For Buddhists these do not mean literally the natural earth, water, fire and air. Rather, they symbolise four behavioural properties of matter common to all material phenomena, the properties that every material body exhibits.

(a)  Earth element
This is the property by which a material body has some degree of hardness or softness, roughness or smoothness.

(b)  Water element
This represents the property of cohesion. Because of the water element, material particles bind together and adhere to one another.

(c)  Heat element
This is the principle of heat by which all material phenomena possess some degree of heat. Even when a particular substance feels cold to us, that is only becasue it contains less heat than our body. But every material body possesses some degree of heat.

(d)  Air Element
This is the principle of distention, by reason of which all material particles are in a state of vibration. By reason of the air element, material bodies exhibit a motion.

Now all material phenomena possess these four elements to some degree. What distinguishes them is the proportion in which the primary elements are combined. We discriminate the types of matter on the basis of the dominant element. Thus we find solid bodies, liquids, gases and forms of energy depending on the proportions or predominance of the four primary elements. But all four elements are present to some degree in every unit of matter.

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