The Dalai Lama wrote, “Many Eastern philosophies, and in particular Buddhism, speak of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. The first four are supported by the element of space which enables them to exist and to function. Space, or ‘ether,’ then, serves as the basis for the functioning of all of the other elements.”
The Korean, Japanese and Chinese theories surrounding the elements (or phases perhaps would be a better word) and their harmonies and unions are all basically the same, stemming from a school of thought over 200 years old which developed the theory of Wu-hsing. This theory put forth the thought that there were five elements that were not inactive matter, but rather dynamic processes which were basic to understanding the natural world. Derived from this theory are those of the Feng Shui and the I Ching on “the five transformative moments. These processes are not substances, but stages of transformation. They are described as adjectives: woody, fiery, earthy, metallic, and streaming. The transformative moments evoke each other in a cycle.” Each element does not exist in isolation from the others, although there may be an imbalance in their unity. “All five elements are in a constant start of movement, change and flux, like the dance of yin and yang.”
The cycles of these elements can be either constructive or destructive. “Fire is the parent of earth and the child of wood; earth is the parent of metal and the child of fire; metal is the parent of water and the child of earth; water is the parent of wood and the child of metal; wood is the parent of fire and the child of water,” is the basic pattern for creation and elemental compatibility. The five elements should exist in balance and harmony. To have one element out of balance is to weaken both the mind and the body, and ultimately the flow of ki.
Wood / Green
Wood is the tree. It is flexible, yet rooted, giving a strong base. Its energy goes outward in all directions, and represents the liver, the organ responsible for the free flow of ki. The dragon, with its barely controlled rage is the animal of wood, and anger the emotion most associated with it.
Fire / Red
The phoenix is the bird of fire. It is the season of summer, of energy at its strongest. But beware, fire brings both benefit and disaster. Fire lives in the heart and the emotion of joy. The heart home to the spirit, “might seem quaint to the scientifically oriented, but the fact is, reports published and broadcast on programs such as Dateline NBC have related experiences of heart transplant patients whose emotions and preferences changed markedly. Later it was discovered through surviving relatives that the donor had the same traits newly exhibited by the transplant recipient.”
Earth / Yellow
Earth is the center of our life, the core upon which every living thing depends. It is the yellow brown warmth of “Indian Summer.” The organ of the earth is the stomach, and it is represented by the snake, an animal which spends its entire life on its stomach. Its mood is that of reflection and contemplation.
Metal / White
Metal is strength and substance. The inward energy of metal is that of grief and melancholy. The lung is the organ of metal. Tiger is the animal associated with metal. Able to both defend and attack, ready to spring into action when faced with any threat, the tiger is feared and revered around the world.
Water / Black
The water energy is downward, and it is at this phase of the cycle that “things reach their maximum rest and maximum concentration. It is the new moon, dark and about to give birth.” The emotion associated with water is fear — its color, black. Water may appear to be the weakest of the elements, but over time a steady stream of water can wear down the largest stones. The tortoise is the animal of water, representing security, wisdom, and longevity.
The Hindus have a great number of fives in their religion. There are the five organs of sense, five organs of action (for speaking, handling, walking, generating and excreting) and five vital airs. The process of enlightenment is fivefold: annamaya (immersed in food, or the corporeal body), pranaamaya (endowed with the five vital airs), manomaya (acts consciously), vigyaanamaya (endowed with knowledge) and finally, anandamaya (joyousness).
The Hindus also have five precepts for self restraint, which are the same in Buddhism: non-killing (ahimsa); truthfulness (satya); non-stealing (asteya); sexual continence (brahmacharya); and non-covetousness (aparigraha).
One faction of Hindu believers, the Shivaites, believes that God, or Shiva, has five faces, each representing an active energy. These five energies are: “srishti (which creates the world), sthiti (which preserves the world), sanhaara (which destroys the world), tirobhavva (which conceals the true characteristics of the world from the soul), and anugraha (which reveals the truth of the world to the soul).”
Another Hindi religion is that of Jain, which was founded by Mahavira (599-527 BC). It was most notably practiced by Gandhi. According to the Jains, there are five key stages in the life of Mahavira: his miraculous conception, his birth, his renunciation, his attainment of omniscience, and his liberation. The monastic orders of Jainism must follow the Hindu precepts of self-restraint as well.
It is also believed that the mountain where all the gods reside and from which all creation comes is the five-peaked Mount Meru. This is remembered in the architecture of Angkor Wat, a renowned Hindu temple complex in Cambodia in the 12th century. “Taking more than 30 years to build, the layout of the complex was conceived as an architectural allegory of the Hindu cosmology. At the center of the complex stands a temple with five lotus-shaped towers representing the five peaks of Mount Meru.”
Buddhists venerate five Buddha families, five Buddha wisdoms and the implements of each. They also believe in the existence of five elements (fire, water, earth, air and emptiness) and that there are five human powers (faith, effort, memory, concentration, and wisdom).
