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.
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 practice.
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 infinitum.
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 landscape Body/Chakra Skeletal body/Secret place Symbol Jewel Jewel Sense/ Sound/lute or offerings cymbals Precious substance Author Wangyal Tang(a) Tang(b) Shape Square Color Radiant yellow- Yellow gold Deity Rathasambhava Direction South Seed syllable A Animalthrone Horse Image Powerful, solid mountains Body/Chakra South From foot to navel Symbol Jewel Sense/ offerings Precious substance Author JI&Yang Brauen Gordon Shape Square Color Yellow Yellow Yellow Deity Rathasambliava Rathasambhava Direction West Soutli Seed syllable Animalthrone Lion Image Body/Chakra Throat Chakra Symbol Jewel Sense/ Vision offerings Precious substance Author Lauf Tluirnian Esan Shape Square Tiered rectangular structure Color Yellow Yellow Golden Deity Ralhasambliava Radiasambliava Rathasambhava Direction South Soutli North South Seed syllable Lam LI Animalthrone Horse Image Impaled frog Body/Chakra Symbol J ev Jewel Jewel Sense/ offerings Precious Topaz substance 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 blue 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 offerings Precious substance Element Water Author Tang(a) Tang(b) Ji & Brauen Yang Shape Circle Circle Color White/ White White White Yellow Deity Vairocana Akshobya Vairocana Direction Centre North West Seed syllable Va Animalthrone F.lephant Dragon Image Body/Chakra From navel Navel to heart Chakra Symbol Vajra Wheel Sense/ Touch offerings Precious substance 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 Body/Chakra Symbol Diamond Eight- Wheel scepter fold Wheel Sense/ offerings Precious Blueberyl substance 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 landscape Body/Chakra Skeletal body/Secret place Symbol Jewel Jewel Sense/offerings Sound/lute or cymbals Precious substance Element Earth Author Wangyal Tang(a) Tang(b) Shape Square Color Radiant yellow- Yellow gold Deity Rathasambhava Direction South Seed syllable A Animalthrone Horse Image Powerful, solid mountains Body/Chakra Secret From foot to novel Symbol Jewel Sense/offerings Precious substance Element Earth Author Ji & Yang Brauen Gordon Shape Square Square Color Yellow Yellow Yellow Deity Rathasambhava Rathasambhava Direction West South Seed syllable Animalthrone Lion Image Body/Chakra Throat Chakra Symbol Jewel Sense/offerings Vision Precious substance Element Earth Author Lauf Thurman Shape Square Color Yellow Yellow Deity Rathasambhava Rathasambhava Direction South South Seed syllable Lam Animalthrone Horse Image Body/Chakra Symbol Jewel Jewel Sense/offerings Precious substance Element Earth Author Egan Shape Tiered rectangular structure Color Golden Deity Rathasambhava Direction North South Seed syllable LI Animalthrone Image Impaled frog Body/Chakra Symbol Jewel Sense/offerings Topaz Precious substance Table 4. Matrix of Air element symbology Element Air/Wind Author Beer(a) Beer(b) Landaw & Weber Shape Semi- Hemisphere Half- circle/ sphere crescent 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 Vajra Sense/offering Taste/fruit Precious substance Element Air/Wind Author Wangyal Tang(a) Tang(b) Shape Semi-circle Color Luminous green Green Deity Amoghasiddhi Direction Seed syllable Ha Animalthrone Garuda Image Fresh wind through the valley across the mountains Body/Chakra Throat Chakra Haul Symbol Crossed Vajra Sense/offering Precious substance Element Air/Wind Author Ji & Brauen Gordon Yang Shape Half- sphere Color Grey Green Green Deity Amoghasiddhi Amoghasiddhi Direction East East Seed syllable Animalthrone Garuda Image Body/Chakra Heart Chakra Symbol Sword Sense/offering Smell Precious substance 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 Body/Chakra Symbol Crossed Sword Crossed Vajra Vajra Sense/offering Precious Emerald substance 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 plains Body/Chakra Consciousness/Crown Crown Chakra Symbol Vajira Vajra Sense/ Touch/silk cloth offerings Precious substance Element Void/Space/Ether Author Tang (a) Tang (b) Ji&Yang Brauen Cordon Shape Drop or irregular shapeDissolving spot Colour Blue Green Blue Blue Deity Akshobya Vairocana Akshobya Akshobya Direction East Centre Above Seed syllable Kha Animalthrone Lion Elephant Image Body/Chakra Above head Crown Chakra Symbol Wheel Vajra Sense/ Hearing offerings Precious substance Element Void/Space/Ether Author Lauf Thurman Egan Shape irregular shape Colour While Blue Deity Vairocana Akshobya Akshobya Direction Centre Centre Centre Totality Seed syllable Khani All Animalthrone Lion Image Body/Chakra Symbol Wheel of Thunderbolt Doctrine Sense/ offerings Precious Crystal substance
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|Publication:||The Tibet Journal|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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