, the Manual of the Five Kinds of Light. It has always been thought essential and long overdue that this work of Ledi Sayādaw should be readily available in a complete translation. Fortunately, a well-known translator, U Tin U (Myaung), skilfully produced an entirely new and readable translation in 1983. Due to a series of unfortunate difficulties and delays, it is only now that its publication has become possible.

With prior approval, the translation was submitted to the wellknown Burmese scholar-monk Venerable Sayādaw U Ñāṇika Aggamahāpaṇḍita, who suggested several valuable improvements on the rendering of some technical Abhidhamma terms, as well as of a few Burmese words, most of which have now been incorporated in this first complete translation into English.

I do not think it would be out-of-place to repeat here what has already been said about the author in the Editor’s Foreword to the English translation of the Maggaṅga Dīpanī, The Manual of the Constituents of the Noble Path:

“Venerable Ledi Araññavihāravāsī Mahā Thera of Monywa, better known as the Venerable Ledi Sayādaw, Aggamahāpaṇḍita, D. Litt., is described, in the short biography reproduced at the end of this work, as “perhaps the outstanding Buddhist figure of this age.”

Of this there can be little doubt, and it is the reason why every attempt should be made to make known to Western readers, and in particular English-speaking readers, as many as possible of the numerous works originally written by him either in Pāli or Burmese, which are clear and precise expositions of Buddhism, suited to people of differing abilities and understanding, and invaluable aids for the study and practice of the Dhamma in all its aspects.

Of the works already translated into English, every credit must be given to the Pali Text Society, England, for publishing, as early as 1913–14, in their Journal of Pali Text Society for those years, a translation of selected passages of Yamaka Pucchā Vissajjanā, “Some Points in Buddhist Doctrine” and in their Journal for 1915–16, a translation, by U Shwe Zan Aung, B.A., of Paṭṭhānuddesa Dīpanī, “Philosophy of Relations.”

It is to Burma, however, that so much is owed for the translation into English and publication of the works of this Sayādaw in The Light of the Dhamma, the journal printed by the Union Buddha Sāsana Council Press. From its inception in 1952 until it ceased publication in 1963, The Light of the Dhamma published in serial form seven major works, translated by various hands. These Dīpanīs were combined into one volume, The Manuals of Buddhism, which was published by the Department of Religious Affairs, Rangoon.

Although the short biography included in this volume lists more than seventy works written by the Venerable Sayādaw, the final figure may well be found to be in excess of a hundred as further research continues and an attempt is made to compile a comprehensive list, including smaller articles not yet recorded, many relevant letters, etc. In addition, two biographies have been written in Burmese, but have not yet been translated into English.

A large number of Ledi Sayādaw’s works are kept in the British Library in London. Every effort must be made to make as many as possible of the Sayādaw’s other works, in Pāli, in Burmese, or in translation, accessible to the West by adding them, by way of presentation, to the large number of his works already held by the British Library in London, where they would continue to be available to bhikkhus, scholars, students and the like.

In undertaking the printing of the Alin-kyan, however, a small effort is being made to make this fundamental exposition of the Buddha’s Teaching available to interested students and readers in both the East and the West with the earnest wish that others will be encouraged thereby to help make the works of the Venerable Ledi Sayādaw known to a wider audience.

Venerable Ledi Sayādaw wrote the Alin-kyan in Burmese, but he included many Pāli words. The retention of the Pāli in translations has always been considered essential, for, in case any doubt should arise as to the suitability of the word or words used by the translator, one can refer to the Pali to find the exact meaning.

In addition to the invaluable aid it provides for students and other interested readers as a means of reference for purposes of study, the inclusion of Pāli may also be said to add to the translation the savour of the language of the Buddha himself, as found in the Pāli Canon, together with the voice of elucidation of its commentators.

– S. S. Davidson, Southsea, 2001

Alin-Kyan: The Manual of Light

Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa

Veneration to the Exalted One, the Homage-worthy, the Perfectly Self-Enlightened One.

Five Kinds of Start Ignorance and Five Kinds of Light

The Five Kinds of Stark Ignorance

  1. Stark ignorance of kamma (kamma-sammoha)
  2. Stark ignorance of the Dhamma (dhamma-sammoha)
  3. Stark ignorance of causality (paccaya-sammoha)
  4. Stark ignorance of the three characteristics of existence (lakkhaṇa-sammoha)
  5. Stark ignorance of Nibbāna (nibbāna-sammoha)

The Five Kinds of Light

  1. Knowledge in seeing that all beings have only kamma astheir own property (kammassakatā-ñaṇa)
  2. Knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma (dhammavavatthāna-ñāṇa)
  3. Knowledge in comprehending the law of causality (paccaya-vavatthāna-ñāṇa)
  4. Knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence (lakkhaṇa-paṭivedha- ñāṇa)
  5. Knowledge in realizing Nibbāna, (nibbāna-paṭivedha-ñāṇa)

Stark Ignorance of Kamma

Of these, ignorance of kamma (kamma-sammoha) means:

  1. Not understanding kamma
  2. Not understanding the result of kamma

(1) Not understanding kamma means:

  • Not understanding the fact that all beings have only kamma as their own property; that they must inherit their own kamma; that kamma alone is their origin; that kamma alone is their real relative; and that kamma alone is their real refuge
  • Not understanding which of their actions—bodily, verbal, or mental—are unwholesome i.e., kammically unprofitable (akusala)
  • Not understanding the fact that unwholesome actions bring unwholesome results in their future births, and will cast them down into the four lower worlds of unfortunate existences (apāya).
  • Not understanding which of their actions—bodily, verbal, or mental—are wholesome, i.e., kammically profitable (kusala)
  • Not understanding the fact that wholesome actions bring wholesome results in their future births, and will send them to fortunate existences in the human world or in the world of devas

(2) Not understanding the result of kamma means:

  • Not understanding the fact that the lives of beings do not end at their biological death, but that they will arise in another existence where their kamma casts them, sends them, drags them, assigns them, or places them
  • Not understanding the fact that there exist an infinite number of sentient beings—though not visible to the naked eye— those in the tortuous worlds of hells (niraya), hungry spirits (peta), fallen spirits (asurakāyas), and animals
  • Not understanding the fact that, if they commit unwholesome acts, they are liable to be born in the four lower worlds (apāya) after their death
  • Not understanding the fact that there exist infinite numbers and types of human beings, visible to the ordinary human eye, as well as an infinite number of spirits and devas, good or bad, inhabiting the six deva-lokas (deva-worlds) and, higher up, the brahmā-lokas (brahma-worlds) of the fine material realms (rūpī-brahmā) and non-material realms (arūpa-brahmā)
  • Not understanding the fact that through acquisition of merit by generosity (dāna), virtue or morality (sīla), and developing concentration (bhāvanā), beings are bound to be born in the fortunate planes of the human world and the celestial realms of devas and brahmās
  • Not understanding the existence of the round of births (saṃsāra), which is beginningless and endless
  • Not understanding the fact that all beings are subject to good or bad future births according to their own acts, whether good or bad, and that beings are born from existence to existence, incessantly, according to their own kamma

Failure to understand all these things is called stark ignorance of kamma (kamma-sammoha).

 Here ends the brief exposition of the first stark ignorance.

The First Light: Knowledge of Kamma Ownership

“Knowledge of kamma ownership” or “knowledge in seeing that all beings have kamma as their own property,”(kammassakatāñāṇa),1 means:

  • Understanding kamma
  • Understanding the result of kamma.

Understanding kamma and its result, means:

  • Understanding the fact that all beings have only kamma astheir own property; that they must inherit their own kamma; that kamma alone is their real relative; and that kamma alone is their real refuge
  • Understanding which of their actions—bodily, verbal, or mental—are unwholesome i.e., kammically unprofitable and will bring unwholesome results in their future births, casting them down into the four lower worlds
  • Understanding which of their actions are wholesome, i.e.,kammically profitable and will bring wholesome results in their future births, sending them to fortunate existences in the human world and in the world of devas.

Understanding all these things is called knowledge of kamma ownership.

Here ends the brief exposition on the knowledge of kamma ownership.

Detailed Exposition on the Knowledge of Kamma Ownership

Dreadful indeed is stark ignorance of kamma. All sorts of wrong views (micchā-diṭṭhi) stem from it. Knowledge of kamma ownership on the other hand, is the refuge for wayfarers in sasra, the beginningless round of births. It is only under the guidance of this light that beings perform such meritorious deeds, such as giving, observance of morality, and the practice of mental concentration, and attain successful existences as men, devas, or brahms. It is this light that enables one to practice wholesome deeds to the perfection (pāramī-kusala) that is the pre-requisite for enlightenment, such as the Perfect Self-Enlightenment of a Buddha, the solitary self-enlightenment of a Paccekabuddha, or the arahatship of a Noble Disciple (sāvaka-bodhi).

The light of the knowledge of kamma ownership exists in those men and devas in the innumerable universes or world systems who have right view (sammā-diṭṭhi). In our universe, too, even during an empty world cycle when the world is without the benefit of any Buddha, this light exists. By right view (sammā-diṭṭhi), of course, we mean this light of the knowledge of kamma ownership.

At the present time, this light prevails among the Buddhists and Hindus in the world. Among people of other creeds and among animals, this light does not exist. Few among the inhabitants of the tortuous realm of niraya, the realm of the fallen spirits (asūrakāya), and the realm of the hungry spirits (peta) have the benefit of this light. Those beings who do not possess such light dwell in the darkness of kamma-sammoha. As they are enveloped in stark ignorance, the path leading to successful existences in the round of births is lost to them. Being incapable of lifting themselves up to the fortunate planes of human, deva, or brahm existences, they are destined to go down to the lower worlds, whose portals are ever wide open. For these beings, thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of existences may pass without their ever getting the slightest benefit of this beneficent light.

Only in the case of a confirmed Buddha-to-be (bodhisatta) who has obtained the word of assurance from a living Buddha about his future Buddhahood, has the shroud of ignorance been lifted, so that, even when born an animal, he is still endowed with this light. This light belongs to the holders of right view, even during the world-cycles (kappa) devoid of any Buddha and in those universes that lack the benefit of a Buddha’s arising. Buddhas do not arise in the world only to expound this light, but to expound the light of knowledge that penetrates the Four Noble Truths (catusaccapaṭivedha-ñāṇa). Therefore, the light of knowledge of kamma ownership cannot be called a light of the Buddha’s Teaching—in spite of its mention in many Buddhist scriptures. It is merely a worldly light, a light that does not shed its rays beyond saṃsāra.

People who have the benefit of the Buddha’s Teaching, therefore, if they are wise enough, will not remain satisfied merely with the light of knowledge of kamma ownership, but will rouse themselves to acquire the true light of the Buddha’s Teaching. This is indeed is the wise course.

Here ends the exposition of the first pair—stark ignorance of kamma and the first light.

Stark Ignorance of the Dhamma

Ignorance of the Dhamma (dhamma-sammoha) means:

  1. Not understanding the Dhamma as the Dhamma
  2. Not understanding the ultimate truth about existence in what is generally taken as person (puggala), being (satta), self or soul (attā), or life (jīva), which is, in truth and reality, the mere compounded existence of materiality and mentality or mind and matter (nāma-rūpa) comprising the five aggregates

The Three perversions

Out of this stark ignorance of the Dhamma, there spring the three perversions (vipallāsa), namely, (a) perverted perception (saññāvipallāsa), (b) perverted consciousness (citta-vipallāsa), and (c) perverted view (diṭṭhi-vipallāsa).

  • Perverted perception means having wrong perception about things, for example, mere phenomena (dhammā) are not perceived as mere phenomena, but as a person, a being, a self (soul), a life, a woman, or a man, etc.
  • Perverted consciousness means the inability to think of phenomena as mere phenomena, but thinking of them in terms of a person, a being, a self (soul), a life, a woman, or a man, etc.
  • Perverted view means taking a wrong, perverted view of things, for example, not seeing mere phenomena as mere phenomena, but taking them for granted, through convention, as a person, a being, a self (or soul), a life, a woman, or a man, etc.

These are the three errors arising from stark ignorance of the Dhamma, and out of these three errors, there grow ten kinds of misdeeds, such as killing living beings. Wrong views and all sorts of consequent evil grow as well.

The Second Light: Knowledge in Comprehending the Dhamma

Knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma2 (dhamma-vavatthānañāṇa) means:

  1. Clear understanding that in the entire world no such thing asa person, a being, a self (soul), or a life, a woman, or a man really exists, but only mere phenomena (dhammā), mind and-matter, or mentality-materiality (namā-rūpa)
  2. Perceiving the distinction between physical phenomena (rūpa) and mental phenomena (nāma)
  3. Perceiving the distinction between one physical phenomenon and another physical phenomenon
  4. Perceiving the distinction between one mental phenomenon and another mental phenomenon

It means, in brief, the whole thing amounts to right view (sammā-diṭṭhi), which also goes by the name of purification of view (diṭṭhi-visuddhi).

Dreadful indeed is the stark ignorance of the Dhamma. It is only with the golden opportunity of coming under the Buddha’s Teaching that we can gain the clear understanding that mentality-materiality, a composite of the five aggregates of existence, are, in ultimate truth, mere phenomena (suddhadhammā). Without the benefit of the Buddha’s Teaching, beings may pass from one existence to another a hundred times, a thousand times, tens of thousands of times, or an infinite number of times (asaṅkheyya), and yet no such knowledge can dawn on them. Yet, this is the light that only the Buddha’s Teaching can provide.

Even at present, when the golden opportunity of the Buddha’s Teaching is available, there are multitudes who, not realizing phenomena as mere phenomena, not understanding materiality as mere materiality, and not understanding mentality as mere mentality, are shrouded by this dreadful stark ignorance of the Dhamma. They remain helpless in stark darkness. Lacking this light, their existence is marked by a proliferation of the three perversions, the ten kinds of misdeeds, all kinds of wrong views, and consequent evils. Release from the rigorous round of births is not in sight for them. Indeed, they are heading straight for the whirlpool of saṃsāra to drift, sink, and drown. Therefore, it is appropriate for the wise and wary to strive to understand the phenomena of mentality-materiality, and to gain analytical insight.

Here ends the exposition of the second pair—stark ignorance of the Dhamma and the second light.

The Stark Ignorance of Causality

Ignorance of causality (paccaya-sammoha)means:

  1. Not understanding the origin of mentality-materiality
  2. Not understanding the twelve constituents (aṅga) that make up the law of dependent origination (paṭicca-samuppāda) as declared by the Buddha: “With ignorance (avijjā) as condition, there arise volitional activities (saṅkhārā); with volitional activities as condition, there arises consciousness (viññāṇa); with consciousness as condition, there arises mentality-materiality (nāma-rūpa), … the six sense-bases (sa āyatana); … contact (phassa); … feeling (vedanā); … craving (taṇhā); … clinging (upādāna); … the process of becoming (bhava); birth (jāti); … ageing and death (jarāmaraṇa), sorrow (soka), lamentation (parideva), suffering or pain (dukkha), grief (domanassa), and despair (upāyāsa). Thus, there arises this “whole mass of suffering” (dukkhakkhandha).”

