Ryan94

The 5 Elements - Could anyone please give a good explanation to teach it?

Recommended Posts

I have tried to learn the classical 5 elements and I just can't get into it. It's not as intuitive as the 4 western elements (it's a mystery why metal and wood aren't considered earth), and it doesn't make any sense to someone comfortable with the Western 4 elements.

 

The wikipedia doesn't do a good job teaching the 5 elements (wu xing), and mainly just mentions their cyclic nature, which doesn't really mean anything (you can make a cycle of anything). There aren't particularly any good youtube videos explaining it either. Most sources give many reasons for the significance of the 5 elements, but never provide explanations/teachings to back up what they say. Does an organism really go through 5 stages of life in accordance to the 5 elements? Why are so many sources trying to awkwardly cram the 5 elements into the 4 seasons?

 

So, I've come here in the hope that someone can teach a Westerner like me that the 5 elements are worth learning. I'm sure there is something interesting and useful in the 5 elements, I just can't see their use or significance. It also seems like an unnatural system to me. For example, metal overcomes wood, simply because a metal axe can chop wood (according to wikipedia). But if man didn't create that axe, how could metal overcome wood without artificial help? A system like this should apply without the intervention of man.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There are five digits on the hand or foot (four fingers and one thumb), there are 5 extremities (two arms, two legs, one head). Just for this reason, we should be interested to hear about a system of measurement and correspondence that deals with the number five.

five-fingers-hand.jpg

I think in the Western system, quintessence is sometimes considered the fifth element...so it's not always the Western "4".

As for relationships between the Western and Eastern...I think air is wood, and quintessence is metal. But no correspondences are absolutely true all of the time...depending on the perspective, correspondences change.

In the Chinese five elements, there are two versions...one where the five elements are in the generating cycle, with the pentagram of controlling and insulting cycles:

flat,800x800,075,f.u2.jpg

The other version is where the earth element is in the center, water is below, wood is left, fire is above, and metal is right.

what.jpg.dea58a045a20d024d89e316ecd806209.jpg

(Just drew it in MS Paint, because I didn't know how to find it on Google image search).

So here we can see one that deals with the four seasons: spring is wood, summer is fire, autumn is metal, and winter is water. Earth is the transition times between them.

Both models of the Chinese five elements are classically used often. This second one isn't only for the four seasons...it also describes the flavors of herbs well.

Anyway...for metal overcoming wood, the axe chopping wood is just a good example of that being possible. Of course, a person has to make the axe out of metal...but still, it is showing how metal can be harder than wood and break it.

I'm sure we could find examples where it doesn't really work...for instance, we could make a wood knife and sharpen it really well, then take an aluminum can, and the wood could probably cut through it. But the point of the five elements isn't to be nitpicky and find areas where it's wrong as a theory.

Another thing about the five element interactions...yes, metal controls or overacts on wood, but wood can also insult metal. Any element can interfere with any other one in numerous ways. So the idea of using a wooden knife to cut an aluminum can is still legitimate...that's just wood insulting metal.

Those analogies are just one way of thinking about it. There are as many ways as there are different things in the universe, because it's used as a model to try and describe the workings of the universe. Yes, it is sometimes taking a period of time and dividing it up arbitrarily. Why divide up a day into five, or 12, or 360? Is the division meaningful?

Anyway, hope this makes things a little more clear.

  • Like 2
  • Thanks 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have a lot of thoughts that I'll attempt to compose into something coherent, although I'm still learning myself. 

 

The four western elements (FWE)  are of a different character than wuxing. The FWE have a decidedly atomistic character, that is that physical things are made up of these four qualitative basic building blocks of material things in either greater or lesser proportions.

 

An important point that we shouldn't pass over too quickly is that the FWE are firstly qualitative, they describe the character of a thing as it is experienced by humans with the senses, & only secondly quantitative in that objects are proposed to be composed of varying degrees of these elements. 

 

For the sake of example, consider a lump of metal. Rather intuitively most people would say that a lump of metal is largely earthy. It is cold, dry, dense. If we increase the proportion of fire in metal, then it melts & flows because fire is the most rarefied element that volatilizes the metal, but not being intrinsic to the metal it soon loses the fire ingredient & returns to an earthy state. 

 

Taking what we now know, consider a ball of mercury. Without the preceding one would probably say that Mercury is watery because of its semi-liquid state but that's a fundamental misunderstanding of it's nature. As a metal that is liquid it is properly understood as containing an intrinsically higher proportion of fire. 

