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The Matter-Aggregate

Now we will consider the first aggregate, matter. The Pāli word rūpa may be translated as form, matter or substance. In the Suttas rūpa is also used to refer to the percept of sight.

Matter has two characteristics:

  1. It is describable; or it can be distinguished as shape, color, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental image.
  2. It has resistance (paṭigha) or inertia; this is independent of the particular percept that manifests it.

Beyond the above characteristics, matter can be specified in terms of four primary modes of behavior (cattāro mahābhūta) or four primary patterns of inertia, each of which presents itself in the passage of time, however short. They are:

  1. Earthy (paṭhavī), persistent or solid
  2. Watery (āpo), cohesive
  3. Fiery (tejo), or maturing
  4. Airy (vāyo), moving or windy

Any lump of matter, any particular rūpa, can be regarded as a particular group of behaviors, and matter can be considered as the four primary modes of behavior inclusive of all groups or sets of behavior.

Any object—a clock, a bird, a bottle of ink—represents a set of behaviors that we note when we cognize it. Because each set of behaviors is always present in the same fashion whenever a particular object is cognized, the view arises that the lump of matter exists independent of consciousness. Likewise, in a general way, the view arises that there is a material world that is independent of us individuals; these views are fundamental assumptions of science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.).

Thus the material world of science is, by assumption or definition, devoid of an individual’s point of view; it is public, or communal. Accordingly, science starts by making itself inherently incapable of understanding material change due to conscious action; for conscious action is individual and intentional, and intention is the exercise of preference for one available behavior or set of behaviors at the expense of others. Similarly the tremendous difficulty and unending task for the fields of science that come directly into contact with the individual’s consciousness: physiology, psychology, medicine, surgery, etc. By misinterpreting material change due to conscious action in a mechanical materialistic way, these can do little but patch up leaks. And quantum physics, in hoping to reinstate the ‘observer’—the scientist himself—is only locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen.

A visual experience involves eye-consciousness and an auditory experience involves ear-consciousness. Thus there is a difference in consciousness between a visual and an auditory experience. But although there is a difference in consciousness, there may or may not be a difference in the lump of matter or the set of behaviors concerned. A clock or a bird may provide both a visual and an auditory experience. On the other hand, two kinds of visual experiences both involve eye-consciousness, but two sets of behavior. For example, the sight of the clock and the sight of the bird involve two sets of behaviors called ‘clock’ and ‘bird’.

Anything that appears as behavior (as matter, or as inertia)—that thing, in itself, does not necessarily involve consciousness, as perception does. But for behavior to exist, there must be cognition of it as behavior. In other words, for behavior to exist—which is the same as saying, for matter to exist—it must be phenomenal. Matter or behavior cannot be said to exist purely in itself. Is the solid mode (earth) apart from cognition really the solid mode, or something else? What is ‘matter’, independent of cognition? These questions (often seriously posed by modern philosophers) are meaningless and unanswerable because they are asking whether something exists without having to cognize it by any of the six senses. To say that something exists we must first be able to cognize it, simply because its existence is always in some form, and this form—without which there can be no existence—comes in only with our cognition of it. If we are to distinguish a certain mode of behavior from another so that we can say they are different modes, they must first exist or be phenomenal as different modes. And if they are to exist, they must be cognized, and so be present in reality, or at least in imagination. Otherwise there can be no existence of behaviors.

Now, behavior cannot be said to exist in and of itself, then it also cannot be said to cease; for a thing to cease it must first exist. But that which appears or is cognized as behavior or matter can be said to get a footing in existence, and it gets this footing in existence by being present or appearing in some form (as sight, sound, smell etc.) Therefore the Buddha says that the question “Where indeed, venerable one, do these four primary modes of behavior finally cease?” is an improper and meaningless question, which must be rejected. The proper question, the Buddha points out, should be “Where do the four primary modes of behavior called earth, water, air and fire get no footing?” In other words, where do these four modes not appear, or where do they not become phenomenal? This is a meaningful question because it directly involves cognition, or existence. And the answer is: the four primary modes get no footing where existence has ceased, or where consciousness has ceased. (Cessation has two phases, and the answer the Buddha gave involves both. We will discuss these two phases at length later on.)

The Buddha defines matter as follows:

And what, monks, is matter? The four primary modes of behavior and the matter that is by holding the four primary modes of behavior. This, monks, is matter.” — Upādānaparipavatta Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.56)

Matter is taken in two senses in this definition; first in the fundamental sense, and second, in the everyday sense that the puthujjana’s existence is concerned with. In the fundamental sense, matter is the four primary modes of behavior, designated as earthy or solid, watery or cohesive, fiery or ripening and airy or moving. there are also called the earth-element, water-element, fire-element and air-element. The word dhātu translated as ‘element’ is not used in the sense of a fundamental ingredient or irreducible substance. It is used in the same sense as in the phrase ‘a good element’ or ‘the justifiable element’: “a part or aspect of something abstract, especially one that is essential or characteristic.” [Oxford Dictionary]

Venerable Sāriputta says that a pile of wood, which to the normal individual would be composed only of the earth-element, could be perceived by the developed individual as composed of any one of the four elements, or as the beautiful or ugly element. He says,

Friend, a monk who has won supernormal mental power can, if he wishes, view that pile of wood as earth. What is the reason for that? The earth-element is in that pile of wood; hence the monk who has won supernormal mental power can view that pile of wood as earth. However, a monk who has won supernormal mental power can, if he wishes, view that pile of wood as water… as fire… as air… as beautiful… as ugly. What is the reason for that? The ugly-element is in that pile of wood; hence the monk who has won supernormal mental power can view that pile of wood as ugly.” — Sotānugata Sutta (Aṅguttara-Nikāya 4.191)

This gives an indication of the meaning of dhātu, which we render as ‘element’. It also confirms that for an element of behavior to exist as that element or behavior, it must be cognized. The Suttas speak of other elements too, such as the space-element (ākāsadhātu), consciousness-element (viññāṇadhātu), pleasure-element (sukhadhātu), and so on.

