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Iconographic representations of the five elements.


In Tibetan Buddhism while there is a rich legacy of symbolism (Beer, 1999, 2003) specific graphic investigation of the five elements is much more scant with only two works, released almost a decade apart, concerning the five elements and their use (Egan 2011, Wangyal 2002). Such a lack of dealing with the five elements should not be interpreted as a lack of importance, but rather however that the five elements are an implicit part of all Buddhist thought and cosmology (Egan 2011). Elements may be represented pictographically with waves for water, and a cloud for air and a tongue or ball of flame for fire (Wilson & Brauen 2000). At its most basic level of representation, the five elements may be by simple coloured shapes:

... earth is represented by a yellow square, water by a white circle, fire by a red triangle, air by a green semi-circle or crescent, and space by a dissolving blue point or 'drop'... (Beer 2003: 82).

Such a coloured/geometric system has also been confirmed by Wangyal (2002: 123)

   There are specific shapes and colors associated with each element
   as it begins to manifest in its purer form: square yellow shapes
   for earth; circular blue shapes for water; triangular red shapes
   for fire; green rectangular shapes for air; and white semicircular
   shapes for space.

The five elements are also represented in three dimensional forms (Fig. 1) with the earth a tiered yellow cube, water as a white sphere, fire as a red conical pyramid, air as a green hemisphere and space as an ethereal dissolving drop. Beer (2003:82) also records that earth is commonly represented

   ... by a spotted frog, which is impaled upon a wooden pole through
   its anus. This represents the specific 'spirit of the earth' (Tib.
   gnyan), which is described as a golden frog with turquoise spots,
   and its impalement symbolizes the stabilizing or pinning down of
   the earth element.

Other references to animals representing the five elements have been suggested by Beer (1999) and the five animals that adorn the brightly coloured prayer flags so ubiquitous in the Tibetan landscape. If this is indeed correct, then the snow-lion represents the earth, the dragon water, the garuda fire, the tiger air and the horse space.

As well as both pictorial and geometric representations of the five elements, there are a number of other more subtle ways the elements can be located within Tibetan Buddhism. These highlight a number of key challenges to apprehending meaning which is codified and even hidden to the untrained eye. This is not just true of Buddhist art but also many other systems of meaning, especially concerning sacred knowledge (Morphy 1991). This is particularly true of other cultural art traditions such as those of the Australian Aboriginal people whose images can be iconic, indexical or symbolic at different times (Peirce 1931, Eco 1984).

Egan (2011: 37), for example, documents how the five elements correspond to physical properties

   ... the element of fire is present as heat in the material world,
   wind is motility, earth is solidity or stability, water is
   liquidity, fire is heat, and space is the essential support.

Kongtrul (2005: 255) provides a similar list with physical contact representing the earth; moistness, water; warmth, fire; and movement wind. Egan (2011: 39) also correlates direction with the five elements with

   ... north/golden represents earth, west/red represents fire,
   south/blue represents wind, east/white represents water, while the
   centre or totality is the space that supports the other four

although he does allude to there being variation within different Buddhist traditions regarding these representations.

As well as physical and directional representations, the five elements also feature as part of Buddhist understanding of the human body, different personifications of Buddha and even ritual implements. Wangyal (2002: 3) records a traditional formulation that describes 'the flesh as earth; the blood and other bodily fluids as water; the electrical and chemical energies and metabolic heat as fire; the breath, oxygen, and other gases as air; and the space the body occupies and the spaces in the body'. Egan (2011:12) states that

   The elements are visualized as shape, colour, and energy, while
   imagining them located at different parts of the body.

Sugiura (1999) has provided an image that depicts the five elements matching with different part of Buddha's body (Fig. 2). From the bottom, the earth matches with the legs, water matches lower abdomen to navel, fire matches chest to the throat, air matches the head, space matches the upper part of head.

In fact, there are Buddha families (Fig. 4) specifically associated with one of the elements: Vairocana = water; Ratnasambhava = earth; Amitabha = fire; Amoghasiddhi = wind; Akshobya = space (Egan 2011). Alternatively, in the Kalacakra tradition Vairocana = earth; Ratnasambhava = fire; Amitabha = water; Amoghasiddhi = wind; Akshobya = space. (Norsang Gyatso 2004).

