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On Translating 'Dhatū'


After years (decades!) of saying that 'Dhatu' was our 'Data' and then trying to reconcile this with the usual 'element' and lately experimenting with something like characteristic, or attribute, I have finally seen what was in front of my eyes the whole time. The word means 'data.'

Earth, water, firelight and wind, space and consciousness, figuratively: solidity, liquidity, light and heat, motion, empty space and awareness are really the only things we know. That is the basic information we are given as living beings. This is the data we are given to work with.

We can touch it and it is solid. We can see that it reflects light. It is a conclusion that it is gold or silver.

We can touch it and it is partly solid apparently partly liquid under the surface. It moves around. It is warm. It is a conclusion that it is a living being.

It is important that we reach this level of perception in order to free ourselves from misconception, blindness, ignorance, the influence of education, programming, propaganda, and outright lies.

This is the meaning of the simile of The Crossroads where the four elements meet for a human being. It is at this level that we take off into the illusion of being. This is where 'being' begins, that is, in conceptualization built on this data.



In Brick Hall, Mrs. Rhys Davids translates 'dhatū' as 'element'. The question is: Is 'dhatū' a thing or material object, or is it that which can be known about things or material objects — A property or characteristic?

Here what would be understood using 'element' is that there is a big mass of 'blindness-element' out there that plops down on someone to cause him not to see what is there to see. Think of Don Juan's 'floaters'.

This is no more the case than it is the case that there is a chariot there apart from its constituent parts.

Solidity (earth) is a dhatū, but in a body of water that has become frozen, there is no 'thing' there that is the earth of that water.

The idea that a thing is 'solid' is generated within the perceiver through comprehension of the properties of resistance, relative impenetrability, etc.

So here in this sutta the idea is that there is information there which can be resorted to or not; that the individual, reacting to sense experience with liking or disliking, blinds himself to information that would otherwise inform him with a more neutral view.

In the previous suttas in this series, beginning at SN 2.14.1 we learn one of the most important things there is to know about how to set the mind upright: that the diversity in perceptions comes from the diversity in data (my then translation of 'dhatū') and not the other way around.

The eye comes into contact with a visible object and visual consciousness arises.

To the mind, eye, visible object and visual consciousness are all received as 'dhatū': information.

The individual begins with the belief at heart that he is the creator of the created.

He thinks therefore he is.

Things enter his world upon his perception of them.

With the information that perception arises from objects and not the other way around, the tendency is to say that one's world is created by an external force. But the Buddha tells us that it is 'within this fathom long body that the beginning of the world, the end of the world and the escape from the world is to be found.' [AN 4.45]

What has happened?

Without noticing it the idea of self has, in its effort at 'self'-preservation, switched sides.

A visual object comes into contact with my eye and creates my visual consciousness of that object. Put a billion or so of those perceptions together and snap fingers or breath into a lump of clay and there I am.

"I did not create the world", "The world created me."

But all that has happened in reality is that the properties of sensations, perceptions and consciousness have arisen from contact in conjunction with the view-property "I am this way" or "I am that way."

A little information is a dangerous thing!

SN 2.14.13
Brick House, Olds translation



In [SN 2.14.30] (And reference the whole samyutta. SN 2.14) The Buddha introduces the four basic bits of information we receive about things in the world: that things are earth-like, water-like, firelight-like and wind-like.

PED gives one of the ideas in back of this term as dhātū, being the equivalent of 'dom' as in surf-dom.

A footnote in the next sutta references the commentary in explaining the meaning as 'solidity, liquidity, heat, and motion.' Properties, characteristics, bits of information, not 'elements.'

Mrs. Rhys Davids use of 'elements' is here most easily explained but it should be seen, and will be shown in the following suttas that what is being spoken of here is not a thing in and of itself, but a property of things, and that using the translation 'element' points in the wrong direction.

Here I return to the issue of translating 'dhatū' as element to point out to the reader that he should be aware that in Volume 3 of the Samyutta, the Khandha Vagga, Woodward has used 'element' for his translation of 'khandha'. We need to be on the alert and allow for this sort of inconsistency at this point in the progress towards a translation with a uniform vocabulary which, if it ever is to be, is still some time in the future.

One more thing: Mrs. Rhys Davids translation of 'vāyo-dhātū' as 'air ~' is just wrong. It is 'wind' or 'wave-form' or 'motion' or the like. Air does not convey the idea of motion which is necessary for understanding this property. The 'vāyo' concentration device, for example, is to look on the motion of leaves blown in the wind. One determines if there is life in a living being through the presence of the tejo and vāyo dhātū. Air exists in dead things.

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