When one is ignorant of this law of causality, one firmly holds the “wrong view that there is a doer” (kāraka-diṭṭhi), insisting that, if there is an action, there is a doer, so that mentality-materiality cannot be seen as distinct phenomena (dhammā), but as some person or being.

The Third Light: Knowledge in Comprehending the Law of Causality

Knowledge in comprehending the law of causality (paccayavavatthāna-ñāṇa) means:

  1. Understanding the origin of mentality-materiality
  2. Understanding the twelve constituents (aṅgā) that make up the law of dependent origination as declared by the Buddha thus: “With ignorance as condition, there arise volitional activities; … Thus there arises this `whole mass of suffering.’”

Three Kinds of Grave Wrong Views

Out of stark ignorance of causality, three kinds of grave wrong views arise, namely, (1) the wrong view of no-cause (ahetukadiṭṭhi); (2) the wrong view that the world is created by an eternal God (visamahetu-diṭṭhi); (3) the wrong view that the world is a product of past deeds (pubbekata-hetu-diṭṭhi).

  1. The wrong view of no-cause holds that all phenomena in the world, both mental and physical, arise through no cause, exist through no cause, and happen by mere chance.
  2. The wrong view that the world is created by an eternal God believes in a cause, but assigns the cause to an omnipotent creator, an eternal God, or providence. All beings, all physical and mental phenomena, all things, all activities, and all happenings are in accordance with this God. This is, in fact, baseless, untenable, uneven, and unjust.
  3. The wrong view that the world is a product of past deeds believes in reasoned cause and, while rejecting the theory of a creator, accepts the view that the world (i.e., all mentality-materiality) arises and is conditioned by wholesome and unwholesome actions done by beings in their past existences. This view takes into account only past kamma, in total disregard of present volitional activities.

Of these three wrong views, the first and second are gross views. The third, being partially correct, is relatively less erroneous.

Why the Wring View of No-Cause is Partially Right

Mentality-materiality is conditioned by:

  • Past kamma
  • Present consciousness (citta)
  • Temperature prevailing at present (utu)
  • Nutriment in the present life (āhāra)

That being so, this view is correct in so far as it relates to mentality-materiality which arises on account of past kamma; but, as regards all other mentality-materiality caused by consciousness, temperature, or nutriment, it is wrong.

If we apply the law of dependent origination, this view holds good for those factors which are conditioned by past kamma, but it is wrong in respect of those which are themselves the present causes, i.e., the conditions for rebirth-linking in the future, namely, ignorance, volitional activities, craving, clinging, and the process of becoming.

If we consider it in the light of the Paṭṭhāna’s doctrine of the twenty-four relations, this view recognizes only the relationship of past kamma to its effects (nānākkhaṇika-kamma-paccaya) and rejects the twenty-three other relations, as well as the relation of co-nascent or co-existent kamma (sahajāta-kamma-paccaya). Thus, this view, while being partially right, is substantially wrong.

These three kinds of wrong view, together with all sorts of other wrong views and skeptical doubt (vicikicchā), spring from the stark ignorance of causality.

The Future Stream-Enterer

Understanding dependent origination or the law of causality enables one to discard the three wrong views of no-cause, a creator God, and past kamma alone. In fact, according to the commentaries, this knowledge equips one to be a future stream-enterer (cūla-sotāpanna),3 a virtuous one, ever freed from the ignoble destinies of the four lower worlds. Hence this is a goal well worth striving for.

Here ends the exposition of the third pair—stark ignorance of causality and the third light.

Stark Ignorance of the Three Characteristics of Existence

Ignorance of the (three) characteristics of existence (lakkhaṇasammoha)means the inability to understand the truth of the interrelatedness of the phenomena of mentality-materiality.

  1. That they have the characteristic of impermanence (anicca), being in a rapid state of flux
  2. That they have the characteristic of suffering or pain (dukkha), very much to be dreaded
  3. That they have the characteristic of non-self (anattā) in the sense that they are mere conditioned phenomena lacking substance, essence, or life, that can, in truth and reality, be called a person or a being

The Fourth Light: Knowledge in Realizing the Three Characteristics of Existence

Knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence (lakkhaṇa-paṭivedha-ñāṇa) means realizing through insight the truth of the interrelatedness of the phenomena of mentality-materiality:

  1. That they have the characteristic of impermanence (anicca), being in a rapid state of flux
  2. That they have the characteristic of suffering or pain (dukkha), very much to be dreaded
  3. That they have the characteristic of non-self (anattā) in the sense that they are mere conditioned phenomena lacking substance, essence, or life, that can, in truth and reality, be called a person or a being

It is this realization, this light, that enables the Buddha, the Paccekabuddhas, and the Arahats to gain release from the darkness of defilements (kilesa), the dungeon of fettered existence (bhava), and the stout bonds of craving (taṇhā) that bind all worldlings, keeping them hopelessly entangled, thereby exposing them forever to the perils and sufferings of saṃsāra.

Failing to realize the three characteristics, both bhikkhus and laypeople alike, fumble in the darkness of their own defilements, in their dungeon of fettered existence. Bound by stout bonds of craving, they get entangled and are forever exposed to the perils and sufferings of saṃsāra. Only when they attain the light of this knowledge do they dispel the darkness of stark ignorance of the three characteristics. Then, and then only, can they gain release from the bondage of their own craving and attain Nibbāna.

Here ends the exposition of the fourth pair—stark ignorance of the three characteristics and the fourth light.

Stark Ignorance of Nibbāna

Ignorance of Nibbāna, nbbāna-sammoha, may be briefly explained as follows:

As wayfarers in the woeful round of existences, most beings are ignorant of their true plight. They fail to understand the right practice by which they can bring about a complete cessation of all suffering (dukkha) through the cutting off of all fetters and entanglements of their own craving. They do not know that there is such a practice under the Buddha’s Teaching that can save them from the darkness of defilements and, having stilled their burning desires, land them in the absolute peace (santi) which is Nibbāna.

The Fifth Light: Knowledge in Realizing Nibbāna

The five kinds of stark ignorance give way stage by stage to the five kinds of light. Once the fifth light is attained, the whole darkness of the five kinds of stark ignorance is completely dispelled. The total extinction of this whole mass of ignorance, with no possibility of its ever arising again, is the final goal of absolute peace, Nibbāna.

Furthermore, with the total extinction of the five kinds of stark ignorance, there also go to extinction the ten kinds of misdeeds, all forms of evil, all wrong views, and all misguided actions, thereby forever freeing them from the ignoble destinies of the four lower worlds.

Knowledge in realizing Nibbāna, nibbāna-paṭivedha-ñāṇa, is the full knowledge that such a worthy goal of peace or tranquility exists and the realization of this peace through one’s own experience. This fifth light is, in short, the four stages of enlightenment and the knowledge of the noble path.

Here ends the brief exposition of the five kinds of stark ignorance and the five kinds of light.

The Four Lights of the Buddha’s Teaching

Of the five kinds of light, the first—knowledge in seeing that all beings have only kamma as their own property—is not actually a light of the Buddha’s Teaching. It is merely a light available in saṃsāra, or a light available in the world, a worldly light.

Only the remaining four are truly the light of the Buddha’s Teaching:

  1. Knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma (dhammavavatthāna-ñāṇa)—the second light
  2. Knowledge in comprehending the law of causality (paccaya-pariggaha or paccaya-paṭivedha-ñāṇa)—the third light
  3. Knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence (lakkhaṇa-paṭivedha-ñāṇa)—the fourth light
  4. Knowledge in realizing Nibbāna(nibbāna-paṭivedhañāṇa)—the fifth light

Therefore, in this second chapter, I shall not discuss the first light, but shall dwell on the four true lights of the Buddha’s teaching in a fairly comprehensive manner.

The Six Elements and Ultimate Truth

To establish oneself in the Dhamma or to attain the light of knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma, it may properly be asked: “What is the absolute minimum must one understand about mentality-materiality in order to attain this second light?” The answer is: understanding the six elements (dhātu), namely:

  1. The element of extension (paṭhavī-dhātu)
  2. The element of cohesion (āpo-dhātu)
  3. The element of heat (tejo-dhātu)
  4. The element of motion (vāyo-dhātu)
  5. The element of space (ākāsa-dhātu)
  6. The element of consciousness (viññāṇa-dhātu)

In worldly usage we speak of a person or being or a life but these are mere conceptual terms. In the ultimate sense, however, according to the Abhidhamma, there is no personal entity in what is generally called a person or a being—no soul, no self, nor a life anywhere. What really exists are the six elements mentioned above.

Let us take one example. We have around us a variety of structures built of timber or bamboo, such as a house, a monastery, a temple, a rest-house. When we speak of a certain structure as a “house,” we are not referring to the timber or the bamboo of which it is built. Rather we are referring to a certain type of structure generally recognized as a house, which is only a secondary name of the timber or bamboo in it. When these materials—timber or bamboo—were in the form of standing trees, they were not called a house. Only when they have assumed the shape of a house do they acquire the secondary name of “house.” Now, this name is a mere coinage, something that has suddenly appeared, like a bolt from the blue. It is actually foreign to the real material from which it is built. In the ultimate sense, therefore, we see that there is no such thing as “house,” but only timber or bamboo.

The word “house,” therefore, refers only to a certain type of structure, after it has taken on a certain shape or appearance; in the last analysis, it does not exist. The same materials—timber or bamboo, as the case may be—that went into the construction of the house may, after the house has been pulled down, be reused for a monastery. They then assume the form of a monastery, and are, accordingly, called a monastery. The shape and form of a house is no longer there, so we do not call it a house anymore. Again, let us say, those same materials, after the monastery has been pulled down, are reused for a temple or a turreted tower (pyathat) in front of a pagoda. Then they assume the new shape known as a temple or a turreted tower, and are, therefore, called a “temple,” or a “tower,” and not a “monastery.” Further, let us say that these materials are reused in the construction of a rest-house. The name “temple” disappears and the new name of “rest-house” is used for the same materials. Further still, if that rest-house is converted into a monastery, the name “rest-house” disappears and a new name of “monastery” comes into use. When forms are destroyed, names disappear. Only when forms appear, do names also come into common usage.

The materials—timber or bamboo—that have gone into the construction of the various structures have remained just timber or bamboo. They were timber or bamboo as standing trees. When they assumed the various shapes of “house,” “monastery,” “temple,” “rest-house,” they were still timber or bamboo. When the rest-house is pulled down, and its component parts piled on the ground, the materials are still timber or bamboo. Originally, there was no such thing as a house, a monastery, a temple, a rest-house. Only when the basic materials are assembled into such shapes do those terms become valid. The basic materials, timber or bamboo, remain throughout timber or bamboo, as they were originally. Thus, in the ultimate sense, according to the Abhidhamma, there is no such thing as “house,” “monastery,” “temple,” “rest-house”; in truth and reality, only timber or bamboo exists.

Nevertheless, when we say the house exists, we are not telling a falsehood, for in the conventional sense, the statement is true, and it does not mislead anyone. In the ultimate sense of the Abhidhamma, however, it is wrong to say the house exists, because what we call a house is merely a certain structural form built by the architect, conventionally accepted as a house. If someone asks, “What actually is the thing called “house’?” and someone else points to the building and says, “This is a house,” in conventional usage, this is correct. But in the Abhidhamma sense, it is incorrect.

Why is that? Let us ask, “What is the finger actually pointing at?” The house or the timber or bamboo? Since what is called a house is in fact a mere structural form, what is actually being indicated is only the timber or bamboo, the real things, the things that existed originally. To call these materials a house is merely a misconception, a case of mistaken identity. If the name “house” was the true name that is intrinsically applicable to timber or bamboo, the name must have been used when timber or bamboo was standing as trees. And also, whatever form of structure (monastery, temple, etc.) these materials may have assumed, the name “house” should be the valid term of reference for them. But this is not the case. A house is a house only when certain materials are put into a certain conventional form called a “house.” Similarly, the names “monastery,” “temple,” etc., also are valid only when the basic materials have the shapes of what are conventionally recognized as monastery, temple, etc. This is how conventional truth differs from the ultimate truth of the Abhidhamma. This difference should be well understood.

Of these two kinds of truth, conventional truth is used in the mundane sphere, and is valid only in its own sphere. The ultimate truth of the Abhidhamma, on the other hand, is useful to get one beyond the mundane sphere to the supramundane sphere of Nibbāna. Using timber or bamboo, we make all sorts of objects, for example, a couch, a throne, a bench, a boat, or a cart, which conventionally go by these various names. In the Abhidhamma sense, however, no such thing as couch, throne, bench, boat, or cart really exists; only the materials of which they are made really exist. Using earth, we make pots, basins, cups, and vessels, which are conventionally called by these respective names. According to the Abhidhamma, however, there are no such things as pots, basins, cups, or vessels; all are only earth. Iron is made into all sorts of ironware; copper into all sorts of copperware; gold into all sorts of gold ware; silver into all sorts of silverware; cotton into all sorts of fabrics and dresses; and all of them acquire the names of the fabricated products. According to the Abhidhamma, none of those objects exist; only the basic materials from which they are made exist. We must make a clear distinction between the original materials and the fabricated object that has taken on a certain form.

In respect to a person, a being, a self (soul), or a life, as well, these terms are valid only conventionally. In the Abhidhamma, there exists no person, no being, no self (soul), nor a life; only the six basic elements exist. In truth, no such thing as man or deva, Sakka or Brahmā, cow, buffalo, or elephant exists; in reality, in all the world, only the six basic elements exist. Woman, man, person, you, I, etc., are conventional terms for that which does not really exist. Only the six basic elements really exist. There is no head, leg, hand, eye, ear, nose, etc., because, in the last analysis, all are only the six basic elements. All the organs of the body, such as, hair, body-hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, stomach, bowels (feces), etc., do not exist; only the elements really exist.

All along the vast extent of saṃsāra’s journey, we have become ingrained in misconceptions about things all around us, believing mere forms to be facts of life. The truth is that all things, big or small, in the ultimate analysis, are a mere heap of elements, a mass of elements, a collection of elements, a lump of elements, and nothing more. This definitive insight is the first light of the Buddha’s Teaching, knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma (dhamma-vavatthāna-ñāṇa).

The Four Great Elements

Of the six elements, the four great elements are:

  1. Element of extension, or the earth element (paṭhavī)
  2. Element of cohesion or the water element(āpo)
  3. Element of heat or the fire element(tejo)
  4. Element of motion or the wind element (vāyo)

Earth has the property of hardness (kakkhala) or softness (mudu). This property is the earth element, in the ultimate sense.

Water has the property of cohesion (ābandhana) or liquidity (paggharaṇa). This property is the water element, in the ultimate sense.