As well as matching with parts of the body or with different Buddhas, the five elements have been identified with different parts of the vajra, an important ritual object in Buddhism. Egan (2011: 104) states

   The repeating pattern of five groups of five is just one example
   of the multiple layers of meaning found in the icons, here
   representing a squaring of the elements.

Wangyal (2002: 4) suggests that the interaction of the five elements gives rise not only to parts of the system, to individual bodies and planets and computer software and trees, but also to all realms of existence in every dimension. The dynamism of the five elements lies under the complexities of all that exists. Consequently humans and nature are connected through and composed of the five elements. This is a key teaching of Buddhism and one of the key philosophical viewpoints that attracts westerners.

Symbolic Matrix

In order to test the fidelity of the symbols used to represent the five elements, a matrix of each element was drafted using key reference sources (Tables 1-5). These were then compared with each other with sources having more than one representational formula being listed as either (a) or (b). Where possible, variations based on different traditions (e.g. Norsang Gyatso (2004) five Buddha families based in the Kalacakra tradition) were also noted.

Shape was fairly consistent across the matrices with three dimensional versions sometimes substituting for two dimensional shapes (e.g. triangle and conical pyramid for fire element). Colour, however was more variable in certain elements while other elements were consistently represented by the same colour (e.g. yellow = earth). The reason may rest on previous traditions which have now been incorporated into the general representational pattern of the five elements. Wangyal (2002) records the colour for the water element as luminous blue instead of the white reported by all other authors but this may be because his focus is on meditation practice. Green is recorded as the colour of the air element by most authors while Egan (2011) lists it as blue and Ji & Yang (2006) lists it as grey.

The deities that are represented by the five elements show a high degree of fidelity with Ratnasambhava = earth; Vairocana = water; Amitabha = fire; Amoghasiddhi = wind; Akshobya = space. There are a couple of alternative representations of deities e.g. Vairocana = Akshobya (Lauf 1976, Tang 2009) Akshobya = Vairocana (Lauf 1976, Tang 2009) but these can probably be accounted for as coming from different traditions.

There is much variation when it comes to the assignment of directions to the five elements. This is perhaps surprising considering the conventions surrounding the reading of thangkas with the top representing west and the right hand side representing north and so on. With the earth element, Ji and Yang (2006) posit the direction as west for that element while other authors have the direction as south. With the water element, centre, east west and north have all been recorded as the direction for the element (Brauen 1997, Beer 1999, Ji & Yang 2006). With fire, west is the most common direction although north and south have also been reported and north is the direction most commonly recorded for air although east is also listed (Brauen 1997, Ji & Yang 2006). Finally with void, centre and east are the two directions most commonly recorded.

Differences in the rendering of the seed syllable for each element may be a result of the mixing of traditions or just onomatopoeic variation. The alternative animal motifs for the throne however probably has a different legacy being linked more closely with the geographical origin of the representation of the element e.g. elephant and dragon for water perhaps pointing to the influences of India and China on these traditions. While there is great fidelity for some of the symbols that represent the five elements e.g. jewel = earth, lotus = fire, the other elements are represented by a number of instruments such as vajras and wheels.

Recognizing the fundamental properties of the elements (e.g. shape, colour and direction) is important as these in turn aid in the visualization of deities and associated practice. If the wrong colour or direction is used it may result in confusion about the deity for that element. Egan (2011: 27), however, cautions about too prescriptive a reading of five elements symbology.

   ... there are many differences in each system, which has likely
   caused considerable confusion among modern students. The Tibetan
   meditation and yogic tradition is actually made up of an amalgam of
   many different streams of teaching, spanning from the ninth century
   to present day discoveries by tertons. Colors, elemental
   properties, resultant wisdoms, even locations of the chakras, can
   all vary depending on the emphasis and lineage of a given text or

With such variation dependant on the emphasis or lineage of a given practice, the challenge is to discern whether or not it is acceptable to the maintenance of such traditions or does it represent innovation that will change the very nature of five element representation. The matter is made even more complicated by other factors affecting the positioning or expression of the five elements. Egan (2011: 38-39 suggests ...

   ... it is not uncommon to have the central color of, say, a mandala
   changed with one of the outside colors in order to emphasize that
   aspect of the practice, creating endless variations.