The first Buddha family is that of Akshobya, and is the mirror-like wisdom, the purification of hatred and anger. It is represented by a vajra, a ritual instrument. The second Buddha family is that of Vairocana, and is the wisdom of the ultimate reality, the purification of ignorance. It is represented by the prayer wheel. The third is the family of Ratnasambhava and is focused on the wisdom of equanimity and the purification of pride. It is symbolized by a jewel. The fourth family is that of Amitabha and gives us the wisdom of discrimination and the purification of attachment and desire. It is depicted by the lotus blossom. The final in the five families is the Amoghasiddhi, which gives the wisdom of accomplishment and the purification of jealousy, and is represented by the sword.
Tibetan Buddhist monks build giant, intricate sand mandalas as one way of honoring the Buddha. In the creation of the mandala there are five rituals to cleanse and prepare the site, and five rituals to honor the substances used in creation of the mandala. In the great Kalachakra Mandala, there are multiple fives, both in the mandala and the rituals to create it. The Kalachakra Mandala is constructed by five monks, who start by laying down a white chalk outline of the mandala on the surface it is to be drawn on. This is done by “snapping the wisdom string” – a string made up of five strings of differing colors, said to represent the five Buddha families. The Kalachakra consists of “five square mandalas within each other, representing the five levels of Kalachakra’s palace. Each of the square mandalas is said to represent one aspect or state of enlightenment: body, speech, mind, wisdom and great bliss. The five circles enclosing the square mandalas are said to represent the five elements” as viewed by the Buddhist – earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness. At the heart of the mandala is a lotus blossom, “five layers of colored sand are painted, one on top of the other…these layers serve as the cushions for the central deity of Kalachakra.”
In Tibet, Buddhists fly prayer flags, which are left outside to fray. The idea is that the wind will carry the essence of prayer wherever it blows. These flags are often comprised of five-colored flags, together with printed images representing the prayer or a specific deity. “The traditional five colors (blue, white, red, green, and yellow) represent the five elements (space, water, fire, air/wind and earth).”
The Chinese felt the power of five, and “arranged accordingly the directions, seasons of the year, sounds, parts of the body, tastes and colors. The entire life in this world is built on five.” This system of thought became the basis for feng shui, or the art of geomancy. In China (and Korea as well), the art of geomancy is a form of fortune telling using the earth. This art is centered around five colors, five directions, five animals, and five types of energy. Feng shui combines religious, philosophical, astrological, cosmological, mathematical, and geographical concepts.
When entering into the Forbidden City of Beijing, visitors arrive in an immense courtyard through the Meridan Gate, and find themselves faced with five bridges over the Golden Water. It is said that these bridges represent the five Confucian (or constant) virtues: humanity, sense of duty, wisdom, reliability and ceremonial propriety.
In Chinese art there are five symbols commonly referred to as the “five happinesses.” These symbols are found in most ancient Chinese art and are considered to foretell good luck. They are the shou, Ch’i Lin (a mythical animal similar to the chimera), Lung ( A Chinese Dragon), the Feng Huang (or phoenix) and the Ju-I. Interestingly, the dragon was only depicted as having five claws when used by the emperor. Lesser princes could also use the dragon design, but only depicting three or four claws.
Gung-fu is an ancient Chinese martial art. Students of gung-fu study five animal forms: tiger, crane, leopard, dragon, and snake. There is a sixth form, that of the monkey, represented by the fist, which is said to symbolize that combination of the first five animals; it is also believed that each of the first five animals is a finger on a hand that makes the fist. Each animal had a strength or attitude that the practioner was to learn, as well as being associated with a specific technique. The tiger represents the passion and enthusiasm; it is associated with the horse stance. The crane is defense, its stance one where the lead leg is lifted, bent and cocked, ready for action. The leopard marks the final stage of the beginner, and combines the aggression of the tiger and the defense of the crane, focusing on acceleration, power and balance; its stance is that of the cat. The dragon represents controlled rage, and is associated with the twisted stance and claw hands rear above head and about a foot in front of midsection; the dragon is also associated with the ki-ai. The snake is the animal of ki; here the students study the cat stance with a stacked mantis-like forearm cover.
Tai chi chuan is a martial art originating from China, one that is considered “soft” and “internal.” Wong Kiew Kit, a widely published author has said of tai chi that “all the critical lessons of tai chi chuan training can be summarized into five areas: mind – as in being mindful of the opponents movements; body or form – to flow with the opponent’s form; vital energy or chi – diffused all over the body; internal force – controlled at the waist; and spirit or shen – as a general preparation for the above four.” This is further elaborated in the “Five Characters Formula,” which refers to mind tranquil, body agile; energy full; force complete and spirit focused. Mind tranquil encourages the practitioner to remember that if the mind is not tranquil, then it is also not concentrated or focused. Body agile means that if body movement is sluggish, movement is not as efficient as possible. Energy full is harnessing the c’hi, or energy, so that it flows and connects every part of the body. Force complete is using the whole body as one force. When the spirit is focused, it is said that there is “abundant energy, mental freshness, and coordinated movement.” There are also five fundamental leg movements in tai chi, or: jin (forward); tui (backward); ku (left); pan (right); and ding (remaining at the center). These are said to “symbolize the five elemental processes of the universe – metal, water, wood, fire and earth, are the processes or phases, not the elements.”