 

Somewhat simplified without considering the three principles of Sulphur, Salt & Mercury & the planetary complexions, but I hope it serves to make the point that the elements are building blocks, atoms, qualitative ingredients that compose objects.

 

In contrast "Five Elements" is a bit of a misnomer when translating wuxing & is preferably translated "Five Phases." That is, they do not describe things but movement. Qi is analogous to the FWE as a unified building block of matter (everything, really) that is subjected to various elaborations to create the myriad things as defined in terms of the proportion of yin-yang qualities & whose interaction with each other can be described in terms of wuxing. 

 

Let's take your concerns step-by-step. 

 

4 hours ago, Ryan94 said:

It also seems like an unnatural system to me. For example, metal overcomes wood, simply because a metal axe can chop wood (according to wikipedia). But if man didn't create that axe, how could metal overcome wood without artificial help? A system like this should apply without the intervention of man.

 

I think the misunderstanding is that as a description of movement we are not literally talking about an axe chopping down a tree, but giving an image that describes the relationship between two complexions of qualities. If it makes more sense, think of planting a tree on a lump of metal, do the roots penetrate it & withdraw nourishment as they do earth in the conquest cycle? 

 

Wuxing also presents an elaborate system of correspondences much as the planets are used in western hermeticism (alternately, qabalah, but astrology has a more authentic provenance in this regard) & there are planetary correspondences to the five phases, that is the five classical planets minus the two luminaries.

 

As a descriptor of movement it is a description of change in time as it occurs in the natural world, thus understanding the qualitative complexion (xing) of something allows one to use the relationships to apply the appropriate force to effect change in the world in a predictable manner.  

 

Neither are fanciful theories any more than gravity lives in an imagination land of invisible forces, but are descriptions of reality as experienced by humans;  it is literally their science. 

 

4 hours ago, Ryan94 said:

It's a mystery why metal and wood aren't considered earth

 

An important point is the mechanism for generation of metal, specifically that metal grows in the earth. This is the same theory found in western hermeticism; cf. Agrippa, Paracelsus, &c. 

 

Metal generates water by observation of condensation, water accumulates in the earth by the action of metal that gives rise to springs that generates wood (plant life), wood generates fire as it is fuel (food), fire generates earth as it creates ash, metal growth in the earth, & so on. Again, these are observations of natural forces whose prototype is an image describing the relationship of the phases to each other in a cyclical manner. 

 

This cycle is ultimately derived from yin-yang & the Taijitu with phases classified in terms of greater yang, minor yang, minor yin, & major yin with a fifth (earth!) as the intermediary providing balance between two polarities. 

 

It is worth some consideration of the implications of earth as the intermediary binding/pervasive phase in Chinese thought as opposed to spirit in western thought. 

 

4 hours ago, Ryan94 said:

Why are so many sources trying to awkwardly cram the 5 elements into the 4 seasons?

 

You can make arbitrary divisions in a continual cycle of change & for convenience say the divisions are four in number but it is merely a convention, something we accept without questioning. There is no inherent truth to there being four seasons, but there is truth that in a cycle between extremes we will pass through a point in time where they are balanced & it is that time of balance, of temperateness, that is identified as earth. 

 

I hope this hasn't turned into too much of a brain dump, corrections or questions to help us learn are welcome. 

Edited by 七星門
  • Like 1
  • Thanks 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The above post is great! Not elements, but movement. 

 

Metal- contraction inwards

Water- decending and pooling

Wood- expansion outwards

Fire- ascending 

Earth- cycling/rotation

 

 

  • Like 4
  • Thanks 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 minutes ago, Nathan Brine said:

The above post is great! Not elements, but movement. 

 

Metal- contraction inwards

Water- decending and pooling

Wood- expansion outwards

Fire- ascending 

Earth- cycling/rotation

 

 

 

I had not thought in those terms, something new to incorporate into my understanding & play with. Fantastic, thanks! 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Another understanding...

Wood = ascent
Fire = expansion out
Metal = descent
Water = storage in

...and Earth = stability

(this corresponds to the second version of the five elements, with earth in the center)

Edited by Aetherous
  • Like 4
  • Thanks 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 minutes ago, Aetherous said:

Another understanding...

