The Elemental Conundrum
The five Elements are the very bedrock of Vajrayana. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that, to date, there has been no attempt to define more precisely what these phenomena are, and how they exist as principles that structure our entire world. Those master yogins and yoginis that have achieved an inner realization of the Elements should have more to say about them and the part they play in our bodies and minds. Maybe all that is needed is to learn the method, follow the practice, and receive the fruition, as tradition dictates. While the illustrious history of highly realized beings within Vajrayana demonstrate this to be true, there are shortcomings to this approach, especially for the West.
The Need for Renewal
All significant innovation or discovery—including spiritual truths—eventually becomes increasingly codified and structured. Likewise, Vajrayana follows a set of highly structured dogma, creeds and ideologies. Those boundaries serve a useful purpose in keeping the integrity and meaning of a spiritual path intact. Group culture and modes of thought and action need to be preserved, but they can also become excessively dogmatic, canonized and rigid. Such systems might even transform into a lifeless husk, instead of a living, evolving organism. That is the tight-rope of human striving. One way to keep a tradition from becoming petrified is the healthy encounter with new thought, fresh insight, and the experiences of those who plumb the depths of that system, and then bring new pearls of wisdom to the surface. These are the wellspring of new growth and evolution, and s defense against losing the essence, while merely maintaining the outer facade of the tradition.
Western Mind 2.0
We do have a square peg and round hole situation with Western Buddhism. Those who have traveled to “exotic” locations and immersed themselves in Eastern life know how profoundly and essentially different the shape of the mind can be in different cultures and epochs. The interface of Buddhism with modern physics and psychology are two prominent attempts at bridging the gap between how we experience life today, and that of 10th century Tibet or 5th century India. Such dialogues look for similarities and common ground, or for confirmations, but do little to explain or expand on the crucial points of ancient knowledge. The West seeks understanding from the outer world, while Easter wisdom specializes in inner exploration. A possible bridge between the language of the inner and the outer is none other than the Five Elements.
Here we are not trying to solve the riddle of the existence of the Elemental template, but to look at different approaches to that mystery. This can only enhance our path of inner development. A deeper Elemental understanding also augments our ability to heal body and mind, to benefit others, and repair the natural landscape we inhabit. In so doing we fulfill what Buddhism calls the “two benefits” of self and other. Indeed Elemental work is fundamental to our spiritual unfoldment, but also can be a tool for treating illness, mental stress and anxiety and the underlying traumas that limit our vast potential.
1. Elements as Metaphor and Archetype
The Elements stand as an elegant statement about our human condition. They are symbols, living representations of a specific set of circumstances, qualities, attributes, and liabilities. They represent archetypal patterns, forces and states that as familiar as our five senses. The stability and weight of Earth, the immediacy and presence of Fire, the dynamic flow of Water, are not just concepts, but experiences we can relate to on multiple levels. Once we dive in, we discover that they are not superficial or peripheral, but central to our being. Just as modern physicists seek the core principles to explain what is behind phenomena, Plato spoke of Forms, eternal principles that stand behind our perceptions. Similarly the Five Elements model encompasses both outer and inner sources of experience. These archetypal meanings are, by nature, both multifaceted and multi-layered, requiring study and direct work with Element forces themselves to unlock their secrets—and their power.
Even on a superficial level, Elemental archetypes, such as the 5-point star, carry great weight, representing the wholeness of the human as incarnate spirit. Its use on coins and architectural objects goes back at least 5,000 years to Sumeria and Egypt. The Greek Pythagoreans used it as their main symbol, arrayed with syllables of the five elements, spelling out the goddess “Ugieia” or Hygeia meaning wholeness/health. It is a perennial and global icon, the pentacle appearing on more than 60 national flags and in every form of art, decoration and advertising. A “five-star” review is a pale reminder of the inner meaning of this holistic archetype.
2. Elements as Organizing Principle
A useful and practical way of thinking of the Elements is as an organizing principles or template. Such theoretical models are developed in the realms of science, philosophy and religion. But models can be purely artificial or they can reflect an organic reality. The more accurate and pervasive a model =is in organizing our perceived world, the more it confirms that reality itself is formulated in this way. The 5-elemental template was applied to health and illness millennia ago, through the ancient sciences of Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine. And it has impacted psychological understandings from the time of Galen until modern times in the truncated (yet still useful) four-Element system of the temperaments and Jungian types. In the East it has been applied equally well to five-fold configurations of environmental forces and forms, demonic obstacles, ritual activities, architecture, art, spiritual unfoldment, pure realms and consciousness itself. Learning to perceive this pentad division is an exercise in itself, and one that can be deeply enriching.
3. Elements as Mathematical Core
The form of the pentagon (five-sided rectangle) and pentagram (5-pointed star) have fascinated humanity for millennia. This is partly because they perfectly embody the Golden Ratio, or phi and the Fibonacci sequence of numbers or spiral that is found throughout nature, art and architecture. That ratio of 1 to 1.618, exists in most of the proportions of our body, including eye and ear, in shells, sunflowers, insects, the DNA spiral, frogs, the curve of galaxies—everywhere. It is found in the pyramids of Giza, the art of Leonardo da Vinci and the pagodas of Japan. And it is the basis of our musical notation system and a large part of our sense of beauty and harmony in general. Five is intimately related to phi as a mathematical formula as well as a geometric form. Making the five-sided figure into a solid, we have the dodecahedron, replicating the golden mean to infinity. There are current cosmological models that consider the universe itself to be a complex dodecahedron.
