Many ancient philosophies used a set of archetypal classical "elements"
to explain patterns in nature. The word "element" in this context
either refers to a state of matter (e.g. solid/earth, liquid/water,
gas/air, plasma/fire) or a phase of matter (as in the Chinese Five
Phases), rather than the Chemical elements of modern science.
Greek Classical Elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and sometimes also
"Idea") date from pre-Socratic times and persisted throughout the
Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European
thought and culture. The Hindu and Japanese also had essentially the
same five elements: the four states-of-matter, plus a fifth element to
describe that which was beyond the material world (non-matter). The
concept was widely disseminated in India and China, where it forms the
basis of both Buddhism and Hinduism, particularly in an esoteric
The modern scientific states-of-matter, and, to a
lesser extent, also the periodic table of the elements and the concept
of combustion (fire) can be considered successors to such early models.
contrast the Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements,
namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood, which were understood as
different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux
with one another, rather than the Western notion of different kinds of
Hindu, Japanese, and Greek systems
theory of classical elements, held by the Hindu, Japanese, and Greek
systems of thought, is that there are five elements, namely Earth,
Water, Air, Fire, and a fifth element known variously as Idea, Void
"quintessence" or Aether (the term "quintessence" derives from "quint"
meaning "fifth"). In Greek thought the philosopher Aristotle added
aether as the quintessence, reasoning that whereas fire, earth, air,
and water were earthly and corruptible, since no improvements had been
perceived in the heavenly regions, the stars cannot be made out of any
of the four elements but must be made of a different, unchangeable,
heavenly substance.. The Greek Pythagoreans used the initial letters
of these five elements to name the outer angles of their
The Greek names of the elements are as follows:
* Γαια, gaia earth
* ύδωρ, hydor, water
* άήρ, aer, air
* έιλή, heile, heat (fire)
* ίδέα, idea or ίερόν, hieron "a divine thing"
These five elements are sometimes associated with the five platonic solids.
Japanese and Hindu systems use these same five classical elements but
use a different name for the fifth element: void in the Japanese system
and aether or akasha in the Hindu system. "Idea" is the preferred
modern term, and lends itself well to the idea that algorithms,
software, or other similar "cyberspace" processes be categorized as
belonging to the fifth element. In other words, just as the mind
belongs to Idea, even though the brain is a mixture of solid ("Earth")
and liquid ("Water"), software also belongs to Idea even though the
hardware it runs on, i.e. silicon chips, etc., is made from solid
The fifth Classical Element (Idea) may be
further sub-divided into living and non-living. For example, the mind
is an example of a living form of Idea whereas computer software is an
example of non-living Idea.
Classical elements in Greece
Greek classical elements are fire, earth, air, and water. They
represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the realms of the
cosmos wherein all things exist and whereof all things consist. The
ancient Greek word for element (stoicheion) literally meant "letter (of
the alphabet)", the basic unit from which a word is formed.
mentions the elements as of pre-Socratic origin, a list created by the
Ionian philosopher Empedocles (ca. 450 BC). Empedocles called these the
four "roots"; Plato seems to have been the first to use the term
"element (stoicheion)" in reference to air, fire, earth, and water.
Four Classical Elements
* Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
* Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
* Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
* Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.
classic diagram (right) has one square inscribed in the other, with the
corners of one being the classical elements, and the corners of the
other being the properties. The opposite corner is the opposite of the
these properties, "hot - cold" and "dry - wet"
Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human
body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire),
black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).
of the classical elements proved extremely persistent in Europe,
lasting through the Middle Ages to the early modern era. Just as the
Aristotelian dogma was related to the Greek world view, the idea of
classical elements in the Middle Ages composed a large part of the
medieval world view. The Roman Catholic Church supported the
Aristotelian concept of aether because it supported the Christian view
of earthly life as impermanent and heaven as eternal.
astrology the concept of the four classical elements has survived from
antiquity up until the present. The twelve signs of the zodiac are
divided into the four elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and
Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are
Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and
Pisces. Most modern astrologers still view the four classical elements
as a critical part of interpreting the astrological chart.
divinatory tarot, which originated in its present form in medieval
Europe (though its roots may go back much further), the suits of cups,
swords, wands (batons) and pentacles (coins) are said to correspond to
water, air, fire, and earth respectively. These correspond in the
modern deck of playing cards to hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds.
Classical elements in Hinduism
pancha mahabhuta, or "five great elements", of Hinduism are khsiti or
bhumi (earth), ap or jala (water), agni or tejas (fire), marut or pavan
(air or wind), and byom or akasha (aether). Hindus believe that God
used akasha to create the other four traditional elements, and that the
knowledge of all human experience is imprinted in the akashic records.
Classical elements in early Buddhism
the Pali literature, the mahabhuta ("great elements") or catudhatu
("four elements") are earth, water, fire and air. In early Buddhism,
the four elements are a basis for understanding suffering and for
liberating oneself from suffering.