Wood = ascent
Fire = expansion out
Metal = descent
Water = storage in

...and Earth = stability

 

Somehow I suspect both could be correct, but I'm running on three hours of sleep trying to reset my body clock for a new time zone. My brain is useless for anything other than mindlessly consuming the internet. 

 

Both definitely deserve some serious thought, shelved for tomorrow. Thanks! 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 minutes ago, 七星門 said:

Somehow I suspect both could be correct

 

Yep, I think so. The universe is too complex for it to be otherwise.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And this is why TDB is such a lovely place! Nice thread!!

 

 

In cantonese i think M Hei translates both as Five Forms/States as well as Five Energies, correct me if i’m wrong please. Gives yet another opening to see the breadth and depth of utility to the model.

 

Their names can be misguiding as i dont think they were intended to be viewed separately all that much.

You could call them five types of roles in interactions, there is little use in talking about just the fire element say, because fire relates directly in different to at least three of the other four. Fire is a certain property or disposition by it own sure but it is stustained from a phase, moves towards another, is disrupting to a third and threatened by a fourth.

 

Lovely to see the five point cross also, isn’t that model used to describe movement and footwork in TaiJi? Five directions, eight stratagems?

 

I am real excited to hear about the five classical planets minus the two luminaries, giving us an opening to wave to our old friends yin and yang also. Permutations of Sun-like qualities and Moon-like qualities give rise to another tool for observing interrelationship and developmental stages/states such as the Bagua if i’m not again mistaken.

 

I’d say there is the small Fire and the big Fire also, but i’ve only run across it once so i’m unsure as to where it is, i’m guessing five point cross.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I find the Traditional 5 element theory to be an excellent tool for decision making.  Which element is the most active variable and how do I harmonize, fight or contain it, as the situation calls for.  It depersonalizes and helps create strategies for problems of all shapes and sizes.    

 

Addon> I gave it away awhile ago, but the book The Web that Has No Weaver, was a good primer on how the 5 elements work in decision making, particularly medicine. 

Edited by thelerner
  • Like 1
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

They are the substrata/layers of the Yin & Yang, they indicate change in 5 different ways:

 

1. Culmination of rise, peak at the top ---> Fire

2. Rise, expand, grow, generate ---> Wood

3. Balance, nourish ---> Earth

3. Shrink, collapse ---> Metal

4. Sink, peak at the bottom ----> Water

 

1 & 2 ---> Yang

3 ---> Yin & Yang (harmony)

4 & 5 ---> Yin

 

The 5E/Phases also interact between each other dynamically in

cycles referred to as "generating" and "controlling," as well as the last two which are specifically used in Medicine:

 

1. generating. One element gives birth and nourishes the next; wood generates fire.

 

2. controlling. Elements interact with each other in constrain when they become excessive; eg. we need water to put out a fire; or in order to subdue them; eg. metal chops wood.

 

3. insulting/weakening. It occurs in the controlling cycle and results from the controlling phase becoming weak; eg. fire evaporates water. 

 

4. overwhelming/overacting. It occurs in the generating cycle and results from the parent becoming too strong and as a result it weakens the child; it normally happens when that element is in excess; eg. too much wood overacts water. 

 

I hope this helps :)

 

 

Edited by Gerard
  • Like 2
  • Thanks 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

https://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/YinYang.htm

https://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/YinYang2.htm

 

SunRuler.gif

 

YY50BG.gif

YY-Diagram.gif

YingYang4.gif

Spring = Wood

Summer = Fire

Autumn = Metal

Winter = Water

Center = Balance = Earth

 

Vernal Equinox = momentary balance but the energy phase is rising = Raising Yang / Descending Yin

Summer Solstice = Yang Apex

Autumnal Equinox = momentary balance but the energy phase is descending = Raising Yin / Descending Yang

Winter Solstice = Yin Apex

 

YYLines.gif

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Andrei,

 

The Yin & Yang, Qi dynamics are fascinating and quite intricate. 

 

Then we have the Shen which operates at a higher level, still with that dynamic but globally, from a total reality perspective. When it reaches the Tao the Shen is outside that duality. I have no idea what is being in there, no more duality you become ONE but what happens to that polarity?

 

Maybe one day we will all experience that...in this lifetime! :)

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think the best way to learn about the five elements is to embody them.  To go beyond simply learning the relationships to feeling the energies.  How does liver energy (wood) feel different from kidney energy (water)?  It sounds esoteric until you do it (or at least it would to me) but once you know the feeling it stays with you, as embodied knowledge.

