What Does “Emptiness of the Four Greats” Mean?

In the phrase “the four greats are all empty” (si da jie kong), exactly what are the four “greats” that need to be dissolved or “emptied”?

People who don’t understand the Dharma will blurt out: “The four ‘greats’ to be emptied are liquor, sex, money, and anger!”[1]

That answer doesn’t correspond at all to the four greats in Buddhism. The four greats discussed by Buddhists are the four great material elements: earth, water, fire, and wind.

Buddhists did not invent the concept of the four elements; rather, it was a conclusion drawn from humanity’s early investigations into the fundamental composition of the universe. Similar formulations are evident in the history of both Western and Eastern philosophy. For example, the Chinese Classic of Documents mentions five elements: water, fire, metal, wood, and earth, and the ancient Indian Vedas assert that the universe was formed based on five natural elements: earth, water, wind, fire, and space. In a similar vein, the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles (ca. 495–ca. 435 BCE) claimed that air, water, earth, and fire are the four unchanging primary elements in the universe.

In summary, these systems of four or five elements all point to the fundamental elements in the physical world. If one’s view of reality is limited by such a perspective, one will develop into a materialist, and indeed these systems are the predecessors of materialism.

The four elements discussed in Buddhism are taken from ancient Indian thought but are understood in a deeper and Buddhist manner. The four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind are the primary elements of the physical world, and can be paired with a variety of phenomena. In terms of the outer world, mountains and earth pertain to the earth element, oceans and rivers pertain to the water element, sunlight and heat pertain to the fire element, and the air and air currents pertain to the wind element. If the four elements are used to describe human physiology, then hair, bone, and flesh pertain to the earth element; the blood and secretions pertain to the water element; body heat pertains to the fire element; and breath pertains to the wind element. If the four elements are paired with their physical characteristics, then solidity pertains to the earth element, moisture pertains to the water element, warmth pertains to the fire element, and fluidity pertains to the wind element. No mater how the four elements are analyzed, they describe only the physical world, not the spiritual or mental world. So whereas materialists claim the four elements are the root source of the universe, Buddhists do not agree with this claim at all.

Mahāyāna and Nikāya Buddhism interpret the four elements differently. Generally speaking, Nikāya Buddhism takes the four elements to be the primary causes of material phenomena, and hence they are also called the “four great seeds.” This label implies that the four elements are the seeds which bring forth all other matter, so that all material phenomena result from the interactions of the four elements. If the four elements are in harmony, then things will flourish; if the four elements are in contradiction, then destruction will occur. Such thinking is applied not only to the outer world but also to physiology, so according to Buddhism, sickness is said to result from disharmony among the four elements. Nikāyists contemplate the four elements in order to see the emptiness of the physical body by observing that the body is merely a transient combination of the four elements. Hence, they see that the physical body is not a substantial “self,” and therefore they do not produce the sam. sāric karma that results from grasping the physical body as self. As soon as they realize the emptiness of self, they enter into the nirvān.a of Nikāya Buddhism and no longer cycle through birth and death.

According to Mahāyāna Buddhism, the four “elements” are not the primary constituents of matter, but just material phenomena— provisional constructions, not substantial entities; mirages, not substances. The elements are merely the facilitating conditions and not the foundational causes of physical phenomena. So although the four elements are called the seeds of physical phenomena, they are not regarded as the true face behind such phenomena. In contrast, Nikāyists dissolve the self [by seeing the emptiness of self] but do not dissolve the dharmas, and so although they view gross physical phenomena as empty, they believe the four elements exist substantially [i.e., posses inherent nature] in the form of ultimate particles (S. param. ānu; C. jiwei). But the Nikāya Buddhist view of existence is not materialism, but pluralism, because in realizing emptiness of self, all Buddhists see that the self consists of five aggregates, and the four elements are just one of these five aggregates.[2]

And what are the five aggregates? They are forms, feelings, perceptions and ideas, mental formations and volitions, and [discrete moments of ] consciousness.[3] Forms pertain to the physical realm and the remaining four aggregates pertain to mental phenomena. The four elements make up the aggregate of forms.

Detailed discussion of the five aggregates exceeds the scope of this entry. We can only summarize as follows: the five aggregates are sam. – sāric dharmas within the three realms, and to transcend rebirth within the three realms, one must realize that the five aggregates neither individually nor collectively constitute a self. In addition, we should note that in Mahāyāna Buddhism not only the four elements but all five aggregates are regarded as empty. And among the five aggregates, Buddhism focuses on the aggregate of consciousness, not on the four elements of the aggregate of forms. The three aggregates of feelings, perceptions and ideas, and mental formations and volitions are simply supporting functions of consciousness, and they serve to show us the vast and expansive functioning of the spiritual realm. So we can see that what Buddhism advocates is not materialism, but conditioned arising.

  1. The translator has seen this interpretation in recent Chinese-language books and magazine articles written by non-Buddhist Taiwanese intellectuals. Trans.
  2. Pluralism here contrasts with monism in the following sense. Ontologically speaking (i.e., in terms of what it means to “exist” and what classes of things “exist”), materialism can be labeled as a form of monism, meaning that the primary elements of the world all belong to one basic substance, matter. In contrast, according to Sheng Yen’s understanding of the Nikāya worldview, phenomena are reducible to a plurality of basic elements, or dharmas, which[for the most part] can be classified as pertaining to one of the five aggregates.Trans.
  3. Some translators render the aggregates in the singular, i.e., form, feeling, etc. as opposed to forms, feelings, etc. Such translations can be misleading because each aggregate is, in and of itself, a collection or aggregation of many things. Trans.


Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A Contemporary Chan Master's Answers to Common Questions. (2007)
by Master Sheng Yen | Translated by Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang. | ISBN 978-1-55643-657-4


Lists of errata, suggested changes and comments by Douglas Gildow