Bhūta and Yathābhūta – What Do They Really Mean

December 28, 2017; revised January 21, 2022

1. Yathābhūta is usually translated as “true nature” (which is a bit close to the true meaning). From that, it implies that bhūta means “nature”; sometimes bhūta is translated as “becoming.” Both are wrong.

  • These words are also associated with yathābhūta ñāna. Here ñāna means wisdom. That is wisdom about the true nature of sentient beings, as we will see below.

2. Bhuta is a Sinhala word as well as a Pāli word. It means a “ghost.” That deeper meaning is associated with the four “mahā bhūta“: patavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo.

  • One cannot ever see mahā bhūta individually. The smallest unit of matter is a suddhāṭṭhaka, which consists of those four AND varna, gandha, rasa, 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.” Formation of a suddhāṭṭhaka discussed in “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka.
  • Note that the four mahā bhūta are the primary rūpa. All others, including varna, gandha, rasa, ōja, are derived from them and are called upādaya rūpa.

3. As mentioned in that post, bhūta have their origins 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.

  • To understand these keywords, one needs to know about gati (I have sometimes spelled as gati), which is discussed in many posts at the site. For example, see “Gati, Bhava, and Jāti “.

4. 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 become 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 now typical to state the mass of an elementary particle in terms of energy units.
  • All the above is consistent with rupa‘s elusive nature (bhuta) in Buddha Dhamma.

5. 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 certain 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 too, 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.

6. That is exactly what the Buddha said. A suddhāṭṭhaka is much smaller than even a photon, 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 mahā bhūta.
  • Furthermore, these bhūta arise from 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 patavi, etc.

7. Billions of billions of suddhāṭṭhaka are combined to lead to the mahā bhūta stage of rūpa. Brahmā 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.

8. All mater that we see are made of such dense dhātu. Rocks have dhātu that have mostly patavi. Water mostly has āpo. Fire mainly contains tējo, and wind mostly vāyo. That is why earth, water, fire, wind are loosely referred to as patavi, āpo, tējo, vāyo.

9. 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 ñānaThat 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.

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

  • “Everything in this world has its origins in mind. The mind prepares all”.

11. 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-patisandhi moment. During its lifetime, the hadaya vatthu maintains its spin and rotation. When the kammic energy is exhausted, its motion stops, and the bhava ends. At that time, a new hadaya vatthu for a new bhava is formed by kammic energy.

12. The hadaya vatthu is also called “vatthu dasaka” where dasaka means “ten.” This is because the hadaya vatthu or vatthu dasaka has two modes of energy (spin and rotation) in addition to the eight parts in the inert suddhāṭṭhaka. Thus the name dasaka (made of ten 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 a bhava (hadaya vatthu) for longer. 
  • Same is true for the five pasāda rūpa (cakkhu,sōta, ghana, jivha, kāya) formed at the moment of cuti-patisandhi. There are two bhava rūpa which are also dasaka, and jivitindriya rūpa which is a navaka (just spin or bramana). How different modes of rotation and spin give rise to these nine “life forming” basic units is discussed in the post: “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. 

13. 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-carrying gandhabba leaves the body, and the body becomes inert and starts decaying.
  • 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)“.

14. Therefore, in all life forms in the 31 realms, the real-life is in the ultra-fine life form of a hadaya vatthu accompanied by up to five pasāda rūpa. In arupāvacara Brahma realms, there is only the hadaya vatthu. In rupavacara Brahma realms, hadaya vatthu is accompanied by cakkhu and sōta pasāda rūpa. In all other realms, five pasāda rūpa exist with the hadaya vatthu.

  • The only exception is the asañña realm, where only the kāya dasaka is maintained by the jivitindriya (no hadaya vatthu, since thoughts are not generated).
  • 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 body that is impossible to see and have 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.

15. This yathābhūta ñāna about the real nature of our body also helps to get rid of the “ghana saññā” about our bodies. Humans value their dense bodies so much because they believe that there is an unchanging “self” in the physical body.

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

16. 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 a time being, but the next bhava could be in the apāyā.

17. Now we see that the precursors for all matter in this world, satara mahā 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 to be “solid, tangible things” in this world are really “ghost-like”.

  • The knowledge of this real “ghost-like” nature is called “yathābhūta ñāna“. When one has that knowledge, one looks at the world according to that correct view, which is called “anu bhūtam“.
  • When one is not aware of this true nature, it is called “na anu bhūtam” which rhymes as “ananubhūtam”. It is to note that many key Pāli words are composed that way: anatta is “na” + “atta“; see, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?“.
  • Anantariya is “na” + “an” + “antara“. Words like this cannot be analyzed grammatically. This is why current Pāli experts are wrong in interpreting such words (and are unable to interpret many keywords).
  • The word “ananubhūtam” comes in several key suttā, including the ones mentioned above in #16.

18. One good example is the famous Brahma­niman­tanika Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 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 patavi, 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.  

19. 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 the “ghost-like transient nature”. That is the reason why they change unexpectedly (viparinama) and have an anicca nature. When one comprehends this true nature, it leads to joy in one’s mind (somanassa)“.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email