   ... while each element is discrete it can be combined with another
   to make a new, different property. Thus there is fire, and also the
   subcategory of the wind of fire, the earth of wind/fire, ad

With so much variation apparently permissible and even expected it is difficult to formulate criteria by which the fidelity of representations can be judged. The answer lies in the acceptance of artwork by Tibetans themselves. Bentor (1993: 121) has outlined a number of problems with the execution of thangka-style art by non-Tibetans in Nepal such as the combining of '... unrelated symbols, or exchanging] one symbol for another, admixing some elements of their own'. Such artwork steps beyond the bounds of acceptable variation and reaches the level of having no perceived value in the eyes of Tibetans (Bentor 1993). It's not that the ethnicity of the artist that determines its authenticity, it's just that most non-Tibetans ... 'do not understand the symbolic meanings of their paintings' (Bentor 1993:121). This can be readily seen in commonly executed mandalas such as the Kalacakra (Fig. 3). Not only are normal conventions concerning the five elements overlooked or ignored but also deeper symbolic representations such as the colour of borders (five colours in Tibetan, three colours in the Nepalese mandala) have also not been executed.

While such 'variation' may not even be evident to the end purchasers of such non-Tibetan thangkas, it is certainly is recognisable to Tibetans who characterise such examples as being of no cultural or spiritual value. Further, if the art in question has not consecrated the perceived value of the thangka is also diminished (Bentor 1993). The question of the execution of thangka art by non-Tibetans is a vexed one especially considering that many have not received tradition training and are merely copying artwork with no apparent knowledge of its true meaning. While innovation and variation is an essential part of Tibetan art it is normally carried out within traditions which have been passed from generation to generation. Since the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party this tradition has been broken and now is only re-emerging. The bulk of the thangkas produced for tourists in places such as Nepal are being produced by non-Tibetans who are being passed off as being Tibetan.

Fundamental problems with the representations of the five elements in thangkas and mandalas extend beyond what is acceptable as normal variation (whatever the reason) and are quite frankly inaccurate. Without the deep symbolic meaning associated with this art, it ceases to be of value and loses its authenticity. With westerners holding such a fascination with all things Tibetan, it is problematic that such art form continues to be sold under the guise of being authentic Tibetan souvenirs or even worse a sacred object. In their striving for authenticity a more rigorous separation between genuine thangkas and those sold as cheap souvenirs should be maintained. This can be ensured through the provision of appropriate interpretation. A similar example is now occurring with Aboriginal Art in Australia where a whole system of authentication and narrative are being deployed to not only safeguard the spiritual value of the art but protect the intellectual property of the painters. In the end it is up to the Tibetan artist themselves to protect their own heritage though maintaining authenticity and passing their skill and knowledge to succeeding generations.


Beer, R. 1999. The Encyclopaedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Shambhala: Boston, 372 pp.

Beer, R. 2003. The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Shambhala: Boston, 262 pp.

Bentor, Y. 1993. Tibetan tourist Thangkas in the Kathmandu valley. Annals of Tourism Research 20: 107-137.

Brauen, M. 1997. The Mandala. Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Serindia Publications: London, 152 pp.

Cao, Y. 2001 The aesthetic opinion primitive beliefs that is included in the dressing and adornment, Nationalities Research in Qinghai 12: 101-105.

Eco, U. 1984. Semiotics and the philosophy of language. The Macmillan Press: London.

Egan, N.B. 2011. The five elements of Tibetan Buddhism: cosmology, meditation and enlightment. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. Faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies. San Francisco, California.

Gordon, A.K. 1988. The iconography of Tibetan Lamaism. Revised edition. Hacker Art Books: New York 132pp.

Ji, B. & Yang, D. 2006. TheMandala Thangka. Shaanxi Normal University Press: Shaanxi, 272 pp.

Kongtrul, J. 2005. The treasury of knowledge: Systems of Buddhist tantra. Trans. Elio Guarisco and Ingrid McLeod, Kalu Rinpoche Translation Group. Snow Lion: Ithaca, New York.

Lauf, D.I. 1976. Tibetan Sacred Art: the Heritage of Tantra. Shambhala: Berkeley, California. 228 pp.

Landaw, J. & Weber, A. 2006. Images of Enlightenment: Tibetan Art in Practice. Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, New York, 272 pp.

Morphy, H. 1991. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Norsang Gyatso, K. 2004. Ornament of stainless light Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Peirce, C.S. 1931. Logic as Semiotic. Dover Publications: New York.

Sugiura, K. 1999. Birth of Molding. China Youth Publishing House, Beijing, 285 pp.

