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.

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 Buddhism. Introduced by writers such as Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki and Gary Snyder, Zen has captured the imagination of the west. It has become the popular face of Buddhist Japan. Given the profile of Zen you can imagine how keen I was 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 still to be discovered through more reading and direct experience.

This is the collection of books on Zen in my library so far, in addition to my online collection. It represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the literature on Zen. I have two books on Dogen coming and am contemplating buying the two volumes on the history of Buddhism by Heinrich Doumolin, warts and all. 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. In terms of direct experience I have participated in meditation sessions in Rinzai and Soto Zen temples in Kyoto and Adagawa respectively. They were quite different. Next I would like to speak to some Zen monks about the observations raised in this blog. I’ve also wondered how the emphasis on koans in Rinzai Zen and sitting meditation in Soto Zen has influenced their teachings.

Zen Buddhism came to Japan from China where it is known as Chan. Chan Buddhism brought together the teachings of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who was the Patriarch of the Zen lineage, and Taoist/Confucian beliefs. 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.

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, some images being hundreds of years old. The three-clawed ‘Cloud dragon painting‘ at Myoshinji is particularly striking (no photos are allowed). Painted by Kano Tan-yu (1602-1674)  it took eight years to complete. Dragons are considered protectors of the Buddhist faith and closely associated with the element of water. They are also one of the guardian animals associated with the four compass directions. That’s another elemental story waiting to be told!

Rather than gather together these different threads on the elements and Zen, my life would be easier if someone had written a book in English titled ‘Zen and the elements!’ As this is not the case my journey of discovery continues. Serendipitiously I learnt about Obaku, the third and smallest school of Zen, through John Dougill’s blog Green Shinto. Obaku Zen was established in Japan in the 1600s by a Chinese monk named Ingen (Yinyuan). It currently has a lower profile than the Rinzai and Soto schools. Some commentators state that over time Obaku teachings have become more similar to Rinzai Zen, which it shares the same lineage with.

John’s post introduced Manpukuji, the Head Temple of Obaku Zen which is a short train ride from Kyoto. This is where I first came across explicit reference to the five elements in a Zen Temple. In this instance it was the five Chinese elements of earth, water, fire, metal and wood. 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.

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. I haven’t seen these bags at any Rinzai Temples, so there are still some differences in the approach taken by Obaku Zen. I wonder if this is the case with other elemental features of Obaku?  Obaku temples also serve Chinese rather than Japanese vegetarian cuisine and the sutras are chanted in an approximation of Fujian (Chinese) dialect. Additionally, the tea ceremony of Obaku uses sencha tea rather than matcha. These characteristics set them apart from other Zen schools, as does their temple architecture. While most of these differences may largely seem external, it would be interesting to know how they flow through to the teachings at Obaku, past and present.

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 five Chinese elements are also an integral part of the tea ceremony which has a foundation in Zen. My exploration of tea, the tea ceremony and the five elements is shared in the comprehensive post ‘Time for more tea‘.   After this was written I was gifted an article titled ‘The Epic of Tea‘ composed by Daniel Kane. Published in the first issue of the Kyoto Journal in 1987, the author’s goal was to explore the spiritual and mythological aspects of tea, as exemplified in Zen.

In his article Daniel refers to Buddha’s Heart and Buddha Nature in the tea ceremony, as well as extensively covering the five (Chinese) elements.  It is the best coverage I have read. Importantly Takuan, a major figure in Rinzai Zen Buddhism who lived between 1573 – 1645, is cited: “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.”

Tea was served as part of the Zen experience during a brief summer viewing in 2017 of the white Hangesho leaves at Ryosukuin, a sub -temple at Kenninji. The sub-temples in the big Zen temple complexes in Kyoto such as Myoshinji and Daitokuji are often closed to the public except for seasonal or special events.  In 2016 I particularly enjoyed seeing the ephemeral Sal flowers at Torin-in, a sub-temple at Myoshinji that was only open to the public for two weeks. Tea and a Sal-inspired sweet was also served there. I had read that originally Myoshinji eschewed the tea ceremony as being too ‘wordly’.  I wish I had noted the source – if it’s the case it demonstrates how times and practices change. Still today the tea ceremony is particularly associated with Daitokuji, the Zen temple complex in Kyoto where the tea master Sen no Rikyu resided in the 1500s.

The matcha tea served in the Zen sub-temples was a shortened version of the full tea ceremony. It is this more formal ceremony that the ‘Epic of Tea‘ describes in the context of Zen. I have had the privilege of participating in a full tea ceremony, dressed in a Kimono, although not in a Zen Temple. The connection to the elements still applies. The first issue of the Kyoto Journal can still be purchased online for those interested in learning more.

Both the article on Zen and tea, and another reference to the five (Chinese) elements ‘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 the presence of the five Chinese elements in the tea ceremony and its association with healing is not surprising. In the back of my mind 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 (In Yo) and the five 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.

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. To me this should have been a no-brainer. Images of Daruma (the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, the Indian patriarch of Zen Buddhism) are commonplace in Japan, and not only in Zen Temples. Daruma dolls are bought each year and one of the eyes painted in as a wish is made. If that wish is granted the other eye is painted. Recently I discovered Daruma featured in children’s books, as illustrated below. He is also represented in manga and anime.

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 the roly-poly doll form that are used as good luck charms. The dolls are distinctive, symbolic and have considerable significance in Japan. Their ability 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). Seeing the books made me appreciate how widespread the image of Daruma, the Indian patriarch of Zen, is in Japan. Although never visiting the country, his presence is widely felt.

All of this imagery suggest 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.

So why does it seem so hard to find explicit reference to these 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 I could find a description of the five (four to six) Buddhist elements in Zen like Adrian Snodgrass has written for Shingon Buddhism I’d be elated. My blog titled ‘The power of the five elements‘ provides some of my impressions on the elements and this esoteric Buddhist school founded by Kukai at the beginning of the Heian period (9th Century). Unlike Zen the elements are up front and central.

This diagram titled the Five Wheels has the potential to make me happy in relation to Zen and the elements. I found it in a blog (thestartandtheend.com) that indicates it comes from the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, written by Dogen the founder of Soto Zen. So far I have been unable to find the source document online to verify this is the case. I’ve asked the author of the blog for further information. If the table was constructed by Dogen, which seems likely, the explicit reference to the five elements in the second column, and a gorin(to) (five-ring pagoda) in the third would represent a step forward in describing the five elements in Zen Buddhism.

In addition to this diagram I am happy to say that other progress is being made with the three main schools of Zen and the five Buddhist 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.

For the moment though the focus is on the big three. In contrast to my uncertainty about the source of the ‘Five Wheels’ diagram above, Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism) definitely referred to the four, five or six elements in his masterwork ‘Shobogenzo‘. Being able to download the document and search for relevant material was very helpful. The teachings of Obaku Zen Master Tetsugen Doko (1630 – 1682) also refers to the four great 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.”

Mysterious indeed. And very deep. How these elemental teachings relate to current Zen practice in Japan and internationally requires further exploration. Aspects of Zen history such as the Five Mountain (Gozan) and Rinka ranking of Temples may also have a bearing on the jigsaw that is Zen and the elements. Even so, I feel that the pieces are gradually coming together.  Zen Buddhism appears to utilise the five elements of both China and India in different (often subtle) ways, in a range of settings. The elements and their interactions are referred to both within and around individuals. These are patterns I’ve found elsewhere in elemental Japan.  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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s