Zen and the five elements

Kyoto, the City of Zen – one of the many guises of this intriguing metropolis. Short sessions or overnight stays are offered at several temples, principally of the Rinzai school of Zen, to experience meditation, green tea and Zen gardens. This is ‘Classic Zen’, as often portrayed in the west and for the west. A short train ride from Kyoto, the Head Temple of Obaku Zen can be found.  A more recent arrival in Japan, this school of Zen has retained many features of its Chinese heritage.  The two Head Temples of Soto Zen, which has the most temples of any Buddhist school in Japan, are found further afield. The machinations of history determined that this school of Zen has a modest presence in Kyoto. In my exploration of Zen and the five elements each of these schools has a different story. As I’m discovering elsewhere in elemental Japan, their paths merge and diverge in a fascinating and complex way. Here is what I have learnt so far, a journey with many connections to Kyoto.

Dry landscape gardens where sand and rock feature have become a hallmark of Zen. This garden is located at Kennin-ji, the oldest of Kyoto’s Zen temples. Founded in 1202 by Eisai, this Rinzai Temple is laid out in a Chinese style grid pattern on a north-south axis. As Judith Clancy described in her book ‘Kyoto City of Zen‘ sub temples and small Japanese style gardens line the periphery. This layout is found in other Zen temples in Kyoto.

Zen has captured the imagination of the west. It has become the popular face of Buddhist Japan. For a philosophy/religion that is based on reaching enlightenment through experience, rather than being dependent on the written word, there is an enormous amount published on Zen. A recent book on Zen gardens and temples in Kyoto, featured in greater detail below, writes that perhaps the most influential figure in opening up Zen to the West was Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Being more familiar with the writings of Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Gary Snyder, I will endeavour to learn more about her contribution.

This is the collection of books on Zen in my library so far, in addition to my online references. It represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the literature on Zen. I have more books coming in the post, including two on Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. Recently I also came across additional books related to Zen including a translation of the Diamond and Heart Sutras. Most of these books are written from a western perspective. If readers are able to recommend other relevant Japanese books that have been translated that would be great.

Given the profile of Zen you can imagine how keen I have been to discover if and where the five elements fit into its teachings and practice. This has been more challenging than I had imagined. Slowly the story is unfolding with many pieces of the puzzle that is Zen and the elements still to be discovered, through more reading and direct experience.

In my search for greater understanding of Zen and the elements I have visited many Temples. I’ve also participated in meditation sessions in Rinzai and Soto Zen temples in Kyoto and Adagawa (shown here) respectively. The experiences  were quite different and made me wonder how the emphasis on koans in Rinzai Zen and sitting meditation in Soto Zen has influenced their teachings. In order to discover more I am going through some of the teachings of the founders of these schools, expanded on below. The brief history of Zen that follows sets the context for this activity.

Zen Buddhism came to Japan from China where it is known as Chan. Chan Buddhism brought together Taoist/Confucian beliefs and the teachings of Bodhidharma (known as Daruma in Japan), the Indian monk who was the Patriarch of the Zen lineage. Around 800 years ago the founders of the Soto and Rinzai Schools of Zen (Dogen and Eisai respectively) independently travelled to China, both bringing back Chan teachings to Japan to try and reform Buddhism there. The Indian and Chinese influences in Chan/Zen both have strong connections to the five elements (Buddhist and Taoist respectively), ones which I am still trying to unravel in a contemporary context.

Images of the Indian Patriarch of Zen are commonplace in Japan, and not only in Zen Temples. Daruma dolls are distinctive (being ropy-poly in shape), symbolic and have considerable significance. They are bought with unpainted eyes – one of them is painted as a wish is made, the other eye if the wish is granted.  The ability of the dolls to  stand upright when pushed over has become synonymous with the popular Japanese phrase “Nana korobi yaoki” meaning “fall down seven times, get up eight”.  Commonly coloured red, the dolls can also be bought in five (elemental) colours (goshiki). It was only recently that I discovered Daruma featured in children’s books as well.