 

How could one learn such a thing?  I think there are lots of ways.  I learned through the practices of the Healing Tao, Master Chia`s stuff as filtered through the teaching of Michael Winn.  The basics -- inner smile, healing sounds.  Fusion of the five elements.  But I think any practice that gets a person working with these elements and feeling them in their own body would do it.

Edited by liminal_luke
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 3/15/2018 at 8:10 PM, Nathan Brine said:

The above post is great! Not elements, but movement. 

 

Metal- contraction inwards

Water- decending and pooling

Wood- expansion outwards

Fire- ascending 

Earth- cycling/rotation

 

 

 

Agree, not elements but movements. Also some of them have double or paired principle, for example water - living and dead water. Dead water - chaos, and living water - the Dao itself. However, before researching Wu Xing, a Ho Tu should be researched, because Wu Xing comes from Ho tu:  The Heavenly One gave birth to the Water, The Earthly Two gave birth to the Fire, etc.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I recall reading an excerpt of a chinese classic on the wu xing that at the time helped to understand the elements in the kabbalistic tree of life. i can't recall the author's name or the classic, but I hope someone recognizes it.

It goes something like this:

 

Thought should be deep like water (rather than superficial) (keter, chochma or chesed);

 

Undertstanding should be clear as fire (rather than obscuring as darkness). (Binah or gevurah);

 

Character (pointing to one's behaviour>goals>desires, selfish or altruistic>lower ego, the emotional triad of chesed-gevura-tiferet or just tiferet) should be straight like a straight tree (wood) (rather than crooked, like a crooked tree);

 

The analogy to Metal I don't recall what it was, but in Pythagora's system speech was equated with swords (words that hurt). (the lower sefirotic triad);

 

Lastly, the body (earth), like a dress, is to be worn and cast aside (this one blew me off, as it implies reincarnation and the ephemerality of material existence). (Malchut)

 

Hope someone can recognize this and tell who wrote it.

Edited by gnome
forgot an element

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I’m trying to learn what the 5 elements are so I can adjust my diet to balance health.

 

If combine two or three or four elements together, does that make a new element? Like in the western idea of 4 elements, if combine fire and water, it makes air.

 

Are some elements opposite to each other? Are some elements complimentary with each other? Do some elements not like other elements? (I’m not sure what the difference is between overacting cycle, destruction cycle and insulting cycle, they sound the same).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There is fire inside wood. Red is most energetic color of burning wood, black is the least energetic, ashes. Red and black are polar complete colors. purple is the extreme color of fire reverting quickly to black 

 

This is an excellent thread with great information.

 

For health research/ learn and practice 5 element qigong

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 minutes ago, Wu Ming Jen said:

Red and black are polar complete colors. purple is the extreme color of fire reverting quickly to black 

 

But there is no black element. Maybe you mean blue (Water)? It seems the most yin and you said purple is the middle of the two.

Edited by yuuichi

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Observe nature and how the elements interact. black blue is water in five elements but I am talking about building a fire and hinting about yin and yang using colors, polar complete opposites. There are  interactions of the five elements  the creative and destructive arrangements.

 

Each element contains all the others like seeing includes all other senses or colors are all colors but mostly themselves.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What's a problem you have?  See if you can break it down into 5 elements.  Which ones are there, which are waning, which ones are complimentary or warring?   Giving some time for analysis, what strategies, also based on the 5 elements can you employ to solve the problem?  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 3/14/2018 at 6:43 PM, Ryan94 said:

So, I've come here in the hope that someone can teach a Westerner like me that the 5 elements are worth learning.

 

 

It's not whether they're worth learning or not. It's culturally entwined from the culture which it came from.

 

Worth learning? Depends on context, need, and expectation.

 

For some things, for example Chinese medicine this might be something that is required to know and understand in order to prescribe treatment and diagnose conditions.

 

They're also Chinese martial arts that follow this pattern in line of thought. Xing yi, for example.

 

The clip talks about the five elements as well as other things pertaining to Chinese culture.

 

 

Edited by windwalker

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Something I think is important to remember about these things ... five elements, four seasons etc. ... is that they are simply models of what is observed in the universe. Ancient models, but models none the less. To the extent that we can use these models to understand the universe, they are useful. Seems to me that these models hold up as well or better than any other model if existence ... at least in terms of usefulness. 

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites