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 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 am learning more about Ruth’s contribution through the informative book ‘Zen Pioneer‘ by Isabel Sterling.

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 purchased after taking this image, including two on Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen and 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 appreciated.

Given the profile of Zen you can imagine how eager 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 Adogawa (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 about the different Zen schools I am reading some of the teachings of the founders, expanded on below. A brief history of Zen 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 is 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 discovering these books, apart from images of Daruma in Zen Temples, I had mainly seen him represented in doll form. (Why the Zen patriarch is represented in Japan this way has been the subject of academic research, for those who would like to know more). Learning that Daruma is also represented in books, manga and anime, made me appreciate how widespread the image of Daruma is in Japan. Although never visiting the country (having said that, there is a legend that Prince Shotoku met Bohdidharma), 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. The prevalence of Daruma imagery in Japan suggests the Zen links to the Indian tradition and teachings would be strong.

Another dimension of Zen that I discovered relatively recently, that 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. The Green Shinto posts 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/phases 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/phases 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 fulfillment, 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 illustrated above. 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.

Zen and the matcha tea ceremony are inextricably linked. Eisai, the founder of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, introduced tea to Japan and wrote about its benefits in the context of the five Chinese elements/phases. He believed that better health would be achieved in Japan by introducing the fire element into diets through the bitter taste of tea.

The Epic of Tea‘ by Daniel Kane 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 – 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‘.

Written over 30 years ago ‘The Epic of Tea‘ is a source of important material on the tea ceremony, zen and the elements. The Kyoto Journal it appeared in is still going strong and has recently returned to publishing hard copies, a format that I prefer.

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 growing number of examples of Zen teachings I’ve found 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 appears to be referring to the five Chinese elements/phases. 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. Preston Keido Houser, who gave the podcast on Komuso Zen (see below), is sitting directly behind Norman.

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/phases 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 yinyang (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 yinyang.

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 for two weeks to view the fleeting beauty of the flowers.

For some time my holy grail has been to track down references to the five Buddhist elements in Zen – earth, water, fire, air and ether/space.  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. Increasingly I am doing so, as described further below.

There are different ways the five Buddhist elements can be represented, including in physical form. For example, five tiered pagodas (gojunoto) – which represent the five Buddhist elements – are a well recognised feature of Buddhist temples in Japan. Until recently I believed that Zen Temples were an exception, having read that pagodas are not found there and not having seen any myself. Edward L. Shaughnessy also writes that Chan Buddhism, the precursor of Zen in China, did not include worship in or around pagodas as part of their rituals.  During 2018 I serendipitously learnt about six Zen Temples with pagodas, two of them with five ‘elemental’ tiers. Rurikoji, a Soto Zen temple in Yamaguchi, even has a Museum devoted to five-tiered pagodas (my post on gojunoto, including the Zen Museum, can be found here).  In addition 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.

The Zen temple layout illustrated in ‘Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto‘ (2017) does not include a pagoda in the design. Only one explicit reference to the five elements was discovered in this book.  This was is in the context of food served at Zen Temples. As well as the five Chinese elements/phases, 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.

Another oblique reference to the elements in the Zen Garden book above is 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, illustrated above. (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. I had thought that it was no longer active in Japan after being banned during the Meiji Restoration. That was until I listened to the podcast ‘Komuso Zen and Shakuhachi Performance‘, recorded on June 3, 2019. The podcast was recorded by Ancient Dragon Zen Gate, a Soto Zen community in Chicago. It opened my eyes, ears and heart to a form of Zen where music is a key element of spiritual practice. A form still being practiced today albeit mostly under the radar it seems. This intriguing school, whose members play the shakuhachi flute as a form of meditation, may feature more 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 in English on Zen in Japan? Gradually they are being revealed in a range of sources, especially in the early Zen teachings. I have yet to find however a comprehensive description of the Buddhist elements in Zen, like Adrian Snodgrass has written for Shingon Buddhism. If one exists I’d love to learn about it. My blog titled ‘The power of the five elements‘ shares some of my impressions of Shingon, the 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 Eisai 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 Eisai seven years after Shofuku-ji. This reflects the rapid spread of Zen Buddhism and its teachings.

