2014 in L'Alpe di Siusi, fresh from the US and Australia.
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THE FIVE ELEMENTS
The Elements as used in Chinese and Oriental philosophy are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. They suffuse and form the basis for everything within the manifested universe in the Oriental philosophies, and they describe both placement (static conditions) and process (the ever-mutating, unfolding and evolving processes of change). Some of the meanings of these are the same as in the Western system of four elements (fire, earth, air and water), but there are differences. The main difference between the two systems lies in the denominations of Metal and Wood. The Chinese system actually extends further than the Western system. Before we get to what Metal and Wood actually mean, though, it is helpful to understand some basic concepts. I have seen many articles and posts where people have tried to reconcile the two elemental systems and most of them fall short.
To begin to understand the Oriental elemental system, it should be noted that with the five elements we are speaking of a system of transformation, not of static elements as we have in the four elements in our Western philosophy. To state the matter otherwise, the ‘five elements’ do not primarily describe actual material elements. Instead, they could be seen as ‘elements of transformation’, in the sense that they are modalities of change. This is easily seen in relation to their relation to acupuncture, in which the five elements play a primary role. Wood rules the liver and gall bladder in acupuncture, for instance, whereas Metal rules the lungs and large intestine. While it is clear that the liver and gall bladder are not made of wood, nor do they contain ‘woody’ constructs, they do govern certain types of activity in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). The liver is said to govern the principle of smooth movement of chi throughout the body, or ‘flowing and spreading’.
As such, in terms of a person’s expression, Wood governs our movement through life, our ability to expand ourselves through experience, and to cope with change, like a tree or a reed would bend with the wind. The gall bladder is the yang organ of Wood, and is said to govern judgement, giving a person courage and initiative, whereas the liver governs planning. So, the Wood element in TCM grants us the ability to grow through experience, and the key word here is growth, like we would expect from a plant. Plants grow and spread. This is a very simplistic explanation, but perhaps we get the idea. So, we see there is not a material element of wood in relation to the liver and gall bladder, but rather a means of transformation within the body and in terms of one’s character.
And then turning to Metal in TCM, the lungs control ‘dispersing and descending’, along with and through the blood vessels in the body. The quality of lung chi can be heard in the voice. The large intestine instead is in control of recovery of fluids from the digestive process and of release of waste products after the fact. In the latter we see the psychological function of the large intestine: i.e., release of the past, or our ability to move on in our experiences. We have all heard of the ‘anally retentive’ type of person who cannot let old matters go and move forward in life. With metal, then, we have the transformative element of ‘taking a deep breath and moving forward’. Clearly, there is no metal in the lungs or in the large intestine. But, in both of these examples (Wood and Metal) we get the idea of functionality instead of an anatomical construct.
So, while there are correspondences between the five elements and the four elements – the Oriental and Occidental systems, respectively – the Oriental system is more abstract, interactive and fluid in its application. The Western system of the four elements is not generally seen to be so interactive as the Oriental system, tends to be more isolative and is more descriptive of static states of expression and of realms, such as earth with physical existence, for instance. As the basis for static constructs with the five elements, however, everything in nature can be described in terms of one of the five elements. Vegetation, for example, is Wood. Fire and hot things are Fire. All liquid things are Water. Metal stands for hard things, wind, metallic things and gives support. Earth, of course, stands for all earthen constructs. There are a host of variations on these.
As the basis for transmutation and process, the five elements form a cyclic construct, they all evolve into each other, which is called the ‘creating cycle’, and mutually interact through various means, to be described in due course. The creating cycle can be seen in the diagram at the heading of this post in the clockwise motion around the periphery of the circle. Further interactions arise from what is known as the ‘controlling cycle’, which is seen in the diagonal interactions across the interior of the circle, above. Nothing ever remains the same in nature, and the Chinese used their system of elements to describe these changes. In the Four Pillars system, these are known as the ‘Masters’ of their respective Pillars.
So, to begin to understand this five element system, we start with Fire, which is the basic agent of change in all Chinese philosophy, and it underlies this entire system. Fire is the basis of transmutation among the elements, since it is heat, light or warmth which allows life to flourish and to evolve. We have the following sequence in the creating cycle: Wood (the first element of the series), heated, produces Fire; As Fire burns, it produces ash, which becomes Earth; Earth, heated, precipitates (smelts) Metal; Metal, heated, melts and becomes Water; Water, heated, rises as steam and becomes rain, nourishing Wood and thus the whole cycle endlessly repeats itself.
