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.

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Fusui, the way of Feng shui in Japan

Feng shui has become a phenomenon in the west over the last few decades, as discussed here. To cover the wide range of subjects and styles associated with the approach, there are now over 40 feng shui books sitting in my bookshelf. All are based on the ancient Chinese art of placement used to create harmony in our environment through the manipulation of energy. In Japan Feng shui is called fusui (wind-water). Fusui has had a long history and wielded considerable influence from ancient to contemporary times. Like other practices that involve the five Chinese elements in Japan, such as traditional Japanese medicine, the art of fusui has had limited exposure outside of the country. Based on the information I’ve been able to find in English, a summary follows of what I have learnt so far. It represents the first steps in an ongoing journey of discovery.

Only two out of three of these Feng Shui ‘bibles’ refer to the practice of fusui in Japan. ‘Feng Shui for Dummies‘ notes that the Japanese used a method related to the Indian ‘Vastu Shastra’. It’s the first I’ve heard of that comparison. ‘The Feng Shui Bible‘ goes into a little more detail, saying that the Japanese developed the traditional Chinese compass-based feng-shui into the Eight directions school. There is no mention of fusui in ‘The Practical Encyclopaedia of Feng Shui‘. The almost complete absence of fusui in these purportedly comprehensive books illustrates the low profile the practice has in the western world.

There are so many dimensions to fusui in Japan that it is a challenge to know where to start. Should I begin with the introduction of feng shui from China in the 7th century and the subsequent formation of the Onmyoryo (Bureau of Yinyang) that utilised fusui? Or start in contemporary times where fusui appears to have widespread popularity amongst individuals (based on the number of books published and sold) and where new buildings such as the SkyTree in Tokyo are critiqued by fusui experts? A lot has happened between the 7th century and now, with the fortunes of fusui changing over the centuries – largely depending on how it was viewed and supported by the powers that be.

The following text explains why this unlikely book appears in this post! As they say, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

The first, and still the best overview I’ve read of  fusui in Japan was found in an unexpected source – a book titled ‘Supernatural and Mysterious Japan – Spirits, hauntings and paranormal phenomena‘. The author Catrien Ross describes how fusui has been applied from its first introduction to modern usage. Of interest are her comments on the importance of energy lines (Dragon paths), ketsu (energy outlets) and the three geomantic criteria of mountains, watercourses and directions for fusui. The central intent of the original practice was to take these factors into account to calm the wind and acquire water. Hence the use of kanji for wind and water to describe the art.

Catrien also writes that from its beginnings fusui has been inseparable from yinyang dualism and the Five Elements theory, the Chinese doctrine that all things and events are products of yin (the vital energy of the earth) and yang (the vital energy of the heavens). Yin and yang interact to produce the five elements or phases/agents (gogyo) – metal, water, wood, fire and earth. In the Japanese context I have sometimes seen ‘wood’ referred to as ‘tree’, ‘metal’ as ‘gold’ and as ‘earth’ as ‘soil’. As my research on elemental Japan continues I hope to discover more about these nuances.

In Japan yinyang is referred to as inyo or onmyo – hence the name Onmyoryo for the Bureau of Yinyang. The bureau operated for around 1000 years and the onmyoji (Masters of onmyo/yinyang) who worked there held considerable influence in the placement of cities, houses and graves, as well as on other decisions made by the ruling class and elite. Fusui was one of several arts the onmyo Masters drew on in their roles.

By far the most famous practitioner of onmyodo/onmyoudou, the Way of Yinyang, is Abe no Seimei who lived between 921-1005. Wikipedia has a useful introduction to this intriguing man. If you find yourself in Kyoto the Seimei Shrine is well worth visiting. There are several other shrines, and at least one Temple (Shinnyodo in Kyoto who sell an ema with a red pentagram) that have links to Seimei. When I visit Japan in mid 2018 I am planning to visit the Seimei neighbourhood Shrine in Osaka where it is purported Seimei was born. For those interested in learning more about Seimei there are many videos on YouTube.

The Seimei Shrine in Kyoto has two torii at its entrance. It was constructed soon after Abe no Seimei died on the site of his house. There are many pentagrams representing the five elements and the Abe crest, as well as references to yinyang at the Shrine. The Shrine has an active program of events and videos online.