In searching for fundamental teachings related to the Buddhist elements I am pleased to have found examples from each of the three most active Zen schools. The first is from Linji Yixuan (Jpn: Rinzai Gigen), a leading figure of Chan and Rinzai Zen Buddhism, who refers to the four great elements of earth, water, fire and air. 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.”

Obaku Zen Master Tetsugen Doko (‘Iron Eyes’, 1630 – 1682) also refers 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.”

 Finally, Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism) refers to four, five and six Buddhist elements in his masterwork ‘Shobogenzo‘. This is available to download which makes specific searches straightforward. Recent commentaries that translate and interpret the Shobogenzo for modern readers are helping making its teachings more accessible.

The book ‘Deepest Practice, Deepest Wisdom‘ (2018) refers to the six elements of all existence: they are earth, water, fire and air (from Theravadan Buddhism) to which Mahayana added space and Vajrayana added consciousness. The elements in this case are one set of many instances and examples of prajna translated from Dogen’s fascicle ‘Practicing Deepest Wisdom‘.

The blogsite dogenseye.com, launched in October 2017, is also making the Shobogenzo accessible to modern readers using architectural metaphors as a framework.  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

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.

During the coronavirus ‘great pause’ of 2020 I discovered another aspect of Dogen’s teachings related to the elements, this time in a broader context of place. Contemporary philosophers and commentators refer to the insights about nature contained in the Mountains and Waters Sutra (Sansuikyo), found in the Shobogenzo. Brian Schroeder’s 2019 paper titled ‘Hiding between basho and chora: re-imagining and re-placing the Elemental’ has been particularly enlightening.

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. In this context the Heart Sutra (Jp: Hannya Shingyo), which is an important part of Zen practice in the three main schools, is of relevance (for more about this connection, read on). Then there are the connections between Zen and the samurai, as well as Zen and 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 in relation to zen and the elements. It took me a while to get some sense of its origin and meaning, as described below.

I first saw the table above 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 through. The presence of the gorinto in the table gives me some sense that there will be a connection. We will see!

In mid-2018 I discovered another diagram, incorporating the five element tower (Gorinto), that has explicit relevance to Zen  Buddhism. In this instance the five elements are directly linked to the last two ‘lines’ of the Heart Sutra: Gyate Gyate Haragyate, HarasoGyate, Boji (Sowaka). As noted, this sutra is chanted by the three major schools of Zen Buddhism. The image was found in a blog on five element theory and the martial arts. It opens a new dimension in relation to Zen and the Buddhist elements.

There is a lot to work through, not just these tables. Even so, I feel that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are gradually coming together.  The three active 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. For me, the link between the five Buddhist elements and the Heart Sutra is one to concentrate on in terms of modern Zen practice.  The gorinto is a purely Japanese expression of the five Buddhist elements – I have seen explicit and numerous physical representations of  the gorinto in Rinzai and Soto Zen cemeteries – with only one example seen in the Obaku Zen cemetery I visited near Uji. While the (five element) pagoda is generally not found in Zen Temples, as noted there are some exceptions (see my post here).

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 external to 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. My blog on a winter pilgrimage with the Wani-ontakesan Shugendo community is of particular relevance. Like Zen Buddhists they chant Hannya Shingyo, the Heart Sutra. This is one of their many deep connections with the elements.

This post shares the unfolding story of my attempts to learn about the elements and Zen Buddhism. More searching and synthesis is certainly required. Like my post on fusui in Japan, the subject would benefit from a mind map. If readers of this post have any material that could enlighten me 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 often appear. 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.

5 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.


    • Thank-you Chris. I appreciate your comments as they show there is interest in what I write. I use this blog to share my ideas about the elements in Japan as I discover more about this complex and fascinating subject. When I look back on blogs like this one on Zen I think how differently I would write it now (3 years later), now that I have read and experienced more about this and other topics. Each entry however reflects what I understood at the time of writing, with minor updates added if they add something substantial. My aim has always been, and still is, to write a book on the elements in Japan. Having had time over the last few months to read and reflect more I am getting closer to that point. When the book is published I will let people know of course, and I will continue to write blogs as the many dimensions of Elemental Japan could fill many books!


  2. Pingback: 9 Key Elements of Japanese Decor for a Zen Home - Modern Cabin Living

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