The other primary relationship within the diagram that defines how the Elements maintain balance or imbalance amongst each other, called the controlling cycle. In the generating cycle, the element that is created by the preceding element is called the ‘child’ of the generating element. The generating element is thus the ‘parent’ of the generated element. From the diagrams, then, the element that generates the parent element also controls the child element. A very simple way of putting it in human terms is that each element that is the grandchild is controlled by the grandparent. Wood, for instance, sends out roots which keep Earth in place; Earth forms dams and channels which keep Water in its course or place; Water quenches Fire, which keeps it at bay; Fire melts Metal, making it pliable or unusable, i.e., Fire softens metal; Metal cuts Wood, keeping the vegetation pruned.
There are other relationships as well, as in an ‘insulting’ and an ‘overacting cycle, the latter two referring to imbalances and stagnation (lack of movement) rather than direct action. Those are shown at left. Using the two basic cycles just described, all relationships within the elements can be maintained in balance. For instance, if Metal is weak within a chart, there are three main ways of aiding it: 1) One can supply more of the Earth element, which feeds the Metal, 2) One can control the Fire element, which allows the Metal to harden and flourish, 3) One can lessen the Water element, which keeps the Metal from being drained of energy (since it produces water). The entire system can become quite intricate once one learns how the elements interact. The key is to find the one element that would tend to balance the other elements. In that respect, the elements that are weak or missing in a Four Pillars (BaZi) chart are of greater importance than those Elements that are strong, because the former hold the key to balancing the system.
As another example, if Fire is too strong in a chart, then the following remedial actions are possible: 1) Produce more Water, which quenches the Fire, 2) Provide more Earth, which drains and disperses or smothers the Fire, 3) Lessen the Wood, which gives the Fire less to burn and starves it. All one needs for working with the system is a firm grasp of the correspondences with each of the elements and a lot of practice. As for the individual effects of each element, we have the following:
Wood: In general Wood produces expansion. It is known as the ‘creative’ element, and is a more yang expression among the elements, in that tends to produce, define or to take up space. In a personality it defines a very practical and straightforward expression, especially if yang. Wood tends toward more traditional roles, a rustic feel and conservative politics. Its placement within the Pillars will modify these tendencies. For example, the more inward expressions of Wood (Day and Hour) are more forward-thinking and progressive, but they may not outwardly appear to be so. Wood in the ‘outer Pillars’ (month and year) produces the more external expressions of Wood, as described previously. Wood people are the ‘big idea’ types if yang, and the slow, careful creative types if yin. Wood is associated with verdure, the color green, the sour taste (think developing instead of ripe fruit), with ‘taking root’ and with an eye toward the future. These are the people who create a space for things to happen.
Fire: Fire produces warmth or heat, light, brilliance, passion and intellect. In fact, it is the element most associated with the brilliance of intellect. As such it tends to produce people who go into professions, teaching and philosophy, although all the elements have their distinctive philosophies. Fire and light tend to expose things, and as such Fire people can be good researchers and investigators. Yang Fire burns intensely and brightly, but tends to burn itself out quickly, leaving little in its wake. Yang Fire people make a big mark, and then move on quickly. Yin Fire, on the other hand, is a ‘slow burn’, producing the heat that warms a house for instance, which boils the pot for our food, or provides the candle light which sets the mood or lights our darkest hours. Yin Fire is thus a more lasting influence and produces long-term results, as do all the yin expressions. The colors of Fire are red and orange, the bitter or burnt taste, and the modalities that ‘bring things to light’, literally and figuratively.
Earth: Earth produces steadiness and reliability, especially the more yang types. It produces slow movement, realism, is probably the most conservative of all the five elements, but is also the most dependable. They work best in support roles and are not known as innovators. They can also be the most stubborn of all the five elements. Earth is self-sufficient, and does very well in positions where staying-power is required, such as finance and politics. It can be strong and enduring in its yang expression, like a mountain or vast expanse of land. The yin type is less dependable, like the shifting sands of a wind-blown dune. However, the yin types do very well in roles where they need to nurture and advize people, like the soil that nurtures the roots of a plant. Yin Earth people tend to be very tolerant, but they need others to help them develop. Yang Earth people, on the other hand, are difficult to move, know their own minds and can be very stubborn. Try to move a mountain, and you get the idea! Earth colors are yellow and brown, produce the sweet taste and tend toward solidity and repeatability as modes of expression.
Metal: Metal is the decisive, controlling quality, tough, liking difficult situations and is the most upstanding and outspoken of the elemental types. Clarity, focus and strategy are the main qualities that define Metal, like the edge of a finely worked sword. They cut through the nonsense and carry a great sharpness of perception. The Yin Metal type is more yielding, but still carries the strength of metal. It is like the bendable blade that still cuts, but does so in a precisely and timely manner. The Yang Metal type is like the anvil and hammer which forges the needed tools for our use. The Yin Metal type is like the surgeon’s scalpel that moves carefully, excising the troublesome areas of the body, but which is corrective in its final usage. Yang Metal tends to be more forceful and crude in its presentation, like the jackhammer used in road works, whereas Yin Metal is like the metal in jewellery which shines with its own special brilliance and is very highly valued. In professions Metal tends toward the more difficult and dangerous jobs, like police work, the military, athletics, adventurers, and the like – anything where daring and decisive action is required. As such, Metal also produces executive leanings. Metal colors are silver, gray and reflective, the taste is pungent and the modality is quick and decisive, with a tendency to be unforgiving.
