What are we humans made of?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

What are we humans made of? Scientists tell us that almost 99% of the human body consists of six elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Where did we get these elements, then? From the stars in the universe, say astronomers. “We are made of star stuff” is the statement Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, made in Cosmos, a popular television series first broadcast in 1980. What Sagan means is that “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.”

Buddhist practitioners may recall a similar statement the Buddha made about six elements: “Bhikkhus, this person consists of six elements. … There are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element, the space element, and the consciousness element.” (Majjhima Nikaya, 140) Though the Buddha does not say where these elements were made, he does say something similar to Carl Sagan about the first four of these six elements called Cattaro Mahabhutani (Four Great Elements) when he says: “Again, a monk reviews this body, however it may be placed or disposed, in terms of the elements: ‘There are in this body the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, the air-element’.” (Digha Nikaya, 22)

Going back to Carl Sagan’s statement, while the carbon in our apple pies may have come from collapsing stars, apple pies were not made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We humans made them here on Earth, with the original recipe going as far back as the fourteenth-century England. For those of us who love apple pies, we will gladly accept the statement: “We are what we eat.” As health scientists tell us, what we eat affects the physical make-up of our body as well as how it functions, from the digestive system to the immune system. Moreover, what we eat also affects our mental and emotional wellbeing. Since the kind of food we eat varies from one ethnic group to another, what we eat has cultural implications as well as one source of our ethnic identity of who we are.

It is not known whether the Buddha ever said, “We are what we eat.” However, it is well known to Buddhist practitioners that the Buddha did make a similar statement when he talked about four nutriments in his discourse on the four kinds of nutriments: “Bhikkhus, there are these four kinds of nutriments for the maintenance of beings that have already come to be and for the assistance of those about to come to be. What four? The nutriment edible food, gross or subtle; second, contact; third, mental volition; fourth, consciousness.” (Samyutta Nikaya, II.12) While edible food is the nutriment of our body, other three—contact, mental volition, and consciousness—are nutriments of our emotional and mental states. Thus, it is clear that the Buddha was well aware of the importance of nutriments not just for our physical condition but also for emotional and mental wellbeing.

Why did the Buddha talk about the four kinds of nutriments, and not five or six kinds? Indeed, he could have spoken of the five kinds of nutriments corresponding to the five aggregates or the six kinds of nutriments corresponding to six elements. One interpretation of the Buddha’s choice of the four kinds of nutriments would be to relate them to the four establishments of mindfulness, namely, mindfulness of the body (kaya), mindfulness of feelings (vedana), mindfulness of mind (citta), and mindfulness of phenomena (dhamma), which he expounded in his discourse on satipatthana. (Digha Nikaya, 22 and Majjhima Nikaya, 10) Edible food, as the nutriment of the body, facilitates our practice in developing mindfulness of our physical states, contact, as the nutriment of feelings, in developing mindfulness of our emotional states, mental volition, as the nutriment of mind, in developing mindfulness of our mental states, and consciousness, as the nutriment of consciousness, in developing mindfulness of phenomena in the world around us.

What the Buddha is telling us is that contemplating on the four kinds of nutriments and the four establishments of mindfulness will lead us to the true understanding of all the phenomena in the world around us, which are marked by impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anatta). Whatever we are made of—four great elements, five aggregates, six elements, 30 trillion cells, 380 trillion viruses—we humans are nothing but dhammas in the grand scheme of things called the universe and are, as composite entities, subject to the three marks of existence of anicca, dukkha, and anatta, the realization of which is the path that would lead us to the cessation of suffering, to nibbana.