In modern times interest in Seimei has been revived through books, anime, manga, video games and two movies. His popularity in Japan was heightened further when the Olympic and World ice-skating champion Yuzuru Hanyo portrayed Seimei in his free skating routine during the 2015-2016 season. The pentagram, which represents both the five Chinese elements and the Abe family crest, appears in many of the modern portrayals of Seimei. It is said that he independently developed the symbol in the 10th century. Some writers say that the five pointed star went on to become the mark of the onmyoji. The resurgence in interest in Seimei  has helped highlight the practice of geomancy/fusui in the Hiean period and its importance in the history of Japan.

The films Onmyoji and Onmyoji 2 portrayed two potentially cataclysmic episodes in Heian Japan, around 1000 years ago. Abe no Seimei came to the rescue in both instances drawing on a range of artful and magical practices. As a Master of onmyo/yinyang, fusui is one of his skills he would have used. The cover of the Special Edition shows the yinyang (taijitu) symbol which originated in China. As far as I can tell it has only been used in Japan in modern times. The movies were enjoyable to watch and helped raised the profile of Seimei and onmyodo in the modern era.

Yuzuru Hanyu, the record-breaking and award winning Japanese ice-skater, is shown here with the pentagram – a symbol intimately associated with Abe no Seimei and the five Chinese elements. My feeling is that it this is more appropriate to use than the yinyang symbol. When developing his free-skating routine for the 2015-2016 season Yuzuru consulted Mansai Nomura, the actor who played Seimei in the Onmyoji movies. He felt that by doing so he could better represent the Master of onmyo in his choreography. Image source: 2.bp.blogspot.com.

In my trip to Japan in mid 2017 I came across illustrations of the five Chinese elements in a different context,  also related to fusui. Thanks to my friend Kaori Okushima my eyes were opened to the large number of books written in Japanese on applying fusui principles in homes or businesses. The illustration in the books reminded me of the feng shui titles in English that I have acquired. Just as feng shui has been adapted for a western audience in many of these books, modern fusui practitioners in Japan such as Dr Copa have recast the concepts for popular consumption. The approach must have appeal as according to his website Dr Copa has sold 450 million copies of books written on the ZEN feng shui style he advocates. That’s a lot of books!

At the landscape scale the Sky Tree in Tokyo has attracted considerable attention in relation to its design and placement. This landmark building has been criticised for being bad fusui – likened to a poison arrow. The designers have defended the tower saying it represents a five (Buddhist) element pagoda that will protect the prosperity of Tokyo for years to come. Like Kyoto, the original city design for Tokyo (then called Edo) was based on fusui principles. Four hundred years later the ‘art of placement’ still has resonance in this intriguing city – including a Dr Copa fusui store in Ginza. This is another elemental location on my list to visit.

An illustration of the generating and destructive/overcoming cycles of the five Chinese elements (gogyo) – water, wood, fire, earth and metal. The image was found in a popular publication on fusui purchased in a bookshop near Nijo Station, Kyoto.

The illustration of gogyo above came from the book on fusui on the left. The one on the right had quite a different style. There were at least 16 other books in the Fusui section at the bookstore.

Another aspect of fusui related to the elements is the use of the Pa Kua/Bagua (eight symbols), an essential tool in most Feng shui Schools. The eight symbols are trigrams that represent different combinations of in and yo (yinyang) and an associated element. Bagua appear in modern day ‘self-help’ books on fusui albeit in a simplified form at times. The Bagua also appears in the two Onmyoji movies and are mentioned in some texts I’ve read on onmyodou. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the “Later Heaven” Bagua, which is used for residences in Feng Shui:

The trigrams are related to the five elements of Wu Xing used by Feng Shui practitioners and in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Those five elements are Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. The Water (Kan) and Fire (Li) trigrams correspond directly with the Water and Fire elements. The element of Earth corresponds with both the trigrams of Earth (Kun) and Mountain (Gen). The element of Wood corresponds with the trigrams of Wind (Xun) (as a gentle but inexorable force that can erode and penetrate stone) and Thunder (Zhen). The element of Metal corresponds with the trigrams of Heaven (Qian) and Lake (Dui)“.