Fire has the property of heat (uṇhabhāva) or cold (sītabhāva). This property is the fire element, in the ultimate sense.

Wind has the property of support (vitthambhana) or motion (samudīraṇa). This property is the wind element, in the ultimate sense.

The meaning of these four great elements should be digested and learned by heart.

I shall proceed to expound these four great elements, so that the light of knowledge in comprehending the Dhamma (dhammavavatthāna-ñāṇa)may dawn on the reader.

Analysis of the Earth Element

The earth element (paṭhavī-dhātu), in the ultimate sense, is the mere property of hardness. By earth is not meant any substance— not even a hundred-thousandth part of an atom. It lacks shape, mass, form, core, or solidity. Therefore, this element exists in very clear spring water or river water; in all forms of light, including sunlight, moonlight, and even the luster of gems; in all sounds, including the vibrant sounds of gongs or pagoda bells; in moving air, from the softest breeze to a gale ; and in smells, good or bad, that spread near and far.

The reason for this peculiar property lies in the state of inseparability (avinibbhoga-vutti) of the four great elements. For as the Buddha says:

“Depending on one of the great elements, the remaining three arise. Depending on three of them, the remaining one arises. Depending on two of them, the remaining two arise.”

Ekaṃ mahābhūtaṃ paṭicca tayo mahābhūtā; Tayo mahābhūte paṭicca ekaṃ mahābhūtaṃ; Dve mahābhūte paṭicca dve mahābhūtā. (Paṭṭhāna I § 53)

The Commentaries explain that it is the function (sampaṭicchana-rasā) of the earth element to receive the three other co-nascent elements of water, wind, and fire.

The water, wind, and fire elements have a nature such that they cannot exist without the earth element as their basis.

Therefore, it should be understood that in all forms of water, color, sound, wind, and smell, this earth element invariably exists.

This is on the authority of the scriptures. We can also prove its existence by empirical data. In any mass of water or wind, it is fairly evident that the lower layers are supporting the successively higher ones. This function of supporting is not the property of the water element, which is characterized by cohesion. It is not the property of heat either, for heat is characterized by its thermal quality only. Support is the joint function of the earth and wind elements. Support implies hardness or the capacity to bear, as well as lifting or the capacity to resist. The former is the property of the earth element; the latter is the property of the wind element. The wind element acquires its property of resistance on the strength of hardness, the property of the earth element. It cannot function alone. One should try to understand this distinction between hardness and resistance, both of which exist in the function of supporting.

Thus, we can discern the presence of hardness in water or in wind, and from that we can safely conclude that the earth element, the element of extension, which has the property of hardness, exists in water and wind.

In the case of light and smell, however, although the element of extension is definitely there, this element is too subtle to notice. No empirical data can be drawn from them. We simply have to rely on the authority of the scriptures.

The fact of the presence of the earth element in the clearest water, light, wind, sound, and smell, is stated here to impress upon you the truth that when we refer to the earth element, what we really mean is the mere property of hardness, and that the property of hardness does not refer to a particle that has any form, solidity, or substance, even as minute as the hundred thousandth part of an atom. The mere property of hardness must not be confused with the manifestation of hardness in things.

We should understand the term “hardness” as a relative concept. Something that is “hard” or “soft,” has that characteristic in comparison to something else. Thus, there are varying degrees of hardness in that which we call softness. With the cutting diamond at one extreme and the corporeality of a moonbeam at the other, we can discern the same property of hardness in varying degrees in all materiality. That is the character of the earth element. This character of hardness can only be discerned as an ultimate truth. For, if conventional perception stands in the way, no “hardness” can ever be found in subtle materiality, such as moonlight.

When hundreds of thousands of crores of the earth element— by themselves the mere property of hardness—happen to be held together by the element of cohesion or the water element (āpodhātu), a form appears, which is given the name “atom.” When thousands of crores of such atoms come together, certain forms of life come into being, beginning with tiny insects. As the materiality increases, all kinds of beings with varying sizes, up to the Lord of the fallen spirits (asurinda), whose height is forty-eight hundred yojanas, take form. As regards external things, this phenomenon of materiality can assume a form as large as Mount Meru, which is 168,000 yojanas high, or even the Great Earth itself which has a thickness of 240,000 yojanas.

It is the earth element with its property of hardness that serves as the basis of all forms of materiality, animate or inanimate, from atoms and insects to the entire universe. No other element has the property of assuming form or shape. The three other elements of water, wind, and fire depend on earth for their existence. Thus, one must realize the importance of earth as the basic element in all materiality.

If you want to contemplate the earth element as an ultimate reality in Mount Meru or in this great earth, you concentrate only on the property of hardness, which lacks substance. As you concentrate only on its function (giving support to all forms of materiality,) it will be seen as a reflection in a mirror on the surface of clear water, without the obstruction of the tiniest substance, not even an atom.

If there remains the faintest idea of substance or form or solid mass, even as much as an atom, your view is not on the ultimate truth of earth. It is not free from the conventionally accepted concept of form. This conventional truth stands in the way of understanding the true characteristics—arising and vanishing—of materiality.

It should be mentioned here that when Venerable Puṇṇa instructed Venerable Ānanda on this subject of contemplating the elements, he used the example of the image in the mirror, and Venerable Ānanda attained the first stage of enlightenment as a stream-enterer (sotāpanna).

If one can clearly understand the property of hardness that truly exists in Mount Meru or the Great Earth, unencumbered by any conventional concept of substance or form, one should find it much easier to understand this ultimate truth in lesser objects, animate or inanimate.

Images reflected in a mirror—be they as big as Mount Meru—are liable to vanish in an instant, more than a hundred times shorter than the blink of an eye or a flash of lightning, because there is actually no trace of any substance in them. In exactly the same way, the earth element in all materiality—be it as big as Mount Meru—is liable to vanish in an instant just as short, because, in the ultimate sense, there is no substance, not even as much as an atom, in it. With practice and insight, the meditator will realize this truth. When contemplating the earth element in one’s own body with a view to gaining insight into physical phenomena, the meditator should concentrate on one specific part at a time. When contemplating the earth element in the head, one should focus one’s attention on all parts of the head, both inside and out. While doing so, the concept of colour, which is not a basic property of the earth element, might come in. The concept of form or shape might also stand in the way. Using great mental alertness, all these obstructive concepts must be discarded.

Proceeding to the lower parts of his body, down to the soles of the feet, the meditator should select each field of concentration to suit his own ability. After he has covered the whole body in this way, one part at a time, he will be able to contemplate the earth element in any part, for example, the head, and, at the same time, be able to comprehend it within the whole body. Once such comprehension has arisen within oneself, one comprehends the same phenomenon in all other things, animate or inanimate, throughout the universe—indeed, even in other universes.

And once the earth element is thus comprehended, one finds no difficulty in comprehending the three remaining elements.

Here ends the brief analysis of the earth element.

Analysis of the Water Element

Water has the property of cohesion. The water element (āpo-dhātu) is, in the ultimate sense, the mere property of cohesion. When the property of cohesion is strong it tends to ooze and become fluid— hence the earth element is expressed as the water element. This basic property of cohesion, in the ultimate sense, bears no substance whatsoever, not even a hundred-thousandth part of an atom: it is just a property or a function. Its function is to bind together the three other co-existing elements of earth, fire, and wind, so that the four exist interdependently. Once the water element disappears, the three other elements disintegrate and vanish at once. This is the crucial function of the water element in any given group or unit of materiality.

All material shapes and forms, ranging from the atom to Asurinda, Lord of the Asuras, in the living world, as well as all physical phenomena up to Mount Meru and the Great Earth, exist in the world due to the water element. Apart from this water element, there is no other element which holds materiality together.

If cohesion were to fail in Mount Meru, the whole 168,000 yojanas of the great mountain would crumble and vanish in no time. The same would be true of Mount Cakkavāla, which is 164,000 yojanas high, or of the Great Earth, in which case we would have to imagine an eerie void in place of the Great Earth. This is because when the function of cohesion is absent, even the rock formations that make Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, and the Great Earth cannot stand together since the primary elements that constitute them lack the necessary binding force.

All the elements, in the ultimate sense, with the exception of Nibbāna, have the nature of being formed or conditioned interdependently. They cannot exist for a moment, not even for the blink of an eye, or a flash of lightning, without outside help or support.

If one wants to understand the water element in Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, or the Great Earth, one should concentrate only on the characteristic of cohesion, without being distracted by the hardness therein, which is the property of the earth element. Concepts of color and form are likely to obstruct the meditator’s comprehension. This is because knowledge lacks definition, with the result that, as one tries to contemplate the arising and vanishing of phenomena, the mind gets murky. For unless the ultimate truth of a given phenomenon (in this case, the water element) is perfectly comprehended, the reality of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā) will not be understood.

As has been explained in connection with the earth element, here, too, when one clearly comprehends cohesion as the ultimate truth of the water element, one will realize that no substance, solidity, mass, or form truly exists, even in Mount Meru or in the Great Earth; and that, apart from the cohesion that characterizes all materiality, one’s concepts about shape or form or color, of clouds, the sun, the moon, or trees, for example, are as insubstantial and illusive as the reflected images of shapes and colours in a mirror or on the surface of clear water. When such clear comprehension of cohesion is gained in respect of Mount Meru or the Great Earth, there will be no difficulty in realizing this fact in living beings as well, be they men, devas, or brahmās. In fact, what is necessary is comprehending this element in living beings. We begin with Mount Meru and the Great Earth simply to emphasize the falsity or deception in concept, form, shape, and color in the greatest masses of material phenomena, so that it will be more readily seen in respect to lesser materiality, such as living beings.

One should first master the skill of comprehending this element in oneself from head to foot, however, before trying to contemplate it in others.

Here ends the analysis of the element of cohesion.

Analysis of the Fire Element

The element of heat or the fire element (tejo-dhātu) has the property of heat or cold. The fire element is, in the ultimate sense, the mere property of heat or cold. Heat or cold is responsible for the growth and sustenance of the three other coexistent elements. Through maintaining an appropriate thermal degree in things, the heat element provides the necessary function of maturing and invigorating the three other elements in any given physical phenomenon. Take eggs, for example; in a nest they need the mother-hen’s body-heat to hatch successfully. The heat they acquired while in the mother’s womb is not enough to sustain them. Without the constant warmth of brooding, they simply rot.

In the same way, the fire element is like the mother-hen, and the remaining three elements are like the yolk of the egg. Only in combination with the fire element can hardness (the earth element) come into existence. Only in combination with the fire element can cohesion (the water element) take place. Only in combination with the fire element can motion or quivering (the wind element) occur. Without the presence of the fire element, therefore, the three coexisting elements cannot function.

The property of cold (the fire element) is responsible for the existence of all forms of water, including the seas, the great oceans, and the great layer of water that supports this Great Earth. It is this element that sustains them. The fire element is also responsible for the existence of Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, and the Great Earth.4

When the meditator singles out the fire element as the object of contemplation, he must concentrate only on the coldness in cold objects and the heat in hot objects, without letting in concepts of color, form, or size. It will then become evident that in neither heat nor cold does there exist the slightest substance, not even a hundred-thousandth part of an atom. When this fact has been clearly comprehended, the meditator understands that what he has all along considered big or grand forms, shapes, and colors, such as the sun, the moon, and clouds, are mere concepts and that they have no more real substance than reflections in a mirror or on the surface of clear water.

In contemplating the fire element in one’s body, one should focus on as much of one’s body as one’s concentration can manage. When the meditator has fully understood the ultimate truth of the fire element in his own body, it will also become clear that everything in the universe, including all living beings, is subject to the same truth.

Here ends the analysis of the heat element.

Analysis of the Wind Element

If we watch a flame, we can see that it is in motion; the same with the accompanying smoke. Just as the fire element is responsible for the combustion, the wind element keeps the combustion in the form of a flame or an active fire. The maintenance of the fire and of its heat and light, the quivering of the flame, the spread of the smoke, and the growth of the fire as things around it catch fire—all are the function of vāyo-dhātu, the element of motion, or the wind element.

The wind element has exactly the same function in all materiality. It is due to the presence of the wind element that heat and cold are transmitted throughout any given material object. When we kindle a fire, we start with a tiny piece of fire which we put to the fuel. That little fire catches on to the fuel, assisted by the wind element, which, in fact, is the motive force of the fire element. This motive force spreads the heat of the fire element to all things around the original fire, and, if they are inflammable, they may catch fire. When the motive force is weak, we may assist with some external motive force by using a fan, a bellows, or a blower.

This motive force accompanies both heat and cold. It is important to note carefully that heat is one phenomenon and that the accompanying motive force is another. Of course, it is the same with cold. The property of heat or cold is a distinct property that belongs to the fire element. The motive force is the distinct property belonging to the wind element.

The wind element, due to this motive force, is the vital energy of the three other coexistent elements of earth, water, and fire. The other three are borne by the wind element wherever it carries them. When the force gets very strong, it is called a gale. This force is present in such things as air pillows and air mattresses, where it provides the necessary function of a cushioning effect. This property of the wind element, according to the scriptures, is called support (vitthambhana).

In all physical phenomena beginning with Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, and the Great Earth itself, the element of cold (sīta-tejo), assisted by the motive force of the wind element, arises every moment to sustain the prolonged existence of those physical phenomena until their total disintegration at the destruction of the universe after a world cycle (kappa). (Contemplate this fact with mindfulness until you grasp it well).

The arising of mind-originated materiality (cittaja-rūpa) throughout the body as a result of a certain consciousness (citta) that arises at the heart-base (hadaya-vatthu), the arising of temperature-originated materiality (utuja-rūpa), the dissemination of nutriment throughout the body when food is taken, the gradual growth and development of the embryo from its ultra-microscopic liquid form (kalala) to a full-size living being, and the germination and growth of all vegetation—all these phenomena arise due to the motive force of the wind element. Try to visualize this fact with your mind’s eye, when you contemplate the phenomenon of the wind element in all things, animate or inanimate, beginning with Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, and the Great Earth, until the mere property of motion becomes clear. You must then contemplate the same truth in your own body from head to foot. The same as in contemplating the other elements, color, form, and shape, formerly accepted as truth by convention, will stand in the way. These are mere concepts (paññatti), not real, non-existent. They must be dispelled by penetrating knowledge (paṭivedha-ñāṇa), until you fully realize the ultimate absence of form or substance in these phenomena and they appear as no more than images in a mirror.

Here ends the analysis of the element of motion.

The Interdependent Nature of the Four Great Elements

The four great elements, namely: hardness, cohesion, heat or vital warmth, and motion or motive force, are inherently different from one another. They exist together with hardness as a common base. They arise together, stand (momentarily) together, and vanish together. When hardness fails, the three other coexisting elements lose their base and vanish. When cohesion fails and the binding force disappears, the three other elements disintegrate. When heat or cold fails, i.e., the vital warmth goes out and the function of sustaining life stops, the remaining three elements lose their vital force and die out. When the distending function of the wind element fails, the remaining three lose support and collapse together.

