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Six Properties
by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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In English we have a very limited vocabulary for describing how the body feels from the inside. We feel “tingly” or we feel “heavy.” We have ants crawling on our skin or butterflies in our stomachs. There are not that many words, and nothing really systematic. This is where the Buddha’s teaching on the properties is helpful. It provides a systematic way of categorizing the feelings you have in the body—how the body feels from the inside—along with a sense of what you can do with those feelings. This teaching also gives you a very clear sense of how much your present input shapes the way you experience the body, and an immediate, very visceral way of using that present input to balance things out, to make the body an easier place in which to settle down.


The texts list the properties as six: earth, water, wind, fire, space, and consciousness. It sounds like medieval chemistry. We’d do better though, to look at these properties as ways of categorizing the sensations that make up the way the body feels from the inside. The earth sensations are feelings of heaviness or solidity; water would be cool sensations; fire is of course warm; wind is the motion back and forth; space is the feelings of emptiness; and consciousness is the property that’s aware of all these things.


The theory behind these properties is that they get provoked. In other words, as they get emphasized, as some incident strengthens them or kicks them into action, they get stronger. On the external level, natural events occur when the external properties get provoked. Floods come from the provocation of the water property; huge fires or intense heat, from the provocation of the fire property; huge winds, from the provocation of the wind property. Interestingly, the texts also attribute earthquakes to the wind property. This means that wind refers not only to the wind in the air, but also to the motion down in the earth. Apparently earth was the only property that wasn’t provokable, on the external level at least, but it would move when the wind property got into the act.


Whatever we may think of these concepts as ways of describing external events, they’re a very useful way of looking at internal events, at the experience of the body as sensed from within. Classically, the internal properties are used to explain disease. Giddiness or lightheadedness is a sign of too much wind property, a sign that the wind property has been provoked. With fever, of course, the fire property has been provoked. A feeling of lethargy or heaviness in your limbs is a sign of too much earth property.


These are things you can play with in your meditation. That’s where the teaching really becomes useful, because it allows you to see how the way you focus on the body has an impact on how you perceive the body, how you actually sense the body. We think of sensations as being primary, the raw material, the basic building blocks of experience, but there are conscious decisions being made that precede the sensations. Look at the teaching on dependent origination. Sankhara, or “fabrication” is way down there, prior to the sensations you feel in terms of form, feeling, and so forth.

這些東西是你在禪定中可以操作一番的。這套教說正是在此處真正顯其有用,因爲它讓你看見,你怎樣專注身體,會直接影響你怎樣辨識身體,以及你怎樣實際地覺受到身體。我們以爲覺受是原生的,是未加工的材料,是體驗的基本構件,然而,先於這些覺受,你已經在作種種有意識的決定了。看一看十二因緣的教導。 Sankhāra——造作,早早先於你在色、受等方面的覺知,已經在那裏了[3]

So how are you going to fabricate the body? If there are feelings of tension in the body, sometimes that’s a sign of too much earth property, so you can think of the breath. This is one of the reasons we start with the breath. It’s the property that’s most easily manipulated—classicallyit’s called the kaya-sankhara, the factor that fashions the body. It’s also the property that most directly works through tension. Wherever there’s a sense of tension, focus on it and see if you can get a sense of gentle, healing motion going through it. The potential for motion is there, simply that the perception contributing to the tension has blocked it. So you can consciously decide that you’re going to perceive motion there. Give it a chance to happen, and the potential for motion, the potential for movement through that part of the nervous system, will get strengthened, will get aroused—which may be a better way of translating the word that I just translated as “provoked.” The breath-potential gets aroused. When your awareness of the breath is aroused or heightened, it can move through that sense of blockage.

因此,你打算怎樣造作身?如果身內有緊綳感,有時那是地元素偏勝的征象,因此你可以觀想氣。這是我們禪修從觀氣[風,呼吸]出發的原因之一。它是最容易操縱的那個元素——經典上,它叫做 kāya-sankhāra——身造作[身行],塑造身體的因素[4]。它也是最直接地消解張力的元素。哪裏有緊綳感,你就定在那裏,看是否能夠使一種溫和的、修復性的動性[氣]穿過它。動性[氣]的潛勢是在那裏的,只不過促成緊綳感的那個辨識把它給堵住了。因此,你可以有意識地決定,你打算在那裏辨識動性[氣]。給它一個發生的機會,那麼動性[氣]的潛勢,穿過那部分經絡系統的移動的潛勢,將會被強化,將會被喚起 [aroused]——比起我剛才用的“激發” [provoked],這個譯法可能更好。氣的潛勢被喚起。當你對氣的覺知被喚起或者說提昇時,它就可以穿透那股堵塞感。

When you’re feeling giddy or manic, you can think of the earth property to settle things down. If there’s just too much frenetic energy in the body, you can think of your bones being made of iron, of your hands and feet weighing a ton. Wherever you have a sense of solidity in the body, focus on that and try to magnify it. You find that your choice of the image you’re using, your purpose in choosing it, will really affect the way you start sensing that part of the body. Then you can take that sensation and spread it out, connecting it with other sensations of solidity in the body. The potential for solidity is always there.