My first discovery of a Bagua in Japan was this black laquer tea tray, rather than in association with fusui.  When I came across the tray in October 2016 I wasn’t expecting to see the 8 trigrams associated with the tea ceremony. Now I know better, as described in my post ‘Time for more tea‘.

There is much more that I could write about fusui. It’s a fascinating subject and one that is key to my research on elemental Japan. The subtitle of my blog and book is/will be ‘Feel the energy‘. At a fundamental level fusui is about energy flow and exchange both within and external to our bodies. Exerting control over the different energies entering our own energy fields can influence the way we feel. Over the centuries fusui has been used in Japan to influence those energies at local and landscape scales.

Before I go any further there are academic articles to read on onmyodo and posts on the excellent Onmyoudou Facebook site to explore. Other avenues for research include following up reports that  fusui is more pragmatic in its application than feng shui and that the ‘bad’ direction at the landscape scale differs in the two systems.  There is also more to discover about the practice of fusui in Okinawa, the chain of Japanese islands close to Taiwan. From what I understand feng shui was introduced to Okinawa later than the rest of Japan and still has a strong presence today. A series of articles written on feng shui villages in Okinawa and their associated trees should provide some insights.

Also discovered on my mid-2017 trip was research by Ellen van Goethem on feng shui symbolism in Japan. In this publication the author writes that by the early ninth century Five Phase (element) knowledge and its related divine beast symbolism had spread from the court to a wider segment of the population. Academic publications in English like this one, and those on onmyodou already mentioned, should provide valuable insights into the history of fusui and the five Chinese elements/phases in Japan.

The five Chinese elements have remained a fundamental component of fusui from the time it was first introduced to Japan through to contemporary practices. Fusui appears alive and well in Japan, expressing itself in many guises and referred to by different names. Its application and evolution is a captivating and complex story. Fusui is definitely a subject that would lend itself to a mind map to capture its different dimensions. I will report back when the opportunity arises to put pen to paper. 🙂


Time for more tea

My post ‘Taiko and tea’ shares my first impressions about the relationship between tea and the elements in Japan. My concluding comments were ‘Five elements and six senses. A heady mix.’ Since then I have had many more opportunities related to tea, thanks mostly to Allan Halyk, a Urasenke Tea Master based in Hobart. In October 2016 I spent 10 days in Japan with Allan, two of his students and a friend. We walked many miles in Osaka, Kyoto and Uji to immerse ourselves in tea. It helps to be with those who are familiar with the way.

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The power of the five elements

On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji Temple on Shikoku. Through serendipity I had discovered that this Temple was where Kukai (posthumously named Kobo Daishi), the founder of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan, was born and grew up. The five elements of earth, fire, water, wind and void are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon buddhism. As Zentsu-ji Temple has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyosan complex and Toji Temple, both on Honshu, both of which I have visited) I decided that catching three trains each way was worth the effort.  It was an effort very well rewarded.

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Elements on tour

The Teshima Art Museum provides an organic setting where water, wind, wood and light are works of art. I learnt about this enticing concept from a French couple I met in Japan in mid 2016. Sibylle and Bernard called it the Raindrop Museum – an evocative description. They were close to the mark. The brief given to the architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito was to create a design of free curves, echoing the shape of a drop of water. Knowing my interest in the elements, my French friends strongly recommended that I make the Museum a priority to visit. So in early October that’s what I did. The Museum has other attractions – its location on an island in the Seto Inland Sea provides an experience of some of the coastline, waterways and islands of Japan, an important part of the elemental story. The Art Museum is also a major draw-card of the Setouchi Trienniale, an art festival designed to reinvigorate local communities that has many lessons to teach us.

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Feel the energy

The subtitle of the book that I’m writing on elemental Japan was originally ‘the energy of a nation’. I chose these extra explanatory words carefully, words that would best portray the essence of the elemental story of Japan. From the energy of the powerful natural forces that have literally shaped the island nation, to expressions of ‘ki’ (the life-force or flow of energy that sustains living beings) – I feel that understanding energy is key to understanding the elements in Japan. In November 2016 I changed the subtitle of the book to ‘Feel the energy’, the title of this post. On reflection it sits better with the intent of my explorations, inviting readers to engage personally with the elements.

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