Bhūta and Yathābhūta – What Do They Really Mean

December 28, 2017; re-written August 31, 2022; revised April 15, 2023 

Yathābhūta – True Nature of Bhūta 

1. Yathābhūta is usually translated as “true nature” (close to the true meaning but does not provide the essence of it). Some people think that implies that bhūta means “nature”; others translate bhūta as “becoming.” Both are wrong.

  • In yathābhūta ñāna, “yathā” means “true nature,” and ñāna means wisdom. Thus, it means “wisdom about the true nature of this world made of four types of bhūta: pathavi, āpo, tējo, and vāyo.”
  • Everything in this world (alive and inert) is made of bhūta.
  • As discussed in “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka” these bhūta have origins in mind, specifically in javana citta. In summary, that means we live in a world made up of our minds and suffer immensely. That suffering goes away when one fully understands that.

2. Bhuta is a Sinhala word as well as a Pāli word. It means a “ghost,” i.e., “not real”  or “an illusion.” That deeper meaning is associated with the four elemental “bhūta“: pathavi, āpo, tējo, and vāyo. That is also why a gandhabba is called a “ghost” too: “Ghost 1990 Movie – Good Depiction of Gandhabba Concept.” Also, see #5 below.

  • One cannot ever see mahā bhūta individually. The smallest unit of matter is a suddhāṭṭhaka, which consists of the four elemental bhūta AND varna, gandha, rasa, and ōja. Thus, a suddhāṭṭhaka (“suddha” + “aṭṭha” where “suddha” is pure or fundamental and “aṭṭha” is eight) means “pure octad” or “pure unit of eight components.” The formation of a suddhāṭṭhaka is discussed in “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka.
  • Note that the four elemental bhūta (pathavi, āpo, tējo, and vāyo) are the primary rūpa. All others, including varna, gandha, rasa, and ōja, are derived from them and are called upādaya rūpa. Those arise due to taṇhā for the primary rupa.
The origin of Suddhāṭṭhaka (and thus the World) is the Mind

3. As mentioned in that post, bhūta originates in “gati” (one’s character/habits). When one cultivates a certain gati, that can lead to the creation of bhūta (suddhāṭṭhaka) produced in javana citta according to abhisaṅkhāra.

  • To understand these keywords, one needs to know about gati (I have sometimes spelled it as gathi, the way it is pronounced.) For example, see “Gati, Bhava, and Jāti. “
  • Modern science struggles to distinguish between pure energy and tangible matter; see the Reference below. That demarcation happens at the suddhāṭṭhaka stage.
Mind Energy to Matter

4. A suddhāṭṭhaka is much smaller than even a photon (a particle of light,) and the Buddha said that mahā bhūta are actual “smallest units of matter.” That is why he called them bhūta.

  • One can NEVER see them or detect them individually. As we mentioned above, the smallest unit of rūpa or a suddhāṭṭhaka consists of eight subunits, including the four primary bhūta.
  • Furthermore, all eight types of bhūta arise from the gati of living beings; see “The Origin of Matter – Suddhṭṭhaka.” A person with rough character qualities is likely to create suddhāṭṭhaka with a higher proportion of pathavi, etc.

5. Billions and billions of suddhāṭṭhaka are combined to lead to the mahā bhūta stage of rūpa. Brahmās have bodies made of mahā bhūta. Only Brahmā can see such fine rūpa.

  • Large aggregates of mahā bhūta combine to form the denser “dhātu stage” of rūpa. The bodies of Devas are at a lighter dhātu stage, and human bodies are denser.
  • Forum participant Dosakkhayo has compiled a figure showing the formation of suddhāṭṭhaka and how their condensation leads to denser objects.  You can download it here:Evolution of Rupa.” Much merits to him!
  • Density of Rupa Chart
Difference Between “Live Matter” and “Inert Matter”

6. Here, I mean by “live matter,” the bodies of sentient beings.  By “inert matter,” I mean “mindless objects” in the world, like rocks and plants. Both types originate via the kammic energy created by the mind. That process is Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS.)

  • I have only explained the arising of living beings (i.e., new bhava/jāti) via PS: “Paṭicca Samuppāda.” In the future, I will write about the other aspect. Arising of anything in this world can be explained by PS.
  • All mater that we see are made of such dense dhātu. Rocks have dhātu that have mostly pathavi. Water mostly has āpo. Fire mainly contains tējo, and wind mostly vāyo. Thus,  earth, water, fire, and wind are called pathavi, āpo, tējo, and vāyo.
Some suddhāṭṭhaka “Acquire Life”

7. A suddhāṭṭhaka is inert. It acquires “life” when energized by the mind in creating “kammaja rūpa.” That energy is in rotation (paribramana) and spin (bramana). When that embedded energy runs out, rotation and spin stop, becoming inert again.

  • For example, a hadaya vatthu for a new existence comes into being as a kammaja rūpa at the cuti-paṭisandhi moment. During its lifetime, the hadaya vatthu maintains its spin and rotation. Details at “31 Realms Associated with the Earth.”
  • When the kammic energy is exhausted, its motion stops, and the bhava ends. At that time, a new hadaya vatthu for new bhava is formed by kammic energy. Thus, NOTHING is transferred from “here to there.” Kammic energy creates a new existence in the appropriate realm.

8. The hadaya vatthu is also called “vatthu dasaka” where dasaka means “ten.” That is because the hadaya vatthu or vatthu dasaka has two energy modes (spin and rotation) in addition to the eight parts in the inert suddhāṭṭhaka. Thus the name dasaka (made of ten units). A navaka (discussed below) has only spin and is made of nine units.

  • This added spin and rotation is what gives life to an inert suddhāṭṭhaka. That power or energy is created by javana citta (mind). If a kamma bīja has more energy, it will sustain that bhava (hadaya vatthu) for longer. 
  • The same is true for the five pasāda rūpa (cakkhu,sōta, ghana, jivha, kāya) formed at the moment of cuti-paṭisandhi. There are two bhava rūpa (also dasaka) and jivitindriya rūpa (a navaka; spin or bramana). The post discusses how different modes of rotation and spin give rise to these nine “life-forming” basic units: “Gandhabba Sensing the World – With and Without a Physica.”Body“.
  • By the way, the word kammaja comes from “kamma” + “ja,” where “ja” means birth. Therefore, kammic energy creates those nine kammaja rūpa. 
Physical Body Is Inert Without Gandhabba

9. Now, we can see that our heavy physical body, by itself, is inert. The real life is in the gandhabba with the hadaya vatthu and the five pasāda. 

  • At the death of the physical body, this life-sustaining gandhabba leaves the body, and the body becomes lifeless and decays.
  • In the case of an out-of-body experience (OBE), even though the gandhabba leaves the physical body, it is still connected to the physical body (by a “silver cord” in the terminology of astral projection), and that is why the body does not start to decay: “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE).”

10. Therefore, in all life forms in the 31 realms, life energy is in the ultra-fine manomaya kāya (“mind-made body.”) 

  • In kāma loka, the manomaya kāya would have a hadaya vatthu (vatthu dasaka,) bhāva dasaka, and five pasāda rūpa (each of which is a dasaka.) A dasaka is a suddhāṭṭhaka (the smallest unit of matter with eight units) and two modes of vibration and rotation; “dasaka” means a “collection of ten.” Thus, a manomaya kāya in kāma loka would have seven suddhāṭṭhaka-size units.
  • In rupāvacara Brahma realms, only cakkhu and sōta pasāda rūpa are present in addition to hadaya vatthu, kāya dasaka, and bhāva dasaka, i.e., five suddhāṭṭhaka-size units. In the asañña realm, hadaya vatthu is there, but it is shielded by the “physical body,” which has no mana indriya. Thus, it cannot interact with dhammā (or viññāṇa dhātu,) and cittās cannot arise.
  • In arupāvacara Brahma realms, there is only the hadaya vatthu.
  • This is another critical factor in the yathābhūta ñāna: All life forms are like bhūta (ghosts); in essence, life is maintained by an ultra-fine (invisible) body that is impossible to see and has a temporary existence. Any life in any realm is short-lived on the samsāric scale. On the samsāric scale, trillion years is like a drop of water in the ocean.
Yathābhūta Ñāna – Ultimate Truth About the World

11. When someone comprehends what we discussed above about the true nature of matter that exists in this world, one is said to have the yathābhūta ñāna. That is the “knowledge about the true nature of things that comprise our world.”

  • However, just reading about them is just the start. That ñāna grows as one comprehends the finer details.
  • Yathā means true nature. Yathābhūta means the true nature of matter (or the true nature of bhūta,) which arises via the MIND. Of course, finer details need a good understanding of Abhidhamma.
  • However, it is sufficient for most purposes to have a rough idea.

12. This is also why the Buddha said, “manō pubbangamā dhammā, manō settā manōmayā” in the famous Dhammapada verse.

13. This yathābhūta ñāna about the fundamental nature of our body also helps to get rid of the “ghana saññā” about our bodies. Humans value their dense bodies because they believe an unchanging “self” exists in the physical body.

  • Those with uccēda diṭṭhi (like most current scientists and philosophers) believe that our physical body (and its brain) is all there.
  • Those with sāssata diṭṭhi believe that there is a mental body that lives forever.
Yathābhūta Ñāna Helps Dispel Sakkāya Diṭṭhi

14. Buddha discovered that both are wrong views. There is a mental body, but it drastically changes from bhava to bhava. One could be a deva or a human for the time being, but the next bhava could be in an apāyā.

Ananubhūtam – Inability to See the Real Nature of Things in the World

15. Now we see that the precursors for all matter in this world (bhūta) are mind-made and have a transient existence. They are “bhūta” or “ghosts.” And since everything else is made of them, what we consider “solid, tangible things” in this world are really “ghost-like.”

  • The knowledge of this underlying “ghost-like” nature is called “yathābhūta ñāna.” With that knowledge, one looks at the world according to that correct view, called “anu bhūtam.”
  • When one is unaware of this true nature, it is called “na anu bhūtam,” which rhymes “ananubhūtam,” just like “na āgāmi” becomes “Anāgāmi.” It is to note that many key Pāli words are composed that way: anatta is “na” + “atta“; see, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?“.
  • Ānantariya is “na” + “an” + “antara“. Words like this cannot be analyzed grammatically. This is why current Pāli experts incorrectly interpret such words (and cannot interpret many keywords).
  • The word “ananubhūtam” comes in several critical suttās, including the ones mentioned above in #12.

16. One good example is the famous “Brahma­niman­tanika Sutta (MN 49)“: “Viññāṇaṃ  anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pabhaṃ, taṃ pathaviyā pathavattena ananubhūtaṃ,  āpassa āpattena ananubhūtaṃ,  tejassa tejattena ananubhūtaṃ,  vāyassavāyattena ananubhūtaṃ,  bhūtānaṃ bhūtattena ananubhūtaṃ, devānaṃ devattena ananubhūtaṃ, pajāpatissa pajāpatittena ananubhūtaṃ, brahmānaṃ brahmattena ananubhūtaṃ, ābhassarānaṃ ābhassarattena ananubhūtaṃ, subhakiṇhānaṃ subhakiṇhānaṃ subha­kiṇ­hattena ananubhūtaṃ, vehapphalānaṃ vehap­phalat­tena ananubhūtaṃ, abhibhussa abhibhuttena ananubhūtaṃ, sabbassa sabbattena ananubhūtaṃ..”

Translated:Viññāna is unseen, infinite, and leads to the rebirth process for all. With viññāna, one cannot comprehend the real nature of pathavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo, bhūta, deva, pajapti brahma, abhassara brahma, subhakinha brahma, vehapphala brahma, etc. and everything in this world (sabba)”.

  • One has a defiled consciousness or viññāna until one attains the Arahantship. Until then, one cannot fully comprehend the real “ghost-like” nature of everything in this world, i.e., one’s yathābhūta ñāna is not complete.
  • We will discuss the first part of the verse Viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbatō pabhaṃ..” in the next post. This short phrase is commonly mistranslated.  See “Anidassana Viññāṇa – What It Really Means.”

17. Another major sutta where it appears is “Saḷāya­tana­ Vibhaṅ­ga Sutta (MN 137)“: “Rūpānaṃ tveva aniccataṃ viditvā vipari­ṇāma­virāga­nirodham, ‘pubbe ceva rūpā etarahi ca sabbe te rūpā aniccā dukkhā vipari­ṇāma­dhammā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato uppajjāti somanassaṃ“.

  • Loosely Translated: Any rūpa that has existed or is in existence now has a “ghost-like transient nature.” That is why they change unexpectedly (viparināma) and have an anicca nature. Comprehending this true nature brings joy to one’s mind (somanassa)”.
Importance of Comprehending “Saññā Vipallāsa”  

18. Comprehension of ” distorted saññā” and “saññā vipallāsa” plays a significant role in cultivating “yathābhūta ñāna.”

Reference (Scientific Theories of Matter)

1. Scientists have now verified the illusive nature of matter on a small scale. They thought the atom to be the smallest possible division of matter until 1897, when J.J. Thomson discovered the electron. An atom consists of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Subsequently, protons and neutrons turned out to have structure too. But their sub-units (quarks, etc.) cannot be detected individually).

  • With the advent of quantum mechanics, the distinction between matter and energy has blurred. The mass of a particle depends on its speed. Photons or “particles of light” have zero mass at rest, i.e., zero rest mass. It is typical to state the mass of an elementary particle in terms of energy units.
  • All of the above is consistent with the rupa‘s elusive nature (bhuta) in Buddha Dhamma.

2. Furthermore, it is impossible to determine an elementary particle’s exact position (Heisenberg uncertainty principle.) For example, it is only possible to say that an electron can be within a specific region of space. Thus, an electron is like a ghost. Scientists cannot precisely measure its location at any time.

  • The situation is even worse for a photon, a particle of light. When a photon is released, one can only find it later by stopping it at a detector. It is IMPOSSIBLE to state the exact path of the photon from the source to the sensor. It could have been anywhere in between. The same applies to an electron, even though it has a non-zero rest mass.
  • Some refer to the above observations as “quantum weirdness.” Microscopic particles are as elusive as ghosts.
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