Water: Water is the element most associated with communication, stillness, psychic qualities and with refreshing qualities. Water can be either still or very dynamic, vaporous or larger-than-life, shallow or deep. It is the element most associated with emotion and with movement. Water will either flow, if it is motivated, or it will settle to the deepest point, like a large lake or ocean. Water has memory, and Water types are known for their ability to memorize – and they have long memories! Water works best when it is properly channelled and can flow freely, and this is especially the case with Yang Water. Yin Water works best when it can be free to change and adapt to any situation, like the cloud that is constantly changing its shape and being blown to where it can best bestow its blessings as rain on the thirsty souls below. Water can work well in any situation where adaptability, a good memory and communication skills are needed. The colors for water are blue and black, as well as deep hues, the taste is salty and the modality is fluid and communicative.
At the start of this article we made mention of the differences between the four element and five element systems, especially in relation to the elements Wood and Metal in the Oriental system – i.e. what are the equivalents to those two Oriental elements in relation to the four element system. To put the matter simply, there is not a direct correspondence, as the Oriental system describes a process, rather than a material construct. However, a very interesting situation presents itself if we look at the controlling cycle as it relates to the four elements as they ‘ascend’ through the various planes or realms of existence as we know them in our Western esoteric tradition. The planes and the four elements are associated as follows, along with the idea of ‘ether’:
Now, if we refer back to the diagram at the start of this article, we see that Earth controls Water, Water controls Fire, Fire controls Metal and Metal controls Wood. Keeping this very simple for clarity, the controlling cycle in its best expression refers to the focusing of the force connected with the controlled element. Un-channelled water simply disperses and sinks to its lowest level, whereas earthen dams and waterways channel water for its most useful work. Water controls the amount of heat needed for a given purpose. Metal cannot be refined or even smelted without the heat of fire. Otherwise, metal remains confined within earth. Metal, through cutting, controls the growth of plants or can be used for grafting. Pruning plants also promotes new growth. And finally, wood, contains earth, or keeps it in place, preventing erosion. And then, we can also see that the controlling element also depends upon the controlled element to be able to produce any useful work. What use is an empty reservoir, for instance, re: earth controlling the flow of water? And without water, there is nothing to nourish the growth of plants. And so it goes. So, where does that leave us with Wood and Metal?
Referring to the controlling cycle and the fact that the controlling element depends upon the controlled element to work, the heart (the yin Fire organ) has as its primary function to pump the blood and nourish the system. But blood’s ‘first function’, as it were, relates to the lungs, the Metal organ, where it takes up oxygen. With no oxygen, the body dies rather quickly. Hence, there is a direct connection between Metal and Air. Air is also associated with the Eastern concept of chi or prana – life-force – which is an energy associated with the etheric body (sometimes called the ‘vital body’). However, prana is not the vital body itself, but the energy that drives it, or allows it to fulfil its function. Metal is equated with vitality and strength of the body, hence its connections with athletes and oratory (the lungs rule the voice) – the ability to perform. But vitality needs a body to be able to function, and that is where Wood performs its function. The etheric body in esoteric literature forms the framework upon which physical body is constructed or concreted, and through which the latter is vitalized. Hence, Wood is connected with the etheric body itself. And there we have it – my ‘take’ on the question of how Wood and Metal relate to the four element system of Western philosophy, but the debates on the topic will likely go on for some time yet:
All of the Five Elements have correspondences in every area of life, which can be seen in the accompanying chart at the end of this article. As for how they interact, we have the following brief descriptions. These are expanded upon in the article on the BaZi stars. Since there are Four Pillars in the BaZi/Four Pillars chart, we have three separate interactions between the elements among the Masters and four among the Branches, and each Pillar will bring its own influence on the person’s life according to these interactions. We might list them below, referring to the circle at the start of this article:
Generator: Benefactor/Grantor (next element CCW)
Generated: Offspring (next element CW)
Controller: Ruler/Driving Force (Fire controls Metal, etc. Points across the star.)
Controlled: Money (Fire is controlled by Water, etc.)