There are theories that the number five in China “was the most common of the numerical categories used by the Chinese. It may symbolize the five happinesses, the five constant virtues, or the five great leaders of antiquity.”
The number five appears to be central to Japan as well, perhaps imported from China. According to an ancient Chinese text (c. 250), the Empress Himiko of Japan eagerly learned of Taoism and the yin-and-yang theory, as well as the five elements. Five pentagonal stone monuments surround the burial site of Himiko, and are said to represent the five elements.
Abe-no-Seimei was an 11th century government official and author in Japan. His symbol mark was a regular pentagram. Many pentagrams can be found in the Seimei-jinjya Shrine in Kyoto where he lived. “It is not clear why Seimei liked the pentagram. His pentagram may show a relationship to the Chinese five-elements, or he might have known about the famous relationship between a pentagram and Pythagoras.”
Until recently, the pentagram was painted, engraved or embroidered on objects as diverse as swords, kimonos for the Hana-matsuri, on the tops of caps worn in the military (as late as the early 20th century), and as a talisman after Abe-no-Seimei.
Miyamoto Musashi, a Japanese samurai and undefeated duelist who wrote the Book of Five Rings in the mid-1600s. This book, while about the martial arts, has come more recently to be used on the battlefield of corporate business. According to translator Stephen Mitchell, it would actually “more properly be translated as The Book of Five Spheres.” Musashi admonishes those who practice the martial arts with showmanship and commercialism, and turns attention to the psychology of ruthless victory in battle.
“Martial arts are the warriors’ way of life,” he opens in the Earth Scroll. “Let us illustrate the idea of a way of life. Buddhism is a way of helping people; Confucianism is a way of refining culture. For the physician, healing is a way of life…few people are fond of the martial way of life. The way of the warriors means familiarity with both cultural and martial arts. Even if they are clumsy at this, individual warriors should strengthen their own martial arts.” His five scrolls are earth, water, fire, wind and emptiness, hailing more to the Pythagorean essences. He also writes of five types of guard or defensive stance: “upper position, middle position, lower position, right-hand guard, and left-hand guard. There are no other kinds of guard except these five.” Similarly, he writes of five formal techniques of swordplay.
More recently, a new, “eclectic” martial art called Taido was formed in Japan. This art has “no economy of motion…the object is to perform a difficult and beautiful technique.” It is an art form, not practical for self-defense. The movements are patterned after five forms of natural motion: “untai, the waves, representing the movement of ascent/descent, and containing all flying techniques; sentai, the tornado, representing all spinning actions; hentai, the clouds, representing all falling or topping techniques; nentai, the whirlpool, or all spiral movement; and finally tentai, lightning, or the motion of the spheres.”
Five is still seen as an active and empowering number. This is why it has been said “The mystic power of five may overwhelm everything in Japan.”
With all the invasions that Korea has undergone from both China and Japan, it is little wonder that the number five appears in many shapes and forms in their culture. Most trace back to China, Japan, Confucianism and Buddhism.
The ancient Koreans believed that there were five elements as well. To them, the five elements were those of gold (metal), earth, fire, water, and wood. According to them, “the universe is subject to ever changing mutual relations among the five elements, each representing certain symbols, basic to the composition of the universe.”
As in other Asian cultures, the Koreans placed importance on fortune-telling. The instruments used for fortune telling were “five old coins. On each of the five pieces was inscribed an appropriate mark to indicate one of the five elements.” Interpretation was done based on position and relation between elements. “To interpret properly symbols derived from this, the fortune teller has to be versed in the knowledge not only of the five elements, but also the theories of the taeguk (male and female / um and yang).”
It is little surprise then that the Hwarang-do warriors of Korea had five rules / guidelines for their organization. According to Korean folklore, these were devised by Wong Kwang Bopsa, a Buddhist high priest. Using the moral principles of Buddhism and the martial arts code of chivalry, his system, based on the belief that the martial artist needs to have something larger than ego and self-interest to sustain the commitment to study, came down to five rules. These were:
Serve the king with loyalty.
Tend your parents with filial piety.
Treat friends with sincerity.
Never retreat from the battlefield.
Be discriminate about the taking of a life.
During the Korean War, for the most part, martial arts training was suspended. However, it was during the Korean War that the five original kwans (or schools) got together and, under the leadership of General Choi, chose a unifying name for the arts practiced by the five kwans, or taekwon-do. In the oath of the Hwa-rang do youth are the roots for the five tenets and five lines of the student oath of modern day taekwon-do.
The Tenets of Taekwon-Do
The Student Oath of Taekwon-Do
I shall observe the tenets of Taekwon-do.
I shall respect the Instructor and the seniors.
I shall never misuse Taekwon-do.
I shall be a champion of freedom and justice.
I shall build a more peaceful world.
2 thoughts on “Eastern Philosophy and Religion”
Great read! Thanks.