Long time ago, the people of Greece were trying to figure out the world and the philosopher Empedocles invented the four elements – water, fire, earth, air. Aristotle later added aether, the divine element, because divine things were necessary in his universe. When the ancient world collapsed the alchemists, and finally the chemists, invented various systems. Nowadays we have Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements.
Godai 五大. There is a similar system of five elements in classical Japanese culture – earth, water, fire, and wind. This originates in Zen and ultimately comes from India with Buddha’s teaching. Buddha explained that four sensual elements compose each object in the world. Sensory objects then impact the five senses (sense of smell, hearing, taste, visual, and sense of touch) and become that person’s reality (rupa).
Therefore, they are not material elements, like Aristotle’s classical elements, and the modern periodic table of Mendeleev. Godai are perceptual elements, they are impressions that each object makes on the observer’s mind. Each object can contain one or more sensory elements.
The fifth element is Void, it is the divine element and not part of the material world. Void symbolizes the higher states of the mind in Buddhism.
Earth 地 chi, ji → Symbolizes solidity, endurance, attractive force;
Water 水 sui, mizu → Symbolizes fluidity, changeability;
Fire 火 ka, hi → Symbolizes heat, energy;
Wind 風 fū, kaze → Symbolizes freedom of movement, expansion, repulsive force;
Void 空 kū, sora → Symbolizes higher states of mind.
The person’s sensual reality (rupa) is known as the first “aggregate”, and the first “defilement” that we must overcome. The divine element Void is not part of the world. It becomes manifest, however, as the absence of other elements. Therefore, we must use the sensual reality of the world in order to become liberated from this very same world.
Buddhism teaches us to recognize the five elements in nature and look for the same five elements in our own bodies. It is said, a man is like a droplet of dew that forms in the morning mist and evaporates in the afternoon sunshine.
Similarly, when a man dies he returns to nature and death should not be feared. This is essentially the Bushido point of view.
Wu Xing 五行. In addition to this, Japanese culture borrows the Wu Xing system from Classical China. This a completely different system which has no relation to Buddhist teaching. It is Taoist and has application in Chinese astrology, feng shui and traditional medicine. Elements transition in this sequence: Wood mù 木 → Fire huǒ 火 → Earth tǔ 土 → Metal jīn 金 → Water shuǐ 水.