These geometric figures and their associated mathematics were directly associated with the Elements by the ancients. Pythagoras taught that the entire universe was a mathematical structure, for which he used the tetractys to explain the meaning and import of the numbers one to ten. In this model, five is the central and most important; The diagram of the tetractys itself contains various phi ratios and displays how the monad or spirit moves down to create the four lower elements. It seems clear that Pythagoras learned these 5-elemental and mathematical mysteries from his long apprenticeship in Egyptian temples and his Brahmanical and Buddhist studies either in India itself or with gymnosophist teachers among the Egyptians and Babylonian Magi.
4. Elements As Psychological Template
The correlation of the Elements with the psyche as presented in traditional Buddhism is, unfortunately, rudimentary. More significantly, it seems like an artificial force-fit of pre-existing Buddhist concepts with the emergent five-element insights that had arisen through direct tantric experience. Initially, there was no connection between mental defilements (Sanskrit: kléshas, Tib: nyön mong) and the Elements. But they became aligned in an effort to integrate classical Buddhist Mahayana and Sarvastavadin thought with Vajrayana concepts. The lists of emotional neuroses from which these five were drawn were by no means consistent. Different texts within the Abhidharma list five, six and ten kléshas, while the older Hinayana texts have a different set of five, more related to the obstacles facing monk-meditators. The contemporaneous Hindu tradition has several different lists as well, from the Yogic school of Patanjali, the Nath Siddhas and the Samkya tradition and its complex tattva cosmology. The most crucial issue is that the accepted standard list that became canonized in Buddhism does not jibe with the Western ideas of Temperament that evolved from Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. Note too that kleshas represent a distorted or neurotic aspect of the Elements. Missing is the description of “healthy” or normal Elemental mental characteristics, though this does find some expression in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine. Here thought, we are hampered by the three-guna system that squishes the five elements into three categories. Thai Ayurveda, representing the original Buddhist system originating in India, has maintained that the five-Element approach, and informants say that the three-temperament system is a clinical approach that simply ignores Space and Earth, in order to focus on Water, Fire and Air as the cause of the majority of acute symptoms. In spite of all this historical confusion, we can begin to understand the mentality of the Elements by correlating their characteristics and qualities with the vast resource of Western psychological knowledge and observation, from early philosophers to Shakespeare and onward to cognitive and humanistic schools of psychology.
5. Elements As Energy
The elements are formative principles, but they are not merely organizational frameworks. They act, they impact, they cause things to be put into motion. They are a set of forces, and these are tangible, since they can be experienced and worked with internally. In the world of material science the outer “objective” facts are what is important. On the path of inner exploration and transformation the “subjective” reins supreme. These are both a form of science, working in very different contexts. And so the goal of Element practice is to actually sense these five individual energetic qualities in your own body and mind, and in the world around one
Medical and meditation teachings from India and Tibet speak of five winds (vital or subtle energy, prana or chi) and five fires, as subdivisions of these major Elements. Vajrayana provides the details of working with these energies through the mental access points of specific sounds (mantra), color and form visualizations. We learn to listen to, and move these energies through channels, energy centers and body tissues. Traditionally though their inner qualities are not described, though the great sage and polymath Tongtang Gyalpo does allude to their heating, cooling and other qualities. Even Chinese Qi Gong or Nei Dan, with its sophisticated knowledge of bioenergetics, does not focus on the experience of elemental phases in any detail. However, the practitioner must learn to differentiate these energies and their relationship to bodily processes (physiology), psychology, and spiritual alchemy. From there, the practitioner will eventually be able to perceive the Elemental energies in other people, and in all objects, animate and inanimate.
6. Elements as Spiritual Anatomy
For the Buddhist, Hindu and Yogic traditions, the main interest in the Elements is their relation to our spiritual anatomy, and transforming our impure elements into their original, inherently pure “wisdom” form. There is an established relationship as to the location of the Elements within the specific energy centers—the chakras. More than indwelling components, tantric embryology tells us that these energy centers are formed first, with the physical body congealing around them. this adds a new dimension to the way we characterize the Element, Now they are not only part of our biology and physiology, but present in a higher, more refined form. This points towards the primary or original form of the elements, their highest “divine” level, that can pervade our ordinary state, suffusing it with their pristine qualities. We live in a step-down world, where our experience is a pale reflection of the infinite and timeless consciousness that is the fundamental matrix. Our job is to climb back up the ladder, albeit against the current of biological life. Mantric sound and visualized lights and syllables, yogic postures and movements and penetrating mediations are part of that methodology.
The Elemental Bottom Line
Clearly modern science has yet to discover a set of five “somethings” corresponding to the five elements. While this may be unfortunate in terms of explaining these long-standing concepts, it is likely a good thing for the survival of the human race. If the knowledge of how to manipulate the five organizing forces of reality were in the technologically sophisticated, but ethically, morally and spiritually stunted hands of science, technology, commerce and politics, the timeline of our demise could be greatly accelerated. It is not for nothing that these powerful truths were closely guarded secrets of the Egyptians and followers of Pythagoras, and no less so the tantrics of India, Tibet and Bhutan, right up until our present day.
This is the razors edge. All religion moves towards entropy, towards extinction, unless renewed from within by the same spiritual forces that enlivened it in the first place. We must continually redefine what the five Elements mean in the context of our modern mind and oddly configured culture. For spiritual seekers, the pressing issue is not politics, not ecology, not cultural shifts or social movements. Maintaining the original vision and purity of the source (which goes by many names) and its five-part Elemental expression is the greatest challenge of our age, without it being co-opted by fear, doubt, ignorance or inflation.