The fire element can quiver with its inherent heat or cold only when assisted by the wind element. When the motive force of wind fails, the fire element also dies down in no time. Likewise, the hardness of the earth element depends for its stability and support on the wind element; when this support fails, hardness disappears. Also, cohesion, the water element, cannot exist without the supporting function of the wind element. In this way, the four great elements, each with its own property, are interdependent. Failure of one spells destruction for all.

Exactly how the four great elements function in all things, animate and inanimate, however, is too complex and too subtle to understand; in fact, it is truly incomprehensible (acinteyya). Their inherent powers are also incomprehensible. Mastery of their nature through insight (in pursuing) the Buddha’s teaching (of the Noble Eightfold Path) leads to wisdom which penetrates Nibbāna (paṭivedha-ñāṇa), which is also called supramundane wisdom (lokuttara-vijjā-ñāṇa). In the mundane sphere, mastery of these elements entitles one to supernatural powers. A middling knowledge of them enables one to be proficient in science, for example, in medicine, in chemistry, or in engineering.

Of the four great elements, the heat element is supreme. All physical phenomena, animate or inanimate, from the entire universe, the Great Earth, and the water below the earth’s surface, down to the tiniest things, depend on heat for their existence.

The full understanding of the powers of the heat element lies within the province of the All-knowing Buddha.

Here ends the exposition of the interdependent nature of the four great elements.

Analysis of the Space Element

The four great elements, earth (paṭhavī), water (āpo), fire (tejo), and wind (vāyo), commonly arise together as groups or units of matter due to (kamma), mind (citta), temperature (utu) or nutriment (āhāra). Each group or unit of matter consists of all four elements. The element that separates these groups one from another, is called space or voidness (ākāsa), or “that by which an object is delimited” (pariccheda-rūpa). When the four great elements arise together and perish together, it is only the elements within an individual unit which do so. The neighboring units, separated by space, are not affected.

To the ordinary eye, mass or form is seen as the preconceived shapes of living beings or external physical objects. The space between the ultra-microscopic material units that make up the form of a living being or an object is not perceived. In all physical phenomena, beginning with Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla, and the Great Earth, composed of the four great elements, there are spatial interstices between every unit of matter. Thus, between all masses of materiality there is voidness or space, comparable, in principle, to the open sky above the earth. It is very important to gain a clear comprehension of this element of space because it is essential for the understanding of material units, and this in turn is essential for the understanding of the (three) characteristics of all phenomena. To gain insight into the three characteristics of all phenomena, one needs to contemplate space in all physical objects, animate or inanimate, and to perceive its presence.

The element of space, unlike the four great elements, does not actually arise from any origin. It has no objective reality. It is only a delimiting element that appears whenever material units come into being due to the four causes given above. Since it does not arise and vanish, one does not need to contemplate it in order to gain insight into its impermanence, suffering, or non-self. Knowledge of the three characteristics of phenomena does not come from contemplating space as an object in itself. Rather, the element of space needs to be properly perceived as a necessary condition for the understanding of the three characteristics of the four great elements—earth, water, fire, and wind.

Here ends the analysis of the space element.

Analysis of the Element of Consciousness

The element of consciousness, (viññāṇa-dhātu) is the element through which one knows sense objects. Consciousness is of six kinds, namely:

  1. Eye-consciousness (cakkhu-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  2. Ear-consciousness (sota-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  3. Nose-consciousness (ghāṇa-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  4. Tongue-consciousness (jivhā-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  5. Body-consciousness (kāya-viññāṇa-dhātu)
  6. Mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa-dhātu)

Of these:

  1. Eye-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by way of the eye when the eye comes into contact with visible objects
  2. Ear-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by way ofthe ear when the ear comes into contact with sounds
  3. Nose-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by wayof the nose when the nostrils come into contact with smells
  4. Tongue-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by way of the tongue when the tongue comes into contact with tastes
  5. Body-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by wayof the body when the body comes into contact with tactile objects. (Put in simple terms, it is the sense of touch)
  6. Mind-consciousness is the consciousness that arises by wayof the heart-base (hadaya-vatthu) when the heart-base comes into contact with mental objects, either good, such as, faith (saddhā), morality or virtue (sīla), learning (suta), and charity or giving (cāga), or bad, such as, greed (lobha), hatred or anger (dosa), and delusion (moha)

Generally speaking, when the eye sees a visual object, a person thinks, “I see it.” This is, in fact, a wrong view, induced by attachment to eye-consciousness. The fact of seeing is merely a distinct phenomenon (without anyone who sees) and needs to be understood clearly through insight.

Likewise, the phenomena of hearing sounds, smelling odors, tasting flavors, and touching tactile objects should be understood clearly through insight.

When the mind thinks thoughts or knows things, a person generally thinks, “I think of this or that” or “I know this or that.” This is, in fact, the wrong view of personality view (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). The arising of a thought is a distinct phenomenon and needs to be understood clearly through insight.

Let me now explain how this insight comes about.

The physical body may be likened to an open sore, and the six kinds of consciousness to maggots that infest the sore at various points. Since consciousness is a mental phenomenon, you have to imagine it arising, dependent on the six sense-bases (eye, ear, nose, etc.). Let me give you another simile: imagine the six sense-bases as six very clear patches of water, and the six kinds of consciousness as reflections appearing on those individual patches of water.

These two similes help to convey the fact that sense data or sense-objects are distinct from and external to the sense-bases. Although consciousness is imagined as some real thing at first, after extensive contemplation, it will become clear that consciousness is purely a mental state. Even though the mental states are not clearly recognized, and they appear as reflections on patches of clear water, or dew drops falling on a piece of glass, it does not matter. The main purpose is to comprehend the phenomena that are commonly called “seeing,” “hearing,” “smelling,” “tasting,” “touching” and “thinking.” If the similes—a sore and maggots and patches of water and reflections—do not help dispel the personality view, such that the deluded “I” still persists within the six kinds of consciousness, insight is still far beyond you. Only when your earlier ingrained concept of “I see it, I hear it,” etc., disappears and you properly comprehend and firmly grasp the real occurrence of consciousness, can you be sure that you have gained the knowledge of comprehending the Dhamma.

The arising and vanishing of phenomena take place at tremendous speed, much, much faster even than a flash of lightning. According to the Visuddhimagga, “they arise and vanish like lightning in space.” Thus, you have to realize that phenomena arise and vanish extremely rapidly, even within such fleeting moments as the blinking of an eye.

This contemplation of impermanence, suffering, and non-self is the way to break up the persistent concepts of permanence, happiness, and self or ego, with their erroneous belief in a being, a person, or a life. When the ephemeral characteristic of all phenomena, which last not even as long as a flash of lightning, is seen through, the truth that such phenomena are not at all reliable also becomes clear; and when this is thoroughly understood, the suffering and the non-self, non-person, or non-life characteristics of these phenomena will automatically come to light. This understanding is no other than the knowledge of comprehending the Dhamma.

The fleeting nature of phenomena is, therefore, aptly compared in the scriptures to a flash of lightning. However, the rapidity of the occurrence of mental phenomena is far greater than that. Their arising and vanishing may even be reckoned in hundreds of thousands of times within a flash of lightning. The rapidity is beyond human comprehension. Therefore, it is not advisable to make such subtle phenomena the object of one’s contemplation. Try as one might, these phenomena will not be comprehended even after contemplating for a hundred or a thousand years. The meditator who tries this will not gain a single ray of insight, but will be beset by more befuddlement and despair. The scriptures say that mental phenomena take place billions and trillions of times within the blink of an eye, a flash of lightning, or the snap of your fingers. Now, the duration of the blink of an eye itself is so fleeting that attempting to contemplate the occurrence of mental phenomena to the billionth or trillionth part of that duration becomes sheer folly. Therefore, one should be satisfied with comprehending the unreliable and transient characteristic of all phenomena, which, after all, is the main purpose.

As for the exact nature, i.e., the swiftness, of mental phenomena, the understanding of which is the domain of the wisdom of the All-knowing Buddha, one has to accept the authority of the scriptures. Any talk about contemplating the three characteristics of mental phenomena is mere humbug. It is never based on practice, but only on hearsay from the scriptures. If someone were to try it, it would be a far cry from insight.

Here ends the analysis of the element of consciousness.

A Brief Exposition of the First Light of the Buddha’s Teaching

A fair understanding of the six elements—the four great elements together with the element of space and the element of consciousness—that underlie all phenomena, internally within oneself and externally in all things, beginning with Mount Meru, Mount Cakkavāla and the Great Earth, as explained above, constitutes the first light of the Buddha’s teaching that establishes one in the Dhamma. Until one is so established, one wallows helplessly in the dark quagmire of stark ignorance of the Dhamma. Therefore, having had the golden opportunity of hearing the Buddha’s Teaching, it is appropriate to strive for this light, which is, after all, the only worthy goal for a human being.

Here ends the exposition of the first light of the Buddha’s Teaching.

Detailed Exposition of the Knowledge in Comprehending the Law of Causality

The second light of the Buddha’s Teaching is knowledge in comprehending the law of causality (paccaya-pariggaha-ñāṇa). What causes material and mental phenomena to arise? What is the origin of these phenomena? What is required to gain this light, this knowledge in comprehending the law of causality?

The Four Causes for the Arising of Materiality

The four great elements, earth (paṭhavī), water (āpo), heat (tejo), and wind (vāyo), together with the fifth material element, space (ākāsa) are conditioned by four factors, namely, volitional acts (kamma), mind (citta), temperature (utu) and nutriment (āhāra). The element of consciousness, as we mentioned above, is conditioned by the six sense-bases (vatthu) and their respective sense-objects (ārammaṇa). So we have six basic elements, which are conditioned by six basic phenomena (i.e., the four conditions governing materiality plus the two conditions governing mentality). A good understanding of these phenomena is required for one to gain this Light, knowledge in comprehending the law of causality.

Now, the four great elements,—earth, water, fire, and wind— arise due to the four conditions mentioned above, but space, however, since it is not conditioned, i.e., “not born” (jāti), does not have any arising (uppāda). It merely serves to delimit the material units (rūpa-kalāpa), conditioned by the four great elements. Hence, one should not look for the origin or cause of space. Therefore, we exclude space from our study of the law of causality.5

(1) Kamma as Origin

Kamma refers to action done in previous existences. This may be, on the one hand, good kamma, such as giving, morality (or virtue), etc., or, on the other hand, bad kamma, such as killing, stealing, etc. The following nine kinds of material phenomena arise due to kamma: physical vitality (jīvita), heart-base (hadaya- vatthu), female sex (itthibhāva), male sex (pumbhāva), eye-sensitivity

(cakkhu-pasāda), ear-sensitivity (sota-pasāda), nose-sensitivity (ghāna-pasāda), tongue-sensitivity (jivhā-pasāda), and body sensitivity (kāya-pasāda). All these material phenomena are conditioned by past kamma. It is obvious that once physical vitality

(jīvita), is destroyed in the present existence, no other condition— temperature, nutriment, medicine, or medicinal diet—can restore it. This body dies, that is, the present existence expires, and a new existence arises. It is the same with the heart-base, eye-sensitivity, ear-sensitivity, and all of the material phenomena mentioned above. From their inception, they are all subject to favorable conditions and circumstances for their continued existence throughout the process of their development. Once the process is interrupted, no amount of present efforts can restore them. That is why they are said to be the product or result of past kamma only.

The same should be understood with regard to the four great elements born of kamma.

(2) Mind as Origin

There are three states of mind (citta): (1) wholesome or moral (kusala), (2) unwholesome or immoral, (akusala), and (3) indeterminate or amoral (abyākata).

  1. The wholesome state of mind includes giving, morality, love (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), joy in others’ wellbeing (muditā), equanimity (upekkhā), confidence (saddhā), wisdom (paññā), and concentration (jhāna)
  2. The unwholesome state of mind includes greed, anger or hatred, delusion, conceit (māna), jealousy (issā), niggardliness or avarice (macchariya), remorse or brooding (kukkucca), and ill-will (vyāpāda)
  3. The indeterminate or amoral state of mind includes resultant(vipāka), kammically non-operative (kiriya), rebirth-linking (paṭisandhi), passive (bhavaṅga), adverting (āvajjana), examination (santīraṇa), reception (sampaṭicchana), registering (tadārammaṇa), and deceased (cuti)

Mind (citta) may also be divided into three kinds of consciousness—in bodily actions, in verbal actions, and in mental actions.

Consciousness in bodily actions varies with the manner of physical movement, such as going, standing, sitting, lying down, bending, stretching, etc. Consciousness in going means the volition that activates the particular deportment. It is this consciousness that brings the foot to make the first step. This is followed by another consciousness which brings the other foot to make another step. Thus, each step is directed by a separate consciousness. As long as this type of consciousness arises successively, steps are made successively. Likewise, in all bodily movements, every little bit of movement is brought about by its own type of consciousness. As an illustration, take a railway engine. Each puff of steam from inside the boiler turns the machinery in a specific stroke, and with each, a puff of smoke escapes from the chimney. Every stroke of the machine, and every puff of smoke from the chimney, is the work of a specific puff of steam. The same principle is observable in other steam engines, such as those in power-generating plants and steam liners.

In the same manner, when you walk, each step that you take is made on account of a particular motivating consciousness, accompanied by its own set of physical phenomena. The consciousness that motivates the first step vanishes at the end of the step when the physical phenomena of that step die away. A fresh consciousness arises for the next step, bringing in a fresh set of physical phenomena. This second step ended, the physical phenomena therein vanish, and the motivating consciousness is no more. In this way if a hundred steps are made, consciousness and an accompanying set of physical phenomena arise and vanish a hundred times. If a thousand steps are made, consciousness and the material states arise and vanish a thousand times. The mentality-materiality pertaining to any step has no effect on the succeeding step. Each perishes the moment the particular step is made. At each step that is made, fresh motions occur throughout the body. All these motions represent fresh arisings of materiality due to fresh arisings of consciousness. Every day we make innumerable bodily movements with every part of our body. The head, the limbs, and all the other parts of the body move in various manners—exhaling, inhaling, blinking of the eyes, moving the lips, etc., This takes place all the time. Each of these has its own consciousness to account for the particular motion. This is how consciousness in bodily actions brings about physical phenomena which are expressed as bodily actions.

Consciousness in verbal actions brings about physical phenomena which are expressed as verbal actions. Whether we speak, shout, laugh, or cry, laugh or shout, every minute utterance is the work of a particular consciousness. For instance, when we say: “Iti pi so bhagavā….,” each syllable—I, ti, pi, etc.—is motivated by its own consciousness. When we say in English: “Homage to the Buddha,” each of the words—Homage, to, the, etc.— is motivated by its own consciousness. You must observe this fact carefully. You must also observe that, at the end of each syllable, its motivating consciousness vanishes. This is how consciousness in verbal actions brings about physical phenomena (audible sounds) which are expressed as verbal actions.

