The Unmanifested


Gautama Buddha, The Exalted One, said:

“In former days, Bhikkhus, some ocean-faring merchants used to take with them a bird that could see the land, and launched out into the deep upon their ship.  Now when the ship was out of sight of land, they used to set free the land-sighting bird.  And the bird would fly east, would fly south, and west and north and up aloft, and to the other quarters.  And if it sighted land around, off it would fly thither.  Burt, if it saw no land around, back it would fly to the ship.

Even so, Bhikkhus, you, having failed to get an answer to your question, though searching right up to the world of Brahma – you come back to Me again.  But that question of yours, Bhikkhus, was not put in the right way, to wit: “Where, Lord, do these four great elements[1] of earth, water, fire and air cease to exist without leaving any trace of them?” This is how you should put the question:

Where do water, earth and fire,
Where does air no footing find?
Where do long and short, and fine,
Likewise gross, pure and impure,
Mind and body, cease to be,
Leaving not a wrack behind?

Now the answer to this question is this: “It is that state of intellect[2] which is invisible, boundless, the landing-stage from everywhere.”[3]

There do water, earth and fire,
There does air no footing find.
There do long and short and fine,
Likewise gross, pure and impure,
Mind and body, cease to be,
Leaving not a wrack behind.
By ceasing of the conscious mind
There do all these cease to be.”
                                                                                                 [D.N., i. 222]



[1] – It should be observed that Buddhism does not mean by ‘the four great elements’ merely the four visibles, but the forces of which the four are the result, viz. the element of extension, of cohesion, of expansion or heat, and that of vibration.  At Samyutta Nikaya, i.15, where part of these verses occurs, Dr C.A.Rhys-Davids has well turned the words [apo, pathavi, tejo, vayo]:
Where the four elements that cleave and stretch
And burn and move, no further footing find.

[2] – Vinnanam, the Arhat’s consciousness of Nirvana.

[3] – Paham, according to Buddhaghosa, is here ‘the steps up and down to a riverside.’  At Dialogues of the Buddha, ii. 283, Professor Rhys Davids translates, (The Arhat’s intellect) ‘accessible from every side.’  Cf. Udana, p.9.  Nirvana is therefore a state beyond mind-consciousness. In its ordinary sense vinnanam is perishable, as one of the five skandhas


[“Some Sayings of the Budda – According to the Pali Canon”, translated from the Pali by F.L.Woodward, Oxford University Press, London/Madras, 1925].