I read an interesting passage in the Sammohavinodanī today

  1. As regards pathavldhätu (“earth element”) and so on, the meaning of element has the meaning of “nature” (sabhäva); and the meaning of nature has the meaning of “voidness” (sunna)\ and the meaning of voidness has the meaning of “not a being” (nissatta). Thus it is the element that is only earth in the sense of nature, voidness and not a being that is the earth element. And likewise with regard to the water element, etc. Here the meaning should thus be understood by knowing the composition of the phrases in this way.

This passage suggests that sabhāva entails emptiness. How to understand this passage and the relationship between sabhāva and emptiness?

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If we separate water into hydrogen and oxygen molecule, each hydrogen and oxygen has its defining characteristic of gas, and not liquid, thus it is void of water and not a water.

In the same way earth element has the characteristic of hardness, and not of a being.

Although water exists physically, there is no water element in the periodic table, thus we can say that water does not exist in the context of atoms.

In the same way, although a being physically exists, there is no element that can be called a being, thus a being does not exist in the context of elements. What exist are the elements of hardness, cohesion, movement, heat, consciousness, and mental formations.

A being has composite existence (can only exist by combination of elements) while elements has own existence (not composed of other elements). This own existence is what called sabhava. Since it has its own existence, it is void of whatever composite existence if is part of. A being on the other hand, being a composite, does not have a sabhava (own existence).

If a body of water is somehow to gain a consciousness, the consciousness may take that body of water as “this is me”. And then it will form attachment. But when that body of water is fully separated into hydrogen and oxygen molecules then the attachment will disappear.

In the same way because we are attached to this composite existence called a being, we just have to continuously separate it into its elements and the attachment will naturally disappear.

Yes that is the nature of reality - the complete voidness of self (“not a being(nisssata)”).
It is because of not being able to distinguish between realities and concepts that the delusion of a self persists. Elements are ephemeral, conditioned and insignificant.

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There are 12 common qualities in the 4 elements. However, there are 28 types of rupa.

Quote from wikipedia

  • Earth (prthivi): represents the characteristic of solidity, hardness, heaviness and extension.
  • Water (ap): represents the characteristic of liquidity, fluidity, oozing, trickling, binding and cohesiveness.
  • Fire (tejo) represents heat and warmth, when there is the absence of heat, there is “cold”.
  • Air (vayu) refers to distention and fluctuation, restless and dynamic movement.

Earth is actually

  1. hardness
  2. roughness
  3. heaviness
  4. softness
  5. smoothness
  6. lightness

Thanks for the explanations.