Tang, Y. 2009. Mandala Graphic. Shaanxi Normal University Press: Shaanxi, 328 pp

Thurman, R. A. F. 1995. Inside Tibetan Buddhism: rituals and symbols revealed. Collins Publishers: San Francisco, 110 pp.

Wangyal, T. 2002. Healing with Form, Energy and Light: the five elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen. Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, New York, 160 pp.

Wilson, M. & Brauen. M. (eds). 2000. Deities of Tibetan Buddhism. Trans. Martin Wilson. Wisdom: Boston.

Table 1. Matrix of Earth element symbiology

Author          Beer(a)                Beer(b)  Landaw
                                                & Weber

Shape           Square                 Cube     Square

Color           Yellow                          Yellow

Deity           Rathasainbtiava                 Ratliasambliava

Direction       South                           South

Seed syllable   Lam

Animalthrone    Lion                   Horse

Image           Rock formations.
                caves, meadows,,
                mountains, and
                simulacra in

Body/Chakra     Skeletal body/Secret

Symbol          Jewel                           Jewel

Sense/          Sound/lute or
offerings       cymbals


Author          Wangyal           Tang(a)   Tang(b)

Shape                             Square

Color           Radiant yellow-   Yellow
Deity                             Rathasambhava

Direction                         South

Seed syllable                     A

Animalthrone                      Horse

Image           Powerful, solid

Body/Chakra     South             From foot to navel

Symbol                            Jewel



Author          JI&Yang   Brauen             Gordon

Shape           Square

Color           Yellow    Yellow             Yellow

Deity                     Rathasambliava     Rathasambhava

Direction       West      Soutli

Seed syllable

Animalthrone              Lion


Body/Chakra               Throat Chakra

Symbol                    Jewel

Sense/                    Vision


Author          Lauf             Tluirnian        Esan

Shape           Square                            Tiered rectangular

Color           Yellow           Yellow           Golden

Deity           Ralhasambliava   Radiasambliava   Rathasambhava

Direction       South            Soutli           North   South

Seed syllable   Lam                               LI

Animalthrone    Horse

Image                                             Impaled frog


Symbol          J ev             Jewel            Jewel


Precious                                          Topaz

Table 2. Matrix of Water clement symbologv

Element         Water

Author          Beer(a)   Beer(b)   Landaw     Wangyal
                                    & Weber

Shape           Circle    Sphere    Circle
Color           White               White     Luminous
Deity           Vairocana           Vairocana
Direction       Centre    Last      Centre
Seed syllable   Vain
Animalthrone    Dragon
Image           Lakes, rivers.                Vast, calm
                  waterfalls                  lake
Body/Chakra     Life veins                    Navel
                  Navel                       Chakra
Symbol          Wheel               Wheel

Sense/          Sight minor

Element         Water

Author           Tang(a)    Tang(b)     Ji &     Brauen

Shape           Circle                 Circle
Color           White/      White      White    White
Deity           Vairocana   Akshobya            Vairocana
Direction       Centre                 North    West
Seed syllable   Va
Animalthrone    F.lephant                       Dragon

Body/Chakra     From navel                      Navel
                  to heart                      Chakra
Symbol          Vajra                           Wheel

Sense/                                          Touch

Element         Water

Author           Gordon      Lauf       Thurman        Egan

Shape                      Circle
Color           White      White       White       White

Deity           Vairocam   Akshobya    Vairocana   Vairocana
Direction                  East        East        Last
Seed syllable              Vam                     U
Animalthrone               Elephant
Image                                              Curving wave


Symbol                     Diamond     Eight-      Wheel
                             scepter     fold
Precious                                           Blueberyl

Table 3. Matrix of Fire element symbology

Element                                   Earth

Author            Beer(a)                Beer(b)   Landaw
                                                   & Weber

Shape             Square                 Cube      Square

Color             Yellow                           Yellow

Deity             Rathasambhabva                   Rathasambhava

Direction         South                            South

Seed syllable     Lam

Animalthrone      Lion                   Horse

Image             Rock formations,
                  mountains, and
                  simulacra in

Body/Chakra       Skeletal body/Secret

Symbol            Jewel                            Jewel

Sense/offerings   Sound/lute or

Element                                 Earth

Author            Wangyal           Tang(a)         Tang(b)