“The matter that is by holding the four primary modes of behavior” is matter in the everyday sense, and for the puthujjana. In this everyday sense, matter would be ‘a material object’ rather than being just matter in the fundamental sense. And in this everyday sense, matter is dependent upon the four primary modes of behavior; that is, in the everyday sense, ‘material objects’ depend on matter.

Monks, the four primary modes are the cause, the four primary modes are the condition for the manifestation of the aggregate of matter.” — Puṇṇama Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.82)

Now, the most important or significant aggregate of the four primary modes in the everyday sense—the most important lump of matter—for the individual, and described as internal to him, would be ‘this body’. The Buddha describes it:

This material body is made up of the four fundamental modes.” — Dīghanakha Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 74)

In relation to the puthujjana’s experience, it is understood to be not just ‘this body’ but ‘this my body’. Being then something held or clung to, it is something that exists by clinging (upādāya), because then it would be something considered as ‘for me’ or ‘mine’. In this way, “The matter that is by holding the four primary modes of behavior” is the puthujjana’s body (described as internal) which he considers as ‘I’ and ‘mine’ together with whatever external material objects he so considers. In other words, it is the clinging-aggregate-of-matter (rūpapādānakkhandha).

Monks, whatever matter—be it past, present or future, internal or external, gross or fine, inferior or superior, far or near—is with cankers, has to do with clinging: that is called the clinging-aggregate-of-matter.” — Khandha Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22.48)

The word upādāya, translated as ‘holding’ or ‘clinging’, is used in the Suttas in two different senses. In the simpler sense, it is used to mean ‘derived from’ or ‘because of’, or to mean being a ‘fuel’ for something. In this sense, which has nothing to so with our present considerations of subjectivity, we see upādāya used in the phrase:

Anukampaṃ upādāya: ‘taking up sympathy’ or ‘because of sympathy’ — Kammanirodha Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 35.129)

and also in the phrase:

Ayaṃ aggi tiṇakaṭṭthupādānaṃ paṭicca jalatīti: “this fire is burning dependent on taking up grass and sticks.” — Aggivaccha Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 72)

In a far more important sense, upādāya is used to mean ‘by holding’ or ‘by clinging’, which essentially means “by considering as ‘I’ or ‘mine’.” Upādāya is more usually used in the Suttas in this subjective sense. The importance of the word in this sense is found in that, as we will see later on, the problem of suffering and its cessation (which is the subject of the Suttas) lies fundamentally and essentially in these considerations of subjectivity.

Since the puthujjana’s experience is always one of clinging, the things he clings to are the four primary modes of behavior, or the four material elements. So the Buddha defines the four elements (dhātu) as follows:

And what is the earth property? The earth property can be either internal or external. What is the internal earth property? Anything internal, within oneself, that’s hard, solid, & sustained [by clinging]: head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, or anything else internal, within oneself, that’s hard, solid, and sustained: This is called the internal earth property. Now both the internal earth property & the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the earth property fade from the mind.

“And what is the water property? The water property may be either internal or external. What is the internal water property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that’s water, watery, & sustained: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oil, saliva, mucus, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or anything else internal, within oneself, that’s water, watery, & sustained: This is called the internal water property. Now both the internal water property & the external water property are simply water property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the water property and makes the water property fade from the mind.

“And what is the fire property? The fire property may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that’s fire, fiery, & sustained: that by which [the body] is warmed, aged, & consumed with fever; and that by which what is eaten, drunk, consumed & tasted gets properly digested; or anything else internal, within oneself, that’s fire, fiery, & sustained: This is called the internal fire property. Now both the internal fire property & the external fire property are simply fire property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the fire property and makes the fire property fade from the mind.

“And what is the air property? The air property may be either internal or external. What is the internal air property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that’s air, airy, & sustained: up-going airs, down-going airs, airs in the stomach, airs in the intestines, airs that course through the body, in-&-out breathing, or anything else internal, within oneself, that’s air, airy, & sustained: This is called the internal air property. Now both the internal air property & the external air property are simply air property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the air property and makes the air property fade from the mind.” — Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 140)

There is practically nothing beyond this taught by the Buddha regarding matter. Why has he taught so little about it? The Buddha has a distinct purpose for his Teaching—the elimination of suffering—and he has taught only as much as necessary for that purpose. He seeks no disinterested intellectual, scientific or ecclesiastical approval for his Teaching. In fact, he taught only after being invited by Brahmā: “Lord, let the Auspicious One set forth the Teaching, let the Wellfarer set forth the Teaching. There are beings with less defilements, who are declining from not hearing the Teaching.” The Buddha’s Teaching is designed to lead one on (opanayika) toward the goal of cessation of suffering. Therefore the Buddha’s analysis of matter is sufficient, for no further analysis is essential in order to solve the problem of suffering. What is essential is to understand that the simple analysis given by the Buddha is sufficient, and no detailed material science is needed.

Consciousness, Perception & Feeling ← Prev | Next → The Determinations-Aggregate

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