Consciousness in mental actions brings about physical phenomena which are expressed as visible aspects of one’s mood, generally noticeable in one’s eyes, facial expression, and demeanor. Hence, anger can be distinguished from a face that has assumed a reddish aspect under an angry impulse (consciousness). The face, likewise assumes distinct expressions under the impulses of kindness, ill-will, goodwill, etc. Observe carefully that there is a consciousness in mental action behind each material phenomenon that finds outward expression.

This, then, is how the four great elements that constitute physical phenomena arise and vanish millions of times each day under the impulses of consciousness that also arise and vanish in a given individual.

Whereas the physical phenomena in walking are conditioned by the consciousness of walking, i.e., the thought-impulses that bring about bodily movement called walking, most people think, “someone walks,” “a woman walks,” “a man walks,” “he walks,” “I walk,” etc. This persistent view that the walking is necessarily done by some person, i.e., the walker, is the stark Ignorance of Causality.

The truth is that in the bodily movement of walking, the consciousness that motivates it is neither a person nor a being, neither a woman nor a man, neither he nor I, neither human, nor deva. It is only the element of consciousness (citta or viññāṇa). The act of walking, caused by the consciousness of walking, is physical phenomena set in motion. Apart from mentality-materiality of walking, there exists no person, no being, no personal entity, no soul, no individual life, no woman, no man, no he, nor I, that walks. In the same way, there is coming, but no one who actually comes; there is standing, but no one who stands; there is sitting, but no one who sits; there is sleeping, but no one who sleeps; there is speaking, but no one who speaks. In any act, there is only the action without anyone who acts. There is no doer, no subject by way of a living entity, nor is there any creator. There is only the arising of physical phenomena which express themselves as going, coming, sitting, sleeping, speaking, etc., under the motivating force or impulse of consciousness, which is the true cause of all such arising. The ability to discern this truth is knowledge in comprehending the law of causality.

End of the arising of the four great elements due to consciousness.

(3) Temperature (utu) as Origin

Temperature that causes the arising of the four great elements, i.e., the physical phenomena, means cold (sīta-tejo) and heat (uṇha-tejo). Cold causes cold material to arise; Heat causes hot material to arise. In the cold season, cold prevails, making the body cold. In the hot season, heat prevails, making the body warm. In the rainy season, there is a mixture of cold and heat around us, so that at night the body is cold, and during the day it is warm. In the morning, the body is warm; in the afternoon, it is cold. When we stay in the sun, the body gets hot, we feel warm, and there is perspiration. In the shade, the body is cool, we do not feel warm, and it is comfortable. While sleeping or sitting, the body is cool. While standing or walking, it gets warm. When there is exertion, for example, digging, carrying something heavy, or chopping wood, the body gets warm. Then, when the body rests, it gets cool again. Thus, within one day, in every person, innumerable physical phenomena, cold and hot, arise due to temperature, depending on various circumstances. You should carefully observe within yourself the arisings of hot and cold materiality, which occur in turns due to changes in temperature.

This is how the four great elements, which constitute all physical phenomena, arise due to temperature.

One who cannot discern that hot and cold materiality are arising simply due to changes in temperature, is under the stark ignorance of the law of causality. From such ignorance there arises the wrong view that someone who does this or that exists (kārakadiṭṭhi), that is, a firm belief in a doer. There also arises the wrong view that someone who suffers or experiences this or that exists (vedaka-diṭṭhi). One who believes in the existence of a doer, may think, “If I wish to enjoy coolness, I can make myself cool”; or “If I wish to make myself warm, I can do so.” There is a corollary to this: when one believes that a being begets the result of an action done by a doer, one may think, “As a result of my own efforts to get cool, I am now enjoying the coolness”; or “As a result of my own efforts to get warm, I am now enjoying the warmth.”

Further, one may think, “Due to the meritorious deeds done in my previous lives, I am now endowed with high birth, beauty, wealth, etc.” or “Due to unmeritorious deeds done in my previous lives, I am now born an outcast, ugly, disease-ridden, a nonentity, poor, etc.” or “I have to suffer the consequences of what I have done wrong.” In all such statements, “I am experiencing this or that thing” indicates belief in the wrong view of the existence of a person, a doer, or a subject of an act. When someone says: “I did the cultivating, so I reap my harvest,” the belief in the existence of the person who cultivates is the wrong view of the existence of a doer. When the Light of the Law of Causality is attained, all activities are seen in their true nature, as mere physical occurrences taking place due to changes in temperature. On attaining this knowledge, belief in a doer or a creator or the act of God’s creation dissolves.

End of exposition of temperature as origin of physical phenomena.

(4) Nutriment as Origin

Nutriment (āhāra), which is the fourth origin of the four great elements, i.e., all materiality, refers to food that is taken every day. It is commonly accepted that a person requires at least two square meals a day and that animals, for example, cows, buffaloes, horses, and elephants, also require a certain amount of food. Consider how the lack of food causes certain noticeable physical changes in yourself, as well as in other living beings, and how a timely meal causes other noticeable physical changes. Everyone knows that hunger causes physical weakness and that a full stomach causes a sense of physical well being. Bad food causes sickness, which is manifested in a sick body. Taking medicine or a medicinal diet causes sickness to disappear, which is manifested in a cured or healthy body. In that sickness and health due to food and medicine are related to temperature, we can see the inter-relatedness of nutriment and temperature.

Even though it is obvious that the lack of food causes the body to become weak, feeble, tired, and listless, and that the taking of proper food at the right time satisfies hunger and causes the body to become strong, full of vitality, able, and fit, most people, being grossly ignorant of the truth, are deluded into thinking in terms of a self. They think, “I ate, so I am full and I feel strong, vigorous, and fine; my hunger is satisfied.”

When this delusion of a personal identity, with I in the canter of everything, is discarded as being false, and when the truth of the origination of physical phenomena due to nutriment causes weak or disabled physical phenomena (i.e., due to a lack of nutriment), and a supply of nutriment causes strong and able physical phenomena, is comprehended, we can say that the meditator has the correct view of the four great elements that make up all materiality. This is knowledge in comprehending the law of causality.

Here ends the exposition of the origination of the four great elements due to the four basic causes.

The Element of Consciousness

Consciousness (viññāṇa) arises on account of the dual condition of base (vatthu) and its relevant object (ārammaṇa). The six sense-bases (vatthu) are:

  1. Eye-sensitivity, which is the physical base of the faculty ofsight (cakkhu-vatthu)
  2. Ear-sensitivity, which is the physical base of the faculty ofhearing (sota-vatthu)
  3. Nose-sensitivity , which is the physical base of the faculty ofsmelling (ghāṇa-vatthu)
  4. Tongue-sensitivity, which is the physical base of the facultyof tasting (jivhā-vatthu)
  5. Body-sensitivity, which is the physical base of the faculty ofbodily sensation or touch (kāya-vatthu)
  6. The heart-base (hadaya-vatthu), which is the physical base of mind.

The six sense-objects are:

  1. Visual objects (rūpārammaṇa) or color (vaṇṇārammaṇa) for the eye-sensitivity
  2. Sounds (saddārammaṇa) for the ear-sensitivity
  3. Odors (gandhārammaṇa) for the nose-sensitivity
  4. Tastes (rasārammaṇa) for the tongue-sensitivity
  5. Tactile objects (phoṭṭhabbārammaṇa)—such as heat or cold, soft or rough, etc.—for the body–sensitivity
  6. Thoughts or infinitely varied mental phenomena (dhammārammaṇa), for the heart-base.

How Consciousness Arises

Consciousness is conditioned by the respective sensitivity and its object in the following ways:

  1. Eye-consciousness (cakkhu-viññaṇa) arises when the dual condition of eye-sensitivity (cakkhu-vatthu)comes into contact with a visual object (rūpārammaṇa)
  2. Ear-consciousness (sota-viññaṇa) arises when the dual condition of ear sensitivity (cakkhu-vatthu) comes into contact with a sound (sotārammaṇa)
  3. Nose-consciousness (ghāṇa-viññāṇa) arises when nose sensitivity (ghāṇa-vatthu) comes into contact with an odor (ghāṇārammaṇa)
  4. Tongue-consciousness (jivhā-viññāṇa) arises when the dual condition of tongue sensitivity (jivhā-vatthu) comes into contact with a taste (rasārammaṇa)
  5. Body-consciousness (kāya-viññāṇa) arises when the dual condition of body sensitivity (kāya-vatthu) comes into contact with a tactile object (phoṭṭhabbārammaṇa)
  6. Mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa) arises when the dual condition of the heart-basis (hadaya-vatthu), comes into contact with objects of thought (dhammārammaṇa).

Let me briefly state here that the mind-consciousnesselement (mano–viññāṇa–dhātu) includes mind-element (mano– dhātu), which I will not discuss.

Further Explenation and Examples

When the eye comes into contact with a visual object, the impact produces eye-consciousness, which in common usage is “seeing.” We can compare this to the reflection of a face in the mirror. The smooth surface of the mirror may be likened to the eye-base, which is capable of visual sentience. The face reflected in the mirror is like the visual object. When the image of your face falls on the surface of the mirror, it is reflected in the mirror. In the same way, when the eye (we might also say “eye-sensitivity”) comes into contact with some visual object , eye-consciousness arises. When your face turns away from the mirror, the reflection of your face in the mirror disappears. You do not see it. Similarly, when the eye turns away from the visual object, eye-consciousness disappears. There is no “seeing.” If you turn it toward the object again, eye-consciousness arises again, and, if you turn it away again, eye-consciousness disappears again.

Eye-consciousness (or seeing) is a phenomenon that can arise only while the eye is in contact with the object. When there is no contact, no eye-consciousness can arise, in which case, you do not see the object. Thus, what is called “seeing” is only the function of eye-consciousness, which arises, in the natural state of things (dhammatā), due to contact between the eye and the visual object. If there is no eye (eye-sensitivity), there can be no eye-consciousness. Likewise, if there is no visual object within the range of the eye-sensitivity, again there can be no consciousness there is nothing to see. It is important to note that eye-consciousness is a temporary phenomenon, only a momentary occurrence (āgantuka-dhātu), continually arising and vanishing, occasioned by contact between the eye and a visual object.

This analysis can easily be understood in exactly the same way in regard to ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, and tongue-consciousness.

The arising of body-consciousness takes place throughout the body from head to foot, externally, as well as internally, whenever the body (body-sensitivity) comes into contact with a tactile object. Body-sensitivity seems more complex than the other physical senses because it may be only on the skin or it may be deep inside the body. It also incudes all sorts of aches, cramps, and itches, as well as feelings of hot and cold.

The simile of the mirror image can be applied to all of these five kinds of consciousness, the same as with the arising of eye-consciousness.

The arising of mind-consciousness takes place due to contact between the heart-base and:

(a) Past mental objects, such as,

  • past efficient (potent) action (kamma)
  • a symbol (sign) of that past action (kamma-nimitta)
  • a sign of the tendencies for further rebirth (gati-nimitta)

(b) Present mental objects, wholesome and unwholesome. Consequently, mind-consciousness may be in a:

  • passive state (bhavaga-citta), sometimes called life-continuum, which is not active thinking
  • unwholesome state (akusala-citta), such as greed, hatred, delusion, ill-will, and covetousness
  • wholesome state (kusala-citta), such as faith and knowledge
  • random or idle thoughts (vitakka)6

All those arisings of the five kinds of consciousness must be understood according to the simile of the mirror image.

The inability to comprehend the truth that the six kinds of consciousness arise each due to momentary contacts between the sense-organs or sense-bases and their respective objects—which are commonly spoken of as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking, and which are actually separate and distinctive phenomena covering the whole set of the five aggregates—is the stark ignorance of the dhamma, the first stark ignorance.

The lack of understanding of the origin of the six kinds of consciousness, that they arise on the dual cause of sense-base and sense-object, is the stark ignorance of causality, the second stark ignorance. From this ignorance arises the wrong view of a doer or a creator. This view firmly holds that for all actions, there exists a doer, a creator. In other words, all existence means persons and their doings. A personal entity such as “I” or “he” or “she,” etc., is responsible for seeing, hearing, etc. We are taught as children that “I see with my eye and I hear with my ears, and we take this literally when we become adults. This belief is the only truth an ignorant person holds: he rejects any other cause. All such views that tenaciously hold to the idea of a doer or a creator are wrong.

The wrong view that there is an agent or doer, the view that all the perceptions—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, knowing, thinking—are actions done by someone and that without some person who sees and hears, etc., they can’t take place, is called kārakadiṭṭhi. This view does not accept that these perceptions arise simply through the dual cause of sense-bases and sense-objects and tenaciously holds onto the idea of a doer or a creator.

An ignorant one holds firmly to this belief, rejecting any other cause. He does not understand that all phenomena arise due to the four conditions—kamma, mind, temperature, nutriment—and the dual phenomena of sense-base and object.

Such a person may think, “Due to meritorious deeds done in my previous lives, I am now endowed with high birth, beauty, and wealth,” or “Due to unmeritorious deeds done in my previous lives, I am now born an outcast, ugly, disease-ridden, a non-entity, and poor. I must suffer the consequences of the misdeeds I have committed.” This is the wrong view that there is one who experiences (vedaka-diṭṭhi). Both views, that of a person who does and that of a person who suffers the action of another, are wrong and constitute the stark ignorance of the law of causality. When the light, knowledge in comprehending the law of causality, is attained, all these activities are seen in their true nature, as mere physical phenomena taking place due to the conditions we have explained. On attaining this knowledge, all belief in a doer, one who suffers, a creator, or any act of God’s creation, dissolves.

One who comprehends the phenomena of the six kinds of consciousness that arise due to the dual cause of sense-organs or sense-bases and their respective objects—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, knowing, or thinking—attains the knowledge of causality, the second great light. This light dispels once and for all the stark ignorance of causality and the wrong view of a doer or creator as the cause of life. Where one clings to the belief that it is due to God that “I see and I hear,” etc., occur, not knowing or not accepting the phenomena of the dual cause of the six kinds of consciousness, one also errs in the wrong view of a doer or creator. It should be noted the same ignorance lies at the root of the creator concept too.

End of detailed explanation of the knowledge in comprehending the law of causality.

A Detailed Explanation of the Knowledge in Realizing the Three Characteristics

What is the minimum understanding of the three characteristics needed to gain the knowledge in realizing the three characteristics (lakkhaṇa-paṭivedha-ñāṇa)? What are the fundamental phenomena that need to be understood?

One must understand the inherent nature of the three characteristics in the six basic elements: paṭhavī-hātu, āpo-dhātu, tejo-dhātu, vāyo-dhātu, ākāsa-dhātu and viññāṇa-dhātu.