Shape                               Square

Color             Radiant yellow-   Yellow

Deity                               Rathasambhava

Direction                           South

Seed syllable                       A

Animalthrone                        Horse

Image             Powerful, solid

Body/Chakra       Secret            From foot to

Symbol                              Jewel



Element                           Earth

Author            Ji & Yang   Brauen          Gordon

Shape             Square                      Square

Color             Yellow      Yellow          Yellow

Deity                         Rathasambhava   Rathasambhava

Direction         West        South

Seed syllable

Animalthrone                  Lion


Body/Chakra                   Throat Chakra

Symbol                        Jewel

Sense/offerings               Vision


Element                        Earth

Author            Lauf            Thurman

Shape             Square

Color             Yellow          Yellow

Deity             Rathasambhava   Rathasambhava

Direction         South           South

Seed syllable     Lam

Animalthrone      Horse



Symbol            Jewel           Jewel



Element                             Earth

Author            Egan

Shape             Tiered rectangular

Color             Golden

Deity             Rathasambhava

Direction         North                South

Seed syllable     LI


Image             Impaled frog


Symbol            Jewel


Table 4. Matrix of Air element symbology

Element          Air/Wind

Author           Beer(a)      Beer(b)      Landaw
                                           & Weber

Shape            Semi-        Hemisphere   Half-
                   circle/                   sphere
Color            Green                     Green
Deity            Amoghasiddhi              Amoghasiddhi

Direction        North                     North
Seed syllable    Yam
Animalthrone     Garuda
Image            Cloud formations

Body/Chakra      Breath/Throat

Symbol           Crossed      Sword        Sword
Sense/offering   Taste/fruit


Element          Air/Wind

Author           Wangyal           Tang(a)   Tang(b)

Shape                              Semi-circle

Color            Luminous green    Green
Deity                              Amoghasiddhi

Seed syllable                      Ha
Animalthrone                       Garuda
Image            Fresh wind
                   through the
                   valley across
                   the mountains
Body/Chakra      Throat Chakra     Haul

Symbol                             Crossed Vajra



Element          Air/Wind

Author           Ji &       Brauen         Gordon

Shape            Half-

Color            Grey       Green          Green
Deity                       Amoghasiddhi   Amoghasiddhi

Direction        East       East
Seed syllable
Animalthrone                Garuda

Body/Chakra                 Heart
Symbol                      Sword

Sense/offering              Smell


Element          Air/Wind

Author           Laur           Thurman        Egan

Shape            Half-sphere

Color            Green          Green          Blue
Deity            Amoghasiddhi   Amoghasiddhi   Amoghasiddhi

Direction        North          North          South   North
Seed syllable    Yam                           1
Animalthrone     Ganida
Image                                          Cloud


Symbol           Crossed        Sword          Crossed Vajra

Precious                                       Emerald

Table 5. Matrix of Void clement symbology

Element                       Void/Space/Ether

Author         Beer (a)     Beer (b)    Landaw     Wangyal
                                        & Weber

Shape          Dissolving   Vanishing   Water
                 drop         point       drop
Colour         Blue                     Blue       Luirimous while
                                                     or clear
Deity          Akshobya                 Akshobya
Direction      East         Centre      Kasi

Seed syllable  Ham
Animalthrone   Elephant
Image          Sky, aura                           Vast open sky
                 lines, rainbows                     over the
                                                     desert or
Body/Chakra    Consciousness/Crown                 Crown Chakra

Symbol         Vajira                   Vajra

Sense/         Touch/silk cloth

Element                         Void/Space/Ether

Author         Tang (a)   Tang (b)    Ji&Yang      Brauen     Cordon

Shape          Drop or irregular shapeDissolving
Colour         Blue                   Green        Blue       Blue

Deity          Akshobya   Vairocana                Akshobya   Akshobya
Direction      East                                Centre
Seed syllable  Kha
Animalthrone   Lion                                Elephant

Body/Chakra    Above head                          Crown
Symbol         Wheel                               Vajra

Sense/                                             Hearing

Element                 Void/Space/Ether

Author         Lauf         Thurman       Egan

Shape          irregular
Colour         While        Blue

Deity          Vairocana    Akshobya      Akshobya
Direction      Centre       Centre        Centre     Totality

Seed syllable  Khani                      All
Animalthrone   Lion


Symbol         Wheel of     Thunderbolt
Precious                                  Crystal
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Author:Zhang, Lan
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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