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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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‘.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Thirdly, the four great elements of earth, water, fire and air are 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.”
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.
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.