I saw these Daruma children’s books during a very enjoyable home stay with Ayako Nakajima, a taiko friend in Maibara. The books belonged to her grand-daughter Tsumugi who was very cute! Until this time, outside of the Zen Temples, I had mainly seen Daruma represented in doll form. Seeing the books, and learning that he is also represented in manga and anime, made me appreciate how widespread the image of Daruma is in Japan. Although never visiting the country, the presence of the Indian patriarch of Zen is widely felt. Despite this Daruma is rarely an image associated with Zen in the West. I would like to learn more about his influence on Zen, especially in relation to the elements.

Another dimension of Zen that I discovered relatively recently, that this time has a strong Chinese influence, is the third and smallest school – Obaku Zen. I learnt about this serendipitously through John Dougill’s blog Green Shinto when he introduced Manpukuji, the Head Temple of Obaku Zen. It can be reached easily from Kyoto and is well worth visiting. John has also written a series of 20 posts on Zen and Shinto which provides much food for thought. They introduce another important element of the complex and syncretic nature of Zen and question what represents the heart/soul of Japanese culture – Zen or Shinto? It could be both.

Obaku Zen was established in Japan in the 1600s by a Chinese monk named Ingen (Yinyuan). Some commentators write that over time Obaku teachings have become closer to Rinzai Zen, which it shares the same lineage with. More can be learnt about these schools on the website of the Joint Council of Japanese Rinzai and Obaku Zen. While some similarities are found, many of the monastic customs of the Obaku school remain distinctly those of Ming-dynasty Chinese Zen. Manpukuji is where I first came across explicit reference to the five elements in a Zen Temple. Not surprisingly in this instance it was the five Chinese elements of earth, water, fire, metal and wood.

The statue of Hotei (as Maitreya), in the Tenno-den of Manpukuji in Obaku (the Head Temple of Obaku Zen), has multi-coloured bags either side to place your wishes in. Each colour relates to one of the five Chinese elements and prayers for success, described in more detail below.

This information is part of a larger panel that hangs above the coloured elemental bags that wishes are placed in. According to Google Translate, the red bags represent Fire and areas such as love fulfilment, while yellow represents Earth and traffic safety – amongst other things. Once the long piece of paper (with an image of Hotei on it) has been written on and placed in the bag, they are tied on strings on either side of the future Buddha. Each step of the process is described in detail.

The joint Rinzai-Obaku Zen website notes several distinctive Chinese practices that have been retained by Obaku Zen including nenbutsu and esoteric rituals, ceremonies such as sutra-chanting (done in an approximation of Fujian dialect) and mealtime etiquette. Additionally, the Obaku Zen tea ceremony uses sencha tea rather than matcha and their vegetarian meals have a Chinese influence. Then there are the five Chinese elements featured in the offering bags. These characteristics set Obaku Zen apart from other Zen schools, as does their temple architecture. It would be instructive to know how these differences flow through to the teachings at Obaku, past and present – especially in relation to the elements.

I will continue to explore this less well known school of Zen. In addition to finding the five Chinese elements at Manpukuji, the teachings of Obaku Zen Master Tetsugen Doko (1630 – 1682) refer to the four great elements (earth, wind, fire and water). That was an important discovery as it shows that Obaku Zen draws on both the Chinese and Buddhist elements. In his (translated) words:

If you understand that the four great elements are fundamentally the Buddha, then not only will you see that your own body is from the start the Dharmakaya, but that everything even down to the heavens, the earth, the sky and all of the universe is the mysterious body of the Dharmakaya.”

In a different context, reference to Buddha’s Heart and Buddha Nature is made in the article ‘The Epic of Tea‘ written by Daniel Kane. Published in 1987 in the first issue of the Kyoto Journal he uses Zen as an exemplar to explore the spiritual and mythological aspects of the formal tea ceremony.  The article extensively covers the five (Chinese) elements/phases – it is the best overview I have read. For those interested in reading the full article, the relevant issue (shown below) can still be purchased online. If you would like to read even more about the tea ceremony and the five elements, my impressions are shared in the  post ‘Time for more tea‘.