What we aim for in any Four Pillars chart is balance between the Five Elements. Given that there are twelve boxes in a Four Pillars chart and ten elements, we see that it is not possible to achieve a perfect balance between the elements. There will always be at least two that are stronger than the others, but if we can get them to come within a point of each other, then that is a fairly balanced expression. Keep in mind, though, that an overly strong element, especially if it is found in the Day Pillar (self), can lead a person to success, especially if it controls or is supported by the outer Pillars (Year and Month). Otherwise, if the day Pillar is overly strong or weak, then for a person to succeed in what they want to do in life they will have to draw on helps from the other Pillars, they will have to create situations that draw upon the missing elements, or they will have to wait until the Luck Pillar (progressed Pillar) or a yearly influence bolsters the Day Pillar. We have the following example Four Pillars chart for Muhammad Ali:
The elemental count for his chart is: Wood = 1, Fire = 2, Earth = 3, Metal = 5, Water = 1. His Day Master was Metal, and was Yang. Ali was one of the world’s greatest athletes, and a pugilist at that, as well as being an activist. His Yang Metal was all-powerful in the chart. In fact, three of the four Pillars had Metal Masters. We could naturally write pages on this particular chart, but without going into detail, the element that controls the Day Master is weak in comparison and is found represented in the Day and Year Branches. The ‘Money Element’, which is Wood in this case, is yin and is found in the Hour Pillar. The latter represented his mental outlook, indicated that his mind was employed to great effect in achieving his purposes in life, that purpose being represented in the Day Pillar. He was very disciplined, outspoken, determined and rose to greatness in his field through determination and hard, ruthless practice, as represented by the surfeit of Metal in his chart. That was his public face. He was married four times and had nine known children. The Hour Pillar rules children and the latter part of life, as well as the legacy he left behind, and his children and family life turned out to be a good balance for him in the second half of his life, after his career in the boxing ring was finished. The Day Pillar becomes stronger from the second half of life onward.
However, Wood and Water were weakest in his chart. How to achieve balance? There would be two main methods to do this, which would amount to draining off the excess Metal by strengthening the Water element, which is very weak in his chart, and by creating more Fire, which is also very weak, which would control the Metal. Water again comes in through his children and his legacy. Balance came to him in the latter part of his life, through what he was to leave behind. He published two autobiographies and recorded hip hop albums. He was also known for his ‘trash talking’ and he incorporated it in poetry in his activism. Water was bolstered in his public speaking and writing, and his anti-war activism inspired him (Fire). It was injustice that first inspired him to get into boxing at the age of 12, when his Progressed/Luck Pillar (from ages 10 – 19) provided him with Yang Wood and Yang Water. The Wood fed the Fire element and was his money element, presenting his opportunity, and also giving him his inspiration and sense of direction. The Water element gave him the ability to concentrate on his goal, which also fed his creative sense of style in the ring. The period from the ages 12 – 19 were highly productive for him and formative to his Metal Day Master. He started boxing professionally at the age of 18 and won ten professional matches – which were all the matches he fought in that period – through the age of 19. At the age of 20 when his next Luck Pillar came into force, he was given Yang Earth with Yin Fire and Yin Metal, and that was the period where he finely-honed his style. There is much more we could say, but perhaps we get the idea.
So, if it turns out that an element is strong or weak (i.e., out of balance), we have the following possible remedial situations, as a general rule of thumb, and these can come in through other people, through self-effort or through the Luck Pillars or year influence, as we just saw with Muhammad Ali. Thus in summary, we have the following remedies:
In addition to the above, there are also pairs that sometimes take place between the Masters of the various Pillars, and these form special relationships, which add a special strength, as below:
From the Muhammad Ali example, we find that he has one of the stem pairs, from the list above, between his Day and Hour Pillars, and we see that his children and his work would have given him strong moral and emotional support through their mutual compatibility, which they did. He would have also been a large influence on his children, since Metal controls Wood, and the legacy he left through his work, which he did also. Lastly, there are also what are called the ‘Hidden Stems’, which are derived from the Twelve Branches. They are also sometimes called the ‘Human Elements’ and they are listed as follows:
These Hidden Stems add another dimension to the elemental analysis of a Four Pillars chart, and they are quite important when it comes to the Luck Pillars as one’s life progresses through the decades. This article gives only a thumbnail sketch of how the system works, but practice with it can yield some very revealing results. To see how to further use it, consult the articles on the BaZi Stars, the expanded articles on each of the Five Elements, the Progressed Pillars and the table below, as well as working with as many charts as possible where the person’s life history is known. Good luck!
Five Elements and Ten Stems, Kiiko Matsumoto, Stephen J. Birch (an overall view of the interaction of the stems and branches in Chinese TCM)
The Path to Good Fortune: The Meng, Lily Chung (A closer look at the interactions of the Five Elements)
The Chinese Astrology Bible: The Definitive Guide to Using the Chinese Zodiac, Derek Walters