Of the five material elements (viññāṇa being a mental element), paṭhavī-dhātu is the key, for it is the very basis of all materiality. It is on this element that the Great Earth, with the great oceans, mountains, countries, structures, and human settlements is founded. If one can comprehend the impermanence of the great earth and can visualize in one’s mind its crumbling, disintegration, and vanishing, one will without further effort see the ephemeral nature of all the countries, cities, and human settlements. Similarly, when one has fully realized that instability, ephemerality, and a constant state of decay are the ultimate characteristic of paṭhavī as the basis of all materiality, one can without further effort extend the knowledge to include the remaining elements of water, wind, and fire, constituting all material phenomena.

The Three Characteristics

Now, I shall deal with the three characteristics. The characteristic of impermanence (anicca-lakkhaṇa) means that a thing is momentary, vanishing as soon as it has risen. It is called anicca because it has the nature of destruction and decay (“khayaṭṭhena aniccaṃ”).

The characteristic of suffering (dukkha-lakkhaṇa) is the danger that lurks in the alluring attractions of material things. Just as a leper in advanced stages does not dare to partake of rich delicious food, but must decline any that is offered, so also the wise are not attracted to material things. For the apparent greatness and pleasures of human or celestial existence are all fraught with the inherent danger of defilements, which keep one in the recurring process of aging, decay, and death. It is called dukkha because of its nature of danger and dreadfulness (bhayaṭṭhena dukkhaṃ).

The characteristic of insubstantiality (anatta-lakkhaṇa) is the absence of substance in materiality. No substance that can be called the “essence” of a person exists. As we have seen in our discussion of the previous knowledges, the ultimate truth of materiality-mentality disproves the existence of a person—just as all basic structural materials are only timber or bamboo and not house, monastery, temple, rest-house, pandal. It is called anattā because it lacks substance or essence (“asārakaṭṭhena anattā”).

The characteristic of dukkha, suffering or ill, is fully realized only when one attains arahatta magga, the fourth and final stage of the Path. The other two can be realized at earlier or lower stages. Of these two, however, the worldling must first grapple with the characteristic of non-self (anatta-lakkhaṇa), which includes the deluded and erroneous personality view, the view of a real self. For this he must necessarily comprehend the characteristic of non-self in all compounded things, which is, in fact, implicit in the characteristic of impermanence.

“For one who perceives impermanence, O Meghiya, the peception of non-self is established.” (“Aniccasaññino Meghiya, anattasaññā saṇṭhāti”) (Ud 4.1)

Therefore, I will now clearly explain the characteristic of impermanence with a view to throwing light on the characteristic of non-self.

Examining the Fire Element

In discussing the knowledge of comprehending the Dhamma, we met the six basic elements of materiality. We shall now begin by examining tejodhātu, the element of heat or the fire element and its characteristics of impermanence and non-self (no-essence). Tejo comprises heat and cold, which are known by the world as such, but which are primary elements that belong to tejo. Now, heat and cold are of opposite nature, each being the antithesis of the other. When cold prevails, heat is absent, and vice versa. What the world calls a being or a person is born only once and dies only once. There are no repeated arisings of a person during his lifetime, nor repeated vanishings or cessations. Tejo, as a basic element in the body of all living things, arises quite a number of times in a day, and vanishes in as many times. During the course of any single day, we might say: “Oh, now it is no longer warm; it is getting cold”; or “it is no longer cold; it is getting warm now.” That being so, tejo arises and vanishes in its own way, whereas what is believed to be a person, an individual, does not have the same arisings and vanishings. No identity exists between tejo and the assumed personal entity of a being. Thus, in the Abhidhamma sense it is erroneous to speak of “someone” feeling warm or cold when tejo becomes hot or cold. It gets warm or cold as a mere phenomenon of tejo; no one is feeling warm or cold in the ultimate sense. For, apart from that phenomenon, there is no person, no personal entity.

Since the so-called person or being does not, in the ultimate sense, correspond to tejo, a basic element with its own characteristic, it is evident that neither heat nor cold is a person or a being. Neither of them connotes a person or a being. If it were so, then the same phenomenon of arisings and vanishings should hold true both of tejo and the so-called person. If tejo were a person, then, like the so-called person, it should also decease only once in a person’s lifetime. As a matter of fact, tejo arises and vanishes many times a day, and turns from hot to cold every now and then. These changes are very noticeable. We know when it is hot, and we know when the heat vanishes. We also know when it is cold, and we know when the cold vanishes. If this phenomenon of hot and cold were indeed a person, then we would consider that the person arises and vanishes every time heat or cold arises and vanishes. That, however, is not the case. Though we notice that heat and cold arise and vanish many times a day, we generally do not consider that a person arises and vanishes in as many times a day. We hold the view that a person, once born, dies only once in his lifetime. Thus, the incongruity is plain enough. Heat and cold cannot be the same thing as a person. Heat and cold do not belong to a person; they cannot be called the substance of a person. They are not a person, not a self. They are merely the element of tejo.

This is the impermanent and the non-self character of tejo.

The fact of the numerous vanishings, even in the course of a day, is the character of impermanence (anicca lakkhaṇa). Since material phenomena have the inherent character of constant decay and vanishing, they are not anything substantial that can be called a person or a being. They are vain things that do not really exist. Hence, they have the character of voidness, non-self (anattalakkhaṇa).

By saying that there is no substance, we mean that if the phenomenon of heat or cold be taken as a person, then one is assuming that the phenomenon is a substance. In that case, one believes that heat or cold represents a personal entity. In other words, one believes in the existence of a self (attā). Now, if heat or cold were a person that has a “self,” then either of them should remain unchanged till his death. The fact is, however, that heat and cold change every moment, regardless of the so-called person, who has no control over them. Since that “person” cannot rely on heat or cold as his own self, it is evident that neither heat nor cold has no self (anattā).

Certain beings live a hundred years. The heat-and-cold in such a person does not remain constant throughout the hundred years of his life. It does not remain so even for ninety years, nor for eighty years, nor for seventy years—for ten years, for five years, for four years, nor for one year. Therefore, it is clear that tejo is not his own self; it is not a self at all. I am repeating myself, but this is a very subtle matter that must be grasped. Bear this point with your entire mind and strive to gain insight.

End of discussion on tejodhātu.

The Origination and Character of the Four Great Elements in Combination

The four great elements of earth, water, wind, and fire have been compared to reflections that appear in a mirror. They may be likened to a rainbow appearing while sunlight is passing through a vapory sky. The emphasis is on their ephemeral character. They arise due to the four main causes—kamma, mind, temperature, and nutriment—and vanish due to the same causes. If that transient nature of all materiality has been grasped, when one contemplates one’s body, the same phenomena will be observed. Not the blink of an eye passes without fresh materiality arising many times, only to decay and disappear as soon as it has arisen. Those arisings and vanishings take place not unlike the frothing, turbulent, steamy water in a big boiler, where the froth forms and disappears in no time. Just as a confused succession of bubbles takes form and dies, the arisings and vanishings of the four great elements in the body will be discerned, all caused and conditioned by the four main factors of kamma, mind, temperature, and nutriment, of which the role of nutriment is most vivid.

Conditioned by kamma, mind, temperature and nutriment, there arise in the body the element of hardness (paṭhavī or earth element), the element of cohesion (āpo or water element), the element of life-sustaining heat (tejo or fire element), and the element of motion and support (vāyo or wind element). None of these four elements possesses any substance, not even so much as an atom. All are mere properties or functions. Therefore, when any one of them decays, all of them are destroyed at once. If the element of fire goes out, the qualities of hardness, cohesion, and motion also die out instantaneously. They cannot survive even for the blink of an eye. If the earth element fails, all the other elements lose their basis. Thus, the qualities of cohesion, heat or cold, and motion or distension, all disappear. Watch closely this happening in your own body.

The rate at which the decaying materiality is instantly and continuously replaced by a successive arising of fresh matter is so rapid that tens of thousands of changes take place within the blink of an eye or a flash of lightning. The rapidity is not visible to the physical eye. The arisings and vanishings going on in a state of flux can only be discerned through insight, contemplating their ultimate nature as explained above. In this state of flux, seen with mental perception, every movement represents the change taking place between the old and the new. To the physical eye, an apparently permanent object is seen as making no movements. If one is not wiser than what the eye can see, one is still a far cry from the ultimate truth—a point that needs to be taken to heart.

When the four main causes that bring about the arising of the properties of hardness (earth-element), cohesion (water-element) and support (wind-element), undergo a change, the co-existent fire-element also fails, which brings about the instant cessation of all materiality making up a given unit of materiality. How this comes about will now be explained.

Fire, as we know from everyday experience, arises dependent on some other matter and consumes that matter. That is the very nature of fire. In the same way, the fire element, as an ultimate fact of materiality, arises dependent on the three other elements of hardness, cohesion, and support; and consumes them all in no time. Fire that burns on garbage instantly burns it into ashes. Fire that burns on oil burns up its fuel-oil. In the same way, fire that burns on kerosene consumes the kerosene. Whatever fuel the fire happens to be fed on is devoured at once. Much in the same way, the element of fire that burns throughout the body in all beings devours the co-existent elements, and this process takes place all the time very rapidly without pause. The devouring of nutriment is much more voracious. That being the case, no materiality, be it the element of earth or the element of water, can last even as long as the blink of an eye or a flash of lightning. Within such short moments they all vanish forever, hundreds and thousands of times. Every such decaying materiality is instantly replaced so that the growth and development of childhood into adulthood is made possible.

In the quest for truth, you have to try to visualize with your mental faculty the incessant phenomena of decay throughout your body. If you can visualize the state of flux quite vividly in yourself, you will perceive vividly how the whole body is made up of new arisings or origination of materiality, as well as of the constant decay. Thus, you will see the truth of the impermanence of all things.

A lamp with a fuel-can containing one liter of kerosene burns up whole litre before it dies out. So long as someone refills the can before it is empty, the level of fuel may not seem to decrease and the flame may not appear to diminish in intensity. Yet, the fact is that both the fuel and the flame feeding on it are dying out every moment. If it were otherwise, there would be no need to replenish the oil. Suppose that the lamp is kept alight the whole night and that fifty liters of kerosene oil have been used up, this amount is evidently what has been consumed by the fire. The fact of the flame consuming its fuel is noticeable to the keen observer. The passing moments of the flame getting weaker, as the fuel gets low before it is replenished, is also observable. Furthermore, everyone knows that to keep the lamp alight the whole night requires a considerable amount of kerosene.

The same holds true with living things. It is the regular meals that supply the fuel for the body. A meal provides the necessary fuel to keep the body whole for a certain number of hours, after which the pinch of hunger comes to be felt. After some time, the body cannot function, as it is not supplied with the necessary food. As the body decays so fast, the fresh arising of materiality, replacing the old, is equally fast. This rapid process, by which fresh matter is needed to replace the worn-out and deceased matter, forces living beings constantly to search for food. That is why the task of keeping this mind and body process going is a compulsive action that is not only demanding, but often exacting.

Imagine the amount of food—cereals, grains, and other crops—produced in this part of the world, in the course of one year, and apportion it into monthly quotas for consumption by the population; and then break it down into daily requirements. Think of the magnitude of the daily food consumption. It represents the scale of material replenishment that must be met every day. This enormity of the daily food intake required to keep ourselves alive, so that the material phenomena inside us is kept regularly replenished, indicates the enormous rate of decay that is always overtaking us.

Think of the law of “big fish eat little fish,” all reflecting the fundamental fact of keeping oneself fed so as to live. Think of the human drudgery, day in and day out, required to earn one’s livelihood, amidst all sorts of struggles; the sweating away at one’s job; the planning and scheming, the travel and expeditions, the arguments and haggling’s, the disputes and fights, the security and precautions, the fretting’s and fuming’s, the stress and strain, the cares and woes—all these just for the sake of preserving one’s precious little life. If one can contemplate all these, down to their root-cause, one will recognize the dire necessity of sustaining the body by providing fresh fuel. One will see the compulsiveness of keeping oneself alive through nutriment. When one is able to understand this compulsive nature of staying alive through fresh fuel, then the rate of consumption of what has been fed into the body will be appreciated. Then the ephemeral character of the body will be seen; the utter helplessness will be seen; the sheer absence of self will be seen.

In short, all the cares that beset living things in the world are due to the rapidity with which all material phenomena arise and decay in the body, big or small. This is the natural order of things in their origination—the characteristic of impermanence and non-self in the natural state of things—which needs to be comprehended.

Attachment to one’s body is usually strong. Everybody would like to live a hundred years, or even a thousand years (if possible). This entails sustaining the ever-decaying body by means of fresh fuel so that fresh materiality is caused to arise to take the place of decayed matter. If one comprehends the arising of fresh materiality, due to the fresh feedings in the natural state of the body, and realizes its transience and non-self character, lacking reality or substance even in the natural form, then it will not be too difficult to comprehend the altered condition (vikati) of the arising of materiality, the transience in the altered state of things, the dissolution (bhijjana), the diminution (khaya), the destruction (vaya), and the emptiness or insubstantiality (asāra) of the altered state of things.

By altered conditions that arise (vikati-jāti) is meant the occurrence of ailments and diseases, dangers, enemies, suffering from violence (daṇḍa), and accidents or misfortunes (upaddava).

One should observe that the materiality that composes the body is subject to the ravages of all those dangers and mishaps, and that it is decaying and dying out incessantly. This is called “impermanence due to extraneous causes” (vikati-anicca). The nature of insubstantiality due to extraneous causes (vikati-anattā) should be seen in the same way. The fresh arisings occur incessantly; there is no lapse between the decayed matter and fresh matter; the process is continuous every moment. Therefore, it is possible for desirable materiality and undesirable materiality to arise in turns at any moment, throughout the whole body. And since the deterioration and decay is also occurring very swiftly, it is also possible that being well suddenly turns to being unwell, pleasantness to unpleasantness. In fact, there is never a moment when such a turn from good to bad cannot occur, for every moment is filled with arisings and vanishings. All fresh arisings are, in the ultimate sense, fresh births (jāti). For instance, when we say that we have a sore eye or an earache, this is the arising or birth of some unpleasant feeling.

The disappearance is called impermanence (anicca), for what has arisen does not last even a moment, but deteriorates, decays, and dies out. In common usage, we say, “The cold is no more, it is gone.” These are but instances of impermanence. By non-self (anatta) is meant the insubstantial character of all things, the fact that things actually exist only in a state of flux. In common parlance, we hear such expressions as: “Pleasure does not last, it is only momentary”; or “The cold lasts just a while”; “Beauty is not lasting”; or “The stiffness is gone now.” All these expressions denote the transient nature of all compounded things.

