The Five Elements

In the very beginning, according to the Taoist cosmology of creation, there was nothing except the void, or Wu Chi. But within the void, all potentialities for creation existed, meaning that everything that we have not thought of or conceived of existed as well. Tai Chi arose out of the Wu Chi when something in the void shifted; the heavier and denser material descended to Earth and became the Yin component and the lighter essence arose to the heavens and became the Yang energy. The relationship between the Yin and Yang energies is a dynamic and active one; they transform into each other or they are the impetus for change in each other.

The transformation and transmutation of the Yin and Yang energies resulted in the birth of the three pure energies: the Universal Energy, the Human Consciousness Energy, and the Earth Energy.

Human beings stand between Heaven and Earth, our external existence on this plane made possible by the circulation of the Five Elements. These same Five Elements also pervade us internally; it is the healthy movement and transforming actions of these subtle energies that allow us to maintain our physical health and well-being, our mental health, and our spiritual growth.

Tibetan medicine, like traditional Chinese medicine, uses the concept of the Five Elements and the Three Humours - the biggest difference being that the Tibetan Five Elements replace Metal with Space; they share their color, white, but their attributes are different. Space, according to Tibetan medicine, is the element that accommodates everything effortlessly. At the subtle level, Space is emptiness (recalling that in Buddhism the goal of meditation is to empty the mind). As we are able to embody emptiness, we can, on a daily basis, dissolve such "problems" as tension, anger, fear, anxiety, and worry in our internal Space. In doing so, we find the inner capability to replace negative emotions with joy, enthusiasm, love, and compassion. On the higher spiritual level, according to the Tibetan tradition, Space is about abiding in the nature of mind. In the words of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: "It is pure Presence. Fully integrating oneself with Space is integrating with the ground of being."

In traditional Chinese medicine, the attributes of Metal are sensitivity and reflectivity; its positive emotional aspect is courage, while its negative aspect is sadness, grief, and depression. Chinese medicine states that all five elements are influenced by the Yin and Yang polarities. Thus, contained within the Metal Energy is a dynamic active force which, as such, may transform itself at any given moment. Both aspects, negative and positive, are valid: negative energy is not "bad" in the usual sense of the word. In reality, positive and negative energies are interdependent, like the positive and negative charges of a battery. When emotions and energies are viewed without judgment, we can own them, digest them, and process them out of our being.

The most important differences between the Chinese and Tibetan Five Elements are the rituals that exist in the Tibetan tradition and are absent in the Chinese.

According to the Tibetan Bon Po tradition, which predates Tibetan Buddhism, the Five Elements are related to the different organ systems and are embodied by the Five Element Goddesses (Khadros). Each Goddess has specific attributes and qualities and a relationship to the corresponding organ system. Khadro Element Goddesses are both gentle and wrathful, depending on what they must do on your behalf to help retrieve the elemental pieces you have lost.

The Elements are the children of the soul, and an elemental loss is also the loss of a corresponding part of the soul - a loss that could have occurred through trauma, sickness, or neglect. Traditionally, the work of the shaman is to call back or bring back this missing Elemental piece in order to render the individual integrated and whole. While there is no word for shaman in the Tibetan language, when we compare what shamans do with the rituals we use in working with the Five Element Goddesses, it is clear that our work, too, is shamanic in nature.

According to the beliefs of the Tibetan Bon Po, unexplained illnesses, weather patterns, pestilences, and business losses can be attributed to humans having unexpectedly disturbed or hurt the habitat of the Elemental Spirits. It is thus imperative that before we break ground to build a house or otherwise change the natural world around us, we must ask permission of the Elements and make appropriate offerings.

By respecting the external Space where nature resides, we learn to live harmoniously with the external world as well as our own internal world. We begin to see that we are One. It is this Oneness that allows us to live in peace, harmony, and light.