When you’re feeling depressed and weighed down, think of lighter sensations, of the breath giving a lift to the different parts of the body. When you’re hot, think of the water property. Focus on whatever sensations in the body are cooler than the others. Really keep your focus right there, and think “water, water” or “cool, cool.” You’ll find that other cool sensations in the body will appear to your awareness. The potential for them was waiting, simply that they needed the element of present intention to highlight them.


When you’re feeling cold, focus in on warmth. There will be some part of the body that’s warmer than the others, so focus in on it. Think of the warmth staying there and spreading to other parts of the body where other warm sensations will get aroused.



You can do this at any stage in the concentration, although it’s most effective when the breath is still. At that point the body feels like a cloud of mist, little points of sensation, and each little sensation has the potential to be any one of these four properties. When your sense of the body is reduced to what the French would call pointillism, it’s a lot easier, simply with a thought, to emphasize either the heaviness or the lightness, the movement, the warmth or the coolness of those sensations, the sensation-potentials you’ve got there. This way you accomplish two things at once. On the one hand you balance out the body. Whenever one type of sensation feels too oppressive, you can think of the opposing sensation to balance it out. On the other, you start seeing the role of present intention in your awareness, in your experience of the present moment in a very visceral way.

你可以在定的任何階段這樣做,不過在氣寂止時最有效。那時候,身感像一團霧,一團細小的覺點,每個小覺知都有成爲這四種元素之任一的潛勢。當你的身感還原到法語所說的 pointillism——“點彩”時[5],要想只用一個意念,來強化諸身感之中的重性或者輕性,動性或者暖性、涼性,做起來就容易多了,那些覺受潛勢你那裏已經存在著。這樣你同時成就了兩件事。一方面,你平衡了身體。任何時候,你覺得某一種覺受過於壓抑,你可以觀想對立的那個覺受,使之平衡。另一方面,你在以一種極其切身的方式體驗當下的過程中,開始看見當下的動機在你的覺知中的作用。

When things grow very still and balanced in terms of these four properties, with this mist of potential sensations that can go in any direction(any kind of sensation?), you can also focus on the space between the points. Realize that the space is boundless. It goes through the body and out in all directions. Just think that: “infinite space.” Stay with the sensation of infinite space that comes along with the perception. The potential for it is always there; it’s simply that the perception arouses it. It’s a very pleasant state to get in. Things seem a lot less solid, a lot less oppressive. You don’t feel so trapped in the body.


當這四元素達到極其寂止、平衡,存在這股可以朝任一[身感的]方向轉化的覺受潛勢之霧時,你也可以專注那些點之間的空間。你要意識到,那個空間是無邊界的。它穿過身體,朝向各個方向。你就觀想:“無限空間。” 定在隨著那個辨識而來的無限空間感中。該潛勢是一直在那裏的;只不過那個辨識把它喚起了。進入這個狀態裏是極其愉悅的。那裏似乎堅硬感弱了許多,壓抑感弱了許多。被困在身內的感覺也不那麼強了。

Ajaan Fuang once had a student, an old woman, who started practicing meditation with him when he was getting ready to leave Wat Asokaram. After he left, she had to practice on her own for quite a while. One evening, when she was sitting in meditation with the group in the meditation hall, a voice came to her and said, “You’re going to die tonight.” She was a little taken aback, but then she reminded herself, “Well, if I’m going to die, the best way is to die meditating.” So she just sat there and watched to see what would happen as the body dies, to see what it would be like. There was an actual sensation of the body beginning to fall apart. “All of the various properties were going their separate ways,” she said, “like a house on fire. There was no place in the body where you could focus your awareness and have any sense of comfort at all.” So for a moment she felt lost, but then she remembered, “Well, there’s the space property.” So she focused in on the space property, and all that sense of the house on fire suddenly disappeared. There was a very strong sense of infinite space. There was always the potential to go back to the body. (This is something you’ll notice when you’re at this point in your meditation: There are the spots that could provide a potential for the form of the body but you chose not to focus on them. Instead you focus on the sense of space in between and all around. There’s a sense of boundlessness that goes with it.

阿姜放過去有個弟子,是一位老婦人,前來開始跟他學修禪定時,他正在准備離開阿育王寺。等他離開後,很長時間裏她不得不自己修練。有天晚上,她在禪堂與大家共修時,有一個聲音來對她說,“今晚你會死。” 她有點喫驚,不過,她接著提醒自己,“ 好吧,如果要死,最好是死在禪定當中。”於是她就坐在那裏,觀察身體死去時發生什麼。真有一種身體開始破散的感覺。“各種元素都各自分開,走自己的路,”她說,“就像一座著火的房子。身內沒有一處可以讓覺知安定下來,得到舒適感。”於是,有一陣子,她不知所措,不過接著她想起來:“噢,還有空間元素。”於是她就定入了空間元素,所有那些房子著火的感覺突然消失了。有一股極其強烈的無限空間感。回到身體的可能性總是存在的。(你的禪定達到這個程度時將會注意到這一點:有些部位可以提供體形的潛勢,不過你選擇不專注那裏[6]。而是專注它們相互之間和四周的那個空間感。伴隨著它的是一股無邊無界之感。)

When she came out of meditation, of course, she hadn’t died. She was still alive. But she had learned an important lesson, that when things get really bad in the body you can always go to space. Even though it’s not Awakening, and it’s not the unconditioned, still it’s a lot better than being immersed in turmoil along with the properties in the body.