In this body, countless factors are ever present to bring to extinction all good or bad, i.e. desirable or undesirable states, and these factors are both intrinsic as well as extrinsic. The Buddha calls paṭhavī (earth element) a poison-mouthed (kaṭṭha-mukha) snake. When the snake bites the tip of a toe, the poison instantly reaches the head, knocking the victim unconscious. All at once, the whole body undergoes a tremendous change from the normal condition to a searing physical condition. Not a trace of the normal healthy physical condition is left. The whole body is suddenly filled with frightfully hot physical phenomena. This may be likened to a big bomb filled with fifty litres of high explosive, which, when exposed to a tiny fire through its firing point, turns the entire contents of explosive into a powerful mass of fire.

An instant before, the physical condition of the victim, beginning from the soles of his feet, was in a good or desirable state; it was normal. This is quite evident. The burning heat, the pain, the aching, the stabbing sensation, the cramp, the spasm, the convulsion, the numbness and stiffness caused by snake venom, is a later occurrence bringing severe discomfort and distress. This, too, is evident. If the victim were asked, he or she would say that this pain was caused from something outside and was not there before. However, this knowledge is crude, superficial. Because people do not understand the arising of fresh physical phenomena, they do not know that the earlier healthy physical condition, the old materiality, has decayed. They are quite ignorant of the impermanent nature of material phenomena.

Any fresh feeling or sensation that is noticed in one’s body, any arising of pain or disease, means fresh origination of physical phenomena, fresh elements, fresh units of materiality, fresh facts, in the ultimate sense. Furthermore, all such fresh origination takes place only to replace the old elements, the old units of materiality, the old facts, which have faded away into nothingness. All this instability and cessation should be properly understood as the characteristic of impermanence.

When one feels a hot sensation arise in any part of the body, or throughout the whole body, it is fresh materiality that has taken birth. Wherever fresh arising occurs, one should realize that previous matter has decayed. When the whole body has perceptibly turned hot, one has to understand that the previous materiality, elements, and units of physical phenomena, have decayed and vanished. The rate of change from old to new, however, is too swift to be noticeable.

Sometimes we feel cold; sometimes we feel some pain, ache, numbness, stiffness, and sprain; sometimes there is itching or irritation—all sorts of unpleasant sensations are felt in our body, now here, now there. Wherever such sensations occur, one should perceive that this occurrence signifies dissolution of old materiality, making it possible for fresh materiality to arise.

It is on account of these extraneous causes of the arising of physical phenomena and their transience, which are liable to befall one at any moment, that one is never free from worry. Even in the midst of enjoyment of life, there looms this prospect of external causes leading to an abrupt change into undesirable states. The range of mishaps is infinite; people live in constant worry about disease, accidents, enemies etc., and have to be always on guard against them, never enjoying a really carefree moment. Fences, alarm-signals, watchdogs, sentries, and volunteer defence corps are symbols of a sense of insecurity. Even so, people are often obliged to sleep in a hidden spot and to travel incognito so as to fool the would-be enemy. When one contemplates these cares and worries attending us all the time, one can appreciate how burdensome this body is, what a great liability, what suffering (dukkha).

This is an explanation showing the sudden and swift change and corruption of the earth element, which is the basis of the physical body as illustrated by the Buddha by the poison-mouthed snake, using the analogy of a snake-bite victim and a bomb. What has been said about earth element should, by implication, also be noted as applying to the elements of water, fire, and wind, the co-existent elements in any unit of materiality.

Practical Method to Comprehend the Three Characteristics in the Four Great Elements

I shall expand this statement now. Imagine a hard block of lac, wax, or tallow, as big as a man. Expose it to fire thoroughly inside and out. Try to visualize the lump melting away—how the hardness gives way to softness, from moment to moment. Then imagine the fire being withdrawn from the lump, and try to visualize the reverse process—how the softness gives way to hardness, from moment to moment. The yielding of hardness, stage by stage, till there is no hardness left is, in Abhidhamma terms, the deterioration, disintegration and dissolution, or decease of earth element (paṭhavī). The same phenomena has been referred to in various terms in the Suttantaand the Abhidhamma teachings as cessation (nirodha), dissolution (bhaṅga), diminution (khaya), destruction (vaya), passing away (atthagama), decease (maraṇa), and impermanence (anicca).

A yogi who practices contemplation for insight must discern the above process of deterioration; when he can do so, he is possessed of knowledge of the three characteristics (lakkhaṇatthaya-ñāṇa).

If you have comprehended earth element as a poison mouthed (kaṭṭha-mukha) snake, then you will also comprehend the water element as a putrid-mouthed (pūti-mukha) snake, fire element as a fiery-mouthed (aggi-mukha) snake, and the wind element as a sword-mouthed (sattha-mukha) snake. You will understand the impermanent character of these elements and that they are corruptive, decaying, and constantly changing.

As the water element gets stronger, the cohesiveness of materiality gets stronger stage by stage; and, as it gets weaker, the cohesiveness also gets weaker stage by stage until it disintegrates. These changes illustrate that the nature of cessation, dissolution, diminution, destruction, passing away, decease, and impermanence is inherent in āpo.

As the fire element gets stronger, the degree of heat gets stronger , and the cold increases stage by stage; and, as it gets weaker, heat is replaced by cold, and the cold diminishes stage by stage. These changes illustrate that the nature of cessation, dissolution, diminution, destruction, passing away, decease, and impermanence is inherent in tejo.

As the wind element gets stronger, the supporting quality and the motive force become stronger stage by stage; as it gets weaker, matter becomes flaccid or lacks movement. These changes illustrate that the nature of cessation, dissolution, diminution, destruction, passing away, decease, and impermanence is inherent in vāyo.

When a yogi clearly comprehends these phenomena, he has attained the knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence. Only then is he truly possessed of vipassanā insight or vipassanā-ñāṇa. A superficial awareness that death awaits everyone, that decay is inevitable, that destruction is inevitable, etc., is not sufficient knowledge, for it is not insight. Hence, such commonplace knowledge is not called the knowledge of the three characteristics. This kind of banal knowledge is displayed even by people of other creeds.

What I have described above is the practical method to comprehend the three characteristics in the four great elements constituting our body.

The Three Characteristics in the Six Kinds of Consciousness

Of the six kinds of consciousness, mind-consciousness is the most crucial. It is also fraught with immense possibilities for misunderstanding with grave consequences, dragging one down to the niraya abodes of tortuous existences. Thus, I will begin with it.


Mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa) is usually misunderstood to be permanent. It is believed to be lying in the heart all the time as a vital force or “life,” having a distinct phenomenon all its own with power to prolong itself. Hence the notions “I know,” “I think,” “I muse,” “I ponder” etc. All these concepts are grossly mistaken: they are manifestations of the burning personality-belief, the wrong view that can drag one down to the niraya world after one’s death.

Mind-consciousness has the heart base (hadaya-vatthu) as its physical basis. In the heart there is about a cup of blood, which is continuously agitated like a spring due to the digestive heat (pācaka-tejo) lying below it and the life-preserving heat (usmā) that is diffused throughout the whole body. The materiality known as the heart-base (hadaya-vatthu), as millions of units, floats there in the constantly oozing stream of blood. Mind-consciousness arises from that material base in a continuous process of flux. As it arises, it originally has a dazzling luminosity. This radiant quality of mind-consciousness is described by the Buddha in such statements as: “O bhikkhus, this mind (consciousness) is shining.” (“Pabhassaram-idaṃ bhikkhave cittaṃ”) (AN 1:5–6)

The luster of mind-consciousness is, however, not visible with the eyes. It is to be perceived only. One may try to visualize it with benefit, provided such visualization helps one to comprehend clearly the arising and the disappearance of phenomena, since this transience of nature has been compared to a flash of lightning (“vijjuppādāva ākāse uppajjanti vayanti ca”; Nid I 43).

For better concentration, try to fix your attention on a particular spot in the heart as the blood oozes out in a rising and falling motion—maybe in the center, in the front, at the back, on the right side, or on the left side. In fact, such risings and fallings take place in the heart in hundreds of spots, and, wherever a phenomenon arises, it disappears then and there. This is its nature.

Imagine any sensitive bodily organ the same size as the heart—an eye-ball, for example–on which many pin pricks are made. Each prick will cause a sensation of pain to arise at that spot, and the painful consciousness and mental aggregates (nāmakkhandhā) will disappear at the same spot. In the same manner, you should be able to see vividly in the mind the arisings and vanishings of consciousness and mental aggregates anywhere at the heart-base.

Let us take an illustration: A small bottle is filled with about a half a cup of a very clear red liquid that can swiftly destroy anything coming into contact with it. A micro-organism of extremely delicate nature, dazzling white, that is born in the liquid by its own nature, arises now here, now there, and makes as if to move violently; but, even before the movement can take place, it is dissolved in the red liquid and disappears within the blink of an eye. Visualize the continuous appearance of these micro-organisms, now here, now there, and their instantaneous disappearance. The arising and vanishing of mind-consciousness is taking place just like that—mere flashes, or, rather, a series of flashes.

The rapidity of the rising and falling is so pronounced that, wherever one focuses the mind on the heart-base, the whole surface of the red blood will be marked by a continuous succession of these risings and fallings, as if in a state of oscillation. The tenacious conventional concept of “I know,” “I think,” etc., holding consciousness or mind as one’s own self, must now be readily identifiable with this oscillating phenomenon. If, in spite of such visualization, the old deluded belief in a lasting soul or self—“I know,” “I think,”—still persists, the knowledge is not real; it is still superficial. Therefore, do not let that die-hard belief, which is a passport to the hellish fires of niraya, linger in your thoughts.

When you try to understand the changing phenomena of mindconsciousness at the heart-base, give your attention also to what has all along been taken for granted as your thought. Then you will slowly realize that, in reality, none of your thoughts are there. As taught by the Buddha:

“If one knows that the body is like foam and the mind a mirage, he escapes the clutches of Death (maccu) and attains Nibbāna.” (Dhp 46)

Herein, the body is compared to foam to show its unstable and ephemeral nature, and the mind to the mirage to show the delusionand lack of real substance.

In the hot season, before the rains arrive, natural reservoirs lie as wide stretches of parched land with cracks showing everywhere. In the mid-day sun, these dry unvegetated stretches, when viewed from a distance, present a shimmering sea not unlike a vast expanse of water. Herds of thousands of thirsty deer, in search of very scarce water, think that the mirage appearing before them is water, and they rush toward it. When they get to the scorched bed of the reservoir, however, the imagined water still seems some distance away. They try to get there, but there is no water. They may turn back and see the same phenomenon in the center of the reservoir. In that case, they run back to the center. The water is not there: it again seems to lie yonder, where they again rush. In this way, there is endless delusion and an endless search for water, where, in reality, there is no water at all. All perish in the vain attempt.

This mirage is, in fact, a product of a slight vapor arising from beneath the earth due to direct sunlight and heat. It is an admixture of the vaporous heat and sunlight that makes it appear to be quivering. It cannot be seen at close quarters. It only appears at a distance where the sunlight plays a role with the rising heat. In contemplating mind-consciousness, one has to remember this elusive phenomenon. The mental-constituents (nāmakkhandha), i.e., viññāṇa and the incorporeal factors, arise constantly, being inclined to mental objects, and vanish as swiftly as the vaporous heat, and, just like the mirage, they lack substance.

The arising and the vanishing must be observed carefully. That the arising and vanishing occur in fleeting succession must be clearly comprehended. That is the essence. Then the character of impermanence is grasped.

After one has comprehended the transient nature of the six kinds of consciousness, as explained above, one should contemplate their dependent origination. When the characteristic of impermanence is well comprehended, the characteristic of emptiness, insubstantiality, or the non-self, becomes evident.

On Eye-Consciousness

“On account of visual objects and eye-sensitivity, eyeconsciousness arises.”(“Cakkhuṃ ca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhu-viññāṇaṃ.” [Paṭṭhāna])

Herein “visual objects” is an Abhidhamma expression. It is an abstract term. To demonstrate what it means, one has to resort to the eight essential properties of matter that constitute a certain physical unit. “Visual object called man,” “visual object called cow,” “visual object called log,” “visual object called post” etc. are all Abhidhamma terms. “I see a man,” “I see a cow,” “I see a log,” “I see a post” etc. are of common usage. Even in the Abhidhamma there are certain terms coined in concrete sense, like kabaliṅkāra āhāra (lit., a morsel) for material food. Such usage is called “expressions in concrete terms” (savatthuka-kathā). When expressed in this way, the meaning becomes clear. Thus, in the Abhidhamma, these common usage terms (vohāra-kathā) are interspersed between abstract terms (paramattha-kathā), which are valid in the ultimate sense. For instance, in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī, we come across such words as rice (odana), malt gruel (kummāsa), meal (sattu), fish (maccha), and meat (maṃsa). Material food is compounded of eight essential elements (as in any unit of matter), of which “nutritive essence” (oja) is one. The term kabaliṃkāra is another Abhidhamma term for that particular element.

Since concrete terms are more readily understandable, I shall use them here. By “visual objects” that are seen occasionally, we mean things that happen to come within our sight, things that have been noticed. From your rising in the morning till going to bed at night, things seen may be noted down serially, but the seeing is actually too varied and complex. It is varied because there are just too many things to count. It is complex because in seeing just one thing—say a man—one part (of his body) is seen first, one part second, and so on: It is to cover this infinite range of seeing that “visual objects” are said to be “seen occasionally.” The essential point here is, in this seeing or, rather, in the process of seeing, each object is a case for the arising and vanishing of each eye-consciousness, one following the other in rapid succession.

Let me expand on this statement.

As one comes within the seeing range of a log, for example, the image of the log is at once reflected on the eye-sensitivity. In the ultimate reality of things, the impact of this image falling on the eye-sensitivity is considerable: it has been compared to the striking of a thunder-bolt. Eye-consciousness arises due to this rude shock, i.e., as and when the image falls on the eye-base. The phenomenon may be likened to the sparks coming out as steel strikes flint in a lighter. The image disappears every time the eye blinks, and at each disappearance of the image, eye-consciousness dies out instantly. It is needless to say that the image disappears when the eye turns away from the object. When the blink of the eye is completed, if the eye is still fixed on the object, the image strikes again on the eye-sensitivity, causing fresh eye-consciousness to arise. In this way, eye-consciousness arises in a series. One must take careful note of the fresh arising every time. When the eye turns away from the log to a post, the same thing happens: the image of the log disappears, and the eye-consciousness of the log vanishes; the image of the post appears, and the eye-consciousness of the post arises. When the eye turns away from the post to some other object, again the same thing happens.

Thus, it should be understood that the eye-consciousness arises as and when each visual object is noticed; each consciousness is due to each act of noticing the object.

Eye-consciousness can arise only due to the impact of the image falling on eye-sensitivity. Hence, the text states, “on account of visual objects.” Thus, eye-consciousness in seeing a log is caused by the log; eye-consciousness in seeing a post is caused by the post. In other words, eye-consciousness caused by the log makes you see the log; eye-consciousness caused by the post makes you see the post. Let your understanding be clear about this and about all your acts of seeing.

