Five elements

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The Five Elements

The "Five Elements" (wŭ xíng 五行) are of fundamental importance to the Chinese arts, and many volumes have been written about them to try and explain the intrinsicality of this Taoist concept. However, while these may be helpful in putting forward the basic theories, only the practice of living in full accordance with these laws of the universe can give you the full appreciation and true understanding of the importance of the "Five Elements".
In the previous chapters we have seen the close relationship between the Tao and the Yin and Yang, and it was from these that the "Five Elements" came into being, through the reciprocal interaction between heaven and earth. Whilst we may not realise it, the "Five Elements" play an important part in our daily lives, for they beset us in every conceivable way, through our emotions, our thoughts, our actions, the food and drink that we consume, our health, and the strength and growth of our spiritual life. In addition, they can influence our lives through seasonal changes, climatic fluctuations and the time of the day or night. All this was fully understood by the ancient sages of China who appreciated the basic principles of the Tao, the founder of all things.

They also understood the harmony or opposition that each object has with all other things in the universe, and it gave them, as a result, a very deep insight into the workings of the human body, and how to diagnose sickness through the pulses, and through touch, visual observation, speech and smell, and through the intuition and experience that only time and a deep understanding can bring. The "Five Elements" are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, which in turn represent the five forces of energy, or the five sections of change that exist within everything in the universe. They are all an integral part of the Yin and Yang, and the Yin and Yang is within each of them, making for an overall harmonious balance, which is the Tao.

The theory underlying this ancient trend of thought is fully expressed in the Yellow Emperor's Classic of the Nei Ching (Internal Health), and proves without doubt that anything that has a beginning also has an end; and that the end is the commencement of something new, and that from a maximum point there must be a decline to a minimum level, and vice versa. This constant change is the natural order of all things, according to the fundamental laws of the Tao. Despite what modern scientists may say, these laws are just as valid today as they were when they were first formulated, and they are still being used successfully in Chinese medicine and treatment.
The harmony between the elements is quite simple when you consider that they exist through a unique relationship to one another. The ancients put it thus: wood is food for the fire, and when the fire dies down all that is left is ashes which eventually become part of the earth, in which the metals and other minerals are formed, and when these are melted down they turn into water, which nourishes the trees, which give us wood, and so each has helped the other not only to become established in the first place, but through their constant endeavours they each supply the essential for the other to survive.

Five elements Shen cycle

However, the elements can oppose and thereby destroy each other: metal can cut wood into shreds, wood can penetrate into the earth, earth can stop the flow of water, water can extinguish fire, and the heat of fire can dissolve metal.

Five elements Ko cycle

The number five refers not only to the number of elements, but also to many other related groups. The table overleaf shows how these fit into the Yin and Yang equations of the Tao. Man and everything about him either harmonises with or opposes nature. So long as he is in harmony with the universal laws, he flourishes, but, if he goes against them, his health and everything else about him suffers.

Therefore, an understanding of those laws is essential if man is to live a happy, healthy and long life, and that is exactly what Ch'ang Ming is all about and why the Taoists went so thoroughly into every aspect of the physical, mental and spiritual spheres. For man is an integral part of the universe, or should be, for his body is under the control of the mind, and his mind is controlled by the soul, and the soul by the spirit. If his thoughts go haywire and are influenced or controlled by lust, ambition, jealousy or hate, he will close the channels to the spirit, and lose authority and the power to regulate his own body, with the result that its formation and accumulation of vital internal energy begins to fail, the whole system starts to decline, and illness follows.

As you can see from the "Five Elements" chart, if, for instance, you have a weakness in the lungs, the autumn is the season that should make you extremely wary, and the chest should be well protected, particularly when snow covers the ground and the air becomes dry. You will also find that you will have a tendency to cry, and this will mean more mucus secreted from the nose. This will make you feel low and your nervous system will suffer, for you will be continuously full of grief, and through it all you will find that you have trouble with your skin and your hair, both of which will feel dry and lifeless. You will be at your lowest ebb in the evening, and, whilst you will also suffer from back trouble, you will also find that you also have inconvenience from your large intestine. Under these conditions, the best food to eat is brown rice, and occasionally some peaches.
As regards the harmony between the five elements, you will notice that wood (liver) leads on to fire (heart), which in turn leads on to the earth (spleen), and so on, until the circle is complete. This rotation allows one organ to draw energy from another, for instance, the heart from the liver, and the spleen from the heart, and so on, and then to pass on any surplus vitality to the next organ in the cycle. This is a perfect example of the process of giving and taking within the realms of nature, and we could all learn a lesson from this by taking only as much as is necessary. However, if the body's energy levels become depleted, each organ will draw as much as it can from the other, until every organ is completely run down. This dramatic deterioration of the body can lead to many serious illnesses—cancer being one of them.