I was pleased to see Takuan (1573 – 1645), a major figure in Rinzai Zen Buddhism, cited in ‘The Epic of Tea‘. This is one of the few examples of Zen teachings I’ve found so far referring explicitly to the elements. “Thus, let a person take a delight in the natural harmony of heaven and earth; let him transplant mountains, rivers, trees and rocks to his own fireside and experience the five elements (within himself). Let him draw from the source of heaven and earth and savour in his mouth the taste of the wind.” In this case he is referring to the five Chinese elements. The tea ceremony has a particularly strong association with Daitoku-ji, a Rinzai Zen Temple complex in Kyoto where the tea master Sen no Rikyu resided in the 1500s.

Both the Kyoto Journal article on Zen and tea, and another reference to the five (Chinese) elements being ‘within himself’ in Rinzai Zen, eventuated through my membership of Writers in Kyoto (WiK).  Ken Rodgers, a founder of the Kyoto Journal and a WiK member, gave me the tea article. The second lead was thanks to Norman Wadell who I met at a WiK event in May 2017. Norman is the world expert on Hakuin, a Japanese monk credited with the modern revival of the Rinzai school of Zen in the 1700s and its most prominent teacher.

As a member of Writers in Kyoto I had the good fortune to attend a dinner in Kyoto with Norman Wadell as the special guest (centre foreground). Norman was a font of wisdom about Hakuin and Baisao, amongst other things. He was a delight to listen to. The photo was taken by John Dougill. I’m sitting in the far back corner.

After contemplating my question about the elements and Zen, Norman pointed me to an essay by Hakuin titled ‘Idle talk on a night boat‘. In this essay Hakuin shares his discovery of Introspective Meditation (Naikan) that is based on the five Chinese elements. This was taught to him by a mountain recluse called Hakuyu. Hakuin had sought him out to try and find a cure for his Zen sickness. While I am unsure how relevant this elemental meditation is to the Rinzai school today, its discovery is an important piece of the puzzle. If you would like to read the essay and other writings by Hakuin I would recommend Norman’s 2009 book ‘Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave.’

Given the Chinese heritage of Zen, and the broader historical influence of Chinese culture in Japan, the presence of the five Chinese elements in the tea ceremony and its association with healing and meditation is not surprising. I also expect there to be a connection between these elements and Zen Gardens. The modern translation of  Sakuteiki by Takei and Keane (2008) has a chapter exploring the importance of yin yang (Jpn In Yo) and the five (Chinese) phases/elements in garden design. The original book ‘Records of Garden Making‘ was written nearly 1000 years ago making it the oldest book on gardening in the world. One would expect it to have influenced Zen garden design. While the recent book on Zen gardens and temples featured below does not explicitly refer to the five elements/phases in garden design, it does refer to yin yang.

Another aspect of Zen gardens related to the elements are viewings of special seasonal features.  These reflect the response of plants to a changing environment and the impermanent nature of life. I have enjoyed such viewings over the summers of 2016 and 2017 – the white Hangesho leaves at Ryosuku-in, a sub -temple at Kennin-ji in Kyoto, in the summer of 2017 (shown here); and the ephemeral Sal flowers at Torin-in, a sub-temple at Myoshin-ji in Kyoto, in the summer of 2016. The sub-temple was only open to the public for two weeks for the viewings.

The holy grail for a while has been to track down references to the five Buddhist elements in Zen – earth, water, fire, air and ether/space. The prevalence of Daruma imagery in Japan suggests the Zen links to the Indian tradition and teachings would be strong. The great elements (mahabhuta) are fundamental to early Buddhist teachings. For example, an exposition on the six elements was written around 2200 years ago in India. Bodhidharma had an exchange when choosing his successor about emptiness and the four elements (earth, air, fire and water – the other two are space and consciousness). I have also found references on Chan Buddhism that discuss the four and six Buddhist elements. Given their prevalence of the Buddhist elements in these precursors, you would expect to find them in Zen.

