Esoteric (Mikkyõ) Buddhism postulates five fundamental elements as the constituents of all creation. These five elements are called the godai, the Five Great Elements (五大).
The godai are: chi (earth), sui (water), ka (wind), and fu (fire), which manifest together with the additional property of kū (void - śūnyatā) - a philosophical concept referring to the non-substantiality of all phenomena.
Each of the five elements symbolises the perfection of any single aspect of the total universe in itself, but no element exists apart from its relationship to everything else.
The five elements interpenetrate freely, without any hindrance either in matter or mind, to form the body of life. As the godai symbolises human existence and its underpinning in śūnyatā, the Five Great Elements are often used to represent the human body and the five yogic cakras.
The godai refer to both phenomenal qualities as well as substances. Earth for instance, refers to firmness, water dampness, fire heat, wind motion. Earth represents the nature of holding on to things, water absorbing things, fire maturing things, wind growing things. Such phenomenal attributes are related also to the senses, the objects of sense perception, and the nature of human perception.
Kū (śūnyatā) often translated into English as “void” is the teaching that all things are in fact empty of permanent self-nature. Existing solely due to ever-changing complexes of interdependent causes, all forms are ephemeral. All substances continually come into existence and then pass away. Kū penetrates all things and is universal truth. This concept is associated with the Maka hannya haramita-kyõ - the Wisdom sūtras or Prajñāpāramitā in sanskrit.
The earth element is that of solidity, hardness, weight, grounded with foundation. The body is composed of solid particles; the bones, teeth, muscles, and other solid body tissues held together by the water element; supported, strengthened, and moved by the wind element; and preserved and sustained by the fire element.
Water represents flowing and the bodily fluids and those aspects of the body that provide suppleness and flexibility. This element binds the earth element, which in turn keeps the water element in place. Water also is supported by the wind element and sustained by the fire element.
Heat is the characteristic of the fire element representing explosiveness, aggression and power. This element digests food, produces energy (metabolism), and preserves and sustains the other elements. It rests in the earth element, is held in place by the water element, and is supported by the wind element.
Wind is the motion element and is characterised by movement, evasiveness, strengthening, and supporting. Wind supports the body, giving it strength and the ability to move, corresponding to the breath. It rests in the earth element, is held in place by the water element, and is nourished by the fire element.
All of the elements contain śūnyatā, dynamic and ever-changing. Kū itself is the enlightened mind, and since all the elements are imbued with śūnyatā all things participate in śūnyatā.
Symbolically The Five Great Elements are represented by the gorintõ (五輪塔) as shown in my chart above.
© James Kemlo