To take a simile: A certain woman living during a world period when the human life-span is a hundred thousand years is widowed after her first year of marriage. During her marriageable life of fifty-thousand years, she remarries, and each time she does so, her husband dies after only one year. By each husband she begets a child. In this way, she has married fifty-thousand husbands altogether and has begotten as many children. Now, when we wish to refer to these fifty thousand children, we cannot identify them with reference to the mother, so we have to refer to the respective fathers—“as Mr. so and so’s child”. Eye-sensitivity is like the mother; visual objects (log, post, etc.) are like the fifty-thousand fathers; each eye-consciousness is like one of the fifty thousand offspring. That is why it is said: “Through coincidence of eye and visual object, the offspring of evil desire is begotten.”7

Therefore, it is quite true to speak of someone seeing the log through the eye-consciousness born of the log; seeing the post through the eye-consciousness born of the post; and so forth; with respect to everything he may happen to see during a day from the moment of his rising to his retiring for the night.

Let us take another simile: Holding a big glass block, someone runs along a path flanked on each side by a thousand trees which are about a man’s height a thousand. As he passes between the rows of trees, their images of the trees fall in turn on the glass block. Eye-sensitivity is like the glass block; the trees are like the various visual objects; and the images of the trees falling in turn on the moving glass block are like eye-consciousness. The appearance and disappearance of each specific image of the trees’ disappearance represent the phenomenon of eye-consciousness.

Various sounds giving rise to ear-consciousness, smells to nose-consciousness, tastes to tongue-consciousness, tactile objects, both internal and external, to body-consciousness—all these phenomena should also be understood in the same way as in the analogy of the eye-consciousness.

On Mind-Consciousness

The range of mental objects (objects of the mind, ideas, or thoughts) is infinite. They may be wholesome or moral (kusala), unwholesome or immoral (akusala), or ineffective or indeterminate (avyākata). The range includes eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc. It includes unwholesome mental properties, such as greed, hatred, delusion, and wholesome and indeterminate mental properties, such as faith (saddhā), wisdom (paññā), mindfulness (sati), contact (phassa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), one-pointedness of mind (ekaggatā), physical life (jīvitindriya), attention (manasikāra), the seven common mental properties (sabba-citta sādhāraṇa), initial application (vitakka), sustained application (vicāra), deciding (adhimokkha), effort (viriya), pleasurable interest or joy (pīti), desire-to-do (chanda), and the six particular mental properties (pakiṇṇaka). Also included are phenomena, such as the four great elements, the six sense bases, lifeforce (jīvita), nutriment (āhāra), birth (jāti), ageing (jarā), death (maraṇa). All of these are called dhammārammaṇa. Furthermore, the objects of the five senses cannot be known without the functioning of mind-consciousness (mano-viññāṇa).

Mind-consciousness, therefore, receives impressions via the five physical senses in addition to receiving mental objects. In these six ways, the objects of mind-consciousness arise all the time. They belong to the past, the present, and the future. The past experiences, from the time one is born to the present moment, constitute past impressions. All anticipated ideas pertaining to the future, even extending limitlessly into future existences, also work on mind-consciousness. Furthermore, all second-hand knowledge pertaining to the six senses, which one has learnt from others, also comes within the cognition of mind-consciousness.

Mental conceptions rise and fall incessantly in mind-consciousness. Even while asleep, with the mind in its passive state, the “life continuum” (bhavaṅga), directs its attention to either past kamma, or the sign of one’s past kamma or the sign of one’s destination (gati-nimitta).8

Throughout the waking hours, from rising in the morning to retiring for the night and falling asleep, sense-objects make impressions on mind-consciousness, each in its turn, according to circumstances.

Mind-consciousness takes place in a process. The passive state (bhavaṅga) of the mind must receive certain sense impulses through one of the six senses before mind-consciousness arises in the process. The impulse having been received, the mind adverts to it. Only then is it recognized—cognition takes place. With cognition, the thought process continues: full knowledge of the object occurs, and consequent thoughts based on that knowledge follow.

There is never a break in the reception of sense-impressions of one sort or the other at the heart-base.  In fact, a horde of them is always present at its door, seeking entry. Hence, the registering of these impressions goes on without a break. These objects of the mind appear and disappear instantly, causing a distinct mind-consciousness, which rises and falls at each such occasion. This goes on ceaselessly. Of course, we are using the word “ceaseless” in the worldly sense as understood by the uninformed average person.

As a matter of fact, each kind of consciousness takes place only at its respective sense-base; it does not take place in any other part of the body. That is to say, when eye-consciousness takes place, all the mental phenomena occur at the eye only, nowhere else. Mental phenomena, which consist of the four aggregates of mentality (nāmakkhandha), comprising feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa); mind or mind-consciousness (citta); and the fifty-two mental concomitants (cetasikā), rise together and fall together at the eye-base before another kind of consciousness can occur at another sense-base. Hence, when consciousness is occurring at the ear-base, it does not occur anywhere else. The same holds true for all the six sense-bases. When body-consciousness takes place at a certain spot on the body, all the mental phenomena arise and fall at that particular spot only. When mind-consciousness takes place at the heart-base, all mental phenomena arise and fall only at the heart-base and nowhere else. However, since the mental processes take place in astonishing rapidity, we normally think there is a simultaneous consciousness taking place over the whole body. Even while one thinks that one is seeing something, the eye-consciousness is being interrupted by mind-consciousness at the heart-base innumerable times. In the same way, if there is occasion, ear-consciousness or other kinds of consciousness can arise. For instance, one may see a moving car, the sound of its engine, smell the fumes from its exhaust, and wonder whose car it is and where it is going. People think that these phenomena are occurring simultaneously, but that is not the case. They are occurring in very rapid succession. The same process, it should be understood, applies to the other five senses.

As regards the active comprehension of mind-consciousness, the same principle holds. Consciousness that conditions bodily action cannot at the same time be the consciousness that conditions verbal action. Consciousness that conditions verbal action cannot at the same time be the consciousness that conditions bodily action. However, the rapidity of consciousness is such that the switching off and on of consciousness between bodily and verbal actions is not normally noticed. Hence, we think that, while we are walking, we can also be talking; or that, while talking, we can also make bodily movements, see things, and hear sounds. These seemingly simultaneous occurrences are, in fact, distinct occurrences with their own arisings and vanishings, but they occur too swiftly to be noticed. Although this phenomenon of fleeting consciousness (viññāṇa) may actually run into millions and millions within the blink of an eye, the practicing yogi needs only to comprehend that all these occurrences are distinct phases of arising (udaya) and vanishing (vaya). The insight into flux is what must be developed.

The Purpose of Insight

The purpose of the development of insight (vipassanā) is to have first-hand knowledge to dispel the long-cherished delusion of the belief in a non-existent person or ego, all the time being conscious of I, such as “I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I touch, I know, I think”—the six kinds of deluded sensual perceptions which pave the way to the fires of niraya; as well as, “I speak, I move, I go, I come” etc.,—all symptoms of stark ignorance of the three characteristics of existence. By being mindful of the flux of the mental and physical phenomena constantly occurring within oneself, and by carefully observing those phenomena at the six sense-bases (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and heart-base), one becomes fully aware of when and how they arise and vanish. This is what must be aimed at. Once the arisings and vanishings are clearly seen, from moment to moment, all actions—bodily, verbal, and mental—in their infinite variety, are covered.

When such insight has been properly developed, the ephemeral nature of all materiality-mentality, comprised of the six basic elements—the four great elements of earth, water, wind, and fire, as well as the element of space and the element of consciousness—will be perceived as mere bubbles or foam, impermanent and insubstantial. Their continuous arising and vanishing from moment to moment will be perceived. Thus, the ever-present origination, decay, ageing, and death, the essential transitoriness will be perceived. This perception is the light of knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence.

On gaining this light, one attains the path (magga) and the fruition of the path (phala). And since the path-wisdom virtually leads to the realization of Nibbāna, it is for practical purposes called the knowledge in realizing Nibbāna (nibbāna-paṭivedhañāṇa).

End of exposition of the knowledge in realizing the three characteristics of existence and the knowledge in realizing Nibbāna.


  1. U Tin U rendered this term in three ways in this section: “knowledge of kamma ownership,” “knowledge in seeing that all beings have kamma as their own property,” and “knowledge of kamma as one’s own property.” In the (sub-) commentaries the term is explained thus, “kammassakatāñāṇa: ‘this is his own kamma,’ his state is due to ‘kamma-ownership.’ The knowledge about it, ‘this kamma is the own property of beings; this is our own property,’ is such knowing-knowledge.” M-ṭ I 265 Be: kammassakatāñāṇan-ti kammaṃ sako etassāti kammassako, tassa bhāvo kammassakatā, tattha ñāṇaṃ idaṃ kammaṃ sattānaṃ sakaṃ, idaṃ no sakanti evaṃ jānanañāṇaṃ.
  2. Vavatthāna means “definition” or “analysis.” Dhammavavatthāna could also be translated as “knowledge (arising out) of the analysis of the Dhamma.”
  3. The cūlasotāpanna literally means “lesser stream-enterer,” see Visuddhimagga XIX.27, translated in Path of Purification.
  4. An idiom based on Indian and Burmese Buddhist mythology that Ledi Sayādaw often uses to indicate the symbolically most important physical phenomena in this world. Mount Meru is the highest mountain at the center of Jambudīpa and the universe. The 4 rivers including the Ganges flow from its 4 sides, which are occupied by the four regent gods. Mount Cakkavāla, or the “circumjacent mountains,” is a mythical range of mountains encircling the earth and the limit of light and darkness. The Great Earth is the wide world, the earth.
  5. Ākāsa (space) is a permanent concept (nicca paññatti), a subjective element which has no objective reality.
    The above remark probably was made by Sayādaw U Ñāṇika. In the Manual of Insight (Vipassanā Dīpanī), Wheel 31/32, there is a similar footnote by Sayādaw U Ñāṇika. Following this note, Venerable Ñāṇaponika Thera makes the following remark about the permanent concept doctrine, which seems to be particular to the Ledi Sayādaw school, and perhaps arose under the influence of the  Ledi Sayādaw’s studies of Western, in particular Platonic, philosophy:
    “The statement of the translator, the Venerable U Ñāṇa, ascribing the teaching on the “eternal nature” of concepts and space to Buddhist philosophy in general, requires qualification. This teaching is obviously of late origin, being found neither in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka nor in the old Abhidhamma commentaries. The earliest reference might be in the Parivāra, a late summary of the Vinaya, appended as the last book to the Vinaya Piṭaka. There, in a stanza, it is said that “all formations (saṅkhārā) are impermanent, painful, not-self and conditioned (saṅkhata); Nibbāna and space are not-self”—which, by implication, may mean that the latter two (which do not include concept) are unconditioned (asaṅkhata). It was characteristic of the later schools (also the Śrāvakayāna school of the Vaibhāṣikas) to have enlarged the list of the asaṅkhata-dhammā, while the Dhammasaṅgaṇi (and so also the Sutta Piṭaka) speaks only of Nibbāna as unconditioned (asaṅkhata). It is also significant that the two Abhidhamma manuals, Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha and Abhidhammāvatāra, both have chapters on concept (paññatti), but make no mention of its eternal and unconditioned nature.” (BPS editor)
  6. (i) “Thought-conception (vitakka) is the laying hold of thought, giving it attention. Its characteristic consists in fixing consciousness to the object” (Buddhist Dictionary, Nyanatiloka, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1950), Ed. (ii) The understanding of vitakka depends on whether it is taken literally in the strict sense, which is supramundane, or in common usage, which is mundane. In commentaries, such as the Visuddhimagga, Aṭṭhasālinī, and Abhidhammatthavibhāvanī, the common characteristic of vitakka is: “cetaso abhiniropaṇalakkhaṇa” (directing and lifting the citta and cetasikas toward the objects). In the higher states of mind, vitakka serves as an initial application, lifting citta up toward wisdom, which, in the case of path and fruition (magga-phala), is conducive to extirpation of defilements, and directing citta toward ecstatic concentration (appaṇā-samādhi), which, in the case of jhāna or sublime (mahaggata) fields, is capable of overcoming the hindrances.
    In common usage, however, vitakka means applied or speculative thought, thinking about various aspects of divergent objects (nānāppakāraparikappana), or, to put it simply, day-dreaming. As regards temperaments, vitakka, as one type of cariyā, called “speculative temperament,” is explained in detail in the Path of Purification (pp. 102-112). In the Burmese version of the present text, Ledi Sayādaw is using vitakka in this sense, so “random thought” or “idle thought” is correct. I do not think that “simply wool-gathering” is a suitable expression to convey this idea. (Ven. Sayādaw U Nyanika). There is an extensive explanation regarding cetasika, especially vitakka, in Compendium of Philosophy (Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha), transl. by U Shwe Zan Aung, B.A. (P.T.S., 1910, pp.238ff.)
  7. Cakkhu-rūpena ca saṃvāsā rāgaputtaṃ vijāyati. (Caturārakkhadīpanī v. 74.)
  8. The bhavaṅga can take one of three objects, but in any individual life it always has the same object on every occasion of bhavaṅgacitta. The three objects are: (1) the kamma itself (kamma), that is, an image of the deed itself being performed; (2) the sign of kamma (kamma-nimitta), an image of some object associated with the deed, such as a dagger in the case of a murderer or a dagoba in the case of a pious lay devotee who often went to the temples to worship; or (3) the sign of the destination (gati-nimitta). The last is some sign connected with the future destiny that appeared to the death consciousness of the preceding existence, for example, a terrible fire in the case of a rebirth in one of the hot hells, a heavenly mansion in the case of a deva rebirth; this sign becomes the object of the paṭisandhi-citta (rebirth-linking consciousness) and bhavaṅga-citta of the current existence. (Editor)

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About Ledi Sayadaw

Ledi Sayadaw U Ñaṇadhaja (December 1, 1846 – June 27, 1923) was a highly influential Theravada Buddhist monk. He was recognized from an early age as being highly developed in both the theory (Abhidhamma) and practice of Buddhism and was therefore revered as a scholar.

Sayadaw began his studies at age 20 in Mandalay at Thanjaun. While there he was considered to be a bright and ambitious young monk but his work was scholarly. Leaving Mandalay after a great fire in 1883 caused the loss of his home and his written work to that time, Sayadaw returned to the village of his youth.

Soon, Sayadaw founded a forest monastery in the "Ledi forest" and began practicing and teaching intensive meditation. It was from this monastery that he would take his name, Ledi Sayadaw, meaning "respected teacher of the Ledi forest." In 1900, Sayadaw gave up control of the monastery and pursued more focused meditation in the mountain caves near the banks of the Chindwin River.

He wrote many books on Dhamma in Burmese that were also accessible to serious lay followers. Hence, he was responsible for spreading Dhamma to all levels of society and reviving the traditional practice of Vipassanā meditation. Ledi Sayadaw is therefore seen as one of the forefathers of the contemporary Vipassanā movement.

You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the way

Buddha, Dhp 276