“Bhikkhus, I shall teach you a discourse on the root of all things. Listen and attend closely to what I shall say.” … “Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, perceives earth as earth. Having perceived earth as earth, he conceives [himself as] earth, he conceives [himself] in earth, he conceives [himself apart] from earth, he conceives earth to be ‘mine,’ he delights in earth. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.7” (M:1)
Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi. “The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.”
In Buddhism, matter or form is one of elements that all together make “I” of conventional self. Further, matter is divided into four elements like earth, water, fire, and wind.
The passage quoted points out our ingrained tendency seeking “self” by the example of earth.
Likewise, we often say, “It is so you,” “It is so me,” or “that is not you” athough we don’t know exactly waht is you or me.
When the Buddha says ‘the root of all things’, it can mean our existence itself or all kinds of psychological phenomena in our minds including suffering or even the existence of the world itself, I think.
Interestingly, the passage indicates that there are four ways of finding ‘self”: identification(=), immersion(>), seperation(≉), and possession@.
“He conceives [himself as] earth” can be said as identification that we often identify us with what we do like by saying “I am an actor, singer, ….” The tendency of identification often brings about arrogonce and pride.
“He conceives [himself] in earth” can be said as immersion that one is a small part of a bigger one. In another words, one finds ‘self’ in something bigger than self. The something can be God or transcendental existence that one can immerses oneself into. Patriotism can be the case, and in extreme case, this tendency can go to totalitarianism.
“He conceives [himself apart] from earth” can be said as separation that one seeks ‘self’ by separating self from others. Likewise, white people think they are different than black, asians, latins. All kinds of racial discrimination can be a result of this tendency.
“He conceives earth to be ‘mine” can be said as possession. Gollum in the Movie “Lord of Ring” seems to be the perfect example of this tendency that has brought about imperialsim, collonialism, and capitialism in history.
Thus, in “the root of all things” things can be all kinds of evil that is caused by the ingrained tendency of finding self.