So the properties provide a useful way of looking at the potentials in the present moment. They also make it easier to get to that sense of awareness itself that you read about so much in the writings of the Thai Ajaas. Once you’re with infinite space, drop the perception of “space” and see what’s left. There will just be a perception of knowing, knowing, knowing, which takes its place. You don’t have to ask, “Knowing what?” There’s just awareness, awareness, or knowing, knowing.


Once you’ve got everything divided up into properties like this, you’ve got the raw materials for gaining insight. The terms of analysis may initially seem strange, but once you get a visceral sense of what they’re referring to, you’ll find them extremely useful. They not only give the mind a good place to settle down in the stillness of concentration, but they also help you gain insight into the way perception shapes your experience of the body, shapes your perception of what’s going on here in the present moment, seeing how fabricated it all is. You’ve got potentials coming in from past kamma, but you’ve also got the element of present choice, which becomes extremely clear when you analyze things in this way.


When I first went to stay with Ajaan Fuang, he had me memorize Ajaan Lee’s Divine Mantra: six passages dealing with the different properties. For a long time it seemed very foreign to me until one night I was chanting the passage on the property of consciousness and Irealized that it was referring to the awareness that’s right here. This awareness. Right here. When this realization hit, it was as if a huge iceberg in my heart suddenly melted. I wasn’t dealing with some outside, foreign frame of thinking; instead, it was something extremely direct, immediate, right here and now. That was when I began to get a sense of why Ajaan Fuang had asked me to memorize the chant, why he wanted all of his students to think about their present experience in terms of the properties.


So keep this mode of analysis in mind. Try to get some sense of it as you put it to use, and you’ll find that it’s extremely useful in the practice. As with all of the Buddha’s teachings, the importance of the teaching is what you do with it, and what it does for you in helping to gain insight into how stress and suffering are created in the present moment—and how you don’t have to create them, if you pay attention, if you work at these skills.



[1]胃中蝶動: butterflies in the stomach,習語,尤指因懼怕而神經緊張,胃有微動欲嘔之感。
[2]人的六元素的分析: 見中部MN140。
[3]十二因緣: 據自說經Ud1:3: 『......以無明爲緣[先決條件],來造作[行]。以造作爲緣,來意識。以意識爲緣,來名色。以名色爲緣,來六處[六種感官媒介]。以六處爲緣,來接觸。以接觸爲緣,來感受。以感受爲緣,來渴求。以渴求爲緣,來執取/維持。以執取/維持,來有。以有爲緣,來生。以生爲緣,則老,病,死,憂、哀、痛、悲、慘來運作。這就是這若大一堆苦迫的因緣。』此處是說,造作排在第二,早於意識、名色、感受等。
[4]身造作: 據中部MN44:『出入息屬於身,縛於身,故稱出入息爲身造作[身行] 。尋想與評估[尋與伺] 之後口發言語,故稱尋想與評估爲語造作[語行] 。辨識與感受[想與受] 屬於心,縛於心,故稱辨識與感受爲心造作[心行] 。』
[5]pointillism: 西洋美術後印象派的點彩法,利用原色獨立小點的不同分佈構造出各種色調的印象,觀者眼和心的辨識會把色點混合起來看成各種色調。例圖見網絡維基百科同名詞條: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointillism
[6]不專注體形的潛勢: 據尊者對筆者的解釋,這是指只把它們當成點,不把點連成線,也就是,不添加『體形』的辨識。
[7]阿姜李的《神聖咒文》: 阿姜李在引言中說,寫這本書的目的是:『作爲修法者的一個淨化途徑,因爲此處給出的誦文會給背誦者帶來利益,因其與存在於我們每個人之中的事件直接相關。平常,我們一旦出生,便都住於六元素之中。這些元素是被我們自己的業,善業惡業,帶到一起的,既然如此,這些元素對住於其中的人們,可能帶來大量的困難,就像一個孩童可能給父母不停地造成麻煩一樣。因此重複此誦,就好比滋養和訓練孩童,使他健康成熟;當小孩健康成熟時,父母就可以休息、放松了。重複此誦,就好比用一首美好的歌曲 Buddhaguṇa――憶念佛陀的功德——來滋養孩童,引它入睡 ......Buddhaguṇa――佛陀功德――的力量,可以對每個人的諸元素施加影響,淨化它們,給它們賦予 kāya-siddhi――身成就[身悉地],就好比一切物質元素相互之間每秒鐘都在施加引力一樣......』

最近訂正 11-27-2010