Let us look at it another way. The liver (wood) passes energy to the muscles, which in turn helps to make a strong heart. The heart (fire) gives nourishment to the blood and the arteries, and they in turn pass it on to the spleen (earth) which nurtures the flesh, and which gives added strength to the lungs. The lungs (metal) feed the skin and hair, and they continue the circle by giving the kidneys a boost. The kidneys (water) give food to the bones and nails, and their act of duty is to feed the liver. So from this you will fully appreciate that:

  • The liver is in charge of the muscles and tissues.
  • The heart is in charge of the arteries and the texture of the body.
  • The spleen is in charge of the flesh, including the lips.
  • The lungs are in charge of the skin and hair.
  • The kidneys are in charge of the bones and nails.

The five flavours, sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty, are all said to have certain intimate powers which they influence at certain times of the year, but only to particular parts of the body with whom they have harmony. This also applies to people suffering from specific weaknesses or sickness, for they should, in certain seasons, be especially careful where they travel. Someone suffering from kidney or bladder trouble, for instance, would be unwise venturing north in winter where there could be hard frost and ice, and where the atmosphere is colder. He should follow the line of harmony best suited to his physical weakness (i.e. travel east) or wait to enjoy the air of spring.

The chart shows each organ and element is related to a specific colour, which is extremely important in the arts of diagnosis. For wood the colour is green, fire is red, earth is yellow, for metal white, and for water it is black. Green is closely related to blue, for due to refraction of light one could take on the tone of the other, so although the ancients of China have specified green, remember it can refer to both. If anyone has a too red a complexion, this can indicate heart problems or stress, while green or bluish tints can show that the liver is in trouble and needs attention. Yellow is related to the spleen and pancreas and is an indicator of jaundice, and a pale whitish skin signifies bad lungs. Take a look at the number of people in the street that have this look—all of them prey to colds, sinus troubles, asthma and influenza. Black or dark brown indicates kidney complaints.

Anyone suffering from kidney trouble should be extremely wary of the cold (especially the cold night air) and make sure that he is well wrapped up all the time. His diet should include peas, beans and coarse greens, the latter will also include Chinese cabbage (Pai Tsai), and he should carefully watch the colour of his urine, for this is an indicator of the process of internal change.

The five viscera are the Yin organs of the body while the five bowel systems are the Yang organs. When only one organ has a weakness, this can be tackled in a straightforward manner (for instance, if the trouble is the heart, which is Yin, this can be dealt with through Yang foods and herbs). In other words, one kind of illness in an organ can be countered by the opposite influence.

However, as the Nei Ching points out, if there are two Yin organs affected, then one Yang influence will not be enough to balance the good and the bad, so further steps have to be taken. This is where a thorough understanding of the harmony and opposition of the "Five Elements" is so essential to appreciate the depth of the Chinese arts in relation to the human body.

If an illness is retained over a long period, then gradually all the organs become affected. The five Yin viscera multiplied by the "Five Elements" gives twenty-five types of disharmony, and if the illness becomes still worse, so that the Yin organs start drawing off energy from the five Yang bowel systems (again, five times five, equals twenty-five, types of disharmony), then the number of points of opposition becomes astronomical, for twenty-five multiplied by twenty-five is 625. When there are that many things wrong with the body, the situation is frightening; this is what the advanced cancer cases are going through.

Thus, with any illness, it is vital to treat it as early as possible; or even better still, get advice from your nearest Ch'ang Ming consultant, so that he can put you on the right lines before an illness can develop. In other words, cure it before it happens, for this is the best way of preventing illness; for it will give you unbroken and constant good health.

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The Tao of Long Life - The Chinese Art of Ch'ang Ming

by Chee Soo

©Seahorse Books 2008 reproduced with permission

Chapter 3