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The Five Elements in the Journey to the West

There are many references to the five elements in the Journey to the West:

The primal cause of the scriptures has been matched to the Five Elements. -- Journey to the West, chapter 100
The Five Elements were combined with the heavenly Immortal. -- Journey to the West, chapter 22
These fruit fear only the Five Elements.-- Journey to the West, chapter 24
Grasp all the Five Elements and turn them upside down, and when you are successful you can become a Buddha, or an Immortal.-- Journey to the West, chapter 2

The five elements symbolize either obstacles or help to reach a state of Divine Presence.

In the primal state, the five elements foster one another in harmonious union and are manifested in action as the five virtues of benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom and truthfulness. In the conditioned state, the five elements are imbalanced and damage each other; this manifests in action as the five rebels of joy, anger, sadness, happiness and desire. -- Liu Yiming (18th c. Taoist master)     
The exoteric five elements are as commonly explained. The esoteric five symbolic elements are the five syllables, the five Buddhas. -- Kukai (9th c. Founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism)

Below is a diagram showing the five meditation Buddhas that Kukai mentioned. These Buddhas are symbols, not real persons, and are used when meditating, when making efforts to be present. Each of them has, among other things, an element and a syllable. The five syllables are part of the six-syllable mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.

The five Meditation Buddhas, detail of the Diamond Mandala, Japan. 9th C. Link

A diagram of the five meditation Buddhas and some of there aspects














In the Journey to the West, this mantra was written on a paper seal that was placed on the mountain that Monkey was put under as a punishment for creating havoc in Heaven, before he joined Sanzang on the journey.

The Buddha produced from his sleeve a strip of paper on which were written the golden words Om Mani Padme Hum. He gave this piece of paper to Ananda and told him to stick it on the summit of the Five Elements Mountain.
-- Journey to the West, chapter 7

Sanzang and his disciples each correspond to one of the elements.

The Thought-horse and the Mind-ape had scattered,
The Lord of Metal and the Mother of Wood were dispersed.
The Yellow Wife was damaged, her powers divided,
The Way was withered, and how could it be saved?
-- Journey to the West, chapter 30

Friar Sand corresponds to the element Metal and Pig to Wood. The Yellow Wife corresponds to Sanzang, symbolizing the desire to be present, also called the heart, represented by the element Earth.

The Yellow Wife is the earth mother and represents true intent and true faith in our being.
-- Liu Yiming (18th c. Taoist master) 

The thought-horse corresponds to Water, and Monkey to Fire. The Way to immortality, to the presence of the God within,, was withered because they were all scattered. Sanzang and disciples represent the first five syllables in the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.

Sanzang and disciples were now once more of a single will and a single mind; all grievances had been washed away and anger removed. They thanked their hosts in the thatched cottage, retied the luggage, saddled up the horse, and headed West. Indeed:
A separation on the journey muddled the Five Elements;
At the demon-subduing gathering, enlightenment returned.
The spirit returned to the house of the mind and dhyana was calmed;
When the six perceptions were controlled the elixir was completed
-- Journey to the West, chapter 58

Each adventure in Journey to the West requires that Sanzang and disciples work together to overcome obstacles on the Way. Each adventure represents a new effort towards enlightenment, a new reciting of this mantra and each time the reciting is interrupted, by the demons, by thoughts that interrupt focusing one`s awareness on the present moment.

The primal cause of the scriptures has been matched to the Five Elements. -- Journey to the West, chapter 100
The rule of alchemy is just to take the uniform great medicine of the mind of Tao. Though this mind of Tao is uniform, it governs the energies of the five elements and contains the qualities of the five elements. This is because the mind of Tao is the manifestation of true unity. One is the first number; the mind of Tao is one yet contains five, five yet ultimately one. -- Liu Yiming, Commentary on Understanding Reality

This six-syllable mantra, when properly understood and recited, has the capability of creating the Divine state of Presence within the person who recites it.

Dharmakaya Buddha Mahavairocana by Unkei, 1176 Japan,
showing the mudra of the six elements.
Consciousness was combined with earth, water, fire, wind and space as an element pervading them all; these together comprised the universal body of the Six Great Elements. -- From the book `Shingon, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism`

(The five elements in Japan differ from the Chinese one`s, which are earth, water, fire, metal and wood)

The Buddha on Vulture Peak in the Journey to the West, symbolizes the sixth syllable, consciousness. In the image we see Mahavairocana Buddha, with the mudra of the six elements. Maha means great, and Vairocana means sun. He represents the sixth syllable, a prolonged state of presence like the Vulture on Tutankamon`s mask, while Vairocana Buddha represents the first syllable, the beginning of the effort to be present, like the cobra on Tutankamon`s mask.

The five elements, represented by Sanzang and his four disciples, together with the Buddha on Vulture Peak, symbolize a six-syllable mantra used to reach a state of prolonged presence.


The six elements produce the four kinds of Dharmakaya. -- Kukai (9th c. Founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism)
The Four Kinds of Life and Six Paths are all explained. -- Journey to the West, chapter 8

According to Mahayana Buddhist thought, a Buddha has three bodies:

1.The Nirmanakaya is a physical body of a Buddha.
2.The Sambhogakaya is the reward-body, whereby a bodhisattva completes his vows and becomes a Buddha.
3.The Dharmakaya is the embodiment of the truth and also the Buddha-Nature.

The Sambhogakaya is the spiritual body of effort, a mantra of six syllables, through which one reaches a state of prolonged presence.

To realize our own Essence of Mind from moment to moment without intermission until we attain Supreme Enlightenment, so that we are perpetually in a state of Right Mindfulness, is the Sambhogakaya. -- Huineng 
A Dharmakaya Buddha has no form, the bodiless body is the true body. -- Journey to the West, chapter 14

The Dharmakaya or body of truth represents a state of prolonged presence. According to Kukai, Mahavairocana represents the Dharmakaya.

The secret of a mantra is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-discipline, concentration, inner experience, insight, and constant practice, under the guidance of a competent Guru.
-- Govinda, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism
All changes of spiritual consciousness depend upon the heart. There is a secret charm, which, although it works very accurately, is yet so fluid that it needs extreme intelligence and clarity, and the most complete absorption and tranquility. People without this highest degree of intelligence and understanding do not find the way to apply the charm; people without this utmost capacity for absorption and tranquility cannot keep fast hold of it.
-- The Secret of the Golden Flower (Taoist text)

Sanzang wearing a Vairocana mitre showing the five meditation Buddhas, from JTW TV series.

His cassock was of brocade, set with exotic gems; On his head he wore a gold-topped Vairocana mitre. And hid a divine radiance in his breast. -- Journey to the West, chapter 78

The Fourth Way and Esoteric Traditions⎟ Living Presence ⎟ The Secret of the Golden Flower ⎟


Japanese symbols of Presence⎟ The taoist I Ching ⎟ Being Presence First