Five tiered pagodas, which represent the five Buddhist elements, are a well recognised feature of Buddhist temples in Japan. The catch here is that they are not found in Zen Buddhist complexes or individual temples (as illustrated in the temple layout in the book below). This was also the case in China – Edward L. Shaughnessy indicates that Chan Buddhism did not include worship in or around pagodas as part of their rituals.  Elsewhere I have read that the stone lanterns in Zen gardens represent the five Buddhist elements. Further exploration is required on the design and architecture of Zen gardens and temples in relation to these elements.

Only one explicit reference to the five elements was discovered in this book, published in October 2017.  This was is in the context of food served at Zen Temples. As well as the five Chinese elements, five methods of cooking, five tastes and five colours are described. More obliquely there is reference to the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi as being influenced strongly by Zen teachings. His ‘Book of Five Rings‘ uses the five Buddhist elements as a framework – whether this came directly from his connection to Zen is still to be determined.

The book on Zen gardens and temples refers to the significance of dragons to Zen. They are considered protectors of the Buddhist faith and closely associated with the element of water. To celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2002 Kennin-ji commissioned a painting of twin dragons by Koisumi Junsaku. I was interested to see the dragon had five claws, a symbol of a Chinese Imperial dragon. Japanese dragons usually have three claws. Dragons are found on the ceilings of several Rinzai Zen Temples in Kyoto. My favourite is the dragon at Myoshin-ji. It is stunning.

The fourth school, Fuke Zen, hasn’t been part of my explorations. It is no longer active in Japan after being banned during the Meiji Restoration. This intriguing school, whose members played the shakuhachi flute as a form of meditation, may come into play as I undertake further investigations into Zen and the five elements. The shakuhachi in its own right has connections to the five Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space, so learning more about Fuke Zen could be an important piece of the puzzle.

So why has it been a challenge to find explicit reference to the five Buddhist elements in the different writings available on Zen in Japan? Perhaps I haven’t found the right books yet, or done the most effective Google searches. If a description of the five (four to six) Buddhist elements in Zen is available, like Adrian Snodgrass has written for Shingon Buddhism, I’d love to hear about it. My blog titled ‘The power of the five elements‘ shares some of my impressions of this esoteric Buddhist school founded by Kukai at the beginning of the Heian period (9th Century). Unlike Zen, the Buddhist elements are up front and central in Shingon.

Shofuku-ji Temple in Fukuoka, Kyushu is the oldest Zen Temple in Japan. It was constructed in 1195 by the priest Essai who introduced the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.  The Temple has a classic Zen layout with the Sanmon Gate, Butsuden and other main structures built one behind the other. No pagoda is present. Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, was founded by Essai seven years after Shofuku-ji. This reflects the rapid spread of Zen Buddhism and its teachings.

In my search for fundamental teachings related to the Buddhist elements I have found examples from each of the three active Zen schools. The first is the text on the four great elements attributed to ‘Iron Eyes’ (Tetsugen Doko, Obaku Zen) that was referred to earlier in the post. Secondly Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism) refers to the four, five or six Buddhist elements in his masterwork ‘Shobogenzo‘. This is available to download which makes specific searches straightforward. The blogsite dogenseye.com, launched in October 2017, is making the Shobogenzo accessible to modern readers.  This excerpt from a post on December 25, 2017 particularly caught  my eye, it is very elemental:

Once a monk asked Changsha, a Zen master of Jingcen, “How should I turn mountains, rivers, and the earth into myself?” Changsha said, “How should you turn yourself into mountains, rivers, and the earth?”

–––Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors. Ch.25 Shobogenzo

The four great elements of earth, water, fire and air are also found in teachings attributed to Linji Yixuan (Jpn Rinzai Gigen), a leading figure of Chan and Rinzai Zen Buddhism. The following text comes from a translation titled ‘The sayings of Zen Master Linji Yixuan‘.

Someone asked, ― What are the four formless conditions‘?

The Master replied,

― The moment you doubt you are hindered by earth. The moment you yearn you are drowned by water. The moment you rage you are burned by fire. The moment you rejoice you are blown around by wind. If you understand this, you are not controlled by external circumstances. 