The Buddha"s teaching
regarding the four elements is to be understood as the base of all
observation of real sensations rather than as a philosophy. The four
properties are cohesion (water), solidity or inertia (earth), expansion
or vibration (air) and heat or calorific content (fire). He taught that
all mind and matter is ultimately composed of eight types of "kalapas"
of which the four elements are primary and a secondary group of four
are color, smell, taste, and nutriment which are derivative from the
The Buddha"s teaching of the four elements does
predate Greek teaching of the same four elements. This
is possibly explained by the fact that he sent out 60 arahants to the
known world to spread his teaching, however it differs in the fact that
the Buddha taught that the 4 elements are false and that form is in
fact made up of much smaller particles which are constantly
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997) renders an extract of Shakyamuni Buddha"s (Kayagata-sati Sutta MN 119) from Pali into English thus:
"Furthermore, the monk contemplates this very body -- however it
stands, however it is disposed -- in terms of properties: `In this body
there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property,
& the wind property." Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice,
having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into
pieces, the monk contemplates this very body -- however it stands,
however it is disposed -- in terms of properties: `In this body there
is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, &
the wind property."
Classical elements in the Seven Chakras
the philosophy of the Seven Chakras there are correspondences to the
five elements as shared by both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as two
* Sabasrara (Crown): Thought/Space
* Anja (Third Eye): Light/Time
* Vishbuddha (Throat): Ether/Sound
* Anabata (Heart): Air
* Manipura (Navel): Fire
* Svadhistbana (Sacral): Water
* Muladhara (Root): Earth
Classical elements in Japan
traditions use a set of elements called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five
great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind, and void. These came
from Buddhist beliefs; the classical Chinese elements (五行, go gy) are
also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential
Neo-Confucianists during the Edo period.
* Earth represented things that were solid.
* Water represented things that were liquid.
* Fire represented things that destroyed.
* Air represented things that moved.
* Void represented things not of our everyday life.
Classical elements in Bn
Bn or ancient Tibetan philosophy , the five elemental processes of:
earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential stuff of all
existent phenomena or aggregates (ref. Skandha). The elemental
processes form the basis of the calendar, astrology, medicine,
psychology and are the foundation of the spiritual traditions of
shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche comprehensively states:
"...physical properties are assigned to the elements: earth is
solidity; water is cohesion; fire is temperature; air is motion; and
space is the spatial dimension that accommodates the other four active
elements. In addition, the elements are correlated to different
emotions, temperaments, directions, colors, tastes, body types,
illnesses, thinking styles, and character. From the five elements arise
the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five
negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the
body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the
constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual
The names of the elements are analogous to
categorised experiential sensations of the natural world. The names are
symbolic and key to their inherent qualities and/or modes of action by
analogy. In Bn the elemental processes are fundamental metaphors for
working with external, internal and secret energetic forces. All five
elemental processes in their essential purity are inherent in the
mindstream and link the trikaya and are aspects of primordial energy.
As Herbert V. Gnther rather unfathomably states:
bearing in mind that thought struggles incessantly against the
treachery of language and that what we observe and describe is the
observer himself [sic.], we may nonetheless proceed to investigate the
successive phases in our becoming human beings. Throughout these
phases, the experience (das Erlebnis) of ourselves as an intensity
(imaged and felt as a "god", lha) setting up its own spatiality (imaged
and felt as a "house" khang) is present in various intensities of
illumination that occur within ourselves as a "temple." A corollary of
this Erlebnis is its light character manifesting itself in various
"frequencies" or colors. This is to say, since we are beings of light
we display this light in a multiplicity of nuances."
In the above block quote the trikaya is encoded as: dharmakaya "god"; sambhogakaya "temple" and nirmanakaya "house".
Classical elements in China
Taoism there is a similar system of elements, which includes metal and
wood, but excludes air, which is replaced with the non-element qi,
which is a force or energy rather than an element. In Chinese
philosophy the universe consists of heaven and earth, heaven being made
of qi and earth being made of the five elements (in the Chinese view,
the attributes and properties of the Wastern and Indian Air element are
equivalent to that of Wood, where the element of Ether is often seen as
a correspondent to Metal). The five major planets are associated with
and named after the elements: Venus is gold, Jupiter is wood, Mercury
is Water, Mars is Fire, and Saturn is Earth. Additionally, the Moon
represents Yin, and the Sun represents Yang. Yin, Yang, and the five
elements are recurring themes in the I Ching, the oldest of Chinese
classical texts which describes an ancient system of cosmology and
philosophy. The five elements also play an important part in Chinese
astrology and the Chinese form of geomancy known as Feng shui
doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating
or creation (生, shēng) cycle and an overcoming or destruction (克, k)
cycle of interactions between the phases.
* Wood feeds fire;
* Fire creates earth (ash);
* Earth bears metal;
* Metal collects water;
* Water nourishes wood.
* Wood parts earth;
* Earth absorbs water;
* Water quenches fire;
* Fire melts metal;
* Metal chops wood.
There are also two cycles of imbalance, an overacting cycle (cheng) and an insulting cycle (wu).