― Using circumstances anywhere, spring up from the east and sink in the west. Spring up from the south and sink in the north. Spring up from the center and sink at the edge. Spring up from the edge and sink at the center. You can walk on the water as you do on the earth. In the same way, you can walk on the earth as you do on the water. Why is this so? Because you have realized that the four elements are like a dream, like a fantasy. 

― Followers of the Way, this one who is right now listening to my talk is not the four elements, but is using these four elements. When your understanding reaches this level, you are free to go and stay. According to this mountain monk‘s view, there is no dharma to be disliked. If you love the sacred, remember that the sacred is merely a name.”

While the Temple buildings of Shofuku-ji in Fukoaka are not open to the public, they are set in lovely grounds where people are welcome to walk. The pond runs under the bridge illustrated in the first image. I have read that temple grounds are laid out in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism to bring enlightenment to people – they were certainly calming. In exploring Zen and the elements I have come to appreciate that the fundamental teachings are expressed in many ways.

How these early elemental teachings of the three active Zen schools relate to current practice in Japan and internationally requires further exploration. The sutras chanted in Temples may also have a bearing on the jigsaw that is Zen and the elements. I also plan to read more about emptiness and form, the latter seems to have some links to the elements. Then there are the connections between Zen and the samurai, as well as a range of Japanese arts. The elements are likely to be part of these stories as well.

As part of my research I became particularly interested in this diagram. It took me a while to get some sense of its origin and meaning. I first saw the table in a blog on Dogen and the Jewel Mirror Samadhi (JMS), an important teaching in Soto Zen. The writer of the blog found the table in a translation of the JMS, which in turn sourced it from the 1974 book by Alfonso Verdu, ‘Dialectical Aspects in Buddhist Thought: Studies in Sino-Japanese Mahayana Idealism‘  (Center for East Asian Studies, The University of Kansas). Called the ‘Five Wheels’ diagram, the original table was created by Verdu as part of an analysis of Dongshan Liangie’s five ranks/five positions. Dongshan founded the Caodong School of Chan Buddhism in China which was developed sometime later by Dogen into Soto Zen in Japan. Dongshan wrote the JMS which includes reference to the five ranks. Interest in the five ranks/positions in Japan has waxed and waned over time – they are now an integral part of koan study in Rinzai Zen, thanks to Hakuin it seems. I think I’ve got that sequence right! It turns out, as I understand it, that this table is comparing the five ranks/positions with the esoteric approach of Shingon Buddhism. What the five ranks means in the context of Zen and the five elements I’m still working though. The presence of the gorinto in the table gives me some sense that there will be a connection. We will see!

There is a lot to work through, not just the table. Even so, I feel that the pieces of the puzzle are gradually coming together – although the jigsaw is far from complete.  The three schools of Zen Buddhism appear to utilise the five elements of both China and India in different (often subtle) ways, in a range of settings. Explicit physical representations of the five Buddhist elements such as pagodas or gorintos appear limited. The elements play a key role in the tea ceremony (and other Zen related arts not discussed here) and are referred to both within and around individuals in Zen teaching and practice. I’ve found a connection between our bodies, our immediate surroundings and the elements (both physically and spiritually) elsewhere in elemental Japan. More searching and synthesis is certainly required on Zen and the elements. If readers of this post have any material that could enlighten me further I would be most grateful.

To end the post, a screen shot of the images displayed when you type ‘Zen’ in Google. Sand and stacked stones appear often. They give a sense of calmness and simplicity that Zen is associated with in the west. I have discovered several organisations and businesses outside of Japan that combine Zen and the elements in novel ways. Their exploration will have to wait until another time.

2 thoughts on “Zen and the five elements

  1. What a big job! I imagine it must have felt a bit like climbing a metaphorical mountain! It’s good to dip into this detailed summary, where you have brought together the many leads you have been following in your search to identify and learn about the role the elements play in the different Zen traditions. It’s interesting to consider ‘Zen’ from a perspective other than what we have become accustomed to, here in the west.


    • It was a big job! Having climbed the metaphorical mountain I hope that the path I’ve described is easy for others to follow. Trying to present an overview of such an expansive and important subject was challenging. My goal in ‘putting it out there’ was to see what new material and ideas it may uncover.


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